Archive for the ‘Global War on Terror’ Category

David Hayes, editor, ’9/11, Ten Years On: Reflections, openDemocracy, 7 September 2011 – my contribution:

The great interruption

The terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 had a huge impact on world politics in the following decade, but they did not mark a fundamental change like the 1989-91 upheavals or 2011’s extraordinary beginning of transformation in the Arab world. Indeed looking at 2001 in the light of these more important turning-points shows the limited character of the actions and the modest historical significance of both major protagonists in the subsequent conflict, al-Qaida and the George W Bush administration.

9/11 was an appalling mass murder and marked a quantum-leap in spectacular atrocity politics. Al-Qaida so effectively turned the Hollywood disaster-movie genre against the United States that it became, for a few years, an indispensable actor in world politics; yet the tactic reflected the organisation’s underlying political and military weakness. This has been cruelly exposed in its failure to execute a further major atrocity attack after the Madrid (2004) and London (2005) bombings, and underlined by the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

9/11’s main effects were to prompt President Bush to declare the “global war on terror” and enable him to invade Iraq. But Bush’s overreach also exposed the exaggeration of US power which its apparent victory in the cold war had encouraged. He in turn dissipated the worldwide support for the US after 9/11, provoked a low-grade genocidal civil war in Iraq itself, and left office one of the most discredited presidents in history, his principal legacy the unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Any western success against al-Qaida was down to intelligence and policing, not war or the detention and torture with which Bush besmirched western democracy.

Bin Laden and Bush had in common that they attempted to short-circuit democratic change in world politics, the former with terror attacks and the latter with militarised regime-change. The main effect of their different but mutually reinforcing forms of substitutionism was to interrupt the twin processes of democratisation and legitimate global institution-building which had gained momentum after 1989. But with the fading of al-Qaida and neo-conservatism alike, the Arab revolts have shown a new birth of mass democratic movements and the possibilities of synergy with more responsive action by western governments and United Nations institutions.

In the light of 2011, it is hard to understand how bin Laden ever gained a significant following among Muslims – or Bush among western democrats. Yet during the “great interruption” of the 2000s, superficial journalism and scholarship followed superficial politics in embracing the notion that terrorism was the greatest threat to world society and the struggle against it the great challenge of our times.

We can now see that, however necessary is continuing vigilance against terrorist attacks, counter-terrorism was and is no more than a sideshow of world politics in the 21st century. It may, however, still be an uphill struggle to take the measure of the daunting challenges of democratic change, global equality and legitimate international order: not least because these are posed not just by the heroism of protesters on the Arab street but by the deepening crisis of a dysfunctional world economy.

A new article on openDemocracy.

With the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama has achieved a much-needed conclusion to nearly ten years’ efforts to bring the mastermind of 9/11 to heel. Obama claimed to bring bin Laden ‘to justice’. But he managed this only in the sense that George Bush evoked in 2001, when he said that bin Laden was ‘Wanted – Dead or Alive’. It is just too convenient that bin Laden was shot dead and his body disposed of where no follower could ever find it. This operation was more Wild West than International Criminal Court, and like the attempted assassination of Ghaddafi it does little to demonstrate the West’s superior values. That won’t matter to most Americans, but it may register in the Muslim world. The Arab revolutions have shown that in the short-term, al-Qaeda is now largely irrelevant to real politics but in the longer term any revival of murderous Islam will claim bin Laden as a martyr. No doubt al-Qaeda will attempt revenge attacks, but while it is important to remain vigilant, it is difficult any longer to see the movement, which peaked with the London bombings of 2005, as a major threat.

(This comment was prepared for publication in the London Evening Standard.)

draft of new contribution to openDemocracy

Many on the left think of the United States as a dangerous force in world politics, a view encouraged by the aggressive interventionism of the Bush administration. Yet the juggernaut of US military power usually moves slowly, and after the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, probably with some caution. At the present time, a greater danger than US intervention on its own account is its pattern of alliances with lesser powers whose provocative actions threaten to involve the USA in regional wars, with potentially profound consequences for the whole world.

This is the real lesson of the crisis in Korea. Coverage has focused on the instability and unpredictability of the North Korean regime, and the Wikileaks cables have deepened this impression by showing that even some Chinese officials are pricing in its collapse. Yet there has been little scrutiny of South Korea’s role, even though the South’s current government has abandoned the policy of constructive engagement with the North pursued by its predecessors.

Crucially, the South Korean decision to hold extensive military exercises on Yeonpyeong island, in maritime waters disputed with the North, may not have been mere ‘pretext’ for North Korean ‘madness’, but a real provocation to the North. As Kevin Gray notes, even the earlier sinking of a South Korean military vessel, widely blamed on the North, could have been caused by a mine rather than a torpedo. The South’s subsequent cancellation of further exercises on Yeonpyeong island suggests a recognition of the provocation it had offered, but the following announcement of new artillery drills near the border does not suggest a consistent policy of de-escalation. On the contrary, given civilian as well as military deaths, the Southern government, hostage to some extent to enraged public opinion, is matching assertive rhetoric with threats of air strikes.

Yet if the assumptions of near-terminal weakness, volatility and unpredictability in the Northern regime are even half-correct, there is surely a need for exceptional restraint. Can we really be sure that President Obama will really be able to deter his South Korean allies from action that will turn out to be a disastrous new provocation? If conflict escalates, will the USA be able to avoid being drawn in by its allies? The fallout will affect not just East Asia but the world.

If the Korean question is the most urgent, South Korea has hardly been, historically, the most militarily provocative of American allies. That title belongs to over-indulged Israel, which has an extensive history of military adventurism and now threatens war with Iran. Furthermore the Wikileaks revelations have underlined the extent to which conservative Arab allies, particularly the Saudi monarchy, have been egging on Obama to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities himself, and so can be presumed to condone an Israeli attack.

Arab-Israeli collusion vis-a-vis Iran is hardly a new phenomenon. As Fred Halliday pointed out over 25 years ago in Iran: Dictatorship and Development, Iran (then as now the most populous Middle Eastern state) was developing as a regional ‘sub-imperialism’. The Shah, spending oil revenues on US and British weaponry for his expanding armed forces, made Iran a force to be feared by (Sunni) Arab regimes of all kinds as well as by Israel. Not only Arab states but the USA and the USSR tacitly backed Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran, partly in order to cripple revolutionary Shi’a Islamism, but above all to weaken the potentially dominant regional power.

It is hardly surprising therefore that Iran’s Islamic regime – whose currently brutality owes much to the subsequent eight years of the Iran-Iraq war – now seeks nuclear weapons as the ultimate form of security. As much threatened by the existing Israeli bomb as Israel believes itself to be by Iran’s future weapons, and having seen what happened to Saddam at American hands, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are easily seen as defensive. In the politically beleaguered and economically crisis-ridden state of the regime, it is difficult to seriously interpret them as a prequel to armed expansionism.

Indeed the only circumstances in which it is easy to imagine Iranian military action is under the kind of provocation currently offered by Israel’s aggressive plans. President Ahmadinejad may publicly dismiss the Wikileaks revelations as US propaganda (thus forming an unholy alliance with its enemies on the issue, which would be funny if the whole business was not so serious), but they can only add to the sense of encirclement in Tehran. Yet how seriously are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton working to defuse the Israeli threat? Since a Middle Eastern war could bring enormous harm to us all, the global public interest demands open diplomacy, in the spirit of Wikileaks, as well as private warnings to Benyamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government.

Our confidence cannot be increased by the new information the leaks have given us about the 2008 Georgian war. Bush, it will be remembered, had encouraged US ally Georgia to defy Russia and seek Nato membership; the Georgian presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili took this backing as a licence to attack the Russian-backed separatist enclave of South Ossetia. I asked at the time about the US role: ‘did it not know (a very surprising failure of intelligence), or did it not want to (a shockingly irresponsible and reckless position)? Or was there a moment equivalent to the mixed message given to Saddam Hussein by April Glaspie, Washington’s ambassador to Iraq in 1990, that allowed the Iraqi leader to think he had a green light from the US to invade Kuwait?’

While providing new information on Russia’s own provocations, the Wikileaks cables suggest a mixture of the first and second explanations: ‘ambassador John F. Tefft was assuring his employers only hours before the bombardment of Tskhinvali [the South Ossetian capital] that nothing of the sort could happen: that was what they wanted to hear.’ Given what we now know, subsequent anti-Russian bluster by US and other Western politicians appears as cover for their incompetence in managing a minor ally and even ignorance about its intentions.

Washington’s and Nato’s general backing for Georgia dragged them into a potentially grave crisis with Russia, even if not one deep enough to lead to war. In Korea and the Middle East, the consequences of the USA’s dubious and ill-managed alliances could be much more disastrous, even more so than in Afghanistan, where yet more allies pose intractable problems. For as John Naughton points out, ‘The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam.’ With friends like these, who needs enemies?

After the war logs, my latest take (on openDemocracy) on the scale of, various causes of and responsibility for civilian casualties in Iraq in the seven years since the US-UK intervention.

My contribution to Open Democracy’s 2010 forum.

Speech at Sussex University, 17 October 2001.


Paying the Price: The Killing of the Children of Iraq, ITV, 6 March 2000

John Pilger wrote and presented this new 90-minute documentary on Iraqi sanctions, shown on the most popular British channel within mass viewing hours. I was asked by BBC Radio 4′s ‘The Message’ to discuss the programme, with Pilger and others, on 10 March. I therefore looked at the programme carefully; here I comment both on the programme and my brief experience of radio debate with its maker, with whom I have already clashed over Kosovo.

‘Paying the Price’ was an important film because it gave some idea of the shocking conditions of many people in Iraq; it also reminded us of the bombing of Iraq in our name, the ‘hidden war’ as Pilger correctly called it. Most importantly it showed us that sanctions aren’t working, in any conclusive way, to end Saddam Hussein’s power and that there is widespread disquiet among UN officials themselves about their contribution to the poverty and suffering of the Iraqi people.

The problem of the film, however, was that it made a very simple connection between sanctions and suffering. It ‘established’ this case most powerfully through interviews with disaffected UN personnel; but more dubiously by repeated, crude juxtapositions of suffering children and Western politicians. Not surprisingly, in view of how others were ‘framed’ in the making of this film, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declined to appear on Pilger’s conditions.

What is wrong with making a simple connection? The film almost completely left out the responsibility of the Iraqi regime in this situation, i.e. left out those factors contributing to the suffering that didn’t fit the case Pilger wanted to argue. It left out the fact that the Iraqi government has chosen to continue with sanctions rather than negotiate its way out of the sanctions regime by giving up its military programmes. It left out the fact that the Iraqi regime uses income that could be spent on food, medicines and people’s welfare for arms, soldiers and the lifestyle of the privileged elite.

Political distortions

The film pretended to speak straightforwardly for the victims against the inhumanity of Western ‘politicians’ and ‘bureaucrats’. In fact it gave a politically distorted view of history of crisis, and insinuated Pilger’s own political line. This led to several direct distortions:

  • Pilger dismissed the idea that the Saddam Hussein regime remains a military threat, despite the fact that it has already initiated two wars with neighbouring states, Iran and Kuwait, as well as waged war on the Kurdish, Shia and Marsh Arab peoples within Iraq. Although the extent to which Saddam retains the capacity for external war is debatable, the regime clearly retains considerable military potential.
  • Pilger gave the impression that the West had created the Saddam regime. Although it is scandalously true that Reagan and Thatcher supported and traded with Saddam before 1990, they didn’t create or control his regime and this doesn’t make it wrong that the West has woken up to its dangers in the last decade.
  • Pilger gave the impression that the impoverishment of Iraq is a result only of sanctions. In fact Iraqis were already badly impoverished before sanctions, by Saddam’s war with Iran – the exhaustion of Iraqi state funds due to this war was reason that Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, but the people’s standards of living had already drastically declined.
  • Pilger gave the impression that the US actually supported Saddam in crushing the Shi’ite rebellion in 1991. However, although it was indeed criminal of the US and the West not to support the rebels, non-intervention was not the same as actually supporting Saddam in crushing those crises. Pilger didn’t mention that the US and UK changed their positions, after Western media campaigned for the Kurdish refugees, and did intervene to create a safe Kurdish area in northern Iraq, nor that this is precisely the origin of the air surveillance of Iraq that he criticizes today.
  • The dishonesty of Pilger’s exposition here is quite clear. If the US had extended the Gulf War to overthrow Saddam, or had intervened militarily to support the Shi’ites against Saddam, Pilger would have almost certainly have been the first to condemn it, just as he condemned NATO intervention in Kosova to protect Albanians from Milosevic.

Pilger simply condemns Western governments. He doesn’t offer alternatives. He doesn’t mention that sanctions were actually advocated by the Left as the alternative to war in 1991. He doesn’t address the fact that we do need to find ways to contain Saddam’s threat to the people as well as the governments of the region, and so if we don’t have sanctions, we have to have some policy to contain or remove this threat.

A disservice

Pilger’s film did strongly reinforce the widely accepted case that sanctions are not achieving much and are contributing to the terrible suffering of the Iraqi people. However because he failed to explain that this is through the way in which they are manipulated by the Iraqi regime’s own policies, as well as because of the way they are implemented by the West, he gave the suffering a simplistic political gloss that actually devalued his case.

We can go so far as to say that Pilger did a disservice to the Iraqi people by associating their plight with a simple one-dimensional case. By leaving out central realities he made it difficult to trust even the most convincing criticisms of sanctions which his contributors made. He talked down to his audience, patronizing the viewer who might have expected that in a long documentary like this some of the complexity of the politics would be explored.

Debating Pilger

I tried to put this case across on ‘The Message’. I agreed with the presenter that Pilger’s film was an important contribution on an issue that deserved to be exposed. But arguing for a more ‘complex’ analysis simply provoked Pilger to explain that ‘people like Martin Shaw’ didn’t want the responsibility of the British and American governments exposed. He immediately told viewers they should ‘decode’ my arguments as an apologia for official policies. Debating with Pilger did nothing to disabuse me of my conviction that he increasingly crosses the line between committed journalism and propaganda.

Martin Shaw

Leo Panitch, The New Imperial State

reply to article in New Left Review 2, 2000

Leo Panitch’s ‘The New Imperial State’ is at once a welcome turn of Marxist theory towards the internationalized state, and disappointing in the limited nature of its advance. Although he rightly criticizes Peter Gowan for ‘concentrating almost exclusively on American strategy’, Panitch still places excessive emphasis on the renewal of American power. Thus he fails to adequately grasp its significance in relation to other trends, let alone to offer an adequate structural account of the contemporary Western or global state.

Panitch rightly concludes that, in analyzing Euro-American relations, ‘Those who focus on minor regional trade and currency rivalries can’t see the bombs for the bananas.’ But if this was a starting point, rather than a conclusion, he might have seen the need for rather more developed concepts than those supplied by Nicos Poulantzas’ account of ‘the penetration of European states by US imperialism.’ This is still (1) far too one-way (the same fault he found in Gowan) and (2) premised on the fundamental structural autonomy of the American state.

If we take seriously the centrality of military power, then we need to start from the basis that the principal form of the state in the West since 1945 has been the state-bloc. As a result of war, the old European and Japanese empires were defeated or bankrupt. Although it took several decades for the full consequences of this to work through, the subordination of Europe and Japan to America was structural. Panitch is right that the subsequent revival of Europe and Japan has not ended American dominance within the West. But what he fails to recognize fully is that after more than half a century, especially the last global decade, this dominance is exercized in a changed context.

Certainly, as Panitch says, ‘the process of globalization, far from dwarfing states, has been constituted through and by them.’ But the state power that constitutes globalization is a new kind of state power: an ever more integrated Western state-conglomerate, internally structured by multiple, overlapping (and often partially incoherent) forms of internationalization. This West is based on a complex web of military, economic and political organizations, both pan-Western and regional (especially but not only in Europe). It is supplemented in turn by the global layer of state institutions that increasingly incorporate all states, even the main non-Western powers. Thus China not only plays a part in the United Nations, but also seeks to join, and is (in principle) welcomed into, the World Trade Organization.

Little of this is captured by Poulantzas’ rather stale formula. Certainly there is American penetration of other Western states, and Americanization. But while linkages are far from symmetrical there is also reverse penetration. Moreover bilateral linkages of national entities do not adequately represent power relations. Internationalization (and the globalization that it partially represents) increasingly constitute even the most powerful nation-states. It was precisely incomplete American domination, and the relatively consensual nature of the Western in contrast to the Soviet bloc, that explained much of the success of the former compared to the latter.

Thus America is fundamentally constrained, as well as enabled, by its centrality to wider Western and global power networks – also by the larger world context of state power, in which not only major states like China or medium powers like Iraq but even warlords in Sierra Leone pose uncomfortable challenges. American bombs were central to the defeats of Iraq in 1991 and Serbia in 1999, but politically, in each case, it was necessary not only to mobilize the entire West but also to construct wider coalitions. Where the US has been more isolated, as in recent conflicts with Iraq, it has also been politically vulnerable.

American power promotes some kinds of internationalization – technological standardization and commercial law – but not others – carbon emission controls or an international criminal court. The latter type, powerfully stimulated by popular movements and non-governmental organizations, sits uncomfortably with US nationalism but is more congenial to European elites. This is why the US appears as a ‘rogue’ superpower: its neo-imperial hegemony and ideology are anachronistic in the face of the more progressive elements of internationalization – not to mention the democratic revolution in the non-Western world that is spurring them on.

Where does this leave ‘the new imperial state’? This formula begs two key questions. First, it is the major non-Western states – from Russia and China to Turkey and Indonesia – which are most obviously quasi-imperial in their internal structures. It is often where these states intensify semi-colonial oppression of minorities, as Serbia-Yugoslavia has done in Bosnia and Kosovo, that wars are triggered that stimulate the global projection of Western state power.

Second, if there is a dominant world empire it is Western, not simply American; and it is characterized, paradoxically, by ‘post-imperial’ institutions, by the increasing promotion of formal democracy, by internationalization. In short, this ‘empire’ is almost certainly a more progressive form of state than its non-Western competitors, both major and minor, which are more coercively imperial, fully or semi-authoritarian if not openly genocidal. The ‘imperialism of human rights’ (as NLR has called it) contains all kinds of contradictions, but it is not obviously inferior to the imperialism of genocidal oppression.

For a relevant Marxist concept we might bypass Poulantzas’ ‘American penetration’ and look again at Karl Kautsky’s idea of ‘ultra-imperialism’. Kautsky argued that the First World War would end either with the intensification of inter-imperial rivalries that would produce a second war, or with their suppression and the formation of a single imperial centre. In the latter case, he argued, the moral authority of capitalism would (temporarily) be restored.

Kautsky was wrong on the process and timing of ultra-imperialism: the first war did lead to a second, and it was only through the latter that a pacified West emerged. Nevertheless, he was right in his appreciation of the political significance of the phenomenon he foresaw. The structural shift from imperial rivalry to a unified Western bloc has been a profound transformation. Only now that the rival Soviet bloc has disappeared can we see the full potential of an internationalized Western state, to create something like a global framework of state power in which most state centres are implicated. Popular democratic movements in the non-Western world cannot but appeal to the West, as the real power behind global institutions, for support against local oppressors. The democratic revolution – with the failure of Communism now clearly the main form of popular movement – and the democratic West talk much the same language and cannot avoid engaging with each other.

The United States has proved itself still the undisputed capital of the united West. The paradox is that its complacent nationalism (and resistance to more extensive international as well as social reform) renders it increasingly inadequate as the political centre of Western and global power. Clinton has barely managed the tensions, mobilizing a world coalition over Kosovo but lapsing into adventurism such as the bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan. A George W. Bush presidency would only intensify them, exposing America’s fragile hold on world leadership. Panitch is too impressed by America’s economic dynamism and reassertion of power to see the contradictions of its position. His account is in danger of feeding, rather than confronting, the illusions of American power.


This comment was submitted to New Left Review, but declined on the following grounds:

‘the pressure on our space is very acute, and – in the context of NATO’s overwhelming global predominance – the editorial board was not wholly convinced by your portrayal of the new democratic Western empire, nor by your argument that popular democratic movements in the non-Western world can do not better than appeal to the West for support against their local oppressors.’ (16.5.00)

Readers will note the simplifications of my arguments, and even more the conception of NLR’s editorial space as a counterpoint to ‘NATO’s overwhelming global predominance’. These rather revealing comments underline my earlier assessment of the editorial policy of the new NLR.

John Kampfner is right to draw attention to the importance of the far-left starting point of Nick Cohen’s political journey (Books, 12 February). Cohen rightly pinpointed the failure of the anti-war movement’s leadership to see the Saddam regime – with its history of violence – as a problem that needed international action. Yet he himself so easily embraced the equally problematic violence of bombardment, invasion and “accidental” civilian casualties that constituted the US/UK response.

The common thread is the facile politicisation of violence: the inability to see violent means as problematic, so long as the political ends are justified. The cases of George Bush and Tony Blair show that such attitudes are by no means exclusive to the left, but they do have a peculiar history in communism. Just as some “anti-war” leftists will condone any violence that is “anti-imperialist”, old leftists do seem to supply a disproportionate number of Bush’s intellectual fellow-travellers. This is hardly accidental, as we used to say.

Martin Shaw
Professor of international relations
University of Sussex