MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 20

International Socialist Review, November–December 2001


After September 11 – fault lines
of a new world order


From International Socialist Review, Issue 20, November–December 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


The September 11 attacks transformed politics, not only in the U.S, but around the world.

As this is being written, almost one month into President George W. Bush’s Operation Enduring Freedom, huge majorities of Americans support Bush and the war. One government after another has signed on with the “war on terrorism.” Respectable opinion leaders openly advocate overthrowing governments and installing Western colonial regimes around the world. Draconian new laws – threats to free speech and civil liberties – have been rammed through the U.S. Congress. Arabs and Arab-Americans are victims of attacks and racial profiling. The global justice movement has been derailed.

Yet even as the warmongers appear to be riding high, cracks in the pro-war, pro-Bush consensus have appeared. Hawks like Sen. John McCain, concluding that Bush’s strategy has so far been ineffective, have called for greater escalation of U.S. firepower. On the other hand, media pundits who initially assured a U.S. walkover now openly worry about a Vietnam-style “quagmire.”

“Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word ‘quagmire’ has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad,” the New York Times’ R.W. Apple wrote October 31. “Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam? Is the United States facing another stalemate on the other side of the world? Premature the questions may be, three weeks after the fighting began. Unreasonable they are not, given the scars scoured into the national psyche by defeat in Southeast Asia.”

As the U.S. prosecutes the war, we can expect the doubts and antiwar opposition to grow. People opposed to Bush’s war must refuse to be cowed, because the upsurge in support for Bush, militarism and other right-wing policies will not last. To figure out where we go from here, we have to assess the state of world politics, the economy, U.S. politics, and our movement.

World politics

For the time being, the U.S. is forcing all questions in world politics to become subordinate to the “war against terrorism.” Bush’s September 20 speech to Congress put it bluntly: “You are either with us, our you are with the terrorists.” He is trying to recreate the feel of the Cold War where all political questions were subordinated to the world struggle for influence between the U.S. and the USSR.

Within a few weeks, virtually every major country in the world jumped into the “war on terrorism.” For the first time ever, NATO invoked Article Five of its charter, declaring the attack on the U.S. an attack on all NATO alllies. Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed aside his generals’ objections to join Bush’s war. Even China, the U.S. enemy of choice before September 11, has offered intelligence and back-channel pressure on its ally Pakistan to join up with the U.S.

These allies have their own reasons for jumping into bed with the United States. Germany’s participation in the war is another step down its desired path to becoming a player in world affairs. Japan is looking to rewrite its U.S.-imposed constitution to allow its military to venture overseas. Russia hopes to win more than simply Western silence for its genocidal war against Chechen rebels, newly dubbed as accomplices of Osama bin Laden. It hopes to use the war in Afghanistan to further project its influence into Central Asia, while simultaneously being accepted as a “European” power. China hopes to project its influence westward, too.

More than “terrorism” is at stake in the war, as many articles in this issue point out. The U.S. ability to assert its dominance in the world and the struggle for control over the most valuable resources of world capitalism – oil and gas in the Middle East and the Caspian Sea region – stand out as key underlying drives in what Bush calls the “first war of the 21st century.”

The Western ruling classes are digging in for a long fight, as the Financial Times laid out:

“The cold war had its ups and downs before it ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“The struggle against international terrorism requires patience, resources, and political will. These virtues helped the West to prevail in 1989; they are no less essential today.”

As they’ve made clear, the “war on terrorism” won’t stop in Afghanistan. As the Financial Times editorialized:

In the longer term, however, the war should be viewed as an extended campaign of containment. The enemy is international terrorism. Afghanistan is the immediate theatre of military operations; but it cannot be excluded that other targets move into focus, should the U.S. establish a direct link with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Nevertheless, the war has already exposed the rotten foundation of tyranny and oppression on which the U.S. bases its power. The U.S. government condemns terrorism, but it backs Israeli terror in Palestine every day. The U.S. preaches democracy and freedom, but it counts the medieval Saudi monarchy and Pakistan’s military dictatorship as its key allies in the “war on terrorism.” Millions of people living in the Middle East and Asia oppose the war. These contradictions can only grow as this world-wide, open-ended war unfolds.

The stakes Bush and most of the world’s leading ruling classes have set for themselves are high. But so are the problems they will sow for themselves. A policy that openly declares its intention to overthrow governments at will and to fight wars from Indonesia to Colombia is a recipe for spreading instability and destruction around the world.

World economy

IT HAS become cliché to say that September 11 “changed everything.” But one thing that didn’t change was the world economy’s quick plunge into recession. September 11 may have accelerated the economy’s drop, but it certainly didn’t cause what is shaping up to be a major world-wide recession.

In late October, the World Trade Organization estimated that worldwide trade in 2001 would increase only 2 percent over 2000 – down from a 12 percent increase from 1999 to 2000. Asian economies tied heavily to exports to the U.S. high-tech market, like Singapore and Taiwan, contracted by 2.4 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively, in the third quarter alone. Japan remained mired in its near decade-long slump. German economic growth for 2001 is expected to be only 0.7 percent.

So Bush’s “war on terrorism” breaks over a world whose three largest economies” – in the U.S., Japan, and Germany – are in a recession that looks like it will only get worse. Despite this, investors and figures like Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin seem committed to the rosy scenario that expects a quick bounceback in 2002. By the end of October, the financial markets shot past their September 11 levels and investors were telling pollsters they were optimistic about a quick economic recovery. But there is plenty of reason to be skeptical about these hopes.

Putting aside the unknown (and probably hyped-up) impacts of September 11 on global business – from the paralyzing of the U.S. Postal Service to multi-billion increases in insurance premiums – the world economy has lost its driving force. U.S. gross domestic product fell by 0.4 percent in the third quarter – the sharpest drop since 1991. The U.S. economic boom that shaped the economic and political terrain for most of the last decade hasn’t simply hit a bump in the road that will shortly be smoothed out.

As the Economist explained:

The biggest reason for thinking that consensus forecasts for the American economy are too complacent is that the root cause of this recession is not terrorism, but rather the economic and financial imbalances that built up during the late 1990s. Firms overinvested and overborrowed on the back of inflated expectations about future profits. Households borrowed heavily too, believing that share prices would rise forever. These excesses will take time to unwind.

Why the pessimistic assessment? First, only about 75 percent of U.S. industrial plant is being used, suggesting that much more capital will be scrapped. In all of the advanced industrial countries, this capacity utilization gap is at its highest since the pre-Second World War industrial buildup. Second, corporate profits declined by more than 30 percent in the last year – the sharpest drop since the 1930s. And third, world commodity prices are at their lowest level in 15 years, suggesting that falling prices – deflation – is a continuing threat.

The Economist concludes, “Even with a mild recession in America, then, this could still turn out to be the most severe world recession since the 1930s.”

In the 1997–98 economic crash, the U.S. provided a market of last resort for exporters and speculators pulling their money out of Asia, Brazil and Russia. The U.S. trade deficit ballooned to record levels. In 2001-02, a recessionary U.S. doesn’t provide the same haven for these money grubbers. Instead, the U.S. has spread its recession around the world. U.S. government stimulative policies – lower interest rates, more tax cuts and increased military spending – will provide a boost to the U.S. economy in 2002. But it’s unlikely to be enough. And much of this policy is simply a handout to the rich and corporations, who won’t invest in a global environment of persistent overcapacity.

A prolonged slump in the U.S. and around the world is likely. Deteriorating economic conditions – combined with the political instability the war has introduced” – is producing a volatile mix. The 1997–98 crash in Asia led directly to Suharto’s overthrow in Indonesia. The next few years will throw up many more tests for working people around the world.

U.S. politics

The government response to the attacks blew some conventional wisdom aside. Preserving the budget surplus was no longer to be the end-all and be-all of Washington politics. Suddenly, the federal government spigots opened. From rebuilding New York to “fighting terrorism,” money was to be no object. Within a few days, Congress spent the entire budget surplus.

The “imperial presidency” – brought low during Watergate and dragged into the gutter during the Clinton impeachment fiasco – made a comeback. The brain dead punditocracy began comparing the bumbling Bush to Lincoln and FDR. Bush considered ruling by decree.

Out of more than 535 members of Congress, only one – California Representative Barbara Lee – voted against the extraordinary blank check for war Bush received on September 18. The Democratic-led Senate pushed through the administration’s wish-list of police-state “antiterrorism” legislation – and then forced the House to accept it. In the end, only a single senator, Wisconsin’s Russell Feingold, voted against this shredding of constitutional rights.

Bush’s authority skyrocketed because the Congress and the so-called opposition Democratic Party decided that Bush couldn’t be challenged. For once, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott told the truth when he said that “there is no opposition party” in Congress. “The Democratic response on terrorism has been best symbolized by Senator Tom Daschle’s embrace of the president on the night of Mr. Bush’s speech about the attacks to a joint session of Congress,” wrote liberal Jeffrey Toobin in the New York Times, October 28. “The Democrats’ watchword has been bipartisanship, which has largely meant, in real terms, acquiescence to the Republican agenda.”

It’s not just that Democrats fear challenging a popular president. It’s that they are as committed to imperialism as are the Republicans. Let’s not forget that Democratic President Harry Truman launched the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Figures like Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman have campaigned to push the “war on terrorism” to Iraq.

As we go to press, more than 1,000 people – most of them Arabs and immigrants”” – have been detained, virtually incommunicado – in a federal antiterrorism dragnet. Universities have already handed over confidential records to federal investigators. And journalists and professors who have criticized the war drive have been fired, suspended, or threatened.

There is no doubt that the domestic right wing, which had been on the defensive before the attacks, gained new confidence. Its attempts to silence all critics of the war have succeeded in many quarters. But in the pockets of antiwar resistance, political polarization has also made thousands of activists more convinced of their own ideas.

Even among the broader public that isn’t necessarily opposed to the war, the Bush administration’s arrogance and blind devotion to corporate greed has laid the groundwork for future opposition to Bush and his Democratic collaborators.

Bush and the right repackaged a host of unpopular measures, from “fast-track” trade authority to oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, as “antiterrorism” measures. Congress – with virtually every Democrat supporting it – rushed through a $15 billion aid package to airline bosses while stiffing airline workers. The bosses took the money and ran, meanwhile laying off nearly 100,000 airline workers. The Republican right pushed through a Bush-backed “stimulus package” that consists of $254 billion of handouts to corporations and the rich.

So while singing the praises of “national unity” and congratulating ordinary workers for their heroism in rescuing the victims at the World Trade Center, Bush and his cronies continued to show themselves as members of the most anti-worker administration in decades. This was made even clearer during October’s anthrax terror in Washington. Federal officials – even Capitol Police dogs – received antibiotics, while postal workers most exposed to the threat were ignored. Two postal workers died as a result.

“This is an administration that will let its special interests – particularly its high-rolling campaign contributors and its noisiest theocrats of the right – have veto power over public safety, public health, and economic prudence in war, it turns out, no less than in peacetime,” wrote the New York Times’ Frank Rich.

When anthrax struck, the administration’s first impulse was not to secure as much Cipro as speedily as possible to protect Americans, but to protect the right of pharmaceutical companies to profiteer. The White House’s faith in tax cuts as a panacea for all national ills has led to such absurdities as this week’s House “stimulus” package showering $254 million on Enron, the reeling Houston energy company (now under S.E.C. investigation) that has served as a Bush campaign cash machine.

As resentment over these policies grows, “national unity” will start to crack. And this growing class anger will intersect with the antiwar movement.

Antiwar movement

Given the speed with which the government and media began beating the war drums after the September 11 attacks, the degree of antiwar opposition that developed was impressive. The size of vigils, demonstrations, and meetings attempting to organize an antiwar opposition in the first week after the attacks rivaled the size of similar activities months into the build up to the Gulf War. This quick start owed to the fact that many of these initial efforts grew out of networks of activists already mobilized in the global justice movement.

The initial impulse in this opposition centered on calls to mourn the victims of September 11 and for peace. As it became clear that the government would be launching a war, this opposition had to face harder questions. Many in this new movement didn’t have the answers.

One of the main casualties on the left was the global justice movement. Despite the movement’s energy and growing influence before September 11, it did not have a clear understanding of the connection between the U.S. and Western trade and economic policies it condemned and U.S. imperialism. To be sure, many of the global justice activists who jumped into antiwar activity intuitively understood the connection. But many others remained confused and immobilized. And while some of the movement’s leaders denounced the war, others have ignored the war or refused to mobilize against it.

Even before the International Monetary Fund and World Bank decided to call off their September 28–30 meeting in Washington, D.C., elements of the Seattle coalition had already pulled out from the planned protests. In a gesture to national unity and under pressure to call off protest “in respect for the dead” the AFL-CIO withdrew. Subsequently the AFL-CIO announced its support for the war. The bosses and the administration rewarded the AFL-CIO’s patriotism with layoffs and an airline bailout bill that stiffed workers.

Support for the war came from other parts of the left as well.

“There is a real threat of further attacks, so…action designed to hunt down members of the terrorist network and those in the Taliban government who collaborate with it is appropriate,” the Nation editorialized on October 29. Not content to leave the building of the case for war to George Bush, the Nation has decided to campaign for a “just war” in Afghanistan.

“I have never since my childhood supported a shooting war in which the United States was involved, although in retrospect I think the NATO war in Kosovo achieved beneficial results,” wrote Richard Falk in the Nation’s lead article.

The war in Afghanistan against apocalyptic terrorism qualifies in my understanding as the first truly just war since World War II. But the justice of the cause and of the limited ends is in danger of being negated by the injustice of improper means and excessive ends.

The perpetrators of the September 11 attack cannot be reliably neutralized by nonviolent or diplomatic means; a response that includes military action is essential to diminish the threat of repetition, to inflict punishment and to restore a sense of security at home and abroad.

One could quote dozens of similar pro-war statements from leading liberals. With their guides in the Democratic Party fully behind the war effort, all that’s left for them is to devise the elegant legal and literary justifications.

A few questions are in order. First, why do the liberals accept the Bush government’s identification of the culprits and the solution? The public evidence against Osama Bin Laden the U.S. and British governments released wouldn’t be enough to convict him in a trial. Even if bin Laden and al Qaeda are behind the attacks, does anyone seriously believe the Bush administration will consult Professor Falk to make sure it won’t employ any “improper means” or seek “excessive ends?”

The notion of “justice” has been central to much of the antiwar organizing so far. This is understandable, as people around the world reacted with revulsion to the September 11 attacks. Most antiwar meetings and committees have felt pressure to concede that “something has to be done” to bring the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks to justice.

The problem comes in with the solutions that an antiwar movement can pose. Unfortunately, it doesn’t set the terms under which “justice” will be served. There is no supranational, and impartial, court or police force that can arrest and try the September 11 terrorists.

What’s more, any judgment based on the notion that no one should get away with killing innocent civilians would have to place the September 11 perpetrators in the rear of the dock, behind the likes of Henry Kissinger – responsible for killing millions in Southeast Asia – or Ariel Sharon, the butcher of Sabra and Shatila. Or every U.S. president and British prime minister who has overseen the murder through sanctions of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis since 1990.

The only “solution” on offer is the one Bush, Blair, Putin, and the rest are offering” – war “against terrorism.” That’s why people like Falk, who try to invent a rationale for a “just war,” end up providing “critical support” for Operation Enduring Freedom. And that’s not to mention those like Nation writer Christopher Hitchens, who openly cheer on the U.S. war machine.

So any serious antiwar movement has to proceed from the starting point that it must oppose this war – not offer up suggestions to Bush and Co. about how to fight it more cleanly. Anyone concerned with ending terrorism should be concerned with ending the terrorism of the U.S. and its allies raining destruction on one of the poorest countries on earth. And if we want to eliminate the conditions that cause people to volunteer as suicide bombers, there is much to do: demand a cut-off of aid to Israel; pull U.S. troops out of the Persian Gulf region; end the sanctions on Iraq; abolish the Third World debt.

The antiwar opposition also needs to educate itself on Washington’s real aims in the war on terrorism. In this regard, the antiwar movement has shown itself to be thirsty for ideas and explanations. The Los Angeles Times reported October 28 that many veteran peace activists and experts on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy find “their dance cards full” with numerous invitations to teach-ins and discussions, particularly on college campuses. This political education is a crucial building block for an antiwar movement. Just as sections of the global justice movement realized that they had to discuss political ideas and organization rather than simply tactics, the antiwar movement will be stronger when it develops a clearer understanding of this war and its aims.

This issue of the International Socialist Review includes many articles that attempt to answer some of the crucial questions facing the antiwar opposition today. We will publish similar articles in future issues. Understanding the truth of this war – that it is an imperial venture to enforce Washington’s interests around the world – will help us to build opposition to it. For this task, the politics of revolutionary socialism are as relevant after September 11 as they were before September 11.

However strong the right and the pro-war forces appear today, they can be taken on. We have to be able to answer key questions about this war so that we can convince the vast majority of ordinary people who are currently unsure or even mildly pro-war that they must oppose this war. We reject the idea that the antiwar activists should consider themselves an elite who “get it” amidst millions of brainwashed militarists.

Ordinary people who are losing their jobs and incomes are being told that they’re out of luck now that billions must be spent on the Pentagon. In the “antiterrorism” legislation the Congress passed in October and the climate of heightened security around the country, all of us have lost crucial civil rights. And do most people really want to live in a society where Arabs and Muslims” – or people who look like them – are constantly scapegoated and victimized?

Many more ordinary people can be won to our side, because this war is not in their interests.

Last updated on 8 August 2022