December 10, 2001
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Washington has yet to present evidence that Osama bin Laden orchestrated
the Sept. 11 attacks. That was left to Washington's junior partner,
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, in a highly publicized brief the
press initially called a damning indictment of bin Laden, failed to
produce any but the most tenuous circumstantial evidence of the Saudi's
involvement. A bold sham, really. Blair later admitted that his "evidence"
wouldn't stand up under legal scrutiny, an admission that was considerably
less publicized than his original claim to have damning evidence of the
wealthy Saudi's culpability. Later, a transcript of a videotaped interview
said to show bin Laden admitting responsibility was revealed to the world
by Blair, again with much fanfare, but when pressed for the videotape the
Prime Minister's office had to admit that no one had ever actually seen
it, indeed, no one had ever actually laid hands on it. And a careful
reading of the transcript showed that bin Laden never actually admitted to
anything. But it's the original charges that are remembered. The
retractions rarely, if ever, break the surface.
So it is that there's a question that's screaming to be asked, like the obvious point you sometimes miss when trying to solve a puzzle, and kick yourself afterward for having overlooked, and discover you overlooked it because you were distracted by an assumption you quite naturally made, but which turned out to be wrong. And the readily accepted, but wrong, and therefore distracting assumption in this case is that bin Laden has taken credit for the attacks. He hasn't. That's why Blair had to go through the charade of presenting evidence.
Because the problems with Blair's stories never got the attention they deserved, most people believe (a) there's a powerful case against the Saudi terrorist, and (b) bin Laden fessed up. But the alleged mastermind has never said, "I'm your guy." He says he's happy it happened, but denies he did it. He says Muslims did it, but adds, that's what he's read in newspapers.
So if he did it -- if he really did it, despite Blair's failure to turn up any evidence that would survive even a moment's scrutiny in court -- why is bin Laden being so coy? The whole point of terrorism is to say, "I did it, and this is the reason why." You'd think the man described as a terrorist mastermind, an evil-doer, rivaled only by Mike Meyer's Dr. Evil for sheer comic-book nastiness, would be boasting about having plotted the bloodiest terror attack in history (not counting those that go by the names Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Tokyo, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the Gulf War and Yugoslavia.) But he hasn't. There's no smoking gun. There's not even a gun.
Still, evidence linking bin Laden to the Sept. 11 atrocities may turn up, but if it does, that doesn't justify the war on Afghanistan. Bin Laden isn't a state. And the charge that the Taliban harbored bin Laden and wouldn't give him up is a fraud. On three occasions the Taliban offered to extradite the al-Qaeda kingpin to a third country, if Washington produced evidence of his guilt. On three occasions Washington refused. They're still looking for the gun.
Ally today, terrorist tomorrow
Washington had been in talks with the Taliban right up to the summer on securing a pipeline through the country to carry oil and natural gas from the resource rich Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Maybe that's why Washington never got around to putting Afghanistan on its infamous list of countries that harbor terrorists or sponsor terrorism. But when the talks broke down, circumstances changed. Now, the religious nut cases the US helped bring to power were the bad guys. Something like that happened before, in reverse. The KLA, a band of terrorists with links to bin Laden, killers of Serb policemen and practitioners of ethnic cleansing, were once considered a terrorist organization by the State Department, until the shifting circumstances of Washington's geopolitical aims turned them into heroes. Terrorists, writer William Blum says, are people who have bombs but no air force. Except we lent these terrorists our air force. It's funny how these things happen. It would make you think that "terrorist" is just a name for anyone Washington has declared war on, and that the war on terrorism is a way of wiping Washington's enemies off the face of the earth. And it's not hard to get on Washington's shit list, either. All you have to do is challenge America's self-appointed right to rule the world. Something as simple as saying, "No thank you -- we'd rather do things our way, not yours," is all it takes.
When Washington's talks with the Taliban broke down, stories started to circulate pre-Sept. 11 about the US having a plan in the works to attack Afghanistan. The attack was to come in mid-October. When the anticipated attack came at the appointed time, some, who believe the Taliban and bin Laden were behind the Sept. 11 attacks, wondered whether the WTC and Pentagon atrocities were warnings to Washington to back off. Others, citing the historical precedent of the Reichstag fire -- the burning down of the German parliament by the Nazis, which they blamed on the communists as an excuse to crackdown on their opponents -- wonder whether the US government was involved, or whether it had foreknowledge of the attacks and let them go ahead, to provide a pretext for war on Afghanistan, and for a lot of others things too, like dissolving opposition to Bush's legislative agenda, plundering Social Security, pitchforking scads of money into the defense-intelligence establishment, breathing new life into Star Wars, and setting up a semi-fascist police state with a virtual dictator at its top. Washington's long-standing links to Osama, and the Bush family's cosy relationship with the bin Laden family, have only fuelled speculation.
Washington thinks, says one European military source working closely with the Americans, that they "are walking on water," and "they think they can do anything at the moment." Which is another way of saying they've become so brazen at concocting stories to jackboot around the world, they think they can go on concocting stories to extend their dominion over an ever-larger part of the globe without anyone calling them on it. And there's a good bet no one will, at least no one who has any voice. Sure, people on the margins, who are heard by few, have expressed scepticism, but the main media have settled comfortably into their role as cheerleaders for "our" side. When my commander in chief says line up, intoned one anchorman, I line up.
And soon Iraq. Washington tried to pin the blame for anthrax attacks on Iraq, but when it was revealed that the American military's Ames strain was used in the attacks, and not the strain the Iraqis once had, the anthrax link was quietly dropped.
Next came a dalliance with the idea that the Sept. 11 attacks couldn't have been engineered without a state intelligence apparatus, which Afghanistan doesn't have, but which, conveniently, Iraq does. And then of course there was the story of Mohamed Atta, the presumed ringleader of the hijackers, meeting with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in the spring. The evidence was circumstantial at best, so much so that Washington's normally credulous allies balked, but it a had a delicious plausibility about it, and that made it useful to people pushing for an escalated war on Iraq.
Actually, Iraq is already-attacked-istan
The Washington-London axis has been carrying out almost daily bombings of the once modern, now medieval country, and has been ever since former president Bill Clinton decided that bombing Baghdad for refusing to comply with all UN ordered arms inspections -- demanded by what later turned out to be arms inspectors playing the dual role of US spies -- would actually accomplish something. Well, it accomplished the deaths of dozens of Iraqis, most of them peasants, pumped more money into the US arms industry, and gave Washington another arrow in its quiver to shoot through the heart of Americans' sense of security. Now, the dire warning is trotted out whenever necessary that "Saddam is reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction program," to justify more bombing, more money to the arms industry and more US crimes against humanity. Americans, menaced with phantoms and lied to, predictably consent.
Is it possible to get this wrong so many times, without trying?
In official media mythology, Saddam Hussein kicked the inspectors out in 1998 to pursue the dastardly plan of rebuilding his weapons of mass destruction. In fact, the UN ordered the inspectors out to save them from becoming casualties of US bombs. But, you know, who's going to let the truth get in the way of a good hobgoblin story? As H.L. Mencken once said, the aim of practical politics is to menace the population with an endless series of hobgoblins, none of them real. The media is the grease that keeps the cogs of practical politics turning smoothly.
And then there are the sanctions that have had much the same effect as a large-scale war; they've killed well over a million Iraqis in the last decade, earning them the deserved sobriquet "sanctions of mass destruction." "Oh, but Saddam earns money from the sale of oil he could spend on his people, if he chose to" retort the ignorant and indignant "patriots" who bristle at the idea that Uncle Sam isn't the avuncular humanitarian they've been told he is. Yeah, right, the Iraqi leader has money, if you count about $120 per person per annum sufficient. "That covers everything from electricity to agriculture, water, sanitation, food and medicine," says Hans van Sponeck, a former Assistant Secretary General of the UN, and once head of the oil-for-food program, before he quit in protest. The sanctions are genocidal, he says.
But stretching credulity to its limits, we're to believe that Iraq has managed to reconstitute its weapons program despite a decade-long blockade that prevents the importation of any goods that could even tangentially be used for military purposes. If it's going to concoct lies, the least Washington could do is concoct some believable ones.
What are they making weapons out of?
Imagine a castle. A decade ago it was attacked. The walls are crumbling. Many of the buildings inside are destroyed. Its water source is poisoned. The sanitation system is laying in ruins, and waste and human refuse run in open sewers. People are dying from readily preventable diseases, but for the last decade the castle has been under siege, and needed medical supplies are scarce. Nothing that could in any way be fashioned into a weapon is allowed into the castle. Materials for rebuilding are similarly barred. For years, inspectors search for hidden arms caches inside the castle, and arrange for those they find to be destroyed. Every few days catapults are fired at the castle's occupants. And now, despite a decade of siege, the leaders of the besieging forces say they believe the people inside are building new weapons. Out of what?
Ghosts of dictatorships past
Few things are certain, but one is: that Washington believes the American people are so befogged you can tell them anything and they'll believe it. Of course, there's a track record. Raised with a deep and abiding respect for authority, inculcated with the mistaken belief that Chauvinism is the same as patriotism, imbibing the lie with their mothers' milk that their interests are aligned with those of the monsters who run the country, Americans obediently hew to the line set down by their "commander in chief." Only some recognize that the president is not their commander in chief, but the military's, and that the idea of "the commander in chief" is uncomfortably close to the idea of der Furher, the leader of another heavily militarized country inclined to manufacture threats as an excuse to extend its dominion by military means.
As for the Americans who cleave to the dictum of Mark Twain -- loyalty to the country always, loyalty to the government when it deserves it -- there's always White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer's warning: people should watch what they say. Or the warning of right wing magazine editors: critics of the government's war efforts are a fifth column. That too is uncomfortably close to der Furher's use of intimidation to silence his critics. What's more, a cabinet member for homeland security, military tribunals, and the USA Patriot Act owe more to Hitler, Mussolini and Franco than to Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin.
But all of this is too much. The president as der Furher? That's preposterous. As too is even the suggestion that the government was in any way involved in Sept. 11, or if not, had foreknowledge, and let the attacks go ahead. Are we to believe that the President could allow the deaths of thousands of Americans? Are we to believe the President would tolerate the damage to the economy Sept. 11 has wrought?
History is a slaughterhouse, especially American history
What's that aphorism? Those who are blind to history....The economy had already turned its nose downward before Sept. 11 -- now the recession is being blamed on Sept. 11. That suits Bush. And he's hit the trifecta. He said he'd only raid Social Security in the event of a national emergency, recession, or war. He got all three. Bingo.
The Vietnam War was hardly a boon for the economy but that stretched on for a decade. And as for presidents caring about American lives, ask yourself this: Was concern over the lives of Americans enough to stop not one, not two, not three, but four presidents from sending 55,000 Americans to their deaths in Vietnam? Three million Indochinese were killed by US forces in that conflict, too, most of them civilians, and that didn't faze any president either (but then the three million Indochinese weren't Americans, so their deaths don't count. Foreigners are on a lower plane, the way Blacks used to be, still are, the way Arabs have become.)
The sociopaths who lead us...to our deaths
But then, being prepared to kill is one of the qualifications of being president. If anyone steps forward and says "I'd like to sit in the Oval Office one day," but adds "I'm not prepared to usher millions into an early grave," they'd be considered ill-suited to the position. That's why the horrors of capital punishment are a good proving ground for presidents-to-be. I mean, if you quail at the thought of putting someone to death, or wonder about the morality, then you're not fit to be president. Presidents meet others' deaths head on, with courage, unflappably, with resolve. They haven't qualms. They're not tortured by doubt. They say things like, "It's regrettable, but we think it's worth it." Anyone contemplating a study of US presidents would be well-advised to begin with a review of the literature on sociopaths. Charming people, without a conscience. Good actors. Expert liars. That's Americans' greatest blind spot. They think their leaders are the same as them. They're not. The only kid in your neighbourhood who has even a remote chance of becoming president is male, white, charming, tells whopping lies with ease, and tortures cats, frogs and other small animals in his backyard for amusement when nobody's looking. In a militarist society, in which access to the highest reaches of government and industry depend on one's connections and access to resources, the cream doesn't rise to the top -- sociopaths do.
Vietnam, once you punch through all the bullshit about stopping the communist menace, was about what America's wars are always about -- more power, more influence, more prestige, more control. Empire. Yeah, even WWII, the "good" war, a war the US didn't enter until the Japanese and Nazis started cutting into US action, a war Washington, with its officially segregated armed forces, its admiration for Hitler and Mussolini, its anti-Semitic captains of industry, waited two years to get into, long after Jews were being persecuted and murdered, long after fascism and official racism had grown to threaten all of Europe, long after the Nazis began to occupy other countries.
A blundered-into oil well by any other name
And the impending escalated war against Iraq promises to be no different; not a war about protecting the world from a madman, or Iraq's neighbors from invasion, but about more power, and more oil and a stronger Empire. But every invading force, from the Romans to the Nazis to the Italian fascists to Washington's legions, need an excuse, a casus belli, some grand, highfalutin reason for war, to deflect attention from what's really going on: markets stolen and oil wells blundered into. There are billions of dollars of state-owned economic assets in Yugoslavia. Americans will soon control them. There's a pipeline to be built through Afghanistan. Americans will control that. And there are oil fields in Iraq.
When is negotiation the same as submitting to an ultimatum? When Washington's at the negotiating table
So it is that Washington has been casting about for a credible reason to ratchet up the pressure on Iraq, and, according to the Dec. 2 edition of The London Observer, it has found one. And it happens to be the same one used to justify both the 1999 attack on Yugoslavia and this year's war on Afghanistan: a rejected ultimatum.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was handed an ultimatum at Rambouillet: get out of the way, let NATO occupy your country, or we bomb. Later the bombing was said to be intended to bring Milosevic to the negotiating table, but this was negotiation Washington style -- we'll tell you what to do and you damn well better do it; if you don't, we bomb, and eventually we'll have our way anyway. Some, like Milosevic, have decided bullying of this sort is intolerable, and are languishing in prisons, or rotting in graves, for their defiance. Others, with more of a sense of self-preservation play along, knowing from years of avoiding scuff ups in school yards that morality and fighting for your rights are fine, but a bloody nose hurts like hell. Some of them, learning well, have grown up to become bullies themselves.
The Taliban rulers shared Milosevic's audacity. When Washington came knocking, they thought they could negotiate bin Laden's extradition, rather than immediately scraping and shuffling before the master. It all would be civilized and carried out in the sedate manner of the law: show us your evidence, and if you have a prima facie case, we'll collar the scoundrel. Nope. That's not the way Washington works. Do as we say or we bomb. Goodbye to the 115 men, women and children at Kama Ado who were bombed by B-52's. The Taliban didn't do what George Bush said. Goodbye to the 100 civilians killed by American bombs at Khanabad. You're paying for the Taliban's leaders not knowing their proper place. Goodbye to the arms of the kids who keep picking up unexploded cluster bombs. Next time, make sure people who are more amenable to Washington's pipeline plans run your country.
Having had the anthrax linked snatched out from under them, and with their allies sceptical about Iraq having any connections to Sept. 11, the administration has issued an ultimatum to Baghdad: let the inspectors back in. And when they don't? Well, there's an inexhaustible supply of poor people to stuff into the maw of America's high-tech killing machine.
Here's an offer we know you'll refuse
This is how The Observer explains what Washington is up to: "Despite US suspicions of Iraqi involvement in the 11 September attacks, the trigger for any attack, sources say, would be the anticipated refusal of Iraq to resubmit to inspections for weapons of mass destruction." Notice that the refusal is "anticipated," as if Washington careful selects ultimata it knows will be rejected. It knew Milosevic would reject the ultimatum to allow NATO to occupy Yugoslavia. (If during the Civil War, Britain demanded that Washington allow British forces to occupy the United States, all in the name of a humanitarian intervention, how do you think Washington would have replied?) Washington's grandees knew the Taliban would reject the demand to turn over bin Laden if no evidence were produced of the Saudi's culpability. (If the Taliban demanded that Washington turn over an American accused of masterminding a terrorist act, but the Taliban refused to show evidence that the accused was involved, and, moreover, if the Taliban threatened to attack US territory if Washington didn't submit, what do you think Washington would do?) And now Washington has chosen an ultimatum it expects Baghdad will reject.
Haven't I seen this movie before?
Harking to Washington's funding of the KLA and earlier to its support of the secessionist Islamist and fascist groups seeking to break Bosnia and Croatia away from the Yugoslav federation, and now, to its alliance with the brutes, rapists, murderers and misogynists of the Northern Alliance, the Observer reports that, "The plan is to work with a combination of three political forces: Kurdish rebels in the north of Iraq, radical Sunni Muslim groups in and around Baghdad, and most controversially, the Shia opposition in the south."
Does this ring a bell? The goal is to oust Saddam Hussein in favour of a compliant US puppet, as Washington's goal in Yugoslavia was to get rid of Milosevic in favour of someone more biddable and, in Afghanistan, to dump the Taliban in favour of a coalition government firmly under the control of the US. And in those two other cases, the US nurtured internal opposition groups, while acting as their air force. Today, KLA terrorists wear T-shirts that read Air Nato: Just Do It!
I knew there had to be an oil tie-in somewhere
The most telling sentence in The Observer report comes at the end: "Significant numbers of (US) ground troops could also be called on in the early stages of any rebellion to guard oil fields around the Shia port of Basra in southern Iraq." I wonder how many American GIs will die in the fighting and how many will know they're giving their lives for Bush and his oil buddies? The number will be considerably less than the number of Iraqi civilians who will die, some painfully, some horribly, some wondering what they did to deserve their fate. Answer: they have the misfortune to live on top of oil that the world's hegemon wants to lay its hands on.
Their deaths, and those of American GI's, won't faze George Bush. He's put people to death before. He does that. He's the president.
Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2001. All rights reserved.
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Essays published in 2001