10 May 2010

Who Should We Believe? : Faisal Shahzad, and the Gulf of Tonkin

Gulf of Tonkin incident, off the coast of North Vietnam, August 2, 1964. Illustration by E.J. Fitzgerald (1980) / U.S. Navy Historical Center / Wikimedia Commons.

Who should we believe?
How foreign policy lies lead to war

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / May 10, 2010
Should we believe 'intelligence officials'? 'Western diplomats'? 'A senior intelligence official'? 'A senior military official'? Or 'the official who would speak of the investigation only on condition of anonymity'?
I was reading The New York Times accounts, Friday, May 7, of the ongoing investigation of the attempted Times Square bombing by suspect Faisal Shahzad. I was intrigued by a variety of stories that turned speculation by various anonymous informed sources into complex analyses of Shahzad’s international connections, the transformation of the Taliban from a political force in Afghanistan to one also in Pakistan, the emergence of a variety of other Islamic dissident groups in Pakistan and their connections with Taliban and perhaps Al Queda.

The lead in the front page story on May 7 headlined “Pakistani Taliban Are Said to Expand Alliances” stimulated my curiosity:
The Pakistani Taliban, which American investigators suspect were behind the attempt to bomb Times Square, have in recent years combined forces with Al Qaeda and other groups, threatening to extend their reach and ambitions, Western diplomats, intelligence officials and experts say.
The story indicates that the Pakistani Taliban have reached out to other militant groups, “splinter cells” (which sounds really scary), “foot soldiers,” and guns-for-hire.” The article continues with elaborations of nefarious early connections between the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda, and increasing numbers of Pakistani Punjabi militants.

Faisal Shahzad may have received bomb training from one of these groups, a claim reiterated in another article quoting a senior military official who was not authorized to speak in public. The article reported that the leader of the Pakistani Taliban said that “the group had suicide bombers in the United States, who, he said would carry out their mission at an opportune time” while denying complicity in the Times Square bombing attempt.

Reading these stories and viewing a variety of claims about the causes and connections of the failed bombing reminded me of a short essay I wrote for an interesting volume of writings and graphic design images edited by Rebecca Targ titled “Lying,” in Fold: the Reader. I wrote:
Foreign policy lies lead to war

On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese armed motor boats attacked two U.S. naval vessels off the coast of North Vietnam. The administration of Lyndon Johnson defined the attacks as an unprovoked act of North Vietnamese aggression. Two days later it was announced that another attack on U.S. ships in international waters had occurred and the U.S. responded with air attacks on North Vietnamese targets.

President Johnson then took a resolution he had already prepared to the Congress of the United States. The so-called Gulf of Tonkin resolution declared that the Congress authorizes the president to do what he deemed necessary to defend U.S. national security in Southeast Asia. Only two Senators voted “no.” Over the next three years the U.S. sent over 500,000 troops to Vietnam to carry out a massive air and ground war in both the South and North of the country.

Within a year of the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incidents, evidence began to appear indicating that the August 2 attack was provoked. The two U.S. naval vessels were in North Vietnamese coastal waters orchestrating acts of sabotage in the Northern part of Vietnam. More serious, evidence pointed to the inescapable conclusion that the second attack on August 4 never occurred.

President Johnson’s lies to the American people about the Gulf of Tonkin contributed to the devastating decisions to escalate a U.S. war in Vietnam that cost 57,000 U.S. troop deaths and upwards of three million Vietnamese deaths.

Forty years later, George W. Bush and his key aides put together a package of lies about Iraq imports of uranium from Niger, purchases of aluminum rods which supposedly could be used for constructing nuclear weapons, development of biological and chemical weapons, and connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

As the Vietnamese and Iraqi cases show, foreign policies built on lies can lead to imperial wars, huge expenditures on the military, economic crises at home, and military casualties abroad.
Are there any lessons to learn from the Vietnam and Iraqi cases sited above? I think so.

Two of the most damaging, indeed murderous, foreign policies of the United States were built on lies.

The record indicates that key policy-makers in both the Vietnam and Iraq eras made decisions with almost no knowledge of the political cultures of the two countries. In the Vietnam era not more than a handful of Americans had knowledge of the Vietnamese language or history.

In both cases, foreign policy decisions were shaped by frames of reference, or ideologies, that bore little or no relationship to the political reality in the countries targeted for war. The frame shaping Vietnam was the war on international communism; for Iraq it was the war on terrorism.

In both cases, decisions were made based on recommendations of parties interested in war, from Pentagon officials, to military contractors and arms merchants, to academic and think tank “experts,” to media outlets with stories to create, to journalists seeking to establish their careers, to liberal and conservative politicians seeking issues to shape their own quests for power.

Returning to the Times Square incident, we may never learn the truth. But we can assume with confidence that military, economic, academic, and journalistic interests will promote a scenario of a Pakistani Taliban/Al Queda connection to the failed adventure in New York. And we can expect that all these interests will promote the idea that such attacks, perhaps successful next time, can occur anyplace in the United States. We must live in terror of the terrorists.

Finally, we can be sure that “the cure” for perpetual terrorism will not include economic development, a just and humane U.S. foreign policy, ending drone attacks on Pakistani citizens, and stopping the demonization of peoples of color, in this case, those who embrace the Muslim religion.

[Harry Tarq is a professor in American Studies who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

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