Home Mail Articles Stats/current Supplements Subscriptions Links
The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #98, October 2001. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.
Back in happier times, January 2000, George W. Bush said: "When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us vs. them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they're there." Thankfully for him, that period of uncertainty is over: he's got a face to put on his wanted poster, that of Osama bin Laden.
Or did, for a while. Now that the military is worried that it might never find the guy, the impulse to personalize the war has been necessarily downsized. Of course, no one really knows ObL's role in the catastrophe - whether he was mastermind or merely the common element in a vast alumni association (assuming he was involved at all). The American instinct is to imagine a single individual at the pinnacle of a neat chain of command; reality is always more complicated than that, and this reality looks like a particularly extreme case of complexity.
At first, it seemed like the planning elite appreciated this, and were proceeding with caution and restraint. But they couldn't resist the urge to let the bombs fly, putting Afghan civilians at great risk (with too many already dead), squandering much of the sympathy the U.S. had earned around the world, and no doubt simplifying al Qaeda's recruiting strategy. But even as the war machine rolls, its target becomes vaguer. Are we at war with bin Laden? His organization? The Taliban? Terrorists worldwide, whoever they may be, and the 60 nations that may house them? With evil itself? We don't really know, but our dim, provincial, unelected president is armed with a fill-in-the-blanks declaration of war.
One thing should be said early on about the events of September 11: they were awful crimes and they should be punished. Some on the left have a hard time saying this. Few, thankfully, have gone as far as Ward Churchill did in a repulsive essay that argued that "the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers" got what they deserved - just retribution for the extermination of Indians and decades of U.S. abuse of the outside world. Almost 2,000 of those "little Eichmanns" came from scores of countries other than the U.S. (250 from India, 200 from Pakistan, over 300 from Latin America); the victims, American and otherwise, included janitors and secretaries along with bond brokers. But even bond brokers don't deserve to die like that. No one does.
Which isn't to justify the bellicosity coming predictably out of the right - former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger calling for killing people whether they're guilty or not, or Ann Coulter urging us to kill lots of Afghanis and convert the remainder to Christianity. This is also repulsive, but not terribly surprising. More surprising is watching a former leftist like Christopher Hitchens (his own characterization, not LBO's) joining the war party, worrying about under-reaction being the real danger, not over-reaction. "Smash The Taliban: A good old left slogan for those with blood in their veins," was his parting email shot as he took off for "the Afghan frontier." How do we smash the Taliban, and what do we put in their place? And who is this "we"? Neither Hitchens nor anyone else seems to have a credible answer.
Not that it's easy to know what to be for right now. But one thing is clear - our entire inherited antiwar vocabulary just doesn't apply in this case. The message used to be easy: no intervention. Things are very different when you're opposing not yet another outrageous imperial adventure, but a hugely murderous attack on your home territory. Sure, you could trace it to U.S. policy - a point that will be taken up imminently - but this is all very different, politically and emotionally, from Kuwait and Kosovo.
Another thing, too, is clear: the current bombing campaign looks more like a disaster every day. Apparently, the only thing the U.S. government knows how to do is to call out the B-52s; the guilty parties are among the least likely to be struck in such raids. If the architects of September 11 are the targets, along with the dreamers of future horrors, then it's hard to see what bombing Kabul will do to bring them to justice or disrupt their plans; thousands with destruction on their minds are scattered all over the world.
Should the Taliban fall, Washington has no idea of what to replace them with. It's talking about finding the good Taliban, and installing them in a multiethnic coalition government led by a long-exiled king. Easier said than done; as one U.S. war planner put it, Afghanistan "makes Bosnia look homogenous." But who wants to entertain such doubts when there are still high-value targets to degrade?
What is needed is some kind of seriously international action to capture the guilty - following upon a serious worldwide investigation - and to rebuild Afghanistan. That would require some sort of force; it's not like you could parachute the NYPD into Kabul to serve some arrest warrants. But whatever force that's applied should be multilateral and tightly focused. Instead, we're getting a massive bombing campaign, almost entirely carried out by the U.S., which is likely to render Afghanistan even more miserable, and, unless it comes to a quick end, is likely to make Afghans and millions of others around the region hate us. At worst, it could plunge the entire region into war - a region where nuclear weapons are plentiful. (The bombing sorties are lightly punctuated by food drops from high in the air, which will feed almost no one, and which one suspects are designed mainly for PR, and not to nourish the hungry.) The bombing is likely to be followed by airdrops of U.S. and British commandos to do fly-by hits on those deemed to be guilty. Who, how, why? We may never know.
Some say it's not the time to bring up causes, with the stench of death still in the Lower Manhattan air. (Literally: smoke from the WTC could be smelled in the LBO office as this was written.) In conversation, in print, and on the net, there are many - including those who are critics of U.S. foreign policy in fair weather - who dismiss any investigation of "root causes" as a rationalization of terror (Hitchens' phrasing), thunderously citing the role of individual culpability and invoking words from the moral register like "evil."
Yes, individuals are responsible for their actions, and if the conscious murder of thousands isn't evil then nothing is - but that's still not an explanation. Even apolitical crimes like those of Jeffrey Dahmer demand some kind of explanation, both to satisfy our curiosity about what makes humans tick and also to try, however ineffectually, to prevent repetitions. But with a political crime like terrorism - one committed in a political context for specific political ends - then the need for explanation is even more acute.
Terrorism arises from severely discontented populations, an extreme and psychopathic reaction for sure, but within a context of desperate anger. Though warmongers try to forbid the saying of this, discontent among Arabs and among Muslims (which are sloppily rendered synonymous in the popular imagination) has been produced by unwavering U.S. support of Israel, its support of corrupt and reactionary regimes like Saudi Arabia, and the relentless torture of Iraq. There's no question the U.S. did a lot to create its new enemy by organizing and funding, in partnership with Pakistan and rich Saudis, radical Islamist militias to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and, from the 1960s onward, by doing everything it could to eliminate secular leftist and nationalist political forces, leaving only a religious outlet for popular distress. Israel did much the same starting in the 1970s, encouraging religious alternatives to secular revolutionaries - groups like Hamas whose leaders it's now busily assassinating, because they initially thought that religion was apolitical (a strange position for a religious state to take).
It is no accident, as the vulgar Marxists used to say, that Osama bin Laden is the rebel son of a Saudi construction magnate, outraged, like lots of Saudis, that the regime, despite its claims of religious purity, is in the pocket of the U.S., which cares that the oil remain in friendly hands, that it be priced in U.S. dollars, and that the proceeds from selling it be invested in U.S. securities. But despite that fealty to the U.S., there are many in the Saudi upper class who sympathize with bin Laden, and some who even wire funds to his operations in Afghanistan. As Tariq Ali points out in the interview on p. 5 of this issue, Saudi Arabia - America's dear ally - is the ideological source and financial angel for much of the brand of political Islam that is now America's mortal enemy.
Yet even though one can understand the dire situation that produced al Qaeda, it's impossible to have any sympathy for either their ideology or tactics - unlike earlier great enemies of the U.S., from the Viet Cong to the Sandinistas. The kind of society they want is utterly repellent - repressively theocratic, sexist, and xenophobic. It's enough to make you nostalgic for the Cold War.
Some have suggested that the phenomenon we're calling terrorism is the result of "globalization" - not that either of those nouns is very easy to define. Yes in some sense, if globalization is taken as a euphemism for imperialism; clearly, U.S. policy towards the Middle East, and several decades of British policy before that, had a lot to do with creating the conditions from which bin Laden & Co. arose. But not if globalization is taken to mean foreign investment, in the financial or real sense - speculation in stock markets, or the establishment of branch plants by multinational corporations.
The richer countries of the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia as the archetype, are part of the global circuit of capital; they sell oil on world markets, and invest their earnings in the financial markets of New York and London. But that involvement doesn't go very deep into the population; non-oil multinationals are thinly represented, and little manufacturing goes on. There's no working class to speak of, in the sense that one exists in the U.S. or Mexico. And in the poorer countries of the Middle East, there's no oil, no financial involvements, and no branch plants at all.
Afghanistan is an extreme example of this - it's almost completely outside the global circuits of capital. It seems crude and rude to put it this baldly, but the country would probably have been better off with a few maquiladoras than with what it has now, which is little more than rubble. That, of course, wasn't Afghanistan's choice; no country can choose its role in the global economic hierarchy the way we choose our dinner. But it is further proof of the truth of economist Joan Robinson's old observation that under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited at all.
Whatever course the war takes abroad, at home its course is already clear - a sharp crackdown on speech and thought. Professors have been threatened with sacking, strikers denounced as unpatriotic, immigrants harassed and arrested, and journalists hounded into silence. And it's only started. The government is likely to get sweeping powers to snoop and detain. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in a recent speech that "we are likely to experience more restrictions on our personal freedom than has ever been the case in our country" - and almost no one noticed, much less cared. The Onion's story read more like straight reporting than satire: "Responding to the threats facing America's free democratic system, White House officials called upon Americans to stop exercising their democratic freedoms...."
And the great upsurge in protest over the last few years, the most encouraging political development in decades, now looks stilled, and maybe worse. But as an antidote to despair, it's good to remember that the promising political mobilizations gathered under the nickname "Seattle," may go quiet on its own or be repressed. But it's also the case that this movement has created a formidable infrastructure of organizing and a new ideological climate, making it easier to mobilize people than it was five or ten years ago, while also freshly propagating a vocabulary of solidarity and egalitarianism. As the cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek told LBO, "I think it is precisely now - after the WTC collapse - that the 'Seattle' task will regain its full urgency. After a period of retaliation-enthusiasm, there will be a new (ideological) depression, and that point will be our chance!!!" Let's hope so - though it will be a severe challenge to develop an analysis and rhetoric that join the themes of peace and justice.
Someone has to talk about the world's cruel hierarchies and the ugly violence they produce, or it's hard to be hopeful about the future of life on earth. Any long-term solution to the "terrorist" problem would require the U.S. to revise its support of the wretched regimes of the Middle East, and to do something about the 100/1 ratio between the incomes of rich and poor worldwide. But we should be honest about what that means - a retreat from empire. That's a very tall order, but that's what "Seattle" should ultimately be about. If not, the consequences could well be a slow-motion Armageddon.
Home Mail Articles Stats/current Supplements Subscriptions Links