“Al-Qaeda remains a simmering menace, but as an organization hardly the greatest threat to the United States. In fact, if you measure national security in blood and money, as many of us still do, by far the greatest threat to the United States over the past dozen years has been our own clueless foreign policy.”
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.
The prosecution of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks’ source inside the U.S. Army, will be pulling out all the stops when it calls to the stand a member of Navy SEAL Team 6, the unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden. The SEAL (in partial disguise, as his identity is secret) is expected to tell the military judge that classified documents leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks were found on bin Laden’s laptop. That will, in turn, be offered as proof not that bin Laden had internet access like two billion other earthlings, but that Manning has “aided the enemy,” a capital offense.
Think of it as courtroom cartoon theater: the heroic slayer of the jihadi super-villain testifying against the ultimate bad soldier, a five-foot-two-inch gay man facing 22 charges in military court and accused of the biggest security breach in U.S. history.
But let’s be clear on one thing: Manning, the young Army intelligence analyst who leaked thousands of public documents and passed them on to WikiLeaks, has done far more for U.S. national security than SEAL Team 6.
The assassination of Osama bin Laden, the spiritual (but not operational) leader of al-Qaeda, was a fist-pumping moment of triumphalism for a lot of Americans, as the Saudi fanatic had come to incarnate not just al-Qaeda but all national security threats. This was true despite the fact that, since 9/11, al-Qaeda has been able to do remarkably little harm to the United States or to the West in general. (The deadliest attack in a Western nation since 9/11, the 2004 Atocha bombing in Madrid, was not committed by bin Laden’s organization, though white-shoe foreign policy magazines and think tanks routinely get this wrong, “al-Qaeda” being such a handy/sloppy metonym for all terrorism.)
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Al-Qaeda remains a simmering menace, but as an organization hardly the greatest threat to the United States. In fact, if you measure national security in blood and money, as many of us still do, by far the greatest threat to the United States over the past dozen years has been our own clueless foreign policy.
The Wages of Cluelessness Is Death
Look at the numbers. The attacks of September 11, 2001, killed 3,000 people, a large-scale atrocity by any definition. Still, roughlydouble that number of American military personnel have been killed in Washington’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and its no-end-in-sight war in Afghanistan. Add in private military contractors who have died in both war zones, along with recently discharged veterans who have committed suicide, and the figure triples. The number of seriously wounded in both wars iscautiously estimated at 50,000. And if you dare to add in as well the number of Iraqis, Afghans, and foreign coalition personnel killed in both wars, the death toll reaches at least a hundred 9/11s and probably more.
Did these people die to make America safer? Don’t insult our intelligence. Virtually no one thinks the Iraq War has made the U.S. more secure, though many believe the war created new threats. After all, the Iraq we liberated is now in danger of collapsing into another bitter, bloody civil war, is a close allyof Iran, and sells the preponderance of its oil to China. Over the years, thedrain on the U.S. treasury for all of this will be at least several trillion dollars. As for Afghanistan, after the disruption of al-Qaeda camps, accomplished 10 years ago, it is difficult to see how the ongoing pacification campaign there and the CIA drone war across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas have enhanced the security of the U.S. in any significant way. Both wars of occupation were ghastly strategic choices that have killed hundreds of thousands, wounded many more, sent millions into exile, and destabilized what Washington, in good times, used to call “the arc of instability.”
Why have our strategic choices been so disastrous? In large part because they have been militantly clueless. Starved of important information, both the media and public opinion were putty in the hands the Bush administration and its neocon followers as they dreamt up and then put into action their geopolitical fantasies. It has since become fashion for politicians who supported the war to blame the Iraq debacle on “bad intelligence.” But as former CIA analyst Paul Pillar reminds us, the carefully cherry-picked “Intel” about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program was really never the issue. After all, the CIA’s classified intelligence estimate on Iraq argued that, even if that country’s ruler Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction (which he didn’t), he would never use them and was therefore not a threat.
Senator Bob Graham, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003, was one of the few people with access to that CIA report who bothered to take the time to read it. Initially keen on the idea of invading Iraq, he changed his mind and voted against the invasion.