Rhetoric vs. Reality in London

Bus destroyed by terrorist attack in LondonI've had the pleasure of visiting London on several occasions. I've ridden the subways and walked the streets where Thursday's awful terrorist attacks occurred. I have nothing but sympathy for the innocent people who were slaughtered, and nothing but contempt for the perpetrators of these crimes. According to pro-war bloggers like Jeff Jarvis, however, people like me belong to the "bomb-us-please crowd."

This sort of dishonest rhetoric, sprinkled with name-calling, seems to be the best response that supporters of the war have been able to muster in response to George Galloway, a British member of parliament and prominent anti-war voice. Following the attacks, Galloway issued a statement in which he expressed condolences to the victims before pointing out that he had predicted previously "that the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq would increase the threat of terrorist attack in Britain." Galloway called on his own government "to remove people in this country from harms way, as the Spanish government acted to remove its people from harm, by ending the occupation of Iraq and by turning its full attention to the development of a real solution to the wider conflicts in the Middle East."

Jarvis dismissed these comments as "idiocy," adding that they were "stupid, just stupid." Other pro-war bloggers called Galloway "a damn fool," "sub-human," "insane," "pro-fascist filth," a "traitor" and "friend of Saddam Hussein" who should "at least have waited until the victims were identified and buried before engaging in such cheap political opportunism."

When it comes to "cheap opportunism," though, the right wing's own response to the bombings is hard to top. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit recommended the "analysis" of pro-war blogger Bill Roggio, who thought the London attack "works to the West's advantage" because it would dominate attention at the G8 summit, "sideline issues that drained resources and attention for the West, such as Global Warming and African debt relief," prompt a tightening of "Europe's immigration and asylum laws," and "give President Bush and Prime Minister Blair the opportunity to restate the case that al Qaeda is actively being engaged in Iraq."

Notice Roggio's use of the word "opportunity." If it is "opportunistic" to oppose the war on the occasion of a terrorist attack, isn't it equally opportunistic to see the attack as a chance to promote the war along with a handful of your other pet causes?

Brit Hume finds a bargainWhile we're on the topic of cheap opportunism, Media Matters has video from the Fox News network, where commentator Brit Hume said his first response to the bombings was to consider "bargain-hunting" on the stock market, which he figured would be depressed by the news. According to Hume, "my first thought when I heard -- just on a personal basis, when I heard there had been this attack and I saw the futures this morning, which were really in the tank, I thought, 'Hmmm, time to buy.'"

Of course, the accusation of "cheap opportunism," along with the other name-calling directed at Galloway, is itself a cheap tactic, an example of the old rhetorical strategy known as "killing the messenger." Rather than address the substance of Galloway's comments, his attackers want to divert attention away from his arguments and focus instead on allegations about his character or personality. According to PropagandaCritic, a useful website of propaganda techniques, "The name-calling technique links a person, or idea, to a negative symbol. The propagandist who uses this technique hopes that the audience will reject the person or the idea on the basis of the negative symbol, instead of looking at the available evidence." The appropriate response to this rhetorical strategy is to ask yourself, "Leaving the name out of consideration, what are the merits of the idea itself?"

So, let's look at the substance of what Galloway said.

First, did he indeed predict previously that the "attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq would increase the threat of terrorist attack in Britain"? Well, yes he did. So, for that matter, did I, along with quite a few other people whose warnings were ignored or dismissed by war supporters.

In Weapons of Mass Deception, the 2003 book that I co-wrote with John Stauber, we concluded by quoting the words of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (a U.S. ally). As the war commenced in March of that year, Mubarak predicted that "there will be 100 bin Ladens afterward." So did Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower who exposed errors within the agency that might have allowed the 9/11 terrorists to carry out their plan. In an open letter to FBI director Robert Mueller, Rowley warned in March 2003 that invading Iraq would, "in all likelihood, bring an exponential increase in the terrorist threat to the U.S., both at home and abroad." Lots of other people were making similar predictions back then, as even the conservative National Review admitted at the time (while also calling Rowley "a fool").

Second, were the warnings correct? Were Thursday's terrorist attacks a consequence of the war, as Galloway suggests? This is a somewhat more complicated question. Of course, the primary individuals responsible for the attacks were the terrorists themselves. But would they have committed their crime if we were not at war? Supporters of the war seem to be trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, people like Roggio want to remind us that "al Qaeda is actively being engaged in Iraq." On the other hand, they don't want to admit that this has anything to do with the fact that al Qaeda is planning terrorist attacks in the U.K. and the elsewhere (including likely future attacks in the United States). They want us to believe, as President Bush has claimed, that terrorists are attacking simply because "they hate our freedoms" and that they would therefore attack us with the same ferocity whether or not we had ever gone to war.

Michael ScheuerThe facts don't support this interpretation. The terrorists themselves, in their communique taking responsibility for the Thursday attacks, cited Iraq and Afghanistan among their reasons. And Michael Scheuer, the former CIA Bin Laden analyst, also rejected Bush's interpretation in interviews following the Thursday attacks. Juan Cole listened to a couple of Scheuer's interviews and summarized them as follows:

He said that "chickens were coming home to roost" for US and UK politicians who had obscured the nature of the al-Qaeda struggle by maintaining that the organization attacks the West because "they hate our values."

Scheuer believes that al-Qaeda is an insurgent ideology focused on destroying the United States and its allies, because its members believe that the US is trying to destroy them. Al-Qaeda members see the Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinians, backed by the US; US support for military regimes like those of Pakistan and Egypt; and US military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq as evidence of a US onslaught on Islam and Muslims aimed at reducing them to neo-colonial slavery. That is, specific Western policies are the focus of al-Qaeda response, not a generalized "hatred" of "values."

Is It Worth It?

A somewhat more sophisticated version of the arguments coming from the pro-war camp would be to admit that Thursday's attacks were linked to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while claiming that the casualties are a necessary price that must be paid to defeat terrorism in the long run. Unfortunately, the facts don't support this argument either.

To begin with, the numbers don't support the notion that our military actions are helping reduce terrorist attacks. In 2004, the Bush administration was embarrassed by the publication of Patterns of Global Terrorism, an annual report mandated by Congress, which the U.S. Department of State is required to produce each year to provide a full and complete record of countries and groups involved in international terrorism. The 2004 report, which tallied attacks for 2003 (the first year of the war in Iraq), showed that there had been 175 significant terrorist attacks that year -- the highest number since the State Department first began compiling the report in 1985. For 2004, according to U.S. intelligence officials, the numbers are even worse - 651 attacks, nearly four times the amount of the previous year's embarrassment.

Patterns of Global TerrorismThe numbers were so bad that the Bush administration decided not to publish Patterns of Global Terrorism at all in 2005. In a State Department briefing, spokesman Richard Boucher said the department would issue a different report, with the statistics omitted. The numbers would be released someday, Boucher said, but "I don't know when." And it should be noted that the 651 attacks tallied for 2004 don't include incidents such as attacks on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. The National Counterterrorism Center, a government agency created by President Bush in 2004, recently compiled a new report that does include many incidents not previously classed as terrorism (although attacks on soldiers are still excluded). Using this more inclusive definition, the number of terrorist incidents in 2004 would be 3,192.

As if those facts are not gloomy enough, June was one of the deadliest months yet for U.S. troops in Iraq. According to freelance reporter and long-time Iraq hand Chris Albritton, "Iraq is a disaster" that bears no resemblance to the "head-in-the-sandism, brazen propaganda and revisionism" found in official U.S. military news releases. And according to U.S. counterterrorism officials and classified studies by the CIA and the State Department, Iraq has now become something that it was not before the war began: "the prime training ground for foreign terrorists who could travel elsewhere across the globe and wreak havoc."

Afghanistan isn't far behind. Until recently, reports the Associated Press, it was "proudly held up as a poster-child of U.S.-led nation-building." But U.S. casualties have been edging up every year, and much of the previous optimism has evaporated in the face of "near-daily ambushes, execution-style killings, suicide bombings and [last] week's shooting down of a U.S. special forces helicopter."

As for Galloway's suggestion that England should pull its troops out of Iraq, the country was already moving in that direction before the terrorist attacks. A few days ago the Financial Times of London reported that the British government has drafted plans for a significant withdrawal of British troops from Iraq over the next 18 months and a big deployment to Afghanistan. By the first quarter of 2007, they are hoping to bring the British troop presence in Iraq down from the current level of 8,500 to around 1,000. British Defense Secretary John Reid described the plan as a transition to anti-insurgency efforts "being led by the Iraqi security forces themselves," but given the dismal security situation in Iraq, it is hard to take this assertion at face value.

The Home Front

The news is also bleak for war supporters with respect to public opinion in the United States. When the war began in March 2003, opinion polls showed strong support both for the war itself and for President Bush, who had a 68% favorable rating. Since then he has seen upticks in his popularity at various moments such as his famous "Mission accomplished" speech to troops on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the capture of Saddam Hussein, or the recent elections in Iraq. However, each uptick has been smaller and has occurred against the background of a steady long-term slide in approval for both Bush and the war.

Recent polls show that a majority of Americans now believe the war was a mistake, that Bush lacks a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq, and that the U.S. has gotten bogged down. A recent Gallup poll gave Bush only 45% overall job approval compared to 53% disapproval, "the worst negative to positive ratio in Bush's presidency." Even more remarkably, a recent Zogby survey showed that 42 percent of Americans now think Bush should be impeached if it is found that he did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq. (If you haven't heard about the Zogby poll, it's because news organizations have almost completely ignored it.)

Bush used to be able to count on huge cheers, foot-stomping and applause when he addressed soldiers at U.S. military bases. On June 28, however, he gave a speech at Fort Bragg, and the New York Times reported that "the silence during his speech was more than a little noticeable." He also got very little support from the veterans at a local VFW chapter in Hollywood, Florida, where a reporter stopped by to interview them as Bush gave his speech on TV. "He's running scared," said one of the veterans. "His poll numbers are so low, he's got to say something, but the support is gone. It's gone. I don't think there's anybody in here who's behind him."

Eroding public support is also making it harder for the military to meet its recruiting goals. In June, a Gallup survey found "only a bare majority of Americans saying they would support their child's decision to enter the military if he or she made that choice, while a substantial proportion would suggest their child try a different occupation. This represents a significant decline from 1999, when two-thirds said they would support their child's decision to enter the military. A majority of Americans oppose mandatory military training for young men, and more than 8 in 10 Americans are opposed to re-instituting the draft."

Reality, in other words, is beginning to set in. It's unlikely that the public will tolerate a war that drags on for another five to twelve years, as Donald Rumsfeld recently estimated. Eventually public pressure will force even the United States to pull out of Iraq, and it's hard to imagine that we will leave it in better shape than when we went in. We need to face these facts and figure out how to deal with them.


A minor point, but you said: "As for Galloway's suggestion that England should pull its troops out of Iraq...". As Galloway is Scottish, I would doubt very much that he made the mistake of believing that England (which has no dedicated government, and no army) could pull its troops out of anywhere. There is a British army (which contains many British people who are not English), controlled by a British government. Britain and England are not synonymous.

Please let me add a few somewhat cynical observations about the bloggers you survey. As you observe, these web pundits seem determined to show that the tragedy in London validates our current policies and practices in the war on terror. Less than two weeks ago, the same bloggers were celebrating the wisdom of Bush's flypaper strategy– "better to fight them over there, than over here." Now that "over there" is London, however, these self-proclaimed voices of conservatism have fallen back to "liberal-bashing"--the tried and true tactics of distortion and misrepresentation developed during the Clinton years. In fact to be consistent, these bloggers should be celebrating the attack in London as further vindication of Bush's wisdom. If only we had this level of outrage in 1998 during the American embassy bombings in which 250 people were killed. A concerted effort then to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, and to dismantle Al Qaeda, would made 9-11 and subsequent attacks a non-possibilty. But our same self-proclaimed ultra-patriots were more interested in the Starr Report and impeaching Clinton for having sex with an intern. Osama bin Laden declared war on the US in 1996; he issued an even more vehement fatwa in 1998. Karl Rove claims that "conservatives prepared for war after 9-11." Only three years after the embassy bombings, and five years after war was declared on us. Personally, I think no more damning indictment can be made against the Bush neocons and their supporters than Rove's own words. Iraq was the wrong war with the wrong enemy at the wrong time. Now, to defend this failing policies and practices, we have "liberal-bashing" once again: the tried-and-true tactics of distortion and misrepresentation. This failed our nation in 1996, in 1998, and is failing our nation now.