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The Costs of the Great War on Terror

When Bush declared the Global War on Terror (GWOT), it felt odd. The U.S. had already involved itself in combat with the social forces that attacked it on 9/11. To make such a formal declaration of war allowed the administration to do two things: first, on the surface, to indicate that the 9/11 attacks came from nowhere, and, therefore, to make the claim that the U.S. was now going to enter a conflict for the first time. It allowed it to appear as an innocent bystander that now wanted justice for something that it did not deserve.

The second claim, slightly beneath the surface, was a bit more complicated. Very quickly after September 11, the idea of “9/11” became a kind of myth. The notion that an innocent country was attacked in September wiped off all traces of previous U.S. involvement in the Arab lands and South Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan) through warfare towards the control of oil and political power. None of that seemed relevant. If anyone suggested that this was the case, they were shunned. (Professor Ward Churchill was pilloried for saying that 9/11 was simply an instance of the “chickens coming home to roost”; the attack on Churchill silenced many who wanted to raise the question of U.S. involvement overseas.)

The idea of “9/11”, as well, provided cover for any future disasters, whether financial crises or wars to come. When CNN’s reporters covering Afghanistan would report on civilian casualties, the anchors were told to put that in a broader context. CNN’s chairman Walter Isaacson sent a memorandum to his anchors in October 2001, saying, “As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people.” In other words, these small stories of civilian deaths should not tarnish the larger goal – any atrocity should shrivel before the blinding light of “9/11”.

During the Clinton years, the neoconservatives were out of power and were thirsting to return. In exile, the foreign policy wing of the neoconservatives created the Project for a New American Century (1997-2006). In September 2000, they released a report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses”, a testosterone-laden argument for increasing military spending and using the massive U.S. military power to capture political and physical resources around the world. The American Century or Pax Americana was in threat of being undermined by global government (the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation) and the emergence of new powers (namely, China). To thwart the loss of power, the project urged the government to build up a military and construct a foreign policy to spread American values around the planet.

Bush’s spatial and temporal extension of GWOT derived its theory from the project (he hired most of its leaders into his administration). There was to be no attempt at a police investigation and a global police action to secure the criminals. The point was now to use 9/11 for maximum effect, to hastily dispatch the Taliban in Afghanistan and then to rush into war with Iraq. Today, the U.S. is at war from the Atlas Mountains to the Hindu Kush, with its navy and air force, its special forces and drones in action or poised to act. For these missions, the U.S. enlisted a willing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) command, which had found its post-Cold War legs already in the Kosovo War (1999). NATO would be thrust into the forefront in Afghanistan, and later in Libya, but it would also be the spear to irritate Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe and in the Black Sea region.

Conservative estimates of the war dead in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan alone amount close to 150,000, with the rough total of refugees created by these wars now upwards of 7.8 million. There is little indication that the U.S. and NATO plan to draw down their involvement in this region, even as they might reduce their own deployment of troops. The bases and the foreign policy objectives will stifle the ability of countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq to develop their own societies, which means that Afghan and Iraqi security services will be pledged to conduct the security work that approximates the extension of American power. Much of this is already taking place in these two countries, where the continual social corrosion has taken on the character of a civil war (with the governments in both countries acting as proxies for U.S. global ambitions).

The Project for a New American Century did not fully think through its implications. It assumed that by military force itself the U.S. would be able to extend its power into a New American Century. What it did not consider was the massive costs of this endeavor. Bush sent his troops into battle, but could not find a sustainable way to conduct these wars. Anti-tax rhetoric is the analgesic of the domestic neoconservatives. Their agenda contradicted those of the foreign policy neoconservatives. The domestics could not countenance a rise in taxes to pay for the wars. In fact, they won the right to cut taxes. This meant that the U.S. had to borrow massively to fund the expansion of its military and its use of that military. Between September 11, 2001, and May 2011, the National Priorities Project shows, the U.S. exchequer spent $7.6 trillion in defense and homeland security. This figure is bewildering. The combination of this military spending, the Bush cuts on taxes for the wealthy, the bursting of the asset bubbles (real estate prices) as well as the tremors in Wall Street’s financial casino set the U.S. Treasury into a downward spiral. The net effect of 9/11 for the U.S. economy has meant the downgrading in the U.S. federal debt to AA+ from the risk-free rating of AAA.

Standard & Poor’s (S&P), which gives out these ratings, explained its actions: “The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenge.” The problem for S&P was not the economy per se, but the political imbroglio and political myopia within the U.S. The Republican Party, heir to neoconservative domestic and foreign policy, is unable to restructure either the economic or the military objectives for the country. For them, the budget must be balanced (no more foreign debt), but no foreshortening of the military expenditure. Indeed, what the Republicans want is already the case in the U.S., with spending on social goods at an anaemic low level. No wonder that the Census Bureau announced in mid-September that there are now 46.2 million people living under the rather low poverty line (one in six is officially poor, the highest percentage since 1983). The unemployment rate and the rate of those without health insurance are also inching up to break records. Twenty-two per cent of the children in the U.S. live under the poverty line (the worst figure since 1962). President Barack Obama’s announcement of $447 billion towards job creation is a drop in the economic bucket, which has a large hole at its bottom, named Military Expenditure and Tax Cuts. There is no political will to reverse course.

Before 9/11, the U.S. had its eyes fixed on China. After Tiananmen Square (1989), Washington suspended many of its economic and trade relations with China (U.S. Trade and Development Agency’s work was suspended and restrictions emerged for munitions and arms deals). William Triplett, a senior Republican foreign policy expert, formed the Blue Team in the early 1990s with the express interest in ratcheting up conflict with China. Its view of China is defined by the right-wing Weekly Standard, which described the country as “a regime of hair-curling, systematic barbarity”. The Blue Team was strengthened by the military and economic tensions between the rising power in Asia and the stagnant power in the U.S. Many of the Blue Team’s personnel shared a vision of the world with the Project of a New American Century: both worried about the decline in U.S. influence and wanted to tackle the challenges in West Asia (Project) and East Asia (Blue Team) through strengthened belligerency.

In 1996, the U.S. and China clashed over the latter’s operations in the Taiwan Straits (two U.S. aircraft carriers rushed to defend Taiwan). A gradual thaw in relations occurred with the exchange of leaders in both directions, but this was threatened by the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (1999) and by the shooting down of a U.S. EP-3 spy plane on Hainan Island (2001). U.S. threats in the late spring of 2001 to build its missile defense units to ring China were taken as the ultimate hostile action. Things got so tense that in July 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Beijing to say, “My presence here today is an example of trying to let the world see that we are not an enemy and we are not looking for an enemy. We are looking for ways to cooperation.” The tensions did not break, and cooperation seemed impossible.

The 9/11 attack shifted U.S. attention away from China. The war on terror sapped the energy and wealth of the U.S. and brought it to its present impasse. Meanwhile, China has been able to build up its own economic prowess, sitting as it is on trillions of dollars in surpluses. At the Dalian meeting of the World Economic Forum in September 2011, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was asked about the crisis in Europe and the U.S. Wen answered tactfully, but forcefully: “As the two largest advanced economies in the world, the European Union and the U.S. should adopt promptly and resolutely responsible fiscal and financial policies, and push forward policy adjustment and institutional reform as soon as possible so as to cut budget deficit and ease the debt pressure.” Such measures are not feasible. One of the consequences of the way in which U.S. policy was formed after September 11, 2001, was precisely what the Blue Team and the Project for a New American Century feared: it delivered the momentum to China. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) now reports that by 2016, China will have the largest economy in the world. This is a consequence of 9/11.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu 

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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