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Terror and Empire

The flaw in the US proclamation of itself as the arbiter of global terror is not only its past record, but also its continuing imperial disposition and the readiness of US leaders to discount political and social considerations in favour of a stark opposition of good and evil. The British government has been far too subservient to Washington. But as an ex-colonial power it knows that terrorist movements can be undercut by political initiatives. It knows that the irreconcilables can be isolated by acts of decolonisation and negotiations with those formerly regarded as terrorists like Jomo Kenyatta, Archbishop Makarios and Gerry Adams. It is true that the White House has many times welcomed Yasser Arafat and was at one time willing to turn a blind eye to Saudi support for terrorists. But such pragmatism is no good unless informed by a willingness to accept structural change. The British did eventually accept decolonisation but it is less clear that the US understands that the time has come for a new type of empire, a network empire of many centers.

Instead of decolonisation the Palestinians were offered besieged and fragmented enclaves. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf decolonisation would mean the withdrawal of US and UK troops. A campaign against terror in the region would have to base itself on dismantling regimes that are based on terror not popular consent, whether in the occupied territories or in the motley retinue of monarchies and sheikdoms that have been the buttress of Empire. The species of bourgeois revolution now stalking the Islamic world threatens to sweep all these regimes into the dustbin of history. In the Gulf a large immigrant workforce could assert its presence. If the West insists on further supporting the old order it will ensure that this process is more bloody and dangerous than would otherwise be the case–and less likely to find a relatively more democratic, secular and pacific outcome.

In his speech to the Labour Party Conference in October 2001 Tony Blair acknowledged the need to tackle the conditions which ‘breed support for the terrorists’ but both analysis and prescription were flawed and rhetorical. While poverty is indicted the arbitrary rule of monarchs and dictators is not. Tackling poverty is inescapably a long term goal but withdrawing support from the Sultans and Sheikhs could be speedily addressed. The privileges of the latter are, it seems, even more sacred than those of the oil companies. The other glaring deficiency of Blair’s agenda is that it defers to, and thus encourages, what I have called US national messianism. Indeed the UK government is ever ready to back Washington’s unilateral military interventions.

A campaign against terrorism will be far more likely to succeed if it is genuinely international in character, if implementation is entrusted to a supranational agency, if it is even-handed and consistent, if it is equally intolerant of state terror, if political and social injustices are resolutely addressed and if it pays attention to all the destructive potentials that have appeared as by-products of modernity.

The perils posed by terrorist acts can be reduced if inherently dangerous technologies–like nuclear power plants, very tall buildings, super-jumbos, centers for research into noxious germs and gasses – are secured, discouraged and minimised. It is worth bearing in mind that something like what happened in the World Trade Center could have occurred accidentally. Progress towards more equitable political and social institutions also can help to diminish the attractions of terrorism. Better public health facilities will also help to diminish the impact of terrorist acts where they nonetheless occur. National police forces probably need to work together more effectively. But there remains the supranational plane.

President Bush’s inclinations today are as anachronistic as were those of President McKinley when he led the United States to victory over Spain in 1898 but then did not know what to do with it. His instinct was to use Spain’s defeat to acquire pieces of imperial real estate (the Philippines, Guam, Cuba and Puerto Rico). He did not realise that territorial empires had peaked and that it was America’s mission to embody the non-territorial variety that was to count in the twentieth century. Under pressure from an impressive Anti-Imperialist movement Cuba was given its independence in 1902, but with a Platt amendment that was long to rankle: it enshrined a US right of intervention in the island. Today Bush aspires to be a second McKinley exercising a sort of global Platt amendment in the war against terrorism. But the time for this type of imperial governance is over and a more plural capitalist world requires supranational agencies that do not only reflect the ‘Washington consensus’.

Terror networks with ‘global reach’ will not be suppressed or minimised without a new and more authoritative network of institutions at a global and supranational, level. This means abating US national messianism together with the willingness of its allies to defer to Washington on a string of crucial issues for global governance. The United States is tempted to play the role of global gendarme because everyone knows that the United Nations, as it is, lacks the resources and capacity to fill this role. The weakness of the UN was cited by Richard Falk in The Nation as the reason for supporting Bush’s go-it-alone strategy. But the same argument could be deployed to argue for the international body to be given specified supranational powers and for its decision-making powers to be enhanced. Obviously those would have to be accompanied by juridical restraints and democratic accountability such as have anyway been urged by writers like Daniele Archibugi. The situation created by September 11 created conditions where such issues could be urgently addressed and an anti-terrorist task force quickly assembled.

The crisis unleashed by September 11 shows that even in a case where the United States began with a moral right to act alone in defence of its citizens this has not been the best way of acting. Of course the UN could be far more effective if it was not continually by-passed and slighted by the United States. But it also needs, as it has since its inception, new authority and resources. Already in 1944 some argued for the UN to have its own armed force (World Guard), with its own budget and commanders (i.e. this was not to be formed by contributions from existing national armies). This is still a distant prospect today. But a supranational agency to deal with ‘global terrorism’ is another matter, requiring fewer resources and implying a smaller derogation of sovereignty. And if the principle can be won in this area this could be of great help in tackling nuclear and germ-war disarmament and inspection.

The fact that there is no Islamic country as a permanent member of the Security Council while there are two European states is unfortunate. The inclusion of, say, Indonesia might help to boost the standing of the UN in the Islamic world. When William Penn and Abb? Pierre first proposed an international league to suppress war and piracy they urged that the Ottoman empire should be bound into it from the outset. Three centuries later we still haven’t caught up with these bold thinkers.

An international accord against terrorism could be positive so long as there was the opportunity for each state’s self-interested approach to be qualified by the need for a genuine international consensus. The latter would itself not be perfect, of course, but it would be better than encouraging each state to prosecute its own war against global terrorism. There are already international agreements which it could have invoked and which the Security Council of the UN could see were more vigorously enforced. The succession of treaties and agreements aimed at suppressing first piracy and then the Atlantic slave trade, with the latter often seen as legally equivalent to the former, furnish interesting precedents

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 there was an international accord to equate slaving with piracy. But Washington would not agree. The US government had suppressed legal slave imports in 1808 but rejected effective international action against the Atlantic slave trade since this required a mutual right of inspection, which was deemed to be an infringement on US sovereignty. As a result the Atlantic slave trade to Cuba continued and the building of ships destined for the slave trade was a major New York industry in the 1850s. It was only in 1862 that Lincoln and Seward accepted the need for the United States to cooperate in suppressing the Atlantic traffic–and it was only then that the bans on Atlantic slaving became effective.

Other than the United States, the permanent members of the UN Security Council are ready for joint police action against terrorism, even the establishment of a supranational agency. The Chinese and Russian governments may use terror themselves but are opposed to the free-lance variety, especially when connected to Islamic fundamentalism. At one point in Bush’s September 20 speech when he was listing the failed twentieth century doctrines comparable to Al Qaeda’s fundamentalism, he mentioned fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism but left out, in deference to China and Russia, a specific mention of Communism. Evidently someone in the Bush entourage was already aiming at an entente with Beijing and Moscow.

Chapter 7

How to Get Serious About Terror

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