Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

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.


Published in Radical Philosophy 111 (Jan/Feb 2002), pp. 11-19

It is said that generals always fight yesterday’s war, but this is even truer of anti-war movements. Although the ‘war against terrorism’ is billed as a ‘new kind of war’, the anti-war rhetoric has seemed even more familiar than the military practice. In this article I bring my experience of thinking about peace politics to bear on the largely inherited attitudes implicit in anti-war responses to the crisis since 11 September 2001. I write as someone who publicly opposed the military thrust of the ‘war on terrorism’ from George Bush’s first pronouncements. But I proceed by making ten challenges to common lines of anti-war argumentation, and propose alternative foundations for a coherent critique of the war.

1 Do we pay more than lip-service to the criminality of the initial aggression?

Anti-war activists invariably preface their critiques with ‘of course we condemn the terror attacks’ – just as in the Gulf War, they said ‘of course we condemn the invasion of Kuwait’ and over Yugoslavia, ‘of course we condemn ethnic cleansing’. And yet this is a particularly insidious form of argument. It almost invariably means that the speaker does not take seriously the act of aggression which has provoked Western military action. While recognising a tactical need to acknowledge its illegitimacy, the speaker hopes to move on quickly to the West’s own ‘crimes’ without really addressing the nature of the initial aggression.

In the case of ‘911’ (as some Americans call it) the failure begins with an inability to name the attacks. Of course, this is not a failing only of anti-war opinion; we do not have an agreed terminology for these events. President Bush was quick to call them an ‘act of war’: correct so far as it went, but manifestly an incomplete naming. It was an act of murderous propaganda – which is the meaning of terrorism. Innocent travellers and workers were burnt alive, crushed, suffocated, or forced to jump to their deaths. It was an immoral and illegal act of war, illegitimate according to all the standards accepted by worldwide humanity and agreed by its political representatives.

Killing was directed overwhelmingly against innocent civilians for no other reason than that they were presumed to be Americans. In terms of law and of literature it would be accurately named as a genocidal massacre. And like many acts of war and most genocidal massacres, what presented as targeted violence was experienced as indiscriminate slaughter, killing Britons and Indians, Jews and Muslims, everyone and anyone in the path of its assault.

Any response to this massacre that is remotely close to being adequate has to address its absolutely outrageous and horrific character. Those who are quick to condemn America’s response have not been slow to use terms like ‘genocide’ to refer to the deaths of Afghans from starvation, the likelihood of which has been only indirectly increased by US action. But they have often been slow to find similar language to describe the terror attacks themselves, which manifestly invite it.

2 Do we avoid misplaced comparisons that pre-empt moral response?

Anti-war critics often minimise the significance of aggression through misleading analogies designed to move the argument onto anti-Western territory. The significance of the terror massacre has been denied by false comparisons with the crimes of America itself. Thus Noam Chomsky’s initial reaction was to compare this event – in which thousands of people had clearly died – with President Clinton’s bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan in 1998. Even if this had been a relevant comparison, we can ask whether an immediate comparative framing of any kind was appropriate. The massacre called out for an active moral response – Chomsky’s first reaction was to pre-empt one.

However the dubiousness of the enterprise was emphasised by the inappropriateness of the comparison. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, the Sudan analogy was singularly unconvincing. The criminality of Clinton’s attack was one of carelessness – misidentification of the target – motivated by political calculation. (It was also a response, however misguided, to the massacres of Africans and Americans in the 1998 embassy bombings, victims who do not figure in Chomsky’s argument.) As Hitchens pointed out, the Islamist terrorists not only intended, in destroying the huge World Trade Centre, to kill thousands of civilians – they may have even have expected to murder a hundred thousand (‘a Dresden for the Taliban’) had the towers fallen lengthways across Manhatten. Chomsky made his comparison despite the fact that no one was actually killed – although a nightwatchman was horrifically burned – in the Sudan attack.

Chomsky’s case rested on unseen and unintended ‘collateral damage’, the thousands of deaths that he believed must have been caused in the Sudan through the absence of drugs. This is indeed the most serious aspect of Clinton’s Sudan fiasco, and no one would deny that it greatly compounds its morally objectionable character. But if Chomsky wanted to enter indirectly caused deaths into a calculus of slaughter, he should obviously have considered the probable indirect casualties of 911 – not least from deepened poverty throughout the Third World from the economic crisis that the massacre provoked. In short, Chomsky should have compared like with like. The point is not so much the deficiency of his comparisons as what they tell us about his response and its motives.

3 Can we resist temptations towards fallacious contextualisation?

These comparisons are examples of a wider problem – the use of contextualisation to distract attention from the need for a morally and politically adequate response to the terrorist massacre. It will not do to say that the United States had itself committed, condoned or failed to prevent similar crimes against others. Not only do such claims, however true, provide not a scrap of justification or excuse for what was done – by themselves they also fail to provide a sufficient guide to our actions in the aftermath.

However not only anti-war activists, but sceptical press and even academic commentary, have frequently substituted political and economic analysis of the Middle East and Central Asia for a serious response to the massacre. Partly this is a matter of political habit – we all know how American policy has sustained Israeli occupation in the West Bank, and so on. And this certainly helps explain why many Arabs and Muslims hate America and sympathise with Bin Laden. So while relevant to the framework for a wider political response, it is pernicious when used to explain away the massacre and to minimise the justification for a response to it. This mode of argument is so pervasive, and even motivated by good intentions (towards Palestinians, for example) that its inappropriateness perhaps needs particular emphasis.

4 Have we taken seriously the US’s own moral and legal rights?

These kinds of false responses are often linked to an over-hasty dismissal of the US’s moral and legal rights to make a military response to the massacre. It was, as I have said, an act of aggression, whose seriousness was compounded by the targeting of civilians. Clearly there is a prima facie case for America’s right to respond militarily, not merely as retaliation but in self-defence against the clear danger of further attacks.

Initially there was a strong argument that the US did not know who was responsible, and the ‘Wild West justice’ of possible attacks on Iraq as well as Afghanistan seemed seriously illegitimate. However this argument seems no longer valid, in the light not only of the US’s evidence, but of Bin Laden’s own propaganda efforts, coming forward to claim the political credit if not – in the light of a possible trial, we must presume – the direct command responsibility. Nor is there any doubt about the Taliban’s generally close links with Bin Laden. So in this context, America’s right to attack al-Qaida and the Taliban is not in serious doubt. No wonder that the veteran radical international scholar, Richard Falk, has pronounced in favour of a possible ‘just war’ – the first American war he has supported. Or, of course, that almost unnoticed the US has obtained UN backing.

Of course, the right to make war does not make war right. But it does no favours to an anti-war cause to deny the elements of traditional international legitimacy in America’s response. Anti-war activists have been quick to cry foul when America has failed to observe the formalities of international legitimation – when over Kosovo, for example, NATO was able to gain Security Council backing only retrospectively. They are under an obligation of consistency, if nothing else, to take seriously its international rights in this situation.

5 Have we developed the idea of justice as an alternative to military action?

The problem with anti-war politics is precisely that it is mostly against the war rather than for justice. Coalitions have been built around the lowest common denominator of opposition to US action rather than around an adequate alternative response to the core issue of this crisis, the terrorist massacre. This is a fundamentally moral and political failing of many current anti-war movements. However it is also one that has profound consequences, since it gives governments the easy response that criticism of the war does not address the 911 outrage, and allows them to present American action as the only possible response.

The only morally and politically effective answer to the US’s war in Afghanistan is that there was a choice. The massacre was an act of war, but it was also a crime – it could have been treated as a criminal act. As Sir Michael Howard, the doyen of British military historians, has argued, ‘Many people would have preferred a police operation conducted under the auspices of the UN on behalf of the international community as a whole, against a criminal conspiracy, whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international court. Terrorists can be successfully destroyed only if public opinion supports the authorities in regarding them as criminals rather than heroes.’

Even radicals like Falk question whether such a response would have been sufficient, and certainly it was asking for a leap of imagination and politics that was highly improbable in George W. Bush. But imagine the effect if he had embraced an international tribunal as the way to morally frame the criminality of Bin Laden and the other perpetrators. This would have been a powerful and enduring symbol of the global commitment to defeat terror. With America’s drive behind it, it is not too much to think that bin Laden, like Slobodan Milosevic, could eventually have been brought to justice. Unlike the bombing of Afghanistan this course would have had unquestionable global legitimacy. It would have required less cosying up to authoritarian rulers in Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad. And it would have been much more difficult to whip up anti-Western feeling on the streets from Gaza to Jakarta.

In America, all but the ‘hard left’ opponents of the war have tended towards a ‘justice not revenge’ response. In Britain, however, at a greater distance from the impact of the terror massacre, all too many of the activists have opted for the old modes of anti-Americanism and anti-war.

6 Have we avoided complicity in denigrating international justice?

Indeed the hard left’s response has not only avoided calling for international justice as the alternative to war. It has also undermined this case by denigrating the available models of international law enforcement. In this way it has entered an unholy alliance with the most determined opponents of international justice, on the American right. Under their pressure, Clinton ganged up with China to water down the ICC treaty, and only signed up to it in his final days. It is no secret that Bush would like to renege on even that commitment. For Republicans, the idea that an international court could try Americans – and, it seems, the killers of Americans – is anathema. Many on the American right have called for ‘war not law’.

However the tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, established by the UN in the 1990s, have been a remarkable example of international justice at work, and a triumph for European-driven ideas of law over might. They have impartially indicted, and increasingly convicted, high-ranking officials responsible for crimes against humanity. The conviction of Serbian general Krstic, co-responsible for the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, and the indictment of former President Milosevic for this and other crimes, are highly relevant precedents for the treatment of the 911 terrorists.

A significant section of the international left has spent the last two years, however, in systematic denigration of the Yugoslav tribunal as a tool of Western power. Focusing on the Tribunal’s decision, following a report by an investigative committee, not to prosecute NATO for its bombing of Serbia, the ‘hard left’ has set aside the careful work that has created by far the strongest model yet of international criminal justice. In the context of the terrorist massacres, this ‘left’ lines up squarely with the American right to block the only serious alternative to war as a response to 911. ‘Pilgerstan’ turns out to be not so far removed from Bush’s ‘Wild West’.

7 Anti-American or anti-war?

Not only, however, is too much anti-war activism also anti-justice. It is also doubtful if it is seriously anti-war. There are, of course, two main senses in which it is possible to be anti-war. We can oppose this particular war – essentially what anti-war politics means in the current situation. As I have pointed out, coalitions are being built on the lowest common denominator – mirror images of Bush’s own lowest common denominator anti-terrorist coalition, with its collection of unsavoury regimes.

Pacifists are in unholy alliance with anti-Americans, opposing this war exactly as they have previous American wars, making little distinction between them (although there are actually quite important differences between this war and, for example, Kosovo). But most anti-Americans are not pacifists. They would support other kinds of war, maybe even the other side in the current war, and some of them even advocate war at home (hence childish slogans like ‘no war but class war’ on some recent banners).

This is not just an abstract point. If America’s cause is morally and legally justified, then the only serious ground of objection is not to its general ends, but to the means that it is using. Two kinds of argument are possible. First, it can be argued that the means will be inefficient and counterproductive. Because al-Qaida is a transnational terrorist network, it can’t be defeated by military action in Afghanistan; because the Taliban will carry on guerrilla resistance, America faces a long and difficult war with uncertain success; and because the war will radicalise Muslims outside Afghanistan, the terrorist threat will be increased.

These sorts of consequential arguments are important and one doesn’t have to be a pacifist to make them. However, deeper moral objections, essentially pacifistic if not pacifist, can be made to the methods of the war. It is important to make these correctly: it doesn’t help to exaggerate the wrongfulness of what is being done in Afghanistan. Bush is not fighting an old-style total war with weapons of mass destruction, but the new type of relatively high-precision, relatively low-casualty, media-conscious campaign that has been practised in the Gulf and Kosovo. So long as America takes care to ‘minimise’ civilian deaths, it could remain within the limits prescribed by just war thinking (as Falk points out).

That word relatively covers, of course, a multitude of sins. Whether or not the war is ‘just’ or legal, there is something disgusting about military planners in their Pentagon offices coldly, even if accidentally, incinerating a whole village in eastern Afghanistan. This is especially so when, effectively, such accidents are programmed into the most careful use of even the smartest weapons – and when risk to US military personnel is almost programmed out, at least so long as the war remains one of bombing. Systematic transfer of the risks of war to civilians, however limited these risks are by historical standards, is profoundly questionable. These sorts of objections are compounded by the known dangers of gravely exacerbating the food crisis of millions of poor Afghan people, and of forcing even more into overcrowded, prison-like refugee camps in which the weak will often not survive.

8 Are we engaging actively with the consequential issues of the war?

Thus Chomsky and Pilger are right that this sort of ‘collateral damage’ can be as serious, when spread across any more lives, as the direct physical harm caused by bombs. However it is doubtful that much anti-war politics really takes seriously the plight of the poor and hungry in Afghanistan. ‘Stop the War’ could mean the victory of the Taliban and the return of the conditions that already produced mass hunger long before Bush intervened. Stopping the war, without other measures, would make us feel better – but would it actually help the Afghan people?

A serious politics will recognise the reality of the war and the unlikelihood that the US is going to give up in response to anti-war protests. As well as criticising the resort to war, and the bombing, it will raise ‘reformist’ demands – for bombing pauses and serious humanitarian relief efforts, if necessary that US and UK troops protect and assist humanitarian provision. While core anti-war politics, on all past evidence, will remain a minority pursuit, TV news, press and relief organisations could well build momentum behind such demands. The big precedent is the Kurdish relief operation of 1991, the pressures for which I described in Civil Society and Media in Global Crises (Pinter, 1996). As well a ‘humanitarian’ demands about the economic misery of the Afghan people, we should be watching the changing political situation – above all to prevent the excesses of Northern Alliance forces, and to support those who press for see a stable, secular government which respects human rights.

9 Are we taking responsibility for our own past positions?

One of the peculiarities of anti-war politics is that while very knowledgeable about the history of US intervention, it is often silent on its own history, from which it often learns little. Many of those who oppose the American war in Afghanistan also opposed the wars in Kosovo and the Gulf. As we have seen, they do not always remember to be consistent, for example in upholding international norms, from one war to the next.

More seriously, however, they don’t appear to have learnt from the mistakes of previous anti-war campaigns. The campaign against the Gulf War particularly comes to mind. Then too, much of the European centre-left and left opposed the war. They focused most of their efforts on preventing any extension of the military campaign or any broadening of war aims. When President Bush called a halt with the liberation of Kuwait, the anti-war movement breathed a sigh of relief. On the ground in Iraq, however, this was the very moment when people rose up against Saddam Hussein. American troops were so close that they could hear the Iraqi Republican Guard massacring the Shi’ite rebels in the city of Basra. But they did not intervene to save them.

But this was not only a failure of George Bush. Back home in Britain and the US, hardly any anti-war protestors raised their voices to demand that the West protect these courageous people on the sharp end of a murderous army. Prominent anti-war writers like Pilger, with regular media outlets, didn’t write about the Shi’as, and only about the Kurds when it was too late. The rebels’ defeat sealed the stalemate in Iraq that has impoverished that society and poisoned world politics to this day: but anti-war activists had done little to prevent it. Like the Iraqis, the Afghan people deserve more than to become our latest propaganda tool against America..

10 Towards a new politics of peace?

The politics of international justice, human rights and humanitarian protection provides a powerful alternative to the politics of bombing and the cycle of violence. As in the dissolution of the Cold War, the goals of human rights and pacific politics combine. However these politics can be advanced only by abandoning the simpler reflexes of traditional anti-war politics, and engaging with the real politics both of the war zones and of international institutions. Faced with a bad and unnecessary war, it is not enough to be AGAINST the war. We must also be FOR the victims, all of them. And that means justice as well as peace. Will we learn this time?


Martin Shaw International Relations and Politics, University of Sussex

Contents: Introduction; Theoretical foundations; The third Western war of the global era; Conclusions


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.

Theoretical foundations

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The third Western war of the global era

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.)
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.


Duffield, M. (2001) Global Governance and the New Wars. London: Pluto.

Evans, M. and K. Lunn, eds. (1999) War and Memory. Leamington: Berg.

Kaldor, M. (1999) New and Old Wars. Cambridge: Polity

Makiya, K. (1993) Cruelty and Silence. London: Cape

Mann, M. (1993) Sources of Social Power (Vol. 2).

Shaw, M. (1988) Dialectics of War. London: Pluto

(1991) Post-Military Society. Cambridge: Polity

(1996) Civil Society and Media in Global Crises. London: Pinter

(2000) Theory of the Global State. Cambridge: CUP.

(2002, forthcoming) Slaughter: From War to Genocide. Cambridge: Polity


The US’s war in Afghanistan is seen by opponents as ‘indiscriminate’, by its supporters as ‘targeted’ violence. But both of these claims are too simple. The new Western way of war is a clever reinvention of the reliance on airpower that has been central to Anglo-American military thought and practice since the 1920s. It transcends the fundamental degeneracy of earlier bombing: but it does through multiple transfers of risk, particularly to civilian populations, which create new contradictions.

Bombing-led Western war has entered a distinctive new phase since 1990. The new mode, as demonstrated in the three Western wars of the global era (the Gulf, Kosovo and Afghanistan), relies on bombing even more than before – by both manned bombers and cruise missiles. However it uses the enhanced precision that computer electronics brings to targeting, to avoid the large-scale and widespread massacres of enemy civilians that occurred in the Second World War and Vietnam.

These are the main transfers in the new way of war, which we can call risk-transfer militarism because of how it is designed to maintain the legitimacy of war in Western societies:

  1. A transfer of the major share of death from enemy civilians to enemy armed forces, thus reversing the twentieth-century trend towards overwhelmingly civilian casualties, and apparently bringing war back within the limits of the ‘just war’ tradition. Most of those directly killed in Afghanistan are the Taliban and their allies, rather than civilians.
  2. A transfer of the risks of ground combat from Western forces to their local allies, wherever possible. The increasingly interdependence between Western airpower and local armies on the ground (the Northern Alliance) enables the West to transfer of greater share of battle casualties to them.
  3. A transfer of risks in bombing from Western air forces to both ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly’ civilians on the ground. Repeated small massacres are an understood feature of the new Western way of war. These are ‘accidental’ in the sense that they are not specifically intended, and efforts are made to avoid them. But they are simultaneously programmed into the risk analysis of war. Civilians are still exposed to far greater risk than the West’s own military personnel (so far, hundreds of civilians have probably been killed by US bombing, but only 2 Americans have died, in a crash). 
  4. The transfer of risk to civilians is deliberate and systematic, since the risks to civilians (from errors in targeting and delivery) are known to be much greater than the risks of Western planes being shot down or crashing accidentally in a war like Afghanistan. It is here that the legacy of degenerate war is clear.
  5. The avoidance of direct civilian killing on a scale that could threaten the mediated legitimacy of the war is a key element in risk-transfer militarism. Western governments want no more TV pictures of direct victims than absolutely unavoidable; and they want no threateningly large direct casualty numbers. Mediation and surveillance have become intrinsic to this refined mode of post-total war, but they make it particularly problematic.
  6. The corollary of this is that indirect and less visible casualties are more acceptable. Where there are other possible causes of death – Taliban policies, civil war, drought, etc. – responsibility is less easy to pin down and therefore the West finds the risks more acceptable. This undoubtedly compounds the degeneracy of the new mode.
  7. Even relatively small massacres may be magnified by the media, so that they may threaten unprecedentedly large consequences for Western power. This was clear in Kosovo, although it has not yet happened in Afghanistan. Thus a fundamental contradiction of the new Western way of war is the unpredictability of intensive mediation in television and other mass media.

The failure of any of these transfers of risk could expose the West to risk rebound. If airpower is insufficient to break the enemy, if the local forces are incapable of carrying out ground operations – or if they commit too many atrocities – the risks of the new mode of war will return to the West.

13 Nov. 2001 © Martin Shaw 2001

Martin Shaw

speech to 17 October 2001 meeting at the University of Sussex

I speak to you today as a scholar of war and genocide, but also as someone who tries to think and act as a citizen of the world. For me, the causing of harm to innocents anywhere is one of the most serious matters that can be addressed by either academic study or political practice. Slaughter is one of the gravest problems of humankind, whether the victims are Americans or Afghans.

So I start from where this crisis started, with September 11th. We are still without an adequate name for these attacks. George Bush was quick to call them an ‘act of war’ and this was correct so far as it went. However it was manifestly an incomplete naming. This was an immoral and illegal act of war, illegitimate according to all the standards accepted by worldwide humanity and agreed by its political representatives.

This was an act of murderous propaganda – which is the meaning of terrorism. Innocent travellers and workers were burnt alive, crushed, suffocated, or forced to jump to their deaths. It was directed overwhelmingly against innocent civilians for no other reason than that they were presumed to be Americans. In terms of the law and of the literature it would be accurately named as a genocidal massacre. And like many acts of war and most genocidal massacres, what presented as targeted violence was in fact indiscriminate slaughter, killing Britons and Indians, Jews and Muslims, everyone and anyone in the path of its assault.

Any response to this massacre that is remotely close to being adequate has to address its absolutely outrageous and horrific character. It will not do to say that the United States had itself committed, condoned or failed to prevent similar crimes against others. Not only do such claims, however true, provide not a scrap of justification or excuse for what was done – by themselves they also fail to provide a sufficient guide to our actions in the aftermath.

Mr Bush’s response has been popular with Americans, and has received grudging respect from the world, precisely because its decisiveness has appeared to address the outrage of September 11th. I say ‘appeared’ because it provides, in my view, at best a crude remedy, at worst a deeply flawed one that is spilling more innocent blood. However I think we must recognise that, on the surface at least, it has powerful legitimacy.

It now appears, from the responses of Osima bin Laden and Al Qaeda themselves as much as from the evidence gathered, that the United States was correct in identifying them as standing behind this massacre. It is also clear that the Taleban regime in Afghanistan has sheltered bin Laden’s terror organization. Although many details are still uncertain, there is no longer much cause to doubt these two principal facts. Hence in terms of traditional international thinking, and law, this was an act of aggression and there is a prima facie case that the United States has acted in self-defence in attacking these enemies.

Moreover, the United States and United Kingdom have distinguished themselves from the terrorists in that their counterattack on Afghanistan has been directed primarily against military targets and has caused civilian casualties only indirectly and by mistake. Again, by traditional international standards for the conduct of war, this could qualify their methods of war as just.

I say none of this out of any love for Mr Bush, but because I don’t think it helps opposition to the war either to minimise the crimes committed in New York and Washington or to exaggerate the wrongfulness of what is being done in Afghanistan. Bush may have been forced by the necessities of alliance to mostly confine his military campaign to Afghanistan. He has even tossed in Blair-style humanitarian gestures. Bush is not fighting an old-style total war with weapons of mass destruction, but the new type of relatively high-precision, relatively low-casualty, media-conscious conflict that has been practised in the Gulf and Kosovo.

That word relatively covers, of course, a multitude of sins. Despite the smallish numbers of civilians directly killed, despite the humanitarian parcels dropped haphazardly across the hillsides, everyone knows that the lives of millions of very poor people will have been badly disrupted, in some cases fatally. Whether or not the war is legal, there is something profoundly disgusting about military planners in their Pentagon offices coldly, even if accidentally, incinerating a whole village in eastern Afghanistan. There is something very smug about British politicians sitting in TV studios and implying that so long as the civilian death tally is less than September 11th, then everything’s OK. Does it really honour the office workers who died in New York and Washington to kill innocent shepherds in their names? Is this really justice for the victims of September 11th?

But then there is little to suggest that President Bush has ever been seriously interested in justice. The politics of Bush’s war are, in my view, fundamentally reactionary. The war is an old-politics response to a new-politics problem. Global terrorism is an issue of the new globalised world of transnational networks – not the old world of nation-states. It dramatises its cause through gruesomely spectacular media displays that owe more to Hollywood than realpolitik. This terrorism can be weakened and contained by determined political, policing and legal measures. Its mass support can be reduced, by addressing the kinds of world political and social inequalities to which earlier speakers have referred. But it cannot be ‘defeated’ by a military campaign. Everyone who watched bin Laden’s video knows that Bush’s war will bring thousands of new recruits to his cause.

War was not the only possible response to September 11. Terrorists have never inflicted on Britain the scale of attacks that New York suffered. But even Margaret Thatcher, after she was personally bombed in Brighton, never bombed Fermanagh and Tyrone in response. It is very difficult to imagine any Western European state acting as America has done. For all its high-tech accuracy and humanitarian extras, this is a brutal response closer in kind to the Russian war in Chechnya than to a world politics based on democracy and justice.

Better methods are to hand. Serbian, Croatian and Rwandan leaders have been brought to justice for genocide, crimes of humanity and war crimes, in the two international tribunals established by the United Nations in the 1990s. And now there is a permanent body to do this job. Three years ago most of the world’s states, including a reluctant America, agreed to set up an International Criminal Court to try such criminals. But by 11 September only 41 nations had ratified the treaty setting up the world court, but its jurisdiction required 60 signatures to be operative.

Imagine the effect if George W. Bush had marched together with Rudy Giuliani and the firemen from Ground Zero to the UN headquarters on the East Side, and there had announced: ‘My administration will this week make America the 42nd state to ratify the world court. All I ask is 18 other nations to follow suit by the end of the month, so that the court can begin work. And I demand that the Security Council today establish a special tribunal and investigative branch to combat terrorism, the work of this tribunal to be taken over in due course by the permanent court.’

This would have been a powerful and enduring symbol of the global commitment to defeat terror. With America’s drive behind it, it is not too much to think that bin Laden, like Slobodan Milosevic, could eventually have been brought to justice. Unlike the bombing of Afghanistan this course would have had unquestionable global legitimacy. It would have required less cosying up to authoritarian rulers in Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad. And it would have been much more difficult to whip up anti-Western feeling on the streets from Gaza to Jakarta.

It would be nice to think that this is what we would have demanded, had the massacres taken place in London and Brighton not Washington and New York. Ironically, in the last month Britain has become the 42nd state to ratify the world court – a piece of good news that also got submerged. But the other 18 are still lacking. And although Bush talks of justice, he wants Bin Laden ‘dead or alive’. His kind of justice is more Wild West than world court.

The best way to challenge this war, then, is to demand that terror criminals are brought to global justice. We must draw strength from the traditions of human rights, democracy and justice – including social justice – that are the West’s best contributions to global society. We must beware of the dead-end variety of anti-war politics that denigrates all things Western, including international legal institutions. This kind of left-wing fundamentalism is the mirror image of Bush’s own reactionary response.

Let me make a final set of comments about the developing situation that draws on my own research on the Gulf War and its aftermath – the nearest precedent for the present situation. Then too, much of the European centre-left and left opposed the war. They focused most of their efforts on preventing any extension of the military campaign or any broadening of war aims. When the then President Bush called a halt with the liberation of Kuwait, the anti-war movement breathed a sigh of relief.

On the ground in Iraq, however, this was the very moment when people rose up against Saddam Hussein. American troops were so close that they could hear the Iraqi Republican Guard massacring the Shi’ite rebels in the city of Basra. But they did not intervene to save them. And back home in Britain and the US, hardly any anti-war protestors raised their voices to demand that the West protect these courageous people on the sharp end of a murderous army. The rebels’ defeat sealed the stalemate in Iraq that has impoverished that society and poisoned world politics to this day.

I mention this because, while it may seem fine for us to stand back from the war, the Afghan people, like the Iraqis in 1991, have no such luxury. Whether we like it or not, for them the war is a fact. The bombing and the intervention have already had big consequences – certainly sharpening the food crisis, maybe toppling the repressive Taliban regime. At some point soon, American and British troops may actually be on the ground in Afghanistan.

In this situation, the Afghan people deserve more than to become our latest propaganda tool against America. They deserve real concern for their actual and changing situation. We should demand proper food aid for the weak and starving. We should demand support for democratic forces against warlords of all kinds. We should demand that America and Britain, having got themselves into Afghanistan, take responsibility for the social and political crises that their war has brought to a head.

In short, this is a bad and unnecessary war, but it is not enough to be AGAINST the war. We must also be FOR the victims, all of them. And that means justice as well as peace.

The third way 22 September 2001

Posted: December 13, 2009 in 2001, Afghanistan


We will bring them to justice, or we will bring justice to them’, promised President George W. Bush in his address to Congress on 21 September. And to other states, at least – but by implication also to any internal critics – he directed the stern message: ‘You are either with us or against us.’

Those who are truly for justice will not find themselves in the President’s company. If Bush was serious about bringing bin Laden and his collaborators to justice, he would be telling us in which court and on what charges he wishes to see him tried. Instead he has made it clear that the ‘justice’ he seeks is that of the Wild West, seeking Osama bin Laden ‘dead or alive’.

Bush long ago demonstrated that he is sadly lacking serious ideas of justice and law. Under his governorship, the state of Texas executed more people, including the mentally retarded, underage criminals and those without proper legal representation, than anywhere except China. His cronies abused the Supreme Court to steal the US presidential election for George W. And his contempt for the proposed International Criminal Court has been clear from the start – he would like to renege on Bill Clinton’s decision to sign the US up to the Court.

The cause of justice, against the terrorists, is not served by a huge military mobilization that threatens to cause new injustices against innocent civilians. In this war, justice is the third way: to punish the obscene atrocities of the terrorists, without perpetrating new atrocities of war. We are certainly not with the terrorists. But we cannot be with the President. Tony Blair please note.