Bush and the Romans


The consequences of 11 September remain visible on several fronts. Psychologically, the American empire has constructed a new enemy: Islamic terrorism. Its practitioners were evil, the threat was global and, for that reason, bombs had to be dropped unilaterally and wherever necessary. The leaders of the United States wish to be judged by their choice of enemies rather than the actual state of the world, leave alone the concrete results of the ‘war against terrorism’. Politically, the United States decided to use the tragedy and re-map the world. Its military bases now cover every continent. The largest of these is situated in one of the tiniest states: Qatar in the Persian Gulf. There are 189 member states of the United Nations. There is a US military presence in 120 countries. Domestically, the Bush administration sought and obtained extensive new powers to curb dissent and to detain and deport suspects at will. On the East Coast alone, over a thousand immigrant workers of South Asian origin were arrested and deported to their countries of origin, without any outcry in the mainstream media.

A year on, what is the balance sheet of the war? With the help of its Pakistani creators, the Taliban regime was overthrown without a serious struggle, though approximately 3000 innocent Afghan men, women and children perished under the bombs. For the West, these lives were not even worth half as much as those of the US citizens who died in New York and Washington. No memorials honouring innocent victims will be built in Kabul. The torture and mass execution of prisoners of war leaves many liberal supporters of ‘humanitarian wars’ unmoved. However, despite all this, the central aim of the military operation, which was the capture (‘dead or alive’) of Osama Bin Laden and his confederates and the physical destruction of Al-Qa’eda, has still not been accomplished. On 16 June 2002, The New York Times reported:

“Classified investigations of the Qa’eda threat now underway at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States, the officials said. Instead the war might have complicated counter-terrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area.”

Nor has the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan led to stability, peace or prosperity in the region. The character of the Afghan government is symbolised by the fact that the US-backed leader, Hamid Karzai, asked for and received bodyguards consisting exclusively of US soldiers. He did not feel safe being guarded by Afghans. The lack of trust is mutual. The factions of the Northern Alliance who rule outside Kabul dislike Karzai and would despatch him overnight if they could do so without incurring retaliatory bombing raids. To preserve this regime the United States will have to maintain a permanent military presence. In other words democracy, human and social rights, etc, are as remote as they ever were.

The ‘wider geographical area’ includes neighbouring Pakistan. Washington’s closest ally is the country’s newest military dictator. The first Afghan War (1979-89) required a Pakistan general prepared to play the Islamic card. Zia-ul-Haq obliged. The result was the creation of the Taliban. This time the events required a secular general to help demolish the Taliban. Enter General Musharraf (or Busharraf according to local wags) who has institutionalised the Pakistan army as the country’s major political party, accountable only to itself and the Pentagon. The Pakistan army is the proud possessor of nuclear weapons and has the ability to use them. Likewise India, the regional hegemon. A nuclear tussle over Kashmir has frightened the rest of the world but not the generals in India and Pakistan. The policy-makers in New Delhi are ready to accept Washington’s dictates globally if they are permitted to mimic the empire locally. So far permission has been refused and the presence of US soldiers and pilots in Pakistan acts as a safeguard. But for how long?

While the ‘war against terror’ has destabilised South Asia, it has buttressed Israel still further. If the United States had been serious in its oft-stated desire to stop the flow of recruits to organisations like Al-Qa’eda, it would have. Ariel Sharon has been supported by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld in his attempt to obliterate the political identity of the Palestinians — what a dissident Israeli historian, Baruch Kimmerling, has referred to as ‘politicide’. The blank cheque given to Israel by the US Senate and the House of Representatives is without precedent in recent history. The result has been spectacular. Since September 2001 over 100,000 Palestinian refugees have fled to Jordan. Sharon does not even try and conceal the fact that his aim is a major ethnic cleansing (‘transfer’) of the Palestinians from the West Bank. Gaza will be transformed into a modern equivalent of an Indian reservation. This is being done by a combination of direct physical force and by making everyday life unbearable for the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Even if these plans succeed, the notion that they will help defeat ‘terrorism’ is a sick joke. The brutal punishment being inflicted on the Palestinians for refusing to accept Israeli suzerainty can be seen every day by the entire Arab world on Al-Jazeera television. Till now the Arabs have watched and suffered in silence, but this passivity is deceptive. There is growing anger and signs of unrest in every capital. There have been large demonstrations in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The region could erupt if the ‘war against terror’ is extended to Iraq.

There is no support for this war anywhere in the Arab world. A near-universal view is that if waged and won, far from being seen as a deterrence, it would greatly facilitate the growth of mass support for terrorist groups. Even Kuwait has expressed serious concerns and suggested that in the current climate a war would be an act of political ineptitude. The reason for this is simple. The large-scale sufferings of the Palestinians are not perceived as being simply the work of Israel. Many Arab intellectuals see Israel as the biblical ass whose jaw has been borrowed by an American Samson to destroy the real and imagined enemies of the empire. This is also a popular perception and the opening of a third front in the infinite war that could have far more serious consequences than the shenanigans in Afghanistan. These have destabilised South Asia and Saudi Arabia. The consequences of invading an oil-rich Arab state to create a puppet regime are not quantifiable. In the wake of September 11, the United States won near-universal support from states and governments when it went to war in Afghanistan. This unanimity, dented by disagreements on Palestine, is now confronting serious problems as the time for a new war against Iraq approaches. Here, unlike Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the West is divided. Apart from Blair and Berlusconi, no other European leader is keen on the project. Schroeder, Chirac and the Scandinavians have made this perfectly clear. They are unlikely to hinder the United States, but nor will they stop the growth of a mass anti-war movement. German public opinion is strongly opposed to the idea.

Even in Blairland a majority of the population is now opposed to the war. A list of unusual suspects have expressed their opposition in disdainful and disparaging tones. These include serving and retired generals and the odd field- marshal, not to ignore the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Will he bless the bombers in the fashion of his predecessors? Seems unlikely. Nor will he be isolated. An ICM poll in The Guardian (19 March 2002) revealed that 51 per cent of the British public is opposed to a war. The sample discovered that of these 6 per cent were Lib-Dem voters, 48 per cent were Conservative supporters and 46 per cent voted Labour. In line with this mood, the mass-readership Daily Mirror has been campaigning regularly against supporting Washington’s adventure. Its editor has, till now, managed to ignore the bullying calls from Downing Street and the defence secretary. And public opinion in the United States is also extremely uneasy about this one. The Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, former chief of US Central Command, has sounded the tocsin to warn against simple- mindedness. He is offended by the aw-shucks-I’m-just-a- simple-patriot tone and diction affected by a mass of Congressmen and Senators and warns:

“There are congressmen today who want to fund the Iraqi Liberation Act, and let some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London gin up the expedition. We’ll equip a thousand fighters and arm them with 97 million dollars’ worth of AK- 47s and insert them into Iraq. And what will we have? A Bay of Goats, most likely.”

Nonetheless opinion polls in the US suggest that 60 per cent favour sending in the daisy-cutters, but the figure drops to 36 per cent at the suggestion that the US should go in alone. In this respect, Blair is not an unimportant fig-leaf. Of course, the Democrats could stall an assault by insisting on a War Powers Resolution and voting against it, but they would be guided by opinion polls. If they abandoned their noisy bi- partisan patriotism, they could win support from maverick Republicans (Armey, Lugar) who have already voiced misgivings about an attack on Iraq.

Another factor that could stop the war-drive would be a sudden, steep plunge on Wall Street, as opposed to a gradual decline. Then there is always the possibility that Baghdad would allow ‘UN’ inspection teams back into the country, complete with CIA sleepers. This would necessitate reverting to the charge of complicity with 9/11, something which nobody believes.

The question is: why is the current regime in the United States so determined to wage this war? Here there are three considerations. The first is that Iraq, a rich oil-producer, remains outside the control of the United States. The second is the size of its army… it is now the only force in the region that could threaten greater Israel. And thirdly there are domestic considerations. To wean the pro-Zionist Jews away from the Democrats is an important tactical goal and the Christian fundamentalists of the Republican Party make no secret of their unflinching support for every Israeli atrocity. The Old Testament decrees that the Land of Zion belongs to the Jews.

The months following the anniversary of 9/11 will be dominated by the dynamic of two developments: preparation for war on Iraq and the deterioration of the economy. The interaction of these two will decide the shape of the global conjuncture over the next few years. The great thinker-president and his hard-core advisers appear to have broken decisively from the Clinton formula of the ’90s: American supremacy plus allied support plus permanent deregulation equals global governance accompanied by third-way rhetoric. This formula appears to have been ditched. Leaving aside the moral question as to why an unjust war would become just if backed by the Security Council, it’s perfectly possible for the United States to secure UN Security Council support to invade Iraq. The French could be bribed and the Chinese offered some concessions on Taiwan to secure their abstentions. But Cheney and Rumsfeld clearly regard these methods as abhorrent. They know perfectly well that Anglo-American bombing raids of Iraq of the last 15 years have bypassed the Security Council with impunity. They are the leaders of the world’s only empire and they will behave accordingly. Some of the Bush ideologues in the media compare Washington to ancient Rome. It is a permissible fantasy, but they should remember that (a) the Romans never expected to be loved and (b) that Rome, too, fell.

As for me, I prefer Goethe’s maxim: ‘The world only goes forward because of those who oppose it.’

TARIQ ALI is an editor of New Left Review and a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. This article is extracted from his new book The Clash Of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads And Modernity, published by Verso.


Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).