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Being open to surprise

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Susan Richards
8 October 2001

As US forces (and US cruise missiles fired from British submarines) strike and sometimes miss targets in Afghanistan it is natural to think, ‘here we go again’. Natural, even comforting. But wrong.

The reaction shared and felt by millions around the world as we watched the Towers burn and collapse on 11 September was that the world had changed.

It is important to hold onto the complicated truth of that surprise. Especially for those, like us, who have been critics of the American exercise of power.

It was a surprise that a group of fundamentalists, especially Muslim ones who are anti-modernists and have done so badly in the modern world, should have co-ordinated such a successful attack. That they were able to fly planes so as to crash them was the easy part. It was the social discipline, the co-ordination involved in four simultaneous hijackings, the sustained training and secrecy, in short their capacity to operate as modern people just like us only better, which was unexpected.

So too was America’s decision not to lash back instantly with cruise missile assaults on civilian targets in the manner of Clinton, its decision to include Muslim faith and Islamic countries in its definition of the coalition, and the effort to prevent an Islamic scare campaign within the US.

Such common sense may now seem inevitable. But the initial omens looked bad - when Bush declared that this is ‘the first war of the 21st century’, as if the only difference between it and other conflicts is the century in which it is taking place.

The ‘dead or alive’ language has been replaced, at least for the present, by a more intelligent policy response. Yes, intelligent. Here is a further surprise. The general attitude towards Bush was an easy contempt for a man who seems unable to articulate his thoughts, if he had any. Nothing was more stupid than not to take Bush seriously because he is stupid.

The costs of indifference

Look at it this way: his father was head of the CIA and President. His brother is governor of Florida, which proved to be very handy. He himself was governor of Texas, and is now also President of the USA. This cannot be a stupid family. Bush genuinely represents interests even if he does not represent the majority of American voters. His character makes it improbable that he can rise above the forces that propelled him into office. With little ability to grasp other feelings and points of view, his is the essence of American presumption: power without further ado. However, he has the strengths of his weakness: he needs others to do his thinking for him. The result was a seven-hour cabinet meeting in Camp David (in stark contrast to Tony Blair who decided on his strategy with no Cabinet meetings at all).

Bush came into the office to lead the most systematically indifferent of American administrations: it reneged on Kyoto, it broke up the biological warfare convention, it pushed through National Missile Defence, it went for tax cuts that favoured the already over-rich. That this most unlikely group of captains should show signs of learning is evidence of the distance America is being forced to travel. The change needs to be welcomed, so as to be reinforced. It is a matter of global survival.

In an early and well-argued warning after 11 September, published in openDemocracy and elsewhere around the world, Tim Garton Ash urged America not to become a ‘Greater Israel’ but to respond with a UN-based coalition. He described US foreign policy as being hitherto relatively benign. Viewed from Europe, in whose politics he is expert, this is a defensible description. But viewed from the Middle East or Latin America, it is not. US foreign policy has a dual character which seems to be rooted in the origins of the United States itself, as Godfrey Hodgson argues in the coming update of openDemocracy: constitutional and law-driven for itself, it grew through genocide and lawlessness outside its borders.

Hence a self-satisfied policy of nihilism abroad: an apparent belief that the US could sow dictatorships and depend for its oil on Wahhabite kingdoms, without being touched by their outcomes or any need to reduce its rabid consumption of energy. George W Bush seemed to be the incarnation of this complacency. There will be no way out unless it, and America, is changed, and changed for good.

This means friends and critics alike must treat America as changeable. Merely to call for ‘peace’ at this moment, when justice clearly justifies the focused use of force, is in its own way to fall back on the anti-political, isolationist, even knee-jerk reactions many feared and expected from President Bush himself.

The logic of intervention

For not only bin Laden but also the Taliban are a legitimate target for coercion. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to liberate it from Pol Pot, there was widespread condemnation, not least from Washington but also from the left, at this violation of national sovereignty and international order. Those who supported the action were accused (at first) of being apologists for the Vietnamese. The government they installed was far from the best imaginable. But it ended genocide. They did not act out of humanitarian motives, but it had a welcome, humanitarian outcome.

The same will apply in Afghanistan. The Taliban and bin Laden have been called Islamic fascists. This is culturally confused, for fascism and nazism were European in origin. But is also revealing, for like fascism (and as Murat Belge and Malise Ruthven have argued in openDemocracy), they too are the product of a twisted encounter with modernity.

Bin Laden has called for Muslims to rise up against America. (Muslim men that is, for him women are the legion of the invisible). He at least seems to believe he has a mandate of sorts. The Taliban can have no such pretension. They are locked into a cycle of abuse – of women, history and belief. Four and a half million Afghanis have fled their rule, surely one of the greatest examples of voting with one’s feet.

As much as the Khmer Rouge, the Taliban deserve to be overthrown. But if the West does this it must be completed without triumphalism. The Taliban are in part the outcome of western cynicism, manipulation and indifference. The assault on them is, therefore, also in part, a practical and costly criticism of the West’s own policies, not a righteous crusade against an evil ‘other’.

Acting on memory

Just as essential as victory over the Taliban and bin Laden, therefore, is the need for atonement for the actions which allowed them to flourish. The successes which ended the Cold War were accompanied by a triumphalist hubris. Afghanistan is the price of all this. We must understand that the Top Gun scenario being played out now is both an end and a beginning. Even in the moment of its apparent effectiveness it must be seen for the failure it is. Just as essential as victory over the Taliban and bin Laden is the need for us to come to terms with our own past.

It is significant that the three most vigorous and confident members of the present coalition against terror are the three victors of the Second World War: the US, Britain and Russia. Of all the western powers, only Germany has put itself through a thorough reckoning with its past, encapsulated in the post-war word vergangenheitsbeweltigung. There, at least, a growing strength and influence is tempered by an understanding of what imperial overstretch means. Defeat was a teacher. Now, a decade after the end of the Cold War, it is time for the West as a whole to absorb Germany’s lesson as a matter of urgency. It took that country half a century. We do not have so long.

Influential individuals and institutions are likely to resist this. The odds point strongly to an attempt by the US to revert to type; to try to impose by military force the unilateral global order it sought to establish through economic hegemony alone after 1989.

Others in the USA, also with influence, can see that there is a rage against such American supremacy not unrelated to American policy. Shaken by the evidence that the unresolved consequences of unilateral dominance can lead to terrible punishment, Americans have started to ponder. They should be given every encouragement to do so.

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