Washington and the "War against Terror": Gaining Ground or Losing Momentum?

Walden Bello argues that with the war on terror, the US is caught in a relentlessly expanding conflict from which there is no easy withdrawal.

War against Terror: A sign held up by some commie protestors in San Francisco. (Chance Gardener/Flickr)

Walden Bello

29 April 2002

Six months after the launching of the global war against terror, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US is caught in a relentlessly expanding conflict from which there is no easy withdrawal.

Trying to keep up the momentum of its war against terror after it declared "victory" in Afghanistan in early January, the US sent troops to the Philippines that same month to help hunt down members of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group that it alleged had ties with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network. Nearly three months later, some 60 to 80 bandits continue to elude 6,000 Filipino troops coached by 160 US advisers.

The Philippines, an ex-colony, seemed to be a convenient choice as a site for expanding the war against terror as Washington debated from January to March a far more important question: whether or not to take out Saddam Hussein. But just as the faction favoring an invasion of Iraq appeared to have gained the upper hand, the brutal Israeli sweep into the West Bank threw a monkey wrench on US calculations, which had rested on the assumption of political support from the pro-US Arab states.

Vindication or Repudiation?

Meanwhile, the realities of the Afghanistan campaign that filtered out after the ouster of the Taliban have punctured the triumphalist mood that reigned last December. The idea that Afghanistan vindicated a new strategy of warfighting based on the employment of massive precision-guided airpower with little commitment of ground troops is now less persuasive. Thousands of civilians apparently died owing to less than precise bombing, and scores of people allied to the United States were targeted and killed by US forces acting on bad intelligence. Relying on Afghan mercenaries to do the fighting on the ground for the US resulted in Osama bin Laden's escape from the Tora Bora mountains. And when US troops did engage in close-quarters fighting with the Taliban/Al-Qaeda forces in the Gardez area near Pakistan in early March, they were bloodied by an enemy that was supposed to be on the run.

Though it has not achieved its prime objective of capturing bin Laden or dismantling the Al-Qaeda network, Washington thinks it has the strategic initiative. It seems to be the case, however, that it has launched itself into a multi-front war of attrition where it cannot consolidate victory on any front.

The momentum is also being lost on the political front. As the military campaign lessened in intensity in Afghanistan, the United Nations was brought in to broker a political settlement that would usher in representative democracy while the European Union was dragged in to police the peace via a British-led armed contingent. It has become clear, however, that the centralized authority that had been forged by the Taliban has given way to the return of warlord hegemony in different parts of the country, and the role of the security force is increasingly to keep the ex-partners in the Northern Alliance from cutting each other's throats. "Quagmire" is a word that is more and more frequently used in the US press to describe the Afghan situation.

As Afghanistan slides into anarchy, Pakistan's Gen. Musharraf has been destabilized and delegitimized by American pressure to take sides in the war against terror. The prestige of Islamic fundamentalists among the population is now probably greater than before September 11. Saudi Arabia is seething with discontent, and Washington faces the unpleasant prospect of having to serve ultimately as a police force between an increasingly isolated Saudi elite and a restive youthful population that regards bin Laden as a hero.

Washington's tilt towards Israel has not helped in shoring up the legitimacy of its Arab allies, including Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, among their people. Israel is the great spoiler of the US effort to manage the Middle East, and it can get away with it because it can rely on its massive support in the US Congress to blunt pressure from the US executive, as the brazen Israeli moves to destroy the Palestinian Authority in defiance of Washington recently demonstrated.

Indeed, the Afghan fiasco and Israeli intransigence, it can be argued, have combined to make Washington's strategic situation in the Middle East worse rather than better. Nor have there been any political or military gains in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia maintaining its distance from Washington and the US buildup in the Philippines becoming more controversial by the day. The introduction of US forces in some of the Central Asian republics -- the so-called "Stans" -- may, on the surface, seem to be a strategic plus, especially when one takes into consideration the energy reserves of the area. However, with the failure to achieve decisive military or political victory on any front, Washington's Central Asian deployment may actually be a case of overextension.

The Assault on Civil Liberties

The scant success on the international front is, however, more than made up for by gains on the domestic front-gains that is from the perspective of the Republican Right that is now in power in Washington. The war against terror knows no borders, so the war at home must be pursued with equal vigor. Sept 11 was Pearl Harbor II and the Bush administration tells Americans that they are now in the midst of total war like World War II. Not even the Cold War was presented in such totalistic terms as the "War against Terror." Laws and executive orders restricting the rights to privacy and free movement have been passed with a speed and in a manner that would have turned Joe McCarthy green with envy. The United States was scarcely three months into the war when legislation had already been passed and executive orders signed that established secret military tribunals to try non-US citizens; imposed guilt by association on immigrants; authorized the Attorney General to indefinitely lock up aliens on mere suspicion; expanded the use of wiretaps and secret searches; allowed the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings that aliens cannot confront or rebut; destroyed the secrecy of the client-lawyer relationship by allowing the government to listen in; and institutionalized racial and ethnic profiling.

Canada and Washington's European allies rushed to do the same thing--with many of them taking advantage, like Washington, of the anti-terrorist climate to try to push through a whole raft of legislation that had been waiting on the wings before September 11. Unlike in the US, however, citizens and parliaments did not go as gently into that good night--including, surprisingly, the British Parliament, which shot down Tony Blair's draconian proposal to allow prosecutors to apprehend and indefinitely jail any foreigner suspected of terrorism.

That healthy European skepticism was absent in the United States, where right-opportunism and mass hysteria combined to inflict what may be far-reaching damage to American political culture. Americans have often prided themselves with having a political system whose role is to maximize and protect individual liberty along the lines propounded by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. That Lockean-Jeffersonian tradition has been rudely overturned in the last few months, as Americans have been stampeded to giving government vast new powers over the individual in the name of guaranteeing order and security. Instead of moving to the future, America's limited democracy has regressed in its inspiration from the seventeenth century Locke to the sixteenth century Hobbes, whose masterwork Leviathan held that citizens owe unconditional loyalty to a state that guarantees the security of their life and limb.

The extent to which assaults on traditional liberties can now take place with impunity was illustrated during a memorable Senate hearing when Attorney General John Ashcroft said that critics of the Bush administration's security measures were fear-mongers "who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty [and] aid terrorists." The fact that liberal, Democrat senators against whom these remarks were directed dared not respond shows how skillfully the conservatives have used the anti-terrorist struggle to win the real war at home, which is the war against liberals and progressives. It is only recently that significant Democrats have moved to speak against curtailment of civil liberties, and rather timidly at that.

Deus ex Machina

Washington's post-September 11 moves cannot be understood simply as a reaction to the terrorist attacks. In classical drama, September 11 was what you called a deus ex machina--an external force or event that swings a destiny that hangs in the balance in favor of one of the protagonists. The Al-Qaeda New York mission was the best possible gift to the US and the global establishment in the pre-September 11 historical conjuncture. Just a few weeks before, some 300,000 people had marched in Genoa in the biggest show of force yet of a wave of anti-corporate globalization movements that had gone from strength to strength with demonstrations in Seattle, Washington, DC, Chiang Mai, Prague, Nice, Porto Alegre, Honolulu, and Gothenburg.

The Genoa protests underlined the fact that the legitimacy of the key institutions of global economic governance - the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) - was at an all time low, as was the whole doctrine of liberalization, deregulation, and privatization that came under the rubric of neoliberal economics or the "Washington Consensus." This erosion of credibility had been brought about by a concatenation of disasters including the Asian financial crisis, the slow-motion disaster of structural adjustment in Africa and Latin America, and the spread of the financial crisis, first to Russia and Brazil and then to Argentina.

What made the crisis of legitimacy of the key institutions of capitalist globalization so volatile is that it intersected with a profound structural crisis of the global economy. The main features of this structural crisis were overproduction in industry, increasing monopolization to counter the loss of profitability, and unregulated speculative activity in the financial markets. When $4.6 trillion in industrial wealth - the equivalent of one half of the US GDP - was wiped out in late 2000 and early 2001, the so-called "New Economy" vanished and collapsed into recession. The global reach of the recession and its depth have given rise to the term "synchronized downturn," which describes a process caused precisely by the greater interlocking and integration of economies brought about by the global liberalization of trade, investment, and finance. With globalization's promise of prosperity, an end to poverty, and reduced inequality evaporating, it was not surprising that, as C. Fred Bergsten told the Trilateral Commission, the anti-globalization forces were "in the ascendancy."

Before September 11, moreover, an erosion of legitimacy haunted not only the institutions of global economic governance but also the institutions of political governance in the North, particularly the United States. Increasing numbers of Americans had begun to realize that their liberal democracy had been so thoroughly corrupted by corporate money politics that it deserved being designated a plutocracy. In the US presidential campaign of 2000, Senator John McCain ran a popular campaign that was centered on one issue: reforming a system of corporate control of the electoral system that, in scale, was unparalleled in the world.

The fact that the candidate most favored by Big Business lost the popular vote - and according to some studies, the electoral vote as well - and still ended up president of the world's most powerful liberal democracy did not help in shoring up the legitimacy of a political system that had been described by many observers as already being in a state of "cultural civil war" between conservatives and liberals, a polarization that had roughly half the country on each side of the divide.

Reversal of Fortune I

While understanding the deep sense of injustice that makes terrorists out of ordinary people, progressives have always condemned terrorism, not only because it takes innocent lives but also because it provides an opening for the counterrevolution. Indeed, post-September 11 events unfolded according to the historical script.

The smoke from the ruins of the World Trade Center was still acrid and thick when United States Trade Representative Robert Zoellick seized the opportunity it provided to regain the momentum for corporate-driven globalization. Arguing that accelerated liberalization was necessary to counter September 11's blow against the world economy, Zoellick, European Union Commissioner Pascal Lamy, and World Trade Organization Director General Mike Moore led the charge to stampede the developing countries into approving the launching of a new phase of trade liberalization during the Fourth Ministerial of the WTO in Doha, Qatar, last November. The Doha Declaration set the bicycle of trade liberalization that is the WTO back upright and in motion after its collapse in Seattle.

Horst Kohler, managing director of the IMF, and Jim Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, also saw the war as an opportunity to reverse the crisis of their institutions. Kohler has cheerfully cooperated in turning the Fund into a key component of Washington's overall program for strategic states like Pakistan and Indonesia, even as it left a non-strategic country like Argentina, which faces imminent bankruptcy, twisting in the wind. His presidency and his institution threatened by a pincer movement of criticism from the left and the right, Jim Wolfensohn, for his part, has seized on September 11 to project his institution as the key partner of the Pentagon in the war against terrorism, filling the "soft" role of addressing the poverty that breeds terrorism while the Pentagon plays the "hard" role of blasting the terrorists.

As for the crisis of political governance in the US, September 11 turned George W. Bush from a minority president whose party lost control of the Senate into arguably the most powerful US president in recent times - and one with an overall job approval rating of 86 per cent, according to a recent New York Times poll. Nearly eight in 10 Americans support his policy of indefinite detention for non-citizens suspected of being a threat to national security, and seven in 10 support the government listening in on conversations between clients and their lawyers. Liberals have been thoroughly cowed, with Harvard liberal luminary Laurence Tribe condoning the use of military tribunals and the indefinite detention of over 1,200 people, while his equally famous colleague Alan Dershowitz has, according to The Nation, "suggested that the use of torture may be justified, as long as it is authorized by a warrant."

Fighting for the Future

The anti-corporate globalization movement that had been surging before September 11 found itself fighting desperately to regain momentum. Three developments were particularly threatening:

First, the police, after being pilloried for provocateur-type tactics in Genoa, regained their confidence in the new context marked by greater public acceptance of limitations on basic political rights.

Second, the definition of "terrorist" that is being used in both European and American legislation is so vague that it can be applied to non-violent groups that espouse civil disobedience, which is an essential weapon of the movement, or to groups that do some damage to property but in a symbolic fashion that harms nobody.

Third, big anti-globalization events involve the massing of hundreds of thousands of people across borders, and this can now be easily thwarted invoking the new legislation legalizing the arbitrary questioning, detention, expulsion, or refusal of entry to foreigners on the mere grounds of suspicion of their being terrorists, terrorist supporters, or terrorist fellow travelers - in short, anybody that can be conveniently tainted with the terrorist brush.

Reversal of Fortune II

All this appeared to add up to a chilling effect on mass protests, with the authorities and dominant media all too happy to have the digital images of terrorist attacks blend in the public mind with the militant but peaceful civil disobedience of anti-globalization activists. But history, cunning and playful as usual, intervened. After allowing it to briefly savor the superficial success of its Afghanistan campaign, fortune suddenly dealt the Bush administration two massive body blows the first quarter of 2002: the Enron implosion and the Argentine collapse. These towering twin disasters threatened to push the global elite back to the crisis of legitimacy that was shaking its hegemony globally prior to September 11.

The deep enmeshing of Bush and a number of his key lieutenants - Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, top presidential economic adviser Larry Lindsey, to name just the most prominent - in Enron's corporate web has shaken off the US president's post-September 11 image of being President of all Americans and brought back the reality of his being the chief executive officer of corporate America. The Enron scandal pulls Americans right back to the bitter sozialepolitik of the 1990s when, as Bush himself put it in his inaugural speech, "it seems we share a continent but not a country."

Enron stripped the veil from what Wall Street used to call the "New Economy," which showered rewards on sleazy financial operators like Enron while sticking the rest of the world with the costs, not least of which is the current global downturn.

If Enron illustrates the folly of deregulation cum corruption, Argentina exemplifies that of another facet of the corporate globalist project: the liberalization of trade and capital flows. Argentina brought down its trade barriers faster than most other countries in Latin America. It liberalized its capital account more radically. And in the most touching gesture of neoliberal faith, the Argentine government voluntarily gave up any meaningful control over the domestic impact of a volatile global economy by adopting a currency board, that is, pegging the peso to the dollar. Dollarization, some technocrats promised, was right around the corner and, when that happened, the last buffers between the local economy and the global market would disappear and the nation would enter the nirvana of permanent prosperity.

The result: a Latin American tragedy. $140 billion in debt to international institutions, its industry in chaos, an estimated 2,000 people daily falling below the poverty line, and with rich and poor alike literally running out of cash owing to an indefinite bank holiday declared by a desperate president, Argentina is in a truly pitiable state.

Reginald Dale, the doctrinaire free-market columnist at the International Herald Tribune, was right to note that the Argentine debacle may have negative consequences beyond Argentina, chief of which are the erosion of the legitimacy of the globalization project and a resurgence of populism, making it impossible for the Bush administration to bring to a successful conclusion Washington's projected Free Trade Area for the Americas (FTAA).

Movement Regains its Footing

This second reversal of fortune-this time on the establishment-provided the global context in which some 50,000 people from all over the world gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the second World Social Forum (WSF) in late January 2002. With nearly five times the number that attended the first WSF in 2001, Porto Alegre 2002 affirmed that the movement had not been cowed by post-September 11 developments and that "another world is possible."

Equally stunning was the massive mobilization of some 300,000 protestors on the occasion of the European Union summit in Barcelona in mid-March. And in Washington, the IMF-World Bank spring meeting in the third week of April drew some 100,000 to protest against the war, the trampling of the human and political rights of Palestinians, and the pro-corporate globalization policies of the IMF and World Bank.

Sept. 11 may yet turn out to be a temporary reversal from which the movement can draw more strength. The massive street mobilizations paralleling big assemblies of the global elite, like the meetings of the IMF and the G-8, have now reached the limits of their effectiveness, and this may well push the movement to come up with innovative strategies combining mass, legal, and parliamentary strategies.

Indeed, if there is a clear silver lining in the post-September 11 situation, it is that three movements that had formerly gone their independent ways - the peace movement, the human rights movement, and the anti-corporate globalization movement - now find it critical to collaborate more closely with one another. This is a potent alliance that can make a significant contribution to changing the correlation of forces in the medium and long term, as the exclusionary, marginalizing, and repressive thrusts of the global system inexorably assert themselves.

To conclude, over six months after September 11, the US has failed to achieve a decisive victory in the war against terror and may find itself in a situation of strategic overextension. The alienation that has fueled fundamentalism has, in contrast, gained in strength, greatly assisted in the last few months by Israel's acts of impunity against Palestinians. Enron and Argentina have brought back to center stage the crisis of legitimacy wracking the global system prior to September 11 and have served to infuse confidence and new momentum to the anti-corporate globalization movement. If there is any clear loser in the last six months, it has been civil liberties and democracy in the United States-and this is a pity.

Dr. Walden Bello is executive director of Focus on the Global South in Bangkok, Thailand, and professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines.