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The Left and a Softer, Gentler War?
What the "War on Terror" is Really About
by LEE SUSTAR

With support for the Iraq war collapsing ahead of the U.S.-imposed constitutional referendum this month, George W. Bush resorted to his old trick of trying to tie the U.S. occupation to the September 11 attacks and the "war on terror."

"The terrorists regard Iraq as the central front in their war against humanity," Bush said October 6 at a meeting of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). "And we must recognize Iraq as the central front in our war on terror."

A government-funded foundation, the NED has funneled money to pro-U.S. political movements around the world since the 1980s, most recently those involved with pre-packaged "revolutions" that ousted governments in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Bush portrayed the U.S. role in Iraq as another example of such "democracy promotion." He also invoked September 11 and the "good" war in Afghanistan to contain growing criticism of Washington’s foreign policy and U.S. military interventions.

Invoking the "war on terror" in connection with Iraq hasn’t helped Bush reverse his fall in the opinion polls. Yet the White House has managed to preserve the foreign policy consensus among Republicans and Democrats around aggressive–and, when necessary, pre-emptive–use of military force.

Thus, the Democrats’ hawkish presidential aspirants like Sens. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton are following John Kerry in trying to out-do Bush as champions of "national security." Even sections of the antiwar movement are reluctant to portray the U.S. occupation of Iraq as an element of a broader imperial drive to dominate a strategic corridor stretching from the Mediterranean to Central Asia.

This creates the political space for Bush and pro-war Democrats alike to use Islamophobia to trump their critics. "Like the ideology of communism, our new enemy pursues totalitarian aims," Bush said in his speech to the NED. "Its leaders pretend to be an aggrieved party, representing the powerless against imperial enemies. In truth, they have endless ambitions of imperial domination, and they wish to make everyone powerless except themselves."

Shamefully, some on the left still chime in with almost identical rhetoric. "Al-Qaeda is classically imperialist, looking to subvert established social orders and to replace the cultural and institutional infrastructure of its enemies with a (divinely inspired) hierarchical autocracy of its own, looking to craft the next chapter of human history in its own image," wrote journalist Sasha Abramsky.

His article, headlined, "Our Al-Qaeda Problem," was the lead story of the October issue of The Progressive, a magazine known for decades for its principled antiwar politics. The cover artwork can only be called racist–a giant, dark, bin Laden-like figure wearing a turban and waving a huge scimitar blade and hammer at a tiny white man holding two much smaller swords.

So after the rampage by U.S. soldiers in Iraqi towns such as Falluja, Tal Afar and Ramadi; the farcical constitutional referendum; widespread documentation of torture and even murder of detainees in U.S. military prisons; accounts of a secret American gulag stretching around the world; U.S. threats against Syria and Iran; and the collapse in support for the Iraq war–now is the time The Progressive chooses brings us Abramsky to act as a recruiting sergeant for a proper "war on terror."

On this issue, Abramsky argues, "progressives [have] to set some of the terms of the debate, rather than continually playing catch-up with conservatives." He endorses "preventive detention" for suspected terrorists, while maintaining democratic trappings like a "speedy trial"–as if one can be put on trial for a crime that hasn’t yet been committed.

Abramsky skips over the real history of political Islam–fostered by the U.S.-backed Saudi Arabian regime as a bulwark against secular nationalism and the left in the Middle East from the 1950s to the 1970s. Abramsky certainly knows that the CIA funneled money, guns and missiles to the Afghan resistance–including Osama bin Laden–in its war against the Russian occupation of that country in the 1980s.

If bin Laden’s current of Islamism has any appeal, it’s because young Muslims grow up under repressive Washington-backed regimes and face grim prospects in economies geared to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Add to this more than a decade of killer sanctions in Iraq; the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis and nearly 2,000 U.S. soldiers since the U.S. invasion began; a low-grade civil war stoked by the occupation authorities; the disappearance of $8 billion under a U.S.-appointed Iraqi government; and the planned sale of the country’s oil industry to U.S. and Western oil corporations. Then there’s Washington’s support for Israel’s apartheid wall on the West Bank, and the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.

Abramsky shrugs all this off as having nothing to do with the September 11 attacks and the London subway bombings–in favor of a virtual echo of Bush’s "why do they hate us" rhetoric.

"Indeed," he writes, "what al-Qaeda apparently hates most about ‘the West’ are its best points: the pluralism, the rationalism, individual liberty, the emancipation of women, the openness and social dynamism that represent the strongest legacy of the Enlightenment. These values stand in counterpoint to the tyrannical social code idealized by al-Qaeda and by related political groupings such as Afghanistan’s Taliban."

The hypocrisy of this is striking in light of U.S. politics today. Does the word "rationalism" describe U.S. society, where the theory of evolution is under continuous assault from politically powerful Christian fundamentalists?

As for "individual liberty," there’s always been a huge gap in the U.S. between the language of the Constitution and the political reality of racist discrimination–particularly in the era of the USA PATRIOT Act, detentions and deportations of Arabs and Muslims, and other "homeland security" measures.

The "emancipation of women" has never been achieved in reality–a fact made all the more obvious by the assault on women’s right to choose abortion. Social dynamism? Abramsky has somehow missed economic and class polarization in the U.S., which has led to falling real wages, rising poverty rates and the greatest concentration of wealth at the top since the 1920s.

Abramsky may go further than most, but other liberals and progressives accept at least part of this case. They’re wrong.

The U.S. "war on terror" is nothing more than ideological justification for the aggressive projection of U.S. imperial power abroad–and a clampdown on any serious challenge to the system at home. Islamophobic diatribes are a means of providing a cover to this reality.

The task of the antiwar movement isn’t to reshape the U.S. war on terror to be more effective–but to oppose it.

LEE SUSTAR is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: lsustar@ameritech.net