Former CIA Officer Explains Why the War on Terror Won’t Work

Bill Christison joined the CIA in 1950, and served on the analysis side of the Agency for 28 years. From the early 1970s he served as National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser to the Director of Central Intelligence on certain areas) for, at various times, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Before he retired in 1979 he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit.. These remarks, which he has made available to CounterPunch, have been recently delivered to various peace groups in New Mexico. His wife Kathy also worked in the CIA, retiring in 1979.Since then she has been mainly preoccupied by the issue of Palestine.

On January 15 the Attorney General of the United States, John Ashcroft, held a press conference in order to describe the initial criminal charges that the government would make against John Walker, the 20-year-old American citizen who had joined the Taliban military forces. In his talk, Ashcroft said this, and I quote: “The United States does not casually or capriciously charge one of its own citizens with providing support to terrorists. We are impelled to do so today by the inescapable fact of September the 11th, a day that reminded us in no uncertain terms that we have enemies in the world and that these enemies seek to destroy us. We learned on September 11 that our way of life is not immune from attack, and even from destruction.”

The guts of what Ashcroft said is ­ and I quote again ­ “We have enemies in the world and these enemies seek to destroy us.” Unquote. I submit to you that this is simply not a true statement. The evidence I’ve seen shows that the real objective of the Muslim extremists led by Osama bin Laden was to rid the Muslim world itself of American domination and influence. They wanted NOT to destroy the United States; rather they wanted the U.S. out of their own land. Bin Laden and his supporters also wanted, and those yet alive still want, to unite Muslim nations behind an extreme version of Islam, believing that the Islamic world can thereby better control its own future. I think they realize full well there is no possibility they can “destroy ” the United States, and their objective, while still pretty grandiose, is considerably more limited. Their aim, according to one recent analysis that appeared in the New York Review of Books ­ and I quote again ­ “is to create one Islamic world. .This is a call to purify the Islamic world of the idolatrous West, exemplified by America. The aim is to strike at American heathen shrines, and show, in the most spectacular fashion, that the U.S. is vulnerable, a paper tiger” Unquote.

These Islamic extremists are not nice people. Those still alive, and other future adherents to their cause, will continue to try to kill innocent people in the U.S. and elsewhere. But what the extremists see themselves as trying to do is to stop the United States from continuing its drive for global hegemony, including hegemony over the Islamic world. I think it’s important to understand this, because if people in the United States believe that some enemy is trying to “destroy” the U.S. ­ and actually has some possibility of doing so ­ then waging an all-out war against that enemy can be more easily justified. But what if the U.S. is not trying to prevent its own destruction, but instead is trying to preserve and extend its global hegemony? In that case, I think we should all step back and start demanding of our government a serious public debate over future U.S. foreign policies. We should be strenuously debating the degree to which the people in this country, given all of our own domestic problems, want the U.S. government to continue foreign policies intended to strengthen U.S. hegemony over and domination of the rest of the world in the political, economic, and militarily areas.

In short, Ashcroft’s claim that enemies are seeking to destroy the United States makes it easier for the U.S. government to avoid any limits that might otherwise be imposed on its “war against terrorism” by an informed public opinion. President George W. Bush’s references in his own speeches to America’s enemies as “the evil ones” tend in the same direction. Although acts of terrorism ­ which I’m defining here as killings of, or other violence against, innocent noncombatants ­ are always inexcusable, simply labeling perpetrators as “the evil ones” makes it easier for the U.S. government to avoid any inconvenient discussion of ways in which the U.S. might modify its foreign policies to reduce the likelihood of future terrorist acts. But are all Afghans “evil ones?” Or all members of the Taliban? Or did only a few Taliban leaders know about the planned terrorist attacks before September 11? In any case, is it clear that all Taliban members were accomplices of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden? And if they were accomplices, is it not true that the better legal systems of the world do not punish accomplices to a crime as severely as the criminals themselves? Is it right that in this war the U.S. is punishing the accomplices just as much the criminals themselves? It seems to me that the use of the term “evil ones” is intended to avoid discussion of a lot of nuances.

My own view is that the United States is now, almost five months after September 11, heading into an extraordinarily difficult time, when substantial changes in our foreign policies will be required. Yet all the polls seem to show that up to 90 percent of the people in this country still don’t even want to listen to anyone who proposes alternatives to our present foreign policies. So I guess that shows that only ten percent of Americans care much about our policies toward the rest of the world. But I’ll bet that in this room right now, a much higher proportion of you do care about the rest of the world and do want to see changes in our foreign policies

The first and most basic belief I have about the current situation is that military action will never be effective in solving the problem of terrorism against the United States. At best it will only prevent terrorism temporarily. As I’ve already mentioned, there’s little doubt that the U.S. will somehow kill or capture or otherwise neutralize Osama bin Laden and most of his lieutenants. The U.S. has already pretty much pulverized Afghanistan by bombing, and has incidentally killed an unknown number of innocent noncombatants in the process. The U.S. government, by the way, seems uninterested in even estimating how many innocent noncombatants have in fact been killed, but it is possible that the number is as large as or larger than the 3,000 killed in the U.S. on September 11. Whatever the military success of the U.S., however, a couple of years hence new extremists just as clever as bin Laden, and hating the U.S. even more, will almost certainly arise somewhere else in the world. That’s why we need to understand the root causes behind the terrorism. If I am right that military action will not prevent future terrorism, but only delay it, we should start working on these root causes right away. We should not wait until the military actions are finished before looking at root causes, as some people would urge us to do.

So let’s go. I’m going to list six major root causes of the terrorism that I think are important. Either Kathy of I will make some comments on each one and then propose how we should change our foreign policy on each. The critical thing you should keep in mind on all of these six issues is that there is a great deal of disagreement in Washington and elsewhere over the relative importance of one compared to another. With that caveat, here are the six root causes of terrorism against the U.S. that we’ve chosen to talk about. I’ve arranged them in a rough order that starts with those I think are most difficult to deal with, but the order does not necessarily reflect their relative importance. My personal feeling is that all six are of equal importance.

ONE: My number one root cause is the support by the U.S. over recent years for the policies of Israel with respect to the Palestinians, and the belief among Arabs and Muslims that the United States is as much to blame as Israel itself for the continuing, almost 35-year-long Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

My first comment on this issue is that it is a more controversial root cause than any of the others on our list. The government of Israel, and many supporters of Israel in the United States, really did not want to talk about any root causes immediately after September 11. Top leaders in the United States, most of whom strongly support Israel, preferred to talk only in general terms ­ about how the terrorists were mad and irrational, and how they had attacked “freedom itself,” out of mindless hatred. More recently, when pressured to talk about root causes at all, the Israelis and their supporters have gone to great lengths to reject arguments that Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians, or U.S. support for Israel, are in any way even a partial cause of the terrorism. When forced to say something positive about root causes, they tend to allege a broader Islamic religious hatred of the West and its modern technology than I think exists. They also emphasize the internal tensions within the Arab world, the lack of democracy and the dictatorial rulers of Arab nations, who are depicted as trying to distract their people from their own internal grievances by whipping up hatred of Israel.

I need to digress for a moment. In a situation where there are clearly multiple root causes of terrorism, it’s in the interest of any person or nation that might be blamed for one of the root causes to emphasize instead the other root causes. In the last couple of months, a sizable propaganda campaign has been launched suggesting that Saudi Arabia is the most important root cause of the September 11 terrorism. I certainly agree that the dictatorial and decrepit Saudi government and its support throughout the Muslim world for a harsh and immoderate version of Islam can be seen as one ­ but only one ­ of the root causes behind the recent terrorism. I’ll have more to say about this later. What I want to point out here is that I suspect supporters of Israel are aggressively pressing this campaign against Saudi Arabia, in the hope of persuading other world leaders that the issue of Palestine is NOT a significant root cause. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is a leading practitioner of this pro-Israel campaign. Both Kathy and I believe, however, that the United States’ strong support for Israel and for its occupation and colonization of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is indeed is a major root cause of the terrorism against the U.S.

After I go through the rest of the root causes, Kathy is going to talk in much more detail about the Israel-Palestine issue and its tragic consequences. Kathy will also give you her thoughts on changes in U.S. foreign policy that might be necessary if the U.S. does in fact desire a peaceful resolution of this issue ­ a resolution that would also help to reduce the likelihood of future terrorism against the U.S.

TWO: My number two root cause is the present drive of the United States to spread its hegemony and its version of big-corporation, free enterprise globalization around the world. At the same time, the massive poverty of average people, not only in Arab and Muslim nations but also in the whole third world, has become more important as a global political issue. The gap between rich and poor nations, and rich and poor people within most of the nations, has grown wider during the last 20 years of globalization or, more precisely, the U.S. version of globalization. Animosities against the United States have grown among the poor of the world, who have watched as the U.S. has expanded both its hegemony and a type of globalization based on its own economic system, while they themselves have seen no or very little benefit from these changes.

This problem of poverty around the world is so immense that it’s almost impossible to grasp. Global statistics are far from perfect, buy they show that the world’s population hit 6 billion last year. 2.8 billion people, almost half of the world’s total, have incomes of less than two dollars a day. Here’s another statistic: the richest one percent of the world’s people receive as much income as the poorest 57 percent. And here’s a final statistic: The richest 25 million people in the United States receive more income than the 2 billion poorest people of the world ­ one third of the world’s total population. Can we here, sitting in this room, even comprehend the magnitude of the injustice that these figures represent? And have no doubt ­ we in the United States are, rightly or wrongly, blamed for these figures.

The catalog of reasons for animosity toward the U.S. throughout the world includes a number of things in addition to our overbearing assertion of both economic and political hegemony: our arrogance in insisting that whatever we say goes, our penchant for abrogating or ignoring international treaties that we don’t happen to like, as well as the influence of U.S. corporations that exploit cheap labor in third world countries to make consumer goods for Americans, Take all these things together and you have a wide sense among the poor people of the world of being oppressed by the United States. This in turn made it possible for Osama bin Laden and the fundamentalists around him to instill and spread intense hatred of us, just as a sense of being oppressed by the Allies after World War I made it possible for Hitler to arouse the kind of fear and hatred among Germans that led both to the slaughter of Jews and to World War II.

The pressures arising from the complex and related problems of U.S. hegemony, globalization and the immense gap in wealth will grow steadily more explosive. My proposal is that the U.S. should immediately develop and implement, with active participation of the U.N. and the European Union (E.U.), a new, very large, and long-term “Marshall Plan” type of aid program for all of the poor nations of the world. This plan should specifically be aimed at reducing the size of the income gap between the poorest and richest nations, and at reducing the income gap between the rich and poor within nations. This type of plan could contribute significantly to reducing the likelihood of future terrorism against the United States. It would also show a far more generous side of the United States to people who at present see only a U.S. version of globalization that seems to them highly selfish and beneficial largely to big corporations and the rich of the world.

I’ve been talking about a massive aid program for the world’s poor since last October, when I spoke to a number of peace groups in Santa Fe. More recently, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has proposed a similar plan, in the amount of $100 billion for each of the next four years. My own suggestion as to the amount is $350 billion spread over three years. $350 billion is, after all, just about what the U.S. military budget will probably amount to in the next ONE fiscal year. One would think that we could find an equal amount to spend over a three-year period for what I would regard as a better purpose.

About now some of you are probably thinking, how unrealistic can this guy get! He of all people ­ meaning me ­ should be aware of how corrupt the governments of most third-world nations are, and you can just see all this money simply going down the drain. My answer is that solving the problem of massive income inequalities around the world is absolutely critical to the future stability of the world, and so far the U.S. version of globalization has not improved the situation at all. I think there are enough intelligent people in the U.N., U.S., Europe, and the underdeveloped countries themselves that we could set up a planning and monitoring group to oversee the wise use of such large funds and to hold the level of corruption to a minimum. The United States should not run such a program unilaterally, and the institutions set up to manage it should not be used to perpetuate and strengthen U.S. global hegemony, as the case now with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. When you hear charges of unrealism before some new program is even in the detailed planning stages, I think you’re entitled to ask if those making the charges aren’t really opposing the new program for some other reason. My own feeling is that the world is in such a mess, and the inequality problem is so severe, that maybe we should worry less about alleged “unrealism” and more about getting on with the business of planning, followed by real action, to do something about the problem.

THREE: The number three root cause I want to discuss is the continuing sanctions and lack of food and medicines for the people of Iraq, deaths of Iraqi children, and the almost daily bombing of Iraq by the U.S. and Great Britain. Right or wrong, the Arab and Muslim “street” blames this on the U.S., not on Saddam Hussein.

I don’t have much to comment about on this one. The sanctions and the bombings have been in effect for ten years, and have neither brought about the ouster of Saddam Hussein nor significantly weakened him. And they have caused the deaths of children variously estimated at up to or over a million. The U.S. government’s position is that Saddam himself is to blame for the troubles of the Iraqi people, but the fact remains that after all these years, the Iraqi people are the ones hurt by U.S. actions, not Saddam.

My view is that simple justice argues for an end to both the sanctions and the bombings. My proposal is that we do precisely that.

FOUR: My number four root cause is the continued presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.

Ten years ago this was the principal cause of Osama bin Laden’s hostility toward the United States. (His hostility on account of U.S. actions against Iraq and then the massive U.S. support for Israel came later and in both cases may be tactical ­ an effort to broaden his own popularity in the Arab world.) Today the thousands of U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia are a constant irritant in Saudi-U.S. relations. The Saudi people clearly do not want them there. Unless we plan to invade Iraq again, I doubt there is any longer a vital reason to keep men and U.S. ground-based military facilities there.

My proposal? The obvious one ­ that we remove the troops. I understand, of course ­ you’d have to be blind and deaf not to know this ­ that some people at high levels in the U.S. government do want to invade Iraq again. All I can say is, I hope such people do not carry the day. I can’t think of a thing that would do more to broaden this “war on terrorism” into a Judeo-Christian war against Islam ­ despite any U.S. governmental protestations to the contrary.

FIVE: The fifth root cause on my list is the dissatisfaction and anger of many average and even elite Arabs and Muslims over their own authoritarian, undemocratic, and often corrupt governments, which are supported by the United States.

My first comment here is that Osama bin Laden is a good example of this particular root cause. His extremist wrath was directed as much against the Saudi government, for example, as it was against the United States. His opposition to what used to be his own government was probably the main reason why he had the support of a majority of the young men under 25 in Saudi Arabia. He received similar support from many young men in other Arab and Muslim states as well. Right now these groups of angry young men obviously no longer have a viable leader in Osama bin Laden, but other extremist leaders are almost sure to arise. In addition, the next generation of leaders in at least some of these states may well emerge from among these young men. If any of them do come into power, their future governments will likely be more anti-American than the present governments, which Washington likes to call “moderate,” but which are really nothing of the sort. If we have not reduced our energy dependence on oil in the meantime, we may face serious trouble.

In my view, this IS a truly difficult problem. My proposal is that we should adopt draconian measures immediately to reduce our overall energy usage, including but not limited to cutting our dependence on Mideast oil. We should, for example, change our tax structure to make energy as expensive to consumers in the United States as it is in Europe and Japan. This will require significant life-style changes in the U.S. I think we kid ourselves if we believe that we can solve any coming energy crunch by expanding alternative power sources or by increasing “clean coal” usage, nuclear power usage, and Alaskan oil usage. The shortages will be too great; so will the long-term environmental costs; and so will the political costs in our relationships with other nations that have already accepted higher energy prices for consumers as a necessary burden of 21st Century life.

We also should not count on new oil supplies from Central Asia allowing us to forget about the need for conservation and to stop being concerned about the stability of Saudi Arabia or other areas of the Middle East. Even assuming that massive supplies of oil from Central Asia become available quickly, all we’ll be doing is transferring our support from the dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to the dictatorships of Central Asia. That is not a prospect that we should blithely accept. In my view, conservation is the route we must follow.

I think we should, at the same time, gradually reduce the closeness of our ties with the present authoritarian governments in Arab and Muslim states, and try to develop a better understanding of and improved relations with groups in these states that oppose their own present governments. We should seek out groups that appear to be democratically inclined and “moderate” in the true meaning of the word. Difficult? Of course it will be. But it is the best shot we’ve got, in my opinion, to have a decent relationship with many Muslim states in the future. It’s also the best shot we’ve got if we wish to diminish, over time, the support for future Osama bin Ladens that arises from the anger of Arabs and Muslims with their own governments.

SIX. The sixth and last root cause on my list arises directly from the U.S. “war on terrorism.” It has to do with the kind of war the U.S. is now able to fight. On three recent occasions ­ the Gulf War of 1990-1991, the Kosovo war of 1999 against Yugoslavia, and the current war against Afghanistan ­ the United States has easily achieved victories by relying almost exclusively on air power, on missiles launched from a great distance, and now even on drone aircraft with no humans on board. The U.S. has won these wars with practically no casualties among its own forces. But while few Americans get killed, sizable numbers of other nationalities do.

Most people in the United States are proud both of these victories and of the low U.S. casualties in these three wars. From the viewpoint of anyone who supports the wars, this prowess of U.S. armed forces deserves to be honored. But elsewhere in much of the world, especially the underdeveloped world, this overwhelming invincibility of the U.S. military intensifies the frustrations about and hatred of the United States. This in turn makes future terrorist acts against the U.S. ­ or what is now called by U.S. strategic thinkers asymmetrical warfare ­ even more likely. Those in underdeveloped lands who oppose the U.S. drive for worldwide hegemony are increasingly coming to see no means other than terrorism as an effective method of opposing the United States.

This is an issue that demands a lot more discussion than it’s been getting, and it goes to the heart of our future foreign policies. For the immediate future, perhaps the next five or ten years, it’s going to be tempting for any government of the United States to implement and enforce whatever foreign policies it chooses by going to war, because it will be confident – even overconfident – that it won’t lose a military confrontation and won’t suffer many casualties. The U.S. government in fact has already started moving in this direction, by threatening to launch preemptive wars against nations that are trying to develop nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Another thing the U.S. is already doing is to militarize the United States to an unprecedented, and wholly unnecessary, degree in comparison with other nations. An editorial in the March 3 New York Times puts it bluntly. “If Congress cranks up the Pentagon’s budget as much as President Bush would like, the United States will soon be spending more on defense than all the other countries of the world combined.” To me, this is absurd – but there you are. These military expenditures will clearly lead to cuts in spending on domestic U.S. problems such as poverty and healthcare, and make it harder to do anything about solving the problems of global poverty and income inequality that I’ve already discussed. In this same five to ten year period, the readily available military option will also encourage the U.S. to avoid facing up to the hard decisions necessary for a peaceful resolution of our more intractable foreign policy problems.

This leads me to a very important conclusion. Since the greater willingness to initiate and fight wars intensifies hatred of the U.S., it is in the U.S. interest to show restraint and voluntarily stop employing warfare based on bombing in order to combat future acts of terrorism. The fact that U.S. bombs and missiles have already killed innocent civilians is tragic and puts us on a par with the extremists who committed the September 11 acts. The U.S. should stop, right now, all further military action that risks killing more civilians.

At the same time, I want to emphasize that I am quite sure there is enough evidence of Osama bin Laden’s complicity in the September 11 terrorist actions to arrest and indict him. Assuming he is still alive, I would therefore support covert or Green-Beret-type operations to capture, but not assassinate, him. Maximum precautions should be taken, however, to prevent such operations from killing or injuring any more innocent civilians. Once captured, bin Laden should be prosecuted and tried in an international court.

I fully understand that compared to most views you hear concerning the U.S. “war on terrorism,” my views are RADICAL. But I believe that unless the U.S. moves in the directions I’ve been suggesting throughout this talk, in five or ten years the terrorism against the United States will become so intense that our global relationships with other nations will be in shambles. On the other hand, if the U.S. government voluntarily moves toward the kind of foreign policy changes I’ve been talking about, I think that its actions might start a trend toward a considerably more peaceful, and stable, 21st Century than now seems likely.