As a consequence of the September 11th terrorist attacks, our country appears united as never before. President Bush has had approval ratings above 90 percent and it is reported that initial support for bombing Afghanistan also was above 90 percent.
Congress was nearly unified in giving the President the authority to use force. Only Congresswoman Barbara Lee withheld her vote from this resolution. In doing so, she recalled the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in which Congress authorized the Vietnam War, and quoted Senator Wayne Morse, one of two Senators who voted against the resolution. “I believe,” said Morse, “that history will record that we have made a grave mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States. I believe that with the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake.” Congresswoman Lee stated: “Senator Morse was correct, and I fear we make the same mistake today. And I fear the consequences.”
Congress is also massively bailing out corporations and filling military coffers to overflowing. Civil liberties are being eroded and the United States is relentlessly bombing Afghanistan. So far, in addition to empty terrorist camps, we have accidentally bombed villages and hospitals, leaving an unknown number of Afghans injured and dead. We have bombed Red Cross warehouses three times. Aid workers in Afghanistan are warning that unless there is a bombing halt to allow food through to the Afghan people, millions of them could starve this winter.
Perhaps it is time for an assessment of how well the President is really doing. I have suggested three criteria for judging the US response to terrorism: morality, legality and thoughtfulness.
Morality can be evaluated on whether or not our response is resulting in widespread suffering and loss of innocent lives. It is. Although our military forces may be trying to avoid loss of innocent lives, they are not succeeding. Hundreds of innocent Afghans have already been killed. We call it “collateral damage.” If the relief workers in Afghanistan are correct, the US bombing could indirectly result in millions of innocent deaths by starvation this winter. Some half million Afghans have already fled their homes to avoid the bombing and have become refugees. On morality, the President’s military action is failing.
Legality can be judged on whether or not our response is meeting the standards of domestic and international law. It is certainly questionable. Congress has not declared war against Afghanistan. It has simply given the President a blank check to use force. The United Nations Security Council has called on states “to work together urgently to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these terrorist attacks.” It has not, however, explicitly given authorization to carry out military action in Afghanistan, and it is questionable whether the present military actions against the Taliban regime can be construed as self-defense. Certainly if US bombing results in massive starvation in Afghanistan, its actions will be illegal under the laws of war.
The Taliban regime offered at one point to turn Osama bin Laden over to a neutral third state if the US would provide evidence of his guilt and stop its bombing. Whatever one may think of the Taliban, this was not an unreasonable offer. President Bush refused, saying that he would not negotiate. It might also be noted that President Bush has not provided evidence of bin Laden’s guilt to the American people. On legality, the President’s military action appears to be failing and on the verge of causing a major humanitarian disaster.
Thoughtfulness can be evaluated on the basis of whether the response is likely to reduce or increase the cycle of violence. Thus far, the cycle of violence is increasing by our military response, and there seems to be no clear end in sight. Some members of the Bush administration are calling for spreading the war into Iraq and other countries in which terrorists may be operating. They are also warning that this will be a long war.
In terms of thoughtfulness, there has also been very little reflection at the level of the government with regard to US policies that are generating such strong hatred toward us. Rather than thoughtfulness, the Bush administration has relied primarily on force. Here, too, the President’s military action is failing.
In addition to the other failures of our military action, we appear to be no closer to apprehending Osama bin Laden or to destroying his terrorist network. It also seems unlikely that capturing or killing bin Laden will put an end to terrorism.
Rather than being united like lemmings behind a failing military action, perhaps we should be thinking about other ways to make the American people safe from terrorism. Perhaps we should be having more public discussion of alternatives rather than being bombarded by military “analysts” on the news night after night. Perhaps we should be reflecting upon the implications of our policies in the Middle East and throughout the world, and evaluating them on the basis of their justice, equity and support for democratic practices.
Perhaps we should be thinking more deeply about our lack of support for the United Nations and for international law. Perhaps we should be reconsidering our failure to support the treaty banning landmines, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Kyoto Accords on Global Warming, the verification protocol of the Biological Weapons Convention, and the treaty creating an International Criminal Court. Perhaps we should be reflecting on our failure to live up to our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the increased dangers that has created of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
Terrorism poses a very serious threat to the American people and to the survival of civilization. Our only way out is to forge bonds of unprecedented global cooperation to end terrorism by getting to its roots. This will require police and intelligence cooperation globally. The military may have a role, but it should be one primarily of helping to provide intelligence and protecting our transportation systems, our nuclear plants, and other vulnerable areas of our society.
Before we reach the edge of the cliff and go over like lemmings, it’s time to stop blindly following the path of military force. We should instead give leadership to strengthening an international system through the United Nations capable of ending terrorism and the conditions that give birth to it.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, a non-governmental organization on the roster of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.