The World according to Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld

Michael Byers

Sixty years ago, German soldiers shaved off the beards of Orthodox Jews. Now American soldiers are doing the same to Islamic fundamentalists captured in Afghanistan, before flying them to a detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Other aspects of the US response are similarly troubling. Hundreds of Afghan civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of careless targeting. Unexploded cluster bomblets will harm thousands more. The destruction of the al-Jazeera TV bureau in Kabul, plans for special military commissions with low evidentiary standards, the refusal to accord detainees presumptive POW status all indicate a casual disregard for international opinion and the laws of war. Most disturbing, however, are some of the threats uttered by President Bush. The assertion that ‘you’re either with us or against us’ obviates a central aspect of state sovereignty – the right not to be involved – and recasts the US as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. The identification of an ‘axis of evil’ between Iran, Iraq and North Korea challenges one of the 20th century’s greatest achievements: the prohibition of the threat or use of force in international affairs. The aberration may be temporary, but there are reasons to believe that something fundamental has changed.

The US Government wields more power than any regime since the Roman Empire. With 12 aircraft carriers, the only significant heavy airlift capacity and the only major stocks of precision guided missiles and bombs, it can defeat any opponent while suffering only minimal losses. And thanks to its massive defence budget, the US is the only country that regularly makes major advances in military technology. Decisions reached on Wall Street and in Washington reverberate around the world. Corporate America, the regulatory infrastructure that supports it and the pension funds that propel it, are the dominant influences on economic policy in Europe, Asia, South America and elsewhere, not to mention on the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO. The collapse of Enron may have demonstrated the fragility of corporate structures, but it also exposed the fevered mating that goes on between business and political elites. Until its demise, Enron was more influential than all but a handful of nation-states. Last spring, I asked an Argentine diplomat what he thought about his country becoming part of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, currently being negotiated at the initiative of a number of US-based corporations. He said, with evident regret: ‘We have no choice.’

A country as powerful as the US has many choices, even when struck by a blow as heavy as that of 11 September. The President himself may sometimes forget to chew, but the Vice-President, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld would have been quick to spot the opportunities presented by the crisis. Doubters need only think of Jo Moore, Stephen Byers’s adviser, who got into trouble for suggesting that the attack on the World Trade Center provided a perfect opportunity to bury bad news. The battle-hardened ideologues who direct American foreign policy are no less cynical, and considerably more adept.

A ‘coalition’ was constructed to facilitate the freezing of terrorist assets and the gathering of intelligence overseas. But America’s allies delude themselves if they think that the events of 11 September have persuaded the Bush Administration of the more general value of doing things multilaterally. On the contrary, the treatment of the Guantanamo Bay detainees and the renewed threatening of ‘rogue states’ demonstrate a reinforced determination to steer a unilateralist course.

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