Panetta’s Terrorism Error

On March 15, American Defense Secretary Leon Panetta remarked that “terrorists cannot be the friends of any country. Terrorists are terrorists.” Yet Panetta is mistaken. His own Defense Department and America’s chief ally are easily classified as terrorists. Dissecting the substance of Panetta’s errors requires analyzing the failures of America’s beltway academics.

While all Americans rightfully condemn terrorism, discrepancies occur when intellectuals attempt to define the phenomenon. To begin with, there is no internationally accepted definition of terrorism. Domestically, different definitions exist among the bureaucracies of America’s State Department, Defense Department, Justice Department, and Intelligence Community. Bruce Hoffman, an Oxford-trained International Relations scholar, clarifies the generally accepted American definition of terrorism as the “deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence,” perpetrated by a non-state or subnational entity, “in the pursuit of political change.”

Hoffman’s definition, embraced by many within the American foreign policy establishment, deliberately excludes national actors, like the United States of America. Compare Hoffman’s academic definition to the perspective of a man who has personally witnessed terrorism’s vicious reality:

Terrorism is ‘the use of terrorizing methods of governing or resisting a government.’ This simple definition has one great virtue, that of fairness. It’s fair. It focuses on the use of coercive violence, violence that is used illegally, extra-constitutionally, to coerce. And this definition is correct because it treats terror for what it is, whether the government or private people commit it.

Hoffman’s biased logic, favoring the unjust status quo, is exposed in broad daylight. Reality dictates that all entities, including national, subnational, and non-state actors, can be terrorists and perpetrate acts of terrorism. Terrorism is applicable to all and not constrained by arbitrary borders.

Perhaps the Hoff-Men of America, a label which comprises most DC think-tanks, Beltway pundits, State Department careerists, and Intelligence Community dogmatists, adhere to Hoffman’s definition for rational reasons. After all, deviation from the standard discourse risks negative saliency; direct and indirect employees of America’s military-industrial complex often forego lucrative funding and career enhancement if they speak out against the grain on issues of imperial war and terrorism.

Individuals who adhere to the status quo flood America’s terrorism-pundit industry, which blossomed in the post-9/11 hysteria. Take, for example, Daniel Byman, of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He is by no means a malicious partisan or a zealot with an axe to grind. Quite the opposite, as he is simply grounded in the prevailing discourse of beltway academia, like Georgetown University where he holds professorship in Security Studies. Terrorism, now an academic discipline, is taught in universities largely by individuals like Byman who have an interest in adhering to the prevailing discourse and operating within the parameters of American bias.

In May 2008, Byman authored an essay about the changing nature of state-sponsored terrorism. He commenced the paper in a promising fashion, averring that America’s State Department should update and refine its list of state sponsors of terrorism, because “the U.S. approach toward state sponsorship of terrorism rests on a flawed understanding of the problem and an even more flawed policy response.” His apparent courage to question the status quo was unfortunately nothing more than a flicker of camouflaged complacency, as he soon relapsed into the fundamentals of mainstream terrorism discourse. Byman’s solution, that America should forge a global agreement on a broad definition of what constitutes state sponsorship of terrorism, completely neglected America’s role as a leading sponsor of international terrorism, whether directly in Iraq and Afghanistan, indirectly through a distal relationship with the Israeli Defense Forces, historically through CIA chess matches versus the artist-formally-known-as-KGB, or through a tradition of violent meddling in Latin America. Byman never considers that an international agreement cannot be reached without first acknowledging America’s participatory role in global terrorism. Except for America’s back-room deals at the United Nations, no country would ever agree with America’s definition of state sponsorship of terrorism, because the global community is able to view the United States with history’s full consideration, and are entirely aware of the subjective metrics that the United States employs in analyzing terror.

Contrary to Panetta’s assertions, terrorists can be the friends of any country. Consider America and Israel as enlightening examples. On 11 September 2001, fifteen Saudis, two Emiratis, and one Lebanese national committed a revolting terrorist atrocity. The American Department of Defense “responded” with a massive bombing campaign against Afghanistan, killing a higher number of civilians than perished in the 11 September attacks. When questioned, American Defense officials stated that Al-Qaeda had planned the 11 September attacks from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, which, officials asserted, necessitated removal of the Taliban regime. As many independent journalists have accurately indicated, such rationale is analogous to the Dubai police department razing the Burj Al-Arab after a murderer had planned a homicide from his guest room on the fiftieth floor. Hence, neither the hotel management nor the Taliban had any control over its guests’ plans.

To make matters worse, Secretary Panetta still insists that America is in Afghanistan “to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven” from where terrorists can plan attacks. However, as the 7 July 2005 England bombings and the 11 March 2004 Spain bombings illustrate, terrorist attacks can be hatched, planned, and implemented in even the most stable, democratic nations. This fact alone scuttles Panetta’s assertions. Even if America were able to miraculously goad Afghanistan into the confines and arbitrary standards of Western democracy, attacks can still be planned from its soil, a fact which no amount of military occupation can change. Despite all, after conducting a massive bombing campaign, the American military dislodged the Taliban from some positions of power in Afghanistan and has occupied the country ever since.

Back to America’s terrorism. In March 2003, the Defense Department invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq, a military operation for which the American government has never provided a valid explanation, yet whose initiation is henceforth to be celebrated as a National Day of Honor, per President Obama’s proclamation. At a minimum, since September 2001, the American government has displaced millions, killed tens of thousands, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands, orphaned sons and daughters, widowed lovers, bombed cities, besieged towns, massacred families, and razed villages. This account doesn’t even include CIA’s terrorism in Greece (1947, 1967-1974), Marcos’ Philippines, the Shah’s Iran, Arbenz’s Guatemala, Pinochet’s Chile, sundry paramilitary and military operations in Southeast Asia from the 1950s through the 1970s and Central America from the 1970s until today, and drone strikes that have killed a minimum of 175 children in Pakistan. Although this list is by no means exhaustive, it nonetheless illustrates America’s terrorism candidly. American Defense officials, and their academic sycophants, beg to differ. They assert that the American military is merely fighting counterinsurgencies, conducting village stability operations, shaping messages of good governance, maintaining an unblinking vigilance, and defending the Orwellian “homeland.”

One need not dwell on Israel’s affinity for terrorism, although a few examples, among many, are elucidating. Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth Prime Minister, was intricately involved in the bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in 1946. Over 90 individuals of various nationalities perished in this terrorist act. In 1967, Israeli aircraft attacked the USS Liberty in a false-flag operation, designed to draw America into fighting in the Six-Day War against Egypt. Over thirty Americans died in this act of terrorism, with over 150 wounded. In 1996, the Israeli military shelled a United Nations compound in Qana, Lebanon, killing over 100 civilians and injuring 100 more. During the winter of 2008-2009, the Israeli military killed hundreds of civilians in Gaza. Today, the Mossad assassinates Iranian scientists. This list doesn’t even include Israel’s history of ethnic cleansing, abuse, and murder of Palestinians. Terrorism knows no other definition.

Byman’s guidelines for international conduct are in fact an excellent start. They include prohibiting government support of violent groups and prohibiting arms sales and military training to regimes with violent records. Such measures, if actually applied to the United States government, would crush arms exporters, war profiteers, squash the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, end Foreign Military Financing to Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, and other oppressive countries, and stifle global paramilitary activities of CIA and the Pentagon. The paradox of Byman’s guidelines is so thick that one can cut it with a knife, or with shrapnel from an American-made cluster bomb dropped by Israel on southern Lebanon. Analyzing Hoffman and Byman shows how perilous it is to employ the hypocritical beltway narrative in defining and discussing terrorism.

Beltway scholars likewise hesitate to investigate and explain Bin Laden’s reasons for disliking America. Without a vocal voice from these scholars, the American citizenry, who are content nominally “supporting their troops,” accept the Pentagon’s frail logic, are never exposed to Bin Laden’s rationale, and are content with explanations like Bin Laden “hates our freedom” and “terrorists hate our democracy.” Defense Secretary Panetta seizes this ignorance and affirms that terrorists attacked America “because of a hatred that was aimed squarely at the values this nation stands for: liberty, tolerance, equality, and fairness.”

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, a pioneer of this tactic, insists that terrorists are filled with “hate for the United States and for everything we stand for, [including] freedom and democracy.” Erroneous clichés like these, espoused by policymakers, and not actively dispelled by beltway academics, lead to further ignorance during a crucial time in American history.

Bin Laden’s grievances, as he articulated time and time again, were quite clear: Firstly, the American military should not be based in or around the Arabian Peninsula. Secondly, the American government should not punish the Iraqi people perversely. Sanctions against Iraq, enacted in the days following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, were allegedly intended to compel the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam. While the Iraqi people never effectively rose up, they did suffer grievously. Conservative estimates of dead children, as a direct result of the American-led sanctions, hover around a couple hundred-thousand bodies. Saddam Hussein meanwhile lived a life of opulence. Thirdly, the American government should not support the state of Israel unconditionally in its oppression of the Palestinian people. Finally, the American government should stop supporting Middle Eastern dictatorships, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, and Algeria (Lawrence 2005). This wasn’t the first time a terrorist had cited such grievances as rationale for attacking America. Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, conveyed similar motivation in his testimony before the New York City Federal District Court.

The American people, if they are so inclined, should judge the merits of Bin Laden’s grievances. While his tactics are deplorable, there is no mistaking his objectives: the economic and military centers of America, and presumably the White House. Perhaps United 93 was aiming for the World Bank or IMF headquarters, which are frequent targets of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s rants. Among the questions that Americans should ask, when analyzing Bin Laden’s grievances are: Should America construct military bases in so many countries? Should America station troops in the Middle East? Do American economic policies harm other countries? Can American corporations adjust their behavior to ensure fair labor practices abroad? Should transnational corporations control other nations’ natural resources, including water and electricity? Why did America impose sanctions on Iraq after the Gulf War? Why did the sanctions remain in place for so long? Did American officials know about the dead children that resulted from the sanctions? Will modern sanctions against Iran cause similar results? Why did Denis Halliday’s resign as UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq? Can American policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be more evenhanded? What causes America’s foreign policy to go astray?

Even though Osama Bin Laden’s terrorism is inexcusable and nauseating, addressing his grievances in the hope of achieving political solutions can curb terrorist recruitment and reduce the likelihood of future terrorist attacks. Take away the sun and the water, America’s expansionism and oppression abroad, and the extremist never blossoms. Instead, the American government ignored Bin Laden’s grievances and implemented a global war against the amorphous emotion of terror, which only decreased America’s security. To guide one’s thinking, turn to Michael Scheuer, former head of CIA’s Bin Laden unit:

We are being attacked in the west, and will continue to be attacked… as long as we are in Afghanistan, as long as we support the Israelis, [and] as long as we protect the Saudi police state… It’s about intervention… about being in the Arabian Peninsula, and it has nothing to do with… cultural things. We are the ones that are arranging the cultural war against them.

Unfortunately, America’s government has not adjusted course. In August 2011, Defense Secretary Panetta reaffirmed America’s unwavering commitment to her irresponsible course of action, refusing to adopt the wisdom of a strategic shift ten years into its imperial Afghanistan war: “We should never give up until we have defeated their intent to attack this country.” The historical record will reflect the American government’s foolish choices. Unfortunately, the muted misery of the American military family, the Afghan civilian casualty, and the Iraqi mass grave will never be detailed fully.

Future terrorists, spawned in the rubble of America’s terrorism, will likely attack America again. To pretend otherwise is delusional. Future attacks, founded upon a just grievance, should be understood in context, since all Americans would also seek revenge if a foreign government had killed one of their innocent loved ones.

We still have much to learn. Defense Secretary Panetta hypocritically scolded Pakistan for picking and choosing among terrorists, without any understanding that America pioneered that tactic. In addition to Panetta’s astonishing remarks, Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that:

In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan, and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI, jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership but Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence.

Mullen’s words are perfect advice for the United States of America. Tweaked slightly, the lessons are clear:

In choosing to use violent military operations and terrorism as an instrument of policy, the government of the United States, the Pentagon, and CIA, jeopardize not only the prospect of regional peace, but America’s opportunity to salvage any respect within the global community.

We all have lessons to learn, but the American pot calling the Pakistani kettle “black” doesn’t help matters. One day Mullen, realizing the error of his ways, will wish he heeded some of his own advice: to always keep private “the counsel you give our nation’s top leaders.”

America’s lessons are simple but numerous. The American government must condemn state terrorism and individual acts of terrorism, regardless of the perpetrator. It must also cease its support for terrorism, since the whole world is now capable of viewing the deadly results of America’s hypocritical foreign policy in the blink of an electronic eye. Panetta once remarked that “to ultimately have a true peace for the future, it is extremely important that we deal with terrorism wherever it exists.” He couldn’t be more accurate. Due to terrorism’s political roots, America’s government and academics must stress political solutions that address terrorism’s heritage of grievances.

The American government must emphasize diplomacy, since massive military responses to terrorism only exacerbate the problem. It is more patriotic to employ precise political solutions than to glorify military action that aggravates an interminable global conflict. America can deal with the remaining al-Qaeda leadership, which the Pentagon estimates at less than 20 operatives worldwide, through implementing a precise, restrained, global police operation. A balanced blend of diplomatic, investigative, and collaborative international policing will yield positive results without picking fights with Boko Haram, Al-Shabbab, Abu Sayyaf, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and other groups that posed no threat to the United States of America. When necessary, strict congressional oversight may allow combined-joint special operations forces to break up terrorist cells.

America’s reward is awesome. When the American government chooses to end its imperial wars, it might then focus on internal national security threats: a failed education system, flagging infrastructure, a deteriorating industrial base, environmental pollution, lack of access to affordable healthcare, and mass unemployment (Gershon 1991: 367).


Gerson, Joseph and Bruce Birchard. The Sun Never Sets. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1991, p. 367.

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006, p. 2-3, 40-41.