An All-Orange World

The domestic war on terror has entered the speeded-up realm in which Iraq has long existed.


By Tom Engelhardt

No 9/11 Commission is necessary; no Senate Intelligence Committee need be convened. On Sunday of this week, the Bush administration raised the terror alert level from Code Yellow to Code Orange for the sixth time since the system was created in March 2002. It claimed major American and global financial institutions in New York and Washington were in dire danger of attack; announced al-Qaeda arrests in Pakistan; spoke of captured “master” computer geniuses, the chilling discovery of the stored floor plans of the buildings in which those financial institutions are housed, and even counts of how many people passed certain key sidewalk spots in front of them per minute; ensured that New York City’s heavily armed “Hercules Teams” would be sent into the streets, a key tunnel closed to commercial traffic, the guard-level on buildings raised precipitously; sent tremors through the nation; turned the TV news and the front pages of every major paper into a series of somber-voiced (or toned) security broadcasts; and loosed “terrorism experts” from think-tanks you never knew existed onto the airwaves to talk about breakthroughs in understanding al-Qaeda “tradecraft” and to debate solemnly whether it was better to release information about impending attacks, thus letting the enemy know you knew they knew you knew, or to keep the same information closer to the vest, lest we give away what we knew they didn’t know we knew.

Without an investigative commission or Senate committee to back me up I was instantly preparing to issue a rarely proffered Tomdispatch Guarantee that something was sure to be amiss with this tale of terror in this, my next dispatch. But before I could write it — evidence perhaps that the domestic war on terror has entered the speeded-up realm in which Iraq has long existed (“Vietnam on crack cocaine”) — a second (lesser) wave of news made it to the front pages of our imperial papers. By Tuesday, we were informed, as Dan Eggen and Dana Priest of the Washington Post put it on that paper’s front page (Pre-9/11 Acts Led to Alerts) that “most of the al Qaeda surveillance of five financial institutions that led to a new terrorism alert Sunday was conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001.” They also quoted “senior law enforcement officials” saying things like, “There is nothing right now that we’re hearing that is new…Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don’t know that.”

Douglas Jehl and David Johnston chimed in the same day on the front-page of the New York Times (Reports That Led to Terror Alert Were Years Old, Officials Say) with the same information, adding in paragraph one, “[Intelligence and law enforcement officials] reported that they had not yet found concrete evidence that a terror plot or preparatory surveillance operations were still under way.” The information, all reports now told us, was not only years old, but much of its “masterful” essence may have come from public records or off — gasp — the Internet or other “open sources.” A Times editorial that day (Mr. Bush’s Wrong Solution) suggested deep in its second paragraph as well as a bit circuitously and in the negative that there might even be a tad of political manipulation involved: “This news does nothing to bolster the confidence Americans need that the administration is not using intelligence for political gain.”

The administration responded solemnly that, well, yes, the information was indeed old, but it had been updated recently! Today, in a Glenn Kessler piece, labeled “analysis,” in the Post this vital revelation had already been reduced to: “One piece of information on one building, which intelligence officials would not name, appears to have been updated in a computer file as recently as January 2004. But officials could not say whether that data resulted from active surveillance by al Qaeda or came from publicly available information.”

The administration promptly responded that, as Jehl and Richard Stevenson reported on the front page of the Times today (New Qaeda Activity Is Said to Be Major Factor in Alert), the alert had been raised not just because of that old al-Qaeda information, but because a “separate stream of intelligence, which they had not previously disclosed, reached the White House only late last week and was part of a flow that the officials said had prompted them to act urgently in the last few days.” (Given Bush environmental policies, one can only imagine how polluted this particular “stream” must have been.)

By the end of day four of the crisis, you could already find this mournful passage in the Kessler piece: “When Bush held his news conference, reporters knew only that the administration had recently uncovered this information. Bush ‘would have faced more difficult questions’ if reporters had known how much of the information had been obtained three years after the surveillance, Greenberger said.”

If this weren’t so serious, it would have the media quality of a Keystone Kops silent comedy. Unfortunately, our media is programmatically like some exceedingly slow, brain-damaged acquaintance. You have this constant urge to stretch out your hand and say, “Here, here, I’ll help you along.” But you also know that, massive and influential as it may be, on certain crucial matters it is institutionally incapable of learning. I mean, it’s almost three years after 9/11 and we know we have an administration that never saw a piece of false intelligence it couldn’t run with or accurate intelligence it couldn’t mangle or suppress. Having just absorbed The 9/11 Commission Report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report, we also know that we have intelligence agencies that consider a 33% good-guess ratio great work.

This really should be a no-brainer. If you knew someone who was a congenital liar and who had told you something that wasn’t so again and again… and then, one day, he told you it yet again, would you really extend him the benefit of the doubt? Would you really draw no negative conclusions? Would you really demand first the kind of smoking gun proof of lying that you know perfectly well will appear, whether on Day 3, 13, or 1,300?

If you’re our imperial media, of course you would! On such matters, if the media is exceedingly slow, the Bush administration isn’t. They know that first impressions count more than any retractions to follow. By last night, NBC Prime-time News was still leading off with “the tightest security” of our lifetime as its lead line, and ABC News was explaining, deep into its broadcast, that well, yes, administration spokesmen hadn’t actually mentioned that a lot of the information was old… really old… not publicly… but they had done so in private media phone conferences, and anyway they were releasing news on 7 additional potential al-Qaeda targets! You see, they hadn’t released that information about the age of the information, because they didn’t want to tip their hand to al-Qaeda. Ah yes, it all makes sense now. And not only that but ABC News informed us that their “sources” revealed the President to be “very angry,” especially with that New York Times editorial mentioned above. As well he should be! And so it goes (as Kurt Vonnegut might say): The initial release of news taken at more than face value, the later predictable retractions overlaid with White House denials, the releases of new “information,” general muddiness, and caution.

And, of course, most of any retraction probably doesn’t make it through the news net to most Americans, most of whom don’t read tomdispatch, don’t check out Antiwar.com or CommonDreams.org, or Alternet.org, don’t look for comments deep in New York Times‘ editorials three days after they’ve been blitzed by fear, or check out that key Washington Post “analysis” on day four which has all the caveats, doubts, and considerations. And you know what’s the worst thing of all — for those of us who can draw conclusions from an avalanche of evidence and just normal everyday experience — when this happens again, as it surely will, in September or October, sometime certainly before November 2, and the police pour out for those fearsome front-page photo-ops, and the next al-Qaeda plot is revealed (before it’s revealed to be some bogus combination of who knows what), the media reaction will be no different.

As one small remedy to this, I want to propose my own investigatory body — the 3-02 Commission (March 2002 being the moment when the Department of Homeland Security started up its yellow-to-orange, orange-to-yellow alerts). It’s natural for us to investigate massive intelligence failures when, as with the 9/11 attacks, obvious catastrophe follows. But what about massive intelligence “failures” when nothing follows (except psychic harm to the American people and so to our already maimed body politic)? Since March 2002, Code Orange after Code Orange has poured out of this administration and nothing has happened. Isn’t this, too, a massive intelligence failure, even if massively unnoted by the media? “Two years-plus of terror alerts — all wrong”: Imagine that as a campaign slogan. Imagine for a second that there are indeed organized groups out there who actually wish us great harm — and our vast intelligence “community,” with all its alerts, knows remarkably little about them.

Unfortunately, new thinking is in short supply in our well garrisoned world. We just get the same old, same old, but ever more of it, and our media responds like a Konrad Lorenz imprinted duckling. As the editor of the War in Context website wrote recently of the line of thinking we’ve been living with these last several years,

“Let’s suppose that the next president decides he’s going to launch an initiative to protect America from global warming. If the war on terrorism provides a paradigm, the solution should be obvious: As the icecaps melt, build an ocean barrier around every coastal city in America; focus public awareness on the effects but avoid talking about the causes; above all, reassure the nation that the only way to be safe is to be strong. Meanwhile, enjoy the beach but don’t forget the sunscreen.”

Unfortunately, old and limited thinking applies to more than just this administration. Toss in, for instance, the investigative bodies looking into this administration. The 9/11 Commission recently issued its 500-plus page report and its major suggestion (which the President just couldn’t bring himself to embrace yesterday, but did a superb job of seeming to embrace) was the appointment of an intelligence “czar” — I always love the way such figures in our democracy are invariably called “czars” — to oversee the fifteen (count ’em 15) intelligence agencies that make up our vast intelligence complex. As former CIA analyst Ray McGovern pointed out recently, this was hardly a brilliant or bold, no less useful suggestion.

It evidently didn’t cross the Commission’s mind (or the Senate Intelligence Committee’s either) to ask why we have at least 15 overlapping, often competitive intelligence agencies — wouldn’t three already be a superfluity? — or whether it might not make simple, rational sense to “reorganize” not just congressional oversight of the intelligence community with its cumulative budget of $40 billion (considered a very low estimate actually), but the community itself? No, it seems that it’s better, as McGovern says, just to plunk a new layer of bureaucracy on top of the old mess. Nor, it seems, did anyone go back into the history of American intelligence to ask what use it’s actually been to us, historically speaking. But that’s expecting a lot in the era of Orange Alerts.

Mark LeVine, a scholar of Middle Eastern history and culture who has written for Tomdispatch before, has a modest suggestion for our embattled world. How about calling a “truce”? His piece below represents just a tad of new thinking, a modest signpost pointing the way toward one of a number of potential different paths in our world. But be prepared and be careful, he implicitly brings up the most dangerous word around today: “peace.”

In fact, I think I just used the word? Uh-oh. Duck! Call out the Hercules Teams! Red alert! Or muster all your courage and read on.

A Truce with the Muslim World:

Can Europe lead the way?
By Mark LeVine

It is time for the United States to declare a truce with the Muslim world, and radical Islam in particular.

This may sound like a naïve, even defeatist statement in the context of The 9/11 Commission Report‘s reminder that America remains very much at war with “Islamist terrorism” and the ideas behind it. Yet a truce — in Arabic, hudna — rather than an increasingly dangerous “clash of civilizations,” is the only way to avoid a long, ultimately catastrophic conflict. And it’s up to Europe to be the good broker.

Indeed, there is no chance for a halt in the war on terror, or any fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy as long as George Bush is President. Even if John Kerry wins this November, the possibility that he might initiate such a transformation is slim. However, there is one major difference — at least rhetorically — between the two possible presidencies: Kerry has made a point of saying that he would “listen” to European allies and strive to build a common approach to combating terrorism.

European leaders face the threat of an increasingly bloody conflict with Muslim extremists thanks to the continent’s imperial past in the region and, more important today, their perceived support for U.S. policies in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They would be wise to suggest that President Kerry call a truce so that the U.S., the European Union (E.U.), and more broadly the “West,” can have the time collectively and publicly to explore the root causes of the violence against them that emanates from the Muslim world — something the 9/11 Commission should have, but did not, do. At least there’s a chance Kerry might listen, especially if the war in Iraq continues to spiral out of America’s control.

There are many kinds of truces, most not relevant to the situation facing America today. Some of the earliest truces, such as the (aborted) Thirty Years Treaty during the Peloponnesian War of the fifth century B.C.E., were made only out of tactical necessity and collapsed as soon as the balance of forces changed. Such a truce — during which both sides would attempt to gain an advantage before reigniting hostilities — would surely be a disaster in our world.

Other truces, like those that ended the Korean War in 1953, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, became by default unsatisfactory political resolutions to otherwise insoluble conflicts. A truce like this almost certainly will end in renewed violence because the roots of the war on terror go to the core values underlying U.S./Western policies in the Middle East. Decades ago, the U.S. began an affair with a sociopathic form of wahhabi Islam, ultimately giving birth to the bastard child of “Islamist terrorism” that now, as in most lurid, made-for-TV dramas, wants to kill its parents.

Clearly, a different kind of truce is needed; one that signals the first step in a genuine reappraisal of American (and to a lesser extent European) core positions and interests as well as those of Muslims, so that genuine peace and reconciliation become conceivable. There is some historical precedent for this kind of truce in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad agreed to the first Muslim truce in 628. Known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, it was between the nascent Muslim community and the Meccan pagans, and lasted for two years before the Meccans broke it by attacking Muslim Bedouin tribes. During the truce, however, the Muslims respected its terms, even though many of them felt it to be unfair.

More important, during the last three decades an increasingly permanent Muslim presence in Europe gradually led most Muslims to consider that region not “dar al-harb” (or the Abode of War, the traditional Muslim categorization of all non-Muslim lands), but “dar al-hudna” — a land of truce between Muslims and non-Muslims — or even “dar al-Islam,” a land of peace where Muslims can feel at home.

Indeed, however dangerous the presence of a few thousand extremists out of a European Muslim population more than ten million strong, the reality is that Muslims increasingly think of Europe as a “terre de mediation” (a land of mediation) between Muslims and the larger world. A European-initiated hudna might be the first step in allowing Muslims to feel the US has the potential to play a similar role — but only if major European governments pressed for it, leading the way by reappraising and transforming their own policies toward Muslim lands.

From the US and European side, a meaningful hudna with Islam would include (but not be limited to) the following steps:

First, just as most every mainstream Muslim personality has condemned Muslim extremism, the next President must be prodded by his European counterparts to take the important psychological step of admitting U.S. responsibility for the harm decades of support for dictatorship, corruption, and war have caused ordinary Muslims, especially in the Middle East.

Second, the United States, the E.U., and NATO should halt all offensive military actions in the Muslim world and outline a serious plan for the removal of troops from Muslim countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. (These could be replaced, where necessary, by robust UN peacekeeping forces or UN-assisted transitional administrations.) The hunt for Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and related terror networks would then be transformed from a war of vengeance into what it always should have been: a vigorous international effort led by the U.S,, UN, and where relevant European and other governments, to apprehend, prosecute, and punish people and groups involved in the September 11 assaults and similar attacks.

Third, all military and diplomatic agreements and aid to Middle Eastern countries that aren’t democratic or don’t respect the rights of the peoples under their control should be suspended. Yes, this means for Israel as well as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other “allies” and “partners.” This is crucial to stopping the regional arms race and cycle of violence that makes peace and democratic reform impossible.

Finally, the hundreds of billions of dollars that would have been devoted to the war on terror should be redirected toward the kind of infrastructural, educational, and social projects The 9/11 Commission Report argues are key to winning the war on terror.

A truce does not equal capitulation to terrorists or letting Muslims off the hook for crimes committed in the name of their religion. Certainly, European leaders were right to reject the “truce offer” purportedly made by Osama bin Laden last April on the condition that European countries remove their troops from Muslim lands and refuse to support the United States. Criminals can’t offer truces, and bin Laden and other groups which use terroristic violence are indeed international criminals whom the world community has an obligation to bring to justice.

Beyond the criminal minority, The 9/11 Report was right to demand that Muslims worldwide confront the violent and intolerant version of their religion that is poisoning their societies and threatening the world at large. Religious leaders and ordinary citizens alike must engage in soul-searching about the toxic tendencies within their own cultures similar to the one they demand of Americans and the West more broadly.

States as well as communities and cultures can make truces, even if criminals can’t. And the Report should have added specific policy prescriptions to enable such a process to begin: For their part, Muslim political leaders should begin a process of rapid development of participatory civil societies and hold internationally monitored elections within specified (short) time periods or their regimes will face censure and sanctions by the international community. This is the surest way to build a foundation for defeating terrorism.

While it’s hard to imagine the U.S. drafting such a policy, the E.U., most of whose members don’t have the deep ties with either Israel or the oil princedoms of the Gulf that anchor the current system, could lead the way. The need for such leadership is illustrated by various recommendations of the 9/11 Commission which demonstrate that the U.S. is institutionally incapable of taking bold policy steps on its own. As someone whose research was cited by the Report — p. 466, note 16 — in a manner that completely missed the point of my argument, I find it unsurprising that the Report would go on to position the U.S. as an innocent bystander to a “clash within a civilization” whose solution “must come from within Muslim societies themselves.”

Fortunately, leading European countries like France, Germany, and now Spain don’t have a powerful financial stake in the “heavy” or militarized globalization that, since 9/11, increasingly skews American and British policy-making. In fact, through the E.U., they have created a “Euro-Med” area whose viability depends on expansive economic and political development, and so on increasing interchange with the Muslim world. Let’s only hope they will have the courage to explain to President Kerry (or even Bush) that, without both an acceptance of responsibility for past policy and the transformation of future policy toward the Islamic regions of our planet, there will be no solution to terrorism, only continued violence and war. No matter how “smarter and more effectively” the next American President might hope to prosecute such a war, it would be no more winnable than Vietnam or the war on drugs, with far higher losses likely in the near future.

Mark LeVine is associate professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of the upcoming book, Why They Don’t Hate Us (Forthcoming: Oxford: Oneworld Publications) and a contributing editor at Tikkun magazine. He previously wrote for Tomdispatch on “sponsored chaos” in Iraq.

Copyright C2004 Mark LeVine

Read more dispatches by Tom Engelhardt at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.