How the era of endless wars began

September 15, 2016

A whole generation has come of age during the era of the never-ending "war on terror." Danny Katch explains what they need to know about how that era unfolded.

THE OPENING weekend of NFL games began last Sunday with an announcement from President Barack Obama beamed in to stadium jumbotrons across the country:

[O]n this day, 15 years ago, the world was shaken. Towers crumbled, thousands of our fellow Americans lost their lives, our nation and the whole world mourned as one. Yet as we saw in the days and weeks that followed, and what has become even clearer in the years since, the legacy of September 11 is not one of terror or fear, but of resilience and hope, because 9/11 didn't change us as a nation.

As Obama was claiming that the years since the September 11 attacks weren't marked by fear, many spectators were still trying to get to their seats--because they had been delayed by the long security lines getting into the stadium. Obama talked about a legacy of hope--in a country where many working-class people think the country is heading in the wrong direction.

And just after the president invoked the image of national unity in the days after 9/11, millions of people saw a powerful display showing that U.S. society is not so united: Amid the jingoistic unveiling of ludicrously large American flags, a handful of Black players quietly knelt or raised a fist during the national anthem to register a protest against racist police violence.

Above, left to right: Dick Cheney and George W. Bush; below, demonstrating against the invasion of Iraq
Above, left to right: Dick Cheney and George W. Bush; below, demonstrating against the invasion of Iraq

Sorry, Mr. President, but September 11 absolutely did change us as a nation.

Or even more so, the days and months afterward did--when the U.S. ruling class made a historic gamble that it could exploit the tragedy of 9/11 and the goodwill it generated around the world to launch a "war on terror," whose real purpose was to lock in place a global order dominated by the U.S. for decades to come.

The gamble failed, and it's impossible to understand many aspects of the world today--from the international refugee crisis, to the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), to the rise of the far right in Europe and Donald Trump here--without appreciating the origins and results of that failure.

IT MIGHT BE hard for those of you under the age of 25 to believe, but there was a time when the U.S. government was not in a state of permanent war. And for many among the foreign policy elite, that was a problem.

Ever since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, American leaders had celebrated the end of the Cold War with Russia not by transferring money from the military to social programs in a "peace dividend" they had always promised, but by trying to stretch U.S. control to all the corners of the world that had previously been contested or off limits.

A group of ideologues and analysts, later known as the "neocons," gravitated toward a "defense" strategy geared not toward actually existing enemies, but any conceivable future threat. In 1992, for example, Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary in the Bush Sr. administration, wrote that the U.S. government "must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor [and] maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."

Wolfowitz and his schemes of world domination would have their say a decade later, but at the time, they were too brazen. Throughout the 1990s, Republican and Democratic administrations expanded U.S. hegemony with invasions and new alliances, but these were gradual steps, constrained not by any major rivals, but fear of a disloyal population.

The "Vietnam Syndrome" is what they called it: The widespread opposition, forged during the Vietnam War disaster, of the American people to fighting a major war for a government whose aims it no longer trusted. This was a major obstacle for a global power looking to become the world's unchallenged superpower.

Nowhere was this obstacle more frustrating for American rulers than with regard to Iraq, where the dictator Saddam Hussein had been a U.S. ally until he invaded the oilfields of neighboring Kuwait in July 1990.

Bush Sr. devastated Iraq with the first Gulf War in 1991, but the U.S. stopped short of overthrowing Hussein out of fear of the chaotic consequences.

Later in the '90s, Bill Clinton repeatedly bombed Iraq and administered economic sanctions so brutal that the local United Nations coordinator called them "genocide." Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright infamously acknowledged on 60 Minutes that half a million Iraqi children had died, but said that "we think the price is worth it."

By the end of Clinton's term in 2000, the economic sanctions--which left the Iraqi people destitute, but the Hussein regime in power--were increasingly seen as a sign of U.S. weakness, rather than strength. Restless neocon hawks formed the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) to argue for more aggressive military action in the Middle East.

As Ashley Smith wrote for, PNAC was influential well before 9/11, having convinced Clinton "to enshrine regime change against Saddam Hussein as official policy in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act."

But it would take another three years before an event provided the impetus for the country's leaders to move from bold rhetoric to reckless action. As a PNAC report put it in 2000, the timeline for implementing such radical policy change "is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event--like a new Pearl Harbor."

OF COURSE, just such a catastrophic event happened a year later when four planes were hijacked and turned into missiles headed for New York City and Washington, D.C. By the time that happened, many PNAC members like Wolfowitz were influential members in the administration of George Bush Jr. But they weren't the only ones who recognized the historic opportunity.

Condoleezza Rice, known as one of the Bush administration's more hard-headed realists, told the New Yorker in April 2002:

I really think this period is analogous to 1945 to 1947, in that the events so clearly demonstrated that there is a big global threat, and that it's a big global threat to a lot of countries that you would not have normally thought of as being in the coalition. That has started shifting the tectonic plates in international politics. And it's important to try to seize on that and position American interests and institutions and all of that before they harden again.

The aggressive attitude that Rice articulated was enshrined as official policy under the 2002 National Security Strategy paper, which quickly became known as the "Bush Doctrine." It began on a triumphant note that today reads as if it were from not from 15 years ago, but 150:

For most of the 20th century, the world was divided by a great struggle over ideas: destructive totalitarian visions versus freedom and equality. That great struggle is over. The militant visions of class, nation and race which promised utopia and delivered misery have been defeated and discredited...

This is also a time of opportunity for America. We will work to translate this moment of influence into decades of peace, prosperity and liberty.

The key elements of the Bush Doctrine were pre-emptive war and a willingness--even eagerness--to disregard the multilateral diplomatic framework of the United Nations that the U.S. had helped to establish after the Second World War. The strategy called for:

defending the United States, the American people, and our interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders. While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self defense by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.

Conservatives were overjoyed. In a grotesque article that equated the Vietnam Syndrome with a liberal culture in which U.S. schools give out too many awards, Wall Street Journal editor Peggy Noonan openly hoped for heavy casualties in the coming invasion of Iraq because "the world will be reminded that America still knows how to suffer."

ON THE other side were tens of millions of horrified Americans who didn't hope for heavy casualties.

Many came to believe that the U.S. government had been hijacked by a "neocon cabal" operating out of the White House. There were elements of truth in this conclusion, but the even grimmer truth was that most of Bush's war aims were supported by the vast majority of the bipartisan political establishment.

Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and others voted for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars abroad and the shredding of civil liberties at home not because they were misled by laughably false intelligence about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, but because they actually supported the goals of the Bush Doctrine.

The only beef that most Democrats had was about style, not substance. Bush administration officials combined rich-boy arrogance with messianic fervor, openly proclaiming America's God-given right to run the world, and torture anyone who got in its way.

Democrats may have preferred Bush to get his wars approved by the United Nations--and later, they would blame the war's failure on his administration's delusional faith that Iraqis would welcome American soldiers as liberators. But when it came to the bigger picture of the "war on terror," they were fully on board.

In January 2003, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, the New York Times magazine ran a cover story by Michael Ignatieff called "The Burden"--yes, as in the white man's--which urged liberal Times readers to accept the new normal:

Those who want America to remain a republic rather than become an empire imagine rightly, but they have not factored in what tyranny or chaos can do to vital American interests. The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike.

In the end, opposition to the Bush Doctrine came not from Democrats, but from the streets.

Within days of 9/11, antiwar groups were holding large meetings in New York City to organize against the first invasion in the "war on terror"--the war on Afghanistan.

When the Bush administration's focus shifted toward Iraq--which had no plausible connection to the September 11 attacks--a new movement exploded into being. The high point came on February 15, 2003, when millions demonstrated in the U.S. and around the world in the largest antiwar protests in history.

As is often the case in new movements, most of the participants didn't fully appreciate what they were up against. They saw the coming invasion of Iraq as a horrible mistake, committed by a renegade administration--which they hoped would be intimidated or even convinced by the widespread opposition.

When the U.S. government ignored the protests of tens of millions and launched the invasion of Iraq anyway in March 2003, many were disillusioned.

The problem was exacerbated by loyalty to the Democratic Party, which led leading antiwar organizations to increasingly tailor their activities to fit with the Democrats' message that Bush let Iraq become a "distraction" from what should have been the proper focus on the "war on terror," in Afghanistan and beyond.

The movement was already weakened, but it collapsed outright when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. For many pro-Democratic individuals and organizations who bitterly opposed the Bush administration, it was unimaginable to protest Obama in the same way, even when he continued the "war on terror" with a new strategy.

THE U.S. war in Iraq turned out to be--according to everyone from Forbes to Bernie Sanders--the biggest foreign policy mistake in U.S. history.

Rather than locking in its dominance for decades to come, the U.S. found itself unable to defeat resistance forces in Iraq or Afghanistan--and watched helplessly as rivals such as Iran gained influence at its expense.

For the neocons, the next stop for the "war on terror" after Afghanistan and Iraq was to be Iran--but the Pentagon was forced to rely on the Iranian government to prop up the Shia-dominated puppet regime in Iraq. With the U.S. tied down in the Middle East, China and Russia expanded their global footprints. And Washington was unable to do much to slow the emerging "Pink Tide" of left-wing governments in Latin America.

When the "Arab Spring" revolutions of 2011 started breaking out across North Africa and the Middle East, the U.S. was in its weakest position to intervene since the end of the Vietnam War.

Today, Republicans like to blame Obama's "weak leadership" for the U.S. government's inability to control the chaos that engulfed much of the region. But before Obama was ever elected, Bush had essentially conceded defeat, signing an agreement for U.S. troop withdrawal with an Iraqi government that had more and more slipped the American leash.

Unfortunately, it's not just the right wing that doesn't seem to know its history. The leftists who look at the destruction wrought in Syria by an Assad regime backed by Russia and Iran and see only the threat of U.S. intervention are stuck in 2003.

They don't realize that Obama's imperial mandate has been to pull back from Bush's reckless drive toward regime change--and they seem to have forgotten, if they ever knew it, that when the Syrian people call for regime change, that's not a CIA plot, that's revolution.

WHILE THE leaders of America's empire have dramatically scaled back their ambitions since the failure of the Iraq War, two things have remained constant over the past 15 years.

The U.S. remains determined to use its weakened but still pre-eminent position as a global superpower to shape the world according to its interests. And it continues to frame its efforts to do so as a global battle against terrorism.

Obama administration officials made a point of dropping Bush-era "global war on terror" rhetoric. But in practice, they've drastically expanded their predecessors' policies of drone warfare, targeted assassinations, global surveillance and cyber-warfare.

The two main hallmarks of the domestic "war on terror" culture--uncritical worship of the military and violent attacks on Arabs and Muslims--have also continued unabated in the Obama era.

The coming election won't be a factor in changing the situation. Donald Trump is a racist demagogue, and Hillary Clinton not only voted for the Iraq War, but is being endorsed by Wolfowitz, Albright and many other Republicans and Democrats who, in a just world, would be put on trial for war crimes against the Iraqi people.

Fifteen years is a long time. Almost an entire generation has come of age dealing with the consequences of this country's attempt to exploit the September 11 attacks to launch a global power grab.

Many of those consequences--from militarized police forces acting as armies of occupation in U.S. cities to slashed government budgets that have wrecked education and other services ordinary people rely on--have shaped the radical worldview of millennials around racial justice and economic inequality.

But the absence of a strong antiwar movement means that even many young progressives accept the framework of the "war on terror"--the only worldview they've ever known. At the Democratic National Convention this summer, many Bernie Sanders supporters chanted "No more wars!" against Clinton, but few seriously challenged their own candidate's history of support for the U.S. military.

The first step toward developing an anti-imperialist instinct and worldview among a new generation drawn to radical politics and organization is to remember the lessons of the not-too-distant past--about the ruthlessness and arrogance of the American empire and the need to oppose it in whatever form it takes.

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