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America's Long Shadow: Six Months After September 11, It Is No Longer Islamist Terror We Are Afraid of But the US Nuclear Hitlist

11 March 2002

It is six months to the day that Mohammed Atta stepped on to the Boston-LA flight that destroyed the World Trade Center. The anniversary provides a deceptively neat sense of the conclusion of chapter one of America's response - the grief, the memorials, the celebration of heroism, the coalition building, the rooting out of the Taliban - and the beginning of chapter two. But be warned: if there were themes in chapter one you didn't much like, the latter will be very much worse, already characterized by determined vengefulness and unbridled opportunism: "Hey, had an enemy pre-September 11? Now's your chance to nuke them."

It was revealed at the weekend that the US has contingency plans for a nuclear attack on seven countries - Russia, China, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria. This revelation followed a week of speculation about war with Iraq. In preparation for this next stage of the war against terrorism, the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, will today present Tony Blair with his wish list - a 25,000-strong UK force prepared for an Iraqi trip.

For the first time, one of the chief architects of America's response to September 11 is venturing abroad, and it prompts two questions. Will Cheney grasp the perception common outside the US that never has a nation squandered sympathy and moral advantage so quickly and with such wantonness? And if he does, will he care? Does America mind becoming a global hate figure? What happens to the mentality of a country when it's not loved, only feared? What patterns of aggressive defensiveness take root? These are the questions that trigger anxiety: as the memory of September 11 inevitably fades, it is not so much Islamist hijackers as US bombs that make the world feel a precarious place.

Mr Cheney may be too insulated to feel it on his 12-country tour, but anti-Americanism can never have been so widespread and fed by so many different streams of political antagonism. The Arab-Israeli conflict is the centerpiece, but RW Johnson, writing in the current issue of Prospect on the Durban anti-racism conference last summer, is a reminder of the anti-Americanism that existed before September 11. Throughout the developing world, the "Washington consensus" is blamed for the imposition of economic policies. That chimes with a new and strident anti-Americanism from the anti-globalization movement, and recharges older traditions of hostility to US power and its cultural hegemony, traditionally strong on the left and in Europe.

All the evidence is that America is indifferent to international criticism, absorbed in a dialogue with itself. How else do we account for a week in which the US threatened a trade war over steel, while bombing Gardez, opening bases across central Asia, beating the drum on Iraq and preparing nuclear war? All that against a backdrop of a wholesale retreat from multilateralism in the past six months, whether on climate change, biological weapons, arms control, development aid, the international criminal court or peacekeeping. Compared with these, the Afghan war was a minor moral dilemma. It is already fading fast, relegated to downpage stories of squabbles between brutal warlords.

America has become a problem, and every commentator is visibly wriggling around it, wrestling with how to accommodate George Bush's America with a lifetime of respect for American creativity, meritocracy and cultural vibrancy. It has become de rigueur among a generation of commentators such as Fred Halliday, Will Hutton and John Lloyd to castigate anti-Americanism before acknowledging their own concerns about US power. Storms have rocked teacups at both the London Review of Books and the New Statesman over this new debate.

For it does feel like a new debate. This is not a question of reheating the leftovers from Vietnam or Chile. A new generation barely remembers either of them, let alone the cold war politics that underpinned them. Rather, this anti-Americanism debate principally concerns globalization: first, the questions about how and whether this process can be managed and the multilateral institutions to do that; and second, how to respond to the violent and powerless political identities globalization triggers, whether they be Hindu mobs in Gujarat or the Taliban. On both, the response of the world's only superpower is a combination of indifference and aggression, and it fails to acknowledge any responsibilities other than to its own electorate.

So what can you do about it? Not much. It is impotence that charges this debate with a particular anguish. However much we rant and rail, American power is an immovable reality. Two freshly minted US statistics strike that point home: GDP per person is 54% more than in Europe, and the US spends $28,000 for every member of its armed forces on military R&D compared with Europe's $7,000. US economic and military supremacy is secure for at least a generation. So how does any country position itself in the Manichean worldview of Republican America, of good versus evil? Or as Newt Gingrich summed it up: "There are only two teams on the planet in this war - there are no neutrals."

Mr Blair doesn't appear to have hesitated before signing up to the US team. Power is always seductive and particularly so to New Labour, which refashioned itself around the principle of gaining and keeping that precious commodity. That has translated neatly into a foreign policy of assiduously hanging on to US shirt tails, which gives Blair the chance of fried catfish on Bush's Texan ranch next month. Such tokens apart, what benefits has Britain reaped from its slavish support for the US since September 11? The answer is none, only a series of snubs on issues as diverse as peacekeeping in Afghanistan, development aid and steel. "Poodle" screamed the Mirror's front page at Blair last Friday.

Are there any limits beyond which Blair would not go in support of the US? We have yet to get such necessary reassurance. Instead, Blair softens us up with anti-Iraq propaganda, and it becomes plausible that he might hitch his wagon of liberal interventionism - what David Marquand lavishly praises as "liberal patriotism" - to a US ground invasion of Iraq. That would be a fabulous act of political self-immolation.

Unless Blair can show more results for his catfish, he will find a left wing in open mutiny - and they won't be fobbed off with fox hunting - not to mention his core constituency, middle England, whose lack of enthusiasm for a battle with Iraq was made clear in a survey in yesterday's Mail on Sunday. To middle England, Iraq is not their quarrel, and it is increasingly ill at ease with a sense of lost British independence of spirit, squeezed between Washington and Brussels. It is that latter sentiment - that fond British desire to be "one's own man" - which Iain Duncan Smith could richly exploit. Anti-Americanism, in its many manifestations, is rapidly becoming a political force to be reckoned with, and Blair can't rely on Disney and Florida package holidays to keep the British on side.

Madeleine Bunting
Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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