Only a Democratic Foreign Policy Can Combat Terrorism

Thomas Harrison

[from New Politics, vol. 8, no. 4 (new series),
whole no. 32, Winter 2002]

THOMAS HARRISON is a member of the editorial board of NEW POLITICS. He has written for The Nation, Z Magazine, Labour Focus On Eastern Europe, and Peace & Democracy.


IT IS STILL SO HARD TO BELIEVE. That a mere handful, armed with the simplest of weapons and the maddest of doctrines, could bring about carnage and havoc on a scale so immense beggars the most lurid imagination. Such puny forces, yet such an earth- shaking consummation. We still don't know much about Al Qaeda, except that it is (or was) a highly disciplined network of murderous fanatics, who seem to inhabit a bizarre mental netherworld of spirits, omens, prophetic dreams and bloody commandments. The attack on the World Trade Center and the other American targets was apparently part of some apocalyptic fantasy, in which these twisted, heartless men saw God guiding the righteous toward a final showdown with the "infidels" -- the "crusaders and Jews," to use Osama bin Laden's expression. The videotape showing bin Laden gloating over his ghastly deeds and genially accepting the congratulations of some cronies indicates that he did not imagine that crashing the jets into the Twin Towers would bring both structures down. As it turned out, then, he and Al Qaeda succeeded beyond their wildest dreams -- that is, if they measure success in terms of shedding American blood and disrupting American life. With the Taliban in ruins and their hiding places fast disappearing, it is hard to imagine that even Al Qaeda can feel triumphant. But the thoughts and feelings of these God-intoxicated zealots defy rational understanding

In any case, as has been frequently pointed out, and as most people probably understand intuitively, the American attack on Afghanistan will not put an end to terrorism, or even weaken or diminish it in the long run -- it will almost certainly do the opposite. For one thing, the war has already enormously enhanced the ability of the world's number one perpetrator of state terrorism -- the American government -- to terrorize civilian populations wherever and whenever it chooses. And as for the other kind of terrorism, capturing or killing Osama bin Laden and his associates, and destroying the Taliban, may bring a brief respite. Afghanistan, it seems, was a center for violent jihad networks operating throughout the Muslim world and beyond, so the war may inflict a temporary setback on some of them as well.

But the success of "Operation Enduring Freedom" will have no effect whatsoever on the poverty, humiliation and political powerlessness of the Muslim masses, the misery and resentment that are the medium in which totalitarian Islamism and terrorism breed. In fact, it will reinforce the repressive status quo, especially in the Middle East, where the Bush administration has publicly issued a blank check to Sharon to crush and terrorize Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, thus guaranteeing an ever-growing army of suicide bombers. Just as a hard-line response by Israel simply means that more young Palestinians will blow themselves and many innocent Israelis to bits, the current military muscle-flexing by the U.S. will bring more terrorism down on the heads of innocent Americans. If there are not already other Al Qaedas getting ready to strike at this country, there soon will be.

At the moment, popular support for the Bush administration's war policy is overwhelming. On the left, many see no alternative to U.S. military action, while others oppose it on a narrow "hands off Afghanistan" basis. I will argue first, that retaliatory war, which inevitably victimizes the innocent and reinforces American imperial power, cannot be the answer -- and second, that simply saying no to war without offering a democratic, non-military strategy for fighting terrorism is inadequate and politically isolating. The only real answer to September 11 is to change American foreign policy. To those who object that adopting a new foreign policy is not an immediate solution, one has to insist that there is no immediate solution -- and that the pseudo-solutions currently being pursued are immoral and counterproductive.

A Crime Against Humanity

WRITING THREE MONTHS AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, I can only recall the horror and incomprehension I felt, like millions of others, at the colossal and utterly sickening cruelty of the attack on the World Trade Center. Familiarity with history's countless barbarities doesn't help one understand how human beings can do such things. As a New Yorker, a Manhattanite, who once had a fine view of the Twin Towers from my apartment window, I struggle now to recall exactly where they were on the skyline. They were hardly beautiful, but they were impressive. Impossible to fully grasp, even after having seen "ground zero," that they are now nothing but smoking graveyards.

Whatever bin Laden's expectations, it might so easily have been far worse. Nearly three thousand dead is bad enough. But for all the hijackers and their masters knew, most of the 50,000 people who normally worked in the World Trade Center might have been at their jobs that morning, and far fewer might have managed to escape. The Twin Towers might have toppled over, rather than collapsing vertically, crushing a great many nearby buildings.

The September 11 terrorists must have carefully selected the targets for their symbolic significance. But the goal of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, with, one must assume, the hearty approval of their Taliban hosts, was also to kill Americans -- "infidels" or Muslims, it didn't matter -- as many as possible and in the most spectacular way imaginable, not to force the U.S. government to accede to some set of demands. Military deterrence is America's ultimate weapon against all foreign foes, actual and potential. There was no way to deter the terrorists by threats of retaliation, however -- nor could they be "appeased." Suicidal holy warriors are not put off by the promise of deadly response, and it is hard to imagine any sort of concessions by the United States that would have stopped these possessed zealots. Their mental universe is a supernatural, not a political, one -- not, that is, a world defined by human-scale means and ends. But they live in the real world, and in that world U.S. foreign policy, especially toward the Muslim countries, could have made and can still make a big difference.

"War Is The Health Of The State"

AMERICANS HAVE LOST THEIR "INVULNERABILITY," IT IS SAID. As inhabitants of the world's chief superpower, Americans have long been shielded from some of the harsher realities faced by our fellow human beings, and they have gotten used to a feeling of privileged isolation. September 11 has seriously challenged this smug fortress mentality. At the same time, however, it has only strengthened Americans' belief that their country is entitled to lord it over the rest of the world. This belief is not unshakeable, as we know from past history, but at the moment it is probably flourishing as never before since the 1950s.

There was nothing admirable about Americans' belief that they led some sort of charmed existence. It was always part of this country's monumental imperialist conceit, and it encouraged ignorance and indifference to the fate of other peoples. Nevertheless, there is no justification for sanctimony or speaking of chickens coming home to roost. Neither Americans nor any other people, it should go without saying, "deserve" the sort of thing that occurred on September 11, no matter what crimes their government has committed.

But the fact remains that the American government, the American military and American corporations preside over a world-system that is catastrophically irrational and deeply inhumane. And now, for the time being, that dominance is more secure than it has been in a long time, which is very bad news for the rest of the world -- and for us. Abroad, billions will continue to toil and die in the most abysmal squalor, thanks in large part to the tyranny of American-backed rulers, the policies of American-dominated international financial institutions and the needs of the global capitalist order. A vast portion of the world's population, perhaps as much as one third, is unemployed. These billions could be put to work building, educating, producing the things that people so desperately need. But under the present system this can never happen.

At home, the trend for the past decade and more has been for the Democrats to close ranks with the Republicans over foreign and military policy. But now, in the aftermath of September 11, almost no one in Congress or the media will have the courage to suggest that the U.S. should not continue to guard its global preeminence at all costs, that it is madness to maintain a bloated military establishment, bristling with ever-more horrifying weapons, sucking up vital resources that could be used to support decent lives for millions both here and abroad. There will be very little talk of eliminating or even scaling down the country's massive nuclear arsenal, which poses a world-wide security threat that makes Osama bin Laden look like a juvenile delinquent.

Meanwhile, no one seems to know where the war is going -- perhaps including the war makers themselves. Even among many of those who support the war, there is a sense of dread as Congress rubber-stamps the administration's demands for extraordinary war powers, arrangements are made for secret military tribunals, and talk of fifth columnists and traitors proliferates. As for the President, his glaring personal inadequacies and his political illegitimacy -- the stolen election of 2000 -- have been all but forgotten. Now this grotesque windup-doll, absurd and evil at the same time, this utter cipher gets to strut across the national and world stage, a servile press hanging on his every inane word, issuing peremptory edicts and attempting to sound stern and menacing.

And then there's the flag, that now ubiquitous icon. It's hard to quibble with those who wear or display it to symbolize their grief. But, in fact, for most Americans it symbolizes far more. In the current crisis, putting out the stars and stripes is all about national "unity." It is not merely a gesture of sorrow and solidarity with the victims of September 11. Unfortunately, it's also a declaration of unity with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and the whole political and corporate elite as well.

The political implications of all this flag waving and unity mongering are, or should be, depressingly clear. As the radical writer Randolph Bourne said during World War I, "war is the health of the state." The current atmosphere has already provided an unprecedented opportunity for corporate plundering, new assaults on the environment and bolstering police powers. Under cover of the crisis, the right has lost no time implementing its agenda: star wars, increasing the military budget, more tax breaks for the rich, savaging civil liberties. The Democrats, with the tiniest handful of exceptions, have fallen all over themselves to reassure the administration that partisanship is now the farthest things from their minds -- not that the Democrats were any kind of opposition even before September 11.

Ashcroft's sinister program of mass detentions, secret military tribunals and eavesdropping has nothing to do with real security -- but everything to do with the Bush administration's disregard for civil liberties and relentless drive for power. Most of this program has simply been imposed by executive fiat, but earlier portions sailed effortlessly through Congress, blessed by the Democrats' willingness to be, in Tom Daschle's word, "understanding." When the Senate Judiciary Committee, responding to a rising tide of concern, had the temerity to summon the Ayatollah Ashcroft, all he had to do was warn the Democrats that civil libertarianism "aided terrorists" to send them into a "political rout," as the Wall Street Journal put it.

The Attack on Afghanistan Is No Just War

THE PRUSSIAN MILITARY THEORIST KARL VON CLAUSEWITZ famously described war as the continuation of politics by other -- military -- means. The politics of this war have nothing to do with stopping terrorism per se -- American leaders know full well that they cannot do this. The real politics are about something else -- extending U.S. hegemony over Afghanistan and, more importantly, reasserting American predominance as the world's leading superpower and chief cop of the global capitalist order. Even the war's open- endedness, the administration's refusal to clearly define goals, has a definite political meaning: the assertion of an unlimited "right" to attack any country the United States chooses.

Strengthening ties to the Saudi royal family, winning the discreet concordance of the Iranian mullahs, and forging links with the Central Asian republics have served to further shore up American domination of the Persian Gulf region and its hinterland. A new U.S. military presence has already been established in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, as well as Afghanistan itself. As I write, it is not yet clear if the war will be carried to Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Somalia: here too, striking at a vicious dictator in Baghdad or at terrorist nests in the other countries would have the effect primarily of advancing American power, with all the malign consequences that would flow from that -- and not promoting democracy and "civilized values."

The war's brevity (assuming it ends with the final elimination of the Taliban and Al Qaeda), and relatively limited civilian casualties do not obviate its essential immorality. One has to be cautious about describing civilian deaths as "limited," of course, because the press has no reliable estimates at this point. The Pentagon probably has a pretty good idea how many civilians have perished under the bombardments, but for obvious reasons it is keeping this information secret. The number of civilian casualties is in all likelihood well above the toll in the World Trade Center attack. U.S. policy of relying on the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban Pashtun militias as ground forces (there has been very little sustained combat on the ground), while conducting heavy aerial bombardment guarantees the deaths of thousands of innocent Afghans. But no matter how many or few have died and will die, there can be no justification for killing Afghan peasants and other noncombatants to extract vengeance for September 11 or to further the interests of American power. There is no reason to doubt the word of Bush and Rumsfeld that they don't want innocent people to perish, but they obviously know that numerous civilian casualties are inevitable and, frankly, it's hard to imagine them losing much sleep over it.

Tony Blair gave a speech to the Welsh parliament defending the war in which he expressed regret for civilian casualties but told his listeners, essentially: whenever you hear about Afghan casualties, think again about the people who died in the World Trade Center and the passengers in those hijacked jets. In other words, he was saying: don't think about the victims of British and American bombs; as soon as you hear about them on some inconvenient news broadcast, try to blot them out of your minds. That way, they won't be real and you won't have to feel any emotions or think any thoughts that would get in the way of the war effort. But as Arundhati Roy, the Indian novelist and courageous campaigner against her government's nuclear weapons, has said (In These Times, Nov. 26, 2001): "Each innocent person that is killed must be added to, not set off against, the grisly toll of civilians who died in New York and Washington."

Most important of all, Bush, Blair and their allies emphatically did not know when the attack on Afghanistan was launched that masses of civilians would not be killed, and they were quite prepared to see them die. This is important to keep in mind; indeed, it is key to understanding how American power is exercised. The administration expected a long, drawn-out war; Rumsfeld said as much on numerous occasions. Now it is probably true that the architects of "Operation Enduring Freedom" never intended to rain down bombs and missiles on Afghanistan indiscriminately. But this is not because American leaders are tenderhearted. They are no more humane than the criminal gang -- Nixon, Kissinger and the rest -- that carpet-bombed Cambodia in 1970s. If they had decided that this was the only way they could get Al Qaeda and bin Laden and destroy the Taliban and that they could get away with it, they would have carpet bombed without a qualm.

Fortunately for the people of Afghanistan such a policy was militarily unnecessary and would probably have been politically impossible in any case. Unlike the Soviet Union in the 1980s, which confronted Afghan forces amounting to100, 000 men, heavily armed and subsidized by the CIA and Pakistan, the U.S. faced a scraggly and rapidly disintegrating Taliban army, abandoned by its foreign backers and loathed by the civilian population, as recent events have shown. Moreover, the effect on public opinion throughout the Muslim world of a more intense U.S. assault, a public opinion already deeply alienated by a relatively limited war, would have been too destabilizing for the American government's friends, especially Pakistan. U.S. policymakers had no wish to trigger the Armageddon sought by the mad bin Laden

But again, all this had to do with strategy and political expediency, not any willingness on the part of American leaders to abide by the rules of limited warfare for ethical reasons. When the bombing began, delivery of food to an estimated 5.5 million starving Afghans was brought to a halt. Now that the fighting is winding down, relief will resume, one supposes -- although the onset of winter will slow things down, and the possible resumption of internecine violence among the restored warlords could easily imperil humanitarian efforts. But the point is, the speed with which the Taliban has been driven from power was not expected by U.S. officials, who turned a deaf ear to pleas by UN and other relief agencies and were unflinchingly ready to accept mass starvation as part of the price of victory. The policy of dropping snack packs from the air, many of them falling on mine fields, was an empty and absolutely cynical gesture, meant solely to deflect attention from the real humanitarian disaster the U.S. was about to create.

So, even if it could be shown that the results of the war are "proportionate" to the means employed, as "just-war" theorists such as Richard Falk have maintained (and I have argued that the broader political agenda of the U.S. renders a narrow means-ends calculus irrelevant), this could not have been known in advance. No confidence should ever be entrusted in this American government to use its military power in a restrained way, and certainly not to use this power for legitimate ends.

Varieties of Terrorism

THE CLAIM THAT THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT IS WAGING A WAR against "terrorism" is absolutely Orwellian. To be sure, the incident that began the current conflict was an act of terrorism in the fullest sense and of the most horrific kind. By plunging those planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Al Qaeda declared war on the entire American people, not just on the U.S. government. Its object was to frighten and demoralize the whole population, to make it so that no American can feel safe. But terrorism comes in many forms.

Terrorism -- instilling fear for political ends -- originally meant state terrorism, used against domestic opponents of a government as during the French Revolution. Later it came to be applied almost exclusively to anti-state actions, what anarchists called the "propaganda of the deed." In the 1970s "international terrorism" emerged -- bombings, hostage seizures, plane hijackings -- often supported by "rogue states." Since World War II, however, terrorism perpetrated by the world's most powerful (non-"rogue") states against foreign countries has devastated great swaths of the globe and taken far more victims than any band of hijackers or suicide bombers.

The chief culprit in this sort of terrorism has been none other than the United States. Through direct military intervention and the sponsorship of foreign proxies, the U.S. government has terrorized vast populations as a means of crushing popular insurgencies and keeping pro- American elites in power. Instead of hijacking and hostage-taking, the U.S. has trained torturers and death squads, provided weaponry and intelligence, and, when necessary, itself bombed civilians from the air to secure its aims. This state terrorism in defense of the status quo has simply dwarfed the other kind (which, of course, does not justify terrorism by less powerful states or by non-state forces).

The anti-terrorist credentials of America's current allies simply cannot be taken seriously. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with the United States, helped create the very networks that gave birth to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In the 1980s, Pakistan's military dictator, general Zia-ul- Haq, the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. and Saudi aid, set up hundreds of fundamentalist madrasas, religious schools, to train young men to be terrorist fanatics. Pakistan continues to sponsor terrorist attacks on India. Within Saudi Arabia, the fantastically corrupt autocracy, increasingly cut off from its subjects, has in its panic and desperation poured millions into violent fundamentalist groups as protection money -- even though these groups are dedicated to its overthrow. Russia wages a war of terror against Chechen civilians. China's totalitarian regime, with its secret police, vast gulag of prisons and thousands of executions, is a terror state par excellence. Actually, none of the big powers currently supporting the anti-terrorist crusade have any objection to terrorism as such, just to terrorism directed against them. As the wildly overrated Colin Powell put it, with truly breathtaking cynicism: "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

"Why Do They Hate Us?"

BIN LADEN, THE TALIBAN AND THE ISLAMISTS depend on the crimes of American foreign policy. Without these crimes, their political appeal would be much weaker. The answer to the question so often asked in the aftermath of September 11 -- "Why do they hate us?" -- is that it's our country's actions, our government's foreign policy above all, rather than our "values" -- what we do, not what we supposedly stand for -- that fuels popular anger in the Muslim world. Like people in all poor, tradition-bound societies, the consciousness of the broad majority is fairly conservative and patriarchal. This is especially true where a mass-based secularist, democratic left has either been crushed or hasn't yet developed -- which is the case throughout the Muslim world. Plus, of course, the teachings of mainstream Islam -- like those of most religions -- tend to have a conservatizing impact on popular consciousness. But if many Muslims respond to the appeals of political Islamism it is not - - apart from a hard core -- because they want to obliterate "Western civilization" and establish a global theocracy. Political sympathy for Islamism is fundamentally reactive -- to the policies of the U.S. and other Western countries, and to the authoritarian rule of Western client regimes.

When American leaders proclaim their commitment to democracy and human rights, most citizens of Muslim countries know that this is a lie, that the U.S. has been a determined and very effective enemy of every attempt to empower the mass of Muslim people. For decades now, the American government has supported every dictator and corrupt royal family that has agreed to play along with it. Our vaunted "way of life" is a privilege we jealously reserve for ourselves, Western Europe and a few other rich nations. Muslims regard the U.S. as an arrogant, hypocritical, and totally self-interested bully, a global thug, a genuine rogue state that does exactly as it pleases. And to top it all off, in their eyes the U.S. is a cowardly thug that wages risk-free wars, firing missiles at its enemies from hundreds of miles away and dropping bombs from 15,000 feet in the air.

There can be little doubt that this is how our country is perceived by the mass of Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia -- even Iranian young people chafing under the mullahs and longing for Western-style freedoms, or Afghans temporarily elated by the fall of the Taliban and grateful to their "liberators." Actual political support for the U.S. -- that is, support for its global role as the dominant superpower -- is limited to a small minority among the privileged elite. Among ordinary people, only those who have actually experienced life under Islamist regimes -- as in Iran and Afghanistan -- will gravitate toward the U.S., but even then only temporarily. In the last analysis, the American government can have little appeal to the masses in the Muslim world because it does not trust or respect them, and because it fears their democratic power like poison.

Can the Leopard Change Its Spots?

AMERICAN LEFTISTS, SUCH AS CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, who advocate "humanitarian intervention" by the U.S. military often point to the example of the Iraqi Kurds. But the American policy towards the Kurds illustrates precisely a pattern that is deeply resented in the Muslim world -- the way in which Muslims are alternately coldly ignored and cynically manipulated by the U.S. American leaders only pretended to care about the Iraqi Kurds when that was useful during the Gulf War, then blithely allowed Saddam Hussein to attack them after the war had been "won." As always, the U.S. preferred the immediate restoration of "stability" under a strongman, even Saddam Hussein. It was only after an international outcry that the Bush administration provided a protection zone, meanwhile including the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq in the UN embargo. So Kurds starve, but at least Baghdad can't bomb them. Meanwhile, millions of Turkish Kurds can expect no official American sympathy whatsoever, since their oppressor is a NATO member and important U.S. ally.

Hitchens would no doubt grant that for the most part the history of American policy in this region makes a sordid tale. But he argues that the Iraqi case proves that "enlightened pressure" can sometimes re-deploy American military forces in a limited way for humanitarian purposes. No reasonable person can doubt that Iraqi Kurds are better off, at the moment, living under the protection of America air cover than they would be if left to the tender mercies of Saddam Hussein. Nor would it make any sense to maintain that U.S. foreign policy is immune to enlightened public pressure. In the past, organized protest has won important victories, like forcing the Reagan administration to impose sanctions on South Africa. But the total effect of U.S. policy is the opposite of what sanctions, no-fly zones and other ostensibly pro- human rights initiatives would seem to suggest. Today, the leaders of South Africa and the ANC have become political prisoners of Washington and the World Bank.* The overall policy of the U.S. towards Iraq and the Kurds remains an imperialist one, based on realpolitik. The Iraqi Kurds are pawns in Washington's game and subordinated to its agenda.

Some more recent examples, also held up by Hitchens and other advocates of humanitarian intervention as prime examples of American benevolence, are the wars over Bosnia and Kosova. But a closer look is needed. The U.S. gave tacit political support to Belgrade for years while Serb forces massacred Bosnian Muslims. When American intervention came, it occurred at the moment Bosnia's troops were beginning to take the offensive against Serb strongholds in the western part of the country, and it was designed to head off a complete victory for the Sarajevo government. The resulting Dayton Accords permanently partitioned the country as a reward for Milosevic's cooperation -- he was then still seen by the U.S. as a useful strongman in the Balkans. For even longer, the U.S. gave Milosevic the green light to do his worst to the Kosovars; when NATO finally did an about face and intervened against Belgrade, it was not to rescue the Kosovars, although it had that accidental and welcome side effect, but to punish a defiant and no-longer useful sub-imperialist. Few Muslims were fooled by American propaganda in these cases, or by apologists like Hitchens, because they have kept the bigger picture in mind.

The Gulf War was generally seen in the Muslim world as a war for oil and American power, not for Kuwait's right to self-determination, much less a war to bring democracy to Iraq, and the subsequent sanctions that have brought death to many thousands of Iraqi children are regarded as a continuing atrocity. And then there are the policies that no decent leftist or democrat can attempt to justify -- toward the Turkish Kurds and the Chechens (weak, pro forma American criticisms of Russian savagery have been overwhelmingly outweighed by Washington's embracing of Putin), massive aid for the brutal Mubarak regime in Egypt. About Israel, little needs to be said. Its crimes against the Palestinian people, aided and abetted at every step by Washington, have outraged Muslims for decades. In all these areas, the U.S. has acted pretty much according to its natural inclinations, while paying nothing more than lip service -- and sometimes not even that -- to human rights concerns. The idea of American humanitarian intervention -- intervention by this government, whether under Bush or Clinton -- on behalf of the Palestinians, or Chechens, or Turkish Kurds is laughable.

If situations like the plight of Iraq's Kurds under Saddam Hussein and the whole Afghan people under the Taliban could somehow be isolated from world politics, then it might be right for the U.S. to intervene. In fact, it would probably be right for any state that could do so to intervene. What if Putin or Jiang Zemin -- or even Muammar Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein -- offered to attack Afghanistan in order to destroy the Taliban? What would be wrong with supporting them? While their tactics might (or might not) be more brutal than those employed by Washington, the result would probably be pretty much the same: restoration of the pre-Taliban warlords, a little more freedom for Afghan women, maybe even a little economic aid. Presumably, nevertheless, no one who cares about democracy and human rights would have called for or supported anything of the kind. It is the agendas of intervening powers that matter, not the accidental by-products of their intervention.

Writing in The Nation (Dec. 17, 2001), Katha Pollit points out that whatever freedoms are restored in Afghanistan, including for women, this was not the goal of U.S. intervention but merely a bonus, so to speak. If American leaders had had the slightest interest in Afghans' democratic rights, then Carter, Reagan, and Bush would not have supported the mujahedeen and Clinton would not have essentially ignored Taliban oppression. In the same issue, Hitchens claims to see a "new situation" resulting from the war. But what's new about it, unless Hitchens is suggesting that Bush junior, of all people, has ushered in a foreign policy qualitatively different from his predecessors?

Pollit mentions the glaring inconsistency of Laura Bush speaking out for Afghan women while maintaining a diplomatic silence over the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt and other American allies. One should add that while the war might have made democracy more accessible for Afghans (it remains to be seen whether the warlords and tribal chiefs will actually allow free elections, or even whether they will refrain from reverting to their custom of plundering the country and warring incessantly over the spoils), it has probably been a setback for democracy in some other countries -- Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, the Israeli Occupied Territories, indeed the United States itself. And globally, strengthening the American imperium cannot bode well for democratic prospects.

The Appeal of Islamism

SYMBIOSIS -- A RELATIONSHIP OF MUTUAL SUPPORT between two quite different organisms -- describes the relationship between American foreign policy and Islamic fundamentalism -- and the war has reinforced it. Western fear of totalitarian Islamism has long served to mute domestic criticism of U.S. policy toward the Muslim world. And now the attack on the World Trade Center has herded even more critics into the war camp and provided new justification for the use of military force in the Middle East and Central Asia. On the other side, the pervasive Muslim resentment of the United States, the anger at American policy in the Middle East, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere, has long been exploited by bin Laden and the Islamists. In the face of an increasingly monolithic American public opinion, Muslims, especially young men, are attracted to ever more desperate forms of anti- Americanism.

The cause of Al Qaeda and other apocalyptic and ultra-violent elements among the Islamists is not democracy, Palestinian rights, social justice for the poor -- not at all. Their goal is a grim regime of total oppression, a Taliban-like state for every Muslim nation, virtual imprisonment for every Muslim girl and woman, extermination or expulsion for the Jews of Israel. They would not abandon their bloody schemes even if the U.S. pursued entirely different policies. Behind them are the Muslims who make up the rank and file of the much larger and less apocalyptic (though still generally reactionary and anti-democratic) Islamist parties and underground movements. These groups flourish in the absence of a secular, anti-imperialist left, most of which has been destroyed or discredited (for example in Afghanistan by its association with the Soviet occupation).

With no democratic left-wing alternative, millions of the poor and aggrieved are attracted to political Islamism, while millions more reject theocracy but are still strongly anti-American, many even admiring bin Laden. Most detest the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and many explicitly repudiate the terrorist attacks on Americans —while at the same time opposing the war against Afghanistan and wishing defeat and disgrace to the United States. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk (New York Review of Books, Nov. 15, 2001) described one of his neighbors in Istanbul, an old man, not religious at all, who barely makes a living doing minor repair work. On hearing of the World Trade Center attacks, he told Pamuk: "Sir, have you seen? They have bombed America," and added, "They did the right thing." Pamuk notes that this old man later regretted his comment, but of course it is the initial response that is so telling and, there is every reason to believe, so typical. That fewer innocent Afghans than expected have been killed does not fundamentally alter the perception that America has bombed a ruined nation and a helpless population in order to satisfy it's craving for revenge and power.


OF COURSE, IT WAS NOT ONLY THE UNITED STATES that ruined Afghanistan and created a world where the poor and oppressed of the Muslim nations turn toward Islamism. The postwar world is a joint creation of two powers above all -- the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- and it is the Soviet Union that was most responsible for devastating Afghanistan. Local Communists took power there in 1978 with little support among the population outside the small, educated class, many of whom were attracted to Stalinism as a way of modernizing the country without succumbing to Western domination. Other educated Afghans were attracted to radical Islamism; for them resisting Western imperialism entailed the repudiation of modernization. The Communist leader, Hafizullah Amin slaughtered 12,000 people in Kabul alone and was considered excessively bloodthirsty even by Brezhnev. Then in 1979 the Soviets began their occupation of the country. They created a secret police and launched ferocious attacks on rural areas, where resistance was centered. Helicopter gunships fired on fleeing refugees and dropped insidious "butterfly mines" to attract children.

Eventually the Soviets installed a more moderate puppet, Mohammad Najibullah, but by this time Afghanistan was deeply immersed in a proxy war between Russia's clients and the mujahedeen, supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. In the course of the 1980s, the war brought death to one million Afghans, mostly from Soviet bombing and landmines; another five to six million fled, the largest refugee population in the world. U.S. support to the mujahedeen had actually begun before the Soviet invasion. Recently Zbigniew Brzezinski has boasted that the Carter administration did this with the deliberate purpose of drawing the USSR into a self-destructive Vietnam-type quagmire. "What is more important to the history of the world," he asked, "some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" Then Reagan's CIA vastly stepped up the U.S. commitment, dispensing $3.5 billion to "stirred-up Muslims" in Afghanistan, more than to any operation in CIA history.

Finally in 1989 the Soviets withdrew, and three years later the Communist government fell. Afghanistan descended into bloody chaos as rival warlords fought over territory and control of the country's now booming heroin business, raping women and even children with impunity. Meanwhile, having achieved its objectives, the U.S. lost interest in Afghanistan and turned off the aid spigot. Out of this maelstrom emerged the Taliban -- a cadre of young students from local and Pakistani madrasas and a foreign legion of Islamist volunteers -- led by Mullah Omar and other rural clergy. Pakistan backed the Taliban, as did Saudi Arabia, which had earlier sent in a certain wealthy businessman named Osama bin Laden to organize the thousands of Arab fighters who were streaming in from North Africa and the Middle East to join the mujahedeen. The Taliban's warlord opponents, most of them regrouped in the Northern Alliance, received aid from Iran and Russia. It shows what the U.S., Russia, Pakistan and the rest had reduced the Afghan people to that they initially welcomed the Taliban seizure of power.

Throughout all this, the Afghan people were treated by the interventionists as utterly expendable, as so much debris cluttering up the game of power politics. Their right to self- determination, to govern themselves in peace and freedom, the right of Afghan women not to be terrorized by Islamic misogynists, all were totally disregarded by the manipulators. No one would expect any better of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Soviet Union, of course. But there are still widespread illusions about the United States, which is now considered a suitable agent for bringing about a different, humanitarian military intervention, one that will supposedly introduce democracy, civil society, ethnic reconciliation, etc., to a long-suffering people. No one in his/her right mind would expect Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Russia to play such a role, but for many who ought to know better, the United States, whose record in Afghanistan has been scarcely less malignant than the aforementioned, is somehow exempt from any judgement based on past performance.

Unilateralism, Multilateralism and the UN

DISPUTES WITHIN THE AMERICAN ESTABLISHMENT over unilateralism versus multilateralism do not reflect important differences over the ends of U.S. foreign policy but merely alternative means of maintaining global dominance and policing the system of "free trade" and corporate power. Whether unilateralists or multilateralists are controlling the State Department or have the ear of the President, Washington will never have an answer to the problem of terrorism -- or of "rogue states" that might be acquiring weapons of mass destruction -- except for military force. This will be true as long as the United States is run by the Democratic and Republican parties and by the elites that control them.

Liberal critics of U.S. foreign policy, and even many radicals, tend to turn to the UN whenever international crises break out. But the idea of UN intervention as an alternative to big power politics is a chimera. The UN's structure as a collection of states and its completely undemocratic domination by the Security Council -- with its five permanent members armed with vetoes -- mean, in fact, that it is just one more vehicle for power politics. Historically, its record is a wretched one. The UN undermined independence struggles in the Congo, Namibia, and Angola. In Lebanon it acted as a cover for Israeli aggression, and it did the same thing for Serbian aggression in Bosnia with its grotesque "safe havens" policy -- safe havens that became death traps for Bosnian Muslims. In all these cases, the chief role of the UN was to pressure indigenous forces to accommodate themselves to the wishes of the big powers on the Security Council, or to their clients like Israel. In no case did the UN do anything to encourage domestic democratic forces. Where UN peacekeepers have played a relatively benign role, as in East Timor or Cambodia, it has only been because this has coincided with the interests of the big powers, not because of any independent UN initiative in favor of peace and democracy.

As soon as the American attack on Afghanistan began, there were calls on the left for shifting control over military intervention to the UN. But had this been done, it would not have changed the politics of the war. UN control would mean Security Council control, so the first thing one wants to ask is: why would sharing decision-making power with Russia and China -- whose leaders are responsible for genocidal policies, torture and mass murder in Chechnya and Tibet, as well as a host of other crimes -- have made the war more humane and democratic? Actually, most of those who demanded a UN, rather than U.S., intervention did so for essentially procedural or juridical reasons. As Stanley Hoffman, who supported a Security Council takeover, noted, it would simply provide an American war with "a seal of international legitimacy" (New York Review of Books, Nov. 1, 2001).

Since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the Gulf War, the UN has become even more solidly an instrument of U.S. foreign policy than it ever was. When Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali displeased America leaders, he was promptly disposed of and replaced by Kofi Annan, who has been consistently deferential to U.S. interests. The fact that the United States rarely even bothers to seek UN legitimation of its actions, as it did in the Gulf War, and prefers instead to act alone doesn't reflect the UN's real independence or its potential for restraining American imperial designs, but merely the ultra-unilateralist proclivities of American policy makers.

Millions of Muslims refuse to believe that the American bombing of Afghanistan is a war against terrorism or in favor of any universal values -- instead they see it as an imperialist aggression by a rich and powerful nation, the richest and most powerful nation, out for revenge, not justice. Many see it, despite the assurances of the Bush administration and its allies, as a war against fellow Muslims and against Islam as a whole.

The Nation editorialized: "The allies need a large blue UN umbrella to counter Muslim charges of a U.S. holy war against Islam" (Nov. 5, 2001). Given the records of the five permanent members of the Security Council, in both domestic and foreign policy, however, there is plenty of reason for Muslims to regard all of them as hostile to Islam and indifferent at best to the welfare of Muslim people. Russia wages a vicious war on Chechen Muslims, and China persecutes the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province. Muslims have suffered harassment and discrimination in Britain, France and Germany. European leaders joined the United States in embargoing arms to Bosnian Muslims for years as they were systematically slaughtered by Serb forces and turned a blind eye for even longer to the brutal mistreatment of Albanian Muslims in Kosova; meanwhile, Russia actively championed the Serbian butchers themselves.

The point here is not that the U.S. is actually waging a religious holy war against Islam. But there is no way the current foreign policies of the West, especially against a background of racism toward Muslim immigrants within Western countries, can dispel that suspicion.

The idea of an international tribunal for bin Laden and his fellow mass murderers is no solution either. Some see the International Criminal Court, with expanded powers, as the proper venue, while others advocate an ad hoc court, created to deal only with bin Laden and the other terrorists -- like the war crimes tribunal in the Hague, which was set up to try war criminals in the former Yugoslavia such as Milosevic. The trouble is, any international tribunal established by the UN as presently constituted can only be another tool of big power politics -- a fact that would be universally understood in the Muslim world, even by those that have no sympathy for Al Qaeda.

The International Criminal Court could not pursue leading war criminals other than non-state terrorists like bin Laden, and it could conceivably punish figures like Pinochet only long after their crimes had been committed, they were no longer in power, and they were of no further use to their backers among the Security Council members. What is the point of an international judicial system that can apprehend and prosecute only a very restricted category of war criminals? How can it have any legitimacy unless it is seen by the whole world as even-handed? How could a court that had no power to punish violations of human rights by the United States be seen as anything other than another tool of U.S. foreign policy?

There are plenty of prominent war criminals still alive and at large -- Henry Kissinger would certainly head the list. Why should bin Laden pay for his crimes and not Kissinger? How about a commando raid to capture Ariel Sharon -- a terrorist if ever there was one -- and bring him to the Hague for trial? Don't hold your breath. An international tribunal to punish Al Qaeda, just as much as a U.S. military tribunal, would be regarded by most of the world's Muslims as nothing but victor's justice -- not real justice. And they would be right. As satisfying as it would be to see bin Laden and his whole bloody gang receive the punishment they deserve, one must ask: are international tribunals part of a political program that offers any hope of undermining terrorism and promoting democracy and social justice in the countries from which global terrorist networks originate? The answer, I think, is that they are a dead-end alternative to such a program.

Not Containment But Liberation

THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT HAS SO FAR CONCENTRATED ON getting the bombing stopped and the starving fed in Afghanistan and on defending Muslims against racist attacks in this country. These are important goals, of course, but they don't by themselves address Americans' legitimate security concerns, nor do they get at the root of the reactionary global dynamic, fueled by U.S. foreign policy, that drives people in Muslim countries toward terrorist fundamentalism.

Opposition to the war and to current U.S. foreign policy must be accompanied by opposition to totalitarian Islamism, indeed to all regimes and political movements that trample on human rights in the name of religion or any other ideology. And not just opposition either, but proposals for a political offensive against Islamism and terrorism as well -- including all terrorism, notably that of our own government. This is a cause that the peace movement should champion. It must not be left to the American Establishment to exploit the real problem of terrorism for its own purposes.

The Bush administration, as well as the rest of the Establishment, knows that it cannot eliminate the sort of terrorism with which it is now at war. They accept the permanent existence of conditions throughout the Muslim world that nurture Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Their real policy is containment, not elimination. Apart from what containment might mean in terms of further bombing attacks on Muslim countries and certainly will mean in terms of the perpetuation of a monstrously unjust global status quo, it projects a bleak future for us in the West. Networks like Al Qaeda may be wiped out, but the kind of terrorism they practice never will be. Christopher Hitchens dismisses such predictions as "witless and fatalistic" (The Nation, Dec. 3, 2001). If new bin Ladens rise up, he assures us, "tens of thousands of people would also rise up to rid the world of bin Ladens all over again." So, for Hitchens too, containment -- and, evidently, perpetual war -- is the only realistic perspective.

Now this is fatalism, and the American left and the anti-war movement must not succumb to it. A slogan seen on posters at peace demonstrations is "Justice Not Bombs." This begins to suggest a positive political program to counter terrorism. But the anti-war movement needs to advocate justice just as strongly as peace. Progressives in general need to start talking about what American foreign policy -- a new foreign policy -- can actually do to promote justice in the Muslim world. Our alternative to imperial intervention should be not "hands off" Afghanistan or wherever, but political engagement, a kind of "intervention from below" -- identifying and linking up with groups that are fighting for democracy, secularism, women's rights. With Iraq looking like the next target of American military intervention, it is crucial to make connections with democratic Iraqi oppositionists. Political solidarity and concrete acts of assistance from the American left would also help counter any attempts by our government to suck opposition groups into its orbit.

Making these links would be one step in the development of a clear alternative to the militaristic containment policy of the American Establishment. The left needs to propose a new deal for the Muslim world: democracy and economic development. It needs to say: our position is not the acceptance of a "contained" terrorism, while leaving the Muslim world to fester in its misery. We want to do all we can -- and to use the immense political and material resources of the United States -- to help the peoples of the Muslim world liberate themselves. Self-emancipation, not control and manipulation, should be the guiding principle of American policy. We want to see the people of Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula take possession of their oil resources and use the wealth to raise their standard of living, not to enrich parasitical elites. Freedom and prosperity will reduce terrorism to insignificance in all those countries where millions, in their poverty and desperation, now celebrate bin Laden as a hero and lend apocalyptic Islamism a sympathetic ear.

A Democratic Foreign Policy: Deeds, Not Just Words

STANLEY HOFFMAN WRITES THAT THE FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM "needs to begin with an adequate understanding of our adversaries' grievances, if only to allow us to shape a perceptive policy." Terror feeds "on experiences of despair and humiliation, and these can be understood and to some degree addressed." Also writing in the New York Review (Nov. 15, 2001), Tony Judt is even more forthright: "The U.S. needs thoroughly to reassess its relationship to the rest of the world" -- a promising suggestion! "Our efforts to eradicate terrorism will go for nothing if we keep uncritical company for tactical ends with rulers who practice at home the very crimes we claim to abhor." But in the end Hoffman and Judt propose only words, not deeds. Judt wants Washington to "distance itself" from repressive governments and to "take its political case" to Muslim public opinion -- presumably as Tony Blair did on the Al Jazeera satellite network. The problem is, without deeds - - that is, without actually pulling the American props out from under these governments -- there is no political case, at least not one that is likely to make much of an impression on Muslim public opinion.

But if centrists like Hoffman and Judt have little to offer, not much more can be said of the left. A Nation editorial complains, "we wish Secretary of State Powell had shown more urgency" in calling on Israel to halt settlements in the Occupied Territories. The same editorial calls for a new Marshall Plan for the Islamic world, insisting that it is "not utopian" to hope this government might sponsor such a scheme. Unfortunately it is thoroughly utopian. What this government wants in the Muslim nations is oil and "stability" -- meaning authoritarian regimes that keep the masses at bay -- not democracy and economic development. Whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge, it is by its very nature incapable of fostering anything else, and one misleads people by suggesting otherwise.

There's nothing wrong with calling on the government to do the right thing in its foreign policy, of course. Indeed, it is essential to demand that it provide things like famine relief, economic aid, sanctions on South Africa, lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia, etc. We certainly must insist that this government put pressure on Sharon to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, that it lift the cruel sanctions on Iraq, that it stop supporting repressive regimes wherever they are, and so on. But if that's it, if your strategy is mainly directed at urging those in power to be more democratic and you've based everything on this perspective, then you're facing a dead end. The only strategy that has a hope of transforming U.S. foreign policy is one that focuses on building a movement to throw both the Republicans and the Democrats out of power. As part of that effort, it makes sense to demand of the powers that be that they pursue a democratic foreign policy -- while openly stating that you know they cannot do it. A serious third party that campaigned for a new foreign policy might even extract important foreign policy concessions -- just as the anti-apartheid movement did in the 1980s -- but it would not be able to change the basic orientation of U.S. foreign policy until it won political power. The leopard will never change its spots.

A systematically democratic foreign policy, championed by an independent progressive political party, would take Americans' fears for their security seriously by arguing that real security is only possible in a democratic and egalitarian world. To start bringing this new world into being, it would propose, first of all, withdrawal of all support for dictators, kings and emirs. To counter those who insist that only by keeping these unsavory rulers in power can Americans be assured of oil supplies, the proponents of a new foreign policy would respond that democratic governments are much more reliable trading partners -- but also that a rational energy policy must emphasize the development of alternative fuels.

By promoting democracy and development, this new foreign policy would drive a wedge between the fundamentalists and the Muslim people. Its goal would not be to appease people like Osama bin Laden but to defeat him and all that he represents politically. U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia not because their presence is something bin Laden and his ilk particularly object to, but because they have no legitimate business being there in the first place.

Economic sanctions against Iraq would be ended, not because we want "peace" with Saddam Hussein; on the contrary, we should actively support all democratic forces aiming for his overthrow, even to the point of supplying them with arms. An absolutely central part of any democratic foreign policy toward the Muslim world, an indispensable proof of this country's seriousness, would be to stop all military aid to Israel and finally put serious pressure on it to withdraw completely from the Occupied Territories. The United States must give full political support to an independent, democratic Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; at least as much foreign aid as that now lavished on Israel should be given to the Palestinians, who for so long have been the victims of U.S.-backed Israeli aggression.

All military aid to the crooks and torturers who rule Egypt would be terminated forthwith. Similar action would be taken against the Turkish government, along with demands that it fully recognize the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination. Real pressure would be exerted on Russia to pull out of Chechnya. The list could go on.

This would be a program of deeds, not just words. If it were implemented, how could the Islamists capitalize on the crimes of American foreign policy to peddle their reactionary remedies? Nothing would be left but their naked ideology -- and in a democratizing Muslim world, this would have less and less appeal.

Organizing and building support for a new party and winning elections won't happen tomorrow or the next day -- but, equally obviously, it will never happen unless we start now. However, even the act of forming a significant third party that advocates a democratic foreign policy would have an enormous effect. It would encourage democratic movements throughout the world by letting them know that there is "another America" -- and that it is determined to wrest control of this country from the corporations and their political lackeys and military enforcers.

Clearly, this is not a quick fix or a panacea. It's a plan for a worldwide political offensive against both the powerful with their oppressive status quo and those totalitarian, terrorist forces that attempt to usurp the struggle of the oppressed. This idea is in the tradition of independent "third camp" socialism, the tradition that has inspired New Politics since its birth in 1961. During the Cold War, independent socialists sought to rally an international third camp of democratic movements and political parties in opposition to both the American and Soviet dominated war camps, and against both capitalism and Stalinist Communism. Today, a new political party in the United States would constitute an important part of a new third camp or third force, committed to democracy and equality everywhere.

A tall order, certainly. But it is the height of folly to think there is a quick fix. The war is no quick fix, nor is the continuation of current American policies toward the Muslim world. In fact they are recipes for more terrorism, more suffering, more of what we've got and much worse. If we are ever to live in a free and secure world, we had better get busy now with the hard work of organizing a real left opposition.




* This doesn’t mean it was wrong to call for sanctions, of course. It was right, in part because sanctions themselves did not increase the ability of the American Establishment to control the popular movement in South Africa. By contrast, the no-fly zone over Iraq is intimately connected to American imperial domination of the Persian Gulf, with all that that entails in terms of a massive U.S. military presence in the region, backing the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, etc. In the first case, opponents of apartheid demanded, in effect, that the U.S. stop acting like an empire — Cold War policy and the need to protect American investments had been the main reason Washington had supported the Pretoria government. In the second case, the call for air cover in no way challenged America’s “right” to continuing playing its imperial role. return

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