America the vulnerable

Tom Ridge of the US Department for Homeland Security talks at King's College, London

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Tom Ridge, the former Republican Governor of Pennsylvania who was handpicked by President Bush to head the post-11 September Department for Homeland Security, cut an impressive figure as he strode into the Great Hall at King’s College London last night.

Towering above his entourage and surrounded by 15 burly security guards (all talking into their sleeves just like they do in the movies), Ridge took his seat on the podium to a round of applause and welcoming words from King’s College Professor of War Studies Lawrence Freedman.

‘There have been two recent victories’, Freedman told us – citing the Republicans’ victory in the mid-term elections and the Bush administration’s new draft proposal on weapons inspections for Iraq as evidence that Ridge’s party is in the ascendant around the world.

Watching the confident Ridge, I wondered if he was an early example of the ‘Bush administration unleashed’. Just before attending the meeting I had read an article headlined ‘World braces for “triumphant” Bush’ (1), which claimed that ‘the world now faces President Bush triumphant after the mid-term elections. His Republican Party is in command of both Houses of Congress, and Bush can claim a potent new mandate for an assertive foreign policy whose unilateralist “America First” implications have disconcerted friends and foes alike’.

Ridge certainly looked the part. But when he opened his mouth to speak, he sounded not so much tough and triumphant as meek and vulnerable. This was a man who wanted us to feel his – and America’s – pain.

Ridge may head a department that is consolidating 100 government agencies into one big super-agency, with plans to employ 170,000 people and to use its future budget of $37billion to see off ‘all America’s enemies’, but he was most keen to flag up America’s vulnerability. ‘The more we know about our vulnerabilities, the better able we are to protect ourselves’, he said.

So keen was Ridge to talk up US vulnerability that he used the word no fewer than 10 times. ‘We must direct our resources towards securing against the greatest vulnerability…. We must reduce America’s vulnerability to terrorism…. We must integrate analysis about evolving terrorist strategies with an assessment of our vulnerabilities.’

After doing his vulnerable America turn, Ridge pointed out that terrorists exploit America’s vulnerability in order to launch their attacks. ‘They select the time, place and method of their attacks based on the vulnerabilities they perceive in us’, he said.

This is hardly surprising – considering that even the man in charge of homeland security constantly bangs on about America’s vulnerability; that he depicts every aspect of modern American society as a potential route for terrorists to do their dirty work; and that it takes little more than ‘chatter’ (a CIA/FBI term for suspected communication between terrorists) to bring sections of American society to a standstill.

Remember when Bush officials caused havoc in parts of New York in May 2002, after announcing that they had received info from Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking al-Qaeda prisoner in Camp X-Ray, about a potential attack on the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge? It turned out the Zubaydah had been ranting on about the fictional lizard Godzilla and its ravaging of New York, which had been interpreted by Zubaydah’s interrogators (and Ridge’s men in Homeland Security) as a coded warning for an attack.

When any act, or even whispers and rumours about an act, can paralyse parts of America and bring things to a standstill, it isn’t surprising that cranks or terrorists might exploit such ‘vulnerability’ in an attempt to make an impact. If their aim is to cause a mighty stir ‘with very few resources’, as Ridge put it, then making vulnerability the central focus of homeland security and responding to every scare in a fearful and panicky fashion only seems likely to invite cranky attacks, rather than stop them.

Ridge also talked about the Washington sniper – not as an example of al-Qaeda terrorism (though ridiculous rumours of a link between the sniper and bin Laden have been doing the rounds), but as an example of the fear that has swept America since 11 September.

In response to a question about whether the endless warnings from the Homeland Security team might make people unnecessarily scared, Ridge agreed that there has been widespread panic post-9/11, pointing to people’s petrified response to the sniper as a case in point.

That’s a bit rich, coming from the man in charge of Scaring Americans Senseless. After being appointed head of homeland security in October 2001, Ridge told Americans, ‘There is a universe of potentials [that] we have to deal with’, raising the possibility that attacks could ‘come from anywhere at any time’.

Other classic lines from US officials keen to ‘make people feel safe’ have included: ‘There will be another terrorist attack – we will not be able to stop it’ (FBI director Robert Mueller); and ‘We need to keep reminding the American people of our vulnerabilities’ (national security adviser Condoleezza Rice).

The Bush administration’s idea of making people feel secure seems to be to warn them about every single possibility of attack, however highly unlikely it might be. Ridge talks about post-9/11 fears, but his department’s policy of causing maximum alarm has only contributed to feelings of insecurity.

Ridge soon shifted his focus from the domestic to the international, and assessed America’s role in combating terrorism around the world. But there was little talk of the ‘unilateralist’ and ‘assertive’ foreign policy predicted by some in the wake of the Republicans’ victory in the mid-term elections. Instead, Ridge made clear that America cannot act alone.

‘No nation can secure itself against a global threat by acting alone’, he said. And just in case we missed the point, he said it twice more during his speech. ‘No one nation can confront the terrorist threat alone, or protect itself through its own actions…. Neither the United States, nor any other single nation, can do this alone.’ Got that? America cannot beat terrorism alone.

Ridge didn’t mention unilateral action once, though he did mention America’s ‘bilateral border accords with Canada and Mexico’ and the ‘multilateral organisations that are our essential partners’.

Despite European and anti-war concerns that America is going it alone over Iraq and the war on al-Qaeda, in fact the Bush administration seems keen to win over the support of international institutions. It tries to present its foreign ventures as international, humanitarian campaigns, rather than as American campaigns.

Rather than writing off the United Nations for dithering over Iraq and just invading without the UN’s agreement (as Britain and America did in Kosovo in 1999), the Bush administration has gone back to the UN again and again, in an attempt to convince its members that they should support action against Iraq. Bush and co have toned down their demands against Saddam in response to concerns raised by Russia and France, and have set ever-shifting time limits for UN agreement.

America seems distinctly uncomfortable with asserting its own American power on the world stage, or with launching a war in the name of any domestic American interest. Instead, it increasingly hides behind international organisations and the West’s ‘shared interests and outlooks’, as Tom Ridge put it, to justify intervening abroad.

Consider the Afghan campaign. In the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, many Bush officials talked about the need to avenge the attack on America by launching a war to destroy al-Qaeda. But by the time President Bush’s National Security Strategy document was published in September 2002, America was saying of its Afghan campaign:

‘[W]e will continue to work with international organisations such as the United Nations, as well as non-governmental organisations, and other countries to provide the humanitarian, political, economic, and security assistance necessary to rebuild Afghanistan so that it will never again abuse its people, threaten its neighbours, and provide a haven for terrorists.’

The depiction of the Afghan war as an attempt to rebuild a broken state with the help of the UN and NGOs captures how America finds it increasingly difficult to justify its foreign campaigns in anything other than international and humanitarian terms. As Ridge said: ‘Our efforts to secure America cannot succeed without international collaboration.’

America may be an unchallenged superpower and the Bush administration may be in the ‘ascendant’ – but if Ridge’s speech is anything to go by, US leaders don’t seem overly keen on asserting their power.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

One war that Bush has already lost, by Mick Hume

(1) World braces for ‘triumphant’ Bush, UPI, 6 November 2002

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Topics Politics


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