It's Empire Versus Democracy

In the aftermath of September 11, American conservatives launched a political and intellectual offensive to discredit any public questioning of the Bush administration's open-ended, blank-check, undefined war against terrorism. The conservative message, delivered through multiple media outlets, was that dissenters from the Bush administration's war were those who allegedly "blamed America first," that is, dared to explore whether Bin Laden's terrorism was possibly rooted in Western policies toward the Islamic world, the Palestinians, and the oil monarchies of the Middle East.

The strike against domestic dissent was a preemptive one, since most progressives were too stunned, traumatized, and confused by the September 11 attacks to dissent anyway. But Susan Sontag was targeted for a right-wing stoning for an article in the New Yorker, and Bill Maher for not being politically correct. Vice President Cheney's wife helped monitor college classrooms for dissenting voices. Rapid articles appeared in the New Republic. Intimidating full-page ads by William Bennett announced plans to expose anyone who "blamed America first." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer added an official warning when he crafted an "offhand" remark that Americans should "watch what they say." Chief Republican political strategist Karl Rove proposed that his party's candidates make the war on terrorism an election issue. Senate Republican leader Trent Lott accused Democratic Senator Tom Daschle of being soft on Saddam Hussein (because Daschle opposed Arctic oil drilling). The chairman of the Republican House Campaign Committee declared that all questioners were "giving aid and comfort to the enemy."

Civil liberties were rapidly becoming the domestic collateral damage of the war on terrorism. It almost could be said they died without a fight, except for a brave but ineffective handful of stragglers in their progressive enclaves.

Some will ask, so what? Isn't the right to dissent a secondary concern when thousands of innocent Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks? A fair question. The truth is that Osama Bin Laden set the stage for this political shift to the right by his strategy of targeting civilians. And Bin Laden is no aberration. Radical Islamic fundamentalism has risen in the vacuum created by the failures of political Arab nationalism (and the end of the Soviet Union, which, whatever else may be said, supported non-religious revolutionary movements). The radical religious-based movements are here to stay.

So it is understandable that the vast majority of Americans responded to September 11 with existential cries for public safety and a military response. And if Bin Laden or his successor carry out further attacks against American civilians, the politics of repression will deepen. The problem is that conservatives inside and outside the Bush administration are seeking to take advantage of America's understandable fears to push a right-wing agenda that would not otherwise be palatable. In short, they are playing patriot games with the nation's future.

The Wall Street Journal gave the secret away in an October 2001 editorial declaring that September 11 created a unique political opportunity to advance the whole Republican-conservative platform. Worse, the real conservative agenda is to create an American empire, not simply rout out the al-Qaida organization. No sooner had the September 11 attacks occurred than the Wall Street Journal's editorial writer, Max Boot, published "The Case for American Empire" in the conservative organ, the Weekly Standard. Boot endorsed a return to nineteenth century British imperialism, this time under American hegemony. "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets" (see NYT, Mar. 31, 2002). The orchestrated call for empire was "out of the closet," according to conservative columnist Charles Krautheimer, and was echoed in the works of historians Paul Kennedy and Robert D. Kaplan (who found nice things to say about Emperor Tiberius, namely that he used force to "preserve a peace that was favorable to Rome").

The skilled but immoral and deceitful machinations of these would-be Romans have been described by David Brock in his confessional bestseller, "Blinded by the Right, the Conscience of an Ex-Conservative." Brock should know the game. He consciously distorted the facts to gun down Anita Hill and protect Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court. Not satisfied, he invented the "Troopergate" allegations against the Clintons. He admits that the conservative agenda was to impeach Clinton even before there was a Monica Lewinsky scandal. He describes in detail the "vast right-wing conspiracy" of investigators, muckrakers, pundits, talk show hosts, and hard-line Republican Congressmen who made Newt Gingrich Speaker for two years, instigated the Iran-Contra scandal, nearly brought down Clinton, and eventually mobilized the ground troops which shut down the Florida recount for George Bush.

With the Cold War ended, these conservatives asked what the new enemy threat was that would justify the continuation of a growing military budget and an authoritarian emphasis on national security. The answer, brewing long before September 11, was the threat of "international terror" -- sometimes described as Islamic fundamentalism, sometimes as the drug cartels -- but in any event suitably nebulous and scary to justify the resurrection of priorities not seen since the Cold War.

Let us review those Cold War priorities for those who didn't live through the era of the '50s and '60s, the era that shaped -- indeed, finalized -- the consciousness of the Bush family, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and many others fingering the military trigger today. The fundamental paradigm of the Cold War era was that an innocent democratic America was threatened by a shadowy Communist conspiracy representing two billion people in countries with nuclear capabilities and an amoral disregard for human life. This fearful paradigm justified America's first permanent military establishment, alliances with despotic right-wing dictators around the world, and a domestic politics that smeared dissenters who were charged with being "soft on communism."

Those are exactly the dynamics in play again today. The difference is that with the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government and our multinational corporations are bidding for global preeminence. According to interviews with White House officials by Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker, the new American strategy is to transcend traditional balance-of-power politics by an assertion of American military dominance, which incidentally would lay the foundation of empire. One example of this imperial thinking is the leaked Pentagon strategy paper of January 2002 which called for a new reliance on usable nuclear weapons targeted for possible use against China, Russia, and several other countries. The previous nuclear strategy of "mutual assured destruction" was dangerous enough, but this radical new U.S. doctrine -- never publicly debated -- introduces the ambition of nuclear dominance.

What can be done about this journey from Afghanistan to empire? For now, counting on an electoral alternative seems like wishful thinking. The Democratic Party, whatever doubts it may harbor, will remain devoted to the war on terrorism, including spending for a new generation of weapons and reinvigorated intelligence programs, as long as it is popular. The framework of the war on terrorism will be accepted as the litmus test of political legitimacy, and partisan differences will be limited to social security, unemployment benefits, Enron-inspired regulatory reform, and the like. Those differences are not unimportant, but the truth is that spending alone on the war on terrorism will cause permanent underfunding of important social programs for many years to come. For the Democrats to offer themselves as simply a liberal version of the war on terrorism will not address the root causes nor protect programs for which earlier generations of liberals, unionists, and Democrats have struggled.

The same bipartisan lockstep politics dominated the Cold War era of the '50s. Democrats stood for civil rights and progressive domestic issues, but blindly accepted the doctrine that "politics ends at the water's edge" until the anti-Vietnam movement finally shattered the consensus. It will take the same popular discontent in the years ahead to shake the Democrats and challenge the framework of the war on terrorism. At first, that discontent will arise from a prophetic minority.

How to make it a mainstream issue? Conservative crusades have a way of backfiring when, unchecked by effective dissent, they go too far. McCarthyism began to unravel when the Wisconsin senator started searching for Communists in the Army. The Nixon Administration, teethed on McCarthyism, repeated the same extremist folly with Watergate. Inevitably, the same fate awaits the unchecked war on terrorism. A combination of military quagmire abroad and neglect of priorities at home will sooner or later shape an opposition.

The U.S. military is involved in more multiplying fronts of the war on terrorism (the Middle East, Afghanistan, the southern Philippines, Colombia, Georgia, Indonesia, not to mention threats of future action against Iraq, Iran, and North Korea) than it can sustain without eventually causing domestic repercussions. These interventions are being carried out -- thus far -- with little or no congressional oversight or fiscal accountability. The Bush defense budget augmentation request of $50 billion -- which itself is larger than the military budget of any other country -- when combined with massive tax breaks for the wealthy will steadily erode funding for Social Security, health care, education, and the environment.

At the same time, a new human rights movement is sweeping the planet, with protests against corporate globalization and militarism. Before September 11, these American protests, especially those in Seattle in December 1999, were more forceful than any I can recall since the 1960s. While that American protest energy has been drained or divided since September 11, the battle continues to explode globally in places like Quebec City, Genoa, and Porto Allegre. Corporate globalization, led by the U.S. government, has spawned a new globalization of conscience. For a valid comparison of the historic impact, one would have to revisit the global confrontations of 1968 and, before the '60s, the period of the 1840s in Europe, when the world order was last threatened and rearranged by revolts from below.

The war on terrorism is simply incompatible with serious efforts to alleviate world poverty, just as it was impossible for President Lyndon Johnson to afford both "guns and butter" in the '60s. There are two billion people on the planet working for daily wages of less than two U.S. dollars, ten hours a day in degrading workplace conditions, without health benefits, without union protections. A recent appeal by workers in Bangladesh, a Muslim country that supplies most of America's apparel, pleaded for thirty-four cents in wages from every seventeen-dollar U.S. baseball cap, up from twenty-four cents. Global sweatshops are among the petri dishes in which anti-Western violence is grown. The conservatives strain to deny any connection between world poverty and terrorism. That is what their bullying tirades against "blaming America first" are all about. They fear the blame. But they cannot deny that humiliation fostered by poverty and arrogance is a long fuse leading to the suicide bomber.

Take the story of Laura Blumenfeld as an example. A young reporter for the Washington Post, her father, a rabbi, was shot and wounded by a Palestinian militant in Jerusalem in 1986. The assailant simply wanted to kill a Jew, and Laura Blumenfeld's father was available. At first seeking revenge, Laura Blumenfeld concealed her identity and began a correspondence with the imprisoned Palestinian gunman, finally revealing herself and confronting him in a courtroom. She then came to know his family, ventured into a complicated reconciliation, and wrote a book on her experience. Reflecting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she told the New York Times on April 6, 2002:

"I think for them [the Palestinians], humiliation is sometimes more important than the actual offense. Humiliation drives revenge more than anything . . .They feel honor and pride are very important in their culture, and they feel utterly humiliated, whether it's by roadblocks or just by the sheer wealth and success of society that's set up right next to them . . . I found that feelings of humiliation and shame fuel revenge more than anything else."
Blumenfeld's thoughtful analysis distinguishes mere poverty from shame and degradation. Poverty is sometimes bearable if the poor feel respected or hopeful; for example, the Aristide government in Haiti has campaigned on a slogan of "poverty with dignity." But usually the policies that allow poverty to grow as if it were a natural condition of market economics are accompanied by a rationale that transfers blame from the rich and powerful to the poor and powerless. That shaming inherent in globalization is the triggering source of violence, as shown in numerous studies such as those of James Gilligan at Harvard. The syndrome we can call the will to empire (like Nietzche's famous will to power) is wrapped into a need to shame others.

Instead of recognizing the reality of global interdependence, the will to empire seeks American independence by plunging other nations, cultures, and classes into dependence, which in turn triggers a spiral of resentment and resistance. Actually, the conservatives who condemn thinking about "root causes" as "blaming America" have a root cause in mind themselves -- the belief that all terrorists and the cultures that spawn them are incorrigible enemies because they are "evil." American conservatives substitute theology for sociology, psychology, and history. Since the evil they seek to purge is defined as innate to human nature, and satanic, it arises from no causes that can be addressed politically or economically. The only option for Pentagon planners when confronted with evil is war, which is the secular equivalent of exorcism, or conversion to the American Way of Life.

That this is actually a logical crutch, a rhetorical device, is shown by the ease with which the stamp of evil is applied and removed. Mujahideen, including Osama Bin Laden, were not "evil" when the U.S. government supplied them with weapons and funding in the 1980s, because then the Islamic fundamentalists were battling true "evil" in the form of the Soviet Union. But the label of evil has its uses. It serves to shut off rational debate, for example. It stimulates public fear. It justifies the killing of people whose annihilation might be problematic if they were classified as simply desperate. Fighting evil is good politics.

A domestic analogy might be useful in understanding how this process works. In 1988, George Bush (senior) was battling for the presidency against Michael Dukakis. Bush's media consultant then was Roger Ailes, now the top executive at Rupert Murdoch's Fox television news. The Bush campaign concocted the famous "Willie Horton" ads, depicting a shadowy and menacing black figure, and blamed Dukakis for being soft on crime. The attack, which manipulated fears of black violence, served the purpose of the Bush campaign. Taking advantage of the formula, the Republican conservatives ushered in a law-and-order politics that justified the drug wars, disproportionate sentences for powder versus crack cocaine, and the largest prison build-up per capita in the world. In the process, job training and numerous social programs were slashed, private investment was drawn toward speculative mergers instead of the inner cities, and the oppression of the underclass became so severe that fully one-third of all African-American males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five were ensnared in the criminal justice system. As politics, the law-and-order campaign was successful, while the long-term consequences of worsening the racial divide in America were left for a future generation to sort out.

The current war on terrorism is the internationalization of the Willie Horton campaign. Instead of going along with the conservative agenda out of fear or expediency, it is time to outline an alternative.

The litmus test for political bravery at present is whether one questions the framework of the war on terrorism. Progressives might still disagree about whether a U.S. military response against al-Qaida was justified, but all can agree that while seeking to demobilize al-Qaida is one thing, using September 11 as a pretext for an open-ended war leading to a new empire is, to say the least, a policy requiring debate. Even if one supports the right of U.S. self-defense against al-Qaida, there should be broad consensus on the need for congressional hearings and oversight. Patriotism should not mean the restoration of the imperial presidency.

Were there flaws or biases in U.S. intelligence gathering that made September 11 more likely? Have the Taliban actually been defeated, or simply faded into the mainstream population? Are Afghan women better off under warlords? Will a global glut of heroin result from greater opium reduction "expected to enrich tribal leaders whose support is vital to the American-backed government" (NYT, April 1, 2002)? Is Texas-based Unocal's oil pipeline across Afghanistan now "feasible once again" (NYT, April 1, 2002)? Should Bush have appointed a former Unocal consultant the new American ambassador to Afghanistan? The nearly one year of silence in Washington on these reasonable questions is a measure of the fear that has eroded the democratic process already.

Beyond Afghanistan, the political questions are whether this war should be conducted unilaterally by the executive branch, whether its budget should be unlimited, whether congressional oversight should be waived, and whether the battle should be conducted wherever undefined terrorists are alleged to be based, whatever their threat to the American people.

Is the Bush administration, intoxicated with gladiator fantasies, trying to build a new Roman Empire by neutralizing the checks and balance intended by having a vigorous legislative branch? (It should be remembered that the Russell Crowe character in "Gladiator" was committed to defending the Roman Senate and the Republic against the imperial designs of the emperor -- this is one case where Washington should definitely mimic Hollywood.)

How to challenge this imperial framework cloaked, with apparent legitimacy, as the war on terror? My advice is: carefully, thoughtfully, but deliberately and for the long haul. For demonstrators interested in mass outreach in a time of manipulated patriotism, it may mean calling for a process of greater oversight, greater attention to priorities, and greater tolerance of dissent, instead of, for example, calls for military withdrawal from Afghanistan. For Democrats in the mainstream, it will mean provoking debate in the party over how to challenge the Bush framework, then nurturing and promoting a new generation of Democrats for peace.

In either scenario, here are some fruitful issues to raise that will resonate with a majority of voters: First, progressives and Democrats should take the position that those in power have failed over the years to make America safer from terrorist attack. There should be full public disclosure of what Condoleeza Rice has called the increased "chatter" of intelligence cables concerning a possible al-Qaida attack before it happened. Questions should be asked. For example: Why did the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA) make a finding that Bin Laden was "a significant threat to civil aviation" in late July 2001, but do nothing about airline security regulations which were so lax that knives with four-inch blades could be carried on planes? These questions go to the heart of the bipartisan special-interest nature of the state that has strangled accountability and democracy for a very long time. Public questioning is urgently needed about the unprecedented U.S. strategy of making nuclear warfare feasible in the future. This classified military strategy represents the return of Dr. Strangelove to the Pentagon, and is certain to make Americans less safe from an uncontrolled nuclear arms race. Another key question that needs to be addressed concerns budget priorities. In concrete, easy-to-understand terms, the costs of the war on terrorism need to be conveyed to a public now shielded from the facts. For the Bush administration and the military-industrial complex, the moment has come for a massive increase in Pentagon spending. Non-governmental organizations and Democrats must make clear to the public that the daily spending on terrorism means less funding for everything from family farms to inner city schools.

Next, progressives and Democrats should question whether the massive intelligence failure surrounding September 11 really justifies returning to the Cold War policies of hiring as operatives or allies the same unsavory elements that brought us the Bay of Pigs and the Central American "dirty wars" of the '70s and '80s.

The war on terrorism should not become pretext for undermining the Freedom of Information Act and preventing disclosure of presidential files from the first Bush era. Bush's solicitor general is arguing in court that government has a right to misinform and disinform the American people.

Nor should the war be a further excuse to advance the agenda of the oil industry, whether drilling in Alaska, protecting Occidental pipelines in Colombia, enmeshing ourselves with the Saudi royal family, or launching joint ventures for Unocal on the old Silk Road through southern Asia.

Before any further subsidies are granted to the Bush-Cheney friends in the oil industry, the government should take the lead in charting a transition to energy conservation and renewable resources. A modest fuel-efficiency increase of 2.7 miles per gallon would eliminate the need for any Persian Gulf oil. In the Middle East, the U.S. should promote a settlement that results in a viable Palestinian state, the end of Israeli occupation, and a military guarantee of secure Israeli borders. Instead, the war on terrorism is being used as the new rationale for the use of U.S. weapons in assisting an Israeli occupation.

Finally, the "new world order" should be based on living wages, not starvation sweatshops, and the United States should lead the G-7 powers to meet the aspirations of the United Nations to double foreign aid by 2015. So-called "free trade" and "fast track" agreements now blatantly being justified by the war on terrorism will reinforce divisions between the rich minority and the poor majority. Demanding peace is not enough. What is at stake is a conflict in the American soul between empire and democracy that will shadow our lifetimes.

Tom Hayden was elected to the California State Senate in 1992. He was a leader of the student, civil rights, and anti-war movements in the 1960s and the environmental and anti-nuclear movements in the 1970s. He is the author of nine books.

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