The evening of Sept. 11, I wrote an essay that ended with a plea that “the insanity stop here,” that the brutal act of terrorism not spark more terrorism, theirs or ours.
But the insanity didn’t stop.
Instead, the Bush administration cynically manipulated people’s grief and rage to unleash an unlimited war against endless enemies, which has made the world more dangerous and the American people less secure in any land, home or abroad.
A year later, it’s clear the so-called “war on terrorism” is primarily a war to project U.S power around the world. Its goal is to extend and deepen U.S. control, especially in the energy-rich Middle East and Central Asia. Ordinary people have not benefited, and will not benefit, from this war or the economics that drive it.
The antiwar movement argued from the start that conventional war could not produce security from terrorism, and we were right. Administration officials this summer acknowledged that the attack on Afghanistan didn’t significantly diminish the terrorist threat and may have complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers.
Those of us who criticized the mad rush to war also suggested the Bush administration would use terrorism as a pretext to justify a wider war; again, we were right. Officials have floundered trying to justify an attack on Iraq with claims about Iraqi connections to al-Qaida or other terrorist networks that are so unconvincing they have largely been abandoned.
Claims about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction are more plausible, but riddled with inconsistencies. Iraq may have developed, or be developing, limited biological or chemical weapons programs, but no one has offered proof or a scenario in which Iraq might use them, except in the case of a U.S. attack. And the Bush administration has repeatedly announced that it won’t be satisfied with renewed weapons inspections and is determined to topple the Saddam Hussein regime, destroying hopes for the diplomacy needed for multilateral regional arms control.
Bush’s talk of democracy in Afghanistan or Iraq is a bad joke. U.S. manipulation of the political process in Afghanistan to install a handpicked puppet, Hamid Karzai (now being guarded by U.S. troops and agents to protect him from his own people), was barely concealed. In Iraq, “democracy” will be acceptable to the Bush administration so long as a democratic process produces a similarly pliant leader.
These failed attempts to build a case for war only highlight what has long been clear: The war in Afghanistan and a possible war in Iraq are about U.S. dominance, at two levels. The first involves the specific resources of those regions. In the case of Afghanistan, the concern is pipelines to carry the oil and natural gas of the Caspian region to deep-water ports. In Iraq, it’s about controlling the country with the world’s second-largest oil reserves.
Beyond those direct interests, the logic of empire requires violence on this scale; when challenged, imperial powers strike back to maintain credibility and extend control. U.S. control is through mechanisms different from Rome or Britain in their imperial phases, but there can be no doubt that we are an empire.
Much of the world is frightened by these imperial ambitions. A friend traveling in Europe reports back that people talk of their fear of America’s militarism. Politicians in allied nations are questioning, or openly repudiating, American war plans.
The task for U.S. citizens is clear: We must ensure that the U.S. empire is the first empire dismantled from within, through progressive political movements that reject world dominance that perpetuates inequality in favor of our place in a world struggling for justice and peace.
On Sept. 11, we got a glimpse of what it might look like if the empire is taken down from the outside.
Today we still have a choice. We can learn from history and step back from empire, or suffer the fate that history makes clear lies down the imperial path.
We still have time to turn away from empire and toward democracy, away from unilateralism toward engagement, away from hoarding power and toward seeking peace. We still have time to demand of our government that the insanity stop here.
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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