Before and Beyond Iraqi Freedom

When a preliminary report by White House chief weapons inspector David Kay was released last month–nearly half a year after the fall of the Hussein regime and the official end of combat operations in Iraq–the Bush regime claimed vindication. Bush argued that the report proves that “Hussein was a danger to the world,” while Secretary of State Powell is “even more convinced with the Kay report that we did the right thing.”

What did the Kay report find? No weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and no evidence of WMD programs or capabilities other than in the distant past. That is, the report provided evidence that the only “imminent threat” to be found was in the rhetoric used by the Bush regime–and dutifully repeated in lockstep by the “liberal” corporate media–to justify the war.

The case for the Bush regime’s attack and subsequent occupation of Iraq was made under the banner of “Denial and Deception,” and implemented under the predictably-Orwellian euphemism of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Yet, evidence is accumulating almost daily which drives toward a single conclusion: the White House and Pentagon have engaged in their own campaign of denial and deception.

This campaign, making a mockery of truth, reason, and accountability, among other casualties, has been extraordinarily successful. It is astonishing that at one point 70% of the American public believed that Hussein was directly involved in September 11, without a single shred of evidence to support this belief. The Bush regime continues to define and control the terms of public debate while extending the power and reach of the US state apparatuses both at home and abroad. None of this is in the interest of US national security.

A changed world?
The fact that the post-9/11 Bush Doctrine was formulated prior to 9/11 has been thoroughly demonstrated.[1] The document which laid out the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive attack and specified Iraq as a first target is the National Security Strategy of the United States. This strategy, however, was outlined in the same form and much of same language in a September 2000 document by the Project for the New American Century, a group of neocon zealots including many currently occupying posts in the Administration.[2] The main difference between the two is the that the National Security Strategy is couched in the language of new terrorist threats.

In other words, previously-formed domestic and foreign policy agendas are being rammed through on various false pretenses revolving around “security” and “safety.” Though there is much good work dissecting the Bush regime’s pattern of denial and deception, missing from its anatomy is analysis of whether things were actually different after 9/11.

Starting immediately after the first plane hit on September 11, cries could be heard: “The world will never be the same.” “Everything is different now.” New threats were said to require new types of military and policing responses. And it was not just from the Administration and the popular press. In an article in The American Journal of International Law, Ruth Wedgwood describes the event with such dramatic language in just three paragraphs: “Unprecedented scale; extraordinary destructiveness of the act; irrational magnitude of destruction; gravest of international crimes.”

But was it more destructive or graver than other international crimes? And did the vulnerability and security context of the world change? Let’s look at what the numbers say.

The US State Department has been collecting data on international terrorist incidents since 1968, published annually in its Patterns of Global Terrorism report.[3] It defines international terrorism as “terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country,” thus excluding domestic terrorism.

Is the post-9/11 world different? Is the threat of terrorism more serious now than in the past? To answer these questions, a reasonable place to start is to look at total international terrorist attacks. The total number of international terrorist incidents rose until 1987, where it peaked at 665 worldwide, and has been declining ever since. The number of international terrorist incidents in North America and the number of anti-US attacks (which may happen outside the US) have remained relatively stable, with attacks in North America declining since the1970s and early 1980s.

Two key findings emerge from the data on total international terrorist incidents. First, the general threat of terrorism in the world has been declining over the last two decades. Second, the bulk of the terrorist threat is in places outside the US. That is, the US is relatively safe in terms of terrorist threats, which is rather remarkable considering the history of the US government in subverting democracy (Chile, Iran) and supporting dictatorships (Indonesia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, etc.) around the world.

But what about Sept 11 itself, was it not of unprecedented scale? It was indeed an horrific event. However, arguing that 9/11 is different from other terrorist attacks in kind, rather than degree, does a disservice to the memory of every individual killed in other attacks. Are 2,752 lives (the current official death toll from 9/11) worth more than the 405 lives lost to international terrorism in 2000, the 741 lost in 1998, or the 816 lost in 1985? Only in the calculus of military commanders safely away from actual combat weighing “collateral damage” against official targets, or in the calculus of nationalists making judgments based on what country the dead were born in.

Those of us who have always rejected this logic were less moved by 9/11, in part because the focus of our fear was not more terrorism but rather the Administration’s response. Indeed, the focus on the single event and its scale is the product of a conceptual framework which definitionally excludes US actions from accountability. Thus if the same number of deaths are spread out over a longer timeframe it is somehow more palatable, as is the case in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and East Timorese under US supported regimes in Israel and Indonesia, respectively.

Terrorism is officially defined by the US State Department as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience,” therefore effectively excluding actions by a state. Aside from this caveat, the US “Shock and Awe” campaign in Iraq, among countless other US supported and assisted international actions, fit the definition. An Associated Press investigation put the total number of civilian deaths in Iraq during the month of Operation Iraqi Freedom at 3,240.[4]

Osama bin who?

The remarkable thing about the official ideology is not its effectiveness but its pliability. The threat of terror and the need for security, mixed with a healthy dose of patriotism is an ideological formula apparently able to legitimate nearly any action or policy of the Bush regime. The “global war on terror” is the new euphemism for the expansion and further militarization of US geopolitical dominance. Yet, the increasing majority of activities carried out under this label have no relation to Al Qaeda, Sept 11, or any other real-world threat.

The shift in focus from Al Qaeda and bin Laden to Iraq and Hussein was nearly seamless. This amazing effort–shifting the public consciousness from one superficially-connected but substantively-unrelated event to another–succeeded through shrewdly calculated flag-waving and fear-mongering by the Bush regime, but only with the support of a corporate media that functioned effectively as an arm of the government propaganda machine. In a nightmare perhaps worse than Orwell imagined, the Ministry of Truth is coordinated in the private market through capitalist ties of ownership (e.g., GE, a defense contractor, owns NBC), rather than by Big Brother from within the government.

Thus, we went from smoking Al Qaeda out of their holes in Afghanistan to WMDs in Iraq. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld switched effortlessly from “We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat” (March 30, 2003) to “I never believed that we’d just tumble over weapons of mass destruction in that country” (May 4, 2003). Meanwhile, according to Amnesty International “discrimination, violence, and insecurity remain rife” in Afghanistan, and globally “al Qaeda and its associates have been maintaining a level of activity over the past sixteen months that is actually higher than in the months leading up to the New York and Washington atrocities.”[5]

Most fundamentally, the clear message is the disconnect not only between the Bush regime’s rhetoric and its actions, but between either of those and the reality of security issues facing the US population. In fact, if anything, the Administration’s actions at home and abroad have actually decreased national security. Edward S. Herman makes a compelling argument in this regard concerning terrorist and military threats. He notes that “if we extend the concept to encompass the security of the U.S. citizenry from threats of unemployment, pension loss, lack of medical insurance, street crime, security state abuses of civil liberties, breakdowns in electrical water, or transportation service, or damage to health resulting from environmental degradation, the Bush threat to security is overwhelming.”[6]. But real people and real problems are far from the agenda of those in charge of US national security.

MATT VIDAL is pursuing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

He can be reached at: mvidal@ssc.wisc.edu


1. See Bookman, Jay, “Bush’s real goal in Iraq,” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Sept 29, 2002; and Murphy, Bruce, “Neoconservative Clout Seen in U.S. Iraq Policy,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel April 5, 2003.

2. “Paul Wolfowitz is now deputy defense secretary. John Bolton is undersecretary of state. Stephen Cambone is head of the Pentagon’s Office of Program, Analysis and Evaluation. Eliot Cohen and Devon Cross are members of the Defense Policy Board, which advises Rumsfeld. I. Lewis Libby is chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Dov Zakheim is comptroller for the Defense Department,” (Bookman, ibid).

3.Most of the data used here can be found at see http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/. I got a complete data set back to 1968 from Joe Reap at the US Department of State.

4. See http://www.commondreams.org/.

5. On Afghanistan, see the Amnesty International report Afghanistan: ‘No one listens to us and no one treats us as human beings’: Justice denied to women, October 6, 2003 (http://www.web.amnesty.org/). On al Qaeda, see Rogers, Paul, “The Prospects for al Qaeda,” Foreign Policy in Focus, January 24, 2003 (http://www.fpif.org/).

6. Herman, Edward S, “George Bush Versus U.S. National Security,” Z Magazine October 2003.



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Matt Vidal is Senior Lecturer in Work and Organizations at King’s College London, Department of Management. He is editor-in-chief of Work in Progress, a public sociology blog of American Sociological Association, where this article first ran. You can follow Matt on Twitter @ChukkerV.

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