The Rise of the Politics of Fear, Part 2
In Part 1 of The Rise of the Politics of Fear based on the documentary The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis, a history of the radical Islamists and the Neoconservatives is presented from the late 1940s through 1980. These distant groups share the same view that the root cause of disintegrating Western culture is liberalism. Indeed, both groups are correct that liberalism is causing the disintegration of the West. However, the responses of both groups to correct the damage done to society by liberalism lead to disaster. The radical Islamists become terrorists and the Neoconservatives create huge myths instead of telling the truth to the American public, a policy which has directly lead to increasing authoritarianism and the curbing of freedoms in America.
The Mujahadin, “The Moral Equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers”
After the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Islamists and Neoconservatives (who seem like natural allies in the fight against liberalism to many at the time) teamed up to fight against the Evil Empire in Afghanistan. To influence public opinion and policy, the Neoconservatives created powerful myths to make the USSR seem like much more of an imminent threat to America than it actually was, as the entire socialist system was rotting from within. Rather than telling the public the truth that the U.S. could bankrupt this system through the strengths of capitalism, Neocons resorted to Straussian mythmaking. They told voters and other government agencies the Soviet Union had weapons it did not actually have in order incite fear in the American public and consolidate their power, as well as start an arms race which benefited the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned about. The CIA knew these claims were exaggerated, and denounced the mythmaking until William Casey took over the agency.
As the first Space Shuttles launched, Ronald Reagan dedicated the Columbia to the heroic Mujahadin “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan.
Just as the Columbia, we think, represents man’s finest aspirations in the field of science and technology, so too does the struggle of the Afghan people represent man’s highest aspirations for freedom. I am dedicating, on behalf of the American people, the March 22nd launch of the Columbia to the people of Afghanistan.
A total of $40 billion in U.S. aid flowed to this group through the 1980s. Reagan also invited the Mujahadin “freedom fighters” into the White House, later lauding them as “The moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers,” along with other groups the neoconservatives said were “freedom fighters” in a 1985 speech.
These speeches were part of an agenda in which Neoconservatives said powerful good vs. evil myths needed to be told to the public – rather than telling the truth and letting voters make a rational judgement. This view, that the public is too stupid to understand policy and that citizens needed to be told simple, emotionally powerful myths was not only championed by Leo Strauss, but has been practiced since the 1920s in both corporate and government spheres of influences. The concept of emotional manipulation rather than intellect guiding public decisions was invented by the father of public relations, Edward Bernays. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and his theories have been used since the 1920s to manage public opinion. Because this practice bypasses the rational decision making of man and relies on emotional simplification and myth, critics have called the practice enlightened despotism. As a result, a myth of America as the only force for freedom and good in the world was told to the masses rather than the truth. Richard Perle, Assistant Secretary of Defense under Reagan explains the reasoning behind this policy.
We’re closer to being revolutionaries than conservatives, in the sense that we want to change some deeply entrenched notions about the proper role of American power in the world. We want to see that power used constructively, and to enlarge the opportunity for decent governance around the world. We’re not happy about the old, cozy relationships with dictators.
That idea indeed sounds logical, except for the mythmaking. Meantime, the U.S. was supplying the Mujahidin with advanced weapons, billions of dollars in funding, giving glowing public relations speeches about them, and creating an American alliance with the Islamic resistance was the result of this policy. As long as the Soviet Union was the bad guy, the CIA continued funding and training the very Islamic fighters it would later brand as the next force for evil in the world once the decrepit Russian economy collapsed.
Bin Laden Enters the Picture
Meanwhile, the leader of the Afghan resistance, Abdullah Azzam saw the war against the Soviet Union as the first step in a much wider Islamic revolution. He and the rest of the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to see Islam govern the Middle East with Sharia Law. The Islamists turned ever more radical as time went on, and they became stronger with U.S. money and weapons flowing in. Abdullah Anas, General Commander of the Afghan Arabs in Northern Afghanistan tells us it was not long before Osama bin Laden arrived.
Osama came to participate in 1985. When he was—when he came, as you know, he is, he came from a rich family from Saudi, and he had much, much money to spend. Sheikh Abdullah Azzam was a scholar, he can organize the Afghans, but he is not a rich man. So when Osama came, he filled in this gap. So the main duty of Osama at that time was spending money.
Ayman Zawahiri, returning from prison after the assassination of Egyptian President Sadat, along with other radicals believed democracy let politicians become the highest authority rather than the Koran and endorsed terrorism as a way of “waking up” the masses. Zawahiri and his group also viewed America and its liberalism as a source of corruption of these ideals. Radical Muslims including Zawahiri, who cozied up to the money man Bin Laden began to challenge the leadership of Abdullah Azzam, who was eventually killed in a car bomb in Peshewar.
By the late 1980s, Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbechev, facing a collapsing economy was forced to try and negotiate a peaceful withdraw from Afghanistan. Gorbechev told reporters:
The state of the Soviet Union and its society could be described very simply with a phrase used by people across the country: We can’t go on living like this any longer. And that applied to everything. The economy was stagnating. There were shortages. And the quality of goods was very poor. We had to finish this war, but in such a way that the Russian people would understand why tens of thousands had died. We couldn’t just run away from there in shame, no. We needed to find a process.
As a result of the Russian desire to withdraw from the Afghan war, both sides, the Neocons and their allies the Islamists claimed victory. As the USSR plotted its exit strategy from Afghanistan, Gorbechev warned Americans the Mujahidin they were funding, training, and supplying with weapons would lead to the most extreme forms of Islam rising up and terrorism becoming a threat. Later, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled, forcing the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the Neocon good vs. evil narrative concluded and a new enemy had to be found. Melvin Goodman, Head of the Office of Soviet Affairs in the CIA said this about the mythological good vs. evil battle the Neocons had created and then had to sustain:
I think probably one of the greatest myths in America, in the political discourse now, right now, is that actions of the American government were responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed like a house of cards because it was a house of cards. It rotted away from within. The economy was rotten, the political process was rotten, they had developed a central government that was no longer believed by people outside of Moscow, there was total cynicism throughout the Soviet system of governance, there was no real civil society. And the United States missed all of this, because they believed their own myths and their own fanciful notions. They had become their own victims of their own lies.
As the Islamists celebrated victory, Zawahiri seduced Bin Laden and his money to come join the extremists. Along with the Muslim Brotherhood, they wanted to use the Koran as a political framework and let people vote to end democracy in Algeria and Egypt. In effect, they wanted a fundamentalist government to be legitimized by a final election before voting was ended permanently. Elections to institute this form of government were ultimately cancelled and the Muslim Brothers arrested. The Brotherhood saw this as evidence of the corruption of liberalism from the West and shifted tactics to jihad, just as Gorbechev had warned the U.S. would happen years earlier when they were funding, training, and praising the group.
The Neocons continued on with their good vs. evil strategy and next moved to topple Saddam Hussein, who had been a close ally of the United States in the 1980s. Rather than pressing on to Baghdad to oust Hussein after his army was defeated, Bush I devised a strategy similar to Henry Kissinger’s: achieving a balance of power. Bush ultimately decided to leave Hussein in power after the successful Gulf War had gutted him militarily. Paul Wolfowitz and other Neoconservatives were furious at his decision. They saw Bush’s decision as a corruption of liberal relativism entering the Republican party.
In a move to oust what they saw as this liberal corruption of society’s values from politics, Neoconservatives moved to the right and wanted to ban abortion, gay rights, and end multiculturalism, many of the ideas that today seem like good policy in that liberalism is indeed destroying the foundations of society. They did not succeed as liberal Bill Clinton was elected in 1992.
Zawahiri and Bin Laden continued jihad through the 1990s, but were losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Islamists, finding themselves increasingly isolated and desperate as U.S. training and funding of the Islamists had ended.
Second Iraq War
Zawahiri had unsuccessfully attempted to create revolutions throughout the Islamic world since the 1980s using terrorism. Along with Bin Laden, he returned to Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Zawahiri subscribed to the ideals of Sayid Qutb, who believed in using the benefits of Western science and technology, but believed (as the Neoconservatives correctly believed) Western liberalism would ultimately destroy society. After failing to incite revolution in the 1990s, the group changed tactics as explained by Gilles Kepel, Historian of the Islamist Movement:
They had no revolution at all. I mean, they had failed in their takeover, they had failed to topple the powers that be, and, you know, they became more and more interested in this idea that only a small vanguard could be successful. I mean, they had lost confidence in the spontaneous capacity of the masses to be mobilized. Then they decided to change strategy completely, and instead of striking at what they called the near enemy—i.e., the local regimes—they decided that they could strike at the far away enemy—i.e., at the West, at America—and that would impress the masses, and the masses would be mobilized.
This new strategy ultimately led to suicide bombings outside American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. These moves were on the fringes of the Islamist movement and did not have wide support. Most Islamists had no interest in attacking America. Beyond a small group, Bin Laden and Zawahiri had no formal organization, that is, until the Neoconservatives invented one for them. The Neoconservatives, who came back into power after the Clinton administration, took the failing Islamist movement and began to spin it into another good vs. evil narrative, which they said was controlled from bin Laden’s secret lair in Afghanistan. Jason Burke, author of Al Qaeda explains how they began to construct a case under the RICO statute, a law intended to be used against mafias and crime families but now used to fight a shadowy terrorist group.
The picture that the FBI want to build up is one that will fit the existing laws that they will have to use to prosecute those responsible for the bombing. Now, those laws were drawn up to counteract organized crime: the Mafia, drugs crime, crimes where people being a member of an organization is extremely important. You have to have an organization to get a prosecution. And you have Jamal al-Fadl and a number of other witnesses, a number of other sources, who are happy to feed into this. You’ve got material that, looked at in a certain way, can be seen to show this organization’s existence. You put the two together and you get what is the first bin Laden myth—the first Al Qaeda myth. And because it’s one of the first, it’s extremely influential.
The idea—which is critical to the FBI’s prosecution—that bin Laden ran a coherent organization with operatives and cells all around the world of which you could be a member is a myth. There is no Al Qaeda organization. There is no international network with a leader, with cadres who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe. That idea of a coherent, structured terrorist network with an organized capability simply does not exist.
Many believe Jamal al-Fadl lied to give the Americans what they wanted. Indeed, he was paid off by the American government and given witness protection after he had stolen a large sum of money from Bin Laden. Vincent Cannistraro, former Head of Counterterrorism in the CIA explains the playbook.
What the Neoconservatives are doing is taking a concept that they developed during the competition with the Soviet Union, Soviet Communism was evil, it wanted to take over our country, wanted to take over our people, our classrooms, our society. It was that kind of concept of evil that they took—an exaggerated one, to be sure—and then apply it to a new threat, where it didn’t apply at all, and yet it was layered with the same kind of cultural baggage. The policy says there’s a network, the policy says that network is evil, they want to infiltrate our classrooms, they want to take our society, they want all our women to wear veils, and this is what we have to deal with and therefore since we know it’s evil let’s just kill it, and that will make it go away.
The next series of events that occurred after this stated desire to create an epic new Good vs. Evil narrative and the effort by the FBI to create a case under RICO, are explained by Adam Curtis, journalist and author of The Power of Nightmares:
[Even though the terror network did not really exist] what did exist was a powerful idea that was about to inspire a single, devastating act that would lead the whole world into believing the myth that had begun to be constructed in the Manhattan courtroom.
The terrible 9/11 attacks resulted in thousands of deaths, which the Bush administration said happened at the hands of radical Islamic terrorists mainly from Saudi Arabia, but funded and trained by the elusive Bin Laden. After the Islamists’ deadly triumph on 9/11, they were destroyed within months by the U.S. military. The Neoconservatives were not satisfied with this outcome, however. They began to construct another narrative which would ultimately lead to the Iraq War. The narrative gave politicians enormous power in an disillusioned age of liberalism and the politicians with the darkest nightmares became the most powerful.
Donald Rumsfeld went on Meet the Press to sell the illusion of the Al Qaeda network. His main piece of evidence was a map of Bin Laden’s underground lair, which Russert described during the interview.
RUSSERT : A complex. Multi-tiered. Bedrooms and Offices on the top, as you can see. Secret exits on the side, and on the bottom. Cut deep to avoid thermal detection. A ventilation system, to allow people to breathe and to carry on. The entrances, large enough to drive trucks and even tanks. Even computer systems and telephone systems. It’s a very sophisticated operation.
RUMSFELD : Oh, you bet. This—this is serious business. And—and there’s not one of those; there are many of those.
Rumsfeld’s Mountain Fortress diagram below, claimed to be a massive compound underneath a hollowed out mountain in Tora Bora complete with everything from munitions to offices to hydroelectric power generated inside the mountain, said by Rumsfeld to represent how advanced Al Qaeda had become was a complete and total fantasy. As the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, nothing of the sort was found. The administration’s claims of a massive stockpile of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons in Iraq, said to be the reason for invading Iraq was also proven to be another fantasy.
Another Good Vs. Evil Fantasy
Beyond the fantasies of the Bin Laden Mountain Fortress, the farcical massive terror network spanning 60 countries and the WMDs in Iraq, the Neoconservatives also scared the public into believing a dirty bomb could go off in their neighborhood at any time, at the same time the Patriot Act, the first in a long line of freedom-curbing laws was passed. Lewis Koch of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists explains how the dirty bomb idea was another Neocon fantasy:
The dirty bomb—the danger from radioactivity is basically next to nothing. The danger from panic, however, is horrendous. That’s where the irony comes. This—instead of the government saying, “Look, this is not a serious weapon; the serious danger of this is the panic that would ensue, and there is no reason for panic. Don’t panic.”
Neoconservatives Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Perle, back in power 20 years after Reagan under Bush II, were once again constructing an enemy for a showdown in good vs. evil, even though the Al Qaeda network was proving not to exist. In reality, the 9/11 attacks had been an incredible stroke of luck for two insane radicals, Zawahiri and Bin Laden. George W. Bush pressed on with the Al Qaeda narrative, echoing the FBI’s RICO statute court case detailed above:
Al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime. There are thousands of these terrorists in more than 60 countries. They are recruited from their own nations and neighborhoods, and brought to camps in places like Afghanistan, where they are trained in the tactics of terror.
He also returned to the good vs. evil narrative.
This is our calling. We’re going to find those who, uh, who, uh, uh, those evil-doers.
In parallels between the myths created about a hidden web of worldwide terrorism run by the Soviet Union 20 years earlier, the Neoconservatives told the public myths about another web of evil, this time run from caves in Afghanistan but with aims to build weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This led to the bloody and expensive Iraq War. However, just as the Soviet Union was failing on its own because Communism does not work, the radical Islamist movement was also failing on its own but the Neoconservatives profited from it financially and politically. Adam Curtis closes out this arc of mythmaking with this paragraph:
What the British and American governments have done is both distort and exaggerate the real nature of the threat. There are dangerous and fanatical groups around the world who’ve been inspired by the extreme Islamist theories, and they are prepared to use the techniques of mass terror on civilians. What is new is the way the American and other governments have transformed this complex and disparate threat into a simplistic fantasy of an organized web of uniquely powerful terrorists who may strike anywhere and at any moment. But no one questioned this fantasy because, increasingly, it was serving the interests of so many people. For the press, television, and hundreds of terrorism experts, the fact that it seemed so like fiction made it irresistible to their audiences. And the Islamists, too, began to realize that by feeding this media fantasy they could become a powerful organization—if only in people’s imaginations.
Perhaps the best thing for politicians to do – once the mass belief in this dark form of mythmaking has ended – and as the dark fantasies of Neoconservatives and the Utopian fantasies of liberals continue to fail, would be to admit both sides of the political aisle have run out of fantasies to sell the public and start telling us the truth.
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