hijackings and mass murders of September 11 were horrible and momentous,
but the world did not suddenly change on that crystal-clear morning. Existing
cracks in the US-led world order widened and deepened, and lurking insecurities
strode forth from the shadows. The current spectacle of the world's richest
country bombing Afghanistan -- where the average life expectancy is 43
-- cannot resolve the crisis of global governance sharpened so painfully
on September 11, whether or not the US achieves its military objectives
of capturing or killing alleged mastermind Osama bin Laden and ridding
the country of the thuggish Taliban.
In the US and abroad,
opposition to the war, however nuanced, is kept outside the sphere of
legitimate politics by the Manichean rhetoric of the Bush administration
and the security forces of its client regimes. Most of all, the September
11 attacks highlight the inadequacy and danger of this approach to managing
the contradictions generated by the imbalance of global power.
GIANT STEP BACKWARD
At home, reactionary
agendas of all sorts received a shot in the arm. In Congress, only Barbara
Lee (D-CA) balked at granting the most hawkish administration in years
unlimited war and emergency powers. Defense Department boondoggles which
might have met their timely demise before September 11 have been resurrected:
faulty warplanes, like the crash-prone V-22 Osprey and the already outmoded
F-22 fighter, might learn to fly again. The Pentagon could get a $66 billion
increase in its budget over last year when all the boodle is tallied.
The right wing of the Justice Department easily secured expanded surveillance
and interrogation powers it has been seeking for years. Racial profiling
shed its hard-won opprobrium in public opinion, Congress allowed law enforcement
officials to detain immigrants indefinitely without charging them and
George W. Bush spotted loopholes in the 25-year ban on CIA assassinations.
The hijackers helped the mandarins of the national security state cross
several items off their wish list.
The economic stimulus
package passed by the House of Representatives in late October (and in
the Senate at press time) reveals the extent of corporate influence in
the Bush administration. With thousands of people newly unemployed --
including many rendered jobless by the World Trade Center catastrophe
-- in the shell-shocked economy, conservative Republicans rammed through
a bill that distributes most of the stimulus in the form of retroactive
tax rebates for multinational corporations. Common Cause projects that
the top 14 corporate contributors of soft money to 2000 election campaigns
would get $6.3 billion in refunded taxes if the House bill became law.
(That's nearly $19 to corporations for every dollar the US is spending
on relief efforts for Afghan refugees.) Senate resistance may dilute the
worst provisions of the House package, but the final bill will certainly
be a giant step backward for social justice in the US.
The global outpouring
of sympathy for the deaths of over 5,000 civilians gave the US a unique
opportunity to mobilize genuine international support for what should
still be the overriding US objective: finding the planners and abettors
of the attacks and trying them through mechanisms of international law.
The US could have classified the attacks as crimes against humanity and
reduced the international cynicism that normally greets US invocations
of that phrase. Even now, international opinion might support a carefully
targeted US commando operation to capture planners and abettors hiding
in Afghanistan, if convincing evidence of their guilt were to be presented.
But from the moment that Bush declared the September 11 atrocities "acts
of war" against "freedom and democracy," the administration
tacitly declared that US responses would not be based on procedural norms
of legal justice. In doing so, the White House squandered an opportunity
to build bridges. Instead, the Bush administration has generated a narrative
of war dividing the world into two irreconcilable forces: "us"
and "them." "Us" means those who unequivocally support
the US-led "war on terrorism." "They" are those who
question or oppose the war for any reason, including lack of sufficient
information to blindly sanction bombing in Afghanistan. The image of the
US as global bully, so readily exploited by bin Laden and his demagogic
ilk, has been perilously enhanced. As details of Afghan civilian deaths
from errant US missiles trickle into the press, the efforts of Donald
Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice to market the war on al-Jazeera appear mordantly
insensitive to cold realities.
On September 25,
the Bush administration scoffed again at international law when it announced
support for the so-called American Servicemembers Protection Act, a brainchild
of Jesse Helms designed to short-circuit the planned International Criminal
Court, to which President Bill Clinton grudgingly signed on immediately
before leaving office. Helms's bill authorizes the executive branch to
use "all means necessary" to remove US citizens or allies accused
of war crimes or crimes against humanity from the Court's custody. Meanwhile,
Bush's trade representative Robert Zoellick, seeking fast-track authority
for a new round of World Trade Organization negotiations before the November
9 ministerial meeting in Qatar, averred that US-style neoliberalism "promotes
the values at the heart of this protracted struggle" against terrorism.
Developing countries which might have resisted a new round in Doha will
now think twice, lest the US place them on the wrong side of the "us
versus them" divide.
The most commonplace
observation since the attacks, through the start of bombing and the anthrax
scare, is that "everything has changed." Other commentators,
noting the "us versus them" rhetoric, and the sheepish tone
of most domestic dissent to the war and its attendant rollbacks of democracy,
observed that the post-September 11 geopolitical climate recalls the early
Cold War. Rushing to construct a viable coalition to "defend democracy"
from al-Qaeda, the US has shored up its alliances with notably anti-democratic
leaders -- Musharraf in Pakistan, Sharon in Israel, Mubarak in Egypt --
and even found a new dictator to coddle in Uzbekistan. With the world's
attention focused on caves in the Hindu Kush, these leaders (as in Russia,
Turkey and elsewhere) may seize the anti-terrorist mantle to crush legitimate
political opposition. Authoritarian rule may be particularly strengthened
in the Arab world. In the US, commentators are largely unable to transcend
a narrow nationalist discourse in their prescriptions for a just response
to the September 11 events: the US must pursue planners and abettors of
the attacks not because killing civilians is a crime, but because the
US must defend itself from the outside world. When even Richard Falk,
long-time champion of international law, justifies opening Operation Enduring
Freedom in not so dissimilar terms in The Nation, the Cold War comparison
seems an accurate description indeed of the present moment. For many reasons,
however, both the sentiment that everything has changed and the Cold War
comparison lack analytical utility.
Rather than ushering
in an entirely new era, the September 11 attacks and the war on terrorism
mark a flashpoint in the ongoing crisis of the unipolar world order. The
US presides (or pretends to) over a world racked by poverty, growing inequality,
sectarian strife and environmental degradation, but seems scarcely disturbed
by the contradictions. In the 1990s, US unilateralism showed itself in
the pursuit of unpopular policy goals like harsh sanctions on Iraq, generous
military aid to Israel and compulsory structural adjustment for indebted
economies, matched by the obstruction of more popular initiatives on everything
from the International Criminal Court to environmental protections to
The current US retaliation
depends for domestic support on extrapolating the hijackers' presumed
antipathy beyond two of the most visible symbols of American corporate
and military power. Precisely this transformation occurred in the media
within hours: these were not attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, but attacks on "all of America." Those who died on
September 11 were certainly normal people just going to work, but it would
be naive to ignore what these buildings signify to the many people in
the world who live on the other side of the US superpower equation. Saddening
displays of resentful glee in the Middle East and not so subtle shrugs
of ambivalence across the developing world bespeak a widespread feeling
that the US is an overweening empire that finally tasted the violence
and despair endured elsewhere as a matter of course.
REGISTERS OF ISLAM
Media analysis has
been dominated by the dubious terms proposed in the early 1990s by Samuel
Huntington: "the clash of civilizations." War debriefings, administration
spokespersons, editorials and talk shows return to the theme that the
roots of the conflict are to be found in Islam. In turn, imam after imam
has been coerced to step forward to denounce bin Laden and insist that
Islam is not a religion of violence. But crucial as it is to reject racist
representations of Islam, which contains a robust array of intellectual,
theological and cultural traditions, it should be important to avoid apologetics
that deny any connection between the perpetrators and Islam. As Khaled
Abou El Fadl argues in the forthcoming issue of Middle East Report, the
language of extreme violence and intolerance repudiates the indeterminacy
and generosity of the classical interpretive tradition. Moreover, he contends,
this repudiation finds echoes in contemporary Islamic discourses much
nearer the mainstream, including a state-sponsored discourse in Saudi
is important to recognize the degree to which Islam has been a register
of political opposition, not only to the despotism and corruption of various
Arab regimes, but also to US and Israeli hegemony in the region. The question
usually asked -- "What in Islam has led to these events?" --
needs to be replaced by another: "What about the modern history of
the Middle East has led political opposition to take a decidedly religious
form?" Part of the answer is to be found in the politics of state-building
and modernization in the region. "Moderate" secular states --
such as Algeria, Israel, Egypt, Turkey or Iran under the Shah -- began
with the premise that Islam was a problem to be overcome or coopted. In
such countries, numerous laws confining, suppressing or monopolizing the
public practice of Islam helped to transform religion into the focal point
for political struggle. That Islamist activists under these regimes have
been jailed, exiled, tortured and executed for their beliefs has done
little to advance the cause of secularism.
Another vital part
of the answer is to be found, not surprisingly, in US Cold War policy
in the region. During the 1970s and 1980s, the US was not embarrassed
by the Saudi regime's Wahhabism. To the contrary, policymakers quietly
promoted it as a counterbalance to the popularity of Arab socialism. With
a wink and a nod from the US, autocrats from Morocco to Pakistan, from
Egypt to Yemen, eagerly sought Saudi support in smashing the Arab and
Muslim left. Sadat's policy of unleashing Islamist activists on Nasserist
groups in the universities and Numeiri's anti-communist Islamist politics
were convenient in the fight against Soviet influences in the region.
Finally, of course, the largest CIA operation of the 1980s -- propping
up the military junta of Zia ul Haq in Pakistan and funding, with the
Saudis, holy warriors to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan -- relied on
the manufacture of Islamist insurgency in the region. The Taliban and
bin Laden both drew succor from this tangled US-Saudi-Pakistani nexus.
But religiously inflected anti-Western violence is not simply "blowback"
from US adventurism in the Middle East. Cold War imperatives converged
with the interests of regional players, particularly the Saudis, who gained
so much in regional clout via the export of Wahhabi doctrines. In Afghanistan,
both the Saudis and the Pakistani military sought to curb the influence
of revolutionary Iran, an objective that also coincided with US goals.
In the end, the hijackers who plowed airliners into the World Trade Center,
the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania are the human detritus of the failed
strategies of the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and lesser regional players
to contain both leftist and Islamist threats to the status quo.
Certainly, the responses
of these players to the hijackings augur ill for regional stability. To
the world's misfortune, the White House is now occupied by men and women
who believe that US unilateralism is a virtue as well as a necessity.
The patina of evangelical Christianity coating the administration's policy
pronouncements is revealing: Bush's use of the word "crusade"
to describe the war on terrorism was more than just a public relations
faux pas. If anything, the attacks bolstered the hard-line unilateralists
in the Bush administration, and deepened their willingness to turn a blind
eye to the excesses of allies who claim to be fighting terrorism. Administration
hawks talk loudly of widening the war to encompass Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
The Saudi princes accept Bush's assurances that media scrutiny of US reliance
on the Kingdom's oil will not diminish Washington's enthusiasm for the
US-Saudi relationship. Taking into account the simultaneous aid packages
to Israel and pledges of support to "moderate" Arab regimes,
US Middle East policy looks on track to maintain tightly and precariously
managed conflict in the region.
Meanwhile, the generals
in Islamabad will not cooperate with US-sponsored nation-building in Afghanistan
unless they handpick the nation-builders. Scant days after Operation Enduring
Freedom commenced, the phrase "moderate Taliban" had already
crept into official US prognostications about Afghanistan's political
future. Neither these curious apparitions nor the US-backed Northern Alliance
are likely to accommodate all the ethnic groups represented among Afghanistan's
four million refugees or ameliorate the now notorious persecution of Afghan
women. (The frisson of American activism dramatizing the plight of women
under Taliban rule must seem odd to Afghan mothers made refugees by US
bombing.) More to the point, continued US-Pakistani interference in Afghan
politics does not seem likely to contribute to long-term security in either
Afghanistan or Pakistan. Seen from the vantage point of containment strategies,
the war on terrorism so far appears to be little more than a panicked
exercise in crisis management.
As governments worldwide
place national security above all else, the glimmers of internationalism
espied in the 1990s are fading. Internationalist ventures -- both official
ones like the International Criminal Court and bottom-up surges like the
post-Seattle global justice movement -- face a newly ambient nationalism
and a rejuvenated right-wing power structure. Public discourse continually
asks why "they" hate "us" without stopping to ponder
the categories. That the Bush administration has chosen this path is doubly
damning: the September 11 disasters could have presented a rare chance
to steer global power dynamics onto a distinctly less ominous course.
(c) Elliott Colla
and Chris Toensing
This editorial appears
in the winter 2001 issue of Middle East Report (www.merip.org).
Elliott Colla teaches comparative literature at Brown University. Chris
Toensing is editor of Middle East Report.