Yet if there is any place in the world that lacks
“moral clarity,” it is the Middle East – which is why Bush’s vision of
the region has proved so dangerous. Rather than perceiving shades of
gray and finding areas of compromise, Bush insists that everything is
black and white – and thus justifies the use of overwhelming force to
destroy evil wherever Bush sees it.
But even on issues where U.S. government officials
and leading pundits speak in unison – denouncing “terrorist” groups like
Hezbollah, for instance – there is far more ambiguity than Americans are
Take, for instance, the widespread agreement that
Hezbollah earned the opprobrium as “terrorist” because one of its
suicide bombers destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks in 1983 killing 241
American servicemen in Beirut.
While this incident is routinely cited as the
indisputable evidence that Hezbollah is an evil “terrorist”
organization, the reality is much murkier. Indeed, under any objective
definition of “terrorism,” the Beirut bombing would not qualify as a
“Terrorism” is classically defined as violence
against civilians to achieve a political goal. In the case of the
Marines, however, their status had changed from an original peacekeeping
mission in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war into the role of combatant
as the Reagan administration allowed “mission creep” to affect the
Heeding the advice of then-national security
adviser Robert McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan authorized the USS New Jersey to fire
long-distance shells into Muslim villages in the Bekaa Valley, killing
civilians and convincing Shiite militants that the United States had
joined the conflict.
On Oct. 23, 1983, Shiite
militants struck back, sending a suicide truck bomber through U.S.
security positions and demolishing the high-rise Marine barracks. “When
the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American
‘referee’ had taken sides,” Gen. Colin Powell wrote about the incident
in his memoirs, My American Journey.
In other words, even
Colin Powell, who was then military adviser to Defense Secretary Caspar
Weinberger, recognized that the U.S. military intervention had altered
the status of the Marines in the eyes of the Shiites.
Yet, more than two decades later, senior
U.S. officials continue to cite the Beirut bombing as Exhibit A on a
list of past “terrorist” incidents that didn’t elicit a sufficiently
harsh U.S. retaliation.
“Over the last several decades, Americans have seen
how the terrorists pursue their objectives,” Vice President Dick Cheney
in a March 6, 2006, speech to the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “Simply
stated, they would hit us, but we would not hit back hard enough. In
Beirut in 1983, terrorists killed 241 Americans, and afterward U.S.
forces withdrew from Beirut.”
But, in reality, the tit-for-tat violence in Beirut
continued. Then-CIA director William Casey
ordered secret counterterrorism operations against Islamic radicals. As
retaliation, the Shiites targeted more Americans. Another bomb destroyed
the U.S. Embassy and killed most of the CIA station.
Casey dispatched veteran
CIA officer William Buckley to fill the void. But on March 14, 1984,
Buckley was spirited off the streets of Beirut to face torture and
In 1985, Casey targeted
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Fadlallah in an operation that included hiring
operatives who detonated a car bomb outside the Beirut apartment
building where Fadlallah lived.
As described by Bob
Woodward in Veil, “the car exploded, killing 80 people and
wounding 200, leaving devastation, fires and collapsed buildings. Anyone
who had happened to be in the immediate neighborhood was killed, hurt or
terrorized, but Fadlallah escaped without injury. His followers strung a
huge ‘Made in the USA’ banner in front of a building that had been blown
Historians trace the
moral ambiguity between the West and Islam back even further, to the
Crusades fought a millennium ago. Though the West has romanticized the
image of chivalrous knights in shining armor protecting the Holy Lands
from infidels, the Islamic world remembers a bloody Christian religious
war waged against Arabs.
In 1099, for instance,
the Crusaders massacred many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. So, after
the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when Bush called his “war on terror” a new
“crusade,” al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden pounced on Bush’s gaffe to
rally Islamic fundamentalists.
A typed statement
attributed to bin Laden called the coming war “the new Christian-Jewish
crusade led by the big crusader Bush under the flag of the cross.”
Israeli-Palestinian front, most Americans believe that the Arabs are the
ones responsible for “terrorism” and the Israelis only react to
unspeakable provocations, such as suicide bombings at restaurants and
other civilian targets. But the deeper reality is that neither side has
During the Israeli fight for independence in the
late 1940s, Zionist extremists, including later national leaders Yitzhak
Shamir and Menachem Begin, were members of terrorist groups that
attacked Palestinian civilians and British authorities.
In one famous case, Jerusalem’s King David Hotel,
where British officials and other foreigners lived, was blown up.
Zionist extremists also used terror tactics, including killing
civilians, to drive Palestinians off land that became part of Israel.
Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon – directed by
then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon – led to the massacre of some 1,800
Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.
The Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon
continued for 18 years until Hezbollah militants using guerrilla tactics
and suicide bombings forced Israel to withdraw in 2000.
Ignoring this morally murky history, Bush and his
neoconservative supporters have presented the ongoing bloodshed to the
American people in a crystal “moral clarity.”
Underlying some of these arguments also is a
less-than-subtle appeal to anti-Arab bigotry. American politicians –
both Republican and Democrat – have eagerly lined up behind Israel’s
Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman, despite his sometimes
crudely anti-Muslim remarks.
For instance, at that March 6 AIPAC conference
where Cheney spoke, Gillerman delighted the crowd with the quip, “While
it may be true – and probably is – that not all Muslims are terrorists,
it also happens to be true that nearly all terrorists are Muslim.”
On July 17, sharing the stage at a pro-Israel rally
with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and other politicians, Gillerman
proudly defended Israel’s “disproportionate” violence against targets in
“Let us finish the job,” Gillerman told the crowd.
“We will excise the cancer in Lebanon” and “cut off the fingers” of
Hezbollah. Responding to international concerns that Israel was using
“disproportionate” force in bombing Lebanon and killing hundreds of
civilians, Gillerman said, “You’re damn right we are.” [NYT, July 18,
This overt pride in Israel’s “disproportionate”
response to a Hezbollah raid on an Israeli military outpost – a reaction
that has claimed the lives of some 400 Lebanese and dislocated about
one-fifth of the nation’s population – has carried over into the Op-Ed
pages of prominent U.S. newspapers.
For instance, Washington Post columnist Richard
Cohen wrote, “Israel may or may not be the land of milk and honey, but
it certainly seems to be the land of disproportionate military response
– and a good thing, too.”
Cohen suggested that any criticism of Israel for
killing excessive numbers of Lebanese civilians bordered on
“The dire consequences of proportionality are so
clear that it makes you wonder if it is a fig leaf for anti-Israel
sentiment in general,” Cohen wrote. “Anyone who knows anything about the
Middle East knows that proportionality is madness. … It is not good
enough to take out this or that missile battery. It is necessary to
reestablish deterrence: You slap me, I will punch out your lights.”
In effect, Cohen called for the collective
punishment of the Lebanese population in retaliation for the actions of
Hezbollah, including the capture of two Israeli soldiers in support of a
proposed prisoner exchange and the firing of unguided rockets into
cities in northern Israel.
“The only way to ensure that [Israeli] babies don’t
die in their cribs and old people in the streets [of Israel] is to make
the Lebanese or the Palestinians understand that if they, no matter how
reluctantly, host those rockets, they will pay a very, very steep
price,” Cohen wrote.
Overlaying his deconstruction of the Nuremberg
principles, which prohibit the retaliatory killings of civilians, Cohen concluded
his essay with a foul topping of racism, anti-Muslim bigotry and an
implicit rationalization for ethnic cleansing:
“Israel is, as I have often said, unfortunately
located, gentrifying a pretty bad neighborhood. But the world is full of
dislocated peoples, and we ourselves live in a country where the Indians
were pushed out of the way so that – oh, what irony! – the owners of
slaves could spread liberty and democracy from sea to shining sea. As
for Europe, who today cries for the Greeks of Anatolia or the Germans of
Bohemia?” [Washington Post, July 25, 2006]
But one lesson of six decades of post-Nuremberg
history is that there sometimes are consequences for world leaders and
even propagandists who whip populations into frenzies of ethnic or
Granted, those brought to account – the Serb ethnic
cleansers or the Rwandan killers – are often from relatively weak
countries with few powerful defenders. But there may be lines even in
the Middle East that – if crossed – could forever sully the names of the
perpetrators and possibly their governments or armies.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'