Count me among those who do not believe that everything changed after 9/11. Or that the attacks came as a complete surprise to many high officials of the US government.
That’s why I cannot accept the following statement: "Any attempt to understand the war on Iraq must begin with the profound psychological shock caused by the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001." Thus writes Thomas Powers in his latest article in the December 4, 2003, issue of the New York Review of Books, entitled The Vanishing Case for War.
No-one disputes that profound psychological shock of 9/11. I can even go part of the way with Powers and accept that there was a "complete lack of public warning before the attacks" (my emphasis). This is true regardless of which explanation you are inclined to accept for the events of that day.
You may believe the official legend that from deep within a cave, thousands of miles away, a bearded man with a publicly declared grudge against some aspects of the imperial behavior of the United States and other Western governments over the last 80 years masterminded the whole operation, including the movements of 19 hijackers (for the purposes of the legend, necessarily Muslim hijackers) who naturally detested freedom.
Or you may take the increasingly fashionable line that the US government — or more precisely the Bush II administration — allowed 9/11 to happen by incompetence and failure at multiple levels of its over-bureaucratic apparatus, too prone to fatal inter-agency squabbling and in-fighting to do its job of protection as it should.
Or you may subscribe to the "conspiracy theory" that some of the highest-placed "servants" of the federal government, by deviousness and obstruction of the efforts of some brave but powerless junior FBI people, acted in complicity with the rapacious designs — some of them openly declared years before — of assorted war hawks, neoconservatives, neoJacobins, or a combination of any of these.
All these interpretations (and more) have their adherents, the "bearded man in a cave guiding evil hijackers" explanation being the one which still carries the sanction of "high officials," the federal government in general, and, to their eternal shame, the mainstream media in the US.
We should not be surprised. The official explanation is good enough, it seems, for many millions, including Britney "I’m a Slave for You" Spears ("Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens"). Not, patently, because anyone is able to determine that it is objectively true, but mainly because it is what the government says, and it is plausibly consistent with the diet of short-term TV news and celebrity non-events which is fed to the populace by the presenters and pundits (u2018experts’) who daily invade viewers’ homes, and with whom they have accordingly become very familiar. Because the experts are presented to the viewer as being authoritative in their field, the viewer is subtly intimidated into feeling uneasily presumptuous if their reliability is in any way to be questioned.
As it would be if any deeper investigation were to take place, or indeed if ordinary people, instead of denying and saying "How could you believe such a thing," would allow themselves to think, and to exercise discriminating judgment for themselves.
Television is not conducive to this, because instead of focussing on issues, or even offering a genuine difference of possible explanations, the visual medium distracts us by momentarily tweaking our instincts for sympathy or revulsion, as in contemplating how somebody looks on screen, e.g. "Wasn’t that mug shot of Michael Jackson in police custody just awful? Poor guy…he really must have something wrong with him."
A similar principle is at work when the violence of the effects of a bombing is shown: we are overcome by the natural revulsion we feel. In the moment (and news TV is rarely permitted to go beyond the moment) this prevents us from adopting the critical distance required to enable us to understand the historical context of the event.
Such effects are judiciously used by the controllers of news television (in the UK at least, the word "controller" is even in their job title). One rather more sinister effect of TV self-censorship is that dissident views do not get air time, because, in questioning the official versions of events, such views clearly do not help people to remain "faithful in what happens."
There is a generalized fear of pursuing the vast and detailed physical evidence of 9/11 to any radical conclusion which would put in jeopardy the many comforting underlying psychological assumptions about the very nature of most people’s day to day existence. That fear is judiciously cultivated by the media through alternating doses of more violent incidents (done of course by terrorists, usually of the Al Qaeda brand) and unspecified threats of same, interspersed with glamorously-packaged injunctions to fear not, go out and have fun, feel good — and spend as usual!
The evident truth is that the events of September 11, 2001 — whoever caused them to happen — were a catalyst for actions that persons of power and influence had long been pressing for the US government and military to take, and for other actions that were already either at an advanced stage of planning or had already been prepared for, such as the invasion of Afghanistan. Also among those planned actions was, at some stage, the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
It is for these reasons, and not even because I have anything new to offer on 9/11, that I feel I have to take issue with Thomas Powers, even as to his title "The Vanishing Case for War," which presupposes that at a given moment there may have been a case. I do so as follows:
Any attempt to understand the war on Iraq must begin not with the reactions to the events of Sept. 11th, but at the very least with the following three episodes, dating from 1991, 1998, and 2000 respectively:
1) The invasion and conquest of Iraq was a measure which had been contemplated in US foreign policy and military circles at least since the Gulf War of 1991, after which a decision was taken not to press on to Baghdad. In their joint article for Time Magazine on March 2, 1998, entitled "Why We Didn’t Remove Saddam," George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft stated:
"Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream, engaging in “mission creep,” and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible. We had been unable to find Noriega in Panama, which we knew intimately. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq".
2) In 1998 President Clinton was strongly urged to invade Iraq. The PNAC (Project for a New American Century’s) "letter to President Clinton on Iraq," which can be viewed at this link, says in part:
"The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. That now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.
We urge you to articulate this aim, and to turn your Administration’s attention to implementing a strategy for removing Saddam’s regime from power. This will require a full complement of diplomatic, political and military efforts" (my emphasis throughout).
Signatories to this letter were the following, most of whom are or have been persons of power and influence, members of or advisers to the current US federal government: Elliott Abrams, Richard L. Armitage, William J. Bennett, Jeffrey Bergner, John Bolton, Paula Dobriansky, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, Zalmay Khalilzad, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Peter W. Rodman, Donald Rumsfeld, William Schneider, Jr., Vin Weber, Paul Wolfowitz, R. James Woolsey, and Robert B. Zoellick.
As a footnote to this, it is also instructive to contemplate that on the very day of the attacks, the first instinct of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld (signatory to the 1998 letter, as we have seen above) was to direct his staff to find ways of starting a war against Iraq almost immediately, at a moment when certainly no evidence that the attacks originated from or were sponsored by Saddam’s Iraq had been made public (even if it had existed). In fact, a generalized clamour was growing at that moment along completely different lines, namely to the effect that "Osama did it," Osama was hiding cowardly in a cave, and Osama had to be smoked out.
As reported by CBS news on Sept. 4th, 2002: "CBS News has learned that barely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 ploughed into the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq" (see the full article at this link).
3) A few of the signatories to the Clinton Iraq letter were contributors to the PNAC September 2000 report entitled "Rebuilding America’s defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century" (link to PDF document). Here they had already advocated, even before the presidential elections of that year, that the United States should take military control of the Gulf region — whether Saddam Hussein was in power or not.
"The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein."
Another phrase in that report — "a new Pearl Harbor" — has already passed into the history books following September 11. For the new century then about to begin, the report advocated the strategic transformation of the U.S. military into an imperialistic force of global domination, a process which would require huge increases in defense spending to "a minimum level of 3.5 to 3.8 percent of gross domestic product, adding $15 billion to $20 billion to total defense spending annually." It went on to say that "the process of transformation would be a long one," unless there were some "catastrophic and catalyzing event, a new Pearl Harbor."
It does not take a genius to see that 9/11 was the new Pearl Harbor, and that military spending has since that time risen by leaps and bounds. For Iraq alone the current official bill is $87 billion. “Since September 11, 2001, the president has requested, and Congress has approved, over $110 billion in increases in military spending and military aid” states Bill Hartung in his February 2003 The Hidden Costs of War, quoted by Jamey Hecht, who also writes that according to the Defense Department’s own website, the total Defense Budget authority for FY2004 is $399,683,000,000.
What indeed is the true cost of war, and who is going to pay?
And so I come finally to the sickening question of WMD, which is actually the interesting part and main focus of Powers’ NYRB article.
Huge sums of taxpayers’ money, notably to produce the David Kay/Iraq Survey Group u2018there’s probably nothing there’ report, and essayistic efforts of the kind that Powers undertakes, have been expended in trying to answer the futile question "Were there or were there not WMD or plans for WMD in Iraq?" — as if the response could actually resolve the question of whether there was or not a case for war.
All this is so much of a smokescreen.
For apart from the wider issue that such weapons are a threat and a danger to humanity wherever they may be (I certainly do not buy the argument that it would be easier for a terrorist to obtain such weapons in an authoritarian state, or in one which is on the "axis-of-evil" blacklist rather than in a more open country like the US), this type of argument betrays cynical indifference to the documented fact that certain Western states, which are awash with WMD, have been eager to supply all sorts of unpleasant weaponry (including WMD) to all sorts of unsavoury regimes when it suits them.
Included in the suppliers are the world’s largest arms-dealing states — the US, Germany, France, and Britain — and included in their client lists, just for starters, was Saddam’s Iraq. Some states, especially smaller regional powers like Israel, are both big clients and big suppliers, often acting as intermediaries or surrogates in delivering weaponry to officially banned-for-export states such as China or Iran.
So of course there were WMD in Iraq. And of course there will be WMD elsewhere in the future, including in places "where they shouldn’t be."
It is almost elementary to remark that in international relations, states will by their nature and constitution (on grounds of national defense) seek to match and neutralize the power of any other state which they perceive as a potential or known threat. This is particularly true nowadays at the regional level, because we no longer live in the nervously stable world of global MAD (mutually assured destruction) which was the US vs. SU (United States vs. Soviet Union) Cold War arrangement, but rather in a unipolar world where the US is the biggest and beastliest bear of all, but elsewhere there are a lot of very hot regional and potentially MAD powder-kegs. Has everyone forgotten the global anxiety which arose in 2001/2 when India and Pakistan, their original Western suppliers now panicked into restraining action, were threatening to unleash a nuclear holocaust on each other?
I mentioned earlier that I could go along with Powers’ remark that the force of the people’s reaction to September 11 came in part as a result of the complete lack of public warning. There are strong reasons to doubt, however, whether the federal government intelligence agencies and a substantial number of officers of federal and local government were taken totally by surprise.
The documentation of the prior warnings has become almost too voluminous to mention. It is known and has been widely reported that extreme anxiety about possible attack pervaded intelligence circles in the summer of 2001. These crystallized in the presidential intelligence briefing of August 6, 2001, in which the CIA warned the president, among other things, that terrorists linked to bin Laden might be planning to hijack commercial airliners. As reported at USNews.com in May 2002, "It was also widely known in U.S. government circles that al Qaeda had plotted to hijack planes in the past and crash them into CIA headquarters, the Eiffel Tower, and other symbols of the West. But U.S. officials insisted there was no warning that terrorists were about to use the airplanes as missiles aimed at targets in the United States."
The list of urgent prior warnings from intelligence agencies of other countries, including Russia, Israel, France, and Germany, has been extensively documented in the press and on the Internet. It is a long and troubling one, but its practical effect is clear: the situation in Iraq and the world today represents the results, not of any response to a surprise attack, nor even of any action to solve the real foreign policy problems highlighted by 9/11, but rather the coming to fruition and seizing of an opportunity to implement projects and plans for global political and military dominance which had begun to be laid down at least 10 or 12 years ago, most of them published at least a year before September 11, 2001.
I have a final niggle with Powers when he writes: "Going to war was not something we were forced to do…."
Who are "we"? Use of the word "we" in a context like this assumes a uniform collective identity and purpose which simply does not obtain. For what it’s worth, many Americans (presumably to be included in the "we"), as well as many people of many other nationalities, were opposed to the United States government and military invading and occupying Iraq. Those same people were equally opposed to the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime. That in no way means that in order to solve the one wrong you had to commit another wrong. It was ever thus: two wrongs do not make a right.
So I say in my final words to Mr. Powers: Not we, and not in our name, and please: begin at the beginning.