'Vital Strategic Interests' versus 'Effectively Fighting Terrorism'

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From
Thirteen Colonies to Five Continents in 200 Years

The
leaders of the United States, like the leaders of every arrogant,
powerful state before it, have sought to subordinate or conquer
weaker states. The rulers of dominant states have since time immemorial
regarded such cold-blooded statecraft as the due of “great men.”
And they say the human race evolves (which it does, of course, but
at a snail's pace).

When
has not the prospect of empire swept along the public with breathless
promises of “glory” or “duty” or the ever resonant, if fake, imperative
to “defend the homeland?” And so does the inevitable downward slide
commence. The economy becomes more militarized and less dynamic;
government debt burgeons; the political leadership descends into
prevarication and authoritarianism; the public is diverted by the
imperial overhang of wealth and spectacle; spiritual life descends
variously into rigid fanaticism or the silliest sort of imaginable
bottom-feeding. In the end, the rot spreads far enough that a new
adversary supplants or destroys the hollowed out shell of a once
great land. Some of this is happening now, the rest of it will inevitably,
one day.

In
the meantime, let’s say for argument’s sake that the United States
is presently at its apex. Given this widely held assumption, there
is good reason to believe that the American government and its people
are historically unique in their collective blindness to the threats
inherent in empire.

You
can just hear the dupes. Why, we’re the world’s oldest democracy
with the world’s largest economy and best military, and besides,
people far and wide love our cultural production and we're nice
and they're mean. A mere three generations have witnessed the transformation
of this land from a swashbuckling North American kid to a global
hegemon – too much, too quickly; so too then will be the fall.

For,
during the last American century (1898–2001), our country,
quite unlike the European imperial powers, has risen unencumbered
by a nearby adversary capable of threatening our territorial integrity,
to say nothing of the daily life of its citizenry. Military victories
over Native Americans, Mexico, Spain, the Central Powers, world
fascism and Communism were racked up. On the evening of September
10th, 2001, America still bestrode the world like a colossus. It
only thinks it still does, but "the whole world is watching"…and
gagging.

Only
two attacks were ever sustained at home: the British burning of
the White House in 1814 and the attack on the Pacific Fleet in a
remote colony in 1941. The first is now long-forgotten and the second
was more than compensated for by vicious annihilation of Imperial
Japan in 1945. Aside from the firebombing of Japanese cities, the
nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was the "grand finale,"
the first and last 1,000 bomber run over a city on this planet,
just before the armistice was signed. There's your "western
civilization," if you need it.

The
Cold War initiated the first imaginable threat to the American mainland.
However, American military supremacy in nuclear weapons – and the
reality of Mutually Assured Destruction – made for a specter that
gradually dissipated once the opening to China and the establishment
of détente with the Soviet Union was cemented.

Americans
do not particularly remember how close nuclear holocaust came during
the Cuban missile crisis, nor do they much recall Reaganite talk
of fighting a “winnable nuclear war.” The Cold War ended and then
all of a sudden, some religious lunatics attacked us for all our
noble efforts lo these many years.

This
transformation of a colony on the Atlantic, to the military arbiter
of the Western Hemisphere in its first century, to a militarily
unassailable superpower in its second, has not inspired circumspection
among our elites. Nor is the public likely to ruminate long and
hard in a land that invented the kind of PR “can do” boosterism
reflected in Horatio Alger stories and notions of an “American dream.”

Add
to the mix an ideology of global supremacy that has gone almost
entirely unquestioned in mainstream political debate since World
War II (the brief interregnum in the late 1960s and early 1970s
being the only slight exception), and one finds a culture essentially
bereft of the kind of political introspection necessary for the
kind of large scale corrective action so necessary today.

Never
before was so powerful a country, so long thought unassailable by
its elites and public, struck such a dramatic and deadly a blow
as was the case on 9/11. Never before was so callow a President
of the United States so beholden to militaristic advisors – Neocon
and evangelical Protestant divisions – respectively inured of Likud-messianic
Zionism and hostility ontological toward the Muslim world. Never
before in its history was the United States so poised to reshape
the world militarily, along with the ideological and emotional fervor
to carry it out.

The
above cultural characteristics comprise the power relationships
and ideological context in which the attack on Iraq was carried
out. When this aggression showed its Janus face, another almost
unprecedented thing happened to this American foreign policy initiative.

Spectres
from the past rose. In echoing the reaction to Vietnam, the world
public – to an even greater degree and even before the fighting started – rapidly
agitated against it. So, today we are essentially fighting alone
a foe increasingly able to mobilize largely invisible battalions
from long-resentful ranks that make up nearly a quarter of the world’s
populace.

With
civil war brewing in Iraq, as a consequence of the most fateful
American military intervention since World War II, the question
among American elites is not whether to further expand the reach
of American power in the Middle East; it is largely a matter of
where and how. Once again, bipartisanship has triumphed.

The
Millennium-long Fight for Independence in the Muslim Middle East

In
contrast to the isolated and pacific existence of the United States
at home, and the relatively low cost (to us, not our victims) of
its historical military interventions abroad, the Muslim Middle
East has experienced an almost constant succession of invading and
occupying forces. The most prominent events would include: the Crusades
(1095–1291); the catastrophic incursion of Tamerlane (1393–1402);
the domination by the Ottoman Turks (1600–1918); the British
and French mandates (1920–1948); the decisive influence by
the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain (1948–1973);
and finally the onset of Soviet decline, Israeli dominance in the
Levant and the entrenchment of American power via a basing archipelago
throughout the region (1973–present).

To
say that the above incursions have never elicited a sanguine response
from ordinary Muslims is, as Gore Vidal likes to say, “to riot in
understatement.” “Liberation,” for folks in the region, smells like
putrid old wine in fancy new bottles.

It
is striking to note that the bloody battles associated with the
Crusades lasted for a period of time roughly comparable to the period
of pristine American domestic life (1814–2001). The Ottoman
period lasted in the Arab lands as long as it did due to the sometimes-enlightened
despotism of the sultans – allowing for long periods of relative
local religious and political autonomy.

The
arbitrary imposition of the nation-state on the region following
the First World War, by culturally and religiously alien Britain
and France, scarcely helped matters. When combined with the subsequent
propping up of an “Arab façade” behind which American power
grew throughout the second half of the 20th Century, one finds a
cauldron of rage bubbling about as long as we’ve been living the
mass consumption “good life.”

The
emergence of fundamentalist political Islam has roughly ebbed coincident
with or perhaps in proportion to the interference of the United
States in the region. Today, among the suppressed publics in Muslim
Middle East, the question is not whether to resist the spread of
American power; it is largely a matter of where and how.

Religion
& Militancy: the U.S. & the Middle East

The
changes with respect to religion in the United States and the countries
of the Middle East bear some resemblance to one another even as
they obviously have their own distinct antecedents. The rise of
fundamentalist religion around the world – much of Europe aside
– in the past quarter century is news to no one. Much has been
made of militant Islam’s challenge in particular and without question
it is the most visible and perhaps dynamic religious ideology in
the world today.

Fundamentalist
Islam has risen at the expense of post-colonial independent secular
Arab nationalism (Nasser in Egypt, Saddam, the PLO and the al-Assad
dynasty in Syria). These regimes were unwilling to extend human
rights, prosperity or even a little accountability to their domestic
subjects, sometimes at the behest of the United States. Also, their
prestige faded as various Israeli occupations, stemming from the
1967 war, dragged on for decades. When there is scant hope for improvement
in this world, human beings all over the world tend to look to the
next one.

Within
Israel a similar tendency is barely disguised. The demographic changes
within the Jewish state come to mind. Once a country made up overwhelmingly
of secular Europeans voting for the Labor Party, today Israel is
a land increasingly populated by ultra-nationalists quite at home
with a still largely secular Likud, in league with religious fundamentalists
like Shahs and the National Religious Party.

This
shift is not just demographic of course. It is also ideological
and spurred in part by the growing militancy of Islamist factions
opposed to the PLO’s ineffectual post-Oslo position. The willingness
of Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah to take American hostages and fight
Israel in Southern Lebanon respectively in the mid-1980s left its
mark on Palestinian society.

With
the initial aid of a cynical Israeli state seeking to undermine
the PLO, Hamas emerged in the late 1980s. The genie is now well
out of the bottle, offering a potent mix of paradise in the next
world, a widespread network of social services in this one, and
the prospect of uncompromising and vengeful resistance in the meantime.

Predictably,
as Jewish settlers moved into the West Bank, not only did daily
tensions with the Palestinians increase, so too was a new and politically
vociferous constituency formed within Israel proper. Insofar as
Israel and the United States decided that the status quo was sustainable
during the 20 years of relative calm between the Six Day War (1967)
and the start of the first Intifada (1987), both states appear in
retrospect to have made a grave miscalculation.

During
this twenty-year window, secular nationalists on both sides could
have been negotiating a legitimate settlement. Today, after another
decade and a half of brutal colonial fighting, we see increasingly
a situation in which religious extremists on both sides have moved
closer and closer to having veto power over any sort of settlement.
Looking back at choices made, one has to wonder just what end game
was imagined by successive Israeli and American governments. In
short: no legitimate end game was envisioned.

The
phenomenon of fundamentalist religion is also certainly quite pronounced
in the United States itself. The defection of evangelical Protestants
from the Democratic Party in the 1970s, their mobilization by Ronald
Reagan and the unprecedented power they presently wield over George
W. Bush, has had and will have grave consequences for both the United
States and the Middle East.

It
was one thing to have secular realpolitik types running
American foreign policy. Back in the day, Republican and Democratic
administrations had long tilted towards the more moderate Labor
Party. George H.W. Bush even suspended loan guarantees to Israel
when faced with the recalcitrance of the Yitzakh Shamir’s Likud
government in 1991.

Today,
by contrast, George W. Bush not only ignores provocations by the
Sharon government but blithely calls him a “man of peace.” The Republican
Party under George W. Bush is incapable of settling the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict because its core constituency now regards Israeli control
of the occupied territories as a biblical imperative, just as Israel’s
messianic settlers do. A credible peace initiative, even along the
cautious lines of Oslo, being launched by a Republican president,
is now rather hard to imagine.

With
the invasion of Iraq, the forces of fundamentalist religion and
violent reaction have been strengthened in the short term. George
W. Bush saw the Senate go Republican in the run up to Iraq war,
the Likud and its fundamentalist governing coalition have effectively
buried Oslo and now find 135,000 American troops providing Israel
“strategic depth” with regard to Iran, while Islamic militants have
seen their suspicions confirmed that the “war on terror” was really
just a ruse to take over an oil rich Arab country.

“Vital
Strategic Interests” versus “Effectively Fighting Terrorism”

It
has been noted that the number and frequency of al-Qaeda attacks
has quickened in the 30 months since 9/11 in contrast to the 30
months prior. This is a harbinger, and it requires a major rethinking
by the American public as to just what our vital strategic
interests are as opposed to those proffered by the government.

“Vital
strategic interests” are the political and economic goals most hankered
for by mighty domestic constituencies. Among the strong, they are
ultimately pragmatically agreed upon through institutions and diplomacy.
More often than not, when the powerful discern valuable resources
at hand, paired with distasteful leaders commanding weak militaries,
war can be expected. To trot out an old truism: the strong will
take what they can; the weak will suffer what they must.

The
new part of the equation, in this era of rapid and easy mobility
of people and the dispersion of deadly technologies, is the threat
of catastrophic terrorism. The usual tools of American foreign policy – smash
the enemy or buy him off – do not apply particularly to zealots who
neither fear death nor are “in it for the money.”

The
first job of any government – allegedly the major point of the thing – is
to protect its citizens from foreign attackers. That, presumably,
is the most vital interest of all. Policy choices which undermine
this elemental imperative are not only less vital, they ought to
be anathema to people with the ability to reason. Regardless, we
find ourselves increasingly enmeshed in a tit for tat cycle in which
our supposed greatest strength – the ability to project military power – becomes
our Achilles heel in the end.

Al
Qaeda and like-minded offshoots are playing us with a classic rope
a dope strategy. History in their neck of the woods conditions them
to think in terms of generations, if not centuries; the fools in
power here think only in terms of business and election cycles.
The longer the manifold problems of the Middle East are allowed
to fester, and the wider and deeper the American military spreads
throughout the region, the greater the number and dispersion of
terror’s hydra heads.

It
begs the question: when it comes to the Middle East, just what makes
our leaders think that we are any different from the Crusaders,
Turks, French or the British? Have not the historical lessons of
just the post-colonial period – most obviously, Vietnam – been learned
by anyone in power currently?

The
answer, sadly, appears to be no. After all, next to none of them
saw battle, though they did manage to sanctimoniously cheer from
their grad school perches. The present strategy assumes that in
the course of occupying – but not consensually rehabilitating – two
Muslim countries, the number of new terrorist recruits will somehow
remain static and then subsequently magically dwindle.

This
was the general idea behind such activities in Vietnam as the “Phoenix
program,” which went about murdering tens of thousands of presumed
“Viet Cong” cadre without developing a just and legitimate government
in South Vietnam. And we all know how well “draining the swamp of
insurgents” turned out there.

Undeterred,
von Dumsfeld & Co think they can for all intents and purposes
successfully replicate what failed in Vietnam. These kooks think
they can engineer an object democratic and pluralistic lesson out
of aggression – to be lapped up from Marrakech to Manila, from Tashkent
to Karachi. Of course it won’t work since the peoples of all countries
wish to have a say in their governments, free of foreign occupation
and domination.

It
is of course lunacy to accept this spurious “democratization” proposition
with the realist caveat that we will, on the upside, continue to
enjoy essential control over energy resources. In the end, oil will
be sold to the West regardless of whether the government is fundamentalist
or a secular Arab nationalist one. Otherwise, the oil rich societies
would collapse, likely under force of American arms. Among the "free
market" ideologues in power today, there’s scant trust in the
market sorting things out.

Tragically,
we still haven’t learned the lesson of September 11th, even two
years later. In the aftermath of the Madrid bombing – equivalent to
a strike half as deadly as 9/11 proportionally – the Spanish people
learned it in two days. Imperialism under the guise of “fighting
terrorism” is not only immoral, it is really, really dumb.

Not
only does next to no one outside the United States believe the fake
“democratic” rhetoric, they recognize that a choice must be made.
Either the countries of the Muslim Middle East will be allowed to
move towards a form of government responsive to their publics, with
the result being a decrease in terrorist legitimacy – with the diminution
of American influence which meaningful independence inherently implies.

Or,
BushCo. will continue down the path of hypocritical military control
of the region and the all terror that must come with it. Government
officialdom still thinks they can have all of the control over there
and none of the responsibility for it over here. They’ve get “secure,
undisclosed locations,” we get the shaft.

Well,
the good old days of blowback-less intervention are long gone, and
one would think that more people who run this country – the rich – would
recognize the peril. (Smashing up Latin America for a century and
a half with impunity has evidently left its mark.) On one hand,
they obviously want to continue to sell their products, which still
have enormous appeal, around the world. On the other hand, if the
United States continues on its present course, Brand America will
one day enjoy about as much appeal as Brand USSR did by the end.

Of
course, many amidst the upper crust are compromised by a long-enduring
factor. A century and a half of working hand-in-glove with the American
government to force open markets, along with the highly profitable
relationship with the state socialism of the Defense Department,
has co-opted much of the private sector.

And
this War on Terror sure is shaping up as a real bonanza. Just ask
Lockheed Martin, Bechtel, Fluor and Halliburton along with hundreds
upon hundreds of other subcontractors. Yet, one might imagine that
these folk – without some of whom, it seems clear, there is scant
hope for altering American foreign policy – would be given pause.
They too are faced with the spiraling likelihood of having their
cosmopolitan play grounds catastrophically attacked.

None
Dare Call It Treason

A
victory by George W. Bush in the 2004 election will place the United
States in an international politics cul-de-sac, out of which it
may not emerge without traumatic changes at home. There will be
no settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq will
probably descend into civil war unless the administration changes
course dramatically.

There
is reason to believe that there are domestic political calculations
at work here which favor the high risk Republican strategy of taking
up al Qaeda on its “rope-a-dope” strategy. For in the United States,
during periods of perceived external threat, the American people
have generally sided with the “tough guy” Republicans. And so they
did in 2004.

In
the big picture, domestic politics don't amount to much when it
comes to foreign policy, if one really looks closely. We will not
“win” the Bush administration’s advertised “victory” in Iraq because
it means that country’s defeat as a sovereign nation. Jay Garner,
Grand Vizier Bremer’s predecessor, was forced out of his post for
opposing the privatization of Iraq’s economy by western firms. Mr.
Bremer, formerly a heavy at Kissinger Associates, saw things differently.

Garner
unintentionally pointed out another reason why Bush’s phony “vision”
will fail. He conceded that Iraq will serve the role played by the
Philippines in an earlier era. Iraq will be a modern day “coaling
station” for American power in the region – a source of resources
flanked by strategic, permanent bases.

A
genuinely legitimate elected government in Iraq – not one made up
of émigré toadies – will demand that Americans cease
stationing troops in their country. This is an inevitable conflict,
for the Bush administration has every intention of making Iraq its
primary military patsy in the region. This clash may be delayed,
for years on end perhaps by counter-insurgency warfare, but it will
result in a disaster for our country.

As
a leading geostrategic ghoul recently put it, unlike Vietnam, “Iraq
matters.” Iraq “matters” in part because a growing consensus of
petroleum geologists and analysts contends that within the next
two decades, the planet will have used up half of all the extant
petroleum reserves. Middle Eastern oil will become a larger and
larger share of world consumption; competition for it will be fierce
and, if little changes, very likely increasingly deadly.

Mr.
Bush is famously the first American president to hold an MBA, and
if his profligate down payment of $300 billion on the “liberation”
of Iraq is any indication, he expects dick Cheney’s friends to profit
handsomely. The corresponding unwillingness of the Bush administration
to chart a course of energy independence – as reflected in the clandestine
Cheney energy task force report – alone makes the likelihood of an
extended and deep military involvement in the region very nearly
a fait accompli.

In
the meantime, the treasury has been bled by $1.6 trillion to further
subsidize the Ken Lays and Dennis Kozlowskis of the country via
tax cuts; and this during "war time" to boot. Just imagine
if this country had drawn the right conclusions from 9/11 and spent
some of that stupid $1.6 trillion tax cut to develop alternative
energy resources?

We
should have simply squished the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan
first, and then set in motion a long-term effort to wean ourselves
of Persian Gulf crude. With such an investment, a decade or two
down the road the crunch would have been a lot softer than it will
be. Instead, we are poised to be fighting in the Middle East trying
to control the last drops out of the petroleum spigot. And they
called the early participants in the Iraqi insurgency “dead enders.”

Even
with all this, we still have time. We still have it within our reach,
as the most powerful country on the planet, to take a step back
and recognize limitations to our power – this time will come regardless;
why not get on with it?

Look
at history.

Did
the French “give in” to terrorism when they recognized that they
couldn’t indefinitely dominate Algeria? Did the British “give in”
to terrorism when they decided to address the complaints of Sinn
Fein and the IRA?

Will
we “give in” to terrorism when we start treating the Arab / Muslim
world as we treat the Europeans? No, and we might just save ourselves – and
the Muslim world – a great deal of sorrow, pain and death in the process.

We
still have the capacity to inaugurate a détente
with the Arab / Muslim world on consensual terms – unless, that is,
the prospect of ever more catastrophic domestic terrorism and resultant
despotism is more alluring. We do after all have a president who
“joked” that “if this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of
a lot easier – just so long I’m the dictator.”

Another
great wit, Caligula, is reputed to have said “let them hate, so
long as they fear.” The Bush clique apparently has no fear, but
then neither does the suicide bomber. Fear is left to the ordinary
people of the planet.

March
1, 2005

Stephen
Bender [send him mail] is a writer based in San Francisco. You can
find more of his work at his
website
.

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