Itâ€™s hard to conceive how the United States will win a â€œwar of ideas” in the Islamic world when American leaders flock to a Washington conference where Muslims are publicly insulted and the U.S. officials fail to voice objections to the bigotry.
Thatâ€™s what happened at this weekâ€™s annual meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee whose invitees included Vice President Dick Cheney, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, Virginiaâ€™s ex-Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, and Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.
In a luncheon speech on March 6, Israelâ€™s Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman entertained the AIPAC crowd with what the Washington Post described as â€œstraight talk,â€¿ including a comment that came close to equating Islam with terrorism.
â€œWhile it may be true â€“ and probably is â€“ that not all Muslims are terrorists, it also happens to be true that nearly all terrorists are Muslim,â€¿ Gillerman said to the crowdâ€™s delight.
Gillermanâ€™s comment earned him a description in a column by the Washington Postâ€™s Dana Milbank as â€œthe undiplomatic diplomat.â€¿ Milbank also observed that â€œwords are seldom minced at the annual (AIPAC) meeting.â€¿ [Washington Post, March 7, 2006]
But what was perhaps more glaring was the fact that Gillermanâ€™s professed uncertainty whether â€œall Muslims are terroristsâ€¿ did not raise a protest, condemning it as an ugly example of anti-Muslim bigotry. It is hard to imagine a similar formulation about any other ethnic or religious group that wouldnâ€™t have erupted in controversy.
Instead, U.S. officials and politicians â€“ both Republican and Democrat â€“ avoided criticizing Gillerman or almost anything else about AIPAC, bowing to its legendary power to make or break American political leaders.
The pro-Israel lobbying group hailed the conference as a stunning success, drawing a record number of 4,500 participants despite the pending criminal case against two ex-AIPAC officials Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who are facing charges of illegally disseminating U.S. government secrets.
As Milbankâ€™s column noted, there was a studied silence about the Rosen-Weissman case as AIPAC preferred to stay focused on Islamic terrorism and other perceived threats coming from Iran and the Palestinians.
On March 7, Cheney addressed the AIPAC conference, making no reference to Gillermanâ€™s Muslim slur. Instead, Cheney urged unwavering support for the Bush administrationâ€™s War on Terror and threatened Iran with â€œmeaningful consequencesâ€¿ if it doesnâ€™t submit to international demands for reining in its nuclear program.
â€œFor our part, the United States is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime,â€¿ Cheney said. â€œAnd we join other nations in sending that regime a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.â€¿
But Cheney made no demands that other regional countries that secretly developed nuclear bombs â€“ Israel, Pakistan and India â€“ cease their programs or that older nuclear powers â€“ the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China â€“ reduce or eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
Indeed, President George W. Bush had just completed a trip to India where he reversed longstanding U.S. counter-proliferation policy by agreeing to end a moratorium on Indiaâ€™s access to nuclear fuels, technology and parts while allowing it to continue its nuclear weapons program.
Bushâ€™s nuclear deal with India â€“ a largely Hindu country â€“ drew criticism from arms-control experts and Muslims as a dangerous double standard that could spur an arms race in South Asia and the Middle East.
Though Cheney’s speech avoided explicitly anti-Muslim language, he singled out Islamic extremism as the greatest threat to the world. The Vice President echoed Bushâ€™s previous remarks about the supposed danger of Islamic terrorists building an empire that would stretch from Spain to Indonesia â€“ and serve as a base for attacking the United States.
â€œThe terrorists believe that by controlling one country, they will be able to target and overthrow other governments in the region, and ultimately to establish a totalitarian empire that encompasses a region from Spain, across North Africa, through the Middle East and South Asia, all the way around to Indonesia,â€¿ Cheney said.
But the reality, as known to U.S. intelligence, is far less apocalyptic. Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Osama bin-Ladenâ€™s al-Qaeda was holed up in what might be called the ends of the earth, the mountains of Afghanistan â€“ after his forces were ousted from countries across the Arab world and even were booted out of Sudan.
The Bush administrationâ€™s failure to capture or kill bin-Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders during the military offensive around Tora Bora in December 2001 allowed the terrorists to regroup and rebuild support among Islamic extremists â€“ aided by Muslim anger over Bushâ€™s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
But even with al-Qaedaâ€™s limited comeback, its leaders donâ€™t share the grandiose vision that Bush and Cheney ascribe to them. In 2005, an intercepted letter allegedly written by bin-Ladenâ€™s deputy Ayman Zawahiri set much more modest goals, fretting that a sudden U.S. withdrawal from Iraq might cause the jihadists to give up and go home.
â€œThe mujahedeen must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal,â€¿ the â€œZawahiri letterâ€¿ read. [For details, see Consortiumnews.comâ€™s â€œAl-Qaeda Letter Belies Bushâ€™s Iraq Claims.â€¿]
Yet, while avoiding Gillermanâ€™s â€œstraight talkâ€¿ about Muslims, Cheney substantively agreed with the Israeli ambassadorâ€™s assessment of terrorism as almost exclusively a Muslim tactic â€“ one that flourished because it didnâ€™t draw a sufficiently harsh U.S. response.
â€œOver the last several decades, Americans have seen how the terrorists pursue their objectives,â€¿ Cheney said in his AIPAC speech. â€œSimply stated, they would hit us, but we would not hit back hard enough.
â€œIn Beirut in 1983, terrorists killed 241 Americans, and afterward U.S. forces withdrew from Beirut. In 1993 we had the killing of American soldiers in Mogadishu, and the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. Then came the attack on the Saudi National Guard Training Center in Riyadh in 1995; the killings at Khobar Towers in 1996; the attack on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; and, of course, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.â€¿
However, Cheneyâ€™s one-sided recounting of history reflects an anti-Muslim bias on two levels. First, it ignores the long history of terrorism practiced around the world by people of nearly all religions and ethnic backgrounds.
In 1976, for instance, Chileâ€™s U.S.-backed dictatorship sponsored a terrorist bombing on the streets of Washington, killing Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier and an American co-worker, Ronni Moffitt, yet then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush protected Chileâ€™s leaders from exposure and prosecution. [See Robert Parryâ€™s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Even today, the current Bush administration is blocking attempts to bring another anti-communist terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles, to justice over his alleged role in bombing a Cuban airliner. [See Consortiumnews.comâ€™s â€œBush Familyâ€™s Terrorism Test.â€¿]
Cheneyâ€™s speech also ignored more recent acts of terrorism committed by non-Muslims. For instance, there was no reference in his speech to home-grown right-wing terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted and executed for blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.
For that matter, Cheney offered no self-criticism of the â€œshock and aweâ€¿ violence that the Bush administration inflicted on Iraq, killing thousands of civilians in a war launched over false claims about Saddam Husseinâ€™s supposed weapons of mass destruction.
At the start of the invasion, Bush ordered the bombing of a Baghdad restaurant where Hussein was suspected of having dinner. Though it turned out Hussein wasnâ€™t there, the attack left 14 civilians dead, including seven children. One mother collapsed when her headless daughter was pulled from the wreckage.
But for Cheney and Gillerman, these examples donâ€™t seem to count.
A second point undermining Cheneyâ€™s argument before AIPAC is that some of the cases he cites arenâ€™t acts of terrorism â€“ which is classically defined as violence directed against civilians to achieve a political goal.
In the case of the 1983 bombing in Beirut, for instance, the attackers targeted the Marine barracks because the Reagan-Bush administrationâ€™s mission creep had led U.S. forces to intervene militarily against some Muslim elements in the civil war then raging in Lebanon. So, while the killing of the Marines was horrible, it wasnâ€™t terrorism.
Similarly, the â€œBlack Hawk Downâ€¿ incident in the Somali city of Mogadishu wasnâ€™t an act of terrorism; it was a battle between U.S. Special Forces units and militia troops loyal to a local warlord. Indeed, the Somali militia was reacting to a surprise attack by the American troops, not vice versa.
What Cheney appears to be saying is that anytime American troops are killed in a conflict whatever the factual circumstances, they are the victims of â€œterrorismâ€¿ â€“ with all that wordâ€™s emotional and propagandistic value. Conversely, acts ordered by President Bush and U.S. allies can never be considered â€œterrorismâ€¿ whatever the facts may suggest.
There has been a similar blurring of lines in regard to attacks by Iraqi insurgents against U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. While some incidents, such as the destruction of mosques and the killing of civilians, do constitute terrorism, bombs directed at U.S. troops as they patrol Iraqi territory are military ambushes or sabotage, not terrorism.
While some Americans might want Iraqi insurgents who are responsible for killing U.S. troops to bear the opprobrium of the disgraced title of â€œterrorist,â€¿ the selective application of the word â€“ as favored by Cheney and Gillerman â€“ carries its own danger.
Since U.S. policy forbids negotiations with â€œterrorists,â€¿ peace talks with Iraqi insurgents would be barred. That, in turn, could lead to an indefinite war in Iraq and vastly more death and destruction on all sides.
That might serve the goals of some neoconservative ideologues â€“ and ironically the interests of Osama bin-Laden â€“ but it is almost certainly not in the interests of U.S. troops in Iraq â€“ nor of the American people.
If there is any hope left of winning the â€œwar of ideasâ€¿ in the Islamic world, it might well begin with stopping offensive comments about Muslims and protesting when bigoted remarks are uttered by the likes of Ambassador Gillerman.
Robert Parry, The Consortium for Independent Journalism, Inc.