New Internationalist

Rogue superpower

Issue 347

Sympathy for the American people, and the easy charge of ‘anti-Americanism’, have restrained debate on what the US Government has really been up to since 11 September. David Ransom doesn’t like the look of it – or where it may be leading.

With alarming speed, what began as a series of crimes against humanity has become the pretext for war against anyone the US Government cares to nominate as an enemy. Like the collapse of the Twin Towers themselves, this result must be well beyond the most deranged imaginings of whoever was responsible for 11 September. The only way to deny the perpetrators satisfaction was, and still is, to bring them to justice. A supremely difficult task, no doubt, but scarcely beyond the wit of humanity to accomplish. Instead, the crimes have been compounded. An undeclared war has been visited from the air on the people of Afghanistan – none of whom was involved in 11 September – using weapons like ‘daisy cutters’ that come as close to mass destruction as it is possible to get. Already, by 7 December 2001, more Afghani civilians had been killed by the bombing than died in the World Trade Center;1 a far greater number suffer from displacement and hunger. Afghanis have been relieved of the Taliban only to be subjected again to the drug barons and warlords of the Northern Alliance. And war in Afghanistan continues.

In the wider ‘war on terrorism’ thousands of people have been detained without trial or evidence, other than their ethnic identity. Hundreds of non-prisoners of a non-war languish in cages in Cuba or Afghanistan, facing indefinite detention without charge, perfunctory tribunals and possible execution. The fate of Osama bin Laden himself is unclear. Whatever they have all been brought to, justice it most certainly isn’t.

Hundreds of non-prisoners of a non-war languish in cages in Cuba or Afghanistan... Whatever they have all been brought to, justice it most certainly isn’t

Even so, according to opinion polls three-quarters of Americans expect another major attack before the year is out – scarcely a vote of confidence in the lavish security apparatus that so patently failed to protect them on 11 September. All this at the behest of a US regime whose democratic legitimacy bears some comparison with that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. From the outset, opportunist ‘hawks’ in the US administration urged the extension of the new war well beyond al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Top of their list was Saddam Hussein – though there is no evidence that he was involved in the events of 11 September, or that he is actively promoting international terrorism now. So a different crime had to be devised for him: developing weapons of mass destruction. In this Saddam is scarcely alone. But, since there are no UN weapons inspectors left in Iraq, how do we know that he is guilty? The evidence relies on two sources: disgruntled Iraqi exiles and ‘new analysis’ of old reports from the last UN inspectors (Saddam may have been responsible for their departure, but the process was being abused to serve US interests as well).

However, the truth is that it doesn’t much matter whether or not there is evidence – or whether UN inspectors return to Iraq. For more than a decade the US and Britain have been bombing the ‘no-fly zones’ of Iraq anyway. Prior to that they were, of course, promoting Saddam as a counterweight to revolutionary Iran. No-one doubts that had Washington wished to rid itself of Saddam it could have done so during the Gulf War, when he was no less of a despot than he is now. But strategic interests dictated otherwise. When there was an uprising against Saddam in the Shi’ite south, the US sat on its hands. A breakaway Shi’ite south, or a Kurdish state in the north, would have ‘destabilized’ the region, and Turkey in particular: Saddam was a necessary evil. To this extent, it is thanks to Washington that he is still in power. Little has changed in the region over the last decade, other than a reordering of US priorities since 11 September and a readiness to act alone, without the endorsement of the UN.

Whatever interest the Iraqi people might have in their own country is of no consequence. Nor could it be otherwise, since it is safe to assume that the West in general, and the US and British Governments in particular, are the focus of an anger that will endure in the Iraqi people for generations to come. After all, many thousands of their children have suffered and died as a result of the radioactive detritus of the war and US-inspired, UN-sponsored sanctions. It is disingenuous to blame Saddam Hussein entirely for this, though culpable he undoubtedly is. Anyone at the UN with any sense of personal responsibility for the human consequences of sanctions has quit in shame and disgust. Only complete ‘strategic’ indifference could have allowed sanctions and Saddam to combine to such savage effect upon Iraqi civilians.

Of course the world shares the responsibility to rid itself of despots – and to avoid creating them in the first place. The US may like to think its record is impeccable in this respect. But for every Hitler or ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier it has opposed there have been a dozen others it has installed – Saddam being only the most pertinent at the moment. His eventual successor, duly anointed by Washington, will doubtless follow suit, as the endless sequence of poodles turned predators continues.

What is at stake here is not only how the US perceives its own ‘security’ after 11 September, but also how the world is to cope with a rogue superpower. If we are to judge by the number of international agreements the Bush administration has been tearing up, the prospects look bleak indeed. One reason why the term ‘axis of evil’ has been injected into US diplomatic language may well be that ‘rogue state’, the term it replaces, can be applied rather too aptly to the US itself.

It is now spreading its wings over a military empire on which it spends in excess of 60 per cent of the world’s military budget. Anyone who ventures to object, at the UN at least, would do well to remember that the US Government has formal agreements to station its troops in more than 100 countries – a majority of UN members.

Now, in a leaked – and not disavowed – list of potential targets, from Russia and China to Iran and Iraq, Washington has signalled its willingness to use nuclear weapons wherever ‘terrorists’ might conceivably acquire such weapons themselves.2 This implies pre-emptive ‘first use’ – something that was never advocated even during the darkest days of the Cold War. The reason for this was simple enough. If the use of nuclear weapons were not confined to defensive retaliation against another nuclear state, nuclear warfare would become very much more thinkable and thus very much more doable. A Rubicon would have been crossed.

If George W Bush isn’t aware of this, US military planners most certainly are. They anticipate a missile-defence system that will give them immunity from nuclear attack – even though, post-11 September, the threat to the American people is more likely to come from a suitcase than from a ballistic missile. Without the fear of retaliation, the fuse for a nuclear first strike gets significantly shorter – shorter still with the ‘smart’ nuclear weapons that are being perfected with renewed enthusiasm.

An invasion of Iraq is now being planned by the US military. Since it no longer expects to suffer significant casualties in war, in order to avoid them during such an invasion the threat and even the use of ‘smart’ nuclear weapons is a distinct possibility. Not to be outdone, UK Secretary of Defence Geoff Hoon confirmed in March 2002 that British policy would also ‘in extreme circumstances include the use of nuclear weapons’.3

We are, truly, sleepwalking towards nuclear warfare.

Meanwhile, the ‘war on terrorism’ has degenerated into a mere settling of old scores. Insecure rulers everywhere have launched their own versions, accompanied in some cases by proliferating – if tacit – nuclear threats: Israel against Palestinians, Colombia against the drug barons and guerrillas, India and Pakistan against each other, Russia against the Chechens, China against its minorities. In places like Burma, despots sigh with relief as the spotlight passes them by. Only in Sri Lanka has sanity prevailed. There a cease fire between the Tamil Tigers and the Government was negotiated without reference to the ‘war on terrorism’ at all.

Hard to recall now that display of dignity by the people of New York on 11 September, the absence of any baying for blood by the victims themselves. Difficult not to forget the brief three weeks thereafter, when – even as the US military primed its bombs – there was still the fragile hope that the world’s outrage might be mobilized in favour of justice rather than revenge. How recklessly has all that been squandered.

We are, truly, sleepwalking towards nuclear warfare

Even so, ‘America’ is not the villain and the rest of us are not mere innocent bystanders. For one thing, there is a deep vein of radical dissent in the US. It may have been constricted by the paradox of imperial insecurity: the fear of perceived weakness that compels the obsessive application of military power; the fear of losing wealth that compels the obsessive accumulation of it. But very little can be done about America other than by the American people themselves. And very little will ever be done by the American people unless it is also being done by people in the rest of the world as well, not least about our own complicit governments. As things stand, terror is being deployed to fight a war on terror; weapons of mass destruction to fight a war on weapons of mass destruction; fundamentalist zeal to fight a war on fundamentalist zeal. An abstraction (‘terrorism’) has joined a chemical substance (‘drugs’) as the justification for unconfined violence, bypassing altogether the issues that matter most to the majority in a dangerously dividing, environmentally unsustainable world.

History suggests that the distance between the thinkable and the doable is no greater than that between the doable and the done deed. If nothing else, 11 September should have reminded us of that. Would that the same lesson were applied with equal vigour to the search for global justice.

David Ransom is a co-editor of the New Internationalist.

  1. A detailed study by Professor Marc Herold, University of New Hampshire, put the figure at 3,800: he added that ‘the figure I came up with is a very, very conservative estimate’. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/
  2. Classified sect

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