By Malik Miah, Barry Sheppard and Caroline Lund.
All are members of the US socialist organisation Solidarity.
- Collapse of the Soviet Union
- The enemy list is expanded
- The war at home
- How far will they go?
- Antiwar movement in the US
- Defeat of Venezuelan coup; Cuba
- The US working class
The criminal September 11, 2001, attacks were greeted by the Bush administration as a godsend. The shock and horror experienced by the US people were mobilised into support of a new, open-ended “War on Terrorism” designed to give a blank cheque to a new stage of US military aggression. This war represents a qualitative change in policy from one of containment to one of more active aggression to destroy enemies who stand in the way of greater US world domination.
Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense (War) Rumsfeld, Attorney General Ashcroft, Secretary of State Powell, and other advisers like Condoleezza Rice in a matter of weeks laid out the new policy, dubbed the “Bush Doctrine” by the White House:
The War on Terrorism will be protracted, lasting perhaps decades. There will be hot wars punctuating the ongoing War on Terrorism. Covert actions by the cia and other arms of the government will once again be legitimised, and these will be kept secret from the world and the US people. This protracted war will be fought with coalitions of other nations if possible, by the US alone if necessary. Probably, these coalitions will shift and change with the changing targets. Curtailment of democratic rights is necessary to protect the United States.
On September 20, Bush addressed a joint session of Congress to thunderous applause and standing ovations. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make”, he said. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
The vague term “terrorism” can be filled with any content. One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Groups that the US has called terrorist in the past include Sinn Féin, the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The PLO may once again be put on the list.
The shift in US policy is similar in scope and nature to the shift that Washington and its allies made following the second world war with the launching of the Cold War. Then it was the “War on Communism” that was used to justify imperialist aggression and attacks on workers’ rights and democratic rights in general at home. Now it is the “War on Terrorism”.
Control of the oil in the Middle East and central Asia is important, but is only part of the objectives of US imperialism. Washington’s goal is to increase qualitatively its domination of the world. This includes increased domination of the exploited semi-colonies. It also includes bullying the US’s imperialist competitors/allies.
Many of the key people in the Bush administration, including Bush himself, are on the right wing of bourgeois politics in the US. But it would be a big mistake to see the Bush Doctrine as a right-wing conspiracy. The new orientation has the support of the decisive sections of the ruling class, and of the Democrats. There was only one “no” vote (Barbara Lee) in the Congress on the bill to give Bush special wartime powers, and even she voted for the extra $42 billion to carry out the war.*
Some on the left argue that world domination has always been the goal of the US, and that September 11 doesn’t represent anything new. They fail to take into account the abrupt and massive shift in US public opinion that occurred.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites in 1989-91 laid the groundwork for the new imperialist offensive we see today. In the period of the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was a partial check on imperialism’s military aggression. The removal of this obstacle opened the door to a new world situation dominated by only one superpower, the United States. But there were further obstacles for Washington to overcome.
Bush the Elder proclaimed a “new world order” following the Gulf War a decade ago, but this pronouncement was premature. The US people expected a “peace dividend” with the end of the Cold War, not more wars. The problem for imperialism was to change that attitude. There were US wars in the 1990s, but the public was still not ready to support a general imperialist offensive, large numbers of US casualties and rising war spending.
Washington made some gains in its wars in the 1990s. The Persian Gulf War in 1991 involved a broad US-led coalition that included Russia, its former enemy. The quick and decisive victory, with few US casualties, resulted in overwhelming public support once the bullets began to fly. The war led to US bases being established in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries for the first time.
Following the war, the US succeeded in imposing a cruel embargo on the Iraqi people, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, especially children. Together with Britain, it has continued to enforce “no fly” zones over Iraq which violate its national sovereignty. But most of the US people did not see that war as the beginning of a new era. Most still believed the US could scale down its military presence abroad, get the Europeans and Japan to play a bigger role, and cut down military spending.
The Clinton administration sought to reverse this “isolationism”. The bloody break-up of Yugoslavia under pressure from the imperialist powers provided a chance for the US to lead a coalition to further its military presence. Under the ideological cover of helping the Kosovar people defeat Serbian oppression, the US war reduced much of Serbia to ruins. The net result of European and US intervention has been the establishment of pro-Western regimes in all of former Yugoslavia, a permanent military presence in Bosnia and very few Western casualties.
The US is presently building a huge airbase in Kosova, strategically placed to aid US control of oil across the region.
The war in Somalia was different. Most of the US people didn’t understand why the US was there and quickly turned against it when GIs were killed. It was a defeat for Washington. Ironically, Bush and other conservatives criticised Clinton’s interventionist policies.
But then came September 11. The shock of the attack was amplified by the fact that not since the war of 1812 with Britain had there been a military strike against the continental United States. US people had naively believed that such things couldn’t happen at home. The killing of so many civilians convinced most that they were under attack, and they supported Bush’s War on Terrorism with very few reservations. What Bush the Elder and Clinton could not do, Bush Junior could now do because of the change in public opinion.
Four weeks after September 11, the US launched its war against Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries. Washington pounded the people of Afghanistan with massive amounts of explosives, testing out new and very powerful bombs. It made a pact with the warlords of the Northern Alliance, who controlled less than ten per cent of the country, against the Afghani Taliban government and whatever fighters al Qaeda had.
While the Taliban regime was just as reactionary as the Northern Alliance groups, the Taliban initially had popular support in ousting these bandits.
The different and mutually hostile groups that made up the Mujaheddin (which included the forces of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance) were supported by Washington, through Saudi funding and the Pakistani intelligence service, to fight the Soviet-backed regime in the 1980s. These groups were and are all reactionary anticommunists. They rose up against reforms the Soviet-backed government tried to introduce, especially steps to better the lot of women. When the Taliban faction took power in 1996, again with Saudi financing and the backing of Pakistani intelligence, the US hoped it would lead to a stable regime friendly to US oil interests and gave it support even into 2001.
The Northern Alliance was backed by Iran, Turkey, Russia and former Soviet central Asian republics before September 11, and by the US after that. The victory of the US and the Northern Alliance factions against the Taliban and al Qaeda was not the liberation of Afghanistan, nor of Afghani women, as Bush claimed in his State of the Union address in February. But it was a quick and easy victory, with almost no US casualties. This victory bolstered the support of the great majority of the US people for Bush’s new war.
The US bombing resulted in thousands of casualties among Afghani citizens, more than the number of people killed on September 11. This met no outcry from most US citizens. In large part, the lack of compassion for the civilian victims of US bombing was due to the lies and censorship by the Pentagon and the big business media. But there was another element, the whipping up of chauvinism and the attitude that “we” had to get “them” to avenge September 11, and if civilians got in the way, well, tough. Instilling this attitude is one of the ruling class’s objectives in the War on Terrorism. It is part of the ruling-class effort to reverse the “Vietnam syndrome” among the US population.
An aspect of this “syndrome” is the opposition to US casualties in Washington’s imperialist wars following the Vietnam experience. The administration is proceeding cautiously on this front, and got away with small casualties in Afghanistan. But it aims to get the US people accustomed to US dead and wounded, and we can expect to see more casualties as this protracted war unfolds.
As a result of its war and victory in Afghanistan, the US has extended its bases around the world. Who would have thought, before September 11, that three former Soviet republics would allow US troops on their soil?
In his February State of the Union address, Bush defined an “axis of evil” of Iran, Iraq and North Korea that the US will eventually deal with, with either overt or covert action. He introduced a new justification for imperialist aggression, namely that these countries not only supposedly harbour terrorists, but are also developing weapons of mass destruction.
The only country in the Middle East which has hundreds of nuclear bombs is Israel. The US has more weapons of mass destruction than all other countries combined, and is the only country to have used atomic bombs against civilian populations. The hypocrisy is glaring, but Washington wants the world to know that it has these weapons and is willing to use them if necessary. The plan to develop a missile shield is not designed to further the ridiculous objective of preventing an attack by Iran, Iraq or North Korea. It is to develop a nuclear first-strike capability by significantly reducing any counter-strike, and is aimed primarily at Russia and China. It is also part of the US plan to control outer space militarily.
After pulverising Afghanistan, the US got the Philippines government to allow US troops into the country as “trainers” to help the Philippine army fight “terrorism”. The ostensible target is a minuscule group that appears to be mainly bandits. Manila has been fighting a long-term civil war against Muslim populations that want independence, and it is in this civil war that the US is really intervening. Washington wants to help a reliable regime and thereby get a toehold to reestablish military bases in the country. From this jumping-off point, Washington wants to fight “terrorism” in other countries of south-east Asia.
Washington has stated that it would like to intervene militarily in Indonesia. This vast archipelago controls the straits of south-east Asia through which large amounts of oil pass. But there are problems for the US. The US backed the bloody Suharto dictatorship and army against the Indonesian people and struggles by several ethnic groups seeking independence from Jakarta. The overthrow of Suharto was a setback for the US.
The regime of Megawati Sukarnoputri faces widespread distrust and opposition. It can give only lip service to the US war drive. The army’s history of terrorising the people of East Timor, Aceh and other areas makes it more difficult for the US once again openly to establish close ties with the Indonesian military. Even the former ambassador to Indonesia and current undersecretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, an extreme rightist and rabid Zionist pushing for an immediate war against Iraq, cautions against moving too fast in reestablishing closer ties with the Indonesian army. But this is the direction in which Washington would like to move, later if not sooner.
What’s striking in Indonesia and the Philippines is the long-term political struggles against those regimes that predate September 11 and al Qaeda. The US wants to intervene against these struggles under cover of the War on Terrorism.
Clinton used the cover of “fighting drugs” to justify military aid and training to Colombia. In the new situation, Bush says that the fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) are “terrorists”, and US military intervention is part of the War on Terrorism as well as the fake “war on drugs”.
Another group on Washington’s “terrorist” list is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. They have been waging an armed struggle against the central government for two decades. Their objective is independence for the Tamil people, who are an oppressed nationality in Sri Lanka. As in the Philippines and Indonesia, the US would like to intervene against this popular struggle, which has nothing to do with al Qaeda and September 11.
Part of the Cold War was the anticommunist witch-hunt in the US. An analogous development is beginning to take shape with the War on Terrorism.
Bush asked for, and received from Congress, broad extraordinary powers to carry out his doctrine. This was another instance of Congress abdicating its constitutional obligation to declare war&8212;the last war Congress declared was World War II. After the Vietnam experience, Congress was supposed keep the executive branch in check as far as going to war. But September 11 was the excuse to relegate that notion to the dustbin of history. The trend in all imperialist states is for the executive to become more and more powerful vis-a-vis the legislature and judiciary. This has been given a big boost in the US.
Bush also announced that he has formed an alternative government in case Washington is destroyed. Its members are secret, and of course not elected. They are in a bunker somewhere. These appointees take turns in the bunker, with breaks to return home.
Bush’s powers include riding roughshod over democratic rights. So far, they have been applied mainly to non-citizens, but include many who have been in the country for years and have “green cards” that allow them to work. Thousands of Arabs and Muslims were rounded up and held virtually incommunicado for months. A few were charged with visa violations; some are in the process of being deported. None have been linked to September 11 or al Qaeda.
Arab and Islamic charities that raise money to help Palestinians and ordinary Muslims in Arab and non-Arab countries such as Somalia have been shut down, and their assets have been frozen, without any due process, by decree. Bush merely asserts without proof that they are connected to “terrorists”.
Airport security screeners who are not citizens are scheduled to be fired, even if they have worked on the job for years and have green cards. This is part of the chauvinist and racist climate that is being whipped up, as most of those targeted have darker skins and come from the semi-colonial countries.
Arabs and Muslims in general, as well as others who are mistaken for Muslims, including citizens, report being fearful and apprehensive, many having faced violence and verbal abuse.
Ruling by decree, Bush set up military tribunals to try suspected Taliban and al Qaeda members. Some are being held in Afghanistan, and others at the illegal US naval base in GuantÃ¡namo, Cuba, in terrible conditions. Now there are reports that the military hasn’t even figured out what to charge these people with&8212;it seems to have no evidence. However, Rumsfeld decreed that they could be held indefinitely without charges or trials. Even those who were tried and found not guilty could be held indefinitely, he said.
At present, the minority who dissent from the new War on Terrorism, including those in the small socialist left, haven’t been attacked. There is no need to, given the ninety per cent support Bush has as far as the war is concerned. But the direction the administration will eventually go was indicated when Attorney General Ashcroft went before a Senate committee. Some of the senators asked some timid questions about the military tribunals and the round-up of Arabs and Muslims. Ashcroft shot back that such questions “aided and abetted terrorism”, and the questioners shut up.
They will go as far as they can, depending on what resistance they meet. The US ruling class is pragmatic. The Bush Doctrine is what they intend to do, but they don’t operate on autopilot. They adjust, depending on what they face. Whether the radical shift in policy succeeds depends on the reactions of two social forces: the oppressed peoples of the world, and the working people of the advanced imperialist countries, especially the United States. At present, the relationship of forces is to imperialism’s advantage. However, within this context we have seen examples of the power of the masses when they fight back.
Washington now admits that it wanted to attack Iraq in the northern spring of this year. But the resistance of the Palestinians to the brutal operations conducted by Israel has forced it to put off the invasion.
In contrast to the ignoble collapse of the Taliban, the fight back of the Palestinians has stayed Washington’s hand, at least for now. This courageous and heroic resistance has inspired Arabs throughout the Middle East. Millions have marched, including in such repressive countries as Egypt. The most moderate and pro-US leaders have been forced to take some distance from Washington, and are fearful that their own aroused masses may threaten their regimes.
Bush calls the acts of the Palestinian resistance “terrorist”, like the September 11 attacks. For Washington, the Israeli attempt to suppress the Palestinian struggle against occupation is part and parcel of the War on Terrorism.
Israel’s Ariel Sharon calls Yasser Arafat the “Palestinian Osama bin Laden”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Al Qaeda killed thousands of innocent civilians in the World Trade Center and on the airplanes used, including Arabs and Muslims. Al Qaeda, like the Taliban, has no economic or social program to advance the interests of the Muslims it purports to represent. Its only program is the establishment of strict Islamic states, a goal that is reactionary through and through. Its September 11 attack harmed the struggle of working people and the oppressed throughout the world. It led many&8212;in the US the great majority&8212;to support imperialism’s new offensive.
The Palestinians are an oppressed people. The creation of Israel and its expansion were accomplished at the expense of the Palestinians, and through terrorist methods, including state terrorism, with the support of the West. The Palestinians are not attempting to oppress anyone. Their fight is just and progressive. The original proposal of the Palestine Liberation Organisation was that Jews and Arabs live together as equals in a democratic, secular state. This was rejected by Israel out of hand. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, and is opposed to living with the Palestinians as equals. History has shown that Israel is an expansionist state, at the Palestinians’ expense.
Then the PLO came out for a two-state solution. This was supposedly the content of the 1992 Oslo agreements. But after those agreements, under both Labour and Likud governments, the Israelis built hundreds of new settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza, with roads connecting them to pre-1967 Israel. These roads and the settlements are considered part of Israel. They cut any proposed Palestinian state to pieces. These settlements are Israel’s colonial outposts and military garrisons in ostensibly Palestinian territory.
Israel is a militarised society. Armed to the teeth by the US, Israel is a nuclear power. All its Jewish citizens serve in the military, and many are part of the reserves. Many civilians are armed. In the present battles, Israel is using US fighter planes, helicopter gunships and tanks. The Palestinians have stones and light arms. In the face of such a disparity of military force, they have developed the tactic of the suicide bomber, as well as ambushes of Israeli soldiers and armed attacks on the armed settlers to strike back against their oppressors. This has nothing in common with Osama bin Laden’s demented criminality. It has more in common with the Jewish uprising against Nazi oppression in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.
It’s up to the Palestinians to decide what tactics to use in what situations. It ill behooves Western supporters of the Palestinian struggle, especially those in the United States, to lecture the Palestinians on this score.
With the US openly backing even the most horrible Israeli atrocities, with Bush calling the war criminal Sharon a “man of peace” while attacking Arafat, the plans for invading Iraq had to be postponed in the face of the Arab masses. In late April, however, the administration sent up a trial balloon about staging the invasion next year with “75,000 to 250,000” troops.
Right after September 11, there was a flurry of anti-war activity. But once the US bombing began, it quickly faded. On April 20, however, there were big demonstrations in Washington, DC, and San Francisco, and in other cities. Originally scheduled to protest the War on Terrorism in general, these protests were in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against the War on Terrorism in the concrete. The size of these demonstrations was on the order of 100,000, and they were by far the largest demonstrations ever in the US in solidarity with the Palestinians. There was anger at the war crimes the Israelis were committing on the West Bank. But this alone doesn’t account for the turnout. Atrocities that aren’t resisted can result in demoralisation rather than mobilisation. It was the Palestinian resistance against overwhelming military force that galvanised the protests. For the first time since September 11, there were significant numbers of Palestinians, other Arabs and Muslims who turned out. The mood was militant and inspired, not downbeat and defeated.
Student youth have taken a prominent leadership role in answering pro-Israeli propaganda and educating the public on the Palestinian struggle. New groups in solidarity with Palestine are organising protests and rallies.
Many opponents of the War on Terrorism were silent after September 11. Now there are some prominent people beginning to speak out, such as Gore Vidal. (Actually, Vidal tried to get his writings published in the US earlier, but couldn’t find a publisher&8212;even the left-liberal Nation refused to publish him&8212;until they became a best-seller in Europe.)
There was another victory against the War on Terrorism, in Venezuela. Toppling regimes Washington doesn’t like is part of the new imperialist offensive. The April coup against the elected president of the country, Hugo Chavez, was organised and financed by the US in collaboration with the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and right-wing “labour leaders”. Chavez angered Washington by his stance of favouring the workers and poor, his friendship with Cuba, and his refusal to go along with attacking the FARC and ELN. The coup was quickly smashed by the uprising of the “lower” classes, dealing a blow, at least for the time being, to Washington’s plans.
Imperialism’s biggest threat in Latin America remains revolutionary Cuba. The revolution is still alive with popular support. Cuba remains a beacon for socialism worldwide. It is not a Stalinist dictatorship, in spite of some bureaucratic distortions.
The revolution survived the collapse of the Soviet bloc, something that many on the left as well as the imperialists thought couldn’t happen. Cuba remains the only country in the world with housing for all and free medical care and education.
Speeches by Fidel Castro and other Cuban leaders are among the best explanations of neo-liberal globalisation and the War on Terrorism anywhere, and unique among the world’s regimes.
Bush would like to extend the “axis of evil” to include Cuba, and to overthrow the revolutionary regime. But Cuba’s clear denunciation of the September 11 attack and rejection of terrorism (Cuba even offered to send doctors to help treat the victims) made it more difficult to pin the “terrorist” label on Cuba.
However, in early May the administration raised the idea that Cuba is building “germ warfare” weapons of mass destruction, and is helping Iraq, Iran and Libya to obtain them. The alleged basis for this charge is the fact that Cuba has a highly developed drug and biotechnology industry, a pillar of its excellent health care system. Cuba exports drugs and vaccines all over the world, including to Europe. A humane accomplishment of the revolution is twisted by the Bush administration into a threat, on the grounds that this technology could have the “dual use” of making germ weapons!
For example, Cuba developed a vaccine for hepatitis B, and shared this technology with Iran. Incredibly, the administration spokesperson wrote, “No one believes that Iran is interested in these technologies for the purpose of protecting all the children in the Middle East from hepatitis”. Perhaps Iran will not be able to inoculate “all the children in the Middle East”, but it is to be hoped that it will be able to do so with Iranian children.
US hypocrisy is again blatant. Washington admits it is conducting germ warfare experiments&8212;for “defensive purposes”, of course. During the post-September 11 anthrax scare, it came to light that there are laboratories all over the US dealing with anthrax.
This trial balloon could portend putting Cuba into the “axis of evil”. However, we should note that former President Carter rejected the charge when he visited Cuba in May, and called for an end to the US embargo, which the Bush administration wants to tighten.
Any US invasion of Cuba would be met by the ferocious resistance of a people in arms and a revolutionary army that has proven its ability to fight. Cuba played the decisive role in the defeat of the South African invasion of Angola.
The Porto Alegre World Social Forum in Brazil and the 500,000-strong demonstration in Barcelona prove that the anti-globalisation movement is still alive. Not only is Argentina a showcase of neo-liberalism’s failure, but the rise of a big mass movement shows that neo-liberalism can be opposed. The massive demonstrations and strike in Italy against attempts to implement neo-liberal policies by the right-wing government of Berlusconi are another example. While these movements are not directly against Washington’s new war perspective, they challenge it indirectly.
While we have noted the similarities between the War on Terrorism and the Cold War, there is a difference. In the 1950s, the US economy was growing rapidly, and the capitalist class could afford to make wage and other concessions to the working class. Prosperity was a factor in the majority support among workers for the Cold War and the anticommunist witch-hunt. Since the end of the postwar boom in the early 1970s, there has been a capitalist offensive against the living standards and organisations of the workers. This should have led to a generalised fight back, but it hasn’t.
This is not to say that there haven’t been important instances of fights back. These include the 1980 strike of the air traffic controllers; the strike of meatpackers in Austin, Minnesota, in the mid-1980s; and the combined strikes of agricultural processing workers, auto workers and rubber workers in Decatur, Illinois, in the mid-1990s. But these were all failures, stabbed in the back by the AFL-CIO tops and/or their own international leaderships.
An important aspect of the failure to wage a generalised counter-attack to the capitalist offensive is the nature of the leadership of the working class.
There were two important legacies of the anticommunist witch-hunt that accompanied the Cold War. One was the decimation of the socialist left. This was beginning to be overcome during the radicalisation of the 1960s. But with the end of that radicalisation, stagnation and decline set in. The ignominious collapse of the USSR and the victory of the US in the Cold War had the immediate effect of making any alternative to capitalism seem utopian.
The second legacy was the witch-hunt in the unions. A right wing cooperated fully with the government in driving socialists and other militants out of the unions. This clinched the stranglehold of the bureaucratic machines that still control the unions today. They became more and more integrated into the capitalist state and supported imperialism’s wars. (There were some breaks during the last stages of the Vietnam War, but only after it was opposed by the big majority of the US population and some capitalist politicians.) They worked hand in glove with the CIA in destabilising left-leaning unions throughout the world.
These entrenched bureaucracies openly reject the class struggle and see themselves as partners with the bosses. This policy has been a disaster, with organised workers dropping from thirty-five per cent of the work force in the 1950s to thirteen per cent today. Only nine per cent of workers in the private sector are in unions.
The large majority of workers not in unions are subjected to the imperialist propaganda of the big business media. But those in unions who bother to read their unions’ publications are subjected to even more abjectly pro-imperialist propaganda there. The labour press advocates jingoist protectionism against “foreign” workers.
So it is no surprise that the top union officials have shamelessly and vociferously supported Bush’s war drive. In Venezuela, the AFL-CIO international agents are collaborating with reactionary union officials against a popular regime. Many who are in the war industries have applauded the new rise in military spending as a way to create jobs.
At present the relation of class forces is against us and will be for the next period.
When Washington does become embroiled in a long-term conflict with a determined enemy, and US casualties begin to mount, there will be cracks in the working class’s support for the War on Terrorism. The experience of the Vietnam War is a cause for optimism in this regard. To get to that point will take a patient, long-term perspective of mobilising whatever forces we can against each concrete war Washington launches as part of its long-term War on Terrorism.
* After this article was written there was an expose in the US press about the fact that the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies of the government knew that a terrorist attack was imminent. The bipartisan government has used these disclosures as an excuse to raise the budgets of the spy agencies, under the theory that they <