The Empire’s Endless New War

— The Editors

SIX MONTHS AFTER September 11, the United States’ “war against terrorism” has morphed from an assault on the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden’s fundamentalist international brigade, to an open-ended unilateral war against an ever-expanding nebula cloud of past, present and potential future evildoers.

At this writing the war has expanded from Afghanistan to three particularly hot fronts. Elsewhere in this issue we explore each of these: the resumption of full-scale combat in Colombia; the open declaration of U.S. intentions for a final assault on Iraq; and closely related, the unbelievable carnage of Israel’s assault on Palestinian cities and refugee camps.

With regard to the Palestine/Israel crisis, it’s especially important to understand the value of protests and mass actions right now, internationally as well as in the USA. Now is the moment to act, for the sake of saving thousands if not tens of thousands of lives, for saving the possibility of a viable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, for holding back the all-out regional holocaust that U.S. and Israeli war plans will create.

There must be an outcry, now, demanding war crimes tribunals for the political and military chiefs of the Sharon-Peres-Ben Eliezer government; a response to the Palestinian demand for international protection; a rigorous international human rights inquiry, fully independent from U.S. and Israeli government influence, into all the details of the killings of civilians and medical personnel in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jenin; a boycott of all U.S. corporations doing business with Israeli settlements; and immediate implementation of the Palestinian right to an independent, internationally recognized state.

Most important of all is the demand for the end of all the U.S. aid that funds the Israeli war machine and the settlements, because so long as that money flows none of Washington’s “peace” rhetoric matters.

But it’s also vital to see all this, especially the trajectory of U.S. policy, in its broader context. To understand what has happened, and what a disturbing and dangerous prospect has opened up in the wake of 9/11, it’s necessary to examine some dynamics of the U.S. empire today, both its enormous strengths and weaknesses.

The New Post-9/11 World

The new war drive represents, on the surface at least, a dramatic change from the first days of the Bush Junior administration. This administration came into office without even being elected, let alone with any popular war mandate. Nor had it campaigned for such an interventionist mandate, projecting instead a kind of Bush-Senior-in-reverse image.

Whereas Bush Daddy had fancied himself the architect of a great New World Order and found domestic concerns a bit boring, Junior readily admitted his general indifference to world politics and promised instead to concentrate on core values: liberating the richest individuals and corporations in America from burdensome taxation and regulations, funding churches to take over welfare services abandoned by government, training school children to pass standardized tests rather then to think (let alone to struggle for a better society), etc.

At least, when it came to the business of world economic and political management, George W. Bush Jr. appeared less personally arrogant than Bill Clinton, who thought he could personally resolve everything from free trade to global warming to the Middle East. This contrast may have appealed to a portion of the electorate suffering from understandable Clinton fatigue, helping Bush almost get elected (so close that the Supreme Court could declare him President).

That was then. Now, a mere fourteen months after inauguration, despite a largely failed domestic performance—can you say “recession” and “Enron”?—this administration pursues, with majority public support, the largest military aggression since Vietnam with a far greater global scope. Consider the following just for openers:

Add to this the continued U.S. military force in Korea, with escalating rhetoric against North Korea; threats against Iran, whose president has been trying to turn in a pro-American direction; the pursuit of the absurd Star Wars “missile defense” fantasy.

Then comes the “nuclear policy review,” the declaration of imminent U.S. intent to develop nuclear weapons for battlefield use and against countries which don’t have the strength to strike back in kind. The implications of Missile Defense and the new nuclear-war policy are enough to indict the planners as the greatest war criminals in history.

The New Unilateral Aggression

Taken individually, by far most of these actions could be seen as continuity rather than rupture with Clinton-era politics. (Recall, for example, Clinton’s debacle in Somalia and bombing of the al-Shifa chemical plant in Sudan.) They’ve mostly been in the works for a decade and more.

The major “innovations” of the Bush/Cheney/Powell/Rice/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft administration have been domestic and political: Ashcroft’s enormous assault on civil liberties, and Rumsfeld’s remarkable open declaration that the U.S. state propaganda apparatus would plant false information in the international media to advan interests.

But taken together, there is no doubt that the U.S. posture represents something new, a declaration of intent to rule the world on the basis of direct American power—political, economic and above all military. What’s involved is not a change from a Democratic to a Republican regime; rather, it’s the rupture in world politics and the enormous perceived imperial opportunity created by September 11.

The new U.S. stance frightens its partners large and small, from Europe, Russia, China and the Arab world to South Korea; and it is likely to arouse explosive domestic dissent if any major part of it fails.

How then does this right-wing government deal with the threat of the consequences of failure? A big part of the answer lies in what Cheney has told the Arab governments on his Middle East tour: Watch us, we are not going to fail.

We’ll overthrow Saddam Hussein, and you’ll accept it and keep your mouths shut. You’ll be grateful and fearful of us at the same time, because we can always do the same to you. As for the Palestinians, they like everyone else will accept whatever a victorious superpower decides they should get.

Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker (March 11, 2002), quotes a skeptical Geoffrey Kemp, former National Security Council Middle East expert under Ronald Reagan:

The central American premise is that you deal with Iraq and everything else will fall in place. Syria comes to terms. The Saudis will conform. Iran will be surrounded by American forces, and the mullahs will have to make concessions to the moderates. There will be a settlement between Israel and Palestine. The end of Saddam will lead to an economic renaissance in Iraq. I’d say fantastic—if it happens. Whatever happens, Bush cannot afford to fail.

The same goes for European dissent. The gap in military technology and capacity between the United States and the rest of NATO is so vast that American power will set the agenda and determine the outcome. Forget the nuances of “coalition-building:” The post-September 11 “war on terrorism” has become code for straight-up United States military vanguardism, on a scale that we haven’t seen since the gunboat diplomacy of the pre-Cold War twentieth century.

Can It Work?

There are two factors that give this globalized real-life war game some chance to succeed, and one very big fact of life pointing toward failure.

First, at least for the short run the U.S. ruling class really does have the power to call the plays for the capitalist world. The European Union may have somewhat different policy and trade priorities toward Iraq, Israel/Palestine and nuclear proliferation—but there is no fundamental conflict of interests that would impel Europe to present an effective alternative.

As for Russia and China, their ruling elites have plenty to be upset about—Star Wars Missile Defense and battlefield nukes leading the list—but both are overwhelmingly concerned with internal economic and social crises, and desperately seeking western support for their attempts to achieve market economies as rapidly as possible. Both are also too closely tied to the U.S. war (due to their own fear of Islamist movements in Chechnya, Central Asia and western China) to offer meaningful resistance.

Second, the United States deploys such fantastic military technology and destructive power that traditional forms of resistance appear suicidal. Overpowering Afghanistan with fewer than a dozen U.S. battlefield casualties is an awesome feat, even taking into account the Afghan people’s general hatred of the Taliban dictatorship.

This success has clearly bred an overwhelming arrogance within U.S. policy elites, not so much among military professionals as among civilian Defense Department planners. Antiwar movements in rich countries generally require a combination of moral revulsion against the mass murder of innocent populations, and the impact of significant military casualties on public opinion. Without the latter, the war planners are confident in their ability through the well-disciplined corporate mass media to minimize if not cover up the former.

But there’s one major danger facing the great U.S. military adventure: the fragility of the world system as a whole. To be sure, it is in part the weaknesses of the capitalist economy (Japan, Argentina, threat of global recession or disruptions of oil supply) that force European and other U.S. partners to acquiesce in the use of overwhelming American power—so long as that exercise is a success.

In the end, all rhetoric about “confronting global poverty and injustice” aside, the ruling classes of the rich countries will support a global law-and-order regime that maintains conditions for corporate profitability. Yet the U.S. adventure is a high-stakes project, in which any significant failure threatens severe economic and political shocks to that structure of global power.

The difficulties are immediately illustrated by the U.S. attempt to impose an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Israel’s April reinvasion of West Bank cities and refugee camps, at least in the short run, has become a severe setback to the U.S. plan for confronting Iraq.

U.S. policy, setting aside for the moment its brutality and hypocrisy, is literally pulled simultaneously in two directions: supporting Sharon’s attempt to crush Palestinian resistance in the name of “fighting terrorism,” and trying to restrain the assault in order to restore the appearance of a peace process. Both are necessary for imperial purposes, yet to do both simultaneously borders on the impossible.

This contradiction, added to those of (for example) Kashmir, Afghanistan and Central Asia, constitute a significant danger in that any shock to the system, any significant political or military setback, can unravel the momentum on which the international acceptance of U.S. military vanguardism so heavily depends. One defeat can also overturn the domestic popularity of the adventure.

U.S. imperialism’s need to maintain that momentum at all costs makes this a particularly disturbing and dangerous moment. To confront it, the movements for global justice and the antiwar coalitions must point to the brutality, the immorality and the ultimate lunacy of a world order resting on battlefield nuclear weapons without social justice. Bush, Sharon & Company have a world to lose—but so do we.

ATC 98, May–June 2002