Ten years of blood and fire
The anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks coincides with a resurgence in ‘liberal interventionism’. James Turley evaluates the bloody harvest of both (first published here)
On September 11 2001, a motley crew of Islamist militants hijacked four planes in US airspace. Hours later, the tallest buildings in the country had been demolished, and thousands of lives had been snuffed out. One wall of the Pentagon had been reduced likewise to a smouldering wreck.
It has become something of a commonplace among bourgeois commentators with pretensions to profundity to claim that, on 9/11, ‘everything changed’.
The persistence in the American, but more broadly western, psyche of this notion – that the attacks of that day represent a turning point in recent history – testifies that it is not simply a phantom. Indeed, 9/11 served primarily to accelerate and intensify a series of tendencies both in the US and the general world situation which had to some extent been obscured by a decade of post-cold war pax Americana. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his comrades may not have changed history, but – to paraphrase Lenin – they succeeded in giving it a push.
Most obvious among these tendencies is the drive, inherent in the capitalist system, towards war. Another persistent myth is illustrative here – the notion that, far from being an ingenious atrocity committed by Islamist militants, the 9/11 attacks were staged in order to allow a conspiracy of neo-conservatives the political consent needed to launch wars.
Beyond the rather tortuous analyses of grainy video footage of towers falling in an allegedly ‘suspicious’ way, the most convincing argument for this eminently unconvincing hypothesis is the very obvious eagerness of the US state machine in the early part of the last decade to throw itself into a series of exemplary military operations. Whereas the engagements of the 90s – the first Gulf War, the interventions in the Balkans – were sold as limited and determinate police actions, the new epoch of ‘war on terror’ authorised any number of military assaults.
In the case of Iraq, in particular, attempts to tie Saddam Hussein’s regime in any meaningful way to the 9/11 attacks were quite transparently tenuous from the get-go. Something was already propelling the US state to conduct itself in this way, whether or not we buy into the neo-conservative conspiracy theory paradigm (no Marxist, obviously enough, should be so silly).
The accentuated drive to war of the last 10 years is in fact part of a longer history, which for our purposes goes back to the endgame of the cold war; it is dictated both economically in the narrow sense and from the point of view of the state. On the economic level, the pursuit of the USSR to its grave went hand in hand with a shift in the imperialist countries away from substantial concessions to the working class to a sharp class offensive, epitomised by the governments of Reagan and Thatcher.
In the US and Britain (quite correctly considered the 51st state), this took the particularly accentuated form of assaults on material production and increasing financialisation of the economy (which in turn decimated the stronger, industrially based unions); the assault on living conditions exacerbated this tendency by making a great expansion of consumer credit necessary.
This set-up finally collapsed in 2007-08. Yet it has, in a sense, been trying to collapse since the late 1980s; there was the 1987 market crash on Wall Street, the 1998 crash in the east Asian economies and the 2001 dot-com bubble. The US and its immediate satellites, in each case, attempted to offload the economic pain onto others.
One of the key mechanisms for doing so is war, which has two salutary effects from an imperialist point of view: firstly, the movement of capital from affected areas to the ‘safe havens’ of New York and London; and, secondly, a backdoor economic stimulus from arms production. In 2001, not only did the internet bubble burst, but several enormous corporations (most famously Enron) collapsed under the weight of their own fraudulent financial finaglings. The US, it is fair to say, badly needed a war. By the end of that year, it had an excuse.
Coterminous with this is the matter of the US’s standing as world hegemon. This in the last instance relies on military supremacy, which is slowly eroded by the decline of productive industry. A military victory at least shores up the impression of this supremacy, which obeys the same rules as the playground reputation of the school bully.
As it happens, the US military budget remains truly monolithic; it certainly is able to impose spectacular military defeats on peripheral countries who refuse to play ball. The decline of US power is rather to be measured in the result of such victories, which have very obviously resulted (in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan) in the disintegration of social order into warlordism and chaos.
We should remember that, in Iraq, it was widely expected by more credulous apologists for the US that the removal of the Ba’athist regime would be followed by a serious attempt at reconstruction; the bourgeois press chattered with references to the Marshall Plan and the like. It was clear, within a year, that nothing of the sort was on the table.
The US spent the remainder of its disastrous time in formal occupation (US troops remain on Iraqi soil to this day) playing divide and rule amongst the warring factions and militias, in the process of which inevitably accelerating the tendency towards fragmentation. The story is only different in Afghanistan inasmuch as the social order was already in an advanced state of decomposition to begin with (and thanks in no small part to US support for jihadi militias during the Soviet-Afghanistan war).
In short, the US is no longer in a position to impose order by military means – only chaos. This does partially achieve the aims of the playground bully – seeing another country reduced to a smouldering ruin under a torrent of US ordinance does at least engender a healthy sense of fear. The flipside is a recalcitrance among forces which may otherwise be sympathetic to US-led regime change, and cooler relations with those subordinate imperialist powers whose interests are violated by American military blunders.
The intensification of American military swagger, combined with the emergence of a new great enemy to replace the defunct Soviet menace, inevitably took its toll on ideology – emblematic of the emergence of the ‘Bush doctrine’ was the influence of the neo-conservatives. A trend which emerged out of a certain encounter between a decrepit Shachtmanite social-imperialism and the messianic conservatism of Leo Strauss, neo-conservatism emerged from a spell in the wilderness under Bill Clinton to become a hegemonic force under Bush.
It appears that neo-conservatives took quite seriously the notion that remaking the world in the image of the US was both achievable at the point of a bayonet and a decisive contribution to democracy. The millenarian Christians who made for important fair-weather allies had no such illusions – but equally appeared genuinely to believe that they could use the ‘rough instrument’ of US foreign policy to hasten the end of days itself (somewhat closer to the truth, it must be conceded). The business of state – oppression, butchery and exploitation – continued much as before; but finally it had not one but two ideologies irrational enough to reflect it appropriately.
Even before the advent of Barack Obama, the neo-conservative star was on the wane – the Project for a New American Century think tank had been wound up, and the most influential neo-cons had been rudely supplanted by so-called ‘realists’, such as outgoing defence chief Robert Gates, as Iraq became ever more obviously a gory embarrassment.
The left, already in a pitifully weak state after 10 years of unalloyed reaction, was in a sense revived, but also sent into tailspin by 9/11. The naked imperial hubris of the US and its British lapdog in the run-up to the Iraq invasion provoked an enormous mass movement in opposition; it was a formative experience for a generation of activists. Then there were the errors: some on the left veered into sub-Stalinist support for anyone prepared to make half a show of being ‘anti-imperialist’ (the Socialist Workers Party until around 2009 was a British example, but one could equally read cringing odes to the likes of Moqtada al-Sadr coming from left-liberal pin-ups like Naomi Klein). It was an embarrassing error.
Others flipped in the other, far worse direction of support, open or cryptic, for the war on terror. The idea of ‘liberal interventionism’ had already been treated to a few trial runs, particularly around the Balkan conflicts of 1992-99; the apparently quick and ‘clean’ defeat dealt to Slobodan Miloševic in the Kosova war by Nato planes was reported more or less uncritically by the fawning media. Iraq, however, was a different model of liberal intervention altogether – the new wave of liberal and social-imperialists were required to grant many more hostages to fortune.
Luckily for the imperialists themselves, they had the perfect bogeyman with which to blackmail the Nick Cohens and Christopher Hitchens of this world – Osama bin Laden, avowed enemy of progress, enlightenment and reason; advocate of a new caliphate, which would propel all the world’s Muslim populations back to the dark ages. Any political sacrifice could surely be justified in opposition to such a diabolical foe.
Of course, it mattered not to such people that Islamist extremists could deploy at best crude, home-made explosives and, where they had a military presence, second-hand assault rifles and the like, while that paragon of rationalism, George W Bush, had enough conventional ordinance to bomb the entire Middle East back to the stone age. The likes of Cohen could not grasp the idea that Islamists, like western governments, were subject to the constraints of Realpolitik; nor that the purported defenders of reason in fact defended a system barrelling into ever more profound irrationality.
The irony of the ‘cruise missile left’, then, was that it attempted to defend reason in a profoundly irrational way – through impulsive moral judgements, where sober political analysis should have obtained (the ‘high’ point being Nick Cohen’s astonishing position that to attempt to rationally understand the motivations of an irrationalist was a contradiction in terms). This theoretical irony – which afflicted the ‘Marxist’ variant advocated by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty quite as much as the naive liberal versions – rapidly became an all too real one, as the decomposition of post-Saddam Iraq accelerated, and the liberal interventionists were increasingly defined by mealy-mouthed support for undisguised imperialist barbarity.
Alas, the doctrine of liberal intervention is not as dead as it should be. Ten years on from 9/11, we have in a sense returned to the starting point; the imperialist countries have a model ‘success’ under their belts, a bombing campaign in Libya that did not turn into a quagmire (or at least not yet). The relief among worried bourgeois commentators is almost palpable – forget Iraq, they say; we can do it right too.