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Since Sept. 11, 2001 - the date of the most audacious and horrible act of terrorism ever committed on American soil - the United States has led a worldwide campaign against terrorism. It ousted the prehistoric Taliban from Afghanistan after it sheltered Osama bin Laden, is hunting down al-Qaida terrorists and seeking to fortify the commitment of allies wavering in their resolve.

Yet, when this country rails against terrorism, it comes across to some - in this country and particularly overseas - as two-faced.

Beginning with the Truman administration and the onset of the Cold War, the United States has been involved, usually through the CIA, with surrogates in Third World countries that have imposed harsh and corrupt rule on generations of people across several continents. Critics say this has resulted in shattered dreams, heart-wrenching despair, bone-crushing poverty and untold deaths.

"We've supported terrorism when it's been in our interest, and opposed it when it's not in our interest, says David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University.

The rationale during the Cold War was that it was needed to stop the spread of communism and curb the influence of the former Soviet Union. Critics countered that allying with tyrants blinded the United States to its bedrock values and branded the country as "imperialist." It was a view heard loudly during Vietnam-era protests.

Many Americans got their first glimpse into the government's secret activities from three mid-1970s congressional investigations - commonly referred to as the Church Committee, the Rockefeller Commission and the Pike Committee. They were held shortly after the Watergate scandal and revelations about CIA domestic spying to examine and help rebuild public trust in U.S. intelligence agencies. Among the shadowy methods unearthed: coups d'etat, destabilization of governments and political assassinations.

One of the most notorious examples was the 1973 coup in Chile. The date - Sept. 11.

The Nixon administration - with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as its point man - first helped shake up the Chilean economy, and then gave backing to the military to topple the democratically elected government of socialist Salvador Allende. Afterward, people were herded into the National Stadium in Santiago to be tortured and killed.

An estimated 3,000 people eventually died or "disappeared" following the coup - nearly the same number as the 2,900 killed in the World Trade Center attack. It brought into power for most of the next two decades a military dictatorship headed by Augusto Pinochet, an admirer of Adolf Hitler.

"I don't see why we should have to stand by and let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people," Kissinger said afterward. He is being pursued by prosecutors in four countries to testify about his role in the coup.

Michael Mandelbaum, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the 21st Century," calls U.S. interventions like these the "friendly tyrant dilemma."

"We supported governments during the Cold War that were anti-communist and anti-Soviet in their foreign policies and undemocratic in their domestic policies," Mandelbaum said. "The list is very long. But this wasn't unique to the Cold War or to the U.S. Part of the logic was, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' "

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, has looked favorably on U.S. military actions in recent years, from ridding Haiti of junta leader Raul Cedras to stopping Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and his campaign of "ethnic cleansing."

But Gitlin, who was president of the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society during the Vietnam War, says it's hard not to be reminded of the country's past involvements with dictators and paramilitary thugs. Doing so betrays the country's ideals, he says, and turns public pronouncements in support of freedom and democracy into little more than empty bromides.

"There's no doubt that the U.S. government has overthrown governments and instituted reigns of terror," Gitlin said, before rattling off some examples. "The coup in Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954 and in Chile in 1973. Those were just some of the "successful' ventures. There was support for right-wing death squads in El Salvador and the contra terrorists in Nicaragua in the '80s."

Danny Schechter, a journalist and filmmaker who has long written about and made documentaries on South Africa, says it's hard for many to forget.

"The South African government called Nelson Mandela a terrorist and created anti-terrorist legislation aimed at people, like him, who simply wanted a democratic society. And the U.S. - including Dick Cheney, when he was in the Congress - supported them. It is for reasons like these that there is so much skepticism about the U.S. around the world."

Schechter says there is also a selfish reason why supporting tyrants isn't in the country's best interests: Such actions can eventually come back to haunt us.

He points to Iran, where the CIA ousted the Mohammed Mossadegh government in 1953 and installed Reza Pahlavi - the Shah of Iran - who maintained control until 1979. He did so through a secret police force, SAVAK, which Amnesty International named in 1976 as the world's worst human rights abuser. U.S. payback came in the form of radical fundamentalists, who drove the shah from power in 1979, says Schechter. For nearly a quarter century, the U.S. has had to deal with a country that despises it and promotes terrorism.

"School of Assassins'

Human rights supporters have long targeted a training school for Latin American soldiers in Fort Benning, Ga. Each November protesters gather outside the U.S. Army post's gates and call for the school to be shut down. In the protest two weeks ago, 90 were arrested, including six nuns, for trespassing.

Maryknoll Priest Roy Bourgeois was among them. Bourgeois, a former Naval officer in Vietnam before he was ordained, calls the 56-year-old school - formerly known as the School of the Americas - a terrorist training camp." He began the group that sponsors the annual protest, the School of Americas Watch, 13 years ago.

He and other critics of the school - dubbed the "School of Assassins" - say its graduates read like a who's who of Latin American human rights abusers.

"We're not talking about a few bad apples. We're talking about most of the crate," said Bourgeois.

Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson attended the School of the Americas. So did Honduran death squad founder Gen. Luis Alonso Discua. Guatemalan Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who came to power in a coup and razed an estimated 400 Indianvillages, was there. Dozens of Colombian officers cited for war crimes attended. And so did 10 of 12 soldiers named in the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador in 1981. It was there that an estimated 800 unarmed Salvadoran civilians accused of being sympathetic to leftist guerrillas were rounded up and killed.

Marie Kullman, a Buffalo public school teacher at Burgard Vocational, was one of 80 people from the Buffalo Niagara region who made the 17-hour drive to the protest. Contingents from Canisius College, Buffalo State College and St. Bonaventure University also went.

"I wanted to be a witness to those victims of various massacres and brutalities," said Kullman, a member of St. Joseph University Church's social justice committee.

School officials say the overwhelming number of its students have not been guilty of human rights abuses. Course offerings have been revamped from the days when the Pentagon was forced to admit a training manual advised students on the use of blackmail, beatings, torture, false imprisonment and executions. Human rights courses are now mandatory. And there was even a new name introduced two years ago - the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

But these changes, critics say, are merely cosmetic.

"If you bring soldiers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia - countries with atrocious human rights records - and give them M16s, teach commando operations and psychological warfare and they go back and kill, torture and rape, and it happens year after year, there is an issue of complicity that cannot be washed away," said Bourgeois.

Double standard

Is the U.S. hypocritical by aligning with regimes that have no pretense of being democratic? The Council on Foreign Relations' Mandelbaum says no. The country hasn't done anything other powerful countries haven't done.

"To say the United States should never align itself with undemocratic governments flies in the face of all international politics that we know."

But Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and politics at Princeton University, faults the United States for being duplicitous in its dealings with others, practicing situational ethics even when it comes to terrorism. Who the United States deems a "terrorist" and who it doesn't is often a political calculation, he said, and that can create huge problems for the country in how it is perceived by others.

"Part of the recent ways in which the terminology of terror has been used is to limit its application to those who attack us or our friends. When violence is used by our side, it is described as a "defense' or in some other terminology," said Falk.

He suggests the Middle East reflects this inconsistency. Arabs are angered by a lack of evenhandedness in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Falk said, as Palestinian terrorism is swift to be condemned while Israel's actions against civilians - even if offered in retribution - are rarely singled out.

Mandelbaum says he sees an appearance of a double standard at work when it comes to Saudi Arabia, which has been a breeding ground for terrorists in the past, including 15 of the 19 men responsible for Sept. 11.

"It's a country that in many ways is the most distant of any on Earth from American democratic principles. It doesn't have a rule of law, and it's a theocracy that promotes extreme Islamic principles. But it sits on 40 percent of the world's oil reserves, so we continue to support them," said Mandelbaum.

Iraq is another example critics point to. The Buffalo News and other media outlets reported in September - later denied by the Bush administration - that the U.S. Commerce Department in the 1980s had authorized 72 shipments to Iraq of raw materials that could be used in chemical weapons. The U.S. did so knowing the country had already used them against Iran in its seven-year war and could be expected to use them again. Iraq did use chemical weapons against the Iranians and later, the Kurds in northern Iraq. Saddam Hussein was considered an ally then.

"As much screaming about chemical weapons that has gone on, the Reagan-Bush administration sent that stuff over there in the first place," said Jim Wittebols, professor of communication studies at Niagara University. "It's disingenuous for the administration to go on and on about Iraq "gassing it's own people' when we made that very thing possible."

Central America during the 1980s was another battleground between professed American values and perceived self-interest.

In Nicaragua, the contras were organized by the CIA during the Carter administration to destabilize the democratically elected leftist Sandinista government, which had thumbed its nose at the United States. To the American left, the Sandinistas offered hope to a poor country that had been tyrannized by dictator Anastasio Somoza and his elite, U.S.-trained National Guard. But to conservatives such as William Ratliff, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, the Sandinistas presented the specter of Soviet-style totalitarianism.

"The contras violated human rights, there's no doubt about it," said Ratliff. "But the Sandinistas did so just as much, and the contras' views more resembled those of the Nicaraguan people. President Reagan, I think, was correct in saying the contras were the democratic forces."

Reagan praised the contras at the time as the "moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers." He continued to offer his support after the U.S. was found guilty by the World Court of violating international law for backing them, and said the U.S. would no longer adhere to court rulings.

Ronald Steel, also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, considers Nicaragua's neighbor, El Salvador, to be another case in point. Leftist guerrillas there attempted to overthrow a right-wing government backed by the U.S. during the 1980s.

"We've allied ourselves very cynically with repressive, dictatorial regimes to achieve what we believed was a foreign policy goal," Steel said. "In my mind, it was during the Reagan administration when this was most evident.

"But there are those who argue, I think sincerely, that even though the methods were often undesirable in El Salvador, they were a means to achieve a more principled goal. There were left-wing groups or communists that were going to come to power and change economic policy and cause us considerable inconvenience."

Buffalo folk singer Ani DiFranco wishes they had. Human rights abuses there left an indelible impression on her when she volunteered in the 1980s for a Salvadoran support group. She remembers reading faxes regularly at the office describing violence that had been committed against villagers.

DiFranco, one of the most politically outspoken performers today, frequently tours overseas, including a string of European dates this past summer. She hasn't forgotten what happened there, she says, and feels less safe because of how U.S. foreign policy is being conducted under the Bush administration.

"We are justifiably hated more and more, and American people are put in mortal danger by the violence and injustice of our government," said DiFranco.

Past is prologue

Elayne Rapping, who teaches media studies at the University at Buffalo, says Americans tend to not be well informed about the world beyond our borders. And that, she says, along with a lack of contextualization in how news is presented, puts people at a disadvantage when they're trying to make sense of current events.

"The American media caters to and promotes a view in which what happens in America is much more important than what goes on anywhere else in the world. Foreign news is given short shrift. Americans know very, very little about what goes on in the rest of the world," said Rapping.

"The outcome of that is we are probably an extremely uninformed and ignorant society when it comes to large global issues, and things that are done in our name in other countries that don't effect us directly."

That concerns critics of U.S. foreign policy, who fear the country may be getting more involved in clandestine activities inside Third World countries.

The Bush administration has recently widened its military involvement in Colombia, for instance, where the government has long been entwined with human rights-abusing paramilitaries. And earlier this year, it offered tacit support - and, reportedly, more direct involvement - in a coup attempt against the leftist Venezuelan government.

Gitlin says the country is entering a period of uncertainty, and the world will be watching to see if the U.S. returns to its gunboat diplomacy ways.

"The Clinton years, in contrast to the Reagan era, brought a more respectful relationship with the rest of the world," Gitlin said. "Now I think what happens in the future is up for grabs."

Bourgeois, the Maryknoll priest, also worries about the future. "Our country is being presented as the good and out there is all the evil. That analysis, without any critique, is going to get us into a lot of trouble."

MARK SOMMER is a Buffalo News reporter.