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Serve the Superpower


The left should respond to the Richard A. Clarke revelations with guarded praise and trenchant criticism. Praise: because Clarke, Bush’s former counter-terrorism czar has removed the veil a bit further from the reckless nature of United States (U.S.) policy under George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condaleeza Rice.

Clarke’s testimony to the 9/11 commission and his recently published book-length expose, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York, NY: Free Press, 2004), provide insider evidence that “mainstream” media cannot easily ignore for a number of arguments that left (and other) intellectuals and activists have been making for some time:

-> The Bush administration has done much less than it could have to protect Americans from extremist Islamic terrorism before and since 9/11

-> The invasion and occupation of Iraq has exacerbated and expanded that terrorist threat and deeply alienated the world opinion from the U.S.

-> By invading Iraq, the Bush Team has behaved precisely as Osama bin-Laden hoped and predicted, turning 9/11 into the pretext for a major “crusader” intervention that has fanned the flames of fanatical Islamic fundamentalism

-> The occupation of Iraq has been poorly planned and conducted, with terrible consequences for U.S. soldiers and their loved ones

-> The White House has mercilessly manipulated public opinion and fears in the wake of 9/11, falsely linking the jetliner attacks and al Qaeda to Iraq to justify an invasion that many of Bush’s staff had hoped to carry out since well before Bush’s inauguration.

-> The U.S. presidency is dominated by dangerous right-wing ideologues and headed by an intellectually lazy, narrow-minded man.

-> The Bush administration’s enormous tax cuts for the already super-wealthy have cost the U.S. government critical resources that might have been used to effectively combat terrorist threats at home and abroad.

Trenchant criticism: because Clarke leaves out huge parts of the story of American policy in the Middle East, something that puts severe limits on the extent to which his critique can inspire efforts to heal the global rifts that gives rise to the terrorist threats that so concern him. There is next to nothing in Against All Enemies, for example, about America’s long history of sponsoring corrupt and authoritarian Arab regimes and fundamentalist, anti-modernist forces in the Middle East – a significant omission.

In the Arab world, Gilbert Achcar has noted, the U.S. has been “doubly responsible” for “the resurgence of anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism” during the last 50 years. It “contributed directly to propagating Islamic fundamentalism,” supporting such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda against the specter of socialism, represented by Gamel Abdel Nasser.

At the same time, by “helping to defeat and crush the Left and progressive nationalism throughout the Islamic world,” the U.S. has “freed up the space for political Islam as the only ideological and organizational expression of popular resentment. Popular resentment, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

The resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism,” Achcar notes, “is not the culturally inevitable form of radicalization in Muslim countries; until recently most people in Muslim countries spurned the ideology. It won out only be default, after its competition” – progressive secular and popular nationalism – “was eliminated by their common adversary,” the United States (Gilbert Achcar, The Clash of Barbarisms: Sept 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder (New York, NY: Monthly Review, 2003).

This dark American role reflects the simple imperial fact that post-WWII U.S. policymakers have always been and remain primarily interested in the control of the Arab world’s stupendous oil resources. Since the Arab majority has never has no special self-hating desire to grant the U.S. such control, democracy has never been a serious U.S. goal in the in the Middle East.

There was nothing mysterious, of course, about the sources of Arab bitterness towards the United States from the early 1990s through 9/11, a period when Clarke claims to have been obsessed with the threat posed by Osama bin-Laden and his ilk. Al Qaeda and others spoke reasonably well for broad Arab opinion by hammering repeatedly on three very specific U.S. policies:

(1) the determination to keep American troops in the Saudi kingdom; (2) the imposition of economic sanctions on Iraq, a vicious policy that killed half a million Iraqi children and strengthened the domestic power of Saddam Hussein (secular dictator seen by al Qaeda as an “Infidel” butcher); (3) U.S. support for Israel’s brutal Palestinian policy. The second policy (economic sanctions) is never mentioned in Against All Enemies and the other two are referred to only briefly and indirectly.

Unable and/or unwilling to acknowledge the little problem of American imperialism, Clark is left with little of substance to say about “why they hate us.” Indeed, he follows the White House in expressing abhorrence at the mysterious (for him) anti-Americanism of Middle Eastern “misfits,” who strike out blindly at “freedom” and “democracy.”He understands that Bush’s invasion of Iraq heightens Arab bitterness against the U.S. but he is largely clueless (publicly at least) about the deep-rooted reasons for the emergence of that bitterness in the first place.

Equally curious in its absence from Clarke’s expose is the White House’s 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS), the official manifestation of the “Bush Doctrine.” The NSS, released in September 2002, formally announced a “new” international and military doctrine for the United States. According to the Bush Doctrine, no government or coalition or body of international law can challenge unilateral US supremacy. Deterrence, the official policy of the US for more than 50 years, is irrelevant.

In the new world order, the US is free to launch “pre-emptive” assaults on any and all perceived enemy states, consistent with its right to exercise total global dominance through unilateral action and military superiority.

This is notable deletion. Among the many factors that came together to determine the invasion decision, one was certainly the Bush administration’s determination that Iraq was an ideal stage on which to display its ability to effectively rule the world on its own terms by sheer preponderance of military force, without international moral or legal constraint. The invasion of Iraq was meant to serve as a critical demonstration project for the Bush Doctrine.

This critical foreign policy doctrine is missing from Against All Enemies because Clarke agrees with its provocative sentiments, just as his support for the racist Israeli occupation state, the Saudi regime, and U.S. torture of pre-invasion Iraq require him to leave out most of “why they [came to] hate us” even before “we” undertook the one U.S. Middle Eastern policy that Clarke considers worthy of extended discussion.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Clarke embraces the savage bombing of Afghanistan in the fall and winter of 2001 and 2002. The majority of the world felt quite differently, supporting criminal investigation, extradition and trial over rapid and deadly military attack on that impoverished land.

“Whether such diplomatic means could have succeeded is known only to ideological extremists on both sides,” notes Noam Chomsky, but “tentative explorations of extradition by the Taliban were instantly rebuffed by Washington, which also refused to provide evidence for its accusations”(Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance [New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2003, p. 199; see also Rajul Mahajan The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism [New York, NY; Monthly Review Press, 2002, pp. 30-51).

The price of that instantaneous decision for imperial war over the rule of law included the lives of thousands of innocent Afghani noncombatants (their deaths written off as mere “collateral damage”) – something that has also fed the fires of fanatical Islamic anti-Americanism. When it comes to Afghanistan, however, Clarke out-Bush’s Bush, claiming that the White House’s assault on that country after 9/11 was too “slow and small” (Against All Enemies, p. 245).

Consistent with this chilling judgment, the only victims of the invasion of Iraq s that register in Against All Enemies are Americans – the U.S. soldiers being killed and maimed today and the possible future American victims of Islamic terror.

By “the latest conservative estimate,” John Pilger notes, the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq has killed “between 21,000 and 55,000,” (John Pilger, interview by the Australian Broadcasting System, March 11, www.zmag.org), considerably more than the nearly 600 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq. The carnage inflicted on Iraqis, however, is missing from Clarke’s expose, reflecting narcissistic parameters to imperial compassion that speak volumes on why U.S. policy generates so much hatred, fear, and concern within and beyond the Middle East.

Near the end of his book, Clarke criticizes the Bush administration for failing to create “a counterweight ideology to the al Qaeda, fundamentalist, radical version of Islam. Bombs and bullets, handcuffs and jail bars,” Clarke argues, “will not address the source of that ideological challenge. We must work with our Islamic friends to craft an ideological and cultural response over many years, just as we fought Communism for almost half a century in scores of countries, not just with wars and weapons, but with a more powerful and attractive ideology (p. 263).”

But such an “ideological and cultural response” to Muslim fanaticism is likely to be ineffective and even counter-productive if it is not accompanied by America’s abandonment of its at-once imperialist and anti-democratic/anti-modernist conduct and the development of the capacity to recognize Arab victims of U.S. policy. Those kinds of steps are far beyond the imagination of Clarke, for whom the ultimate objective is to faithfully and effectively “serve the superpower,”as he puts it in the preface to Against All Enemies

It is unrealistic, perhaps, to expect anything more from a long-term imperial functionary. Still, examples like Daniel Ellsburg and Phillip Agee remind us that some U.S. policy defectors walk away from the imperial system altogether, moving beyond specific policies to criticism of the overall global and domestic power structures within which those policies – smart or stupid but never noble – are formulated.

The vicious circle of global imperialism, terrorism, and counter-terrorism will continue as long as those structures are retained. The more we can tame the resulting barbarism, with the help of people like Clarke, the better off we will be. At the end of the historical day, however, we require more defectors who get it before it’s too late: the world doesn’t need superpowers and empire of any kind. It needs democracy, equality, and justice. Without these things, beyond the parameters of the imperial imagination, there can never be real and lasting peace.

Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at [email protected]

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