The vagueness of the “war on terror” is easily the greatest known-but-hardly-reported scandal of the Bush administration. Words like “terror,” “terrorism,” and “terrorist” have no singular definitions, and Team Bush has added to the confusion with uses that conflict with official U.S. policy. For instance, the State Department’s definition of “terrorism” excludes acts committed by governments, yet U.S. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have both talked about “terrorist states.”
This is hardly a smart way to fight a war if the goal is victory. A defined enemy is necessary, even if that definition changes as events and information warrant. If you don’t know whom you are fighting, how can you possibly know when you have beaten them? However, if the goal is an all-purpose excuse for various wars, the vagueness of “war on terror” makes perfect sense. As a warblogger might say, “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”
Thor Halvorssen’s recent Weekly Standard piece on “[Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez’s ongoing support of terrorism” illustrates this point well. Whereas even the majority of the most dedicated supporters of the “war on terror” likely view al-Qaeda as the most dangerous terrorist group, Halvorssen tells us that this honor goes to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and that the Colombian government’s victory over this group is "unlikely" as long as Chavez supports them. FARC, Halvorssen tells us, has even killed Americans who were in Colombia, which apparently makes them a “threat” to the U.S.
Halvorssen’s argument might have the smallest bit of merit if the events in Colombia were not significantly different from what he describes. FARC is a group involved in a long-running civil war in Colombia, and it dates back to 1964. The group’s history is rooted in both the politics of Colombia and the Marxist guerilla movements of the 20th century, so it is hardly the creation of Chavez. The government of Colombia has a long history of human rights abuses, which didn’t stop the U.S. from exporting hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the Colombian government between 1989 and 1999. Since 2000, the U.S. has spent over $3 billion on “Plan Colombia,” a program intended, in the name of battling narcotics, to help the Colombian government fight, among other things, FARC.
One needn’t be a supporter of FARC to see that the U.S. government has taken sides against the rebels. Naturally, FARC does not look kindly on the U.S., yet there is no information indicating that FARC seeks to attack U.S. civilians. Quite simply, there is no reason to think they are a “terrorist” threat to the U.S.
But logic and evidence are rarely taken into consideration by supporters of the “war on terror” when they write in places like The Weekly Standard. Largely because of such writers, the idea that Saddam Hussein’s now-deposed government was a “threat” to the U.S. is a given in most popular discussions, even though the facts indicate otherwise. Halvorssen apparently wants to make a similar “threat” out of Chavez’s government, as he ends the piece with a call for the State Department to get tough.
This is undoubtedly connected to the hawks’ desire for the State Department to become more interventionist under new chief Condoleezza Rice than it was under Colin Powell. What would broader intervention in Colombia and Venezuela entail? As stated above, the U.S. already aids the government of Colombia. The U.S. has also kept its eye on Chavez’s government in Venezuela. As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research laid out clearly in a Dec. 8, 2004 piece, the Bush administration had foreknowledge of a 2002 coup attempt against Chavez and gave rhetorical support to the architects of the coup, which eventually failed. (How overthrowing the democratically elected Chavez fits in with Bush’s supposed love of democracy is unclear. Perhaps it falls under the Musharraf exception.)
In a Dec. 29, 2004 ZNet article, Sohan Sharma and Surinder Kumar put forward the idea that the U.S. is using Colombia as a proxy for overthrowing the government of its neighbor to the east. The advantage to this approach is that the U.S. could claim to be “hands off" while both rearranging Venezuela’s economy and political culture and avoiding the heavy military and political costs of an outright invasion. Ironically, the Bush administration could claim that U.S. military overextension in Afghanistan and Iraq is the reason it can do nothing about the situation in Venezuela.
Of course, this type of behavior didn’t begin with the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” but this concept of war does provide an easy all-purpose justification for conflicts that would otherwise need individual justifications. (The real motivations economic, ideological, and political are not spoken in public, of course.) Venezuela can be a “terrorist state” because practically anything can be “terrorist” when there is no definition of the word other than what the Bush administration offers at the moment.
Those opposed to the broad nature of the “war on terror” would be wise to spend less time debating the merits of particular actions and more time refuting the overall concept. It is war without end.