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The Post-Cold War West Has Become Terrorism's Chief Sponsor

Rogue nations: Economic sanctions as a weapon have hurt the people, not the power elite.

May 06, 1999|JONATHAN POWER | Jonathan Power writes a column from London

Someone somewhere in the administrative apparatus of NATO is no doubt paid to watch and worry in case agents of Slobodan Milosevic sneak a weapon of mass destruction into a major Western capital. In truth, the likelihood--so small is it--doesn't keep Gen. Wesley K. Clark awake at night.

Terrorism today, although a contingency of warfare, is probably less likely than it was 100 years ago when loose-knit groups of anarchists, in the period 1894 to 1901, managed to assassinate the president of France, the prime minister of Spain, the empress of Austria, the king of Italy and the president of the U.S.

Terrorism is not a subject to be simply extrapolated forward, assuming that it will worsen at an accelerating rate, just because technology always is progressing. Not least the politics that propels terrorism can change incredibly quickly. The worst alien terrorist act in a Western city in recent years, at least in terms of dramatic effect, was the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. Many commentators read into this that it was the onset of an Islamic fundamentalist campaign to wreck havoc in the West. Yet, six years on, we gather that its father figure, the Muslim cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, has now forsaken violence. His movement in Egypt, which not very long ago was sabotaging the tourist industry with its indiscriminate killings, today regards itself as defeated and is looking for nonviolent means of expressing its political agenda.

This is part of a trend. At the time of the Gulf War, there was a definite rise in international terrorism. But since then, despite Osama bin Laden and his Afghanistan-based zealots, it has declined in frequency. As for the so-called "rogue states," they are a diminishing breed. Now that Moammar Kadafi has handed over the suspects in the Lockerbie airline bombing case to a Scottish court for trial, Libya probably can be safely struck off the list. Iran certainly can be. Yugoslavia can't really be added to it since it has threatened no one except its own people. North Korea blatantly uses its sophisticated weapons program not to terrorize but to earn revenue.

That leaves Iraq. Do we still keep up the good fight with Iraq because we honestly think if we don't, Saddam Hussein's research program into weapons of mass destruction will bear fruit? Surely, Saddam knows if he ever tried to use them, his country would be met by a devastating response.

We are, moreover, in real danger of misunderstanding the nature of weapons of mass destruction. It's one thing to make them under laboratory conditions, another to make them fly and seriously affect a sizeable target. Biological weapons demand enormous technical prowess to use. Chemical weapons need to be used in enormous quantities and, historically, most of those incapacitated by such weapons have not actually died.

The worst case scenario, of course, is Iraq developing nuclear weapons. Yet even here, we fall into the trap of exaggerating the progress made. Even India and Pakistan, with all their sophistication, have only produced bombs with yields that are Hiroshima-size or smaller.

With all these weapons, we are told, if they were loaded onto missiles, our defense forces and our cities would be in peril. Yet ballistic missiles are probably the least likely method of delivery. The kinds of missiles likely to fall into the hands of a rogue state or terrorist group can only carry a small payload and are inaccurate and unreliable to boot. All are inferior to aircraft.

The real question is why we punish Saddam for his probably ineffectual efforts to develop such weapons by crippling the people of Iraq with sanctions. According to John and Karl Mueller, writing in the May issue of Foreign Affairs, economic sanctions are the weapon of mass destruction. "They may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all the weapons of mass destruction throughout history."

In Iraq's case, the evidence is compelling that sanctions have proved to be a vicious and indiscriminate weapon that has harmed the most vulnerable far more than it has hurt the power elite. It has led to an increase of 40,000 deaths annually of children under 5. Multiply this by the eight years of the confrontation and this is a horrendous death toll.

The post-Cold War West, rather than defeating terrorism, has become its chief sponsor. Saddam Hussein appears no weaker. Only his people pay the price. Why are sanctions not limited to military items?

In the fight to defeat terrorism, Western governments--aided by a volatile media--have become prisoner to their own supercharged hyperbole. It has become dangerously counterproductive. They should start to rethink both what they fear and what they are trying to do.

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