The new US ruthlessness may turn out to be a greater threat than the Islamist fanaticism that provoked it
The Guardian, Monday November 19, 2001Over the past few days, I've been ordered on to a strict diet of my words. A stream of emails arrived from American readers with plenty of advice (get laid, get pregnant, shut your fat legs, shut up) and prognostications for my future (you'll be fired). One told me that I made them feel sick: "untouched by our tragedy, yet [you] feel the right to criticise our country's actions". One asked if "you have a molecule of shame or humility within your entire being?" and promised to pray for me. Another asked: "how stupid do you feel now?... this is one of the best wars ever fought" and another asked: "as the US war on terror becomes increasingly successful, could the world say 'thank you'?".
Thank God for the volume of seawater which puts these kind of nutters on another continent. It's not so much the fine line in misogynistic abuse from US patriots, but the intolerance of debate and diversity of opinion which is really frightening. But the truth is that this kind of emotional intensity has also seeped into the war on this side of the Atlantic - entrenched camps for and against are waging a bitter war of words over the heads of a majority who are worried and confused, but see no alternative to war.
Fear drives this kind of emotional intensity. It is a pitifully short time, only two months, since we learned of a ruthlessness born of fanaticism which we had not thought possible; our perception of human nature is having to painfully readjust to the revelation of a capacity for calmly premeditated brutality. I'm sure that fear has influenced my continuing conviction that waging war on Afghanistan is unlikely in the long term to defeat that kind of ruthless Islamist terrorism, and is very likely to have disastrous consequences for the poor benighted country itself. I very much hope I will be proved wrong.
It must have been so comforting to have been swept up in the emotional euphoria of VK day. It was the ultimate Disney ending after a month of nation-builders' storytelling. If only it were that simple. But even on VK day, the excited reporters and commentators surrounded by a telegenic rabble of boys curious at television cameras found no echo among anxious Afghan women, most of whom remained behind their burkas.
Nor did the VK story last long, quickly replaced by the tension of warlords struggling to position themselves; in Jalalabad, young men jostled around the cameras, their eyes, cartridge belts and guns all gleaming, poised for what they know best - waging war.
And yet, it's not even those Jalalabad warriors that have made the last week's events so troubling, but the growing appreciation of just how ruthless and ambitious the US is likely to become in its war against terrorism. What the events of the past few days have starkly revealed is that the US had only one interest in this war in Afghanistan, capturing Bin Laden and destroying al-Qaida; that imperative outstripped all considerations of Afghanistan's future. So the timing of the attack was decided by US military preparedness rather than any coherent political strategy for the region, and the US war aim determined the crucial switch in tactics around November 4 when the US decided to throw its weight behind the unsavoury Northern Alliance by bombing the Taliban frontlines.
For the US, the whole country of Afghanistan is collateral damage. Or, to put it another way, a little hors d'oeuvre before they move on to the next course - Somalia, Yemen or, most worryingly of all, Iraq? The latter is already being openly touted in Washington as a possibility for the "second stage" and tension is growing in the Gulf region. Meanwhile, as far as the US is concerned, the UK with its nation-building agenda, the UN and everyone else is welcome to spend their soldiers' lives on the onerous task of clearing up the mess the US bombing has left behind, freeing it to concentrate on the next task.
All this strengthens the view that what we have to fear from September 11 is not just Islamist fanaticism, but the US response to it. Indeed, the latter could well prove a far greater threat to the stability of many countries, further stoking the Islamist fanaticism it seeks to extinguish. The template has been developed in Afghanistan: lavish bribery of neighbours, unchecked deployment of vicious military hardware, keep US soldiers out of it and use others to do the fighting. It is a foreign policy of brute force and it draws legitimacy within the US from a lethal combination of three factors: a profound sense of righteous anger, the reality of unchallenged economic and military power and a pervasive ignorance of and indifference to the rest of the world.
To increase the danger, the US actions are unchecked by fear of another superpower and, at present, unchecked by its usually vibrant civil society where debate about the purposes or methods of the war against terrorism has been cowed into virtual silence in the mainstream. The result is that an ugly ruthlessness is creeping into US political culture. For example, "physical interrogation" or torture is proposed in the columns of Newsweek while President Bush signs an order allowing military tribunals of suspected terrorists in private and without a jury, for the first time since the second world war.
In time we may come to see the disastrous timing of a rightwing presidency intent on asserting US unilateralism assuming power shortly before September 11: that tragic catastrophe has provided the moral mandate at home and the freedom for manoeuvre from allies for such a unilateralist policy. For all the US has needed western support for its war, we seem to have been singularly unsuccessful in extracting in return any compromises on US unilateralism. Putin's protestations on NMD are brushed off, and barely a murmur is raised in criticism of the US's failure to deliver its climate change plan while the world went ahead in Marrakesh last week.
From the start, this administration has been unabashed, denying any sense of responsibility to anyone other than its own citizens. Now, everyone has the almighty headache of how they are to tiptoe round and placate this raging colossus. Blair, white with exhaustion, has opted for the role of chief cheerleader, and while it may incense some that Britain, like every other country, is reduced to such impotence, the harsh reality is that it was AOS - all options stink. Bush will use and discard Blair, and the British prime minister is likely to be one among many casualties.
The Labour party has traditionally been deeply split over the conduct of US foreign policy. Vietnam, Central and Latin America and the Iran-contra affair all provoked intense controversy. That was bad enough, but we were not involved in playing the supporting role. At the risk of further incensing my American correspondents, the manipulation of the CIA in Central America could come to seem like child's play compared with what we are likely to glimpse over the next decade.