Terrorist State

The Progressive magazine, October 1998


President Clinton's bombings of Afghanistan and the Sudan showed a disregard for international law and a disrespect for our constitutional system of government. Welcome to the war against terrorism, where the United States responds in kind, promising an infinite series of attacks and counterattacks.

Of the many things wrong with Clinton's action, perhaps sending some sixty cruise missiles over Pakistan was the most reckless, since it could have falsely alarmed Pakistan that India was attacking with nuclear weapons, thus risking a nuclear war in the subcontinent.

Not all of the missiles aimed at Afghanistan hit their target. At least one fell on Pakistan. Nuclear physicists in Pakistan were eagerly examining the missile, which didn't explode, for clues on how to perfect their own.

"Pakistani scientists and weapons experts are studying components salvaged from an American cruise missile that landed . . . in southern Pakistan," The Washington Post reported. "They expressed optimism that they could unlock technological secrets that will advance Pakistan's missile program."

As one Pakistani security official put it: "It is a gift from the God. The country that had denied us all sorts of economic and military assistance has suddenly gifted us the weapon of choice from its arsenal."

The divine gift was illegal under international law, however. "International law prohibits the unauthorized overflight of other countries," says Peter Weiss, president of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy. Defense Secretary William Cohen said on Meet the Press that the United States did not warn Pakistan of the missile flights.

The United States also violated the sovereignty of the Sudan and Afghanistan. The only time a country can take unilateral action under international law is when it's a matter of self-defense, says Weiss. The United States invoked self-defense in this instance, but it was a specious claim.

"The United States was definitely not abiding by international law," says Weiss. "Self-defense is an extremely limited concept, relating to the invasion of your country. It does not cover speculative, preemptive strikes."

With the missile attacks on the Sudan and Afghanistan, the United States has demonstrated that it is just as willing to use violence, and just as willing to kill civilians, as anyone else. The early casualty count was twenty-one dead and forty injured in Afghanistan, and one dead and nine injured in the Sudan.

By launching missiles to combat terrorists, the United States reduced itself to the tactics of the terrorists themselves.

Another reckless aspect of the missile attack was the targeting of the Sudanese pharmaceutical company, which looks less and less like a chemical weapons plant every day. The pharmaceutical factory produced half the medicines for the entire country, press reports indicate. The bombing "will cause a drug shortage that could cost many thousands of lives, Sudanese doctors said," according to The Washington Post. The attack "will really hit the poor Sudanese. They will be deprived of medicines for a long time," said Mohammed Hassan Tayeb, president of a Sudanese doctors' union.

The plant was also under contract with the United Nations to export medicine, though the United States didn't even know that the plant made medicines, Defense Secretary Cohen admitted two weeks after the attack.

As far as the claim that the plant was producing chemical weapons, the evidence was dubious. "I have intimate knowledge of that factory, and it just does not lend itself to the manufacture of chemical weapons," Tom Carnaffin, a British technical manager of the plant in the mid-1990s, told The London Observer.

The Clinton Administration claimed to have evidence that the plant produced Empta, a chemical used in the production of nerve gas. But "other officials now say it is unclear that Empta was actually produced at the plant," The New York Times reported.

There is also a question as to whether Empta could be used for purposes other than making chemical weapons. And there is some doubt that the chemical even was Empta in the first place. "Several chemical weapons experts outside the [U.S.] government say the single soil sample, if it was not carefully preserved and quickly tested, could have misidentified the key ingredient," The New York Times reported. "They said Empta is chemically similar to several available pesticides and herbicides, including the commercially available weed killer called Round-Up."

In any event, the overarching question is: What standard of intervention is the United States upholding? In the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration was financing a war against Nicaragua, did the Sandinistas have the right to attack us? When anti-Castro Cubans in Miami were plotting terrorism against Havana, would Castro have been justified to launch missiles against the United States?

Unilateral military action by the President is not what our founders had in mind. The Constitution grants Congress the exclusive power not only to declare war but "to define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations," and to "grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water."

Since the end of World War II, Presidents have been arrogating to themselves these powers of Congress. Clinton is no exception, but his action was the most self-serving since Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada on October 25,1983, just two days after 218 Marines were killed in Lebanon.

Less than three days after Clinton's lowest day in office, just as calls for his resignation were beginning to mount, he launched these attacks, knowing full well that he was bound to receive a boost in popularity. You do not have to believe that the Pentagon, the State Department, and the CIA all were interested in helping Clinton divert attention from Monica Lewinsky. It's more likely that the hawks throughout the government have been itching for some time to attack someone, somewhere, so as to demonstrate American might and justify the $260 billion "defense" budget. When Clinton became too weak to resist, he gave the nod to the missile strike.

Right after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright insisted that "our memory is long, our reach is far." But the United States dispensed with the need for a long memory: It was bomb now, take names later.

The United States is supposed to gather evidence, and if the evidence is sufficient, it is supposed to seek extradition of suspects from countries harboring them. None of that was done in this case until after the cruise missiles flew.

We should not become like the terrorists. If we do they will have won. And yet that is exactly what is happening. Clinton is bombing away. And many Senators are calling for the lifting of the U.S. ban on assassinations. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wants to take things a step further, suggesting that the CIA should be allowed to assassinate terrorists right here in the United States.

Interviewed on August 9 on This Week With Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts, Hatch was asked explicitly about assassinations. Here's what he said: "There should be nothing that should not be on the table when it comes to protecting our citizens overseas or anywhere else, for that matter, against terrorists. We have terrorists in our own country. I will just give you a very conservative estimate: We have 1,500 to 2,000 known terrorists and terrorist organizations in America. If we don't treat that very tough, we're going to reap the whirlwind."

If Hatch has his way, the CIA will be able to dump its victims on the shoulder of I-90.

One way the United States should fight terrorism is to stop training terrorists. Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, earned his spurs working with the CIA in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation. He was "fighting alongside the mujahedeen rebels, whom the Central Intelligence Agency sponsored in Afghanistan," The New York Times reported. A Saudi intelligence official told the Times that "Mr. bin Laden learned a lot of tricks from the CIA, which was glad to help him fight the Russians.... He was a point man."

The camp in Afghanistan, "which the Americans bombed, was originally set up by the CIA to train Afghan-and Arab-guerrillas in their war against the Soviet army," Robert Fisk wrote in the London Independent.

The United States has yet to own up to the calamity that it caused by financing, arming, and training the Afghan rebels in the early 1980s. The brutal Taliban government would not be in power today were it not for this CIA covert war. It would not be housing Osama bin Laden. It would not be repressing freedom. It would not be subjugating women. It would not be slaughtering thousands.

The U.S. strikes may have some unfortunate consequences. They may incite retaliation: It's quite conceivable that they will inspire more terrorism against the United States and American citizens. The Clinton Administration is warning U.S. citizens to take extra precautions, and airports across the country are under heightened security.

Clinton's action may also have negative repercussions diplomatically. They are likely to complicate, if not devastate, efforts to resolve such problems as the civil war in the Sudan, or the Middle East peace process, or the efforts to get Pakistan and India to disarm.

Sending cruise missiles half way around the world is the easiest thing for a beleaguered President to do. But it is not the right thing. It is the most cynical use of power.

Foreign Policy and Pentagon

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