Exactly one year before the hijackers hit the Pentagon, Chalmers Johnson, a distinguished American academic, staunch supporter of the US during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and one-time senior analyst for the CIA, tried to alert his fellow-citizens to the dangers that lay ahead. He offered a trenchant critique of his country’s post-cold war imperial policies: “Blowback,” he prophesied, “is shorthand for saying that a nation reaps what it sows, even if it does not fully know or understand what it has sown.
“Given its wealth and power, the United States will be a prime recipient in the foreseeable future of all of the more expectable forms of blowback, particularly terrorist attacks against Americans in and out of the armed forces anywhere on earth, including within the United States.”
But whereas Johnson drew on his past, as a senior state-intellectual within the heart of the American establishment, to warn us of the dangers inherent in the imperial pursuit of economic and military domination, former critics of imperialism found themselves trapped by the debris of September 11. Many have now become its most vociferous loyalists. I am not, in this instance, referring to the belligerati – Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and friends – ever-present in the liberal press on both sides of the Atlantic. They might well shift again. Rushdie’s decision to pose for the cover of a French magazine draped in the stars and stripes could be a temporary aberration. His new-found love for the empire might even turn out to be as short-lived as his conversion to Islam.
What concerns me more is another group: men and women who were once intensely involved in leftwing activities. It has been a short march for some of them: from the outer fringes of radical politics to the antechambers of the state department. Like many converts, they display an aggressive self-confidence. Having honed their polemical and ideological skills within the left, they now deploy them against their old friends. This is why they have become the useful idiots of the empire. They will be used and dumped. A few, no doubt, hope to travel further and occupy the space vacated by Chalmers Johnson, but they should be warned: there is already a very long queue.
Others still dream of becoming the Somali, Pakistani, Iraqi or Iranian equivalents of the Afghan puppet, Hamid Karzai. They, too, might be disappointed. Only tried and tested agents can be put in power. Most one-time Marxists or Maoists do not yet pass muster. To do so they have to rewrite their entire past and admit they were wrong in ever backing the old enemies of the empire – in Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan or the Arab East. They have, in other words, to pass the David Horowitz test. Horowitz, the son of communists and biographer of the late Isaac Deutscher, underwent the most amazing self-cleansing in post-1970s America. Today he is a leading polemicist of the right, constantly denouncing liberals as a bridge to the more sinister figures of the left.
Compared to him, former Trotskyists Christopher Hitchens and Kanaan Makiya must still appear as marginal and slightly frivolous figures. They would certainly fail the Horowitz test, but if the stakes are raised and Baghdad is bombed yet again, this time as a prelude to a land invasion, how will our musketeers react? Makiya, recently outed in this paper as “Iraq’s most eminent dissident thinker”, declared that: “September 11 set a whole new standard… if you’re in the terrorism business you’re going to start thinking big, and you’re going to need allies. And if you need allies in the terrorism business, you’re going to ask Iraq.”
Makiya’s capacity to spin extraordinary spirals of assertion, one above another, based on no empirical facts and without any sense of proportion, becomes – through sheer giddiness of fantastical levitation – completely absurd. Not a single US intelligence agency has managed to prove any Iraqi link with September 11. For that reason, in order to justify a war, they have moved on to other issues, such as possession of “dangerous weapons”. Not even Saddam’s old foes in the Arab world believe this nonsense.
Hitchens reacted more thoughtfully at first to the New York and Washington attacks. He insisted that the “analytical moment” had to be “indefinitely postponed”, but none the less linked the hits to past policies of the US and criticised George Bush for confusing an act of terrorism with an act of war. He soon moved on to denounce those who made similar, but much sharper criticisms, and began to talk of the supposed “fascist sympathies of the soft left” – Noam Chomsky, Harold Pinter, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Edward Said et al. In recent television appearances he has sounded more like a saloon-bar bore than the fine, critical mind which blew away the haloes surrounding Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa.
What unites the new empire loyalists is an underlying belief that, despite certain flaws, the military and economic power of the US represents the only emancipatory project and, for that reason, has to be supported against all those who challenge its power. A few prefer Clinton-as-Caesar rather than Bush, but recognise this as a self-indulgence. Deep down they know the empire stands above its leaders.
What they forget is that empires always act in their own self-interests. The British empire cleverly exploited the anti-slavery campaigns to colonise Africa, just as Washington uses the humanitarian handwringing of NGOs and the bien pensants to fight its new wars today. September 11 has been used by the American empire to re-map the world. European continental pieties are beginning to irritate Cheney and Rumsfeld. They laugh in Washington when they hear European politicians talk of revitalising the UN. There are 189 member states of the UN. In 100 of these states there is a US military presence. For UN, read US?
Neo-liberal economics, imposed by the IMF mullahs, has reduced countries in every continent to penury and brought their populations to the edge of despair. The social democracy that appeared an attractive option during the cold war no longer exists. The powerlessness of democratic parliaments and the politicians who inhabit them to change anything has discredited democracy. Crony capitalism can survive without it.
At a time when much of the world is beginning to tire of being “emancipated” by the US, many liberals have been numbed into silence. One of the most attractive aspects of the US has always been the layers of dissent that have flourished beneath the surface. The generals in the Pentagon suffered a far greater blow than September 11 in the 1970s, when tens of thousands of serving and former GIs demonstrated in front of it in their uniforms and medals and declared their hope that the Vietnamese would win. The new empire loyalists, currently helping to snuff out this tradition, are creating the conditions for more blowbacks.
Tariq Ali is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. His most recent book is The Clash of Fundamentalism, published by Verso.