The State of the War

What is Bush's game of fantasy foreign policy really all about?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Who, on the evening of 11 September, said of the terrorist attacks on America that ‘This is a great opportunity’?

No, it wasn’t Osama bin Laden, or the New Labour spindoctor Jo ‘bury the bad news’ Moore. It was US president George W Bush, addressing the first meeting of his war cabinet barely 12 hours after the World Trade Centre’s twin towers had collapsed. The telling quote has just been revealed in a special Washington Post investigation, co-written by Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, into what happened in the days after 11 September (1).

From the start, America’s response to the attacks on New York and Washington was about much more than catching the terrorists whom a panicky Bush first described as ‘those folks who committed this act’. The new ‘war against terrorism’ would be seized upon as ‘a great opportunity’ to reorganise US foreign policy, and give a sense of purpose to Bush’s uncertain administration. This week’s State of the Union address by the president, declaring what his aides have sought to glorify as the Bush Doctrine, is the latest stage of this cynical exercise.

Bush’s speech made clear that the response to 11 September would remain the defining policy of his entire administration. Despite hailing a great success in Afghanistan, the president warned Americans that ‘our war against terror is only beginning’, claiming that ‘tens of thousands of trained terrorists are still at large’, and that the world was threatened by an ‘axis of evil’ running through Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The message was that America would broaden the war to act against all of these threats, unilaterally if necessary, and Bush pledged a huge boost in defence spending to meet the task.

Several British commentators pointed out that Bush’s doctrine rests upon dubious ground. The inflated figure for ‘trained terrorists’ appeared to have been plucked out of thin air, while the notion of comparing those three weak states to the Second World War Axis Powers of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy was ridiculous. Apart from anything else, as the foreign editor of The Times (London) observed, ‘the three countries are barely speaking’. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer later had to concede that Bush’s description of an ‘axis of evil’ was ‘more rhetorical than historical’.

So what is this game of fantasy foreign policy (a bit like fantasy football, only much more dangerous) really all about?

To answer that question, it is necessary to go back to those first days after the 11 September attacks. The Bush administration’s response (after some initial hesitancy about using the word) was first to announce that America was at war, and only then to go in search of somebody to wage war against. As we have pointed out on spiked before, this strange sequence of events reversed the normal practice of foreign policy, where it is usual to know who your enemy is before declaring war. What mattered to Washington was exploiting the ‘great opportunity’ to galvanise a wounded America behind the administration. The specifics of the war against, as it turned out, the Taliban in Afghanistan, were always of secondary importance. This helps to explain why America’s war aims have so often seemed to be shifting and uncertain.

Several months on, the bombing of rubble and caves in Afghanistan continues, civilian casualties are mounting, yet bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar are still at large, and fighting is breaking out once more among different Afghan factions. Bush needs to find some fresh focus if the war against terror is to maintain its political momentum, most importantly on the home front. He needs to flesh out the meaning of his ‘historic’ struggle against evil, by establishing achievable aims and targets against which he can measure his victory. That is what the State of Union address was about, in identifying an alleged axis of terror involving fractured states and movements that America can feel confident about leaning on. It is a plan that is already being put into practice, with US special forces operating as anti-terrorist ‘advisers’ in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Bush’s foreign policy is being driven by political considerations that have little to do with strategic realities on the ground. This continually introduces an element of instability, and means that things once considered ‘unthinkable’ can seriously be added to Washington’s agenda for discussion. This week it was reported that ‘military planners at the Pentagon have drawn up a blueprint for a two-pronged invasion of Iraq involving up to 100,000 US troops in support of local Kurdish and Shi’ite rebels’ (2).

European critics have expressed dismay at the direction in US foreign policy outlined in the State of the Union address. Yet we should be wary of taking Bush entirely at his word. Ever since 11 September, there has been a sizeable reality gap between America’s rhetoric and actions. Now the talk is of sending 100,000 US troops into Iraq; then the same numbers of troops were being reported as on their way to Afghanistan. In the event, the USA opted to play safe, through widespread bombing from on-high and hesitantly sending in some special forces. The result to date looks a far cry from the ‘total vindication’ of policy that UK prime minister Tony Blair claimed in December 2001. Even Blair, who promised that he and Bush would remake the world in their own image, now fights shy of sending any more ‘peacekeeping’ troops into Afghanistan, or allowing those now in Kabul to be deployed elsewhere in that ‘liberated’ country.

The Bush administration lacks the nerve or authority to carry out its pledge to cleanse the world. That is one reason why it has been reduced to showing the world how tough it is by making an example of the prisoners (sorry, detainees) caged at Camp X-Ray in Guatanamo Bay in Cuba. How impressed the world will be by reports of nervous US marines sawing off the detainees’ dangerous tooth brushes remains to be seen. And even there, Washington has become increasingly defensive in its response to international criticisms of the prisoners’ treatment.

Torn between wanting its politically precious war to continue, and not quite knowing what to do next on the ground, it remains to be seen how well the Bush administration will be able to exploit the ‘great opportunity’ it saw afforded by the terrorist attacks. But events in Afghanistan suggest that we should not hold our breath waiting for the ‘freedom’s victory’ that the president promised this week.

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.

Read on:

When is a war not a war?, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) America’s chaotic road to war, 27 January 2002, on MSNBC

(2) Pentagon draws up plans for invasion of Iraq, The Herald, 31 January 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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