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7 November 2001
The hijackings and mass murders of September 11 were horrible and momentous, but the world did not suddenly change on that crystal-clear morning. Existing cracks in the US-led world order widened and deepened, and lurking insecurities strode forth from the shadows. The current spectacle of the world's richest country bombing Afghanistan -- where the average life expectancy is 43 -- cannot resolve the crisis of global governance sharpened so painfully on September 11, whether or not the US achieves its military objectives of capturing or killing alleged mastermind Osama bin Laden and ridding the country of the thuggish Taliban.
In the US and abroad, opposition to the war, however nuanced, is kept outside the sphere of legitimate politics by the Manichean rhetoric of the Bush administration and the security forces of its client regimes. Most of all, the September 11 attacks highlight the inadequacy and danger of this approach to managing the contradictions generated by the imbalance of global power.
GIANT STEP BACKWARD
The economic stimulus package passed by the House of Representatives in late October (and in the Senate at press time) reveals the extent of corporate influence in the Bush administration. With thousands of people newly unemployed -- including many rendered jobless by the World Trade Center catastrophe -- in the shell-shocked economy, conservative Republicans rammed through a bill that distributes most of the stimulus in the form of retroactive tax rebates for multinational corporations. Common Cause projects that the top 14 corporate contributors of soft money to 2000 election campaigns would get $6.3 billion in refunded taxes if the House bill became law. (That's nearly $19 to corporations for every dollar the US is spending on relief efforts for Afghan refugees.) Senate resistance may dilute the worst provisions of the House package, but the final bill will certainly be a giant step backward for social justice in the US.
On September 25, the Bush administration scoffed again at international law when it announced support for the so-called American Servicemembers Protection Act, a brainchild of Jesse Helms designed to short-circuit the planned International Criminal Court, to which President Bill Clinton grudgingly signed on immediately before leaving office. Helms's bill authorizes the executive branch to use "all means necessary" to remove US citizens or allies accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity from the Court's custody. Meanwhile, Bush's trade representative Robert Zoellick, seeking fast-track authority for a new round of World Trade Organization negotiations before the November 9 ministerial meeting in Qatar, averred that US-style neoliberalism "promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle" against terrorism. Developing countries which might have resisted a new round in Doha will now think twice, lest the US place them on the wrong side of the "us versus them" divide.
Rather than ushering in an entirely new era, the September 11 attacks and the war on terrorism mark a flashpoint in the ongoing crisis of the unipolar world order. The US presides (or pretends to) over a world racked by poverty, growing inequality, sectarian strife and environmental degr adation, but seems scarcely disturbed by the contradictions. In the 1990s, US unilateralism showed itself in the pursuit of unpopular policy goals like harsh sanctions on Iraq, generous military aid to Israel and compulsory structural adjustment for indebted economies, matched by the obstruction of more popular initiatives on everything from the International Criminal Court to environmental protections to arms control.
The current US retaliation depends for domestic support on extrapolating the hijackers' presumed antipathy beyond two of the most visible symbols of American corporate and military power. Precisely this transformation occurred in the media within hours: these were not attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but attacks on "all of America." Those who died on September 11 were certainly normal people just going to work, but it would be naive to ignore what these buildings signify to the many people in the world who live on the other side of the US superpower equation. Saddening displays of resentful glee in the Middle East and not so subtle shrugs of ambivalence across the developing world bespeak a widespread feeling that the US is an overweening empire that finally tasted the violence and despair endured elsewhere as a matter of course.
REGISTERS OF ISLAM
Additionally, it is important to recognize the degree to which Islam has been a register of political opposition, not only to the despotism and corruption of various Arab regimes, but also to US and Israeli hegemony in the region. The question usually asked -- "What in Islam has led to these events?" -- needs to be replaced by another: "What about the modern history of the Middle East has led political opposition to take a decidedly religious form?" Part of the answer is to be found in the politics of state-building and modernization in the region. "Moderate" secular states -- such as Algeria, Israel, Egypt, Turkey or Iran under the Shah -- began with the premise that Islam was a problem to be overcome or co-opted. In such countries, numerous laws confining, suppressing or monopolizing the public practice of Islam helped to transform religion into the focal point for political struggle. That Islamist activists under these regimes have been jailed, exiled, tortured and executed for their beliefs has done little to advance the cause of secularism.
Certainly, the responses of these players to the hijackings augur ill for regional stability. To the world's misfortune, the White House is now occupied by men and women who believe that US unilateralism is a virtue as well as a necessity. The patina of evangelical Christianity coating the administration's policy pronouncements is revealing: Bush's use of the word "crusade" to describe the war on terrorism was more than just a public relations faux pas. If anything, the attacks bolstered the hard-line unilateralists in the Bush administration, and deepened their willingness to turn a blind eye to the excesses of allies who claim to be fighting terrorism. Administration hawks talk loudly of widening the war to encompass Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The Saudi princes accept Bush's assurances that media scrutiny of US reliance on the Kingdom's oil will not diminish Washington's enthusiasm for the US-Saudi relationship. Taking into account the simultaneous aid packages to Israel and pledges of suppor t to "moderate" Arab regimes, US Middle East policy looks on track to maintain tightly and precariously managed conflict in the region.
Meanwhile, the generals in Islamabad will not cooperate with US-sponsored nation-building in Afghanistan unless they handpick the nation-builders. Scant days after Operation Enduring Freedom commenced, the phrase "moderate Taliban" had already crept into official US prognostications about Afghanistan's political future. Neither these curious apparitions nor the US-backed Northern Alliance are likely to accommodate all the ethnic groups represented among Afghanistan's four million refugees or ameliorate the now notorious persecution of Afghan women. (The frisson of American activism dramatizing the plight of women under Taliban rule must seem odd to Afghan mothers made refugees by US bombing.) More to the point, continued US-Pakistani interference in Afghan politics does not seem likely to contribute to long-term security in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Seen from the vantage point of containment strategies, the war on terrorism so far appears to be little more than a panicked exercise in crisis management.
As governments worldwide place national security above all else, the glimmers of internationalism espied in the 1990s are fading. Internationalist ventures -- both official ones like the International Criminal Court and bottom-up surges like the post-Seattle global justice movement -- face a newly ambient nationalism and a rejuvenated right-wing power structure. Public discourse continually asks why "they" hate "us" without stopping to ponder the categories. That the Bush administration has chosen this path is doubly damning: the September 11 disasters could have presented a rare chance to steer global power dynamics onto a distinctly less ominous course.
Elliott Colla and Chris Toensing.