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The Counterterrorists at the Fletcher School
The Reagan administration's new terrorism policy

Jeff McConnell

We are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence–on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice…"

With these words, uttered just over twenty-five years ago in the aftermath of the failed U.S. invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs John F. Kennedy signaled that start of what has been called "the counterinsurgency era." The fiasco at the Bay of Pigs convinced the new administration that it was unprepared for the "limited" conflicts it would need to fight in order to save friendly regimes from the growing number of wars of national liberation. In early 1962 a special White House committee was set up to develop counterinsurgency doctrine and guide the foreign affairs community in implementing it. The effort was to be two-pronged. Counter-guerrilla warfare would hold back the "scavengers of the modernization process" (as antigovernment insurgents were called), while Washington urged reform on threatened regimes and pumped in development assistance. Communism was said to be "a disease of the transition to modernization"; counterinsurgency was its cure.

For the military, this implied a radical break with existing doctrine, which was premised on seizing and holding territory from behind well-defined fronts of battle. In a guerrilla war, there were no fronts, no occupied territories; guerrillas had to be fought everywhere. Accordingly, the Pentagon created elite counterguerrilla forces such as the Air Commandos, the Army Green Berets, and the Navy SEALS, and trained them for combat with only the weapons they could carry. Ideally, these forces were also to be involved both in "advising" local armies and in assisting local civilian populations–an adjunct to U.S. development assistance designed to win "hearts and minds." Failing this, there were "strategic hamlets," heavily fortified areas to which villagers were relocated lest they aid the insurgents with food, intelligence, and recruits–"to dry up the sea of friendly peasantry," in the parlance of the time.

Much of the intellectual groundwork for this policy had been laid in Boston at the MIT Center for International Studies, which was set up in 1952 in cooperation with the CIA to research political, economic, and social change throughout the world. The ties between the center and the Kennedy administration were considerable. Both McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, and Richard Bissell, whose report led to the special White House committee, had helped create the center and maintained informal connections. MIT professor Walt W. Rostow, who invented the "transition to modernization" model, went first to the White House and then to State; in each place he developed and promoted counterinsurgency doctrine. The National Interdepartmental Seminar, which delivered special instruction in counterinsurgency to the foreign affairs community, was staffed with faculty drawn from the MIT center.

Counterinsurgency theory, elegant as it appeared on paper, lost favor upon Kennedy’s death, and the whole enterprise ran aground in Vietnam. In its prime, it had received the attention and financial resources of a significant portion of the social science establishment; afterwards, many defense intellectuals moved back to big-war issues like arms control, conventional warfare in Europe, and the security of Persian Gulf oil.

But under Ronald Reagan, interest in small wars (now referred to as "low intensity conflicts") has resumed, propelled by current preoccupations with Central America, East Asia, and certain Arab states. Besides counterinsurgency, a second kind of low-intensity conflict, pro-insurgency, has caught Washington’s fancy, resulting in covert wars against unfriendly regimes (in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Chad, and Nicaragua) on a scale not imagined since the "rollback" policy of the early 1950s. However, the biggest change in government policy has involved a kind of conflict which was previously overlooked by the Pentagon: terrorism.

It is worth recalling how this change began. On April 3, 1984, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 138, secretly authorizing preemptive and retaliatory action against terrorists and states sponsoring terrorism. The signing occurred one year after a car bomb destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, wiping out the entire CIA station and most of Washington’s intelligence capacity in Lebanon; and eight months after another car bomb leveled a U.S. marine barracks there, killing two hundred and forty-one soldiers and ultimately forcing U.S. military withdrawal. This second bombing led to the creation of a defense department commission which concluded, much as the Kennedy White House had years before, that the United States faced "a new form of warfare" requiring "an active national policy . . . to deter attack and reduce its effectiveness," and "supported by . . . a wide range of timely military response capabilities." The immediate result was Reagan’s 1984 directive. No longer would counter-terrorism be a matter for the intelligence and law-enforcement communities alone. Now the U.S. government had a military policy of counterterrorism.

The measures undertaken to implement the new policy have also been reminiscent of the counterinsurgency era. Elite units such as Special Force Delta and its successors were set up in the Army and Navy to carry out commando raids on hijacked airliners and terrorist groups. Antiterrorist training has been given to local forces in over a dozen countries, and in one country, Lebanon, a hit squad was set up under CIA direction to attack anti-American terrorists. Troop training has since 1984 incorporated material on terrorism and ways to defend against terrorist attack.

The new policy on counterterrorism could not have come at a better time for the Reagan Administration. Its effort to end the so-called "Vietnam syndrome" had blown up in Lebanon. Support in Congress for the war against Nicaragua was at an all-time low. There was new interest at the White House in eliminating Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, but opposition from Congress and from key factions inside the CIA were blocking a full-scale campaign. Though the 1984 directive had been drafted with more limited purposes in mind, administration planners now saw in it a way to resuscitate its foreign adventures.

Yet the policy lacked a rationale large enough to sustain so much. It was one thing to make a case for commando assaults against hijacked airliners, quite another to sell military action all over the world as counterterrorism. What was needed was an ideological framework for the new policy that would spell out terrorism’s threat in way clear enough to enlist popular sympathy and, at the same time, comprehensive enough to justify action against all the Third World nations that Washington opposed. Academics were not lacking to supply the need.

Once again, the Third World was a legitimate arena for direct and indirect U.S. military force; issues could be discussed that had been out of fashion since Vietnam. Nowhere has this new intellectual enterprise been more enthusiastically pursued than at the Fletcher School of Law Diplomacy at Tufts University, where a handful of scholars are bidding fair to assume the old mantle of the MIT center.

The Fletcher School’s Program for International Security Studies, established in the late years of the Vietnam was under the direction of Professor Uri Ra’anan, a former Israeli diplomat, and the closely associated Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Cambridge, set up in 1976 by Ra’anan’s colleague Robert Pfaltzgraff, have, with the generous financial assistance of the conservative Scaife Family Charitable Trusts, sought to develop an intellectual basis for the use of American military power in the post-Vietnam period. Politically, Ra’anan and Pfaltzgraff have been closely associated with the neoconservative agenda in foreign policy, and in 1980 both joined presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s advisory team on foreign and military issues. Since Reagan’s election, they and their colleagues in Medford and Cambridge have enjoyed unusual access to Washington officials.

Just over a year ago, Ra’anan and company sponsored a conference in Cambridge to give the new view on terrorism its first systematic exposition. Among the presenters were journalists, current and former government officials, and foreign affairs consultants, in addition to faculty members from Ra’anan’s program and several other universities. Their contributions were recently published under the title Hydra of Carnage by Lexington Books–a subsidiary of Raytheon Corporation, a Waltham-based military contractor which is a key corporate supporter of Ra’anan’s program.

What is the terrorism doctrine developed by the Fletcher group and the other conferees? As described in the book’s introduction, it is that terrorism is "part of a wider problem of surrogate warfare against Western and pro-Western governments, with the primary aim of destabilization and eventual delegitimation." The international communist conspiracy has, in short, become an international terrorist conspiracy. The latter is not controlled by the Soviet Union directly, the way the former was once supposed to be, but is alleged to receive heavy Soviet support and to serve many Soviet ends. The purpose of the conference was to describe this "problem of surrogate warfare," terrorism’s place in it, and the appropriate kinds of tough responses, including military ones.

Whereas counterinsurgency theory was touted as social science, investigating ways of building up nations against guerrilla takeover, counterterrorism theory makes no such pretense. There is nothing here parallel to a theory of modernization. And concern for the psychological sphere, which figures prominently in most other treatments of terrorism, is also missing. Ra’anan and his colleagues write that, in contrast to such treatments, they had taken pains to steer the conference away from questions about "the ostensible causes and political aims of terrorists [or] their ‘psychological profile,’ sermons on how to negotiate with terrorists, . . . and, most of all, regurgitations of morally neutral definitions of terrorism . . . ." These approaches are considered worse than irrelevant to the thesis that terrorism is a form of surrogate warfare; they are said to undermine it, by regarding terrorists and their victims with "ethical neutrality" and resorting to terminology which helps "reduce legal governments to a position no higher . . . than is occupied by those who assail them."

For these theorists, the central issue is terrorism’s "international linkages." And not all of those. One looks in vain, for example, for any mention of terrorist operations by Cuban exile groups based in the United States. Nor is there discussion of the physical attacks and intimidation campaigns launched against Korean, Taiwanese, and Chilean dissidents residing in the U.S. by their home governments, often with the acquiescence of federal authorities; nor of the victims of state terrorism in such U.S. allies as Haiti, Indonesia, and Turkey; nor of the terrorism practices by U.S.-funded rebels in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Nicaragua. These omissions were not an oversight. In response to an incorrect report in the Tufts newspaper that the book included the United States among governments sponsoring international terrorism, Ra’anan replied by letter: "Nothing could be further from the contents of our work." Indeed, since terrorism is characterized "as part of a wider problem of surrogate warfare against Western and pro-Western governments," Washington and its allies would seem to be exonerated of complicity in terrorism by definition.

The "international linkages" that do fall under the definition occur at three levels, according to the view expounded at the Fletcher conference. Terrorism is said to be carried out by a network of terrorist groups, which work in close coordination; these groups, in turn, are said to be sponsored by a number of states like Libya, Nicaragua, Iran, Cuba, and Bulgaria, which provide training, weapons, money, and asylum; and finally, there is the omnipresence of the Soviet Union, always making sure that the infrastructure of groups and sponsoring states function effectively to create a climate of fear in the West.

The Soviet connection is crucial. Once that is established, so is the danger of national security: an attack by some anonymous extremist group becomes an act of war by a surrogate of America’s chief enemy. But while the Soviet connection was repeatedly discussed at the Fletcher conference, little was added to the considerable speculation that already fills the popular press. The "first hand" accounts from defectors, filling much of the latter half of the book, have the same problems of credibility as all such accounts. Who are these people? What are their motives? What corroboration can be found for what they say? These questions are not addressed. And the large number of captured documents reprinted here, if they can be authenticated, show Soviet support for the political goals of terrorists perhaps but not for their tactics.

What remains of the case for the Soviet connection rests less on fact than on innuendo. Consider this argument form journalist Claire Sterling, whose 1981 book, The Terror Network, was one of the first works to argue for the Soviet hand in terrorism and who has since been the main defender of the Bulgarian connection to the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. "In the case of [PLO leader Yassir] Arafat, you have Palestinian weapons being delivered to the terrorists of Western Europe, and you have one of the leaders of the Italian terrorist movement, now a repentant terrorist, in prison, saying, ‘Never, and again, never, could these Palestinians have given us these weapons, which are from the Soviet Bloc, without the knowledge and consent of the Soviet leadership.’" This "indisputable evidence" — along with "a direct KGB connection" to Libya, which runs guns in Western Europe, and the fact that these gunrunning operations "unmistakably . . . serv[e] Soviet interests" — makes it "inconceivable that the countries of Western Europe continue to refuse to concede that there is a Soviet connection" to terrorist groups based there. We are never told why we should believe the speculation of an imprisoned Italian terrorist, what the KGB tie to gunrunning is, how Palestinian and Libyan gunrunning serves Soviet interest, or why it is important that it does.

Proponents of the new view on terrorism are only too aware of what journalist Michael Ledeen called, in his presentation, the "operation importance" of the debate over the Soviet connection. Thus Pfaltzgraff, summarizing the "policy implications" of the "international linkages" invoked at the conference, asserted that on the basis of the evidence the United States is left with no alternative but to: "encourage . . . insurgency operations [against] Soviet-supported states"; "provide on a continuous basis public information about the extent of . . . Soviet involvement [in terrorism]"; "support efforts to destabilize and, if possible, replace the present Libyan regime"; and "develop the required assets necessary to assist friendly governments threatened by insurgents sponsored by Moscow and its surrogates."

Counterterrorism is the counterinsurgency of the eighties. Yet the task undertaken by the counterterrorism theorists is much simpler than that of their sixties forebears. The latter tried to show empirically how Third World nations could evolve into Western-style democracies without being taken over during the process by anti-Western insurgents. They failed, but their theories were falsifiable by the evidence of that failure. The international terrorist conspiracies proposed by the Fletcher scholars, like most conspiracy theories, are not falsifiable. Success or failure seems to be measured here not by how well they conform to reality while guiding action but by how well they promote popular support for action. In this respect, the contributors to the Fletcher conference are not analysts so much as propagandists, setting out articles of faith. There is a place for that, perhaps, but one wonders about the appropriateness of permitting it in the respectability of an academic setting.

Originally Published in October/November 2001 issue of the Boston Review



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