The Dark Side of Liberal Imperialism


More than four years after the September 11 attacks and three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, neither the war in Afghanistan, nor the war in Iraq appears to be drawing to a close. This is despite the fact that hundreds of thousands have protested the war in Iraq and more than 60 percent of Americans support partial or full withdrawal from Iraq. Fewer than four in ten Americans support President Bush today.

In a climate like this, the antiwar movement should be making great strides. The Bush administration should be on the run, if not teetering on the verge of collapse. Yet the administration plows ahead, and the antiwar movement appears disoriented only months after Cindy Sheehan’s vigil at Bush’s ranch helped to revive its fortunes.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but one cannot avoid the most obvious. If the widespread opposition to the war in Iraq has not been galvanized into a stronger antiwar movement or a political challenge to Bush, the first place to look is the Democratic Party and its liberal acolytes. These liberal forces, which continue to hold sway over broad sections of the antiwar movement and its leaders, have succeeded in disorienting and confusing the opposition to Bush.

A crucial part of this disorientation is the position that the Democrats and liberals have taken vis-à-vis Bush’s central focus: the “war on terror.” The liberals criticize the war in Iraq as a costly distraction from the “real” war on terror and other pressing interventions abroad. This was obvious in the proposal late last year of U.S. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) to “redeploy” forces from Iraq, which was greeted with applause across the liberal spectrum.

Murtha’s proposal reflected the crisis felt in the Pentagon over the debilitating effect the war in Iraq is having on the overall U.S. plans in the Middle East and elsewhere. While the political fight over the occupation is a welcome development, that doesn’t mean that the antiwar movement should be under any illusions about Murtha’s proposal. As Zoltan Grossman wrote on the left-wing Web site,,

Murtha advocated not an end to the war, but a “redeployment” of troops to neighboring countries and aircraft carriers, from which they could continue to combat the Iraqi insurgency. While the Occupation would end, the air strikes that began in 1991 would not end, nor would armed raids made at the “request” of the Iraqi government.1 It’s important to note that if the Iraqi resistance hadn’t ground down the U.S. military machine, people like Murtha and most of the Democratic politicians would be happily praising themselves right now for their foresight in supporting the war in the first place. And while Murtha may be highly critical or even opposed to the war in Iraq right now, he and the rest of the Democrats are hardly opposed to the war on terror-and in fact see redeployment as a means to save the military so it can fight for U.S. interests in other theaters. Murtha was very clear about this in a December 2005 letter to supporters:

If the War in Iraq and our continued large military presence was actually succeeding in driving a stake into the heart of Al Qaeda, the terrible loss of life and limb and the quarter of a trillion dollars we have spent in Iraq to date would be worth it.

On the other hand, the American people know we need to be fully engaged in the War on Terror. The Administration has tried to make the case that the War in Iraq is the central front in the War on Terror. I simply do not concur that these are one and the same. I believe American people have reached the same conclusion.

There should be two “central fronts” in the War on Terror. For military purposes it should be focused on where the leadership and main strength of Al Qaeda and related organizations exist. To me, that is clearly in the area of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, not Iraq. We do not have unlimited intelligence and military assets to cover both theaters, and unfortunately the priority of Iraq has hurt our ability in the true fight, which is currently in Afghanistan and surrounding areas.2 This is not an antiwar position. If the antiwar movement gives its endorsement to redeployment, then it is endorsing all manner of horrors inflicted on the Iraqi people in air wars, and the preparation for wars in other areas of the world. From the point of view of Murtha and more liberal Democrats, the war on terror must be continued and restored. That is why the Left cannot take up the call for the war on terror as an alternative to the occupation on Iraq.

A Left that opposes the occupation of Iraq but accepts the overall war on terror will find itself inevitably on the side of supporting other wars and other occupations.

Fighting “terrorism”-imperialism’s cover story

Noam Chomsky recently argued,

The fact of the matter is that there is no War on Terror. It’s a minor consideration. So invading Iraq and taking control of the world’s energy resources was way more important than the threat of terror. The U.S. invaded Iraq because it has enormous oil resources, mostly untapped, and it’s right in the heart of the world’s energy system. Which means that if the U.S. manages to control Iraq, it extends enormously its strategic power, what Zbigniew Brzezinski calls its critical leverage over Europe and Asia.3 In 2004, John Kerry ran a campaign based on the slogan that the war in Iraq was “distracting” the U.S. from its ability to fight the “global war on terror.” This became a slogan that a section of the liberal-left was more than happy to adopt as its own. Because the unspoken aim of liberals and many leaders of antiwar organizations in 2006 is to elect a Democratic Congress in November, we have seen the consolidation of liberal critics of the Bush administration behind Democratic talking points. Unfortunately, in 2006, history appears to be repeating itself.

It is clear to many that the U.S. military is losing the occupation in Iraq. U.S. public opinion has turned solidly against the war and the Bush administration and the Republicans are mired in corruption and scandal. And yet, the same leaders of the antiwar movement have decided that this is the moment to breathe new life and new meaning into the global war on terrorism. A number of recent articles in liberal-left forums, such as the Nation, the Progressive, and Web sites such as Znet and Commondreams, have argued that progressives have the best strategies to win the war on terror.

In January 2006, political scientist Michael Klare, writing on Znet, argued the following:

While the White House keeps trying to stretch this term [the war on terror] to include everything from the war in Iraq to the protection of oil pipelines in Colombia, most Americans wisely view it in more narrow terms, as a global struggle against Muslim zealots who seek to punish the United States for its perceived anti-Islamic behavior and to free the Middle East of Western influence through desperate acts of violence. It is in this contest that the public wants Bush to succeed, and it is in this contest that he is failing.4 Klare argues that there is a more effective strategy than military intervention for fighting the war on terror:

Obviously, defeating this “movement” [Al-Qaeda] requires a very different strategy than the one now employed by the United States. Instead of military assaults on rogue states, it requires a capacity to identify and apprehend the often self-appointed “local representatives” of Al Qaeda, to disable the movement’s propaganda apparatus, and, most of all, to discredit its prime messages. [O]n a purely tactical level, it means developing harmonious relations with professional intelligence officials in other countries and developing a communications strategy aimed at delegitimizing the jihadists’ violent appeals within the Islamic world.

What Klare is arguing for here is worldwide covert action against al-Qaeda as an alternative to military attack. Who else but the CIA and other state spying operations would “identify and apprehend” the “local representatives” of al-Qaeda around the world? Who else, in reality, would “disable the movement’s propaganda apparatus?” And what can disabling the propaganda apparatus of the movement mean in practice except cracking down on free speech rights more broadly, a process that has already been taking place?

Are we supposed to ignore all the revelations about torture, abuse, assassinations, and death squads that “professional intelligence agencies” like the CIA have unleashed all over the world, in the name of fighting the war on terror? Are we to accept CIA kidnappings of “suspected terrorists” off the streets of their countries; secret CIA torture rooms around the world; the prison camp at Guantánamo; the torture of innocent people, some to death; and the use of the war on terror to strengthen the powers of the U.S. state over domestic dissent? Does Klare think that the Left should be in the business of advocating more “harmonious” relationships between groups of these torturers, as some kind of alternative to military action? We’ve seen that these tactics are not an alternative to military action-but are merely complements to the military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The antiwar movement should be marching in the streets every time one of these abuses is uncovered, not trying to pick out which methods are acceptable. Klare writes:

Consider the nature of the commander-in-chief’s primary responsibilities in wartime. Surely, his overarching task is to devise (with the help of senior advisers) a winning strategy to defeat, or at least pummel, the enemy and to mobilize the forces and resources needed to successfully implement this framework.

Klare writes that, although we should be concerned about the “amoral” character of U.S. tactics (torture, for example) that violate “American norms and values,” what most concerns him is “the lethal effect of these decisions on America’s capacity for success in the war on terrorism.” Leaving aside the dubious assertion about American values (contradicted by a whole history of American racism and conquest), the job of the antiwar movement should be to figure out how to deny the imperialist state the “forces and resources” it needs to carry out its war aims, not offer them advice on how best to accomplish them. When you accept the war on terror, you must accept everything that goes along with it. Instead of exposing it, and how it’s being used, you end up supporting it. This political perspective, which is shared by many liberals in the antiwar movement, makes it much harder to mobilize a fight against each new horrific revelation, from the conditions on Guantánamo and at Abu Ghraib, to Pentagon spying and the Patriot Act.

Once antiwar activists accept the propaganda that the U.S. is actually waging some disinterested global war on terror against “Islamic extremism,” then it has opened a door to all the racism against Arabs and Muslims that is inextricably linked to the war on terror.

Islamophobia has been rampant in the U.S. since September 11, even within the antiwar movement. In this regard, the October 2005 Progressive magazine marked a new low. Promoting Sasha Abramsky’s story, “Our Al Qaeda problem,” the magazine’s cover featured a cartoon of a sinister, dark figure in a turban, waving a scimitar over the head of a tiny white figure who is trying desperately to defend itself with two little knives.

Abramsky describes his liberal credentials and then proceeds to regurgitate every racist scrap of Bush administration rhetoric about how Muslims “hate our freedoms”:

Indeed, what Al Qaeda apparently hates most about “the West” are its best points: the pluralism, the rationalism, individual liberty, the emancipation of women, the openness and social dynamism that represent the strongest legacy of the Enlightenment. These values stand in counterpoint to the tyrannical social code idealized by Al Qaeda and by related political groupings such as Afghanistan’s Taliban.

It is because bin Ladenism is waging war against the liberal ideal that much of the activist Left’s response to September 11 and the London attacks is woefully, catastrophically inadequate. For we, as progressives, need to uphold the values of pluralism, rationalism, skepticism, women’s rights, and individual liberty and oppose ideologies and movements whose foundations rest on theocracy, obscurantism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and nostalgia for a lost empire.5 The Bush administration has used Islamophobia to sell the war on terror, to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, to continue the occupation of Iraq, and to crack down on dissent and civil liberties in the United States. As Bush said in his State of the Union Address on January 31, 2006, “One of the main sources of reaction and opposition is radical Islam; the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death.”6

It’s the job of the Left to speak out against racism, to fight Islamophobia at every step, and unmask the real imperialist interests hiding behind the war on terror. Anti-racism is necessary for building the largest and most multiracial movement. You can’t fight against war while actively promoting the government’s main ideological justification for war.

Understanding the war on terror

But to speak clearly against the war and its chief justification, the Left has to be clear about what the real aims behind the war on terror are. September 11 gave the Bush administration the opportunity of a lifetime, to launch a global war for oil and empire under the rubric of “fighting terrorism.” The administration laid out its goals fairly plainly in the September 2002 National Security Strategy document, better known as the Bush Doctrine. The Bush Doctrine stated that the U.S. needs to take drastic steps to ensure its continuation as the dominant global superpower indefinitely into the future. It needs to use the massive economic and military strength that it has now as leverage against the rise of future competitors like China.

All the old geopolitical arrangements and post-Second World War institutions were suddenly open to challenge. Any country that poses even a potential threat must be made into an example-therefore the Bush Doctrine trumpeted the right to preemptive war, to unilateral action. First-strike use of nuclear weapons was back on the table at the same time that weaker nations were told that having, or even wanting, nuclear weapons was grounds for military invasion. The neoconservatives had long salivated over the prospect of permanent military bases in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. September 11 and the war on terror gave them the pretext to do it, and Afghanistan was the first stop, followed by Iraq, with a long list of countries to follow.7

To do this required preparing the American people for ongoing, unending war, which is where September 11 and terror became vital justifications. As Tom Engelhardt wrote,

This is why the announcement of (and definition of) the “global war on terror” almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks was so important. It was to be a “war” without end. No one ever attempted to define what “victory” might actually consist of, though we were assured that the war itself would, like the Cold War, last generations. Even the recent sudden presidential announcement that we will now settle only for “complete victory” in Iraq is, in this context, a distinctly limited goal because Iraq has already been defined as but a single “theater” (though a “central” one) in a larger war on terror. A war without end, of course, left the President as a commander-in-chief-without-end and it was in such a guise that the acolytes of that “obscure philosophy” of total presidential power planned to claim their “inherent” constitutional right to do essentially anything.8

John Pilger makes a similar point:

The greater sham is the “war on terrorism” itself. The search for Osama bin Laden and his cohorts in the mountains of Afghanistan was a circus spectacle. The American goal is, and always was, the control, through vassals, of former Soviet Central Asia, a region rich in oil and minerals and of great strategic importance to competing powers, Russia and China. The ultimate goal is a far wider American conquest, military and economic, which was planned during the Second World War and which, as Vice President Cheney says, “may not end in our lifetimes,” or until the United States has positioned itself as gatekeeper of the world’s remaining oil and gas.9 The Bush Doctrine’s bold and arrogant plan for U.S. imperialism was one that was shared, or certainly endorsed, by both Republicans and Democrats after September 11, when the Democrats in Congress supported Bush at every step. As long as the war was successful, the Democrats were prepared to wave the flag just as hard as anyone else.

The problem for the Bush Doctrine was that it met the Iraqi resistance. Bush expected Iraq to unfold as a colonial fantasyland where the happy “natives” would greet the conquering army with flowers and gratitude. Instead, all the U.S. military’s technology, weaponry, and propaganda, have proved unable to win militarily against a popular uprising of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi resistance has bogged down the U.S. military and prevented the war on terror, at least so far, from moving on to other ports.

But the U.S., if it is not to lose “credibility,” cannot accept defeat in Iraq. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, issued by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in February, shows clearly how the Bush administration continues to conceive of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as theaters in a much wider war on terror. The aim is to put the United States on a kind of permanent war footing, using the hyped-up atmosphere that links together the concept of “rogue” states with nuclear ambitions, terror, and Muslim “extremism” to justify the deployment of U.S. forces around the globe, and particularly against Syria and Iran:

The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, our Nation has fought a global war against violent extremists who use terrorism as their weapon of choice, and who seek to destroy our free way of life. Our enemies seek weapons of mass destruction and, if they are successful, will likely attempt to use them in their conflict with free people everywhere. Currently, the struggle is centered in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we will need to be prepared and arranged to successfully defend our Nation and its interests around the globe for years to come.10 The war on terror emerges clearly here as the replacement for “fighting communism” during the Cold War, an all-purpose cart blanche for U.S. military intervention. The U.S. has been intensifying the drumbeat against Iran in the past weeks, accusing it of wanting nuclear weapons and of being a “safe haven” for terrorism. It is difficult, given Iran’s size and economic strength, to envision an outright U.S. military invasion. However, there is a clear bipartisan consensus on the need to “deal” with Iran. Keeping this in mind, it is clear that the difference between the Bushes and Murthas is not fundamental, but tactical. The issue boils down to this: to what extent will the war in Iraq contribute to, or distract from, the “long war” to establish U.S. global dominance?

Liberal imperialism

We can hardly be surprised that a section of liberals continues to take their marching orders from the Democratic Party. There has always been a wing of American liberalism that has fully supported the project of U.S. imperialism, and their class interests find expression in the Democratic Party. These were the Cold War liberals that backed and helped prosecute the McCarthyite witch-hunts on communists and who were the architects of the Vietnam War. These were the liberals who supported Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian” wars in the 1990s, and who saw economic sanctions on Iraq as an alternative to war. “The task of liberal realists,” notes John Pilger, “is to ensure that western imperialism is interpreted as crisis management, rather than the cause of crisis and its escalation. By never recognizing western state terrorism, their complicity is assured.”11

The Left in the U.S. needs to put forward an antiwar opposition on an entirely different basis. We must reject the idea that the U.S. has the moral authority to fight terrorism, when it is the leading cause of terror in the world. We must stand for the self-determination the people of Iraq, Iran, Palestine, and people around the world. We must reject Islamophobia and defend the Arab and Muslim communities in the U.S. who have been the victims of political persecution since September 11. We have to consistently and clearly expose the real imperialist interests behind the war on terror, as well as the history of U.S. imperialism, in order to build a stronger and wider foundation for our movement, and show how working-class people in the United States pay the price of the war on terror. The antiwar movement needs to remain independent, both in its political views and its organizing, from the Democratic Party that wants to strengthen U.S. imperialism, not to end it. The antiwar movement cannot oppose the occupation in Iraq while giving the U.S. a pass to wreak havoc elsewhere in the name of fighting the war on terror.

ANNIE ZIRIN is a member of the International Socialist Organization in Northampton, Massachusetts. She can be reached at:

This article originally appeared in ISR Magazine 46.


1 Zoltan Grossman, “New challenges for the anti-war movement,”, January 5, 2006.

2 John Murtha, “Dear colleague on redeployment of troops in Iraq,” December 14, 2005,

3 Noam Chomsky: “There is no war on terror,” interview with Geov Parrish, .

4 Michael Klare, “Losing the war on terrorism: Our incompetent commander-in-chief,” Znet, January 8, 2006.

5 Sasha Abramsky, “Our Al Qaeda problem,” Progressive, October 2005

6 Bush’s 2006 State of the Union Address,

7 See Ahmed Shawki, “Bush Doctrine: Turning point for U.S. Imperialism,” ISR 26, November­December 2002.

8 Tom Engelhardt “A cult of presidential power: The unrestrained president,” TomDispatch, January 4, 2006

9 John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World (New York: Verso, 2002), 108.

10 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, U.S. Department of Defense, February 6, 2006.

11 Pilger, 163.