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Too soon to look back

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
3 September 2002

It is too soon to look back. The current media re-run of 11 September is not an innocent reminder of what it was like. Repeats and slow motion reinforce a feeling that we are still living in that moment of time. Viewed from such a perspective, the forces that have taken command of world development since then also become a fate to be endured – an extension of The Event rather than a direction taken.

What is needed instead is to look around and ask what kind of period has begun? What sort of world can we look forward to now? The moment the outrages happened, it was clear that they were a break point in history. An epoch had ended, another started. This was usually expressed by saying, ‘things will never be the same again’.

There are openings, and there are closures

But in what way will they be different? Comparison provides a clue. Not long ago, the wilful public destruction of another great edifice was also a historic turning point, and immediately recognised as such around the world. The Berlin Wall was levelled. Then, however, the widespread astonishment was that so few, not so many, had died. It was a life enhancing moment of freedom, hope, confusion and openness.

That was November 1989. Twelve years later, 11 September was a moment of closure. As bin Laden’s benighted chiliasm brought forth the sway of Donald Rumsfeld, prison doors swung shut on the opportunities, however fumbling and ambiguous, that were being worked through thanks to the end of the cold war.

If that was not how it felt to the many in Latin America, the Middle East and China who cheered as the billowing clouds swamped lower Manhattan and America was ‘hit where it hurts’, then all one can say is that if religion is the opium of the oppressed, terrorism has become their crack cocaine. Such celebrations must not be denied, or their causes will not be remedied, but they deserve pity and political contempt.

The last people who should have welcomed 9/11 are those who suffer from American domination. Nothing rejuvenates the will to unrestrained power more than violent provocation aimed at its symbols.

Imagine: without al-Qaida George W. Bush would now be seen as little more than the creature of a ‘corporate America’ collapsing in worthless paper, fraudulent accounting and even the downright robbery of peoples’ savings. Instead, whatever his difficulties, he remains the legitimate leader of the nation.

Bin Laden saved Bush in the way that Argentina’s President, General Galtieri, saved Margaret Thatcher in 1982. Recently elected and increasingly unpopular, the then British Prime Minister was urged to war after Galtieri ordered Argentina’s unprovoked invasion of the Falkland Islands. Backed covertly and then overtly by the Americans, a British expeditionary force sailed to the South Atlantic and re-captured the Falklands. The action pioneered a new kind of long-range military intervention, more effective ways for officialdom to shape media coverage, and helped the West ‘recover’ from Vietnam.

In Britain, it turned Thatcher from an outsider into a national leader. It legitimised her and her policies, empowered her form of right-wing radicalism and scattered her opponents. In a similar although far more serious way, America’s long-range destruction of the al-Qaida network in Afghanistan may renovate traditional United States sovereignty for a further generation.

A Frankenstein monster

In the case of the Falklands, the British should simply have compensated the few hundred families living on the Islands with a good million pounds each and saved 2,000 lives. Bin Laden’s assault offered no such peaceful resolution. A focussed military response was essential, as Todd Gitlin, openDemocracy’s North American editor argued eloquently from New York on the night of the 11th, and as Susan Richards and I argued when the US assault began.

But the need for intervention, we argued (and we were not alone) was also a moral and political defeat. The fundamentalism holed up in the Tora Bora was as least as much the by-product of CIA cynicism as it was an expression of Islamic purity. Its repugnant terrorism was not just an evil ‘other’ the West could triumphantly eradicate thereby vindicating its own goodness. It was, and is, also our own Frankenstein – one that had to be dealt with, certainly. But in the sober way you clear up your own mess when you learn that your negligence has made it toxic.

Instead, the American campaign whose swift outcome followed the Taliban’s collapse, so characteristic of bully regimes, became a victory parade for the worst kind of triumphalism: the celebration of power itself as righteousness. It became an excuse for not learning lessons.

The overriding aim of the Bush administration today is to try and make things the same again – only this time even more so, restoring American supremacy to the untroubled days before Cuba and Vietnam but without even the restraints imposed by the cold war. Now they can be free of the tiresome need for anti-communist alliances and ‘the mission can define the coalition’. Now they no longer need run the risk of being criticised as hypocrites for advocating democracy, freedom and human rights, they can simply not advocate them at all.

This is the policy articulated by an alleged White House insider, Robert Kagan, in a recent essay in the Hoover Institute’s Policy Review (and the UK’s Prospect). His analysis of the difference between Europe and America boils down to the conclusion that Europeans believe in constitutional, law-abiding behaviour because they are weak. Not having power, they do not wish to see it used. The US does have power. This gives it the wisdom to understand the need to use it. According to Kagan, the US must act in a ‘Hobbesian’ manner. He urges it to follow the ‘law of the jungle’ in pursuit of its interests. Those who might object that such a policy extends the law of the jungle are dismissed as being from Venus not Mars.

What is striking about Kagan’s overview is the absence of any reference to values other than the lexicon of strength. There is no suggestion that the establishment of democracy, for example, might be an honourable goal or guiding principle for the deployment of force.

Rather than declaring a crusade against evil, after 11 September the US could have embraced a policy of ‘democracy everywhere’. This would have been the surest way of achieving a creative peace – one capable of isolating terrorism, and attracting the defections without which its organisations will not be broken.

Instead we got the President’s call for no more than a ‘regime change’ in Iraq. One justification is that Saddam Hussein has used weapons of mass destruction to ‘kill his own people’. In 1988 I helped to publish images of the nerve gas attack on Halabja and have strongly supported the removal of Saddam ever since. Where was the Bush family, then, when its influence was needed?

It is never too late to welcome an ally to a good cause. Perhaps the best and most long-standing such cause, this side of preventing famine and plague, is the elimination of Saddam in favour of Iraqi democrats. That his demise would be welcome goes without saying. What does need to be said are the principles for removing him. What justifies intervention rather than containment, what positive outcome would be the goal of such action, how far will any such engagement respect the many nationalities inside and surrounding Iraq, not least Iran?

Democratic credentials

Yes, there is a difficulty to the suggestion that the US ought to want the Iraqi dictatorship replaced by a democracy – Bush’s own election. He lost. The vote in Florida was stolen not once but three times: by rigging voter registration, intimidation of the recount and a doubtful Supreme Court decision. At the same time, half the population across the United States stayed at home, many being revolted by the largest ever flood of corporate expenditure on an election campaign.

By legitimating Bush’s authority in office, bin Laden has reinforced the undemocratic domestic character of US power. He thereby extended its dominion round the world.

This, then, is the period which has just begun: a new world order made in Florida.

Its consolidation is still uncertain and might be slowed by a significant economic downturn. It will not depend on the United States actually invading Iraq – indeed it might be better maintained over the long run without it. Either way, we can now look forward to an era in which the major power of the world regards all international institutions from the United Nations to the International Court of Justice at The Hague as last season’s wallpaper.

It can’t last? That depends on what people do within and without America. One thing is for sure. Neither Americans alone, nor the peoples of the world without Americans, will be able to reverse the closure that began with 9/11.

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