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Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi has reclaimed his position as America’s leading demon, a position he has not held since the mid 1980s after having been upstaged at various times since then by Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Mahmoud Admadinejad. As a result of his having once again ascended to this position, Libya is now being bombarded by a coalition of allies under the umbrella of what is called Operation Odyssey Dawn.
While pretending to be peace-loving, most Americans love to see the military of the most powerful nation in the world beat up on small countries run by political despots. There is no more effective way for an American president to boost his ratings in the polls than to demonize some tinhorn dictator. For example, every president since Eisenhower has used Fidel Castro as a political whipping boy. Taking his cue from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose popularity soared after Britain’s 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, Ronald Reagan’s favorite targets – in addition to the Evil Empire – were Grenada’s Maurice Bishop, Muammar Qaddafi, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada was aimed at diverting public attention from the 241 U.S. servicemen who were killed in the bombing of the Beirut Marine headquarters. To justify this intervention, Reagan concocted a tale suggesting that the tiny island was about to come under Fidel Castro’s influence. This military foray resulted in dramatic increases in his popularity ratings.
The made-for-television Persian Gulf drama precipitated by Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait contained all of the elements one might expect in a Tom Clancy post-cold war spy thriller – a demonic enemy, suspense, political intrigue, military heroics and Middle East oil. The bloodless, high-tech, action-packed TV series featuring surgical precision missile strikes with no visible civilian casualties was an instantaneous success with American viewers in need of a new demon to replace the Soviet Union. Ninety-five percent of the American people supported President George Herbert Walker Bush’s Persian Gulf policy. Little did they know that such high-tech military adventures would become routine in the future.
Nevertheless, Bush I condemned Saddam Hussein for replicating in Kuwait precisely what he had done in Panama a few months earlier; namely invading a tiny country with a huge military force and setting up a puppet government. Within a few days after Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bush I convinced most of the non-Islamic world that our former ally, whom he helped create, had become the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler.
However, by 1998, the Iraqi dictator seemed to be losing his touch and was no longer able to sustain his image as a demonic enemy in spite of repeated military strikes on Iraq by the Clinton administration. With the simultaneous bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as frequent threats to other embassies throughout the world, the United States urgently needed a new bigger-than-life enemy to replace Saddam Hussein, who had lost some of his demonic luster. Neither Muammar Qaddafi, Fidel Castro, nor Yasser Arafat appeared to be up to the challenge.
Conveniently, during the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a promising new demon emerged – Muslim fundamentalist Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi exile living in Afghanistan thought to have been trained by the C.I.A. Prior to Clinton’s preemptive strikes against alleged international terrorist training bases in Afghanistan and a chemical plant in Sudan, few Americans had ever heard of bin Laden. Yet within a few days his name had become a household world synonymous with global terrorism. Almost overnight, bin Laden was transformed into Global Enemy Number One.
However, Saddam Hussein re-emerged as a credible threat in late 1998. The day before he was to be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives, President Clinton ordered the U.S. military to attack Iraq again, the fourth such attack since 1993. Only the British saw fit to join the United States in this lopsided assault on Iraq. There were no American or British casualties and no Iraqi dead were ever shown on American television. The objective of the short war was to “degrade Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.” It was declared a success and Clinton’s popularity soared.
In March 1999, NATO was in need of a new mission to justify its post Cold War existence. With that thought in mind President Clinton bypassed the U.S. Constitution, the United Nations, and international law and led a 78-day NATO attack against Yugoslavia. This action was justified by the claim that Slobodan Milosevic was responsible for the deaths of 2,000 Kosovars. Clinton portrayed Milosevic as the new Adolf Hitler. Yet when 100,000 people lost their lives in Chechnya at the hands of the Russians and 800,000 were massacred in Rwanda, Clinton blinked. It was as though these were nonevents.
In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Bush II led the United States to war against Afghanistan, the aim of which was to seek out and destroy Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network. According to the official White House story line, the charismatic Arab had orchestrated the greatest act of terrorism in human history from his high-tech cave in Afghanistan for which he deserved to be taken out. Nearly ten years later, there has been no trace of bin Laden, yet the war goes on.
Although the invasion of Afghanistan may have been successful initially in silencing hundreds of Osama bin Laden’s followers, whether dead or alive, bin Laden was transformed into the new Che Guevara of the poor, the powerless, and the disenfranchised worldwide. For every Muslim fundamentalist killed in Afghanistan, Iran, or Iraq or arrested by the FBI in the U.S., Germany, or England, another hundred Arab, African, Asian, or Latin American dissidents were radicalized.
Having failed in his bid to take out Osama bin Laden, eliminate the threat of terrorism, dismantle the Al Qaeda network, spin away the effects of several corporate scandals, and turn the ailing economy around, Bush II, like his father and Bill Clinton, decided to play the Saddam Hussein card.
Unlike bin Laden, who has always been a moving target, Hussein was much less elusive since he rarely left Iraq. Other than the brief period when he was temporarily upstaged by bin Laden, Saddam was America’s favorite demon for twelve years. He had the ability to deflect American public opinion away from virtually any serious economic, political, or social problem. This is why he was such a popular political scapegoat for three presidents.
On the basis of two lies, Bush II invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003. First, he claimed that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which he did not. Second, he claimed that Al Qaeda had a significant presence in Iraq, which was also untrue.
Currently there are no less than a dozen liberation movements in North Africa and the Middle East. They can be found in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Thus far, the United States has opted to intervene militarily only in Libya, a move strongly endorsed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And who will be next? Can there really be any doubt? There is only one country in the region which we have demonized for over three decades. It’s just a matter of time.
THOMAS H. NAYLOR is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University. His books include: Downsizing the U.S.A., Affluenza, The Search for Meaning and The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education