Global Policy Forum

Fear As Foreign Policy


By John Brown*

June 14, 2005

The Bush administration's confused and confusing foreign policy seems hard to decipher—especially regarding headline-grabbing reports on Abu Ghraib prison and the Guantanamo detainee camp. Some op-eds on the right argue that abuses did not take place there and that, if they did, they were minor and undertaken by isolated individuals, a few rotten apples. Left-leaning pundits blame what they consider horrors on Mr. Bush and the Pentagon. These interpretations, while on the surface dissimilar, share one central false assumption: that the president and his closest aides are embarrassed by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo—so embarrassed that they don't want information about it to become public.

The fact of the matter, however, is that the administration, in its usual unsubtle way of dealing with foreigners, does want the outside world to be aware of what happens if you're "against us": you end up in prison or a detainee camp. Gruesome disclosures about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo serve a purpose: to create the kind of visceral fear abroad about the United States that the administration can exploit in its global "war on terror." It is far safer to be feared than loved, wrote Machiavelli, a far cry from the New Testament but what the Bible-reading president—a firm advocate of capital punishment—seems to ardently believe.

To be sure, at home the administration has done its utmost to disassociate itself from the nastier sides of its overseas detention centers. It has condemned independent accounts on the mistreatment of detainees, claiming, for example, that the Amnesty International report comparing Guantanamo to the Gulag was based on information obtained from—in Bush's words—"people who hate America." As for Abu Ghraib, the president and his aides have downplayed the extent of abuse that took place there when propagandizing the American public, saying its high officials shouldn't be held responsible for it. The subliminal message to domestic audiences is endlessly repeated: we, the Bush administration, didn't do anything wrong, because we are Americans, ipso facto good people who can do no wrong.

While the president keeps pounding into Americans about how he and we can do no wrong, his message to overseas audiences is precisely the opposite: that the United States is ready to do anything to prevail in a world it sees as infiltrated by America's mortal enemies. This was the message behind the bloody invasion of Iraq. It's also the signal underlying the threats of military action against Syria, Iran and North Korea. Years after 9/11, the Bush metaphor for his foreign policy—"us" vs. "them"—is still fully operational. America is in an all-out fight to the finish—against whom precisely has never been made clear—in which hazy ends justify brutal means.

All along, an essential tool of Mr. Bush's planetary struggle against a phantom enemy has been instilling fear of the United States among foreign populations—particularly in the Middle East. "Shock and awe," for example, was the kind of crude and inhumane psychological warfare much favored by the current administration. The military action in Fallujah is a more recent example of using fear to terrorize inhabitants. Displaying what it understands by "soft power," the administration supports an Iraqi state channel, Al-Iraqiya, which airs a violent television program, Terrorism in the Grip of Justice, a gory gallery of "insurgents confessing to a variety of alleged crimes and vices, including pornography and booze" (The Guardian, March 28). This macabre reality show, a post-Saddam Fear Factor produced to terrify viewers, was the brainchild of the commander of Iraq's anti-insurgent Wolf Brigade, Abul Waleed, who on television announced that "We will cut off the arms" of enemies (The Washington Post , May 24). The program has been criticized for violating the Geneva Conventions.

The caveman logic behind this widespread use of fear abroad by the administration is clear: since we, the United States of America, are the world's number one power, the biggest boy on the block, we don't intend to change our policies or our national character for the sake of those who question them. Dialogue or negotiations are out of the question. So, to neutralize those who inevitably and unjustifiably hate us for what we do or who we are, we must scare them to death, part of the process of eventually liquidating them. How accidental is it, therefore, that horrifying pictures of Abu Ghraib were leaked by U.S. military personnel to the press, for "them" (our enemies) throughout the entire world to see? Or that Newsweek , using a Pentagon source, reported that the Koran was flushed down the toilet at Guantanamo? Or that television images of humiliated, roughed-up detainees at "Gitmo," widely displayed throughout the globe thanks to the Pentagon making the facility in part accessible to the world media, remind those who hate us what happens to them if they do?

As to whether the Bush administration's fear-as-foreign-policy has led to a better, safer world—instead of inciting more hate and disdain for the United States—the American soldiers killed in Iraq would give us the obvious answer, if only they were, as we all so dearly wish, still among us.

About the Author: John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, is a research associate at Georgetown's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and compiles the daily "Public Diplomacy Press Review" for the University of Southern California.

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