Print Friendly and PDF
only search

What next?

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.


Nearly five years after the "axis of evil" speech, the thing that continues to annoy is how President Bush, prime minister Blair and now Israeli spokesmen claim to be the ones who are opposing terrorism. Anyone who does not support them, they suggest, is soft and permissive of Osama bin Laden and copy-cat gangs of violent fundamentalists.

If I had a great deal of money, I would take Bush and Blair to court for aiding and abetting terrorism. They were warned that their so-called "war on terrorism" would make things worse. And it has. It makes them fellow perpetrators of the current disasters.

At the start of the Lebanon conflict I noticed that an Israeli general had said on television that Israel would turn back the clock twenty years in Lebanon. I thought: "this guy is threatening collective punishment on an entire nation for a guerrilla incident!" It is the kind of outrageous thing retired generals say. I was confident he would be officially repudiated and told to zip his mouth. But no, it turns out he was Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, the chief-of-staff directly in charge of the campaign that aerially bombed power-stations, water-plants and factories. One definition of terrorism is precisely that it attempts to deliver collective punishment.

The word "disproportionate" is code for a deep revulsion over such behaviour – behaviour which seems to allow Israel to believe it has the right to impose on any society which touches or challenges what it has already imposed upon Palestine.

No great wisdom is needed to see that such a strategy dooms all sides to destruction, perhaps within a generation. Opposition to it, to Bush, Blair, Halutz and their approach of "making war on terror", stems from a confidence that there is a better, more effective and lasting way of frustrating terrorism, a way that also protects human rights, democracy and justice from their hands. It is an opposition shared by large numbers in the established democracies, in many of them a clear majority. A friend suggests that perhaps the only silver lining to the destruction of Lebanon was the clarity bestowed by Bush and Blair's support for the Israeli assault. Since 9/11 most people around the world have reacted more wisely than the occupants of the White House and 10 Downing Street. This is an important democratic resource to hold onto in the coming months and maybe years.


The masters of the west are not only fighting terrorism the wrong way, they are screwing up on their own terms. The invasion of Iraq was misconceived, but having done it, it would have been far better if the United States had at least succeeded in helping Iraq become the democracy that its people wanted at the time. Instead, it turned itself into an occupying force.

The New York Times ran a telling article on 17 August 2006 (see Michael R Gordon, Mark Mazzetti & Thom Shanker, "Bombs Aimed at G.I.'s in Iraq Are Increasing" [subscription only]). It started by reporting on a classified US defence intelligence agency document which estimated that the number of explosive devices in Iraq had risen from 1,454 in January to 2,625 in July (of which 1,666 exploded and 959 were discovered before they went off). The number of Americans killed dropped from forty-two to thirty-eight, thanks to better armour. This may have encouraged an impression that the only story in Iraq this year is a "slide towards civil war". For Iraqis the hideous internal battle matters most (its July death-toll was 3,700). But 70% of the explosions were directed against the Americans whose wounded "soared, to 518 in July from 287 in January".

The quiet conclusion of the NYT story went much further than the US military's assessment of the growing effectiveness of its opponents. It needs to be quoted in full:

"… some outside experts who have recently visited the White House said Bush administration officials were beginning to plan for the possibility that Iraq's democratically elected government might not survive."
"Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are 'considering alternatives other than democracy,' said one military affairs expert who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity."
"'Everybody in the administration is being quite circumspect," the expert said, "but you can sense their own concern that this is drifting away from democracy."

What does it mean, to "plan" for democracy not "surviving"? The mixture of active and passive arouses suspicion. If the White House is "considering alternatives" to democracy, could it be on the lines of "better our dictator than theirs"? But this is the reason why the US supported Saddam Hussein against Iran in the first place, when Donald Rumsfeld went to shake the bad man's hand in December 1983. Democracy was the last but also the best reason for the invasion. If Iraq's elected government is replaced by an alternative at the instigation of the White House then America's defeat will be complete.


America has been defeated – not just the Rumsfeld strategy, or President Bush. His successor will not be able to pick up the phone and say "Hey, it was not me, let's move on", and expect a return to the status quo ante bellum of US hegemony. America itself, its state and system of government is undergoing defeat.

It is a moral defeat, from Guantánamo to the Manichaean unilateralism of good against evil. It is a constitutional defeat for a system that permitted Bush to steal an election and whose courts have yet to re-establish fundamental rights. It is a democratic defeat because the politics which permitted it is based on a financially suborned, gerrymandered, often uncheckable, low-turnout voting system that threatens to reduce suffrage in the US to government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich – while it invades countries abroad in the name of democratic self-rule. It is a defeat for its media that misleads and misjudges. A defeat for its political class which as a whole has lost the capacity to oppose. And soon, from all accounts, America is also about to suffer an economic defeat on a global scale. Above all, perhaps, it is a defeat for American intelligence in every sense of that word.


Have we been here before? The Defeat of America: War, Presidential Power, and the National Character is the title of a book of essays published in 1974 by the distinguished American historian Henry Steele Commager. In it he wrote: "Why do we find it so hard to accept this elementary lesson of history, that some wars are so deeply immoral that they must be lost, that the war in Vietnam is one of these wars and that those who resist it are the truest patriots?"

We should beware of simplistic comparisons. "Vietnam" was more an epoch than an episode, longer even than the ten years of maximum conflict from 1965-75. With hindsight it also includes Watergate, the opening to China, the US bombing of Cambodia, the frustration of Nixon and Kissinger's war plan in Vietnam itself, and then Nixon's ejection from office in the face of certain impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanours against the United States, as he set out to create an imperial presidency.

Already at least two major differences can be seen between that war and Iraq. First, in Vietnam, America's defeat meant there was a worthy and deserved victor – the Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh's communists. They were promptly punished for their triumph, by Pol Pot's attacks and above all by the Chinese (whose doomed and stultifying one-party system they still share). Nonetheless, they were the leaders of the original national and anti-colonial revolution. They had no quarrel with the United States and launched no attack upon it. In Iraq by contrast there is no opposition that can attract support. It is a defeat that brings only further defeat.

Second, in its defeat America could celebrate itself. As Commager puts it in his conclusion, the constitution was "vindicated". The courts stood firm. The press could be proud of its role as it exposed Nixon despite ferocious pressure. Opposition to the war removed President Johnson. The system itself removed Nixon. A renewal of American democracy took place.

This achievement has been undone. America's liberal triumph in the cold war masked the rollback of the liberal gains made in the aftermath of Vietnam thanks to the constitution. In the quarter-century from the US forced evacuation of Saigon in 1975 to the presidential election of 2000, the US media was undermined, any commitment to objectivity undone. A relentless effort to impeach Clinton for denying a sexual liaison under oath had as its real target the constitution itself. The triviality of the issue showed that the Republicans accepted only the technicality and not the gravity of the charges against Nixon. A constitutional system designed to provide impartial protection was hollowed out and made an instrument for partisanship (nominations to the Supreme Court being a perfect example).

The way was thus prepared for the Bush/Cheney attempt to recreate the imperial presidency that had proved beyond Nixon's reach.


9/11 offered them the opportunity. They took it extremely well. The important thing about 9/11 is what happened on 9/12. It was less the attack that will come to define what the burning towers stand for, than what was then made it.

The rest of the world said: "We are all Americans".

What we meant was we had all been bombed and attacked and lost innocents and we identified with and supported Americans against this appalling assault. (Paradoxically, even those who callously cheered at 9/11 did so because they welcomed Yankee imperialism being humiliated and hurt like them.) There was a profound and justified sense of a need for solidarity. Geopolitically, the international system as a whole backed the invasion of Afghanistan for harbouring Osama bin Laden.

It was a never-to-be-repeated opportunity for the United States to create around itself an alliance of sympathy. We can be sure such an alliance would have dealt effectively with terrorism on the basis of shared judicial procedures, bringing the rule of law to the world in a new fashion, as well as further isolating and soon undermining regimes like those of Saddam.

The generous reaching out to the United States was also a challenge. Implicit in the offer was that America accept that it is a country like other countries, each special, each capable of being hurt, in need of alliances, having to participate in relationships it could not simply dictate. What a fantastic moment, what a wonderful opportunity.

Thanks to Bush and Cheney the USA told the rest of the world to fuck off.

(Only Tony Blair then stepped forward to say "fuck me".)

Bush and Cheney declared war and assumed wartime powers. They threw alliances to the wind; they formulated a new national-security doctrine authorising preventative attack; they mobilised their military against a global "axis of evil"; they asserted that if you were not with them you were with the terrorists; they initiated illegal interception within America on a scale Nixon could hardly have dreamt of.

Why did they do this? To fight terrorism, when every serious expert warned that an invasion of Iraq was just what bin Laden wanted? To secure control of oil supplies? To spread democracy (from the creators of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib)? Looking back over the arguments about America's international strategy over the last five years and its supposed neo-conservative nature, perhaps the explanation is that they did not take any serious interest at all in the rest of the world.

Cheney and Rumsfeld were recruited as young men into Nixon's 1969 White House. They surely dreamt of revenge for Watergate. 9/11 offered a wonderful opportunity for just this, and they unleashed an assault upon the political and constitutional system that made his impeachment possible. This would explain the sense of coup which accompanied Bush's declaration of "war" and the "cabal" like nature of the group that implemented it. More important, it suggests that the motives driving America's post-9/11 foreign policy are essentially domestic: using policy towards the rest of the world as a means of achieving ends within the United States.

The verbiage of neo-conservatism provided a useful cover but was never the "doctrine" of Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld. This was an illusion of intellectuals occupationally prone to the narcissistic belief that their words matter even for those who seldom read. Bush and his assistants did not seek election in America in order to shape the world. When, thanks to 9/11, they declared a world-shaping policy, they did so in order to rule America all the better.

As a domestic policy of domination the Bush/Cheney strategy has so far proved itself a brilliant success. It had already mobilised the money, built the churches and fixed the media. With these assets in hand they used 9/11 to appeal to a deep aspect of American nationalism that they understood and identified with (and whose history and nature has been brilliantly dissected by Anatol Lieven). Politicians who have the capacity to mobilise and reshape a nationalism are genuine leaders – at home. This was where they were smart, not stupid, and how they came to be more than just a cabal.


And abroad? With respect to the rest of the world it is unbelievably reckless.

"What you call unilateralism I call leadership", John Bolton once said, before he became US ambassador to the United Nations. The White House creates reality. It declares victory in advance – because this is what works with its voters. Which is why the only event to significantly damage Bush has been hurricane Katrina, whose reality outspun the president's team.

Israel has been an example, perhaps even an inspiration to them in the creation of realities. The influence of the Israeli lobby in the United States, now reinforced by rapture evangelism and its fantastical, apocalyptic obsession with the Holy Land, is said to exercise too great an influence in Washington. But perhaps what has really hypnotised American leaders since 1967 is Israel's success. This mainlines with America's "winner-takes-all" political culture. Israel's failure to succeed in Lebanon is therefore especially dangerous for it. The US is not an ally for those in need.

In Hizbollah, Israel has finally created an enemy worthy of itself. The war it has just waged against it in Lebanon proved not to be a continuation of the others Israel has fought since 1948. For all the pan-Arab talk, these were, Fred Halliday has pointed out, comparatively local engagements (see "Lebanon, Israel, and the 'greater west Asian crisis'", 18 August 2006). Now, he argues, two great regional forces are redefining the middle east, both born in 1979. In February that year the Iranian revolution lit the torch of Shi'a fundamentalism, in December the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan initiated the US arming of Sunni mujahideen, of whom the most notable was Osama bin Laden. Today, both currents have condensed onto Israel's conquest of Palestine, and the conflict over Israel's borders really has become regional.

Therefore, Israel has to make a deal if it is to flourish as more than a besieged outpost. One reason, it can now be seen, is technical. The Katyusha rockets that Hizbollah fired at Israel were old-fashioned, kinetic devices stuffed with ball-bearings that belong to the analogue age. Soon an inexpensive global positioning system will be replacing some of those passive metal balls. Sooner or later do-it-yourself drones, with contour-hugging devices to get under radar, will be constructed, easily capable of making a long-range, one-way journey, even from a suburb of Amman or Cairo. Even extreme "solutions" such as ethnically cleansing of the West Bank and creating a "greater Israel" will not stop fear returning to Tel Aviv to undermine its commercial life. What is a wall? It is a defensive barrier designed for explosives to fly over.

It takes a human culture and network, not technology, to hide, assemble and fire such devices. Previously, defeating Israel meant shouting Allah-u Akbar, while firing an AK-47 into the air, wasting ordnance, risking wounding your own people and giving Israel intelligence. Now it is now cool to be Hiz, to wear heavy-duty spectacles, speak slowly, not show off and never be photographed.

There is only one way to "defeat" such a movement. Its grievances must be addressed and it must be welcomed (whatever the gritting of teeth) into a legitimate representative process where it can be held to account for the authority it exercises. In this way it also becomes itself and ceases to be a puppet of others.

How is this possible if, as with Hizbollah, it is committed to the annihilation of Israel? Well, only when there is a secure Palestinian state with a leadership that insists on a ceasefire and tells its allies not to fire on Tel Aviv because it desires peace not war. A Palestine that looks forward and sees a life for itself as a country is the precondition for politically isolating and then disarming those who want to wipe Israel off the map. Without this Israel will never be secure. Hence the unbelievable folly of spurning a Hamas offer of a ceasefire after it won the elections in Palestine, the starting-point for such a process.


In this era of international petitions, what should a global patriot call for? There are two immediate conflicts. One is against the terrorist networks inspired by al-Qaida. They need to be arrested and they can be. It is not a war, but nor is it a conflict that can be lost if that means terrorists immolating themselves with nuclear devices. The second is the "war on terror" which is making terrorism worse by playing their game. In what must rank as one of the most outstanding and far-sighted achievements of regular reporting (and an example of how the web did better than the established media), Paul Rogers has covered global security questions over five years for openDemocracy. In his 250th column ("The war on terror: past, present, future", 24 August 2006) he marshals the evidence that he patiently set out week after week. US strategy is counterproductive. The starting point for a successful resistance to the extreme claims of al-Qaida is to abandon the "global war on terror".

The focal point for this "war", and now a candidate for attack by the Bush/Cheney White House as it continues to define reality for its domestic purposes, is Iran. Instead, it should be making peace. Diplomatic recognition, trade and tourism will do far more to undermine the fundamentalists of Tehran, who can order the enrichment of uranium but can't ensure the enrichment of their own people.

Will the reality-shock of the Lebanon war of July-August 2006 make the leaders of Israel and America see such good sense? I'm told not. That it is too late. Israel's conclusion after Lebanon, that it has to stay in the West Bank and further impose itself unilaterally, is merely a gloomy confirmation that all is lost. For the settlements are misnamed. They are not a settled point, they grow. To keep them is to expand them, and to expand them is to further the illegal and inhuman expropriation of Palestine. So the parties to the conflict are condemned never to find it in themselves to engage in the agreements and mutual recognition they need.

In which case the outcome will eventually be nuclear war over Jerusalem while the Chinese and Indians rub their hands in disbelief. Then the Israelis will blame the Iranians, intelligence analysts will blame Pakistanis, the few Iranians left will blame Americans and Zionists, and the next round will begin until the holy places are turned to irradiated glass.

I refuse to believe this.

It is a much noted irony, but perhaps worth restating, that the centre of the conflict is the city which houses the Kotel or "wailing wall", the most holy place of Jewish prayer; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built beside the site of the crucifixion over the tomb where Christ was laid; and the glorious Dome of the Rock, built around the stone from which the Prophet ascended to heaven. A city to which so many pilgrims have brought their grief and hopes and sought salvation is unable to inspire the spirit of peaceful coexistence.

What direction is there that might set in motion a different momentum? The power of prayer is unlikely to prove sufficient. In a refreshing and deeply responsible critique of the Bush foreign policy, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role on the World, Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman call for an inclusive regional conference over Iraq (with America dropping its childish refusal to talk directly with Iran) and propose that Israel and Palestine be given accession status for full membership of the European Union.

This latter is a great idea as it points the two countries in a new direction. Now Lebanon should be added as well. The European Union was designed to create peace where there was war. This was its initial impulse with respect to France and Germany. The Northern Ireland peace agreement was made possible because both the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic were in the union. Europe has a responsibility towards all three small countries on the eastern Mediterranean shore: Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. None, it could be said, are fully viable on their own, but the EU also protects vulnerable small states. Membership would provide the secular framework necessary for religious societies to live in peace with each other. It would secure full political and human rights in them all in a way that would be credible and legitimate.

The EU's critics often argue that its purpose is to become a "superstate" that threatens to engulf the nations it encompasses. In fact the union has rescued its member nation-states from fratricide and has ensured their revival in a context of shared sovereignty and peace. If we are not to witness yet more collective punishments, from indiscriminate rocketing to the precision destruction of a people's livelihood, we are entitled to ask, if not this then what next?

Dedicated to the publishers Saqi and to Dar al-Saqi, whose warehouse in south Beirut was hit twice by bombs

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.