In a recent speech before the usual friendly audience, hawkish Vice President Dick Cheney opined that U.S. failure to resolutely avenge anti-U.S. terrorist attacks during the 1980s and 1990s led to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Speaking before Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Cheney concluded, “The terrorists came to believe that they could strike America without paying any price. And so they continued to wage those attacks, making the world less safe and eventually striking the United States on 9/11.” There is something to the Vice President’s remarks, but not very much.
Cheney was ostensibly even-handed by criticizing both Democratic and Republican administrations for their weak responses to anti-U.S. terrorism, but only one of the seven attacks on Cheney’s list–”the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Marines–”happened during a Republican administration. The other six incidents occurred during the Clinton administration, making the real underlying intent of Cheney’s remarks yet another partisan attack on the administration’s long-gone predecessor.
But the implications of Cheney’s speech go far beyond the throwing of red meat to a pro-Republican audience of military personnel. Conservatives have long noted that Osama bin Laden saw U.S. timidity in the Clinton administration’s withdrawal from Somalia after al-Qaeda-trained Somali militiamen killed U.S. soldiers. But according to bin Laden, he actually saw the first sign of U.S. weakness in President Reagan’s withdrawal of troops from Lebanon after the Shi’ite group Hezbollah killed U.S. Marines. Cheney’s list of episodes at least makes some contribution by mentioning this inconvenient incident in order to appear bi-partisan.
His remarks, however, continue the Bush administration’s Tarzan-like foreign policy of “we good, you bad.” The administration talks generally of “terrorists” and its “war on terror,” making no distinction between the many different terrorist groups around the world, their varying characteristics, and whether or not they attack the United States. In fact, most terrorist groups around the world have local or regional goals and enemies and do not focus their attacks on U.S. targets. Most important, Cheney and the administration never address why anti-U.S. terrorists are attacking the United States in the first place. Experts on terrorism always say that where terrorism exists, there is an underlying grievance.
Anti-U.S. terrorists’ grievance is normally U.S. foreign policy–”especially U.S. meddling in the affairs of other nations, usually with the threat or actual use of military force. Every one of the seven attacks on Cheney’s list was motivated by retaliation for U.S. interventionism. Al Qaeda perpetrated five out of the seven attacks. Although both the jingoistic Bush administration and the interventionist U.S. foreign policy establishment have an incentive to cloud al Qaeda’s motives for attacking the United States, bin Laden’s writings and media interviews indicate that his primary gripes are against U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf and U.S. backing of corrupt Arab rulers and Israel. Ramzi Yousef, a co-traveler with bin Laden in radical Islamist circles, made the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993 because of U.S. policies in the Middle East, specifically active U.S. support for Israel. Hezbollah bombed the Marine barracks and other targets in Lebanon and kidnapped and killed U.S. personnel because the United States was essentially fighting on the side of a minority Christian government against Muslim militias in the Lebanese civil war.
Many other terror attacks that failed to make Cheney’s list can also be attributed to retaliation for U.S. interventions overseas. Conveniently, Cheney forgot to mention other attacks that happened during Republican administrations and especially during his tenure as Secretary of Defense under the first Bush administration. For example, the 1988 bombing by Libyan intelligence agents of Pan American flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland was a culmination of tit-for-tat attacks between Libya and the United States, which President Reagan actually started in 1981. In the first Bush administration, anti-U.S. terrorist attacks spiked during the Persian Gulf War, increasing to 120 during that period in 1991 compared with only 17 during a comparable period the year before.
The conclusion that Cheney should have reached–”unlikely in such a reflexively hawkish administration–”was that any short-term military retaliation for terrorist strikes should be quiet and surgical. Flaying away with massive, well-publicized military actions (particularly against countries who had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11) such as the invasion of Iraq, will simply generate more terrorism. Even the U.S. State Department admits that the number of major terrorist attacks worldwide has recently spiked. Better yet, the United States could use intelligence and law enforcement resources to quietly apprehend and prosecute terror suspects without stirring up more anti-U.S. hatred.
In the longer term, to reduce anti-American attacks, the United States must remove the underlying grievance–”U.S. interventionism–”causing them. If there is doubt that this approach will work, consider the drop off in Lebanese Hezbollah’s anti-U.S. attacks after the United States withdrew its forces from Lebanon and the significant reduction in Libyan attacks on U.S. targets after the Reagan administration ended and its provocations of Libya stopped.
If Vice President Cheney wants to stop terrorism, an endless escalation of tit-for-tat retaliation will not do so. With the Cold War ended, the United States no longer needs such an interventionist foreign policy. Adopting a policy of military restraint overseas would bring many advantages, one of which is less anti-U.S. terrorism at home and abroad.