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State of the Union and the New Cold War

by Rahul Mahajan

Any who doubted the characterization of the war on terrorism as a new Cold War had only to listen to the State of the Union address, Bush’s most depressing speech since he launched his unlimited war with his address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001.

The following points, all stunningly reminiscent of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, are easily discerned from the text of the speech:

We are once again a beacon of civilization, on a higher moral plane than others, opposing absolute evil — not only did Bush refer twice to the “civilized world,” meaning us and our close allies, we also learn that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, along with their “terrorist allies” constitute an “axis of evil.” In a stunning display of hypocrisy, Bush even indicted Iraq for attempting to weaponize anthrax, something the United States has been doing itself. Although couched in universalist terms — “the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice and religious tolerance” — this renewed, over cultural supremacism is no less odious than that of the supposedly bygone colonial era.

We assert as forcefully as we did in the days of fighting the “international Communist conspiracy,” that the war on terrorism allows us to intervene wherever we like, if we so choose — “some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake: If they do not act, America will.” Once again, any development anywhere is a threat to our national security, and “all nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security.”

We need permanently higher military budgets in order to “defend” ourselves (with useless and expensive high-tech programs like missile defense and the joint-strike fighter, not with ways to defend against realistic terrorist attacks) — “My budget includes the largest increase in defense spending in two decades, because while the price of freedom and security is high, it is never too high: whatever it costs to defend our country, we will pay it.” Bush’s proposed new military budget is $379 billion, an increase of $48 billion over the already unexpectedly high 2001 budget — the increase alone is larger than any other nation’s military budget.

We are once again beset by internal enemies — “And as government works to better secure our homeland, America will continue to depend on the eyes and ears of alert citizens.” This is not yet at the level of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and pamphlets on how to tell if your neighbor is a communist that characterized the 1950’s, but it is a significant step closer.

Our “economic security” is essential to our national security, so disagreements on economic policy and on how high corporate profit should be must be submerged to an artificial national unity. Congress must pass an energy policy that involves more drilling for oil in the United States, must give the president Trade Promotion Authority (popularly known as fast-track) in concluding “free trade” agreements, and must make the Bush tax cut permanent — all in the name of security.

We are called once again to sacrifice for a very particularly conceived “national good” — “My call tonight is for every American to commit at least two years 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime to the service of your neighbors and your nation.” The newly created USA Freedom Corps needs volunteers to help preserve our “homeland security.” The call for citizens to do some form of public service, in itself, is not a bad thing, but the choice to ask them to prepare for possible terrorist attacks instead of trying to provide education, housing, and social services to people who need them is about attempting to mobilize the time and energy of the people in the service of the existing power structure and about co-opting other kinds of popular mobilization.

In sum, the war on terrorism will involve more frequent military interventions, with less of an attempt to placate international sensibilities, and with the constant excuse of protecting American security. It will involve more overt appeals to Western cultural supremacy, although couched in universalist terms. It will involve more arms proliferation and a growth of military spending, and a lessening of democracy in this country, both in terms of the public’s ability to affect decisions and in terms of individual freedom to dissent from the course advocated by dominant institutions.

If this were the whole story, it would be a very depressing one. But excess inevitably produces a reaction and empires sooner or later overreach themselves.

This country has already seen an antiwar movement spring up with unprecedented speed, in the aftermath of September 11. Twin upcoming events, the planned protests at the World Economic Forum in New York, and the gathering of an estimated 50,000 people at the “alternative” World Social Forum (in its second year already far larger than the WEF) will signify the depth and breadth of resistance to the renewed projects of American imperial domination and domestic social control articulated in Bush’s speech.

If the power fantasies of the Bush administration are met with renewed and increased popular mobilization, the frightening world envisioned in the State of the Union address may not come to pass.

Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Boards of Peace Action and the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, and is a member of the Nowar Collective. He is the author of the forthcoming The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism, out in March from Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at rahul@tao.ca

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