The ‘war on terror’ takes on a life of its own

The momentum towards conflict with Iraq has little to do with 11 September or Saddam Hussein.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Declaring the ‘second stage of the war on terror’ on 11 March 2002, exactly six months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, President George W Bush announced that ‘inaction is not an option’.

That sounds like a right-wing version of ‘Something Must Be Done’ – the Bill Clinton/Tony Blair mantra of international intervention that Bush’s Republicans loudly condemned before the 2000 presidential election. What both doctrines have in common is that they establish a moral imperative for America and the West to intervene around the world, pretty much regardless of the consequences in the countries on the receiving end.

Having promised to rein back Washington’s foreign adventures, President Bush now finds himself presiding over America’s most extensive military intervention since the Second World War, with US forces operating in countries from the Philippines to Georgia. The ostensible purpose of course is to find those responsible for 11 September and ensure no such atrocity occurs again. But a glance at how Bush’s ‘war on terror’ has developed from Afghanistan to Iraq suggests other political motives are also at work.

As we have pointed out on spiked, after 11 September Bush first declared that America was at war with persons unknown, and then went looking for an enemy to wage the war against. The Taliban fitted the bill. This unusual sequence of events suggested that Bush’s policy had little to do with anything happening inside Afghanistan. In the administration’s desire to give a wounded America a new sense of purpose and mission, the important thing was to put the nation on a war footing. Such minor logistical details as where, how and why the war was to be fought could be filled in when convenient.

The ‘second stage’ focus on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq involves the same process at work in a slightly different way. This time Bush has first identified the enemy – predictably selecting the ever-unpopular Saddam – and then gone looking for a cause that could justify waging war against Iraq.

This has not proved all that easy, since there is no evidence linking Saddam to 11 September or the current sponsorship of international terrorism. Thus on 11 March, Bush could only talk darkly but incoherently of how, if terrorists acquired nuclear weapons (presumably from Iraq, which does not have them itself), they would ‘unleash blackmail and genocide and chaos’.

The ‘war on terror’ has assumed a life of its own, a dynamic that is quite independent of events in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else. It is the all-consuming goal of the Bush administration, the one policy that can galvanise the American government. In this sense, the important thing for Washington is that the war continues somewhere, and that it can show some visible successes against somebody (especially given the failure to find Osama bin Laden or just about anybody else accused of 11 September). As the present rumours about imminent full-scale attacks on Iraq indicate, this is introducing a dangerously unstable element into the foreign policy of the world’s only superpower.

As Bush and his aides make increasingly warlike noises about Iraq, echoed rather half-heartedly by Tony Blair and UK government ministers, they sometimes sound as if they are trying to convince themselves. An underlying uncertainty continues to influence the policy of the US administration, desperate to win its war on terror yet uncertain of what ‘victory’ might be, still less how it might be achieved.

Now, amid stories of a planned 250,000-strong US-UK army invading Iraq, there are reports from eastern Afghanistan that hundreds of ‘inadequate’ American troops have had to be withdrawn from the mountain battle with al-Qaeda forces, and replaced by local fighters (1). The American response to such setbacks is to bomb everything in sight from a great height, in a desperate attempt to demonstrate their power. But, like the alleged placing of seven states on Washington’s nuclear hit list, this lashing out looks more like a sign of insecurity than of strength.

The momentum towards some kind of conflict with Iraq has little to do with 11 September, or with the activities of Saddam Hussein. It is a symptom of an insecure superpower’s attempt to assert its authority, if necessary at the price of enforcing a permanent state of war and strengthening the global culture of fear.

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:

America’s axis-tential crisis, by Brendan O’Neill

How did we get from Manhattan to Kabul?, by Mick Hume

Now it is war – but for what?, by Mick Hume

It’s war – but against whom?, by Mick Hume

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) ‘Inadequate’ US troops pulled out of battleground, The Times (London), 12 March 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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