Monday, November 28, 2011

The Untold Story of the West and the Rest: Terrorism, War, and Unrequited Guilt

Review Article
Jason Burke, The 9/11 Wars, Allen Lane, London, 2011, pp xxii + 709, ISBN 978-1-84614-517-9.

The attacks on mainland USA on September 11, 2001, have like no other single event, moulded world politics through this first decade of what is called a millennium. 9/11 is how that event has come to be known in contemporary accounts, and the imagery has been so powerful that every subsequent act of terrorism has sought a rhyming description.

That imitative pattern is expressed in the desperate urge governments have had in signing up for the global cause led by a military superpower that has unleashed its awesome capacity for destruction, and shown little interest in what follows. 9/11 generated a discourse that has dominated virtually every international gathering over the last decade. Global conclaves only managed to shift their attention towards other subjects when slapped in the face by the economic meltdown beginning late-2008. The whole strategic equation has since changed, though few today seem willing to recognise the reality of a world where a single superpower’s writ no longer runs. Governments stricken by a fear of freedom are groping for a means of coping, in a world where older certainties seem suddenly to have dissipated.

In the years ahead, two political trajectories – the superpower led war on terrorism and the global upsurge against an iniquitous economic order – will intersect, though in ways that cannot be forecast. Global political and strategic equations have been in a state of flux over the decade since 9/11. Economics could soon become a determinant influence in an already complex process.

Jason Burke’s compendious and valuable volume, released at the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, bears witness to events that still remain in flux. A point of closure, if at all one can be found for events quite so complex, is impossible to foretell. “The wars that make up this most recent conflict span the globe geographically”, writes Burke in his introduction: “With no obvious starting point and no obvious end, with no sense of what might constitute victory or defeat, their chronological span is impossible to determine”.

As this book was released, the U.S. was determining how to end its military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan -- two of the main theatres of the wars that followed 9/11. As 2011 winds to a close, the U.S. will be out of Iraq, by the commitment its government has made. Military compulsion has dictated this decision, compounded by the acute economic distress that an unsustainable debt burden has occasioned. A declaration of victory – and withdrawal - would also play well within the election cycle in the U.S., just as it enters an active phase early in 2012.

As the troops come home from Iraq, they will be joined by a small number – perhaps about 10,000 -- of U.S. servicemen deployed in Afghanistan. That would still leave a massive U.S. military deployment in Afghanistan, of which a third would pull out by the autumn of 2012, prior to a complete exit by the end of 2014.

Nothing is certain in the world bequeathed by 9/11. But this winding down of military action in countries far and distant, is in a longer historical view, an ironic postscript to the rhetoric with which the “global crusade” – in U.S. President George W. Bush’s characterisation – was kicked off in 2001. Three days after the trauma of 9/11, Bush invoked a divine right that he believed, was invested in the country he had by a judicial whim and an enormous fluke, been chosen to lead. That investiture from a transcendant source of authority left no room for mundane disputation. “Americans do not yet have the distance of history”, he said, but they were clear about their “responsibility to history”, which was to destroy “evil”. The U.S. had been forced into a conflict “on the timing and terms of others”. But once roused to war, the U.S. would ensure that the war would “end in a way and at an hour of (its) choosing”.

Bush’s successor today prepares his retreat from the main theatres of action in the 9/11 Wars without the slightest assurance that the civilisational mission is any closer to fulfilmment. And it is a spectacle on which Burke offers a verdict with an eloquent economy of words: “The West has certainly … avoided defeat”. But if the ten years since 9/11 have brought victory, “then America (sic, the U.S.) and the West more generally cannot afford very many more victories like it”.

It is in Burke’s account, an index of this ambiguous outcome, that the U.S. has managed to sustain its vast levels of military spending despite enormous economic strains. Those who engineered 9/11 may have worked in part with the aim of draining the U.S. economically and crippling its capacity to enforce its will. And yet the U.S., Burke concludes, has “been able (despite the debt issues it currently confronts) to pay for the grotesque strategic error of the war in Iraq … and a ten-year conflict in Afghanistan, all while financing a huge security industry at home in the midst of one of the gravest economic crises for decades”.

This assessment would be incomplete without specific note being made of the many perversities of U.S. economic policy through the decade of global warfare. War-time presidents are known to exhort their people towards greater sacrifices. Citizens of nations ostensibly engaged in a struggle over existential values, are known to bear any economic burden to fulfil their mandate. In a reversal of this commonsense, the Bush doctrine has summoned the U.S. to war against “evil”, but also to liberation from taxes, so that the bills for the global crusade are met through borrowing furiously from the rest of the world.

Just over a month before the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Treasury formally notified Congress that the government had reached the limits of borrowing allowed under the law and was in danger of default on debt. The U.S. government, then hot and feverish for war, needed to borrow to merely service its national debt. Bush not merely went to war, but two months later decreed a sweeping set of tax concessions that plunged the U.S. deeper into hock.

Burke does not directly address this mystery, nor does he seek to probe too deeply into the “why” of the war against Iraq. He introduces his chapter on the headlong rush to invade a country that had no clear connection to 9/11, with a telling title: “Threats, Falsehoods and Dead Men”. But he sidesteps any serious engagement with the reasons why falsehoods were manufactured on a mass scale by the U.S. administration and its eager acolytes in the U.K. – and amplified by an acquiescent media – in the rush to war.

What Burke finally offers is a rather anodyne reading: that in the U.S. and “virtually every Western nation”, the
intelligence agencies were uneasily “aware of the importance of avoiding another grotesque failure such as that which had resulted in 9/11”. This induced a play-safe attitude and a disinclination to engage in a potentially “damaging row with political masters”. Without serious thought of longer term consequences, the intelligence agencies began on this account “to issue much more alarming analyses (than warranted) of the potential threat that (Iraq) posed”.

All these stratagems of the political leadership, which were taking the West down the road to disaster, may have been exposed, Burke says, except that the counter-narrative hardly gained a fair hearing. This could have been on account of a tendency to shut out facts that create a “cognitive dissonance” or perhaps, “deliberate mendacity”. Burke does not indicate exactly which of these would seem the more plausible on the balance of probabilities. He does provide some evidence to suggest that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in making his case for war before the U.N. Security Council in February 2003, may not have been absolutely mendacious in suggesting that top functionaries of the global Islamic network had visited Iraq.

A few other circumstances are cited which seem to absolve the U.S. from the accusation of waging war on outright falsehoods. But Burke chooses to overlook the truly persuasive facts which establish that a deep political calculation lay behind the decision to go to war in Iraq. And since this was a political calculation that did not dare to speak its name, “mendacity” is the only accurate description for the stratagem that was in play.

Burke surely errs in suggesting that western intelligence agencies in general proved compliant to the political directive to concoct a rationale for war. The CIA in the U.S. had entered several reservations about departures from established procedure in the run-up to war. Likewise, the head of the British intelligence services had put on record, in what became famously known as the Downing Street Memo of July 2002, his discussions in Washington DC in the weeks preceding, which spoke of “intelligence being fixed” around the Bush administration’s determination to remove the Saddam Hussein regime, using the conjunction of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as the rationale. The clumsy confection won few converts to the cause of war and was indeed called out for what it was by U.N. arms inspectors in Iraq. With the evidence building up, the British government’s principal legal officer rendered an explicit opinion that there was little chance of obtaining a legal mandate for war. And among major western nations, France and Germany made no secret of the fact that they were at serious odds with the U.S. intent.

History’s losers sometimes have a story to tell, often more compelling than the version rendered by the victors. As he worked to avert war, acceding to every one of the escalating demands placed on his country, Tariq Aziz, then Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, had on various occasions allowed his sense of fatalism to prevail. In October 2002 – soon after Bush had issued his famous challenge to the U.N. to either authorise war or face irrelevance -- Aziz went on record with the bleak forecast that nothing that Iraq did would prevent an invasion. The U.S., simply put, was intent on war, “for oil and Israel”.

Despite ranging widely over the globe – from south-east Asia to the western hemisphere and continental America – Burke says very little in his voluminous work, about the conflict in Palestine. Israel occurs rather sporadically through his book, almost everywhere as an incidental mention. Indeed, at one point, he describes a failed 2003 attempt to bomb a Tel Aviv nightclub as a rare instance “of the 9/11 Wars suddenly surging into the otherwise largely autonomous conflict in Israel/Palestine”.

The Palestinian intifada for freedom had been underway for almost a year when 9/11 occurred. In remarks to the far-right columnist George F. Will immediately afterwards, Binyamin Netanyahu – now the Israeli Prime Minister but then an opposition politician trying hard to regain the perch he was pushed off by a collusive deal between two former generals, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon – put it with little ambiguity: “The soldiers of militant Islam and Pan-Arabism do not hate the West because of Israel; they hate Israel because of the West”. Zionism was a target, because it is “an expression and representation of Western civilization”. And, the warriors of the Islamic holy war or jihad hate America because “it is the purest expression of modernity -- individualism, pluralism, freedom, secularism”.

Israel found a matchless opportunity in 9/11 to portray the Palestinian struggle as an element within the lethal mix of the global Islamic jihad. It was just the right formula to silence global outrage at the brutal military reoccupation of Palestinian territories granted a limited measure of autonomy under the Oslo agreements. When failure became an undeniable reality of the U.S. project in Iraq, it was almost foretold that attention would turn towards Iran and Syria. As Syria was forced to yield the hegemonic grip it had established over Lebanon as reward for acquiescence in the U.S.’s Iraq project, Israel showed a greater willingness to step out of the shadows and show its hand. The Israeli military assault on Lebanon that followed in 2006, was part of the grand design of rearranging the political geography of the Arab world. And provisionally, the final chapter of Zionist involvement in the 9/11 wars has been the sham withdrawal from the Gaza which converted that territory into the world’s largest open-air prison, and the offensive that began there late in 2008 to cripple the civic amenities that had been disingenuously labelled “terrorist infrastructure”.

With a sharp eye for detail, Burke identifies the suicide bomb as the “characteristic tactic” of the 9/11 Wars and the “blast walls” erected as a defence against such strikes as their “iconic image”. By the end of 2002, “inverted Ts of concrete” placed “in long lines to form instant walls of astonishing ugliness” had become a feature of the landscape in most theatres of the 9/11 Wars. The construction of these “blast walls” had become a significant business opportunity for local enterprises in Afghanistan by the end of 2002.

Burke omits a significant detail here: Israel was a pioneer even in the enterprise of erecting walls to separate “the West and the rest”. The Israeli government’s decision making on the “apartheid wall” – as it is fairly acurately called -- has always been a closely guarded, highly secretive process. The first phase of the wall which extends for a distance of 150 kilometres, was declared completed on July 31, 2003. Though Israel in a submission before the International Court of Justice – made informally since it chose to boycott the formal hearings on the legality of the wall -- indicated that the “separation fence” is not a permanent structure and can be modified or even dismantled, there is a very real prospect that its contours lay out the final territorial boundaries of the Zionist state.

The future course of the 9/11 Wars will be deeply influenced by the upsurge for democracy that much of the Arab world is currently witnessing. Here again, perceptions of “the West and the rest” have induced deep duplicities: the uprisings in Libya and Syria are cast unequivocally in a positive light, while similar yearnings in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain are seen as deeply troubling.

Burke’s narrative reaches right upto this point though without offering much by way of serious prognoses. His sensitivities as a reporter are evident in the acute and vivid descriptions of the many theatres of the 9/11 Wars. Among the many actors that he provides arresting pictures of, are immigrant Muslim communities in western Europe, not known for their religious piety, but suffering the deep anxieties of a rapidly changing social milieu. And then there are the clan and tribal networks of Pakistan’s Pashtun areas, which have seen their identities effaced in the hegemonic narrative of Islamic jihad and are fighting to retrieve these and their eroding territorial autonomy.

Globe-girdling wars invariably tend to have several fronts and multiple actors who engage in combat with diverse motivations. The global conflagrations of the twentieth century, today known as the two “world wars”, both involved the clash of big imperial powers, which afforded the larger narrative. But in the interstices left by the consuming avarice of the imperial powers, who have since managed to dictate the tone of history writing, there were epic struggles waged for the liberation of large masses of humanity from the yoke of colonialism. These intersected in various ways with the broader inter-imperialist tensions between 1914 and 1945, since it is reasonable to say that despite the official categorisation of this period of global strife into two distinct conflicts, the fighting never really stopped between 1914 and 1945.

It could credibly be argued that the fighting has not stopped since either. This book is about the wars that have followed 9/11, but it establishes clear continuities with the conflicts that preceded, arising from the latent tensions and iniquities of the global order bequeathed by World War II. Where the events that it narrates will end, cannot of course be foreseen. It can safely be averred, though, the world which emerges out of this phase of global conflict and upheaval will be very different from the one that the post-World War II generations have got accustomed to.

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