As the world lurches into what is called a new type of war, everyone inevitably falls back on old emotional, moral and intellectual resources for their sense of what is happening and to make their own response. Every war is new in some significant way, and in any case we have been here before: in the last decade over the Gulf and Kosovo, the two occasions on which the West made war (as opposed to intervening less decisively in pre-existing conflicts). War stirs, moreover, powerful memories of still older conflicts, such as the Second World War and Vietnam. All of us have feelings and beliefs shaped partly by all these earlier events, which come into play in this supposedly new situation. (Evans and Lunn, 1996).
For some, their beliefs dictate a simple response. American patriots will have little difficulty in supporting whatever their government does in this situation. Anti-imperialists, even as they write about a ‘new’ imperialism, will likewise oppose whatever America does, as they have done with its every other military venture. Consistent pacifists will oppose military action on principle. All of these responses, in their simplicity, must arouse some suspicion. If we already know how we should respond, does it really matter what actually happened? Will we know if there is really something different about the present situation, or about how we should respond to it?
For non-believers, these kinds of response are troubling. For scholars – committed to studying and understanding – they must be particularly so. And yet if scholars take their trade seriously, they must make use of their stock of old knowledge to make sense of the new. Elements of novelty must be defined precisely with reference with what we know from the past. Science must allow for the complexity of continuity and change in the same historical events. In this way we can define, in a more nuanced but also a more solid manner, whether we should respond – politically, morally – in the same or a different way to this as to earlier crises.
This paper is an attempt to define the issues of the crisis precipitated by the terror attacks on America on 11 September 2001, in the light of certain kinds of theoretical understanding. It is written in the belief that, while there are certainly principles that should define our understandings of and responses to war in general in the modern era, these include the idea that each war throws up a different constellation of the more general issues involved. In particular, I want to advance the notion that the conjuncture of the ‘war against terrorism’ is significantly different from that of the two comparable crises, the Gulf and Kosovo, which I have already mentioned. I want to argue, therefore, that it requires a partially different response.
In elaborating my position, I draw on several bodies of work and my own previous syntheses of them. Broadly speaking, these are drawn from historical sociology, but developed in engagement with international relations and strategic, war and peace studies, as well as informed by both democratic and peace politics. More specifically, they draw on four sets of positions that I have developed in other work (e.g. Shaw 1988, 1991, 1996, 2000, 2002):
1 Arguments about the nature of state power in the current period.
These can be summarised in the following points:
- The dominant form of state is an internationalized Western-global conglomerate of state power, within which US ‘hegemony’ is mediated not only by its core alliances with Western Europe and Japan, but also by the role of the ‘global layer’ of state institutions in legitimating Western power.
- State power outside the West remains largely semi-authoritarian and quasi-imperial, and so beset by conflicts over democracy and national rights. The most acute political conflicts of the global era are as a result of these contradictions in the relations of non-Western state power to society.
2 Arguments about the nature of political movements and political conflict.
- The dominant form is a globalized democratic revolution that has challenged authoritarian power, from central Europe in 1989 to South Africa, South Korea and Indonesia in the 1990s.
- In the context of democratic change, secessionist national movements challenge the quasi-imperial character of many states. Many of the most acute conflicts, which reach the stage of war, are provoked by counterrevolutionary violence by quasi-imperial states; this often takes genocidal forms.
3 Arguments about the nature of war and genocide in the current period.
- Modern war is characteristically degenerate war in the sense of involving systematic violence against civilians, and the degeneration is rooted in the histories of both total war and guerrilla war (militarized revolution).
- Genocide is a form of war directed against civilian groups or populations, and occurs in the context of war and/or highly militarized regimes. In ‘new wars’ (Kaldor 1999, Duffield 2001) degenerate war and genocide are closely linked.
4 Arguments about the foundations of progressive politics.
- The most important tasks of the current period are to extend the democratic transformation in the non-Western world and to create solidarity, especially in the West, on the basis of global principles.
- This transformation opens up the prospect, in the longer term, of the development of a kind of globalist social democracy, addressing world economic and social as well as political inequalities, and this must inform our actions now.
- Because of the chronically degenerate character of modern war, I argue for an approach based on what I call historical pacifism. Recognition of the increasing outmodedness of all kinds of war and political violence should be the starting point of political argument; exceptions have to be justified from this base.
I lay out these arguments, since they are derived from previous work, as the principles on which the analysis that follows is based. However in order to develop this, I need to add a 5th point:
5 Polymorphous crystallization as a general law of historical sociology
This idea was developed by Michael Mann in his theory of the state (in Sources of Social Power, 1993). Its core is the argument that the same power networks crystallize in variable ways according to different kinds of issue that arise. There are both certain kinds of general higher-order crystallizations, and also more specific crystallizations that arise in particular situations. Mann develops his concept in relation to the nation-state – thus he sees both ‘imperialist’ and ‘welfare’ (among other) crystallizations of the American state, each tending to involve particular sets of relationships between apparatuses within the state and social groups outside.
I did not systematically incorporate this idea into my theory of the global state (although I have used it in another context, as a way of understanding the shifting crystallizations of media roles in global crises: Shaw 1996). However I think it can be used to link the idea of variable regimes, as developed in international relations, with a more structural concept of power such as the global state. It helps explain how essentially the same power network can manifest itself in a variety of regimes in different issue-areas. It also helps to explain the contrasting forms in which global power structures reveal themselves in different conjunctural world crises and wars, as well as at different moments during these wars.
George W. Bush has called the ‘war against terrorism’ that he is launching the ‘first war of the twentieth century’. This is not strictly true, of course, because many wars are taking place around the globe and some – like the conflict in Macedonia – are of very recent origin. Moreover this first war of the chronological century is actually the third major war of the new ‘global’ era that opened with the end of the Cold War in 1989-91, involving Western powers in conflict with non-Western states.
Of course, there have been many other important local conflicts that have become what I have called ‘global crises’, through mediation by TV, NGOs and the legitimate global institutions of the UN (Shaw 1996). Western military power has been involved in some of these, to varying extents. However these three large-scale mobilizations of Western and especially American military power to defeat organized enemies stand out from other more limited actions.
I want to look at the issues posed by the three conflicts in the light of the model indicated in the analytical principles outline above.
1 The Iraqi wars of 1990-91
I prefer this label to the more common ‘(Persian) Gulf War’ because it recognizes the greater complexity of the conflicts (plural) that occurred, centred on the Iraqi state under the regime of Saddam Hussein. That state fought four wars in 1990-91: the conquest of Kuwait; the war with the US-led coalition; the wars against the Shi’ites in the south and the Kurds in the north. (Shaw 1996) These were continuations of earlier wars: the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and the ‘Anfal campaign’, the genocidal war against the Kurds in the late 1980s that had taken perhaps 100,000 lives. (Makiya 1993) They led in turn to the limited conflicts with the UN, and especially the US and UK, continuing to this day.
These complex wars thus involved a variety of forces: parties, guerrillas and social groups within Iraq as well as regional and Western states. The legitimacy of the US-led Western action depended on this complex power network – as well as a larger global context. The following key points seem to be relevant in examining how the general processes, outlined above, crystallized around the 1990-91 wars:
- These wars occurred at the highpoint of the transformation in the international situation. The reform movement and developing collapse of the Soviet Union, under pressure of the democratic revolutions in central Europe in 1989, removed Cold War constraints on US action, made Russia uniquely supportive of US power, and opened up the UN as a source of legitimation for American/Western actions. Nevertheless, Western leadership was in the hands of conservative politicians like George Bush I, who talked about creating a ‘new world order’ but had little interest in democratic reform of world order.
- The invasion of Kuwait both directly threatened a common Western – and to some extent world – interest in the stability of oil supplies, and clearly violated core international principles of state sovereignty. In these senses, there was a unique opportunity to create a global coalition around an easily accepted cause.
- The pressure of social forces within Iraq was not initially part of the Western-global cause in opposing the invasion of Kuwait. Saddam’s genocidal campaigns had gone unchallenged by the West, while his war against Iran had been tacitly supported (also by the USSR) as a bulwark against the Iranian revolution.
- Western action was brutal in its mass killing of Iraqi troops (and smaller numbers of civilians) but in weakening Iraqi armed power, it nevertheless created openings for oppositional social forces. Whether or not the Western campaign was justified in its trade-off of Iraqi soldiers’ lives for the liberation of Kuwait, at the end of the Gulf War there was a possibility of overthrowing the brutal Saddam regime. The West’s great betrayal was its failure to protect the two uprisings: indeed the US effectively gave Saddam permission to regroup his surviving forces and crush them.
- Nevertheless, this failure rebounded on Western leaders as media coverage of starving Kurdish civilians, fleeing Saddam’s repression, together with the concerns of its Turkish allies, forced George Bush I to institute a Kurdish safe area in northern Iraq – the precedent-making ‘humanitarian intervention’ of the global era.
- In the medium and longer run, Bush’s decision to contain Saddam rather than overthrow him led to sanctions that, combined with the regime’s indifference, led to extreme suffering in Iraq – leading Western policies themselves to be widely seen as genocidal.
It can be seen, from these key points, that the Gulf War posed two different kinds of questions of legitimacy
- traditional issues of sovereignty, economic interest, mass killing and indirect deaths; and
- new issues posed by challenges from (relatively) democratic, but also incipiently secessionist, mass forces, and by the mediated plight of refugees.
The initial mobilization – forged in the light of the US’s humiliation in failing to prevent the invasion of Kuwait – raised one set of questions. But another was raised with the uprisings at the end of the coalition’s campaign, and yet others with the refugee exodus and the deepening of sanctions in the mid-1990s. These different conjunctural crystallizations expressed the shifting patterns of the ongoing conflictual network of local, regional and global power actors.
2 The Kosovo wars, 1998-99
As with the Iraqi wars, there were two more or less distinct conflicts in and over Kosovo. The war between the Serbian state and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), in which Serbian forces carried out genocidal expulsions and massacres of Albanian civilians, erupted fully in early 1998. The war between NATO and Serbia was launched a year later and lasted for 3 months until Slobodan Milosevic agreed to the entry of NATO troops into the province. Also, as with Iraq, there was a history of extensive wars in former Yugoslavia (but unlike Iraq, with a developing history of Western involvement from their beginnings in 1991), including acute political conflict in Kosovo.
The wars involved a similar broad range of actors to Iraq: the repressive Serbian state; Kosovan parties, guerrillas and civilian society; and the West in various forms. However they represented a significantly different general crystallization, reflected in conjunctural crystallizations that posed partly different kinds of issues from Iraq:
- Events in Kosovo were a more direct reflection of the distinctively democratic revolution in the Communist world at the end of the 1980s. Yugoslavia was a more constitutional and legal state than Iraq and the promise of democratization raised the spectre, for the Serbian elite, that Albanian parties (representing a 90 per cent majority in the population) would easily gain power once free elections were held. Hence political conflict in Kosovo in the 1990s arose from Milosevic’s suspension of the prior constitutional autonomy of the province, which can be seen as a directly counterrevolutionary response to global democratic change.
- The Kosovo Albanian national movement continued to uphold a distinctly democratic, and indeed pacifist, political tradition throughout the 1990s. This continued until the neglect of the West (especially at Dayton in 1995) and the unresponsiveness of the Serbian state, indeed the intensification of its repression, finally pushed sizeable sections of the population towards armed resistance.
- The open war that began in 1998 reflected, therefore, not only the intransigence of Serbia but also of the shift of Albanian opinion towards an armed group. While the KLA represented militant national sentiment, it also fed on an easy supply of arms from Albania proper, on criminal networks, and violence towards Serb civilians that matched that of Serbian forces towards Albanians. Thus Albanian nationalism was moving in a less democratic direction.
- As in Iraq, Western intervention had numerous motives, not least the belated recognition that the Serbian state under Milosevic was a centre of dangerous instability and that policies of containing and coopting it had failed. However broadly humanitarian motives played a much more prominent part than in Iraq. Western interventions prior to war, including the installation of OSCE monitors, had aimed to protect Albanian civilians from state and paramilitary terror, and this was one of the explicit aims of the military intervention.
- The form of Western military action, airstrikes against Serbian military forces and infrastructure (later extended to wider economic infrastructure), was not directly protective of the threatened Albanians – and it also involved several hundred Serbian civilian casualties. However the aim of forcing Serbian forces out of Kosovo created the possibility of a more protected environment for Albanian civilians and a relatively democratic state in the province.
- However in the short term, NATO’s initial attacks provided a pretext for much more drastic Serbian state terrorism, with mass expulsion of the Albanians and bigger genocidal massacres. But in turn, Western NGO/media coverage of the expelled civilians reinforced the humanitarian aims of NATO action, as the alliance was left with no alternative to compel Belgrade’s withdrawal and enable the return of the million-plus refugees before winter came.
- Thus broadly democratic and humanitarian aims, with some substance, played a dominant role in the legitimation of the West’s Kosovo war – unlike over Iraq. At the same time, however, the general international situation had shifted, so that NATO could not rely on support from either Russia or China – both of whom had a semi-alliance with Milosevic – and so was unable to secure prior UN support. This explains the paradoxical conclusion of the Independent Commission on Kosovo (2000), that NATO’s war was legitimate but of questionable legality. (However we can note two caveats to this conclusion: NATO moved quickly to legalise its presence in Kosovo through the UN, at the end of the war; and in any case, the Genocide Convention could have been invoked to justify NATO’s action in international law.)
- A decidedly secondary, but still important, point about Western politics in the Kosovo War: political leadership had shifted into somewhat more internationalist centre-left hands, and this contributed somewhat towards a different kind of legitimation of Western actions. One instance of this was the expanded role of the International War Crimes Tribunal: during the Kosovo War, Western leaders finally gave more full-hearted support to international legal action, providing evidence and logistical support that finally enabled the Tribunal to indict Milosevic. This helped create the momentum for more comprehensive presecutions of the major criminals of the Yugoslav wars as a whole.
- Finally, we should note that in Yugoslavia, the West’s war helped to bring about a constructive undermining of authoritarian power, stimulating the Serbian revolution that toppled Milosevic in 2000, rather than the destructive entrenchment of dictatorship that occurred in Iraq after the defeat of the 1991 uprisings.
Summarising the comparisons of Iraq and Kosovo: the general crystallization of Western power in the latter case was far more closely linked to the pressure of the global-democratic revolution, and to humanitarian concerns. It reflected the pressure of political forces representing the majority population of Kosovo, and concern about the threatened civilian population mediated by international media and NGOs, in a way that happened only at one stage of the Iraqi wars (the Kurdish refugee crisis).
At the same time, the form of Western military action, although certainly open to criticism for not being directly protective of civilians and for causing civilian casualties, was nowhere near as destructive of life as Western policies towards Iraq. Serbian military and civilian casualties were probably each in the hundreds, compared to the ten thousand or so civilians massacred, and hundreds of thousands expelled, by Serbian forces; and Western military action eventually stopped the killing and restored the population to their homes.
In Iraq, in contrast, tens of thousands of largely conscript troops and several thousand civilians were killed by the US-led coalition. The longer-term results were even bleaker: the destruction of infrastructure and sanctions – and the regime’s neglect – caused living standards to deteriorate drastically and many lives were lost as a result. The Gulf War did achieve the restoration of Kuwaiti civilians to their homes, and the Kurdish intervention provided a modicum of protection to expelled civilians, but these were secondary to the overall thrust of Western policy. Political outcomes in Kuwait and Kurdistan, let alone in Iraq, were considerably further from democracy than those in Kosovo and Serbia.
This explains why it was far easier – in the light of the democratic and historical pacifist principles outlined above – to support the general thrust of Western policy in Kosovo than in Iraq. However it is important to note that the latter, especially, posed radically shifting issues at different points in the conflict.
3 The ‘war against terrorism’
How then do the prospects for the third Western war of the global era shape up in the light of these comparisons? Obviously we do not know the precise forms of American and coalition military action, nor the way the conflict will develop, and the way in which new conjunctures will pose specific crystallizations of issues. One of the things we should learn from the earlier conflicts is the way that events can pose sharply contrasting sets of issues at different points. We need to be prepared to respond flexibly to new developments.
Nevertheless, we can characterize the general crystallization of the conflict as it appears in these, its opening stages. I shall draw on the comparisons already established between the Gulf and Kosovo to sharpen the way that I draw this characterization.
- The events that provoke this conflict are among the most murderous of any individual events in recent wars – the 7,000 or so dead are about the same number as the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. But they are even more shocking for having occurred in such a dramatic way, outside a war zone and against the very centres of world power.
- America’s direct enemy – Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in general and those responsible for the atrocities in particular – is a thoroughly reactionary force. Their cold-blooded atrocities against civilians are testimony to a politics quite as ruthlessly anti-democratic as that of Saddam Hussein or Ratko Mladic. They can hardly be seen as representative of the ‘poor world’ – led by a millionaire from the richest, most monarchical and theocratic Arab state, committed to the suppression of women, they have been prepared to kill hundreds of poor Africans in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and people of all nationalities and backgrounds (including certainly hundreds of Muslims) in the World Trade Centre.
- Certainly, Islamic terrorism connects with more representative movements of the oppressed, and not only in Palestine. However, Arab nationalism in general is blighted by a weakness of democracy – the democratic revolution is more blocked in Arab countries than in any other part of the world – and a linked dominance of militarist methods of struggle. Popular support for terrorism in the Arab world is a reactionary tendency that inhibits more progressive democratic politics.
- It is important to note that specifically American national interests are far more pivotal to this than to the earlier conflicts, since the war results from a direct, physical attack on the American heartland. Thus American interests are engaged, and dominate over more general interests, in a way that was not true in Kosovo or even in the Gulf. Although the US depends on its Western and Arab allies, these are unlikely to have more than a limited restraining influence.
- Moreover, in the George W. Bush administration, the US has a leadership with little interest in international institutions and worldwide democracy as such. Although the US needs international legitimacy, the US’s interest in the UN will be purely tactical and it is likely to rely more on bilateral deals with Russia and China, whose semi- or openly authoritarian regimes will be happy if the US deals a blow to Islamic militancy.
- Whereas (in the earlier wars) the West had conventional state enemies in both Iraq and Serbia, its prime enemy today, the terrorist networks, cannot, by definition, be seriously defeated by conventional military means. These networks are based as much – and more dangerously – in America and other Western states as in Afghanistan or the Middle East. Police and administrative actions will have more serious effects than any military strikes focused on Middle East states. The most the latter can achieve will be a temporary destruction of some of the terror groups’ more open military facilities.
- For lack of a convincing primary enemy, the US has focused its attention on secondary enemies, mainly the Taliban regime in Afghanistan although with some nods towards Iraq. Destroying the Taliban could provide the appearance of serious military action against terrorism. At most it would remove a repressive and reactionary regime. However, even if the US (together with the Northern Alliance) succeeded in toppling the Taliban, any new regime would find it even more difficult to prevent continuing civil war. The difficulty of installing a credible replacement regime is considerable and is one of the constraints on US action.
- The prospects for democratic transformation in Afghanistan, under any conditions, are far weaker than in Yugoslavia or even Iraq. The general social basis for democracy is weaker and the effects of prolonged war have been even more catastrophic. It is not clear that any kind of American action could seriously alter this condition, even if that was a serious interest of the US.
- There must be grave concern about the possible extension of the military struggle beyond Afghanistan. Wider attacks, for example on Iraq, are likely only have demonstrative effects, kill more innocents, and polarise larger sections of world opinion against America and the West. Clearly the US administration has no serious strategy to overthrow Saddam Hussein or create the conditions for political transformation in Iraq. This has been lacking for the last decade and is unlikely to have been conjured out of the period since the terrorist attacks.
- Indeed it is not clear what credible political objectives any large-scale military action would have, beyond avenging America’s and George II’s humiliations. The only kind of military action that would have any real credibility would be a snatch operation to capture Bin Laden or other proven terrorists. But this is unlikely to be the limit of the war, if indeed it happens at all.
- Just as the US is not seriously interested in legitimate international political institutions, it is clearly uninterested in serious judicial processes as an answer to the situation. Bush’s enthusiasm for Wild West justice – ‘Wanted dead or alive’ – was no aberration. The state of Texas, of which he was governor, is notorious for its low judicial standards, and his accession to power depended on a scandalous abuse of the Supreme Court. Texas even refused to hand over a leading génocidaire to the International Tribunal for Rwanda, and would not ; the Federal Government had to intervene to secure his extradition. Now that Bush is in Washington, the US is even trying to renege on Clinton’s commitment to the weakened International Criminal Court. Certainly the new administration continued the pressure on Serbia that sent Milosevic to The Hague; but this was a tactical qualification of the general US withdrawal from international justice.
- It is clear that any large-scale US-led military action will increase the suffering of millions of ordinary Afghanis. Already very large numbers have become refugees due to the fear of bombing, adding to the millions already forced out of the country into the miserable refugee camps of Pakistan and beyond. (Let us not forget those chancing their lives in the Channel Tunnel, or stranded on remote Pacific islands through the callousness of Australia’s government.) Any serious military action will undoubtedly produce direct civilian casualties as well. However, even if the plight of ordinary Afghanis is completely incidental to the US’s concerns, media coverage and NGO pressure are likely to force their attention as in the Gulf. Indeed, there are already signs of growing concern about refugees before any Western military strikes. This is likely to be a prime contradiction in the action.
The ‘war against terrorism’ represents a regressive crystallization of the emergent global state. At its heart, in a sad irony, is the incineration of the innocents in New York and Washington. This is as dreadful a crime against humanity as has been committed anywhere in the world in the last decade, and cries out for international justice and the invocation of legitimate global order. But the US seems determined that what happened on 11 September was ‘not a crime, but war’.
Bush has pulled America together for revenge, not justice. He has pulled together an international coalition behind a threadbare notion of ‘defeating terrorism’ that does little to add to this. The huge potential for legitimacy in real, concerted international action against terrorism may well be squandered in an adventure with dubious and unclear goals, and lead to more innocent victims to lay alongside those buried under the World Trade Centre.
This war seems likely to strengthen US hegemonism within the West – and reinforce the positions of Russia’s and China’s unsavoury rulers in an American-centred global power network. European leaders like Tony Blair have run hard to avoid being sidelined altogether, and in the end they will have no more than limited influence on what happens. The United Nations has been ignored (for worse reasons than applied over Kosovo) and international justice downgraded.
It seems likely that the war will have far more serious negative effects on world politics than previous conflicts. The Gulf War did much to stimulate the growth of the extreme political Islam that has now wreaked such violence on America. However the Gulf War had political aims that could be justified to some sectors of Muslim opinion. The Kosovo War, in addition to its general progressive justifications, also offset this tendency, because the West took military action to protect a threatened population that happened to be Muslim. This took place, moreover, at a time when the emblematic conflict of Islam and the West, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, was at a more hopeful stage. Today, Muslims have little to hope for from America in that context.
We cannot do without global power networks – in this sense ‘anti-globalization’ politics is a chimera. A global state framework that ties together the world’s state powers, so as to prevent major interstate war, increase economic flows and facilitate population movements, has much to recommend it. Such a framework, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, can only be centred on the West, given its economic, military, political – and indeed ideological – supremacy. However the forms in which this framework develops matter crucially. There are choices between war and non-war, semi-authoritarianism and deepened democracy, the assertion of power and the development of global legitimacy.
Moments of general military crisis are the strongest expressions of these issues. We need to recognise that war, in general, is a problem for global order. The New York and Washington attacks are a graphic demonstration of terrible human consequences – and political-economic destabilization – resulting from the simplest uses of force. This was degenerate war par excellence. The positive way to develop global state frameworks is to maximise the use of non-military means – political, legal and policing measures are available in abundance to tackle terrorism. Even in Kosovo, which of the three major military interventions I have evaluated most positively, non-military measures (earlier recognition of Kosovan democratic demands, arrests of the main perpetrators in Bosnia, etc.) could have helped avoid the crisis that erupted. Likewise the NATO war had many negative consequences. Where military force is used effectively in global state building, it is generally in much more limited forms and alongside other kinds of action.
The ‘war against terrorism’ appears to crystallize the negative sides of global power. We must always remember that war is an unpredictable process, in which events throw up new choices, and even destruction can open roads to change. The plight of the Afghani civilians already demands a ‘humanitarian response’ before a single bomb has been dropped. But at the outset, there appears no good justification for large-scale military action, and every reason to fear its consequences for the safety of many innocent human beings. This new war will reinforce reactionary concepts of world order and do little or nothing to advance progressive political and social developments. It is important for democratic globalists to oppose a regressive mobilization of force.
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