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9-11: The big question remains unasked
By Jack A Smith

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The 9-11 Commission hearings in Washington these last weeks, for all the sound, fury, and front-page headlines, seem to have been constructed to produce a foreordained and narrow conclusion about only one aspect of the events of September 11 - the government's lack of preparedness to detect the attack plan before it was executed.

Entirely omitted from the probe, and from the presidential elections as well, is the other big question about September 11 - what was the real reason the attacks took place?

The omission is hardly unintentional. The commission members, evenly balanced between highly powerful Democrats and Republicans, may take partisan shots at each other during the hearings, but they are entirely agreed on leaving this crucial question unasked and unanswered.

The hearings have produced some fruitful movements, such as testimony from retired anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, based on his new book, Against All Enemies that the Bush administration was monomaniacal about invading Iraq from the day it took office. This wasn't new, but it provided important inside substantiation. Another interesting disclosure was the text of a memo to President George W Bush a month before September 11 informing him that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization was planning an attack in the US with hijacked airplanes, but this actually proves nothing.

In all probability, the hearings will conclude that the reason for the September 11 hijacking attacks in Washington and New York City by 19 members of the fundamentalist fringe of Islam was "intelligence failure" by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Reforms will ensue, civil liberties will be further abridged in the name of homeland security, and hundreds of billions of dollars more will be invested in a long "war on terrorism" ostensibly against a few underground organizations that may have a total of 1,000 committed members.

Why is the question about the reasons for the attack not asked or answered? So far, the conventional political wisdom from Washington seems to be that the cause of September 11 is that, to paraphrase, "the terrorists are uncivilized and are motivated by a hatred for democracy and an envy of the American way of life". Such nonsense conveys the inescapable suggestion that the bipartisan Democratic-Republican political power structure ruling America would prefer not to probe too deeply into this question lest it be found complicit in creating a profound and not illogical antipathy to the United States on the part of most people in the Middle East and the world.

In our view, there are four reasons in combination why a small group of fanatics were willing to commit suicide to destroy the three symbols of US power in the world - the World Trade Center (financial power), the Pentagon (military power), and the White House, which evidently was spared because the final hijacked aircraft crashed before reaching its target (political power).

The primary reason for September 11 is the product of US policy and actions in the Middle East since the end of World War II - a policy based on exercising control over the world's greatest known reserves of petroleum. This has led Washington to continuously intervene in the region to support backward feudal monarchies and repressive, undemocratic regimes at the expense of social and political progress. The three secondary reasons involve the Afghan civil war (1978-1995), the first US-Iraq war (1990-2003), and one-sided US support for Israel (mainly 1967-2004).

Until the implosion of the USSR in 1990, the US was in a frenzy to prevent the Soviets from gaining influence in the region. Since 1990, Washington has sought to secure total hegemony throughout the entire Middle East, culminating in the Bush administration's plan to "re-make" the principal countries of the region into "democracies" subordinate to White House domination, by force if necessary, beginning with Iraq.

In some cases throughout these years the White House made deals with conservative religious regimes, such as with the royal family in Saudi Arabia soon after World War II. At the time Washington extended its military and political protection to the House of Saud in Riyadh in return for guaranteed access to oil and for support in keeping the USSR out of the region. The deal, which insures the suppression of democratic elements in Saudi Arabia, remains in place to this day.

In other instances, the White House ordered the CIA to overthrow democratically elected progressive governments, such as happened in Iran in 1953 when left-leaning president Muhammad Mossadegh was dispatched. The result was a quarter-century of repressive rule by the Shah of Iran, a US puppet finally overthrown by Shi'ite fundamentalists, who established another backward religious regime. The reason that only the religious faction was in a position to seize power was that Iran's sizable secular left and democratic forces had been killed, imprisoned or exiled by the Shah, with US approval.

The CIA repeatedly intervened in Iraq from 1958, when progressive General Abdul Karim Kassem overthrew the British-installed monarchy, until 1963 when he was overthrown with US help. Many thousands of leftists and communists were killed along with Kassem. This ultimately led to rule by the secular and at the time pan-Arab Ba'ath regime. In 1979, General Saddam Hussein gained control of the Ba'athist government, purged and killed any remaining leftists, and within a year launched an unjust war against Iran that was supported by the US until ending in a stalemate in 1988.

Over 50 years of constant American intervention - whether in Iran or Iraq, Egypt or Jordan, Lebanon or Syria, Saudi Arabia or Yemen, Oman or Kuwait, or across the Red Sea in Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia - have led to a plethora of ill fortune in the region. This includes the existence of weak, reactionary regimes dependent on the US; governments in thrall to religious factions; poverty amid great wealth; the violent destruction of left and progressive forces; the stultification of social progress; the rise of extreme religious fundamentalism as a means of establishing social and political power (particularly since the secular left has been repressed in so many of these countries); Arab disunity; and a deep sense of frustration and anger against the outside forces who have created most of these conditions, whether it be old style British and French colonialism or, since 1945, US imperialism.

Three more ingredients must be added to this witch's brew to concoct September 11:

1. The Afghan civil war (1978-1995): It was during this period that extremist Islamic fundamentalism became a serious military force, in large part because the US invested billions of dollars in training and equipping such a force, as well as providing bases and financing for fundamentalist religious schools in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden played an important role in the CIA's schemes for several years.

Washington was responding to a military coup in April 1978, principally led by left forces including progressive military officers determined to enact major social and political reforms to bring Afghanistan into the 20th century. The ruling People's Democratic Party began to introduce extensive reforms and to establish close relations with the neighboring Soviet Union. This was unacceptable to Washington.

Afghanistan's warlords and fundamentalist religious forces had immediately opposed the reforms for fear they would upset traditional power relations, and also because they guaranteed the equality of women. The reformers were in Kabul only a few months before president Jimmy Carter ordered the CIA to support the opposition forces, largely based in the vast countryside. When it was apparent a few months later that US-backed right-wing forces might overthrow the left government, the USSR sent thousands of troops to defend the progressive forces, withdrawing them in 1988.

The left government continued in power until it was crushed in 1992, followed by a horrendous three-year civil war between rival reactionary factions that was finally won by the Taliban in 1996, which was deeply indebted to bin Laden and the mujahideen "freedom fighters" responsive to his extreme fundamentalist leadership.

In 1998, Carter's national security adviser during the war, Zbigniew Brzezinski, finally acknowledged Washington's role and bragged that the US virtually induced the USSR to send soldiers to Afghanistan in order that it stumble into its own "Vietnam". He brushed aside any concern about the Taliban or their powerful mujahideen allies.

2. The first US-Iraq war (1990-2003): Iraq invaded the tiny, oil-rich principality in neighboring Kuwait in August 1990, presumably under the naive impression the US would not intervene, perhaps as a reward for exhausting Iran in a long war. Rejecting repeated Iraqi offers of a negotiated withdrawal, the regime of George Bush the First gradually built up a huge invasion force and massively retaliated in January 1990. Iraq's entire civilian infrastructure was destroyed - electricity, water supplies, factories, transportation, communications, bridges and so forth, along with its retreating army and many thousands of civilians. Extensive sanctions, which killed over a million people, along with frequent air attacks, continued until 2003, when George Bush the Second launched a new invasion.

In the eyes of Arabs and Muslims around the world, including those critical of Saddam, the first US war had turned into a nightmare of genocide, poverty and humiliation for the Iraqi people, further eroding Washington's credibility and enlarging on strong anti-American sentiments that had been building during previous decades of intervention in Middle Eastern affairs.

In addition, bin Laden, the leader of the mujahideen movement that emerged from Afghanistan, was outraged by the government of his native Saudi Arabia, which had allowed the "infidel" Americans to establish a military base on Arab/Muslim soil to attack another Arab/Muslim country. At around this time he dedicated himself to two goals: pushing the US out of the region and getting rid of the House of Saud.

3. One-sided US support for Israel (1967-2004): The US has been devoted to Israel as a surrogate for American military power in the region since the June 1967 war, though it has supported the Zionist state since its inception in 1948.

As far as the Arab world is concerned, these last 37 years that Israel has occupied much of the territory mandated to the Palestinians have been a period of great tragedy. Arabs view the Palestinians as refugees in their own country, oppressed by a violent colonial state supported by the US. Many Arabs have also expressed the conviction, shared by a number of progressives in the US, that the Bush administration's attack on Iraq - based on a plan emanating from the neo-conservative branch of right-wing reaction - was in part motivated by a desire to destroy Israel's principal opponents in the region, with Syria and Iran as potential targets as well.

Every time Washington vetoes a UN Security Council resolution seeking justice for the Palestinians, Arab anger mounts against the US. Every time Israeli tanks and soldiers fire at stone-throwing boys, the anger mounts further. Middle Eastern public opinion does not expect Washington to turn on Israel and embrace the Palestinian cause, but it cannot countenance America's total support for Israel at the expense of simple justice for millions of Arabs.

The latest example of Washington's indifference to the dreadful plight of the Palestinians is Bush's April 14 declaration of support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's devious scheme to dismantle some unwanted Jewish settlements in Gaza for the right to permanently keep large settlements in the West Bank. In addition, Bush agreed that Palestinian refugees did not possess a "right to return" to their homes in what is now Israel. Both issues had been important Palestinian bargaining points with Israel, now swept off the negotiating table by the long arm of the White House.

These four examples of Washington's imperial deportment in the Middle East for a period of more than half a century have created great antagonism toward America on the part of the Arab masses. In the process, White House policies have unintentionally generated a small, extreme fringe of Islamic fundamentalism dedicated to visiting violent retribution on the US, which it accomplished on September 11, 2001.

The Bush administration's subsequent "war on terrorism" is wrong on two main counts: 1. It is much more intended to extend US hegemony than to track down the relatively few people involved in September 11 and al-Qaeda. Elsewise, why attack Iraq - which was innocent of complicity in the incident and with the target organization - or threaten similarly uninvolved Cuba, Iran and Syria, among others? 2. It is focused on symptoms, not causes, and thus cannot succeed in its stated objectives regardless of how many more billions of dollars are spent on homeland security and foreign wars.

What then will make mighty America - the most powerful military state in world history - more secure from the threat of another terrorist attack from a small fringe group? Treat the cause, not the symptoms. Change the outrageous imperial policies and actions that have created this situation. Here's how, for starters:

Deal with the people of the Middle East and the basis of equality and respect. Stop interfering in the politics and economy of the region. Discontinue the practice of supporting reactionary regimes and destroying progressive and leftist movements and governments. Instead of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the "war on terrorism", invest that money in repairing the damage caused by over 50 years of intervention, oppression and exploitation in the region. Get out of Iraq now and permit these beleaguered people to resolve their own problems. Stop military interventions and close down the Pentagon's many military bases in the region. Adopt a balanced stance vis-a-vis the Palestine-Israel question, starting with the demand - backed by the threat of withdrawing Washington's annual subsidy, if necessary - that Sharon withdraw all troops and settlements from the occupied territories.

Of course, those who rule America have no intention of doing anything of the kind. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are dedicated to continuing the policies that have allowed the US to exercise economic, political and military hegemony over the region and in the world. Yes, a derivative of these policies has resulted in September 11, but despite the official hand-wringing about terrorism, it is apparently well worth the inconvenience in order to extend US domination over the Middle East and the liquid gold beneath its burning sands.

Anyway, isn't it just a matter of getting better "intelligence" from the FBI and the CIA?

Jack A Smith was the former chief editor of the now defunct US progressive newsweekly The Guardian, and presently the editor of a newsletter devoted to political activism. He resides in the Hudson Valley region of New York in the US.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Apr 20, 2004

The roots of 9-11
(Apr 10, '04)

A real smoking gun
(Apr 8, '04)

Terrorism 'not a major White House focus'
(Apr 7, '04)


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