George Shultz’s Unconvincing Case for the War on Terror

In a recent article, "Sustaining Our Resolve" (Policy Review, August/September 2006), George Shultz, former secretary of state under Ronald Reagan and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, argues for keeping up the war on terror. He also argues that if we are to counter some of the "delusional" conspiracy talk that goes on in the Middle East, we need to be "candid, open, and factually correct." Because his argument is lengthy, I won’t deal with every aspect of it. But this should not be taken to imply either agreement or disagreement with those undealt-with parts. Since Shultz’s argument has received so much attention from those who favor the "war on terror," it warrants a response. I do so in the spirit that Shultz calls for, the spirit of candidness, openness, and factual correctness.

One of Shultz’s key paragraphs is the following:

"The war we are in started a long time ago, although we did not recognize its nature until recently. We witnessed the assassination of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich in 1972, the assault on our embassy in Tehran with Americans taken hostage in 1979, the assassination of President Sadat of Egypt in 1981, the car bomb that killed 243 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983, the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the bombing of our embassies in Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole in the late 1990s. We made no serious response to any of these bloody assaults. In the Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton years, we hit back once or twice with airstrikes or cruise missiles. The enemy was not impressed." (p. 4)

This one short paragraph contains so much confusion and misinformation. Notice that he discusses the "war we are in." What is the first incident he names in that war? The assassination of Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. I do not defend the murderers who did this horrible deed, but how does it connect with the United States? Shultz’s starting with that 1972 event shows a simple failure to distinguish between the country whose people were attacked – Israel – and the United States.

The next item on Shultz’s list is "the assault on our embassy in Tehran" in 1979. Here he’s getting warm because that was, at least, an assault on the U.S. government. And he’s certainly right that this was one of the first steps in the terrorist assault against the United States. But Shultz fails to provide the context for this assault. Did some Iranians just wake up one day and say, out of the blue, "Gee, let’s attack the U.S. embassy?" Or did they make their decision based on what they had seen in the U.S. government’s foreign policy toward their country?

Let me explain. Imagine that, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter, in response to a bill passed by the U.S. Congress, had nationalized some major companies in the United States that were owned by, say, Syrians. Imagine that, two years later, in 1980, some government officials of Syria’s ally, Iran, sent some of their agents to foment rebellion and help install, say, George H.W. Bush as the dictator of the United States. Now imagine that, in 2006, another dictator replaces George H.W. Bush and you, angry at the Iranian government for sabotaging your democracy 26 years earlier, decide to attack the Iranian embassy in Washington. Whatever the morality of such an action, how candid would you think a representative of the Iranian government would be if he criticized your actions as being those of a terrorist and never even mentioned the actions of his own government 26 years earlier?

Why do I give this hypothetical? For two reasons. First, because the best way to see how other people might respond to U.S. government actions is to put yourself in the shoes of these others. Second, because if you change the names and countries of the players, this is not a hypothetical at all. It actually happened, and the U.S. government was a key player in making it happen. In 1951, the Iranian parliament nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh helped carry out the nationalization. In 1953, newly-elected U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, as a favor to the British government, had Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. and Kermit Roosevelt (the latter a CIA employee and a grandson of Teddy Roosevelt) use U.S.-taxpayer dollars to help fund anti-Mossadegh riots. Operation Ajax worked, and the shah, a U.S. government ally from the start, was installed as the dictator of Iran. These facts are relevant for someone who wants a "candid, open, and factually correct discussion." Which raises the question of why Shultz doesn’t even hint at these well-known facts.

Now to Shultz’s third fact, the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Remember that Shultz is trying to make a case that we have been under attack by terrorists. So how does he do that? By pointing to a terrorist attack on a ruthless president of a fairly unfree country. Got it? As Bob Dylan once said, "Wowee! Pretty scary!"

With Shultz’s fourth example, the 243 Marines killed in Lebanon in 1983, he is on firmer ground. But not much firmer. Yes, the Marines were U.S. citizens, but they were essentially at war in Lebanon and were killed by people also at war. It was a sneak attack, but so are many bombings from the air or from ships that both sides in many wars engage in. Again, I hold no brief for those who kill American soldiers – I’ve spent the last 22 years teaching American soldiers and being friends with many of them. But a key characteristic of a terrorist attack – one that even Shultz seems to agree with in most of his article – is that the attack is typically on civilians, not on soldiers at war.

Shultz’s fifth, sixth, and seventh examples – the attack on the U.S. World Trade Center in 1993, the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Africa, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 1999 – are all good examples of terrorist attacks on the United States. They were horrible.

Again, though, as with the case of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, it’s important, if you want to avoid future attacks, to understand why the attacks occurred. If you stuck your hand in a hornets’ nest and got stung, what would you do next? Would you stick your hand in it again, but this time more carefully? Wouldn’t it reasonable to consider not sticking your hand in hornets’ nests at all? Of course, the analogy here is to U.S. foreign policy. Granted, it’s not a perfect analogy. A particular flaw in the analogy is that it isn’t always an innocent American hand being put in the nest: sometimes the hand is itself a swarm of hornets, and sometimes, not always, the nest is occupied by people who start acting like hornets only after being attacked. The old French saying "Cet animal est très méchant; quand on l’attaque, il se défend" is relevant here. Translation: "This animal is very wicked; if you attack it, it defends itself."

But Shultz steadfastly refuses to consider taking the U.S. government hand out of the hornets’ nests around the world. Instead, he advocates that the U.S. government "do a much better job of communicating with the world of Islam."

Notice something else. Shultz’s list of terrorist attacks is highly selective. He mentions only attacks on Israelis, an Egyptian president, and American military and non-military targets. Shultz does not mention, for example, Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli terrorist, who, in 1994, murdered 29 Palestinians while they prayed at Abraham’s Tomb in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Surely Shultz knows this history. Why doesn’t he mention it? Could it be because it messes up his narrative by showing that Israelis can be just as vicious as Muslims? I don’t know, but I would like to know.

In his article, Shultz refers proudly to a 1984 speech he gave as secretary of state under Ronald Reagan. In that speech, Shultz anticipated an increase in terrorism and advocated steps against it. And in this article, Shultz highlights some of these steps, such as "active prevention, preemption, and retaliation." Interestingly, though, he doesn’t mention some of the other content of his 1984 speech that is also relevant today. In particular, three highlights of that speech make one wonder what Shultz thinks of President Bush’s actions since 9/11.

The first is Shultz’s statement, "If terrorists strike here at home, it is a matter for police action and domestic law enforcement." Of course, that’s what many people in the antiwar movement have been saying since (and before) 9/11. Yet, that was not President Bush’s chosen course. Bush chose to attack Afghanistan and, later, to invade Iraq. Yet in his 2006 article, Shultz doesn’t criticize the course Bush took. Which raises the question: was Shultz wrong in 1984, or is Bush wrong today?

Second, in his 1984 speech, Shultz stated, "Those who truly seek peace in the Middle East know that war and violence are no answer." Given that President Bush started a war in the Middle East, would Shultz now be critical of Bush? He doesn’t say in his article, but in other venues he has supported Bush’s war. There are three possible interpretations: (1) Shultz has changed his mind about his earlier statement; (2) Shultz still believes his earlier statement but doesn’t truly seek peace in the Middle East; or (3) Shultz meant that war and violence by terrorists in the Middle East are wrong but that war and violence by governments are fine.

Third, in his 1984 speech, Shultz stated:

"But the terrorist can even be satisfied if a government responds to terror by clamping down on individual rights and freedoms. Governments that overreact, even in self-defense, may only undermine their own legitimacy, as they unwittingly serve the terrorists’ goals. The terrorist succeeds if a government responds to violence with repressive, polarizing behavior that alienates the government from the people."

Here, the question is whether Shultz thinks, given President Bush’s and Congress’ clamping-down on individual rights and freedoms with the USA PATRIOT Act and NSA spying, that the terrorists have succeeded and that Bush and Congress have overreacted.

Many people who support Bush’s and Congress’ war in Iraq make a lot of sloppy arguments for their case. Among them are Bill O’Reilly, Morton Kondracke, Fred Barnes, and Sean Hannity, all of Fox News Channel, countless members of Congress, officials in the Bush administration, and former officials in the Clinton administration. But George Shultz is a smart man not prone to sloppiness. This should encourage those of us who oppose the war. After all, if Shultz’s case is the best the pro-war side can offer, then we who oppose the war have already won the debate.

Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at