Contrary to popular opinion, the War on Terror was not conceived in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. The War on Terror was born more than three decades ago in Jerusalem, and a glimpse into that historical narrative is quite enlightening.
The Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism was convened by the Jonathan Institute in July of 1979. The Jonathan Institute was founded by Benjamin Netanyahu, in memory of his brother, Jonathan Netanyahu, a commando in the Israeli army killed during Operation Entebbe in Uganda.
Many of the themes back then were shockingly similar to the themes of today. Despite the fact more than three decades have passed, the cast of characters was also largely the same.
The similarities are striking. But what’s even more striking is that one major theme is not the same at all. The War on Terror is an old script with a new twist, as we shall see.
First, the similarities. In Netanyahu’s own words, the purpose of the conference seems familiar enough:
To focus public attention on the grave threat that international terrorism poses to all democratic societies, to study the real nature of today’s terrorism, and to propose measures for combating and defeating the international terror movements.’ – International Terrorism, foreword by Benjamin Netanyahu
Attendees included Senator Henry M. Jackson, who gave a talk entitled Terrorism as a Weapon in International Politics. Today we still have the Henry Jackson Society, actively spreading the neoconservative message under the auspices of front groups and well orchestrated propaganda campaigns.
Also in attendance was Professor Richard Pipes, a consultant to Senator Henry Jackson and close associate of the notorious “Prince of Darkness,” Richard Perle. Pipes and Pearl both served on the fear mongering Committee on the Present Danger and the Council on Foreign relations. The neoconservative torch was later picked up by Richard Pipes’ son, well-known anti-Muslim propagandist, Daniel Pipes.
Other familiar neoconservative luminaries in attendance included Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, along with several notable figures from Israel, Europe, and Japan. Representing the US were Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist George Will and a number of key political and military figures, including Jack Kemp, Major General George Keegan, Jr., Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Senators Alan Cranston, Paul Laxalt, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The man who would later become the 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush, was also in attendance. As president, Bush waged war on Iraq, one of Israel’s key rivals in the region. His son, George W. Bush, who followed in his footsteps, also become president of the United States. Under the tutelage of prominent neoconservatives, Bush Jr. continued the systematic destruction and disintegration of Iraq, following 12 years of deadly economic sanctions, with a second military invasion in 2003.
The destruction of Iraq was a dream come true for the neoconservatives, who expounded clearly on their ambitions in a report written in 2000 entitled, A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm. Authors included many of the usual suspects. Richard Perle, James Colbert, Charles Fairbanks, Jr., Douglas Feith, Robert Loewenberg, David Wurmser, and Meyrav Wurmser explained in concert that, with Iraq effectively neutralized, Israel would be free to pursue its regional ambitions:
Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions. Jordan has challenged Syria’s regional ambitions recently by suggesting the restoration of the Hashemites in Iraq.
The guiding philosophy that would eventually justify the invasion of one Muslim-majority country after another was established at the Jerusalem conference, held over the course of three days. Though the context was different, the topics covered are hauntingly familiar: (1) The Face of Terrorism, (2) State Support for International Terrorism, (3) The Threat Posed by Terrorism to Democratic Societies, (4) Terrorism and the Media, (6) Proposed Countermeasures for the Democratic World, (Closing) The Challenge to Free Men.
In Netanyahu’s subsequent book, ”Terrorism: How the West Can Win,” he further elaborated on the root cause of this global menace. From a book review published in the New York Times:
On one thing virtually all the contributors seem agreed. Over and above any local and immediate aims, terrorism is directed, by its very nature, against democracy; it seeks to demoralize democratic regimes and ultimately bring them down. And whatever ends individual terrorists may suppose or contend they are serving, their basic assumptions remain irredeemably totalitarian. Indeed, as Senator Moynihan puts it, ”The totalitarian state is terrorism come to power.”
Sound familiar? Today we hear about state-sponsored terrorism, especially with regard to whichever country is currently in the cross hairs.
Except, shockingly, the “irredeemably totalitarian” ideology Netanyahu referred to was NOT Islam. In fact, Islam emerged virtually unscathed. From the same book review in the New York Times:
In a discussion entitled ”Islamic Terrorism?,” the scholar Bernard Lewis emphasizes that there is nothing in Islam as a religion that is especially conducive to terrorism. Like the other great religions, it condemns the maltreatment of the innocent; from early on it laid down rules for the humane treatment of noncombatants during a war. And though it has always had a more explicitly political character than other religions, Islamic terrorism [sic] as practiced today is essentially an importation from the West.
In two companion pieces, the writers Elie Kedourie and P. J. Vatikiotis both concur about the Western roots of Islamic [sic] terrorism, while analyzing some of the ways it has subsequently flowered on its own account…
What a shocking deviation from the current script! How can those jaw-dropping statements possibly be explained in the present context?
Yesterday the same propagandists recognized Islam was not “especially conducive to terrorism” and that “terrorism as practiced today is essentially an importation from the West.” Today we are constantly bombarded with the notion that Islam, cleverly cloaked in terms such as “Islamism” and “Political Islam,” is the Evil Mastermind of global terrorism.
The key to understanding this dramatic reversal is historical perspective. At that time, the alleged evil ravaging the Free World was not “Islamism,” but Communism. In The Pope and the Axis of Terror, BBC blogger Adam Curtis explains the neoconservative “Red Scare” narrative:
It had a dramatic thesis.
It said that there was a “Global Terror Network” underneath the surface of most Western societies and the Middle East.
That all of them – the Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof gang, Provisional IRA, South Moluccans, Japanese Red Army, Iranian terrorists, Turkish People’s Liberation Army, Spain’s ETA, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Fatah, the military arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization were all part of a grand Soviet scheme.
Communism was the shadowy evil force that justified runaway military spending, repression at home, and permanent war abroad. The dramatic narrative was also expounded upon by the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA), with a particular focus on the Palestinians, following the conference in 1979:
The Soviet Union is training “hundreds of Palestinians” in terrorist schools near Moscow and along the Black Sea, and there are similar training camps in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, a British newspaper reported.
Details of the connection between the Soviet Union and the Palestinians were given in the Daily Telegraph by Journalist Robert Moss, a specialist on subversion who two weeks ago attended the Jerusalem conference on terrorism. Moss said that because of the Soviet support for Palestinian terrorism, as well as its toll of innocent lives, it is a “tragic error” for any Western government to confer legality on the Palestine Liberation Organization.
He named the Military Academy at Simferopol in the Crimea as “a primary reception center for PLO men selected for sabotage and terrorist training in the Soviet Union.” Courses, said to include river crossings and all types of sabotage, are attended by mixed groups of 50 to 60 PLO trainees, drawn from different guerrilla organizations according to a quota system.
A “typical” course at Simferopol included recruits from Yasir Arafat’s El Fatah, the Syrian backed Al Saiqa, the Palestine Liberation Front and George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Moss claims that Palestinians of above-average aptitude are sometimes transferred to special courses in KGB or GRU (Soviet military intelligence) schools, which also receive a steady intake of intelligence officers from Libya, Syria, Iraq and South Yemen.
PLO SEEN AS USEFUL ASSET
In the Soviet view, Moss added, the PLO is a “tremendously useful asset.” It can supply shock troops, like the members of Idi Amin’s bodyguard in Uganda; subversive agents in the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms and Saudi Arabia “that can now hold a knife to the throats of pro-Western monarchs”; and “all-purpose terrorists,” he wrote. The PLO “can also serve as the middleman in supplying arms to the national liberation movements,” as well as carrying out missions of specifically Soviet rather than Palestinian interest.
“One such case was the PLO plot to blow up fuel depots in West Berlin…. Another was the attempt by a Palestinian hit team in Holland in 1975 to hijack a train carrying Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union,” Moss stated.
Rolling the Palestinian nationalist struggle into the Red Scare narrative was an ingenious plot. Despite initial skepticism, the “War on Terror” with the Soviet Union playing the role of Evil Terrorist Mastermind was the centerpiece of neoconservative propaganda for the next decade.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed.
The inevitable end to the Cold War hysteria that had prevailed for decades was a disaster for the neoconservative enterprise. Hawkish disciples, including Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, were devastated. When asked in 1990 why he had stopped writing, Podhoretz said he had lost his compass. He no longer knew what to think, noting with irony that Kristol had moved all the way to Washington, D.C, just as the “the spirit blew out of the Beltway.” 1
But the neoconservatives are a resourceful and patient lot. Yes, the Soviet menace had disappeared from the world stage, but fortunately, new villains quickly emerged. The Green Menace of “Islamism” replaced the Red Menace of Communism, and the neoconservatives were off and running again.
The neoconservatives were quick and nimble, retooling their propaganda in the wake of the Soviet collapse. The precious narrative could be saved, but sadly for the propagandists, progress would be slow. Whipping up mass hysteria is not always an easy task.
The neoconservatives openly expressed their dreams of a catalyzing event that would galvanize the public behind their militaristic agenda. Fortunately for them, the event came in the fall of 2001.
The New Pearl Harbor they’d longed for came in the form of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, delivering the neoconservative dream on a silver platter. They openly recognized the attacks as a blessing, and soon the entire chorus began evangelizing with renewed passion. The script is eerily familiar, but this time around, the Mean Green Menace has taken center stage.
Propaganda is always calibrated to an audience swimming in a particular historical moment. Even people who have bought into the propaganda of the day hook, line, and sinker can often easily recognize the absurdity of the propaganda campaigns of an earlier era.
The trick is being able to recognize the carefully engineered propaganda campaigns that resonate in the current climate. Sometimes all it takes to see what’s in front of your nose is a brief glimpse into the historical archive.
1. Gary J. Dorrien, Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 14.↩