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Cranking the “axis of evil”

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
13 February 2002

Having achieved legitimacy after 11 September by invoking the principle of self-defense, a principle that no nation willingly foregoes, the US threatens to cast legitimacy overboard as a luxury it cannot afford. The stabilities that accrue to empire at its best are now jeopardized by empire in a state of advanced overreach.

The White House of George W. Bush wishes to enlarge a just, coalitional war of self-defense to a generalized and unilateral war against an “axis of evil,” war to be undertaken at times and places of its own choosing.

To the alarm of allies in Europe, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere (not least the elected reform government of Iran, and even in the State Department), Bush declares that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, not just individually but as an ensemble, are now in his sights.

The dangers of an omni-flexible “war on terrorism,” obscured by the successful prosecution of the Afghanistan war, now emerge full-blown. For what kind of a war is this without a war aim, an end-point, a definition of victory? A perennial one: war whenever we get around to it, on anyone we feel like naming, and just what are you going to do about it?

In “The Ordinariness of American Feelings”, published on openDemocracy in October 2001, I took America’s critics to task. I argued that “anti-Americanism is one of those prejudices that musters evidence to suit a conclusion already in place.” Now, as if summoned by Central Casting, Bush fuels the prejudice.

The axis of nostalgic inexactitude

Bush has a habit of making up terminology as he goes along, thus inoculating himself with evident nonsense against the accusation that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In this case, the term was written for him (evidently by David Frum, the Canadian-born Tory). Without doubt Bush meant to speak the absurd phrase in question, and he knows exactly what he meant by its nostalgic inexactitude.

He meant: The US gets to decide who’s worth making war on. They are then, by definition, promoted to Berlin-Tokyo-Rome status, so that Americans can feel they were not born too late for the Spielberg movie.

Any objections can be addressed with tactical fallbacks, accompanied by relief that he has not yet acted on what he said – not quite yet. Quickly stung by press criticism at home and great salvos of objection abroad to the effect that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea have nothing demonstrable to do with al-Qaida, Bush administration officials let it be known that other nations might qualify for the “axis of evil.” Some axis, with rotating membership! But this is precisely the point: the US is in the driver’s seat.

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger

The circumstances of Bush’s presidency are not irrelevant to his penchant for unilateralism. Recall: George II’s career is nothing if not a protracted exercise in getting away with overreach.

The moral is that you can drink yourself into one stupor after another, for decades, cover up various holes in your CV, lose piles of other people’s money in bad investments and still hustle up more of other people’s money for bigger investments, including a baseball team, which you use as a launch to the governorship of a large state, then raise piles more money to run for president… and as long as you started with the right parents, you can come out on top.

Such a career gives a man a sense that he can get away with an awful lot. All that before November 2000, mind you. Then, you and your entourage, including your brother, his staff, and a Supreme Court chosen during your party’s long stays in power, stop the Florida recount – and what do you know, you’re in power, unelected. You could easily feel anointed – born to rule. That which doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger.

So now, with much connivance by Congress and without much protest, you consolidate the coup d’etat of November-December 2000. 11 September 2001 is its latest rationale for unilateral action, but the Bush administration was already heading this way – with its unilateral opposition to the Kyoto treaty, the International Criminal Court, biological weapons inspection, and the ABM treaty.

Having learned the lesson that brute force pays off, Bush merrily proceeds with his modus operandi – and moves toward a permanent brute force footing.

Opposition… where?

Fearing backlash, the official opposition started out reticent (in his official Democratic response after the State of the Union speech, minority leader Richard Gephardt ignored the “axis of evil” issue altogether). Now comes the good news: in recent days, Democratic leaders like Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle dissent from the “axis” claim, and caution against rushing to war with Iraq. Now for more bad news: Bush shows no sign of caring. Allies are brushed aside.

The hope that 11 September might jolt the US into a deeper appraisal of the world, a more serious compassion, has gone grievously disappointed. The emergency mood prevails. Bill Clinton gives well-received speeches complicating the good-guys-vs.-evildoers division of the world, but no substantial politician dares follow.

The American people were stirred by patriotism after the eleventh, and I with them. They inverted the wound of the WTC into protestation, pride, and the flag as a badge of belonging. But that patriotism is now hijacked by geopolitics. The people – unsure, wounded, angry, myopic – defer to their leaders.

Oil underbelly

The failure of intelligence that afflicted the US before 11 September has more than one dimension. Oil dependency also ranks high on the list of gross, unexamined irresponsibilities. But the last thing in the world one would expect of the Bush administration is independence from oil.

(After the Republican convention of 2000, when the party had nominated Dick Cheney of Halliburton for vice-president, the actor Rob Reiner said, “What do you mean, the Republicans don’t like diversity? They’ve got a ticket made up of guys from two different oil companies!”)

Access to Saudi and Gulf oil looks like a triumph of empire but could easily be its undoing. For half a century, purported realists in Washington have thought nothing of greasing the palms of Middle East tribal leaders so that they will grant us (and the Japanese and Europeans to an even greater degree) the favor of buying their oil.

Oil makes America grovel to Saudi tyrants, who funded the Taliban and Wahhabi madrassas throughout the world. Earlier, oil lubricated the US’s disastrous support for the brutal Shah of Iran – another gift to Islamic fundamentalism, as it turned out.

Oil floated, and continues to float, the terror regime of Saddam Hussein. Now the US is tying itself to Central Asian dictatorships in expectation of new oil sources, and underwriting counter-guerrilla military action in Colombia to protect an oil pipeline. Some realism.

Silence before empire

It is not surprising that an administration so heavily beholden to oil companies thinks that such policies will secure American wealth and power in the twenty-first century. What is genuinely shocking is the dead silence that greets this absurdity, as if domestic politics should remain innocent of any substantial debate about the stakes and costs of American power; as if everyone who objects and worries is no more than an ignorant whiner.

I wrote before of the perils of American ignorance, of our fantasy life of pure and unappreciated goodness. Those perils intensify.

The silence here is not just American silence; it emanates from most European leaders as well. (EU international relations commissioner Chris Patten is a welcome exception.) Here is the pathos of empire: that, even in the face of murderous attacks, it should retain its innocence of sustained, intelligent opposition.

Empires fade. Hubris is their custom. Inevitably, they grow smug, bite off too much, inspire too much resentment, collide with too many enemies too strategically placed.

In an age of weapons of mass destruction, the collisions are more dangerous than ever before. The risk of unprecedented massacre looms. So the trick is to use power for justice as much as possible, then (like the British Empire in its sunset) arrange to fade wisely, yield power fairly gracefully – yield it not to the perpetrators of mass murder but to alliances and multinational institutions better, more legitimately, able to act.

The British, however, yielded their power above all to America. And the Bush apparatus in charge of the US is not in a sharing mood.

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