Singing the Bite Me Song

« MUST-READ/VIEW: BBC: "The Power of Nightmares" | Main | Protect your site from Google's new toolbar »

January 27, 2005

Part 2 of BBC's "The Power of Nightmares"

I remain simply mesmerized by this series. I got busy and was delayed putting transcript excerpts up here, but I'm seeing threads in Part 2 that I don't want to forget, and this is a way to remember them, and keep the ideas available in the world.

As before, I'm watching the streaming version at Information Clearing House,, with transcripts provided by

So here we go with Part Two:

The Power of Nightmares Part II

Part II: The Phantom Victory

Broadcast - BBC 2 - 10/27/04 - Written and produced by Adam Curtis

The Power of Nightmares continues its assessment of whether the threat from a hidden and organised terrorist network is an illusion. Part two, the Phantom Victory looks at how two groups, radical Islamists and neo-conservatives with seemingly opposing ideologies came together to defeat a common enemy.

Among the many foreigners drawn to Afghanistan was a young, wealthy Saudi called Osama Bin Laden.

Part II: The Phantom Victory
Wednesday 27 October
2100 BST on BBC Two

Transcript: VO: In the past, politicians promised to create a better world. They had different ways of achieving this. But their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered their people. Those dreams failed. And today, people have lost faith in ideologies. Increasingly, politicians are seen simply as managers of public life. But now, they have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares. They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand. And the greatest danger of all is international terrorism. A powerful and sinister network, with sleeper cells in countries across the world. A threat that needs to be fought by a war on terror. But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It’s a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services, and the international media.

VO: This is a series of films about how and why that fantasy was created, and who it benefits. At the heart of the story are two groups: the American neoconservatives, and the radical Islamists. In this week’s episode, the two groups come together to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. And both believe that they defeat the Evil Empire, and so had the power to transform the world.

[ SUBTITLE OVER CROWD SCENE : We will fight for an Islamic State, we will die for it! ]

VO: But both failed in their revolutions. In response, the neoconservatives invent a new fantasy enemy, Bill Clinton, to try and regain their power; while the Islamists descend into a desperate cycle of violence and terror to try and persuade the people to follow them. Out of all this come the seeds of the strange world of fantasy, deception, violence, and fear in which we now live.



AFGHAN BOY (holding a gun and making gun noises): Ka-choo! Daga daga daga daga! Pum pum pum! (etc.)

VO: In 1982, Ronald Reagan dedicated the Space Shuttle Columbia to the resistance fighters in Afghanistan.

President RONALD REAGAN : Just as the Columbia, we think, represents man’s finest aspirations in the field of science and technology, so too does the struggle of the Afghan people represent man’s highest aspirations for freedom. I am dedicating, on behalf of the American people, the March 22nd launch of the Columbia to the people of Afghanistan.

VO: Since 1979, the mujaheddin resistance had been fighting a vicious war in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion. But now, a small group in the Reagan White House saw in these fighters a way of achieving their vision of transforming the world. To them, they were not just nationalists; they were freedom fighters, who could bring down the Soviet Union and help spread democracy around the world. It was called the Reagan Doctrine.

JACK WHEELER , Adviser to the Reagan White House, 1981-1984: It was a small group of people and—yes, we did have. Everyone thinks, “oh, the Reagan Doctrine, the Reagan Administration,” like everybody was for. No. It was a small little cabal within the Soviet—within the Reagan White House, that really pulled this off. What united this small group of ours was the vision of bringing more freedom to the world, more security to the world, to actually get rid of the Soviet Union itself. As a result, supporting the freedom fighters became the premier cause for the entire conservative movement during the Reagan years.

VO: But the Americans were setting out to defeat a mythological enemy. As last week’s episode showed, the neoconservatives, who were now in power in Reagan’s White House, had created an exaggerated and distorted vision of the Soviet Union as the source of all evil in the world. One of their main influences were the theories of the philosopher Leo Strauss. He believed that liberal societies needed simple, powerful myths to inspire and unite the people. And in the 1970s, the neoconservatives had done just this. Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and other neoconservatives had set out to reassert the myth of America as a unique country, whose destiny was to struggle against evil throughout the world. Now in power, they had come to believe this myth. They saw themselves as revolutionaries who were going to transform the world, starting with the defeat of the Evil Empire.

RICHARD PERLE , Assistant Secretary of Defense 1981-1987: We’re closer to being revolutionaries than conservatives, in the sense that we want to change some deeply entrenched notions about the proper role of American power in the world. We want to see that power used constructively, and to enlarge the opportunity for decent governance around the world. We’re not happy about the old, cozy relationships with dictators.

VO: And the man who was going to help the neoconservatives do this was the new head of the CIA, William Casey. He was convinced that Afghanistan was one of the keys to this aggressive new policy. America was already sending limited amounts of aid to the mujaheddin. But now, Casey ordered one of his agents to go and form an alliance with the freedom fighters, and give them as much money as they wanted and the most sophisticated weapons to defeat the Soviet military forces.

MILTON BEARDEN , CIA Field Officer, Afghanistan, 1985-89: For Casey, Afghanistan seemed to be possibly one of the keys. So he tapped me one day to go. He says, “I want you to go out to Afghanistan, I want you to go next month, and I will give you whatever you need to win.” Yeah. He said, “I want you go to there and win.” As opposed to, “let’s go there and bleed these guys,” make a [unintelligible] Vietnam, “I want you to go there and win. Whatever you need, you can have.” He gave me the Stinger missiles and a billion dollars.


VO : American money and weapons now began to pour across the Pakistan border into Afghanistan. CIA agents trained the mujaheddin in the techniques of assassination and terror, including car bombing. And they gave them satellite images of Russian troops to help in their attacks.

[ SUBTITLE OVER AFGHAN WAR SCENE : Move your fat arse and shoot the f…ing rocket!]

VO: At the very same time, another group began to arrive in Afghanistan to fight alongside the mujaheddin. They were Arabs from across the Middle East, who had been told by their religious leaders that their duty was to go and free Muslim lands from the Soviet invader.


VO: Abdullah Azzam was a charismatic religious leader who had begun to organize the Arab volunteers in Afghanistan. He had set up what he called the Services Bureau, in Peshawar on the Afghan border. It became the headquarters of an international brigade of Arab fighters. Azzam quickly became one of the most powerful figures in the battle against the Soviets. He was allowed to visit America on many occasions, both to raise funds and recruit volunteers for the jihad.

Dr. AZZAM TAMIMI , Institute of Islamic Political Thought: When, Abdullah Azzam became so instrumental in marketing the Afghan cause among the Arabs, he became very important. He became called “the emir of the Arab mujaheddin.” The leader of the Arab mujaheddin. And he set up an office in Peshawar which provided services to Arabs who came and wanted to participate in the jihad. There were no doors closed, so all doors were opened, because the Americans, the Saudis, the Pakistanis, and many other people wanted the Soviet Union to lose in Afghanistan, and to be humiliated. That brought about huge numbers of Arabs from different backgrounds in the jihad in Afghanistan. He went to America, he went to Saudi Arabia, he traveled wherever he wanted, because the Afghan cause was a cause that everybody was happy supporting.

VO: But like the neoconservatives, Azzam also saw the struggle against the Soviets as just the first step in a much wider revolution. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who wanted Islam to play a political role in governing Muslim societies. And Abdullah Azzam believed that the Arabs in Afghanistan could be the nucleus of a new political force. They would return to their own countries and persuade the people to reject the corrupt, autocratic regimes that dominated the Middle East. But these regimes, Azzam insisted, must be overthrown by political means. He made every fighter pledge they would not use terrorism against civilians in the pursuit of their vision. One of Azzam’s closest aides was a Saudi, Osama bin-Laden.

ANAS : Osama came to participate in ‘85. When he was—when he came, as you know, he is, he came from a rich family from Saudi, and he had much, much money to spend. Sheikh Abdullah Azzam was a scholar, he can organize the Afghans, but he is not a rich man. So when Osama came, he filled in this gap. So the main duty of Osama at that time was spending money. Beside his good personal qualities.

VO: But then, in 1985, a new force began to arrive in Afghanistan, who were going to challenge Azzam’s approach. They were the extreme radical Islamists, who were being expelled from prisons across the Arab world.

BEARDEN : And then, very quietly, most of the governments in the Middle East, the Arab governments, began to empty their prisons of their bad guys and send them off to the jihad with the very fondest hope that they would become martyred. Many of them were the people in Egypt that had not been executed after the murder of Sadat, but were implicated in it and had been in prison. Off they go.

When I read this, I thought to myself, I wonder when the Bush administration will start eyeing US prison populations when the troops get too low in Iraq. It is already dangerously low, but it makes me wonder if they aren’t thinking about offering early release to anyone who would agree to be shipped directly to Iraq, or work as sadistic guards in the new invisible US system of off-shore gulags.

VO: One of the most powerful of these newcomers was Ayman Zawahiri. He was the leader of a radical faction from Egypt called Islamic Jihad. And he was convinced that they, not the moderates, were the true Islamists.

ANAS : When the Egyptians, the jihadi group, came from Egypt with their own explanation, with their own ideas, that anybody participating in any parliament, or any political party, or going to elect, or call people for the election, and sort of these activities, is totally rejecting the Koran. So when you say that, it means when a Muslim is rejecting the Koran, simply must be killed. And should be killed, must be killed! And that’s what happened.

This bit also blew my mind, when I think of the code words the Bush administration uses constantly, “freedom” and “democracy,” as if the words had been invented just for them, and not simply appropriated from President Wilson in World War I. But what a nutcase world view, to constantly harp on voting in the Arab world, ignorant that for certain factions, the very idea of voting is an affront against the Koran. And the U.S. thinks Iraq is holding an election this Sunday? An election that will be impossible in 4 provinces where 50% of the people live?! Where any person standing in any line or checkpoint is a sitting duck, where U.S. soldiers even abuse Iraqi politicians and members of the interim government at checkpoint lines, to make them easier for insurgents to aim?!

I’m not saying that the alternatives to elections are that great, but for some reason the Bush administration has some photo op plebiscite vision in its head, where people have no idea for whom they are voting, making it a worthless exercise. No one the Bush administration hasn’t pre-selected or hand-picked is going to be elected anyway. Like U.S. elections, they make a mockery of the word “democracy.”

But to run things down without suggesting an alternative is irresponsible, so let me offer something, perhaps parliamentary in form, based on a self-identified census. Let tribes and regions draft representatives and send them to a council, based on the percentages of the general population. I mean, what value is an ill-informed wank-job plebiscite anyway? Let every faction have its voice (shit, I really don’t want to sound like Wilson, because his nutty solution for Europe was a nightmare), and office, and bargaining power to work what will be corrupt coalitions. And let the coalitions be the checks and balances, the way the parliamentary system works it, with some parties in power some times, and other parties in power other times.

I don’t know if that will work, but hanging on to a myth of a “vote” seems remarkably stupid, like that idiotic bit in the Ukraine, where both sides messed with the ballots and votes to the degree that each nullified the other, to my mind.

This bit here below gets pretty interesting, and it is often hidden in U.S. media censorship. The power struggle between moderate and political Muslims and extremist Muslims. Shades of gray U.S. cultural myopia has no vision for. The way in plays in the U.S., the extremist Muslims always had the upper hand and were destined to represent all Muslims. That there even WAS a power struggle, and that the extremists like Zawahiri very nearly LOST, never gets covered in the U.S.

VO: Zawahiri and his small group settled in Peshawar. They began to spread this new idea among the foreign fighters, radicalizing the Islamist movement. It was not only a direct challenge to the moderate ideas of Abdullah Azzam, but it also involved a militant rejection of all American influence over the jihad, because America was the source of this corruption.

BEARDEN : The only times that I ever ran into any real trouble in Afghanistan was when I ran into these guys. You know, there’d be kind of a moment or two, where it looked a little bit like the bar scene in Star Wars, each group kind of jockeying around, and finally somebody has to sort of defuse the situation.

[ TITLE : MOSCOW 1987 ]

NEWS ANNOUNCER (speaking in Russian, subtitled): The indicator lights aren’t on. Please adjust them. (pause) Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has issued a decree…

VO: Then, in 1987, the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided he was going to withdraw Russian troops from Afghanistan. Gorbachev was convinced that the whole Soviet system was facing collapse. He was determined to try and save it through political reform, and this meant reversing the policies of his predecessors, including the occupation of Afghanistan.

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV , General Secretary, Soviet Communist Party (speaking in Russian, via interpreter) : The state of the Soviet Union and its society could be described very simply with a phrase used by people across the country: “We can’t go on living like this any longer.” And that applied to everything. The economy was stagnating. There were shortages. And the quality of goods was very poor. We had to finish this war, but in such a way that the Russian people would understand why tens of thousands had died. We couldn’t just run away from there in shame, no. We needed to find a process.

VO: Gorbachev asked the Americans to help him negotiate a peace that would create a stable government in Afghanistan. But the hard-liners in Washington refused point-blank. They would continue to help the mujaheddin until the last Russians left, without any negotiation. The future of Afghanistan would then be decided, they said, by the freedom fighters.

VLADIMIR POZNER , Soviet Spokesman in the United States, 1987: I think that basically, we’ve asked the United States to help us get out, if you’re really interested in stopping the bloodshed.

Heh. Well, the United States wasn’t interested in that, nor future world stability, so put that in your U.S. heroic myth pipe and smoke it, eh?


VO: Gorbachev was shocked by the intransigence of the U.S. Administration. He sent a private message through the KGB, warning the Americans that if they allowed the mujaheddin to take control in Afghanistan, it would not produce democracy. Instead, he predicted, the most extreme forms of Islamism would rise up and triumph. But Gorbachev’s warning was ignored. As Soviet troops left Afghanistan, both the Americans and the Islamists came to believe that they had not only won the battle for Afghanistan, they had also begun the downfall of the entire Evil Empire.

BEARDEN : I felt we won, because I was part of it; I’m sure that the Afghan Arabs thought “we won,” and then all summer long, the East Germans begin to gather—a hundred here, a thousand there, tens of thousands—until November 9th, when the wall was opened. And that’s it. Start the clock running on the Soviet Union. And it was over. So the Soviet Union was all crapped up and broken. And that was done.

VO: For the neoconservatives, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a triumph. And out of that triumph was going to come the central myth that still inspires them today: that through the aggressive use of American power, they could transform the world and spread democracy. But in reality, their victory was an illusion. They had conquered a phantom enemy, an exaggerated and distorted fantasy they had created in their own minds. The real reason the Soviet Union collapsed was because it was a decrepit system, decaying from within.

MELVIN GOODMAN , Head of Office of Soviet Affairs CIA, 1976-1987: I think probably one of the greatest myths in America, in the political discourse now, right now, is that actions of the American government were responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed like a house of cards because it was a house of cards. It rotted away from within. The economy was rotten, the political process was rotten, they had developed a central government that was no longer believed by people outside of Moscow, there was total cynicism throughout the Soviet system of governance, there was no real civil society. But the Reagan Administration and their—the minions of the Reagan Administration, will tell you that Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself—the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of the East European empire. We were saying that this was entirely fanciful. And the United States missed all of this, because they believed their own myths and their own fanciful notions. They had become their own victims of their own lies.

Maybe I’m being too gullible here myself, but this struck me hard. Whether it is true or not, whether the myth was built up out of whole cloth or not, what hit me the most was seeing that the seeds of our present day were present at the time I was just getting out of college. I think of myself at that time, the stuff I was paying attention to, how I perceived it. I try to imagine, is there a way I could have penetrated a deliberately created fog, even then? Sure, I was jubilant when the wall came down, just like everyone else. I saw that the “capitalist” nutjobs that fell over themselves in the rush to help Russia remake its economy, to make it safe for the Russian mob, some kind of free plunder zone, open season, steal as much as you can before anyone notices. The poor people there forced to keep limping along. Better or worse than they were before? I’d have to have visited to be able to say.

VO: And for the Islamists too, a great myth was born out of the struggle in Afghanistan—that it was they who had conquered the Soviet Union.

[ SUBTITLES OVER MUJAHEDDIN GATHERING : God is great! Death to Gorbachev! Long live Afghanistan!]

VO: The Islamists believed that this great victory would start a revolution that would sweep across the Arab world and topple the corrupt leaders. But as with the neoconservatives, this dream was built on an illusion.

GILLES KEPEL , Historian of the Islamist Movement: The Islamists were convinced that they were the key instrument in the demise of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. They just would not like to remember that without U.S. military help and training, they couldn’t have done anything. And also the Afghans were the ones who ousted the Soviets, not the Arab jihadis, who didn’t really fight, who were trained, but they were not the fighters. But the myth has it that they were the ones who won. I mean, this was a jihad that had triumphed. This was something very powerful that was a mobilizing force for Islamists worldwide.

VO: But there was a deep rift within the Islamist fighters based in Peshawar—between the moderates, led by Abdullah Azzam, who believed this revolution could be accomplished politically; and the extremists, like Ayman Zawahiri, who saw violent revolution as the only way. And Zawahiri now set out to extend his influence over the movement, and to undermine Abdullah Azzam. To do this, he seduced Osama bin-Laden—and his money—away from Azzam. He promised bin-Laden that he could become the emir, the leader of Zawahiri’s small extremist group, Islamic Jihad.

ANAS : Ayman Zawahiri and another group of Egyptians, they refused to pray behind Abdullah Azzam in Peshawar. They used to create rumors in Peshawar against Abdullah Azzam. That’s why we became angry about Osama, why he became—he closed these people to him. They accepted him as an emir, and he accepted them as a group. Finally, I don’t know who did use the other.

INTERVIEWER (off-camera): What do you think?

ANAS : I think the other used him.

INTERVIEWER : Because he had the money.

ANAS : Yes.

VO: Then, at the end of 1989, Abdullah Azzam was assassinated by a huge car bomb in Peshawar. It is still unknown who carried out the assassination. But despite his death, it seemed as if Azzam’s vision of a political revolution might prevail. In the early ‘90s, in countries across the Arab world, Islamist parties began to gather mass support.


VO: In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front won overwhelming victories in local elections, and looked certain to win the coming general election. And at the same time in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood began to win mass support, and a growing number of seats in Parliament. Both parties were riding to power on an idealistic vision. They would use Islam in a political way to create a new type of model society through peaceful means.

SAIF AL BANNA , Senior member, Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt (speaking in Arabic, subtitled): We can change people through education and religious conviction. We want to build a popular base. This is the right way. We do not want a military coup; we do not want violence; we want our rights. If people believe in us, the government must comply with the people’s wishes.

VO: But the governments in both Egypt and Algeria faced a terrible dilemma. At the heart of the Islamist vision was the idea that the Koran should be used as the political framework for the society. An absolute set of laws, beyond debate, that all politicians had to follow. The implication of this was that political parties would be irrelevant, because there could be no disagreement. The people were about to vote in parties that might use that power to end democracy.

This feels more than a tad oversimplied to me. I just don’t buy it. Sounds to me like someone is trying to rationalize the government crackdowns by believing the government propaganda about the way the political groups interpreted the Koran, when there is a LONG history of different Muslim sects with varying interpretations of the Koran. The governments chose to oppress the devil they did know because they were corrupt and oppressive governments, and in doing so, they traded the moderate “devils” for the extremist murderous devils.

ALI HAROUN , Algerian Minister for Human Rights (1991-1992) (speaking in French, subtitled): But what a dilemma! Do you find a way of stopping the electoral process and cancelling the second round? Or do you let power go to a party which claims: “One man, one vote, but only once! We won’t have any elections after this, because democracy is non-religious. Once we’re in power, we’ll stay there forever, because we alone are the keepers of religious truth, and we alone shall apply the Koran.”

VO: Faced by this dilemma, in Algeria the army decided to step in, and in June 1991 they staged a coup d’?tat and immediately canceled the elections. Mass protests by the Islamists were repressed violently, and their leaders arrested. At the same time, in Egypt, the government also clamped down. They arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, and banned the organization from any political activity.

ESSAM EL ERIAN , Senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt: What happened is a wave of arresting Muslim brothers, a wave of military courts for Muslim brothers, going to kill some of Muslim brothers under torture. They stopped all the free elections in all of their society and institutions. And this wave, in this manner, you open the doors of hell for the violent groups who were hidden underground—and stopped the moderates, open the door for the violence.

VO: For Ayman Zawahiri, this was a dramatic confirmation of his belief that the Western system of democracy was a corrupt sham. Groups of radical Islamists who had developed his theories into even more extreme forms now set out to create violent revolutions in Algeria and Egypt. It would be the start of a jihad that would liberate the Muslim world from corruption.

OSAMA BIN-LADEN (speaking in Arabic, subtitled): The only way to eradicate the humiliation and Kufr that has overcome the land of Islam is Jihad, bullets, and martyrdom operations.

KEPEL : Bin-Laden and the others started, from now on, to wage their own jihad, i.e. not to compromise, not to try to compromise with more moderate groups, but thinking that an armed vanguard would be able to implement the seizing of power. They were convinced that they could duplicate the Afghan victory, quote-unquote victory, that they could establish an Islamist state in Algeria, in Egypt, and the like. They thought that would capture the hearts and minds of of the Muslim masses, that people realize that the strength and victory were on the side of the jihadis.

[ TITLE : AMERICA 1991 ]

VO: At this same time, in Washington, the other group who believed that they had brought down the Soviet Union—the neoconservatives—were also determined to push on with their revolutionary agenda. They were convinced that the Soviet Union was just one of many evil regimes in the world led by tyrants that threatened America. Regimes they had to conquer to liberate the world and spread democracy.

MICHAEL LEDEEN , Neoconservative theorist: We want, you know, down with tyranny. We want free countries. We think that America is better off if we live in a world primarily populated with free countries, who have to appeal to their own people for the source of their power, and to ratify their decisions. And we think that if the whole world were like that, then we would be much more secure, and that typically we were attacked by tyrants. I think it’s America’s destiny, because I think that America’s always going to come under attack from tyrants. So I think that our only choice is whether we’re going to win or lose, and when we will fight, and under what circumstances, but that we’re gonna have to fight. That’s automatic, because they’re gonna come after us.

VO: One of the most evil of these tyrants, the neoconservatives decided, was Saddam Hussein. In the 1980s, Saddam had been America’s close ally. But in 1990, he invaded Kuwait. The neoconservatives now saw him as a key to pursuing the next stage of their transformation of the world. An American-led coalition had been created by President Bush senior, to liberate Kuwait. But the neoconservatives, like Paul Wolfowitz, who was Undersecretary of Defense, wanted to push on to Baghdad, and bring about a transformation of the Middle East. It would fulfill America’s unique role to defeat evil in the world.

Professor STEPHEN HOLMES , Political Philosopher: You see already, in 1991, the hopes of Wolfowitz and others, that the battle against Saddam Hussein, or other petty tyrants, could take the place of the battle against the Soviet Union, and could bear this interpretation of a battle between good and evil. So, what you’re seeing is the attempt to keep alive the idea that America is engaged in a battle of pure good against pure evil, and to preserve that framework for a world after the end of the Soviet Union.

VO: But President Reagan was no longer in charge. The neoconservatives now had a leader who did not share their vision.

President GEORGE HW BUSH : Kuwait is liberated. Iraq’s army is defeated. Our military objectives are met. And I am pleased to announce that all United States and Coalition forces will suspend combat operations.

VO: Once Kuwait was freed, Bush ordered the fighting to stop. His view was that America’s role was to create stability in the world, not to try and change it. Like Henry Kissinger, who had been the enemy of the neoconservatives in the 1970s, Bush saw questions of good and evil as irrelevant. The higher aim was to achieve a stable balance of power in the Middle East.

BRENT SCOWCROFT , National Security Adviser to President George Bush Snr., Interviewed in 1996: Saddam Hussein is not a threat to his neighbors. He’s a nuisance; he’s an annoyance; but he’s not a threat. That we achieved. It was never our objective to get Saddam Hussein. Indeed, had we tried, we still might be occupying Baghdad. That would have turned a great success into a very messy probably defeat.

VO: In private, the neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz were furious. Not just because Saddam Hussein had been left in power, but because they saw this as a clear expression of the corrupt liberal values that dominated America—a moral relativism that was prepared to compromise with the forces of evil in the world.

HOLMES : Wolfowitz’ anger is fundamentally an anger against the weakness of American liberalism: the compromising nature of a man like George Bush senior. His willingness to make concessions, to negotiate, not to drive to the bitter end. And his anger is motivated, interestingly, less by hatred of Saddam Hussein, than by hatred of American liberals, who are a source of weakness, and a source of rot, and a source of relativism, that had been corroding American society for decades.

VO: Faced by this defeat, the neoconservative movement now turned inwards, to try and defeat the forces of liberalism that were holding it back. And to do this, they turned again to the theories of Leo Strauss. Strauss believed that good politicians should reassert the absolute moral values that would unite society, and this would overcome the moral relativism that liberalism created. One of the most influential Straussians was the new assistant to the Vice-President, William Kristol.

WILLIAM KRISTOL , Chief of Staff to the Vice President, 1988-92: For Strauss, liberalism produced a decent way of life, and one that he thought was worth defending, but a dead end where nothing could be said to be true; one had no guidance on how to live, everything was relative. Strauss suggests that maybe we didn’t just have to sit there and accept that that was our fate. Politics could help shape the way people live, that politics could help shape the way that people live, teach them some good lessons about living decent and noble human lives. And can we think about what cultures, and what politics, what social orders produce more admirable human beings? I mean, that whole question was put back on the table by Strauss, I think.

VO: The neoconservatives set out to reform America. And at the heart of their project was the political use of religion. Together with their long-term allies, the religious right, they began a campaign to bring moral and religious issues back into the center of conservative politics. It became known as the “culture wars.”

[ TITLE : Christian Coalition commercial ]

VO (on commercial) : Your tax dollars are being used to sponsor obscene and pornographic displays.

PAT ROBERTSON : I don’t like Jesus Christ, who is my Lord and Savior, being dumped in a vat of urine by a homosexual, and then have my money to pay for it! I think that’s obscene.

ROBERTSON : Satan, be gone! Out from this [unintelligible]! C’mon!

VO: For the religious right, this campaign was a genuine attempt to renew the religious basis of American society. But for the neoconservatives, religion was a myth, like the myth of America as a unique nation that they had promoted in the Cold War. Strauss had taught that these myths were necessary to give ordinary people meaning and purpose, and so ensure a stable society.

TV COMMERCIAL MOM : Do you ever worry that they’re playing too much Nintendo?

MOM 2 : Oh, not anymore. See, Matt has Bible Adventures. They’re actually learning Bible stories while they’re playing Nintendo.

MICHAEL LIND , Journalist and former neoconservative: For the neoconservatives, religion is an instrument of promoting morality. Religion becomes what Plato called a “noble lie.” It is a myth which is told to the majority of the society by the philosophical elite in order to ensure social order.

ANNOUNCER ON CHRISTIAN FITNESS COMMERCIAL : What better way to enjoy God’s creation than a Praise Walk?


LIND : In being a kind of secretive elitist approach, Straussianism does resemble Marxism. These ex-Marxists, or in some cases ex-liberal Straussians, could see themselves as a kind of Leninist group, you know, who have this covert vision which they want to use to effect change in history, while concealing parts of it from people incapable of understanding it.

VO: Out of this campaign, a new and powerful moral agenda began to take over the Republican Party. It reached a dramatic climax at the Republican Convention in 1992, when the religious right seized control of the party’s policy-making machinery. George Bush became committed to running for President with policies that would ban abortion, gay rights, and multiculturalism. Speakers who tried to promote the traditional conservative values of individual freedom were booed off the stage.


VO: For the neoconservatives, the aim of this new morality was to unite the nation. But in fact, it had completely the opposite effect. Mainstream Republican voters were frightened away by the harsh moralism that had taken over their party. They turned instead to Bill Clinton, a politician who connected with their real concerns and needs, like tax and the state of the economy.

DIANE BLAIR , Clinton Campaign : In the week after the Republican Convention, Republican moderates, young people, and particularly women saying, “I’ve been sort of torn between the two parties, but where do I sign up to help Clinton get elected? I am frightened by this ultraconservative agenda that I hear coming out of Houston.”

BOB MATERA : I’ve been a lifelong Republican. I’m a registered Republican. I am voting for Bill Clinton this time. Enough is enough. It is time for a change.

VO: At the end of 1992, Bill Clinton won a dramatic victory. But the neoconservatives were determined to regain power. And to do this, they were going to do to Bill Clinton what they had done to the Soviet Union: they would transform the President of the United States into a fantasy enemy, an image of evil that would make people realize the truth of the liberal corruption of America.

[ TITLE : ALGERIA 1992 / June 1992 ]


VO: In the early ‘90s, Algeria, Egypt, and other Arab countries were being torn apart by a horrific wave of Islamist terror. The jihadists who had returned from Afghanistan were trying to topple the regimes. At the heart of their strategy was the idea that Ayman Zawahiri and others had taught them: that those who were involved in politics could legitimately be killed, because they had become corrupted and thus were no longer Muslims. This violence, they believed, would shock people into rising up, and the corrupt regimes would then be overthrown.

ABDULLAH ANAS , Member of the Political Council, Islamic Salvation Front, Algeria 1993: “They must die!” Not only “must die,” they DID kill. They did kill people. Not just any—it’s not just an idea from far, it became true. People were killed.

[ TITLE : 4th June 1993 ]

ANAS : Many many rulers; many many holy men; many many scholars; many many politicians in Islamic world have been killed because of these ideas. Why? Because simply they are against the Koran. They rejected the Koran. Why they rejected the Koran? Because they did elect.

Reading this just gave me chills, here just days before that Iraq “election.” I have no idea what will happen.

VO: Ayman Zawahiri was now based with bin-Laden on this farm in the Sudan. He used it as a base for his group, Islamic Jihad, to launch attacks on politicians in Egypt. But as one of the leading ideologues of the revolution, he also traveled throughout the Arab world, advising other groups on their strategy. But the revolutionaries soon found that the masses did not rise up and follow them. The regimes stayed in power, and the radical Islamists were hunted down. Faced by this, the Islamists widened their terror. Their logic was brutal: it was not just those who were involved with politics who should be killed, but the ordinary people who supported it. Their refusal to rise up showed that they, too, had become corrupted, and so had condemned themselves to death.

Dr. AZZAM TAMIMI , Institute of Islamic Political Thought: There was definitely a logic. The logic is that you assault the leaders, you assault those who are associated with them, and eventually you assault the people who have consented to the presence of such a despotic leader, even if they are passively supportive through their silence. And then you start attacking economic institutions, you start attacking the tourists, because the tourists bring money to the country, and that money goes into the pockets of the corrupt elite. So, it is an endless process.

VO: In Algeria, this logic went completely out of control. The Islamist revolutionary groups killed thousands of civilians, because they believed that all these people had become corrupted.

MAN (speaking in Arabic, subtitled): All these innocents, what did they ever do? Legs blown off! Such horror! Even the French extremists never did things like this. Why? What have we done? What have our children done? Leave me alone! I want to die!


MAN WITH GUN (speaking in French, subtitled): Today they kill, they kill everybody: innocent people, children, old people. They have even cut up their victims. Who will trust them if tomorrow they take power?

DEMONSTRATORS (shouting in French, subtitled): Down with fundamentalism! Down with fundamentalism!

VO: By 1997, the Islamist revolution was failing. There were mass demonstrations against the Islamist groups by thousands of people horrified by the violence. And then, in June of that year, a group of Egyptian Islamists attacked Western tourists at the ruins of Luxor. 58 were killed in three hours of random violence. The massacre shocked the Egyptian people, and the leaders of the revolutionary groups agreed to call a cease-fire. In Algeria, a few groups held out. But they began to tear each other apart, as they followed the logic that had driven their revolution to its ultimate—and logical—end: they started to kill each other.

TAMIMI : It led to their own destruction. A group that believes in 100% pure Muslim will not see that purity in anybody else but themselves. So whoever disagrees with them becomes the enemy, becomes out of the House of Islam, and then if they happen to disagree with each other themselves, then they will start liquidating each other. And they keep fighting each other; there will be infighting. Eventually it ends in suicide.

VO: The main Islamist group in Algeria, the GIA, ended up being led by a Mr. Zouabri, a chicken farmer, who killed everyone who disagreed with him. He issued a final communique, declaring that the whole of Algerian society should be killed, with the exception of his tiny remaining band of Islamists. They were the only ones who understood the truth.

[ TITLE : AMERICA 1996 ]

VO: By the mid-’90s, politics in Washington was dominated by one issue: the moral character of the President of the United States.

WOMAN IN TV COMMERCIAL : If you believe you’ve been a victim of sexual harassment by the President, we want to help.

VO: Behind this were an extraordinary barrage of allegations against Clinton that were obsessing the media. These included stories of sexual harassment; stories that Clinton and his wife were involved in Whitewater, a corrupt property deal; stories that they had murdered their close friend Vince Foster; and stories that Clinton was involved in smuggling drugs from a small airstrip in Arkansas. But none of these stories were true. All of them had been orchestrated by a young group of neoconservatives, who were determined to destroy Clinton. The campaign was centered on a small right-wing magazine called the American Spectator, which had set up what was called the “Arkansas Project” to investigate Clinton’s past life. The journalist at the center of this project was called David Brock.

CROSSFIRE ANNOUNCER : Tonight, the Arkansas allegations. In the crossfire: David Brock, of the American Spectator magazine.

DAVID BROCK : She was dressed in a raincoat and a hat, and came in at 5:15 in the morning, and had a liaison with Clinton in the game room in the bottom floor of the Governor’s mansion.

CROSSFIRE HOST : David, this is getting a little bizarre. Next thing, we’re gonna see… Jane Fonda’s gonna…

BROCK : It’s bizarre! But hey, Bill Clinton is a bizarre guy.

HOST : Wait a sec.

VO: Since then, Brock has turned against the neoconservative movement. He now believes that the attacks on Clinton went too far, and corrupted conservative politics.

INTERVIEWER (off-camera): Was Whitewater true?

BROCK : No! I mean, there was no criminal wrongdoing in Whitewater. Absolutely not. It was a land deal that the Clintons lost money on. It was a complete inversion of what happened.

INTERVIEWER : Was Vince Foster killed?

BROCK : No. He killed himself.

INTERVIEWER : Did the Clintons smuggle drugs?

BROCK : Absolutely not.

INTERVIEWER : Did those promoting these stories know that this was not true, that none of these stories were true?

BROCK : They did not care.


BROCK : Because they were having a devastating effect. So why stop? It was terrorism. Political terrorism.

INTERVIEWER : But you were one of the agents.

BROCK : Absolutely. Absolutely.

VO: The stories began to grip America, and despite Clinton’s denials, the Republicans in Congress seized on the scandals and began to press for investigations into this immorality at the heart of government.

President BILL CLINTON : Basically, the press has editorialized and pressured the politicians into saying, “Here’s a guy that as far as we know hasn’t done anything wrong, nobody’s accused him of doing anything wrong, there’s no evidence that he’s done anything wrong, but we think the presumption of guilt almost should be on him. You should somehow prove his innocence.”

I think I wrote something about this messed up logic in Part One, for Iraq, which was told it had to prove it DIDN’T have weapons of mass destruction with the same logic, or be invaded. It really takes “emperor has no clothes” to a new level, and logical fallacy textbooks will have to be rewritten, to add a famous new fallacy to sit alongside Nixon and the Checkers speech.

Hey, at least the Bush administration will be a boon for rhetorical criticism and communication analysis scholars.


VO: But despite all his efforts, Kenneth Starr could find no incriminating evidence in Whitewater. Nor could he find any evidence to support any of the sexual scandals that had come from the Arkansas Project. Until finally, his committee stumbled upon Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which Clinton denied. And in that lie, the neoconservative movement believed they had found what they had been looking for: a way to make the American people see the truth about the liberal corruption of their country. A campaign now began to impeach the President. And in the hysteria, the whole conservative movement portrayed Clinton as a depraved monster who had to be removed from office. But yet again, the neoconservatives had created a fantasy enemy by exaggerating and distorting reality.

JOE CONASON , Author ‘The Hunting of the President’ : They were trapped by a mythological person that they had constructed, or persons—the Clintons, these scheming, terrible people who they, the noble pursuers, were going to vanquish. I think, in the leadership of conservatism, during the Clinton era there was an element of corruption. There was an element of a willingness to do anything to achieve the goal of bringing Clinton down. There was a way in which the people who perceived Clinton as immoral behaved immorally themselves. They ended up behaving worse than the people who they were attacking.

VO: But all the moral fury, and the deception, came to nothing. The impeachment failed because the polls consistently showed that Americans still did not care about these moral issues. One leading neoconservative, William Bennett, wrote a book called The Death of Outrage, which blamed the people. He accused the public of making a deal with the devil. Their failure, he said, to support the impeachment, was evidence of their moral corruption.

The outrage of the neocons at the failure of the people to rise up and think the things the neocons tried to plant in their little proletariat heads is strikingly similar as the outrage of the extremist Muslims when their more moderate Muslim brothers did not rise up with them against the corrupt secular governments. How dare the masses refuse to be led?! It must have been very frustrating for both factions, to realize that they were not speaking to or reaching the very people they wanted to keep under their authoritarian control.

Main difference, as I can see? The neocons were willing to use Machiavellian means to reach their ends. They were bigger moral relativists than the liberal humanists, because, convinced of their utter good, they would resort to means that would turn the more principled liberal humanist stomachs. These authoritarians were fascists at heart, more interested in cronyism and corruption themselves, drunk with power, than with their own presumed principles or goals. The Muslim extremists fit far less well with standard definitions of fascism. They perhaps remain more ideologically pure (if you could call murder a reflection of ideological “purity”), less corruptible by money or power, but still driven by ends justifying the means (will we never be free of Jeremy Bentham?!).

I don’t know. I’m still working a lot of this stuff out in my head.


VO: By 1997, bin-Laden and Ayman Zawahiri had returned to Afghanistan, where they had first met ten years before. Back then, it had seemed as if Islamism might succeed as a popular revolutionary movement. But now, they were facing failure. All attempts to topple regimes in the Arab world had not succeeded. The people had turned against them because of the horrific violence, and Afghanistan was the only place they had left to go.

GILLES KEPEL , Historian of the Islamist Movement: Well, 1997 was their failure. Egypt, Algeria; it worked nowhere. It went wrong because populations would not back them. Because even people who were sympathetic to them in the beginning were frightened away by their violence, by their incapacity to communicate and to have access to the people, and this was very clear in Zawahiri’s book Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, where he sort of goes back from this experiment, and laments over their incapacity to raise the consciousness of the masses, and feels that, you know, as a vanguard they did not manage to communicate. They remained isolated, and this is why they failed. And this is when they started this new strategy.

VO: In May, 1998, bin-Laden and Zawahiri invited a group of journalists to this press conference, where they announced a new jihad. Zawahiri was convinced that it was not their theories that were to blame for the failure; it was the fault of the Muslim masses. Their minds had been corrupted by the liberal ideas from the West. But rather than give up, they believed that the solution was to attack the source of the corruption directly. The new jihad would be against America itself.


VO: This was a strategy of desperation, born out of failure by a small group whose revolution had failed. And the anger that came from that failure was about to be directed at the United States. What Zawahiri and bin-Laden were about to do would dramatically affect the future of the neoconservative movement. By 1998, all their attempts to transform America by creating a moral revolution had failed. Faced with the indifference of the people, the neoconservatives had become marginalized, in both domestic and foreign policy. But with the attacks that were about to hit America, the neoconservatives would at last find the evil enemy that they had been searching for ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in their reaction to the attacks, the neoconservatives would transform the failing Islamist movement into what would appear to be the grand revolutionary force that Zawahiri had always dreamed of. But much of it would exist only in people’s imaginations. It would be the next phantom enemy.


Transcript provided by:

January 27, 2005 at 01:46 AM in War/Terrorism | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Part 2 of BBC's "The Power of Nightmares":


The comments to this entry are closed.