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July 29, 2004

How Strong Do We Look Now?


by Juan Cole

Reuters reports that Dick Cheney was doing some counter-programming to the Democratic National Convention by speaking on the West Coast at Camp Pendleton.

He said, "Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness."

This statement is half right and half wrong. Some terrorist attacks are caused by the use of strength. For instance, the Shi'ites of southern Lebanon had positive feelings toward Israel before 1982. They were not very politically mobilized. Then the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982 and occupied the South. They killed some 18,000 persons, 9,000 of them estimated to be innocent civilians. The Shi'ites of the South gradually turned against them and started hitting them to get them back out of their country. They formed Hizbullah and ultimately shelled Israel itself and engaged in terrorism in Europe and Argentina. So, Hizbullah terrorist attacks were certainly caused by Sharon's use of "strength."

On the other hand, a perception of weakness can invite terrorist attacks by ambitious and aggressive enemies. Osama bin Laden recites a litany of instances in which the United States abruptly withdrew when attacked, and takes comfort in the idea of the U.S. as a paper tiger. He instances Reagan's 1983 withdrawal from Beirut after the Marine barracks was bombed and Clinton's departure from Somalia after the Blackhawk Down incident.

The lesson I take away from all this is that the US should not get involved in places that it may get thrown out of, because that projects an image of weakness and vulnerability to the country's enemies. There was no way the United States could possibly have maintained a presence in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and Reagan was foolish to put those Marines in there, and even more foolish to put them in without pylons around them to stop truck bombs. The country was embroiled in a civil war, and it would have taken a massive commitment of troops to make a difference. In the wake of the Vietnam failure, the American public would not have countenanced such a huge troop buildup. Likewise, Bush senior was foolish to send those troops to Somalia in the way he did (which became a poison pill for his successor, Bill Clinton).

The question is whether the quagmire in Iraq makes the U.S. look weak. The answer is yes. Therefore, by Cheney's own reasoning, it is a mistake that opens us to further attacks.

Reuters reports, "Cheney said Americans were safer and he stood by prewar characterizations of Iraq as a threat despite the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and new warnings by Cheney and other administration officials that another major terrorist attack may be coming."

Iraq was not a threat to the United States. Period. Let me repeat the statistics as of the late 1990s:

U.S. population: 295 million
Iraq population: 24 million

U.S. per capita annual income: $37,600
Iraq per capita annual income: $700

U.S. nuclear warheads: 10,455
Iraq nuclear warheads: 0

U.S. tons of lethal chemical weapons (1997): 31,496
Iraq tons of lethal chemical weapons (1997): 0

While a small terrorist organization could hit the U.S. because it has no return address, a major state could not hope to avoid retribution and therefore would be deterred. Cheney knows that Ba'athist Iraq posed no threat to the U.S. He is simply lying. I was always careful not to accuse him of lying before the war because who knows what is in someone else's mind? Maybe he believed his own bullsh*t. But there is no longer any doubt that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, no active nuclear weapons program, no ability to deliver anything lethal to the U.S. homeland, and no operational cooperation with al-Qaeda. These things are not matters of opinion. They are indisputable. Ipso facto, if an intelligent person continues to allege them, he is prevaricating.

"President Bush is determined to remove threats before they arrive instead of simply awaiting for another attack on our country. So America acted to end the regime of Saddam Hussein . . . Sixteen months ago, Iraq was a gathering threat to the United States and the civilized world. Now it is a rising democracy, an ally in the war on terror and the American people are safer for it."

I have never understood the phrase "civilized world." To what exactly does it refer? How do you get into it? Can you drop out of it? Is Germany in it? How about 1933-1945? Is Egypt in it? (Surely it helped invent "civilization"?)

But the more important point is that a) there was no threat to the United States from the regime of Saddam Hussein, and there certainly was no gathering threat. The Iraqi military was more dilapidated by the hour; and b) It is obvious that any situation that kills and maims thousands of U.S. servicemen and women every year is not "making us safer" (the troops are part of "us", Mr. Cheney).

Even sections of the Republican Party are openly questioning Cheney's claims. Sen. Lincoln Chafee said that Iraq is more dangerous now than when he visited last October. He clearly fears that the Bush administration is planning to go after Iran, and suggests seeking cooperation from Tehran instead. (It worries me no end that Washington insiders like Chafee should be apprehensive about White House policy toward Iran, and confirms my suspicions that Tehran is next.)


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.

     

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