The New Cold War
Not long after the Bush Administration took power in January, I was invited to lunch at a glamorous restaurant in New York by a group of editors and writers from an influential American right-wing broadsheet. The food and wine were extremely expensive, the decor luxurious but discreet, the clientele beautifully dressed, and much of the conversation more than mildly insane. With regard to the greater part of the world outside America, my hosts’ attitude was a combination of loathing, contempt, distrust and fear: not only towards Arabs, Russians, Chinese, French and others, but towards ‘European socialist governments’, whatever that was supposed to mean. This went with a strong desire – in theory at least – to take military action against a broad range of countries across the world.
Two things were particularly striking here: a tendency to divide the world into friends and enemies, and a difficulty verging on autism when it came to international opinions that didn’t coincide with their own – a combination more appropriate to the inhabitants of an ethnic slum in the Balkans than to people who were, at that point, on top of the world.
Today Americans of all classes and opinions have reason to worry, and someone real to fear and hate, while prolonged US military action overseas is thought to be inevitable. The building where we had lunch is now rubble. Several of our fellow diners probably died last week, along with more than six thousand other New Yorkers from every walk of life. Not only has the terrorist attack claimed far more victims than any previous such attack anywhere in the world, but it has delivered a far more damaging economic blow. Equally important, it has destroyed Americans’ belief in their country’s invulnerability, on which so many other American attitudes and policies finally rested.
This shattering blow was delivered by a handful of anonymous agents hidden in the wider population, working as part of a tightly-knit secret international conspiracy inspired by a fanatical and (to the West) deeply ‘alien’ and ‘exotic’ religious ideology. Its members are ruthless; they have remarkable organisational skills, a tremendous capacity for self-sacrifice and self-discipline, and a deep hatred of the United States and the Western way of life. As Richard Hofstader and others have argued, for more than two hundred years this kind of combination has always acted as a prompt for paranoid and reactionary conspiracy theories, most of them groundless.
Now the threat is real; and for the foreseeable future we will have to live with and seek to reduce two closely interlinked dangers: the direct and potentially apocalyptic threat posed by terrorists, mainly (though by no means exclusively) based in the Muslim world, and the potential strengthening of those terrorists’ resolve by misguided US actions. The latter danger has been greatly increased by the attacks. The terrorists have raised to white heat certain smouldering tendencies among the American Right, while simultaneously – as is usually the case at the start of wars – pushing American politics and most of its population in a sharply rightward direction; all of which has taken place under an unexpectedly right-wing Administration. If this leads to a crude military response, then the terrorists will have achieved part of their purpose, which was to provoke the other side to indiscriminate retaliation, and thereby increase their own support.
It is too early to say for sure how US strategies and attitudes will develop. At the time of writing Afghanistan is the focus, but whatever happens there, it isn’t clear whether the US Administration will go on to launch a more general campaign of military pressure against other states which have supported terrorist groups, and if so, what states and what kind of military pressure? US policy is already pulled in two predictable but contradictory directions, amply illustrated in the op-ed pages of US newspapers and in debates within the Government. The most unilateralist Administration in modern American history has been forced to recognise, in principle at least, the country’s pressing need for allies. There are the beginnings, too, of a real public debate on how US policy needs to be changed and shaped to fight the new ‘war’. All this is reminiscent of US attitudes and behaviour at the start of the Cold War, when Communism was identified as the central menace to the US and to Western capitalism and democracy in general.
On the other hand, the public desire for revenge has strengthened certain attitudes – especially in the Republican Party and media, as well as parts of the Administration – which, if they prevail, will not only be dangerous in themselves, but will make the search for real allies difficult. And real allies are essential, above all in the Arab and Muslim worlds. In the longer run, only the full co-operation of Arab regimes – along with reform and economic development – can prevent the recruitment, funding and operations of Arab-based terrorist groups. As for Europe, British military support may be unconditional, but most European countries – Russia among them – are likely to restrict their help to intelligence and policing. Apart from the fact that most European armies are useless when it comes to serious warfare, they are already showing great unwillingness to give the US a blank cheque for whatever military action the Bush Administration chooses to take.
Yet a blank cheque is precisely what the Administration, and the greater part of US public opinion, are asking for. This is Jim Hoagland, veteran establishment foreign correspondent and commentator, in the generally liberal Washington Post:
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and many of the other Arab states Powell hopes to recruit for the bin Laden posse have long been part of the problem, not part of the solution to international terrorism. These states cannot be given free passes for going through the motions of helping the United States. And European allies cannot be allowed to order an appetiser of bin Laden and not share in the costs of the rest of a meal cooked in hell.