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From 9/11 to Terror War: The Dangers of the Bush Legacy

Kellner, Douglas. From 9/11 to Terror War: The Dangers of the Bush Legacy. Rowman and Littlefield: Oxford. 2003. ISBN 0-7425-2637-2. $21.95.

Reviewed by Rasha El-Ibiary, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne

Douglas Kellner's book, From 9/11 to Terror War, provides the reader with an interestingly critical overview of US foreign policy post 9/11, with implications for consumers of transnational if not global media messages.

The failure of the unilateral approach of the Bush administration's "War on Terror" is the central point of Kellner's argument. He suggests that a global campaign against international terrorism networks requires multilateral coordinated efforts across financial, juridical, political, and military fronts. The unilateral approach, however, leads the US to lose hearts and minds in the Arab and Muslim worlds due to its harsh militarism, its "uncritical" support of Israel, and its failure to build good relations with Muslim countries. The excessive bombing of civilians in the US war in Afghanistan, added to its lack of a clear strategy for rebuilding Afghanistan and of a decent humanitarian program to improve the deteriorating situation there, also fueled hatred of the US across the Muslim world.

Though some observers think it too early for a final assessment, Kellner believes the US propaganda campaign in the Middle East has created more enemies than friends in the Arab World and increased the likelihood of further terrorist aggression against the US. Such hatred was further provoked in 2002 by the exploding situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the US failure to mediate fairly. This put the Israelis and Americans in Arab minds in the same camp, as Jews and Christians, as the primary enemies of Islam.

The major setbacks for Bush policy lie in its primarily military and unilateral strategy in responding to terrorism. Such policies, Kellner writes, are isolating the US in its global campaign against terror and positioning the country and its citizens to receive future terrorist attacks. US foreign policy is thus facing rejection and hostility from both allies and enemies due to its ever-expanding "axis of evil" and its failure to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Kellner suggests, however, a multilateral campaign would have combined the "forces of civilization" in one camp against the international networks of terrorism, including political, juridical, economic, and military potentials, rather than solely focusing on the military angle. Instead of compromising all those forces, the Bush administration used the 9/11 attacks to push through its "hard-right" domestic agenda, constituting an imminent danger to US democracy. As for its foreign policy, it abandoned its arms treaties and disposed of its ideas of worldwide arms control. It also increased its military spending and adhered to an "America First" approach in foreign affairs.

The US failure to detect and stop the 9/11 attacks seems to have represented, however, the initial breakdown of Bush policy, as Kellner lists the large number of warnings and reports about Al-Qaeda plans to hijack planes and commit terrorist acts inside the US, in addition to the reports on the mounting number of "Middle Easterners" studying in flight schools across the US. Also, a long series of government reports between 1996 and 1999 warned of the dangers of terrorism and the dangers of airplane hijackings, and the possibilities of undertaking suicide plane hijacking against US targets, based on threats by Al-Qaeda members. Nevertheless, the Bush administration failed to act on warnings of imminent attacks or to provide a systematic government response to the possibility of such attacks.

Further information appeared in the Independent, Newsweek, and Time magazines, and the controversial book "Forbidden Truth," by Jean Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie, which presented evidence that the Bush administration had shut down operations against the Bin Laden network, as the former it was a major supporter of Taliban, bargaining with them over oil rights, pipe lines deals and the hand over of Bin Laden and his family. Top officials of the Bush administration, thus, did nothing to protect the US against domestic terror attacks, as fighting terrorism was never among their priorities, which eventually included energy, global warming, and domestic terrorism. They failed, moreover, to deal properly with CIA reports of imminent Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.

Kellner speculates on three possibilities to explain this situation. One is that the administration was too busy pushing forward its right-wing agenda to recognize the clear signals of the attacks. The second is that key persons in the administration knew about the attacks and welcomed them as justifications for pushing their right-wing militarist agenda. The third is that the administration was "actively involved in the conspiracy."

The latter theory posits that the 9/11 attacks were and are still used to "justify" unwarrantable foreign and domestic policies pushing for a hard-right agenda. The administration's attack on civil liberties undermined "constitutional democracy" and the "rule of the law" in the US. Such failure was further accompanied with economic crises, scandals, and corruption in the Bush administration. The consequences of such failed War on Terror policies, both foreign and domestic, warns Kellner, are frightening. The Bush administration's Terrorist Information and Prevention System (TIPS) is likely to turn citizens into spies reporting to the government anything they find "suspicious" and transform the workforce into "informants."

The mass media, in addition, plays a central role in keeping the public fear of further attacks to the edge of hysteria, describing the "axis of evil" as allegedly possessing weapons of mass destruction to be used against US targets, both inside and outside the US. The media's mission in fact started with the spectacular live TV coverage of the towers collapsing in 9/11. It intensively detailed the accompanying harm and damage supported with images of death and destruction keeping the viewers attentive for news related to Bin Laden and al-Qaeda responsibility on the attacks.

What was amazing, however, is not the live coverage in itself; it was the timely media construction of political frames and dimensions of the situation, escorted with catchy and originally striking visuals and graphics. The mass media created the suitable political discourse and language to fit the event, describing it as an "act of war" and depicting it as a war between Good and Evil in which the US is going to "eradicate evil from the world." What dominated the mass media then was the mounting propaganda campaign against Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda using the discourse of evil, and exaggerating the magnitude of military action to destroy and eliminate that evil.

In this campaign, Bush insisted that terrorists "fear" Western freedom and democracy, as their hatred stems from their rejection of "positive Western values." Such claims, say Kellner, are no more than a "Big Lie" that claims that Western values and "our way of life" were the strategic targets of the terrorist attacks, while the Arab and Muslim anger in fact is due to US policies in support of Israel and its persistent intervention in the Middle East. Similar one-sided accounts of the events were constantly presented in US television, creating a consensus on the dire need for immediate military response, featuring logos like "America's New War," "War on America," and "America Strikes Back," and positioning the US flag as a dominant icon in the logos and the graphics. Critics of US policy were rarely allowed to speak on television and were subject to media attacks and described as unpatriotic.

The media war was moved to Bin Laden's camp when the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network received and showed a tape of him and his assistant Ayman El-Zawahri. Praising the 9/11 attacks and calling for "Jihad to destroy America," Bin Laden insisted on the existence of two sides, "the side of believers and the side of infidels," and categorized those who joined America as "cowards" and "infidels." Such radical dualism simulated that of Bush in claiming the War against Terror as a "Holy War between Good and Evil." Bin Laden, who soon became an "international media superstar," with his name and photo displayed on books, articles, T-Shirts, and even toys, thus indirectly served the radical US foreign policy and supported, with this false statements, the media-built stereotypes about Islam and Muslims. As Kellner clarifies, Al-Qaeda's interpretation of Islam negates the Koranic readings prohibiting suicide and violence against children and innocent people. "Islam, like Christianity, is complex and contested with various schools, branches and sects," Kellner explains.

Even though Bin Laden aided U.S. foreign policy and facilitated the on-going propaganda campaign to win hearts and minds domestically in favor of the war, globally the US was losing its propaganda war by a large margin. In addition to undermining democracy, the idea of its "axis of evil" was its bold representation of the American arrogance, claiming "good" for itself and positioning its ill-defined enemies in the "evil" camp heavily fed into the failure of its propaganda machinery. Kellner suggests that in the light of such US policies, there must "a global movement against terrorism, militarism and social injustice, and for democracy, peace, environmentalism, human rights and social justice." There must be a global consensus on democratic values and against terrorism and unilateral militarism. Kellner does not oppose military action against terrorism, but opposes the unilateral approach of the US, with its neglect of global law and international conventions, as well as its substantial military spending. No doubt a dialogue with Bin Laden and his fanatical terrorists is impossible, but an ill-planned military response leading to excessive death of civilians is likely to explode into anger and contempt against the US and encourage more violent reactions, as desired by the terrorists. This traps the US in Bin Laden's vicious circle of global violence and disorder and renders it highly susceptible to incalculable and unpredictable costs.

Kellner thus presents a strong and balanced view of U.S. policies post-9/11, stemming from his personal concern about the future of his country, the state of democracy in the world, and the urgent need for a global multilateral approach to fighting terrorism. The author also helps to correct in a simple and convincing way the falsified image of Islam that lumps the religion and Bin Laden together. 

About Rasha El-Ibiary

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