Friday’s Events: The Legacy and Rules of American Foreign Policy and 21 Questions for Would-Be Presidents


Friday brought news which highlighted how our longtime counterterrorism strategies have created alliances and outcomes destroying world order and peace. First came the release of the 29 pages from a joint Congressional inquiry on Saudi Arabian involvement in 9-11. Completed in December 2002, it preceded the Iraq War by less than three months. It became available to the public with some redactions on Friday: even as other competing news included the upcoming Republican Convention, Congress’ seven-week recess, and an attempted Turkish coup. Hillary Clinton redirected attention away from all foreign policy also by saying she will introduce an amendment to overturn Citizens United. But though neither party wants to examine the report and the Turkish situation, critical questions (numbered below) should be asked of all aspiring presidents to avoid continuing our record of foreign policy disasters.


The 29 pages are a fascinating read that seems to provide incontrovertible evidence of significant ties. They tie Saudi government officers (and others at high levels of government) to the 9-11 hijackers, who had minimal English skills and exposure to the US. It calls the gap in US intelligence coverage “unacceptable.” The oil-rich kingdom’s support for terrorism was ignored, it says, because the Saudi Arabia was considered America’s “ally.”

The report ties the highest levels of the Saudi government to major money laundering and financing, and government representatives to ground help for driver’s licenses, housing, and flight school access. The US has responded by quoting the September 11 Commission Report published a year and a half later, saying they found no evidence the “Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded” Al Qaeda – an opening so big one could fly an airliner through it. Even so, that commission was under extreme pressure that they say prevented them from fully investigating the Saudi role. Additionally, Staff Director Philip Zelikow fired an investigator into the Saudi role. Finally, the US faced major obstruction by the Saudis, as cited in the Inquiry report.

  1. Is Saudi Arabia or has it been a State Sponsor of Terrorism? 2. Should we not have a line-by-line rebuttal of each link made within the report?


3.Would publishing this information on Saudi Arabia — from whom 15 of the 19 hijackers originated –have stopped the Iraq invasion? This is a critical – if unanswerable – question. The American-championed and led invasion – with a smattering of outside help – has led to millions of deaths, destabilized the Middle East, led to millions of refugees across Europe and the Middle East, contributed to the rise of European right-wing parties across Europe, to major terror attacks, and to Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. That’s heavy lifting for one unjustified invasion, especially one in which “Mission Accomplished” was declared by President George W. Bush after just two months.

A quick review: Almost 1000 false statements – notably claiming Iraq had links to al-Qaeda or was trying to get “weapons of mass destruction” — were made by President George W. Bush and seven other top administration officials to sell the Iraq War in the two years following 9-11. Those deceptive actions led to 72 percent of Americans supporting the war, and redirected blame from the nation most responsible (and most highlighted in the congressional inquiry).

The costs have been enormous. An estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives in the first 18 months of the Iraq invasion due to airstrikes. The Iraqi death toll was estimated as 650,000 in October 2006, with an almost 4 million of the 25 million citizens becoming either internally displaced or refugees. The US equivalent – scaled for population – would be 8 million Americans dying and 30 million fleeing their homes. Syria was destabilized by the flow of extremists and arms provided by the United States: an estimated $25 billion was spent arming and training the Iraqi security forces and army, with hundreds of thousands of rifles and pistols unaccounted for, as well as Humvees, pickup trucks, tanks and other equipment. Reportedly then arms were smuggled to Syrian rebels through Libya in a CIA operation to arm Syrian rebels, with subsequent arming of extremist groups al Nusra and al Qaeda becoming “unavoidable.” Syria has been massive devastated (the visuals are shattering), along with Iraq and other nations. About 10 million Syrians alone have been displaced, with half fleeing their country in what has driven the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The world has failed to come anywhere close to full funding of their humanitarian needs and providing for their resettlement. The refugee crisis has overwhelmed neighboring and accessible nations, promoting the rise of the right-wing across Europe and contributing to Brexit.

  1. How could a hankering for access to oil and hegemonic power have led to such chaos and suffering? (not fully rhetorical as we’ve never come to terms with it.) 5. How will we investigate our role and provide accountability, which even recently released British Chilcot Report falls short of, although it does far more than mimic our focus on “intelligence failures?”


Of course, a recent move toward accountability has taken a crazy course as the US and Saudi governments seek to protect the poor Saudis from the families of 9-11 victims(!). Recently a bill passed the US Senate unanimously (unheard of for something so substantive) to make it easier for families of the 9-11 victims to sue the Saudi government. Yet President Obama is threatening to veto it and working with Republican House leaders to prevent its passage. The Saudis, in turn, are threatening to dump US assets, should it pass.  If the Saudis have no involvement, as both nations claim, then why these extraordinary measures?

Or for would-be presidents: 6. Is the threat of selling off US treasuries terrorism? 7. What is your position on the bill? 8. Will you press for a vote on it, and when and how?

This comes also after the largest ever US arms deal with Saudi Arabia, even as the Saudis export Wahhabism abroad, spending far more than the Russians ever did. The leading Democratic nominee once recognized this: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote: “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” She went on: “More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups.”

  1. What are we going to do about our funding of Saudi Arabian arms, in light of the Leahy Amendment and clear national priorities to stop terrorism?


These actions are all the more pressing given the history of our direct and substantive support for terrorism: US aid to militant Islamists preceded and prompted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. According to President Jimmy Carter’s national security aide Zbigniew Brzezinski, these militant Islamists were the recipients of 70 percent of US aid. The war included drafting US and foreign jihadi fighters to go overseas. The rebels were 40 percent funded by our old partner, the Saudis, in a war that would claim one million Afghans and affect Egypt and other countries as men exported from these nations were then re-imported as radicalized fighters, to their dismay. These actions led to the destabilization and intense support of Syria through our allies of Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Even in terms of small arms the US helps terrorists: an al Qaeda member has spoken of how easy it is to buy guns in America. 10. How will we prevent access of guns by groups seeking political change through violence abroad?

These realities and the report highlight contradictions in which our illegal National Security State surveillance represents what would have been the East German Stasi secret police’s “dream come true.” Individuals have been prosecuted for cooking and providing socks (“material support”) and aiding al Qaeda before it was enemy, as Mohamedou Ould Slahi documented in his “Guantánamo Diary.” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s phone line was tapped by the US as was Petrobras; it’s easy to believe that they contributed to her shocking removal after just two months (an action four months later would have led to new elections rather than her vice president taking over and installing a male-dominated, right-wing government.)

  1. What is the size and role of the largely unaccountable national security state and what should it be (in terms of size, role, and accountability)?

Yet while we’ve worked with the Saudis and Turks on a major scale to support terrorist groups, the US has escalated the fight against peaceful activists at home promoting justice, equality and climate action — the last a supposedly paramount aspiration, according to the Paris accords. The government has expanded the monitoring and targeting of #blacklivesmatter activists, those sympathetic with the movement but likely exercising free speech rights, environmental groups, and Muslim groups. (Even my phone appears blocked from accessing Facebook, and n’t words disappear as I’m typing posts. Most hilariously, my browser hung yesterday as I played John Lennon’s “Imagine”.)


The attempted coup in Turkey Friday also, which it appears will be followed by a brutal suppression, raises critical questions, especially as US is said to work closely with military leadership seeking a new government. Democratically elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks the extradiction of Pennsylvania based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen who he says was behind the failed coup attempt. What would we do? As constitutional scholar Glenn Greenwald said in promoting Jeremy Scahill’s book “The Assassination Complex”, President Obama “has institutionalized a program where now we don’t only just imprison people without any charges or due process, we don’t just eavesdrop on them — which was one of big critiques of the Bush administration — without first giving them due process or a trial, we now just target them for execution, for death, for a death penalty.” He points out the lack of trial and constitutional rights. Obama “has embraced a policy that says that he can literally go around the world, target people for death anywhere in the world that he wants — including places where we’re not at war, including even American citizens — and simply eradicate their lives based on his order.” Our drone warfare has also been questioned by United Nations’ Special Rapporteurs and human rights organizations for its compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.

  1. Was this cleric involved and was the United States involved in this coup attempt, (as we’ve been involved in the deaths of 20-30 million people in about 40 countries since World War II through war or the provision of arms and training)? 13. Would we claim from an international perspective – one in which we essentially assert the world is our battlefield – that such a Turkish strike on US soil would be legal, and why or why not? 14. If the CIA was involved and would that justify an attack on their headquarters – why or why not? 15. Had the military coup had succeeded, would we have cut off all assistance to the government as is required by law? 16. How do we interpret the rule to cut off assistance, in light of what is been widely regarded as Honduran and Egyptian coups?

I ask these questions not because I want violence within the United States – we know “Bombing People Causes People to Hate You” both methodologically and logically – and the experiences of this millennium provide a tragic case study in extensive and cascading fear, suffering, and death. Personally, many of us (including me) believe in peace. But I also believe assertions of our exceptionalism – advocated by both individuals expected to win their respective nomination – leave us on a morally weak ground, one that might, beyond its indefensibility, be all the more dangerous with a global shakeup: longtime foreign policy ally Britain is exiting the European Union and the BRICs have risen as potent global forces.


Lastly one must consider how such events affect rhetoric on the home front. Even as Donald Trump has amped up his rhetoric to unimaginable levels to rid the nation of immigrants and Muslims (violations of international and human rights law), we should examine the demographic committing violence here. In this nation, 99 percent of mass shooters and 90 percent of homicides are committed by men, despite women being poorer and much more frequent victims of violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports an 892 hate groups exist with the overwhelming majority being white supremacist or Christian in orientation, despite longtime structural institutional racism that has led to far greater poverty (with black households having 1/13th of the wealth of whites), far higher rates of mass incarceration for the same crimes, and greater state violence – as well as a historical record of slavery and discrimination. Women too are victims: 40 percent of mass shooters target former or current romantic partners even as we repeatedly downplay the link between mass violence and hatred of and violence against women.  Men with military ties have participated in recent shootings and it’s tough to believe violence of video games, entertainment and porn — with its links in some to desensitization and increased appetite for violence — are not linked to a violent mindset.

  1. Would it be more logical to ban men, or white men, from their homeland if one truly sought to end violence (said somewhat facetiously)? 18. What is being done to target those organized hate groups across the board, including those promoting white supremacy? 19. How are we decreasing the need for military fighters – within the constraints of humanitarian law – and how are we reintegrating them into our society? 20. How can we create a society with less violence against women? 21. How do we address violence against women that has skyrocketed in intensity and accessibility in our cultural entertainment?

The United States is great at focusing on any sort of carnage and blaming ISIS, one of hundreds of groups in Syria, and building alliances with Sunni states. Current events show the futility of such shallow, narrow thinking. Leaders must grapple with our past through truth and reconciliation commissions, investigations, and accountability rather than promoting same catastrophic policies. They must declare an allegiance to international law and willingness for their citizens to be tried for war crimes (through the International Criminal Court and other mechanisms). They must shift military resources to domestic priorities within a nation that is hurting, rather than using resources to violently secure and expand corporate gains. Our lack of a coherent domestic policy has led to the rise of the radical right here at home. Such weakness in foreign policy is harming the nation and the world irreparably also. But it need not be so: leaders can pursue humane and effective solutions to our greatest challenges.


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Veena Trehan writes on policy and the responsibilities of politicians and institutions. She has written for Reuters, Bloomberg News and NPR. Trehan is an active citizen with a passion for issues including inequality and human rights, environmental justice, and the safety of women on college campuses. Before her career in journalism, she worked in government consulting and information technology. Trehan studied Electrical Engineering at MIT and did a Master’s in Journalism on a Reuters Fellowship.