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War of the Worlds: United States:
All-Powerful But Powerless

Le Monde diplomatique October 2001

An enemy. At last


On 11 September aircraft were diverted from their normal flight routines. With fanatics at their controls, they headed for the heart of a big city, intent on destroying the symbols of a hated political system. In the explosions that followed, buildings were shattered. Survivors fled the wreckage. The media were on the spot broadcasting live. I am not talking about New York in 2001 but Santiago de Chile on 11 September 1973. With the complicity of the United States, General Pinochet staged his coup against the socialist government of Salvador Allende, which began with the bombardment of the presidential palace by the air force. Dozens of people were killed. It was the start of a regime of terror that was to continue for 15 years.

With all compassion for the innocent victims of the attacks on New York, it has to be said that, of all countries, the US cannot be described as innocent. It has a long history of involvement in violent, illegal and often clandestine political actions in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, with accompanying personal tragedies of death, disappearances, torture, imprisonment and exile.

The present rampant pro-Americanism of the West's politicians and media should not blind us to a harsh but obvious truth. Throughout the world, and particularly in the countries of the South, the most common public reaction to the attacks in New York and Washington has been: what happened in New York was sad, but the US deserved it.

To trace the roots of such a reaction, it is worth recalling that throughout the cold war (1948-89) the US was involved in a crusade against communism. Sometimes that involved mass extermination: thousands of communists killed in Iran; 200,000 opposition leftists killed in Guatemala; almost 1m communists killed in Indonesia. Atrocities filled the pages of the black book of American imperialism during those years - years that also saw the horrors of the Vietnam war (1962-75).

This too was marketed as a battle between good and evil. But at that time Washington seemed to think that giving support to terrorists was not necessarily immoral. Through the CIA the US consciously endorsed projects of murder, hijacking, sabotage and assassination: in Cuba against the government of Fidel Castro, in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas, and in Afghanistan against the Soviets.

In Afghanistan during the 1970s, with the support of two countries that could hardly be called democratic (Saudi Arabia and Pakistan), Washington encouraged the creation of Islamic detachments recruited in the Arab-Islamic world and made up of what the press called freedom fighters. As we now know, that was the environment in which the CIA enlisted and trained Osama bin Laden (see article by Selig S Harrison).

Since 1991 the US has emerged as the worlds only superpower, effectively marginalising the United Nations. It promised to inaugurate a more equitable new world order, and it was on that basis that the US embarked on the war against Iraq. But it has remained scandalously partisan towards Israel, to the detriment of the rights of the Palestinians (1). Despite international protests it has also maintained an unrelenting embargo against Iraq, causing the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians while preserving the regime in power. All this has outraged public opinion in the Arab-Islamic world and sowed the seeds for the spread of a radical Islamic anti-Americanism.

Osama Bin Laden is a creation of the US. Now, with all the violence of Dr Frankenstein's creation, he has turned against his maker. In assembling a war coalition against him, the US is prepared to rely on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which for the past 30 years have contributed most to the spread of radical Islamic networks around the world, where necessary using terrorism.

The men around George W Bush are veterans of the cold war. They may have reason to be pleased with the current events, in a sense a godsend. At a stroke the attacks of 11 September restored what had been missing since the collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years ago - an enemy. At last. The enemy may be known officially as terrorism but everyone knows that the real name is radical Islam. And we can now expect alarming side-effects, including a modern McCarthyism directed at the opponents of globalisation. You enjoyed anti-communism? You're going to love anti-Islamism.

(1) See Alain Gresh, Israël, Palestine, Vérités sur un conflit, Fayard, Paris, 2001.

Le Monde diplomatique October 2001


United States: all-powerful but powerless

When the Berlin wall fell in 1989 ending the cold war, there was an international chance to a build better, fairer world. But the United States wanted to do this alone, and its decade after the Gulf war as the solo superpower actually made the world less safe. Now the US has lost its impregnability to external threat and with it, 5,000 citizens murdered in a single day; it responded by declaring endless war on terrorism. The diffuse terrorist threat does require patient, daily combat, but did that have to mean war against Afghanistan?


"God allowed the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve." This is how two TV evangelists, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (1), reacted to 11 September. Both had helped George W Bush in his presidential campaign. Falwell went on: "I believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU (2) People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularise America, I point the finger in their face and say 'You helped this happen.'" Well, no religion has a monopoly on fanaticism. But that did not, however, change the US consensus: most Americans wanted swift revenge against those responsible for the attacks.

How did it happen, the worst act of aggression on US soil since the war of 1812? American triumphalism after the cold war made the US blind to the real world. It has failed to understand the true nature of new international relations, or the gap between its own lofty impressions of itself and those of other nations. It has not adjusted to the new realities: instead of dismantling a costly and ineffective superstructure of empire after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the US has tried to maintain and bolster its primacy.

The September events were not an anomaly, but part of the stress of change; they reflect the inability of the US to come to terms with the political and institutional realities of a new era. Superpower rivalry was comfortable for the US political and military elites because actions and reactions were predictable. The people of the US were made to feel safe, not through dealing with evolving asymmetric threats from anti-government militias and foreign terror squads, but by the purchase of sophisticated and expensive weapons and intelligence systems.

The Defence Department followed this policy after the cold war and still does, marketing the idea that US security depends on US militarisation of space. This does not mean that the US should not respond to real present and future threats. But US generals and compliant political leaders have been manipulating such threats to justify maintaining military structures, personnel, weapons systems, defence contractors and overseas bases. The new space race and the ballistic missile defence do not correspond to the country's real security needs.

For years all serious consideration of future threats to US national interests has postulated the likelihood of state-sponsored and non-state terrorism. In its 1999 report, the Hart-Rudman commission argued that "It will no longer require a major investment in scientific and industrial infrastructure for small states and even reasonably well-heeled groups and individuals, criminal syndicates or terrorists, to get their hands on very dangerous technologies." The commission said "states will acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers" (3)

Unwilling or unable to organise to confront emerging threats, the Pentagon and the security apparatus, including the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency, have been sluggish, determining what they would do tomorrow by what they did yesterday. Like Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, Osama Bin Laden leveraged the information revolution to his advantage. Both realised that the small could generate huge outcomes and that the big were blind to the competencies of the small.

Familiar with ideas of cold war power and domination, the Defence and State Departments developed a rhetoric about rogue states (4) and argued that the best protection against terrorism was a shield of ballistic missiles. But why would terrorists spend so much on a ballistic missile attack when commercial airliners are as effective, and simply commandeered? The evidence shows that America's expensive and expansive superstructure is mismatched to the new global threats and vulnerable to new political competition, which is why the Pentagon has proved incapable of waging asymmetric conflicts (see article by Marwan Bishara).

Signs of this have been apparent at least since 1985, long before the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During Ronald Reagan's presidency, the costs of maintaining the military were causing political and economic discomfort. Costs are rarely just the counter price for men and weapons; the greatest costs of maintaining US military dominance were the special terms of trade offered to Washington's closest allies in Europe and Asia. Japan and the US struck a bargain that gave Japan unfettered, preferential access to American markets in exchange for US troops based in Japan. From the start, that arrangement was not driven by market principles, but by the pragmatic needs of a US committed to protecting its empire from Soviet encroachment. Japan subordinated itself as a vassal of the US, and became, in essayist Chalmers Johnsons words, "America's satellite in East Asia".

By 1985, the time of the Plaza accord (5), the US had become the world's leading debtor nation and Japan the leading creditor. Under political pressure, Reagan and his team had to ask the world to submit to a massive manipulation of global financial markets, to push down the dollar's value against the yen (by about 50%) to reactivate the failing US economy. The exchange rate intervention pushed the trade imbalance in the wrong direction and produced conditions that led to a tidal wave of Japanese investment in the US, financed by Japanese assets that had doubled in value overnight. To continue its struggle against the Soviet empire - the central obsession of the Reagan administration - Washington pursued policies resulting in a massive sale of US assets, including forfeiting control of much of its sovereign debt to one of its satellites. When the land under the imperial palace in Tokyo became worth more than all of California, it was obvious that the markets were not functioning normally. That September 1985 event was a tremor foretelling the end of the cold war, because the costs of maintaining the US empire were politically and economically unsustainable.

During the cold war the Soviet Union and the US forced most of the world to choose sides. They built a sprawl of trade, military aid and presence, and diplomacy to keep nations in their spheres of influence from defecting to the other side. After the Soviet Union dissolved, the cost-benefit circumstances of nations in the US empire changed dramatically. Without the Soviet threat, the US' own willingness to absorb costs to maintain its empire changed and it questioned the economic system that it had put into place after the war.

In the 1990s the US forced the countries of East Asia to begin high-speed financial market deregulation. Through the International Monetary Fund and other Bretton Woods institutions, it forced them to adopt the neo-liberal economic framework that US capital demanded as the price of its investment. This strategy, not - as often suggested - crony capitalism or poor government, was the real cause of the Asian economic crisis of 1997 (6). The subsequent collapse caused an embryonic middle class in many countries to fall back into poverty, while US and European investment houses were bailed out. This laisser-faire attitude towards old US allies, such as Thailand and South Korea, would have been inconceivable during the cold war, when the Soviet Union would have tried to take advantage of American missteps.

Anchors of stability

The inability of the US military establishment to make a transition to something other than empire management after the dissolution of the Soviet Union is best seen in the decision to deploy half a million US troops in Saudi Arabia in 1991. According to the official history of the Third US Army, "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia requested immediate assistance from the US to provide protection from ballistic missile threats to their country. The US army quickly responded by deploying two Patriot air defence artillery battalions from Europe with a brigade headquarters." These 7,000 US troops were supposed to be stationed temporarily in Saudi Arabia. But they are still there. Their presence angers those with delicate sensibilities about Islamic cultural and religious purity, as well as national sovereignty. US military planners should have considered that the troops, a stabilising force at the outset, would over time destabilise the kingdom.

While the US media and strategists have argued about whether Washington has vital interests at stake in Bosnia requiring the deployment of 3,000 US troops, there has been total policy silence on the question of US troops in Saudi Arabia. When they are asked to describe the differences between pre-revolutionary Iran and Saudi Arabia today, strategists evade that question and the next one: shouldn't they worry about a military presence that erodes the legitimacy of Saudi rulers in the eyes of the population and radicalises Islamic fundamentalists against the US? The dominant view remains that US troops stabilise the region and protect it against Iraq.

In a recent private meeting, former US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott commented that the Soviet-led subordination of culture and identity among the peoples of the old USSR empire amazingly radicalised some of the population. Asked whether the US should worry about the same thing - whether rejection of the US was also happening in Japan or Saudi Arabia - he responded that troops were stationed abroad as "anchors of stability". The subject is taboo because the US would find it hard to withdraw its troops.

Despite his current status as an international pariah, Osama Bin Laden's words about this are important. We may consider his voice too illegitimate to listen to; but many well-established elites in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait - all of whom the US is protecting - share his views. In his forthcoming book Holy War Inc, Peter Bergen reports Bin Laden as saying: "The collapse of the Soviet Union made the US more haughty, and it has started to regard itself as a master of this world and established what it calls the new world order. The US today has set a double standard, calling whoever goes against its injustice a terrorist. It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents to rule us ... and wants us to agree to all these." Those words are eerily close to the resentments of leaders of many nations in the developing and developed world.

Had former president Bill Clinton put foreign policy on a new course, as he initially wanted to do, the world's resentment over the US' often unilateral and unconstrained economic and military behaviour would have been lessened. Clinton tried to modify national security thinking by raising economic interests to the same level as security considerations. He saw a military establishment intoxicated with its own self-importance after its Gulf war victory, and out of step with the sensibilities of most Americans. At Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1992, he stressed the need to draw nations together in trade and mutually beneficial economic bonds. And he tried to marginalise the military elite. But a resilient Pentagon prevailed over Clinton, by then distracted by personal scandals (7).

George W Bush began receiving regular intelligence briefings earlier than any other presidential contender in history. His defence and foreign policy team were in place remarkably fast. And rather than appoint trusted, loyal retainers, Bush kept Louis Freeh at the FBI and George Tenet at the CIA. Freeh had a key role in pursuing the terrorists who assaulted the USS Cole in Yemen while Tenet was a key player in tracking the groups, formal and informal, which threatened to disrupt the Middle East peace talks. At the time there were fears that countries in the region - especially Iraq and possibly Iran and Libya - were attempting to destroy Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and that weapons of mass destruction, particularly those owned by Saddam Hussein, would be used.

Bush, who won the presidency in a contested election, knew that he could not win support from the public on domestic policy and therefore turned to foreign policy, which he takes seriously. Nixon and Kissinger were realists during a time of perceived US decline, but Bush sees himself as a realist in a time of unparalleled US ascension and power. Bush did not want or expect this level of terrorism. But 11 September gave him the excuse he had hoped for to restore the military, to battle the ghosts haunting his father's presidency (the idea that the Bush family was bested by Saddam Hussein), and to overcome the unpopularity of his contested presidential victory. For Bush, military confrontation, like the collision of an American spy plane with a Chinese fighter, can provide materials to build a strong presidency.

But Bush and his retainers want to fight nations; they don't understand 21st century threats. The US has now demanded that all nations decide if they are "with us or against us". And Bush is getting the funding and authority from Congress to spend ever more on military and spy superstructure; US civil liberties will be curtailed; Bush will change our lives to pursue an enemy he can't find. Bin Laden should be pursued, as should his collaborators and protectors. But the real target of our energy should be to change the underlying conditions; to get smart, be modern. The cold war is over.

The costs of not realising that will rise until the US comes to terms with the new reality. Thomas Kuhn (8) argued that, in science, innovation doesn't happen incrementally, it happens when one paradigm that has been protected, justified, rationalised, ultimately crashes down. A similar fate, but not a necessary one, may befall the US if it continues to crow about its dominance of the world. America needs to get in touch with the NGOs, with the zones of the world calling for its compassion, rather than ideology and acts of war.

* Executive vice president of the New America Foundation, a centrist public policy institution in Washington, DC

(1) Falwell and Robertson, leaders of the fundamentalist wing of the American right, helped Bush beat John McCain during the Republican Party primaries.

(2) American Civil Liberties Union, a progressive association for the defence of civil rights and freedom of expression.

(3) "New World Coming - American Security in the 21st century", Publications of Congress, Washington DC, 1999.

(4) See Noam Chomsky, "America: the outlaw state", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, August 2000.

(5) Devoted to the liberalisation of the Japanese financial system and the re-evaluation of the yen.

(6) See "La mondialisation contre l'Asie", Manière de voir, no 47, September-October 1999.

(7) Philip S Golub, "America's imperial longings", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, July 2001.

(8) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 1962.

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