While the U.S. is absorbed in building an empire in the “Greater Middle East,” which will strengthen its position vis-a-vis other imperialist powers throught the “New American Century,” a revived specter of communism emerges throughout South Asia. And there’s not much the U.S. can do about it.
U.S. Preoccupied with Southwest Asia
The official rationale of Bush foreign policy (aka “the War on Terror”) is simultaneously crystal clear and highly, even ridiculously unclear. To the minds most inclined to find satisfaction in simple concepts, the war is between Good and Evil, conducted by a very good president against whomever God instructs him to smite in this world filled with evil-doers. The administration encourages this conception, especially in its Christian fundamentalist base. The U.S. government official will sometimes even articulate this mindset (which the French early on labeled simplisme or “simple-ism”) to foreign counterparts; Wolfowitz shocked the Europeans in February 2002 when, asked what the administration meant by the term “axis of evil,” that Bush had just uttered in his state of the union address, merely responded: “Countries must make a choice.” Bush, echoing Matthew 12:30, had declared, “You’re either for us or against us.” So the War on Terror is a war of good Christian America against all opposition, which is evil. Wolfowitz is not a Christian fundamentalist and does not think in such terms himself, but the Bush administration uses the religious language and simple concepts to explain and exalt its policies.
To some, the War on Terror is a war on Islam. Many Americans are highly influenced by Christian evangelicals like Franklin Graham, who calls Islam a “very wicked and evil religion” with a different god than that of Christianity. Gen. William Boykin, holding a senior Defense Department post, has addressed church gatherings and asserted not only that Bush was chosen by God but that the Muslim god is not his god, and that U.S. forces confront Satan in the Iraqi resistance. On the one hand, Bush has stated all along that he regards Islam as a religion of peace, and that the war is not against Islam. He has expressed perplexity that Muslims would actually think that. He may in fact privately share Graham’s views. Franklin’s father Billy, best known of U.S. evangelists, met Dubya in 1985 and according to the president’s official bio helped wean him from alcoholism in 1986.
So when pious Muslims around the world learn that the president of the United States’ religious mentor, who raised him up from sin, believes their religion “wicked and evil” you can imagine why they’d actually think he’s anti-Muslim. (Ask yourself why the president, educated at Yale, where he performed poorly, and Harvard, where one professor recalls him saying people were poor because they were lazy and that the Civil Rights Movement was communist, would be perplexed. The professor in question, Yoshi Tsurumi, has also recalled that Bush would say things in class and thereafter deny ever saying them. It may be that this president can say insulting things once, then forget or deny them, or just smirk and wonder why the hell it should matter.) Meanwhile there are within the administration some true Islamophobes, such as neocon Elliott Abrams, the Reagan-era official convicted of lying to Congress about Iran-Contra and now in charge of promoting democracy around the world.
To the dispassionate reporter or academic trying to analyze administrative motives, the war is often interpreted as primarily one against “Islamist” extremism, in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attack on the U.S. But this is a hard category to define, and to distinguish from mere Islamic fundamentalism, which is prevalent in many places, as is Christian fundamentalism. The U.S. continues to work with lots of Islamic fundamentalists, and indeed, it has often maintained closer ties with regimes that promote fundamentalism, such as Saudi Arabia or the new Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, than those that enforce secularism, like Syria or Saddam’s Iraq. The CIA happily recruited Muslim extremists from all over the world to wage jihad against the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Plainly the administration would like to see a sort of Islamic reformation that would reduce anti-American feelings in the Muslim world, but officials must realize that the U.S. was generally admired by that world before Washington set out on its “war on terror.” A Zogby International poll, released June 11, 2002, showed that in nine Muslim countries the most admired foreign country was the U.S. That was before the U.S. conquered two Muslim countries, killing tens of thousands, embraced Sharon as “a man of peace,” isolated Arafat, endorsed an Israeli strike against Syria, tortured Muslims in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, threatened Iran, sought to oust ElBaradei as IAEA head, etc. Intelligence reports now state baldly that U.S. actions are fomenting more and more Muslim hostility.
The current targets most closely in the crosshairs are Syria, a secular nation, and officially Shiite Iran. The U.S. alleges that both harbor Islamic terrorists. Specifically, they harbor members of Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hizbollah. The first two of these are Palestinian organizations whose beef is with Israel, not the U.S., while the latter is a major Lebanese political party that in its early years attacked U.S. troops only when they set up camp on Lebanese soil. 9-11 has been used to legitimate efforts at “regime change” in Syria and Iran, partly on the grounds that they have ties with these Islamic “terror” groups, even though the latter are quite different from al-Qaeda and had no connection to the 9-11 attacks. Iran stands accused of al-Qaeda links, but the accusation smacks of disinformation. Anyway the “war on terror” could be viewed as essentially an effort to eradicate organizations violently hostile to Israel, to topple regimes that harbor them, and to prevent Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon. It that sense it’s presented as a war on “Islamist terrorism.”
But lest the Muslim should suppose that Bush is only picking on them, the administration targets “evil” North Korea and Cuba, and might in theory expand the terror war to target any of the “terror sponsoring” nations or “international terrorist organizations” on its lists. The latter include everybody from Irish nationalists to Tamil separatists to communist parties. The “terror war” concept, like most simple concepts, is flexible. Nevertheless it seems clear to me that the game plan is to gain strategic control over all of Southwest Asia, a region that produces 70% of the world’s oil. Having done that, the U.S. could face Europe, Japan and China well into this century from a position of greatly enhanced strength, controlling the flow of oil and maintaining a vast network of military bases from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. Some believe this necessarily for the continued primacy of the U.S. economy in the face of global competition.
This, I think, is the real essence of the “war on terror.” It reflects the needs of the military- industrial complex, and if it has the additional advantage of providing a final solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict (by defeating anti-Israel “terror” and generating Israel-friendly Muslim regimes) this will please them as well as the other props of the Bush administration, the neocons and the Christian fundamentalist right. The first of this triad may feel a certain necessity to pursue the Project for a New American Century scenario (regime change in Iraq, Iran, Syria) but differ from the neocons on the matter of urgency. One sees this in the Weekly Standard’s repeated calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation and for a dramatic increase in the size of the U.S. military over the next few years. You see it too in the PNAC’s veiled call for a draft. The ideologically-driven neocons want to seize the time, and have the whole conquest done during the second Bush administration, no matter how creatively messy. Others in the administration seem inclined to proceed more slowly, projecting hostility to the targeted nations while declaring, as Condoleezza Rice recently did, that attacks are not on the agenda.
In any case, the “war on terror” is practically speaking primarily a war to transform Southwest Asia or what the neocons like to call “the Greater Middle East.” The inclusion of North Korea in the “axis of evil” in Bush’s shocking 2002 state of the union address was probably an effort to obfuscate this fact and make the evolving terror war, then in its initial stage, seem less specifically aimed at the Muslim world. The attention of the administration is, I believe, quite concentrated on Middle Eastern real estate.
Meanwhile, in Nepal…
The Bushites are preoccupied with creating their empire, fighting against governments which actually mount no challenge to U.S. imperialism (in the Leninist sense), governments willing to work out accommodations with the U.S., and normalize diplomatic and trade relations. In early 2003, Saddam Hussein, fearing invasion, offered the U.S. unlimited weapons inspection rights, oil concessions, and Iraqi support for any U.S. Middle East peace plan, in exchange for calling off the planned attack. In March 2003, Richard Perle rejected the proposal as a “no-starter,” demanding instead that as the price of peace Saddam should leave Iraq and his army surrender to U.S. forces. Saddam, with a history of CIA ties, wasn’t opposed to the U.S. system. Nor are the Iranian mullahs, really, who preside over a capitalist economy largely dependent on foreign capital.
But while the administration with long-term inter-imperialist relationships in mind proceeds down its road to Damascus, far off in the Himalayan foothills revolutionaries dead-serious about overthrowing capitalism and imperialism are making steady progress. The People’s Liberation Army of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which has been waging a People’s War since 1996, might actually soon seize state power. They had already gained control of much of the Nepali countryside when popular King Birendra and other members of the royal family died in a mysterious shooting rampage in 2001. Birendra’s brother Gyanendra succeeded him and has been an unpopular monarch from the outset. Maoists stepped up their military campaign after he took the throne, prompting the prime minister to step down. The next prime minister announced a truce with the rebels, and peace talks began in June. The Maoists demanded an end to the monarchy and the convening of a convention to write a new constitution, eventually dropping the first demand. But no progress was made, and the Maoists resumed fighting in November. Gyanendra proclaimed a state of emergency. In January 2002 Colin Powell paid a visit to Nepal, the first ever visit by a U.S. secretary of state, denounced the Maoists as “terrorists,” called the war against them part of the war on terror, and offered military aid. Gyanendra officially designated the rebels “terrorists” as well.
But since then the CPN(M) has steadily consolidated control over the countryside, following Mao’s strategy of encircling the cities. In the capital of Kathmandu, it repeatedly demonstrated its ability to shut the city down by calling general strikes (bandh). Its student and women’s organizations held large demonstrations, pressing demands, wielding much clout in the city. The government held a second round of talks beginning in May 2003, having bowed to a rebel demand that the “terrorist” label be removed. These too broke down. In recent months the rebels have shown their ability to shut down all roads leading to the capital. Last month the king of neighboring Bhutan told reporters in India, “today the Maoists have total control more or less of the whole country.”
That was before Gyanendra, on Feb. 1, sacked the prime minister and his cabinet, declared martial law, cut phone and internet lines to Kathmandu, arrested dozens of political leaders and announced he was assuming direct rule for three years. Nearly all political commentators believe this move will only strengthen the insurgency.
For several years the king, parliamentary parties, and the Maoists have engaged in a triangular power struggle. The parties support the constitutional monarchy and deplore Maoist violence, but want talks. The Maoists express contempt for the parties, including the several ostensibly “communist” ones, and insist, with Mao, that “political power grows out of the barrel of the gun.” But they unite with the parties in protesting policies of the king. After the breakdown of the second round of talks, they stated that they would only be interested in direct talks with the monarch himself. Now Gyanendra has called for such talks, and indicated he’s even willing to discuss a constituent assembly. But it may be too late for the king. The Maoists have declined his offer. “Gyanendra has pushed the country into darkness _ there is no justification for immediate talks,” stated CPN(M) leader Prachanda. Meanwhile, on Feb. 9, the Maoists busted out 145 prisoners, including comrades, from a jail in the western district of Kailaliat.
The king of Bhutan is worried, because Bhutan has its own embryonic Maoist insurgency. India has a huge Maoist movement with an increasing degree of organizational unity. Attacking police and landlords, the Maoists have taken control of much of the region around Hyderbad and for some years have been able to shut the city down when they call a bandh. The Maoists of Nepal and India make no bones about the fact that they are coordinating actions and envision People’s Wars enveloping much of South Asia, including Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
One scenario is Indian military intervention in Nepal, producing a Maoist-led nationalistic response, accompanied by protests from the Indian masses and stepped-up guerrilla war within India. But China, however unhappy with a Maoist regime on the Tibetan border (a real Maoist regime to shame the capitalist-roaders in Beijing), would be even less happy with Indian troops in Nepal. The Maoists’ victory may come at a time when the U.S. is bogged down in a broadened war against “Islamic terrorism” and has few resources to fight the old bugaboo, communism. Which after all was pronounced dead, with some fanfare, after the collapse of the USSR.
The revival of communism as a global challenge would be the Bush administration’s worst nightmare. Maoists aren’t likely to hijack planes and crash them into American skyscrapers. But they’re likely to strive to build egalitarian societies free of foreign domination, inspiring others in the process, including many in the imperialist countries. It has happened before (think 1968). Back in October 2002 I wrote an article in which I cited a British officer’s statement to the Telegraph that the Maoists would “continue to gain ground. Unless something dramatic happens, it’s only a matter of time before they win.” I suggested then some of the possible international consequences:
The radical left throughout the world would be heartened by a victory, somewhere; impressed to see the red flag planted, as the secretary-general of the CPN(M), Prachanda, likes to put it, atop Mt. Everest, the roof of the world. (I think particularly of the Maoists in the Philippines, and their 14,000-strong New People’s Army, who are also engaged in a people’s war and have control over 8,000 villages throughout the Filipino archipelago; and of the Senderistas in Peru, who show some signs of revival.) The governments of the world—virtually all of them—would be very highly displeased, and mainstream intellectuals puzzled. The victory would, after all, constitute a challenge to the Fukuyama thesis (about the “and of history” as a clash of ideologies) and the Huntington thesis (about the “clash of civilizations”). We’d be back to the old capitalism vs. communism discussion, which was supposed to be behind us, all settled, and consigned to the rubbish heap of history!
Let the discussion begin.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org