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Gates of Hell

07.05.2007 | POLITICS

In the same week as The Washington Post ran its landmark series "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency," Asia Times Online, among other sites, featured a series about the Secretary of Defense called "The Gates Inheritance" by Roger Morris. It seems that, in spite of breaking the spell Rumsfeld cast on the Defense Department, Robert Gates, like fellow Iran-Contra veterans John Negroponte and Elliot Abrams, could do with an exorcism himself.

The CIA deputy director for intelligence in 1985, he was among those who advised Ronald Reagan to sanction a car bombing in Bir el-Abed, a Shi'ite ghetto of Beirut. It was intended as retaliation for the 1983 truck-bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks at Beirut airport that killed 241 servicemen.

For its part, Morris writes, that attack was a "reprisal for earlier US acts of intervention and diplomatic betrayal in Lebanon's civil war that had cost hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian lives." It also held the world record for the most massive peace-time blowback against the US until 9/11.

The Bir bombing, meanwhile, was of those broadly targeted acts of retaliation to which the US is partial –- a precursor, if you will, to attacking Iraq apparently just because it shares the same language as the Saudi and Yemeni 9/11 hijackers. The intended target was Muhammad Husain Fadlallah, chosen because, Morris writes, "allied spy agencies -- Israel's Mossad, Saudi Arabia's GID and Phalangist informers -- claimed he led a militant Shi'ite group that bore responsibility for the attack on the marines."

Not only wasn't that likely, according to Morris, the cleric in question wasn't even home. Eighty-one were killed and over 200 wounded. Would more blowback be forthcoming? Morris explains.

"Among those of Fadlallah's bodyguards not killed in the explosion, 22-year-old Imad Mugniyah would join the emerging Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah" and direct operations like hijacking TWA Flight 847, kidnapping Terry Anderson and Beirut CIA bureau chief William Francis Buckley (subsequently murdered), as well as bombing two Argentinian Jewish centers that killed 115.

Another of the targeted cleric's admirers was "outraged by the bombing and ever after distrustful of the Americans he had once admired": current Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

As progressives, we feel it's our duty to point out that our foreign policy creates terrorists. But besides belaboring the obvious, this has the unintended effect of increasing the contempt in which we're held by the hard right.

See, real men don't fear blowback. In other words, if you're in –- or apparently, on -- the right, you don't worry about retaliation. Nor do they care that, according to a recent Pew Institute poll of 45,239 people in 47 nations, "Global distrust of President Bush is mutating into. . . . a broad and deepening dislike of American values and. . . ideas." Concerning itself with what the rest of the world thinks doesn't become a superpower.

But what gets the hard right's back up the most is when not only progressives but policy makers point out that terrorists have legitimate complaints. And that they don't stand a chance of getting them redressed through normal channels. Excuses, excuses, scoff the hawks.

Why, progressives wonder, can't the right, as well as the public at large, fathom that it takes more than "hating our freedoms" to motivate terrorists? But it turns out that, however justified we may be in asking that question, the deaf ear the public turns to terrorists' grievances may, in fact, be a valid response.

In "Why Terrorism Does Not Work" (MIT's Global Security magazine, Fall 2006), Max Abrahms explains. After studying 28 terrorist groups, he concludes that, contrary to conventional wisdom, not only doesn't terrorism achieve its intended aims, but that its "poor success rate is inherent in the tactic of terrorism itself." [Emphasis added]

It's true that Abrahms contributes to The National Review. But that scarcely disqualifies him from the debate. After all, the hard right typically magnifies threats and while Abrahms doesn't downplay them, he keeps them in perspective. Of course, he's dealing with terrorism past and present, not the ghost of terrorism yet to come -– nuclear weapons.

Abrahms's point of departure is a psychological theory called "attribution," which holds that an action is judged not by its intent, but by its consequences. In other words, he writes, "a boy notices his mother close the door, and the room becomes less noisy. . . [thus] she wanted quiet [as opposed to, say, privacy]."

He applies that to terrorism: "Countries believe that their civilian populations are attacked not because the terrorist group is protesting unfavorable external conditions such as territorial occupation or poverty." Instead, the public interprets "the deaths of innocent citizens, mass fear, loss of confidence in the government to offer protection, economic contraction, and the inevitable erosion of civil liberties" as evidence that terrorists want to destroy its "way of life."

The "unfavorable external conditions" that al-Qaida protests include US presence in the Persian Gulf region, our support for dictators, and, of course, the existence of Israel. Supposedly, terrorists won't negotiate, but they don't believe traditional diplomacy will give them a fair shake. Suicide bombers are their ambassadors; a demolished marketplace their negotiating table.

Abrahms fails to acknowledge that the havoc al-Qaida wreaks is a pretty good consolation prize. Nor that it might be subject to "style drift," a financial term for fund managers who depart from the investment strategy they were initially bound by, such as income preservation, and switch to another, usually more aggressive.

In al-Qaida's case, its main goal may have drifted to killing Westerners, once secondary to its policy pursuits. In other words, blowback -– revenge to the nth degree –- may now, thanks in part to the likes of Robert Gates, be its raison d'etre.

This article originally appeared as a guest blog on

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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