Blowback and Globalization

The following statement is based on lectures I delivered at five universities in New England and New York as the U.S. war unfolded in Afghanistan. In preparing the statement I am particularly indebted to a paper by Michael Klare, “Asking Why” and an article by Stephen Zunes, “U.S. Policy Toward Political Islam,” Foreign Policy in Focus, September 12, 2001.

Understanding the First War of the Twenty-First Century

By Roger Burbach

On September 11, at close to nine in the morning, I watched aircraft flying overhead. Minutes later I heard explosive sounds and saw fireballs of smoke fill the sky.  As a result of these attacks thousands died, including two good friends of mine.

I am not talking about September 11 2001 in New York City. On that date I was thousands of miles away in Berkeley, California.  I am talking about another September 11, just over twenty-eight years ago in 1973 when I was living in Santiago, Chile.  On that date I indeed saw planes flying overhead.  They were warplanes and their target was the presidential palace in Santiago.

There resided Salvador Allende, who had been elected president three years before.  He was the first elected socialist leader in the world and ever since his election in September 1970 he was opposed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the U.S. government headed by Richard Nixon and by Henry Kissinger who chaired the National Security Council. The Council orchestrated and coordinated U.S. policies aimed at overthrowing Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government.

It was on September 11, 1973 that they finally succeeded in getting the Chilean military lead by General Augusto Pinochet to overthrow Allende who died in the presidential palace. Over three thousand people perished in the bloody repression that followed under Pinochet’s rule, including two American friends of mine, Charles Horman and Frank Terrugi.

What I am going to do in this talk is link up the two September eleven’s of 1973 and 2001, to show how U.S. intervention in Chile, Latin America, the Middle East and Central Asia have helped spawn international terrorism.  I will also discuss how the process of globalization has been a factor in the brave new world we face after September 11, 2001.

Unfortunately the coup in Chile is only one of a number of U.S. covert operations and interventions over the past three decades.  The United States has all too often acted as a rogue nation, imposing its fiat on other countries and peoples, funding military coups, and gross human rights violators, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Let’s return to the case of Chile briefly.  It is a small country of 15 million people.  If we take the number of casualties suffered in Chile as a result of the U.S. backed military coup, approximately 3,200, and project that onto the population of the United States which has 270 million, that would mean that a proportionate death toll in the United States would be over 57,000, roughly eight times the number that died in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Part of the general argument I want to make here is that one reason why the attacks occurred on the United States on September 11 of this year is due to what the CIA itself calls “blowback.” Blowback means that because of operations we carry out abroad there are unintended consequences that blowback, adversely affecting U.S. interests and even U.S. lives.

The attacks of September were not the first time that U.S. operations abroad have lead to blowback and the taking of lives on U.S. soil by foreign terrorists. To return to the case of Chile, the most important foreign act of terrorism carried out in our nation’s capital prior to the attack on the Pentagon took place on September 21, 1976 when Pinochet’s secret police blew up the car of one of the military regime’s more vocal opponents, Orlando Letelier, killing him and his assistant, Ronnie Moffit.  That act of terrorism took place just blocks from the White House.

These assassinations in Washington were linked to the first international terrorist network in the Western Hemisphere, known as Operation Condor.  Launched in 1974 at the instigation of the Chilean secret police, Operation Condor was comprised of the intelligence services of at least six South American countries that collaborated in tracking, kidnapping and assassinating hundreds of political opponents. Based on declassified documents, it is now recognized that the CIA knew about these international terrorist activities and may have even abetted them.

After the murders of Letelier-Moffit in Washington D.C. it appears the CIA may have tried to contain the activities of Operation Condor.  However, the Southern Cone military and intelligence network continued to act throughout Latin America at least until the early 1980s, often carrying out activities that coincided with U.S. foreign policy objectives.  Chilean and Argentine military units assisted the dictator Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and helped set up death squads in El Salvador.  Argentine units also aided and supervised Honduran military death squads that began operating in the early 1980s with the direct assistance and collaboration of the CIA.

This international network of terrorism clearly proceeded the terrorist network Al Qaeda, the one linked to Osama bin Laden.  Indeed it could even be argued that Al Qaeda learned from the experiences of this earlier network in the Western Hemisphere.

But to fully understand the rise of bin Laden and the assumption of power of the Taliban in Afghanistan we need to look at the biggest CIA operation in history. In 1979, the Soviet Union at the request of a moderate socialist government in Kabul, Afghanistan sent in tens of thousands of troops to help prop up the government. The CIA in response began to arm and fund dissident tribal groups in Afghanistan known as the Mujahideen. The primary conduit for this not-so secret war was the Pakistani military and its intelligence forces.  The U.S. government literally pumped billions of dollars into the war during the 1980s, rallying Muslims from around the Islamic world to fight a Jihad, or Holy War.  It is estimated that some 35,000 Muslim radicals from over forty Islamic countries went to fight in Afghanistan.

One of them was Osama bin Laden, a member of a very wealthy family in Saudi Arabia.  There is no evidence that he received any monies or training directly from the CIA, but there is no doubt that many who fought under him and with him did benefit from CIA funding and training.

When the Soviet Union began to collapse around 1990, it withdrew its troops from Afghanistan and the CIA folded up its operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But the Mujahideen warriors in Afghanistan fell to fighting among each other for power in a bloody war that savaged the civilian population. It was in the late 1990s that the Taliban, the most radical, fundamentalist sect, managed to take power in Kabul and much of the country. The Taliban was aligned with, and supported by bin Laden.

Now you may ask, why did bin Laden, after getting support from the United States, turn around and bite the hand that had funded his comrades-in-war?  Why did he become an implacable foe of the United States?

Here we have to look at the broader U.S. geo-political and economic interests that were at work throughout the Middle East and the Islamic World.  Benjamin Barber in 1995 wrote a book titled Jihad Versus McWorld.  His basic argument was that a fundamental conflict was brewing in the world between traditionalist, tribal forces on the one hand and the forces of international corporate capitalism on the other. McDonalds, or McWorld, was the name Barber gave to the secularizing, materialist corporations that had no moral principles, which had the sole objective of making money and spreading their corporate interests and holdings around the world.

What this meant was that many Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere were not exposed to what many of us would consider the best attributes of the United States and the Western world--individual liberty, the rule of law and economic prosperity. Rather they experienced the worst traits of what I would call economic globalization, namely the imposition of rank materialism, the imagery of Hollywood, militarism, and racism on impoverished societies.

In contrast it is important to step back and see what Islam has meant historically for hundreds of millions of people.  It is not the fanaticism of the Taliban or bin Laden that has predominated in Islam. Islam is a faith with a clear sense of social justice, one that is often much deeper than that expressed by many Christian believers.  In countries where the governments have been weak, especially in the area of social welfare, it is often the Mosque that has been the one place where people could come together and feel equal and empowered.  The Mosque even provided social assistance to people in need, and lending would occur, often without interest.  Education and technical training even occurred through the Mosque.

Aside from this clash between the materialist, amoral and often racist values of globalization and McWorld on the one hand, and those of a more egalitarian and moral Islam on the other, there was also the striking fact that the Western world in general, and the United States in particular came to represent militarism and intervention.

Here we need to ask what is the lifeblood of the international economy? What is the one basic resource that we have remained totally dependent upon, even as we enter the epoch of globalization? The answer is petroleum, or “black gold.”  The United States as the hegemonic power in the post-World War II period made it clear that it believed that its destiny was to insure that it would have virtually unhindered access to this commodity, particularly in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

For over half a century we have been militarizing and intervening in that part of the world in order to secure the god named petroleum.  The first major CIA operation in the post war world was in Iran in 1953. There, Mohammed Mossadegh had formed a moderate reformist government in the early 1950s.  Among the reforms he called for greater Iranian control over its oil resources.  The U.S government opposed these measures.  Accordingly the CIA staged a coup and brought in the Shah of Iran who ran the country as a monarchy, employing bloody repression and terror to sustain his regime while granting the United States and the international petroleum companies access to the country’s oil resources on highly favorable terms.

The first and most dramatic case of Blowback came in 1979 in Iran when a coalition lead by Islamic forces and the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah.  As a result of this revolution, the United States basically went to war with the radical fundamentalist Islamic movement. Not only did we bomb Iran and impose an economic blockade on that country, we also bombed radical Islamic forces in Lebanon, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and of course Iraqi. Aside from U.S. direct and indirect support for many Israel military strikes in the region, the United States in the Sudan supported the bloody regime of Jafaar Nimeiry for sixteen years who leveled that country’s civil society. Over the course of the past two decades our intervention has turned many moderates into militants, who have perhaps correctly come to perceive the Untied States as the “ Great Satan.”

Now to more fully understand Islamic fundamentalism and the first war of the twenty first century, we need to focus on Osama bin Laden’s homeland—Saudi Arabia.  That country contains one-quarter of the world’s oil reserves.  At the end of World War II the United States made a bargain with the extended Saudi royal family: We would indefinitely back its members as the country’s autocratic rulers in exchange for favorable access to its oil reserves.  The instrument of insuring Saudi royal rule became the Saudi Arabian National Guard.  It is funded, trained and even managed by the United States, largely through U.S. military contractors, some of whom have links to the CIA.

It should be noted that Saudi Arabia has no constitution, no bill of rights, no freedom of the press or assembly, no Parliament or Congress.  Dissidents are arrested, put in jail, exiled or executed.  In 1981 Saudi dissidents staged a revolt against the regime.  The Saudi National Guard brutally repressed it.  When asked about the revolt and the repression, Ronald Reagan stated: “I will not allow Saudi Arabia to be an Iran.”

In passing it is interesting to note that our current freedom- loving president, George W. Bush, attempted one of his first business dealings with a prominent Saudi family.  Indeed it was with one of the wealthiest and most famous families, that of bin Laden.  After graduating from Harvard Business school, Bush set up Arbusto Energy in 1978 with Salem bin Laden, the brother of Osama, as a partner.  In 1983, Salem died in an airplane crash.  It’s unclear to me what happened to Arbusto Energy.   Perhaps some of its funds went to buy a stake in the Texas Rangers for George W.  This is one of the questions our “free press” should be asking our president these days.

But back to Saudi Arabia.  It was in the early 1980s while Bush was trying to make money with Arbusto Energy that Osama bin Laden broke with his family and went to Afghanistan.  His reasons for the break are fairly clear.  He was upset with the U.S. presence in his country, in particular he felt that it violated the Islamic religion to have a secular power like the United States entrenched in his country which was home to some of Islam’s most holy sites, including Mecca.  He believed the Saudi regime was corrupt, having squandered Arab money and wealth on palaces and conspicuous consumption.  The Saudi leaders were basically anti-Islamic and should be swept away in a Jihad.

This is what Osama bin Laden set out to do in the 1990s. Because his forces were weak militarily, they turned to acts of terrorism.   Their first attacks abroad were against U.S. military assets in Saudi Arabia.  In November, 1995 the headquarters of the Saudi Arabian National Guard were bombed, killing five U.S. servicemen.  In June 1996, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia which housed U.S. soldiers were bombed, killing nineteen servicemen.

When this failed to affect the United States, he spread the war further afield, bombing the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  Then last year his forces bombed the U.S. ship Cole in Yemen.  And now he has struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in the United States. Throughout all these bombings and attacks, his objectives have remained basically the same: to drive the United States out of the Middle East and the Islamic world and to sweep away the corrupt regimes that collaborate with the United States.

Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s, when the CIA was backing the Mujahideen warriors in Afghanistan, likened them to our “founding fathers,” meaning George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others.  Reagan made no distinctions in his declaration among the fundamentalists, apparently lumping together many torturers and rapists among the Mujahideen along with radical fundamentalists like bin Laden. I didn’t agree with Reagan characterization of the Mujahideen then, and I certainly disagree today with praising those who carried out the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But I do think many of us can understand why millions of people in the Islamic and Arab world’s regard Osama bin Laden as a hero.  He wants to take control of the oil resources and on behalf of the Islamic peoples. He wants to sweep away the corrupt regimes that squander billions of dollars. And he wants to establish social justice in line with fundamentalist Islamic clerics who see the West as representing crass materialism and social decadence.  For many in the Islamic world, he may not exactly be a founding father, but he is seen as a figure who is trying to right many of the wrongs that the Arabic and Muslim peoples have suffered for the past half century at the hands of the United States and the western world.

In conclusion I would like to say that we cannot end terrorism in the United States or the world until we recognize why terrorism occurs. Terrorism is often an act of the desperate. It is not simply that others hate the United States or are religious fanatics. It is because of the tremendous injustices and suffering that billions of people are experiencing around the world right now. And we must also recognize that the United States itself has often created and abetted terrorism.

Americans must begin to realize we have to act responsibly in a world in which we are increasingly interdependent.  We must reverse course in our foreign policy.  We cannot act unilaterally. We cannot abandon the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, we shouldn’t have walked out on the Durban, South African conference on racism, and we should not abrogate arms controls treaties in order to satiate the defense industry with massive spending on programs like “star wars.”

And above all we cannot walk away from the international treaties establishing the International Criminal Court and other international organizations. If we want to prosecute Osama bin Laden for his horrific crimes, then we should not do it by going after him by bombing the impoverished Afghan peoples.  We should do it by strengthening and building a permanent United Nations police and peace keeping force that compliments and works with bodies like the International Criminal Court.  We should not try bin Laden with the CIA or U.S. special forces that operate as judge, jury and executioner, but through an open transparent world court system.

Judge Baltasar Garzon of Spain, who put out the warrant that lead to the arrest of General Augusto Pinochet in England in 1998, has also been the leading judicial figure in the prosecution of terrorists in Spain, particularly from the Basque region. His own life has been threatened by terrorists and he is forced to live surrounded by bodyguards.  In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, he proclaimed that even this “ horrible crime” requires “due process.” He called for justice “which should be brought to bear not only on the Taliban for its brutal and oppressive regime but also on the leaders of Western countries, who, irresponsibly and through the media, have generated panic among the Afghan people.”

He went on to exclaim: “The response that I seek is not military. It is one based on law, through the immediate approval of an international convention on terrorism. Such a convention should, among other things, include: rules governing co-operation between police and the judiciary; rules that enable investigations to take place in tax havens; the urgent ratification of the statute of the International Criminal Court; and the definition of terrorism as a crime against humanity.”

To return to my starting point, the CIA backed coup against Salvador Allende in 1973, I would argue that it is time to try U.S. officials who supported the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.  At the head of the list should be Henry Kissinger, the principal living U.S. official who backed the coup and headed up the National Security Council in 1973. If the United States really wants to root out international terrorism and demonstrate that it is sincere in this cause, then it has to begin by putting some of its own officials in the docket of international justice.  

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