Why has Bush not pushed the button?
The US government lacks the authority or legitimacy to act decisively.
So what has happened to the war? Like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme, President George W Bush appears to have marched his army to the top of the hill, and then marched them down again.
Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the US administration has repeatedly raised the rhetorical stakes in its threat of war against persons unknown. It has boosted Bush’s poll ratings. But it has also created tensions within the US-led alliance and around the world, while the White House seems to have frightened itself into a state of paralysis.
The delay in military action has been ascribed to Bush’s statesmanlike, cool-headed approach. A more realistic explanation is that, despite its apparent fortitude and widespread support, the US government lacks the authority or legitimacy to act decisively in the way its supporters would like.
As I noted on 12 September, alongside the sheer human tragedy, the immediate result of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon was the collapse of the US government. The panicky reaction brought to the surface post-Cold War trends that have been undermining Washington’s traditional sources of authority at home and abroad.
The US administration clearly believes that it can no longer carry off an act of aggressive adventurism – say, an invasion of Afghanistan – for fear of unleashing forces it cannot control.
At the same time, it does not have a proper international system that can be run to plan. Since the end of the Cold War removed the rationale for an anti-communist alliance, the Western powers have tried to legitimise an essentially unipolar, US-dominated world order in the language of humanitarian internationalism. In effect, America has become an empire that dare not speak its name. But that is a poor substitute for the old doctrine of America’s global ‘manifest destiny’ as a basis on which to try to run the world.
All the talk of upholding human rights and enforcing international law, which we heard used endlessly to justify Western interventions in the Balkans and elsewhere, has now returned to haunt the US authorities. Those schooled in this outlook are now demanding to see the evidence against Osama bin Laden, and reminding Washington of its responsibility to avoid making victims of innocent civilians. In its new role as both a victim of terrorism and a champion of human rights, the American administration finds it much harder to wave away these concerns than it would have done in the old days of the imperial Pax Americana.
Today, a war can only be fought with legitimacy if it can be justified in the language of humanitarianism. That is why we are now seeing belated attempts by those in the West who understand the new rules to repackage the ‘war’ against terrorism in those terms. So Tony Blair surrounds himself with Muslim leaders to call for a ‘humanitarian alliance’ to aid Afghan refugees – effectively trying to launch a mission to rescue the victims of war before the war has even begun. Bill Clinton might have gone, but Blair still wants to feel the world’s pain and justify war in emotionally correct terms. And at the first mention of humanitarian relief, UK cabinet rebel Clare ‘bomb-‘em-with-bread’ Short is back onside.
How all of this will end is still uncertain – although we can be sure that the end is not in sight. But for now it is clear that President Bush’s strategy for war is in a position which, to return to that nursery rhyme, is ‘neither up nor down’.
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.
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