It’s war - but against whom?

The world is being reorganised in response to the events of 11 September.

After the attacks on New York and Washington, America has declared war - but on whom? The political and military might of the USA and NATO is being mobilised to fight a war against an enemy with no clear identity, aims or country. An enemy, indeed, without even a face, apart perhaps from an old FBI ‘Most wanted’ poster of Osama Bin Laden.

If war can usually be understood as the pursuit of politics by other means, this looks more like the pursuit of panic. Commentators have been blindly lashing out at the invisible foe from behind their keyboards: ‘kill the bastards…blow them to smithereens, poison them’ demands one New York Post columnist.

But which of ‘them’ are ‘we’ at war with? New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman says that ‘World War III’ has begun, pitting the USA - ‘the world’s only superpower’ - against a foe he can define only as ‘all the super-empowered angry men and women out there’.

For his part, President George W Bush has declared ‘a monumental struggle of good versus evil’. Yet the US authorities have seemed unwilling or unable to put a name to the major evil they are dealing with. Ten years ago there would have been a stream of invective directed against ‘mad Mullahs’ and Islamic fundamentalists, and no doubt many would like to repeat that anti-Muslim message now. Instead, on both sides of the Atlantic, everybody from leading politicians to the tabloid press appears to be at pains to explain that they have no quarrel with Islam or the Muslim world.  In the confusion and uncertainty of the post-Cold War world, the West finds it less easy to ‘draw a line in the sand’ (as Bush’s father said during the Gulf War) between the good guys and the bad, beyond a few stereotypical faces of evil like Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein.

Some observers, like former CIA director R James Woolsey, are desperately hoping that evidence might ‘materialise’ implicating Saddam in the attacks, because Iraq has ready-made ‘multiple targets for military planners’ to aim at. At present, with little hard evidence and in lieu of any more attractive suspects, Afghanistan has been put in the frame for the crime. But there is not much left in the rubble of that ruined country for America to target.

Despite all of that, the US authorities are now talking in terms of a major war. President Bush has vowed to do ‘whatever it takes’ to punish those deemed responsible, and congress has already promised him a $20billion war chest as a ‘down payment’. Deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz has spelt out that America’s political and military response will be ‘a campaign, not a single action’. And even more graphically, the New York Times of 14 September reports Wolfowitz saying: ‘It’s not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism.’ When those in charge of the largest war machine on Earth talk in measured terms about ‘ending states’, the developing world can be forgiven for expecting the worst.

This crisis has revealed the insecurity at the heart of the US administration. We have already noted on spiked how, when the terrorists struck last Tuesday, the machinery of American government at first appeared to collapse along with the twin towers. Yet we are also witnessing a manipulative attempt to use these events in order to bring more certainty to the American-dominated world order.

All the talk in top American circles now is of the need, in the words of an important Washington Post editorial, to ‘assemble and lead a global alliance’, a more permanent version of the global front the USA led against Saddam in the Gulf War of 1990-91. This alliance should ‘ideally’ include Russia, China and ‘some Islamic states’. But the clear message is that those who refuse to sign up to America’s new crusade must suffer the consequences:

‘Cooperation in the war effort must be an absolute requirement for friendly relations with the United States. A rejection of such cooperation, or support for the terrorists, should define an adversary of this country and bring about serious political, economic or military consequences.’ (1)

The Washington Post also raises another common theme in current discussions - that America must overcome its recent reluctance to suffer casualties in wars around the world:  ‘A foreign policy based too heavily on avoiding short-term risk helped bring about the present crisis. To deliver on the strong commitments they have made to Americans in the past two days, President Bush and his cabinet must summon the fortitude, and the political support, to take the longer road to victory.’

It remains to be seen how successful the Bush administration can be in renewing America’s sense of mission in the world in this way. In the shocked aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, some have reported an upsurge in popular American patriotism and in army recruitment. In the longer term it appears unlikely that this sort of angry, defensive response to a terrorist attack can replicate the self-confident, imperious view of the world that Americans held after the Second World War.  Nor will tensions within NATO over America’s plans remain far below the surface. But however the process ends, it already seems certain that the world is being reorganised in response to the events of 11 September. 

While the Bush administration attempts to pull together a new global alliance, it has become quite fashionable here in the UK to criticise US foreign policy and suggest that Americans are to blame for the tragedy that has befallen them. spiked is no friend of the American foreign policy establishment. We have often lambasted Washington for its inept, arrogant and imperialist interventions overseas (and unlike some of America’s new critics, we have also pointed out that European governments are often equally culpable).

However, those insisting that the attacks on America had direct causes in US foreign policy have misunderstood what is new about world politics almost as badly as those attempting to re-run the Gulf War.

Imperialism has done much to create conditions in the developing world that can lead desperate people to take desperate action. The experience of other Western interventions certainly helps to explain why many around the world are not weeping for the dead in America this week. But that does not mean every act of terrorism today can be understood as a direct response to foreign oppression. Instead of trying to apply some sort of cause-and-effect model, recent events can better be understood as a consequence of the unstable, out-of-control dynamic of global affairs in our unipolar world.

In many ways, the forces responsible for recent terrorist attacks are as much the creation of what has happened in the West as in the developing world. Bin Laden’s group, for example, came out of the Islamic Mujaheddin that was organised and financed by the USA in the 1980s, in order to undermine the Soviet regime in Afghanistan. It now appears that at least one of the hijackers went to university in Germany, and that they may well have been trained to fly in the USA.  Look closer, and we may find that their zealotry was moulded by the strength of separatist identity politics in the West, as much as by a belief in Islamic fundamentalism.

The depoliticised post-Cold War world has witnessed the demise of the powerful left-wing or nationalist liberation movements of the past. The ‘movements’ that remain are largely a degraded excuse for anti-imperialism. There is nothing progressive about them or their actions. Whoever is responsible for the terrorist attacks on America has not even been willing to claim them or to explain what cause they are pursuing.  Indeed, it is hard to see that these groups have any clear cause or principles at all, beyond perhaps the martyrdom of some of their own members.

It is the unstable character of the world order that has enabled a relative handful of crazed individuals to have such a huge impact, provoking the president of the USA to declare war against nobody in particular. When the world is being reorganised around a crusade against small groups of these people, it suggests that things are spinning further out of control in a dangerous direction. As I suggested on spiked on 12 September, it is not the act of terrorism itself that has changed the course of history, but the reaction to it may well do so.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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