The Road to Armageddon

As the high-jacked planes swooped towards the World Trade Center and Pentagon a meeting of the Organisation of American States in Lima assembled to ratify a new charter that outlawed not simply old-fashioned military coups but also what it called ‘an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime’. The formula was not that precise but everyone knew what was being alluded to–Alberto Fujimori’s action in closing down Peru’s Congress in 1992 and subsequently ruling by decree. Despite the alarming news from Washington and New York, Colin Powell stayed long enough to endorse the formula before flying back to the stricken capital. From the press reports it seems that no Latin American delegate was bold enough to remind the gathering that September 11 was the anniversary of a coup in another Latin American state, sanctioned by another US Secretary of State, namely the toppling of Salvador Allende, Chile’s elected president, by General Pinochet in 1973.

While the OAS was turning its face against special regimes in South America the extraordinary terrorist coup in North America was setting the scene for the resurgence of an imperial presidency. This was initially concealed by Bush’s dithering on the day itself as the commander-in-chief allowed himself to be taken first to Louisiana and then Nebraska, where he was bundled down what Ann Compton, the only reporter present, described as a ‘rabbit hole’. Bush’s manner remained hesitant even in his address later that evening. Yet it soon became clear that the White House was taking advantage of the shock at what had happened to demand ‘war powers’ and the financial and constitutional means to employ them. In less than 48 hours NATO was persuaded to invoke, for the first time ever, Article 5 and consequently to give the US commander in chief carte blanche to act in its name. The Senate took only a little longer to back the President’s declaration of war against an unnamed enemy and for Congress to place a $40 billion war chest at his disposal.

But what has now happened raises the power of the president by a quantum leap. It restores an imperial potency to the presidency equal to–or even exceeding-that of the Reagan era. Bush’s authority and freedom of action today is certainly far greater than that enjoyed by his father on the eve of the Gulf War. As we contemplate what, mutatis mutandis, might be called the 18th Brumaire of the Bush dynasty we might bear in mind that Louis Bonaparte was also seen as a bumbling fellow, entirely lacking his uncle’s decisiveness and military genius. And the accomplishment of G.W.Bush is the more remarkable for the absence of those huge majorities which elevated the Frenchman to the presidency before he converted himself into an Emperor. This particular mutation has, of course, been carried out quite constitutionally. The 18th Brumaire echo refers essentially to the new power of the executive, bearing in mind that Napoleon the Third used this to neutralise rather than suppress newspapers, trade unions and elections, all of which he not only tolerated but embraced.

But some will argue that Bush’s imperial White House is simply continuing the policies of his predecessor. If we strip away party labels is it not the case that the diffident Bush is simply taking up the mantle of the slicker Clinton? While Bush has made unilateralism a trademark of his foreign policy, his predecessor bombarded Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan without UN or even NATO cover. The declarations of Hilary Clinton have chimed in perfectly with those of the Bush White House approach. Writers in the New Republic nevertheless insist that Clinton’s actions were showy and tokenistic. According to Martin Peretz a ‘one-short, two venue mini-bombing that accomplishes exactly nothing’ . (‘Counting’, The New Republic, September 24, 2001).

According to Lawrence Kaplan the ‘key fallacy of the Clinton approach was that international terrorism is a criminal justice issue’ and not ‘an act of war’. Clinton refused to really take on the states which harboured and supported Islamic Jihad and the bin Laden network: ‘A serious counterterrorism policy would have raised the cost of harboring bin Laden beyond what Afghanistan could bear.’ Kaplan believes that Bush understands all this much better and adds the chilling advice that the President must renounce the Clintonian principle that ‘(t)he idea is to hit things without jeopardising people, to skirt moral ambiguities, to design strikes, as Clinton put it after the missile strike against Iraq in 1996, ‘to have very limited damage to human beings’.’ (‘What We’ve Done Wrong: the Day Before’, The New Republic, September 24).

Peretz and Kaplan may seem unfair to Clinton here, since the putative new approach is simply an escalation of the old. But it would be wrong to see the post-September 11 Bush regime as essentially a ratcheting up of the Clinton policy, commensurate with the newly-perceived dimensions of the threat. Everything suggests that a watershed has been passed. Bush is far stronger than Clinton essentially because he faces virtually no opposition. While Clinton was unrelentingly pilloried and opposed by a fairly effective Republic Congressional majority, Bush now has the Democrats eating out of his hand. On Friday, September 14, only Congresswoman Barbara Lee (Berkeley) voted against the emergency package. Indeed Bush has now been voted such powers that Congress should be little worry to him even if more critics emerge. Likewise US allies who previously dared to mutter their concern when Bush made it clear that he regarded international treaties as scraps of paper (ABM or Kyoto) have now announced their prior willingness to back almost any revenge action he may launch, even before learning what it will be.

Thus it is not so much Bush’s personality which should be scrutinised as the situation and character of his machine and the facilities it now enjoys, both domestically and abroad. Behind Bush stand more considerable figures like Cheney and Rumsfeld and behind them a military-industrial complex which begins to see its prayers being answered. It is astonishing to recollect that as recently as September 2 the New York Times ran a headline: ‘Dogfight for Dollars on Capitol Hill: The Winnowing Begins on Contracts for Planes, Ships and All Things Military’. And just three days later the Senate majority leader visited the White House and wrung from a reluctant president a commitment not to raid the surplus in the Social Security ‘lockbox’. However note that Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, was also quoted on the NYT for September 5 as observing that while the President hoped not to use the Social Security money, the situation could change in the event of ‘war or recession’.

While it would be absurd to minimise the tidal wave of US public outrage it would also be wrong to think that all Americans are bent on evening the score by slaughtering innocents. Public opinion is invariably more complex and contradictory than can be revealed in a poll so we should treat with due caution the findings of one carried in the New York Times for September 17 which put the matter thus: ‘As they move from shock to fury Americans are bracing for the United States to go for war, and they overwhelmingly say the nation should take military action against those responsible for the terrorist attacksThat sentiment declines at the prospect that thousands of innocent civilians abroad could be killed. Still a majority of Americans support engagement by the military even under those circumstances.

The crisis has spurred the public to put aside its past reservations about the leadership of President Bush and instead rally wholeheartedly behind the new President and express confidence in his ability to guide the nation. His job approval rating has soared to 84 per cent compared with 50 per cent just over a month agoThe public also supports changing the law to allow for the assassination of people in foreign countries who commit terrorist attacks. Although more than half the respondents said they did not think Arab-Americans were any more sympathetic towards the terrorists than other Americans, the public is expecting a backlash against Arab-Americans, Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East. (I)n follow up interviews many respondentssaid they backed American military action even if that meant American casualties.’

After events like those of September 11 there are bound to be contradictory impulses at work in the public mind and which sentiments prevail depend to a considerable extent on who has access to the microphones and what is said by those in authority. I have been living in Lower Manhattan and have been able to observe reactions there. At the large candlelit vigils there was not a single banner demanding blood revenge. One constantly sees rescue workers being trucked into or out of ground zero. They are cheered for their willingness to go into the rubble for no wages and at great personal risk. The construction workers strike belligerent poses and chant ‘USA, USA’ or sing ‘God Bless America’. In conversation they will say ‘We must bomb Kabul’. But their main focus is on rescue and displaying respect for the dead. The whole effort has been led by Mayor Guiliani who warned against indiscriminate anger.

There are US flags hanging from many doorways or windows but I have not seen any signs demanding dead Muslims. The messages from the gatherings in Union Square, or pinned to the fence in Washington Square, ask for peace; though in Washington Square a few object and offer ‘retaliate x 10’. Of course there are voices in the tabloids, some radio shows and respectable organs of opinion which are happy to whip up blood lust or to peddle stereotypes. But these are dangerous because they will encourage official recklessness and revenge not because millions of Americans actually want to fight a war. On September 18 the New York Times reported that there had been no increase in enlistment over the previous week and that there were no queues at the recruiting offices as there had been after Pearl Harbor.

In the previously-quoted article Peretz, after attacking the laxity of US border officials, writes: ‘Would greater diligence amount to ethnic profiling? Probably so.’ Unlike the New York mayor, Bush announced that the US was at war without warning against attacks on individuals. Only several days later, after several hundred such attacks against turbaned Sikhs and the like, some of them fatal, did Bush appear at an Islamic centre and attack vigilanteeism and labelling.

The Presidency now enjoys almost complete freedom of action and is well-placed to give shape and direction to the widespread sense of shock, anger and alarm. In a book published this September Daniel Lazare anticipated this state of affairs when he warned of the extraordinary power of a US president compared with counterparts in other democratic states: ‘(A) US president is a good deal more powerful. Surrounded by courtiers, intelligence agencies, and military units at his beck and call, he is free to launch invasions or order covert operations any time, day or night, without fear of contradiction from his cabinet or any of his subordinates. Indeed he is expected to engage in such unilateral displays’.(Daniel Lazare, The Velvet Coup, pp. 100-1). Lazare is here drawing attention to a powerful trend in US government which witnessed a twentieth century aggrandisement of the presidency that would have astonished the framers of the Constitution. But this trend was at least partly checked by resistance to the Vietnam war, by the impeachment of Nixon and by the considerable public controversy over Iran-Contra, or even the Gulf War or Kosovo bombardment.

Moreover the post-Vietnam refusal to accept casualties also hobbled the US president and the war machine at his command. The opinion polls and talk shows now abundantly confirm that this restraint has evaporated. Finally US allies also constrained the White House during those episodes. Today matters are different and Lazare is simply stating the bare truth when he writes: ‘Short of total war, the US president has carte blanche to attack whom he pleases virtually anywhere in the world.’ One can now add that Bush now claims a formal mandate to topple regimes, or as the NYT main headline for 14 September put it: ‘Bush and Top Aides Proclaim Policy of ‘Ending’ States That Back Terror’. When his predecessors conspired to overthrow governments they generally did so covertly.

When Americans say they want action against ‘those responsible’ for the attacks the sentiment is easy to understand and, so long as proportionate and effective means are employed, reasonable. We should bear in mind that some of the Islamic jihad warriors involved are likely to have thought themselves to be avenging violent acts of the US government, downing civilian planes in the Gulf or dropping huge quantities of bombs on Iraq. The revenge taken by the terrorists was wrong because it targeted innocent civilians–in the World Trade Center were people of many nations and walks of life–and because the action as a whole was calculated to provoke more not less US bombing, not only in Iraq. It is still just possible that US belligerence will be restrained but this will be despite the worst efforts of Islamic jihad.

Who was ‘responsible’ for the terror actions? Those directly responsible perished while, since US intelligence manifestly failed to predict the attack, it does not seem well placed to take on the support network behind it. This is not because they are unaware of the identity of that network but because it is one with which they have been structurally complicit for a long while. The security services of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have had the most intimate relations with the US military and intelligence. It was only Saudi and Pakistani support for the Taliban–including military units as well as lavish amounts of money, arms and training–which allowed them to seize power in Afghanistan in 1996, displacing the fractious alliance of mujahedeen and military men which ruled the country from 1992. The Taliban movement received help from bin Laden and have subsequently allowed his Al Qaeda network to set up training camps there. It was Prince Turki al Feisal, the then head of Saudi intelligence, who first recruited bin Laden to organise resistance in Afghanistan, with US approval. For its part the Pakistani military intelligence, the ISI, sponsors of the Taliban, welcomed the Saudi money which bin Laden has always been able to attract. One reason why the US claim that the bin Laden network was behind the September attack is precisely that the ramifications of this claim will prove awkward and embarrassing for the US authorities themselves. Another reason is that in an affair like this, the focus of so much attention, pinning the blame simply on a convenient but false target–say Saddam or Ghaddafi or Castro–would be risky and short-sighted. This time the US authorities do need to identify the real culprits.

The potentially embarrassing aspects of this matter do not just relate to the 1980s or early 1990s. The New Republic’s advice to Bush may be appallingly dangerous but its editorial in the previously cited issue may not be ill-informed when it refers to Saudi Arabia’s ‘filthy secrets’. Martin Peretz explains that Saudi money has been flowing into the coffers of the bin Laden network: ‘Many Saudis–maybe even the monarchy itself–finance it, if only to keep it engaged and out of Riyadh.’ But matters don’t stop there because the security services of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have worked hand-in-glove with those of the US for several decades and without them the Taliban would be nowhere. Consider the implications of the following report from Islamabad by John Burns in the NYT for September 18: ‘General Ahmed, and his deputy General Faiz Gilani, are the top figures in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or I.S.I. responsible for channelling large amounts of military and financial aid to the Taliban. Until the attacks in New York and Washington, that support had been quietly tolerated by the United States, despite the bitter opposition to the repressive forms of Islamic rule imposed by the Taliban.’

Historically the US security establishment did not see the Islamic jihad and bin Laden terror networks as an entirely negative phenomenon. In the 1980s such networks were often financed, trained and armed so long as they were fighting against the Russian-supported regime in Afghanistan. But in addition, and subsequent to this, Muslim jihad networks were sometimes seen as a lesser evil in former Soviet lands and in parts of the Middle East. Elements of the Al Qaeda network were active in Chechnya and former Soviet central Asia. They were also active in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Western press did not like to make much of it but some of the Bosnian and KLA units were addicted to terror tactics. Indeed, as a legacy of this, gangs of ethno-religious thugs still terrorise populations in the Balkan statelets set up by NATO.

And as we witness special powers being conferred on Bush in the aftermath of a terror action we should remember the decisive role played by the bombing of Moscow apartments in the rise and rise of Vladimir Putin. The slaughter of 118 Muscovites in 1999 set the scene for a revenge panic which Putin adroitly used first to justify a bloody offensive against the Chechens and then to elevate himself to the Presidency. Responsibility for these bombs has never been clarified but supporters of Islamic jihad do seem plausible candidates as the actual perpetrators, with or without some degree of collusion from sections of the Chechen leadership and/or the Russian security services. The murkiness of terror tactics have long made them the provocateur’s weapon of choice, Conrad’s theme in The Secret Agent.

It often seems that the more spectacularly successful an act of terror is, the more counter-productive its consequences. This is probably especially the case when the terror is expressive rather than instrumental, inspired by religion and not politics. The actions undertaken by the activists that bin Laden has trained have been notable for a wanton disregard of human life and apparent obliviousness to context. When he has allied his networks with communities that are oppressed–whether Palestinians, Chechens, Bosnian Muslims or Kosovan Albanians–his terror tactics have often weakened and compromised them. But it would be wrong to conclude that terror is always ineffective. The cases cited had a front line character, where Islamic populations live commingled with those of other faiths or none. In states with an overwhelmingly Muslim population matters could well be different.

Nationalist movements have sometimes used terror to undeniable effect–the FLN in Algeria, Irgun in Israel. This was because they were linked to an over-arching political strategy and because there was a complex of social forces–summoned up by the national movement – which could take advantage of the confusion. The terror operations of Islamic jihad in mixed, secularised or ‘frontline’ zones lack this characteristic since they energise rather than disrupt their opponents, and since the community of believers is not a plausible social basis upon which to construct a new power. The terror actions of Hamas have divided rather than united Palestinians, leading to some Israeli ‘quiet toleration’ of the group in earlier days. Religious terror sets off reactions which, at least in many parts of the modern world, it cannot itself profit from. However in the more unstable and autocratic Islamic states themselves the terror tactics could work – even if most believers are thoroughly alienated by them. In these cases the implicit political project is that of creating a more virtuous and representative state, something that could well seem appealing in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, and possibly in countries like Egypt and Algeria as well.

These dangers could be much reduced by the disabling of Al Qaeda since even fundamentalists will often be suspicious of it (e.g. if they are Shi’ite). But if the US puts itself at the head of a Western crusade to smash bin Laden it will cast him in the role of a new Saladin and perilously exacerbate dangers that are anyway quite acute. This doesn’t mean that the US should do nothing. Its huge influence over Saudi Arabia and Pakistan give it the opportunity to undo at last some of the damage of the past. If the Taliban’s sponsors now undertook to apprehend bin Laden and disperse the training camps of Al Qaeda this would be not only positive but long overdue. But the authorities in Riyadh and Islamabad may well not feel strong enough to do so. On the other hand the US can insist on an immediate cessation of all financial and material support to the Taliban regime, something which would also be welcome and which the US certainly has the capacity to monitor.

So at a moment when the US president has unprecedented opportunities for launching a massive attack his best policy would be to act only indirectly, by turning off the spigots which have sustained the terror machine. Unless global public opinion develops in such a way as to prevent it Bush is most likely to decide to send US troops, together with such compliant allies as he can muster, to seize bin Laden and perhaps occupy Kabul or Kandahar. Such an approach risks a double disaster. Firstly that the expedition will be a bloody failure, or secondly that, even if successful in its narrow objective, it will simply prepare the way for seizures of power by Islamic jihad in Pakistan and elsewhere. If the United States and NATO try to take on bin Laden they are more likely to strengthen the Islamic jihad network than destroy it. The Russian and Chinese governments quickly expressed their concern for the victims of the terror attack but as the prospect of undefined unilateral action loomed they got alarmed.

The best way to disrupt the bin Laden network is plainly to help the United Front, the Afghani opposition, to defeat the Taliban. The latter are not a deep-rooted, popular force but returned exiles and creatures of their foreign backers. Of course a full-scale US assault–say a bombing campaign–could yet cement bonds between government and population. The contribution that the US could make to overthrowing the Taliban would, as I have said, be to ensure that all Pakistani and Saudi support for the Taliban ceases immediately. But neither US nor Pakistani forces are qualified in any way to now pose as the liberators of Afghanistan. The existing opposition is backed by Tajikistan, Russia and Iran, and it is these powers which are manifestly best-placed to continue working for the defeat of the Taliban, and with them, of the bin Laden network, by supporting the United Front. The latter is fairly broadly-based but would be more convincing if it also reached out to more secular and civilian forces such as the RAWA, or association of Afghan women. Russian, China and Iran should not, of course, directly intervene since to do so would also risk uniting Afghans against foreigners. But these powers could supply useful help. Does the point need to be labored that the last thing which Russia, China and Iran wish to see is a US–or NATO–military expedition in the Hindu Kush? Conceivably the UN could have a positive role to play, so long as Tajikistan, Russia, China and a range of Islamic states, especially Iran, were all involved.

Of course the forces of Islamic jihad are not only to be found in Afghanistan but now thrive in many parts of the Middle East. Here the US is hampered by the fact that its cause is now yoked to Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. For Bush to imagine that the US stands for liberty and justice in the Middle East is a strange delusion. It could only ever be seen in this light if it broke with the Saudi monarchy and obliged Israel to withdraw completely from the occupied territories, something that would obviously require a complete revolution in its policy and priorities in the region. This is not about to happen but, incredible as it may now seem, the time may come when Washington itself will see that American interests would be better served by curbing Israel. Already Bush and Powell’s remarks about a Palestinian state are discomfitting Israel.

As it now seeks Arab and Muslim allies the United States will be under renewed pressure to redefine its Israel policy and offer some concessions to Arab opinion. The oil and industrial interests so linked to the Bush regime could perceive the need for a fresh start in the region and the President is now so strong that he doesn’t need to fear even the hostility of AIPAC, the influential pressure group which backs Israel. But alliance with the ‘moderate’ Arab states–and the sort of token sops that might satisfy them – will not help since these are autocratic, repressive and discredited. So a replay of the Gulf War coalition will not work even on its own terms. An attempt simply to re-start the flawed and phony ‘peace process’ would not be convincing even to most ‘moderate’ Arabs. The minimum should be compliance with Resolution 242 and willingness to discuss a territorial settlement that gives both Jews and Palestinians contiguous land and reasonably defensible borders (see the proposals of the French General Guy Mondron for one possibility, in New Left Review, No 10, 2001).

Compared with the killing power of states bent on war or exemplary punishment the actions of terrorists are often puny as well as counterproductive. But in this case the terror action was not just symbolic and spectacular. In terms of lives lost, or economic and political impact, it transcends the usual limits of terror actions, including those to which this network has previously been linked. The calculation involved was of a high order. The intended audience of the September 11 action was opinion in the Islamic world in general, and disaffected young men in particular. Anger at the West’s acquiescence in the killing of hundreds of Palestinian youths, or at Sharon’s use of state terror against whole communities, or at the suffering of the Iraqi people directly at the hands of the US and UK, were only the most recent provocations. Osama bin Laden and his followers or co-thinkers have a political as well as identitarian project in so far as they are prepared to seize power wherever it may be possible in the Islamic world. They are revolutionaries as well as warriors.

While the analogy is no doubt a limited one, we should consider the outlook of Catholic conquistadores and Puritan revolutionaries. Patricia Seed has explained in Ceremonies of Possession how the Spanish practice of conquest owed much to Islamic Holy War. Even closer to home, Michael Walzer, in his book The Revolution of the Saints, explains how Puritanism, with its fixation on the need to fight Satan, gave rise to new ways of waging war. Walzer explains of Calvin: ‘Pervasive in his work was a view of the life of the saint as a perpetual, almost military, struggle with the devil. It was because of the devil, and his vast cohorts of earthly followers, that the conscientious, reforming activity of religious men so often resulted in or required violence and warfare.’ Such an outlook led some English Puritan soldiers to rid themselves of monarchy–and some to massacre and oppress the Irish.

I have used the term Islamic jihad to refer to those who identify the United States as the Great Satan, a term which confuses political realities with religious categories, and seemingly entails utter recklessless towards the lives of believers and non-believers alike. Given the enormous increase in the potency of weapons of mass destruction we cannot simply wait for that long process through which religious enthusiasm becomes secularised and moderated, though to the extent that this has already happened in some parts of the Muslim world, notably Iran, there are some rays of light in a darkening landscape.

Awareness of religious motivation should not, however, lead to denial that this worldview may also have its own political rationale. The excessive and ‘symbolic’ dimensions of the September 11 action will further such objectives if it drives Washington mad, if it makes the custodians of global capital forget how much they have to lose and if it plays to the phobias in US political culture.

The Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel used to say that the American bourgeoisie had no rational interest in blowing up the world in a nuclear conflagration. Once again bourgeois American is in a like situation and does not have an interest in, say, provoking the fundamentalist network in the Pakistani armed forces. But this does not mean American political leadership can find within itself the wisdom, imagination and patience to see that the main role must now be played by others. The Islamic warriors who immolated themselves in the World Trade Center and Pentagon were armed only with knives and cardboard cutters. They turned their opponent’s civilian airliners into devastating instruments of destruction. They are also ready to turn American belligerence into their ally.

A US willingness to talk to the Iranian government–and allow it to play the lead – would be quite different from the anticipated US reaction. It would display realism. The United States should work in concert with leading powers in other major civilisations and not intervene itself. To point out this possible line of policy may be to clutch at straws since the aftermath of the September action hugely boosts the forces of irrationality. Sections of the US military and frustrated jingoes throughout the land may find a rolling state of emergency very congenial.

Bush will feel under huge pressure to use his new found power for some macho exploit. The most spectacular terrorist act in history is readily intelligible in the values of a culture that has given us Top Gun and Mission Impossible. The characteristic of such movies, however, was always their romanticization of violence. The danger is that a response in kind would help the forces of Islamic jihad and might allow them to seize power in a nuclear state. Indeed for the US to act in this way would be even more dangerous than the confrontations of the Cold War. It would be to court armageddon. CP

Robin Blackburn, a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, is the former editor of The New Left Review and author of the excellent history of the slave trade, The Making of New World Slavery.