Two years ago the world watched in amazement and horror at those scenes of ghastly beauty in Manhattan, as the Twin Towers burned and crumbled and thousands perished against a deep blue sky. In response George W Bush proclaimed the United States to be at war, engaged in ‘a monumental struggle of good against evil’. For Tony Blair 9/11 marked the start of a new era. ‘There has never been a time when… a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day,’ he told the US Congress in July.
Yet the ‘war on terrorism’ contains plenty that students of past empires would find familiar. So far the US and its allies – above all Britain – have conquered two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, and occupied the latter. Meanwhile, American bases and military missions have spread across the globe – returning to Washington’s old colony in the Philippines, tightening their grip of a new zone of influence in central Asia, stretching across the archipelagos of south east Asia and the deserts bordering on the Red Sea.
Accompanying this military operation is the development of what can only be called a global secret police, directed by the CIA and FBI but involving many other agencies, and legitimised by national anti-terrorism laws and by presidential executive order. Those who fall victim to this vast apparatus of repression find themselves sucked into certain key centres where suspects are detained without trial, interrogated and tortured. Camp X-Ray (and latterly Camp Delta) in Guantanamo Bay is the most famous of these, but there are others – for example, the ‘holding facilities’ at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. One day these may be as notorious as the Lubianka prison at the heart of Stalin’s reign of terror.
An enormous ideological effort has gone into trying to prove that the ‘war on terrorism’ was the only justifiable response to 9/11. But as is so often the case, what seems ‘self-evident’ from within the reigning ideology is in fact the opposite. The philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek brought this out well: ‘On 11 September, the USA was given the opportunity to realise what kind of world it was part of. It might have taken this opportunity – but it did not; instead it opted to reassert its traditional ideological commitments.’
Zizek continues: ‘This is the true lesson of the attacks: the only way to ensure that it will not happen here again is to prevent it happening anywhere else. In short, America should learn humbly to accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating retaliation – what we are getting instead is the forceful reassertion of the exceptional role of the USA as a global policeman, as if what causes resentment against the USA is not its excess of power, but its lack of it.’
So launching the war on terrorism was a political choice, not an automatic and inevitable reaction to 9/11. Zizek presents this choice as a collective American response, but of course, what the world is now confronted with is a political project that is being pursued by the core of right wing Republicans directing the global policy of the Bush administration.
This project has unfolded not all at once, but in steps – first Bush’s address to the joint session of Congress on 20 September 2001, then his ‘axis of evil’ speech on 29 January 2002, and finally the announcement of the Bush Doctrine at West Point on 1 June that same year, all of this summed up in The National Security Strategy of the United States of America issued by the White House a year ago. The bottom line is quite simple: Washington reserves the right to attack unilaterally any state that it deems to be a threat.
The most important thing to understand about the Bush Doctrine is that it isn’t fundamentally a response to 9/11. Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, let this slip in a speech last year: ‘An earthquake of the magnitude of 9/11 can shift the tectonic plates of international politics. The international system has been in flux since the collapse of Soviet power. Now it is possible – indeed, probable – that that transition is coming to an end.
‘If that is right, if the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 bookend a major shift in international politics, then this is a period not just of grave danger, but of enormous opportunity. Before the clay is dry again, America and our friends and allies must move to take advantage of these new opportunities.’
So 9/11 wasn’t just a disaster: it was an opportunity. Or, to put it another way, it provided the Bush administration with a pretext for what it wanted to do anyway. Many commentators have traced the sources of this project back to Defence Planning Guidelines drafted when vice-president Dick Cheney was defence secretary in the early 1990s under the elder Bush, and to the Project for the New American Century launched by a team of neo-conservative intellectuals – many of them now holding office under the younger Bush – during the Clinton administration.
There are three main strands to this enterprise. First, for neo-conservatives like Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, US hegemony faces long term threats from potential ‘peer competitors’. Some of these are long-standing economic rivals such as the European Union and Japan. Then there is the old enemy Russia, still a nuclear superpower, and the new challenger China, whose phenomenal economic growth rates are allowing it to build up serious military muscle. By asserting its military power – the dimension in which the US is far ahead of all the other major states combined – Washington can entrench a global balance of forces dominated by US capitalism.
The conquest of Iraq was intended as a demonstration of US power. But it also served the second goal the Bush team is pursuing. The Middle East is a strategically vital zone for Washington above all because it contains two thirds of the world’s oil reserves. Wolfowitz and his co-thinkers in the administration believe that the region can be stabilised under US dominance through a series of ‘democratic revolutions’ that replace the existing dictatorships with the kind of formally democratic capitalist oligarchies that now dominate Latin America. The US occupation of Iraq is intended to engineer the first of these transformations.
Thirdly, the Bush administration is far less inclined to rely on coalitions with the other leading capitalist states to achieve its objectives than were its predecessors. Just how far it is prepared to go emerged during the lead-up to the Iraq war, when Washington provoked a split in the EU between the ‘Old Europe’ opponents of war – France, Germany, and Belgium – and a bloc of pro-US states headed by the right wing governments in Britain, Italy, and Spain and embracing most of the Central and Eastern European countries due to join the EU next year.
This is a gigantic geopolitical project. No wonder leading neo-cons talk about being engaged in a long war that is far from over. Ex CIA director James Woolsey called the ‘war on terrorism’ the Fourth World War (the Cold War was the Third World War apparently) and predicted it will last for decades. Karl Rove, Bush’s key political adviser, dismissed Iraq as a mere battle.
So how is the war going so far? The main successes that the Bush administration can claim are the rapid military victories it won in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the fact that the greatest military power in world history should be able easily to overwhelm a ramshackle warlord army and a middle-sized Arab state weakened by 13 years of sanctions is hardly a surprise.
The consequences of these predictable military victories have been much more equivocal. In Afghanistan Washington used two weapons to topple the Taliban – airpower and the money with which CIA agents bribed numerous warlords to switch sides. Most of the country has been consigned back to the rule of the warlords, with the pathetic figure of ‘President’ Hamid Karzai clinging to the symbols but not the reality of power in Kabul.
This set-up means yet more misery for the wretched people of Afghanistan, but it suits the Pentagon’s purposes fine. Bagram provides a handy base for elite American units to mount raids directed against the Al Qaida and Taliban fighters who have – in line with long Afghan tradition – taken to the hills. Let Nato, which has just taken over responsibility for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, grapple with the hopeless task of stabilising the rest of the country.
But this cynical formula can’t work in Iraq. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein has brought the US military to the heart of the Arab world. It has also given Washington control over the country with the second largest oil reserves in the world. If things go sour, Bush can’t just pull the troops out the way Bill Clinton did from Somalia in 1993-94, leaving the country to rot. Iraq is too important. ‘Democratic revolution’ has to work here.
But all the signs are that it won’t. Few Iraqi leaders with a domestic base are willing to associate themselves with the ‘Coalition Provisional Authority’ and its ‘Governing Council’. Of more immediate concern, US and British troops are now under constant attack. So far the resistance has been concentrated in central Iraq, where the population are mainly Sunni Muslims, but there have been a scattering of incidents in southern Iraq, where the Shi’ite majority live (most significantly the killing of six British military policemen in June).
The precedent of Lebanon, where after the war of 1982 first US and then Israeli forces were driven out by the Shi’ite guerrillas of Amal and Hizbollah, must now be haunting US policy makers. Anthony Cordesman, professor at the Centre for Strategic Studies in Washington, recently warned that ‘if the US blunders, it not only may lose the peace, but also could create a third Gulf war’.
Even short of such a catastrophic scenario, Iraq is going to tie down a lot of American soldiers. Back in February the retiring US army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, caused a storm when he told Congress that it would take several hundred thousand soldiers to hold Iraq. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, then preparing the conquest of Iraq, repudiated this claim and subsequently sacked the army secretary, Thomas White, for backing Shinseki up.
But events since the fall of Baghdad have vindicated Shinseki. In late June the Financial Times interviewed James Dobbins, who has served as US special envoy to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan: ‘Mr Dobbins says the current [US] force level of about 175,000 [in Iraq] is insufficient and estimates that a more realistic level would be 300,000. If the US had to provide almost all of those forces itself, the effect on American military resources would be catastrophic. With rotation in and out of the theatre, that would mean almost a million soldiers largely committed to Iraq, says Mr Dobbins – virtually the US army’s entire strength. Pentagon officials dispute these numbers, but acknowledge that the Iraq commitment will strain US assets.’
You can say that again. US military supremacy depends on an unequalled capability to project power by means of the navy and airforce and a comparatively small professional army heavily reliant on air support and high tech weapons systems. Getting too much of that army bogged down in Iraq would gravely compromise the Bush administration’s global strategy.
For example, the confrontation between the US and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear programme could develop into a hot war. A senior US official told the Financial Times recently that military planners envisage this being ‘a more traditional conventional war [than Iraq], if you will, one that will be as bloody as hell and fought on cross-compartmental terrain that makes the desert look like child’s play’. If the US had to wage such a war in the Korean peninsula, it would need ground troops that may not be available in sufficient numbers if the situation continues to deteriorate in Iraq.
The ‘democratic imperialists’ in Washington often cite Victorian Britain’s empire as a model. After all, 19th century British capitalism relied on what historians have called ‘the imperialism of free trade’ plus a huge navy and a small volunteer army to dominate the global economy and rule a worldwide empire. Recently one neo-con, Max Boot, argued that the problems the US is facing in Iraq indicate that ‘we need to create a colonial office – fast’, modelled on ‘the old British Colonial Office and India Office… Like its British predecessors, the US colonial office needs to be an elite civilian agency that can call on forces for assistance where appropriate.’
One function of Britain’s Indian empire was to provide (and finance) an army that was used not just to hold down the subcontinent but to fight London’s colonial wars elsewhere – for example, in the Sudan and South Africa at the end of the 19th century. There is a certain historical irony in Washington’s intense, but ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to persuade the Indian government to send a 17,000-strong army division to Iraq. Various east European states eager to curry favour with the Bush administration have sent troops to Iraq, but the main military burden is being borne by the US and its loyal British ally (it is now official British military doctrine, recently announced by defence secretary Geoff Hoon, to fight in the US’s wars).
The difficulties that the Bush administration finds itself in in Iraq reflect the limits even to US power. The US is very far from all-powerful, even in the military sphere. This is still more true in other dimensions. The US economy has yet to emerge from the recession caused by the bursting of the Wall Street bubble. On issues like trade the administration has to deal with a truculent EU whose bruising experiences over Iraq have given it no incentive to compromise.
But the limits that US imperialism faces are ideological as well as material. The ‘war on terrorism’, far from vindicating what Zizek calls America’s ‘excess of power’, has provoked a gigantic crisis of legitimacy. Even the Hindu chauvinist gang currently ruling India are wary of too close an association with the Bush administration’s colonial project in the Middle East.
More than anything else, this is a tribute to what the global anti-war movement has been able to achieve since 9/11. Never has US power been more widely contested. The result has been, not merely to constrain the Bush administration itself, but to threaten the political survival of its closest ally, Tony Blair, as the Hutton inquiry is showing. The struggle against the ‘war on terrorism’ has a long way to go, but what we have done so far shows how important it is for us to persist.
In November of last year, there was a brief moment of light amid the darkness that was 2020. Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for all. Just as the weekend and the eight-hour-day are now regarded by many as a given, future generations may be in disbelief that...
On 4 November last year, when many of us were watching the aftermath of the American presidential election, the US formally left the Paris Climate Agreement. Written in 2015 at the United Nations’ COP21 climate conference in Paris, the agreement is often considered to be the most significant document of international climate cooperation. Back then,...
To say 2020 was dramatic would be an understatement. The world situation has been completely transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the inadequacy of governmental and state responses. As we head into 2021 it feels like we are entering uncharted territory. To make specific predictions would be unwise. But the Covid-19 crisis raises fundamental questions...