In the week before the first anniversary of the devastating September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, TV networks aired a seemingly never-ending string of “special events” featuring “exclusive” or “never before seen” footage of the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) and its aftermath. People around the world again experienced the horror, anger and tragedy of that terrible day, when almost 3000 working people were murdered.
Culminating on the anniversary of the day itself, thousands of journalists and TV presenters from across the globe will converge at “ground zero” in New York for “remembrance and reflection”. Solemn ceremonies will be telecast and patriotic speeches by top US politicians broadcast, restating Washington’s determination to pursue its “war on terrorism”.
But by the end of the 9/11 anniversary hoopla, after the thousands of hours of TV time and the column-kilometres published in the world’s newspapers and magazines, you can be sure that the most glaring aspect of the post-9/11 period will have remained unmentionable by all but the most honest commentators: that Washington’s “war on terrorism” is a cynical fraud.
The most repeated 9/11 media cliche is that on that day “the world changed”. However, few commentators have bothered to explain how.
September 11 did mark a change in the US and world politics — just how permanent remains to be seen. On that day, the US rulers realised that those awful acts of terrorism provided them with a golden opportunity to achieve the US capitalist ruling class’ long-held objective of world domination — the “American century” it predicted was at hand at the end of World War II.
Top officials in President George Bush junior’s administration seized that opportunity, coldly calculating that the traumatised US people would now support significant military interventions by US ground troops abroad, in the guise of fighting “terrorism”, even if there was a risk of large numbers of US casualties — something they have refused to accept since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Before September 11, Washington had long labelled governments and political movements it opposed as “terrorists”. The US State Department each year publishes a list of countries that “support terrorism”; for years it has included Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba. Until September 11, that was not enough to convince the US people to support sustained military operations against them.
Almost as soon as the smoke from the rubble of the WTC had cleared, the Bush administration moved to take the focus of the “war on terrorism” from the alleged perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocities — Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network of religious reactionaries — to US-defined “terrorism” and “evil” in general.
“From this day forward”, Bush told Congress on September 20, “any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded as a hostile regime”. The “first war of the 21st Century” will not end, he declared, “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”.
The bombing of Afghanistan began on October 7. On November 21, Bush outlined what has become known as the “Bush doctrine”: “Afghanistan is just the beginning of the war against terror. There are other terrorists who threaten America and our friends, and there are other nations willing to sponsor them. We will not be secure as a nation until all these threats are defeated. Across the world, and across the years, we will fight these evil ones, and we will win
“America has a message for the nations of the world: if you harbour terrorists, you’re terrorists; if you train or arm a terrorist, you are a terrorist; if you feed or fund a terrorist, you’re a terrorist, and you will be held accountable by the United States and our friends.”
On November 26, with Iraq now in his cross-hairs, Bush expanded the scope of the “war on terrorism” further when he stated, “If they develop weapons of mass destruction that will be used to terrorise nations, they will be held accountable”.
The transformation was complete with Bush’s January 29 State of the Union speech. The next stage of Washington’s “war on terrorism” was officially delinked from the specific events of 9/11. Bush did not even mention bin Laden or al Qaeda. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had suddenly taken the elusive Bin Laden’s place as public enemy number one.
The “axis of evil” that now topped Washington’s hit-list — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — has no proven links with al Qaeda, bin Laden or the 9/11 attacks. Nor do three of the four organisations Bush cited by name — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah — have a connection with al Qaeda; their “crime” was to oppose Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine.
Bush also bluntly stated that the US had the right to unilaterally launch military action against “terrorists” inside any country, and launch preemptive military strikes against states that Washington suspected of developing chemical, biological or nuclear weapons: “Some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake about it, if they do not act, America will.”
Bush reminded the world that US vengeance has no geographic limits. “Our armed forces [in Afghanistan] have delivered a message now clear to every enemy of the United States: even 7000 miles away, across oceans and continents, on mountain tops and in caves, you will not escape the justice of this nation”, he warned.
In less than six months, Bush’s “war on terrorism” had morphed seamlessly from action directed at the alleged perpetrators and backers of the 9/11 mass murders into a war against any Third World state or political movement that Washington considers too independent, too defiant or a hurdle to the goal of US global hegemony.
Bush’s State of the Union speech was the formal announcement that Washington is unashamedly seeking world domination. As the February 1 New York Times editorial noted: “The application of power and intimidation has returned to the forefront of American foreign policy Not since America’s humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam more than a quarter-century ago has US foreign policy relied so heavily on non-nuclear military force, or the threat of it, to defend American interests around the world.”
Since the end of World War II, the US ruling class’ overarching strategic goal has been the maintenance of overwhelming military, economic and political dominance and the prevention of the emergence of other powers — great or regional — that could challenge that position. This goal was dubbed the “American century” at the end of World War II.
However, Washington’s expectations of total world domination were frustrated for nearly 50 years by the industrial and military strength of the Soviet Union and the national liberation struggles, beginning with the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949 and the Cuban revolution in 1959, followed by the wave of successful independence struggles in Africa and Asia throughout the 1960s that culminated in the historic defeat of US forces in Vietnam in 1975.
Washington’s defeat in Vietnam was a political defeat as well as a military one. Over time, with the assistance of a growing anti-war movement, the US people had come to realise that the US rulers had cynically lied when they proclaimed the bloody war against the people of Vietnam as a fight for democracy — at the cost of 50,000 young US soldiers’ lives and the deaths of millions of Vietnamese — when in fact it was an unjust, imperialist war of aggression.
The “Vietnam syndrome” was born, and for more than 25 years, it made it politically impossible for Washington to deploy large numbers of ground troops in “hot” wars overseas.
Militarily and politically hamstrung by the Vietnam syndrome, US imperialism suffered further setbacks in the late 1970s with the victories of the independence struggles in Angola and Mozambique, a revolution in Ethiopia in 1977, the 1978 Afghan revolution, and the revolutionary processes begun in Nicaragua and Grenada in 1979.
The overthrow of the pro-US Shah of Iran in 1979 was also a serious threat to US imperialism’s hold on the strategic oil-rich Persian Gulf.
Under President Ronald Reagan, who came to power in 1980, the US ruling class launched a counter-attack against what it dishonestly dubbed “Soviet expansionism”. Washington massively funded and armed counter-revolutionary bandits and terrorists, such as RENAMO in Mozambique, UNITA in Angola, the contras in Nicaragua and the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. Reagan also boosted US support to the apartheid regime in South Africa and dictatorial regimes like those in Pakistan, Indonesia and Chile.
However, Reagan’s strategy was also specifically engineered to avoid putting US troops in harm’s way. When Reagan ordered US troops to invade Grenada in 1983 (and when George Bush senior ordered the invasion of Panama in 1989), the operation relied on massive firepower before elite US troops entered and then left as quickly as possible.
However, Reagan massively boosted US war spending across the board, including on the “star wars” missile defence system. The goal of this fanciful project was to achieve the ability to launch a first-strike nuclear attack on the USSR without fear of retaliation. Attempts to match these massive military expenditures played a role in “bleeding” the Soviet Union, hastening its collapse.
With the demise of the USSR in 1991, the US rulers hoped that the “American century” was again on the horizon. George Bush senior hailed the US victory over Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf War as also marking the “end of the Vietnam syndrome” and declared that Washington would now oversee a “New World Order”.
However, he spoke too soon. Bush senior had been not prepared to test the Vietnam syndrome. The US military had relied on the use of its overwhelming air superiority and its massive technological edge to avoid significant ground operations. Fear of the Vietnam syndrome in part deterred Bush from sending US troops into Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Throughout the 1990s, this was the pattern of US military operations. The Vietnam syndrome was shown to be alive and kicking with the public outcry in the US to the deaths of 18 soldiers during Washington’s “humanitarian” intervention in Somalia.
The Bush senior and the Clinton administrations clothed their military actions in the guise of defending human rights, halting “ethnic cleansing” or providing humanitarian assistance. They were conducted under the cover of regional or UN “peacekeeping” operations and were generally conditional on winning multilateral endorsement.
The American people’s hopes that the end of the Cold War would result in much reduced military spending and a “peace dividend” also frustrated US ruling class demands for the maintenance of military spending at Cold War levels.
With 9/11, the dominant wing in Bush junior’s administration clearly believes the Vietnam syndrome has finally been put to rest.
The claim that the attacks on the WTC “changed the world” are part of a myth that is being carefully crafted: that the launch of the “war on terrorism” was simply a response to the terrible events of one day.
This myth-making is exemplified by a melodramatic September 5, 2002, article by Associated Press White House correspondent Ron Fournier: “In a cramped nuclear shelter deep beneath the White House, President Bush stared across a spare wooden table and told his national security team, `Get the troops ready’. Twelve hours after the terrorist strikes, moments after his nationally televised address, Bush was preparing for a war that would transform and define his presidency `This is a time for self defence’, he told his war council. `This is our time’.”
The truth is more straightforward. In the 12 months following 9/11, Bush junior’s administration has cynically seized upon and exploited the terror attacks to launch a drive to achieve the US ruling class dream of an “American century” or “New World Order” — an unchallenged global US military, political and economic empire.
The power behind the throne of George Bush junior’s regime is vice president Dick Cheney and a warmongering team made up of veterans of the Reagan and Bush senior administrations.
Throughout the 1990s, these “hawks” organised for their return to power, formulated their programs for unchallenged US hegemony and advocated the unbridled use of US military power through a network of tightly interlocked right-wing ruling-class think-tanks — the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Victory over Terrorism and the Center for Security Policy. The Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal championed their views (and continue to do so).
The lessons of the Bush senior and Clinton administration, the new “centurions” constantly claimed, was that US power should not be constrained by attempts to balance US interests with those of its European or other allies. Alliances, international organisations or multilateral treaties must not get in the way of the unfettered exercise of US military or economic power.
Other key planks pushed by the hawks have been unconditional military and political support for Israel — Washington’s key ally in the Middle East — and implacable opposition to any regimes in that region that could pose a threat to US domination of the strategic, oil-rich Persian Gulf. As a result, a trademark of the centurions has been extreme hostility towards the regimes in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and even Lebanon, as well as cheering every move made by Tel Aviv to crush the national liberation movement in occupied Palestine.
In 1997, the PNAC was established to promote “American global leadership”. Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld (now US defence secretary), Paul Wolfowitz (now deputy defence secretary) and Jeb Bush (Bush junior’s brother) were signatories to the PNAC’s founding “statement of principle”. It stated bluntly: “[Conservatives] seem to have forgotten the essential elements of the Reagan administration’s success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposely promotes American principles abroad; and a national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities
“America has a role in maintaining peace and security in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.”
The PNAC argued that the US must “increase defense spending significantly” and “modernize our armed forces if we are to carry out our global responsibilities today” ; “strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values”; “promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad”; and “accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles”.
“Such a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity may not be fashionable today”, the PNAC conceded. “But it is necessary if the United States is to build on the successes of this past century and to ensure our security and our greatness in the next.”
In September 2000, the PNAC fleshed out its imperial vision with the release of a report, Rebuilding America’s defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century. The project’s participants included Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby (now Cheney’s chief of staff) and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol.
The report’s introduction noted that the US “is the world’s only superpower, combining preeminent military power, global technological leadership and the world’s largest economy At present the US faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible”. To preserve this “desirable strategic situation”, the report stated, the US “requires a globally preeminent military capability both today and in the future”.
The report’s authors admitted that they had built upon the 1992 draft of the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), which was prepared for Cheney, who was then US defence secretary in the Bush senior administration, Wolfowitz and Libby.
This document stated bluntly that the US must continue to “discourage … advanced industrial nations from challenging our leadership or … even aspiring to a larger regional or global role … [To achieve this, the US] must retain the preeminent responsibility for addressing … those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends, or which seriously unsettle international relations.”
This was an admission that the massive build-up of US military might in Europe, Asia and the Middle East after 1945 was not simply directed at containing “Soviet expansionism”, crushing Third World revolutions and controlling natural resources such as Middle Eastern oil — as vital to US interests as they were. It was also aimed at enmeshing its potential capitalist rivals — Britain, France, Germany and Japan — within US-dominated military alliances designed to prevent them developing independent armed forces.
The PNAC report endorsed the DPG’s “blueprint for maintaining US preeminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests… The basic tenets of the DPG, in our judgment, remain sound.”
The PNAC report recommended that the US turn around the 1990s “decade of defence neglect” and boost war spending to a minimum of 3.5-3.8% of GDP (up from around 3%) by adding US$15 billion to US$20 billion annually; increase the numbers of active-duty military personnel from 1.4 million to 1.6 million; and “reposition US forces … by shifting permanently based forces to southeast Europe [the Balkans] and Southeast Asia [preferably the Philippines and/or Australia], and by changing naval deployment patterns to reflect growing US strategic concerns in East Asia [meaning the `containment’ of China and the `defence’ of Taiwan]”.
The report also urged Washington to develop the capability to “fight and win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars” and at the same time “perform the `constabulary’ duties associated with shaping the security environment in critical regions”; maintain “nuclear strategic superiority” by developing smaller “bunker-buster” nuclear weapons and resuming nuclear testing; develop the “star wars” global “missile defence system”; and “control the new `international commons’ of space and `cyberspace’ and pave the way for the creation of a new military service — US Space Forces — with the mission of space control[!]”.
As all the above indicates, the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz cabal have had a long-standing program for the expansion of US hegemony. What it lacked was the “trigger” to implement it or the existence of a serious enough “threat” that would convince the US people to abandon their desire for a “peace dividend” and their opposition to US war casualties abroad.
Which is why the 9/11 attacks were a godsend for the Bush gang. Washington immediately recognised the opportunity with which it was presented. As Bush junior’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice admitted: “I really think this period is analogous to 1945 to 1947 in that the events … started shifting the tectonic plates in international politics. And it’s important to try to seize on that and position American interests and institutions before they harden again.”
Since 9/11, Bush’s new centurions have fast-tracked the implementation of their agenda in case the “window of opportunity” closes. They have won a massive increase in military spending of US$48 billion, to US$379.3 billion, in 2002-2003. Adding non-Pentagon military spending, mostly by the energy department for the nuclear weapons program, total military spending will be US$396.1 billion.
A further US$38 billion is to be spent on “homeland defence” — mainly for the plethora of US police agencies. Washington has projected that the war budget will steadily increase to more that US$451 billion by 2007, a 30% increase.
Washington has signalled — with its repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, the war crimes provisions of the International Criminal Court and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty — that US military, economic and political power will not be subject to any form of international constraint.
It has been revealed that the US has plans to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states under guise of eliminating the threat of “weapons of mass destruction”. There have also been reports that US special forces will soon be authorised to kill or capture “terrorists” anywhere in the world, whenever the opportunity arises, without having to obtain permission from the relevant government.
As a result of its war to overthrow the Taliban, Washington has secured a permanent military bases and stationed tens of thousands of troops for the first time in the increasingly strategic Central Asian region. From these bases, the US can more easily “contain” Russia and China, control the emerging oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea region, strengthen its hold over the Persian Gulf and increase further its military stranglehold on most of the world’s vital energy resources.
Using the cover of the “war on terrorism”, Washington has increased or resumed military funding for notoriously repressive regimes — including as Yemen, Georgia, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Colombia and the former Soviet Central Asian republics — as well as sending thousands of troops and military advisers to help them crush anti-government movements.
Washington has given the green light for Russia to continue its brutal campaign against the Chechen freedom struggle and the Chinese government’s repression of separatists in Xinjiang.
The September 11 attacks and the subsequent US “war on terrorism” has presented the US ruling-class warmongers with their biggest opportunity yet to “cure” the Vietnam syndrome. The greatest test of this will be the coming US invasion of Iraq.
Anti-war activists need to organise and mobilise in massive numbers to stop this war and to revive as rapidly as possible the seemingly dormant anti-war consciousness of the US people. Solidarity must be offered to the inevitable resistance to the imperialist warmongers that will develop throughout the US empire.
This essay originally appeared in the Australian Green Left Weekly. CounterPunch Special Report: 9/11 One Year After
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