The New Post-Imperial Imperialism

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America is the terrorist,” said Bileh, twenty-five, a street vendor.

This statement, from a Globe and Mail story filed from Indonesia, seems to me to sum up the future of global politics. It is the response and counterpart to the Bush doctrine and Cheney plan (or Plan, as it is now referred to), with their grandiosity and bluster. It is the fertile ground onto which the latest Osama bin Laden tape falls. It is not a sentiment Osama bin Laden creates, but he profits from it. The sentiment is neither new nor confined to street vendors. At Saturday’s enormous anti-war protest in Florence, a banner read, “The real terrorist is the West.” But that has the used sound of rhetoric; Bileh is more chilling.

The point is that U.S. policy is widely seen as unjust and hypocritical. Leave aside whether the perception is correct; it is a force in itself. The new bin Laden tape is based almost wholly on that perception. It stresses “aggression” against the Muslim world and, above all, the cases of Palestine and Iraq. It says nothing of Islamic values or their imposition on the rest of the world; it is a screed against U.S. foreign policy. Whether Osama bin Laden is sincere or hiding his real motives is secondary; it’s clear where he thinks his appeal to others lies.

The widespread obtuseness on this point in the “official” West — its governments and mainstream media — is striking. Take The Globe and Mail. Yesterday’s editorial said it was “inevitable” for Canada to become a target since it “stands for a host of values — an open society, democracy, religious tolerance and respect for diversity” that are inimical to al-Qaeda — issues totally absent from the tape. Shouldn’t one at least deal with what they present as their selling points.

But why castigate The Globe? The same point applies to the U.S. government — that it never deals with the actual specifics of the terror threat. Instead of trying to defuse the main sources of terror’s appeal — Palestine and Iraq — it has exacerbated precisely those, thus reinforcing the bin Laden position. The U.S., meanwhile, has shifted focus off Osama, ignoring him for almost a year while moving attention to its preferred foe, Saddam Hussein, who is more tyrant than terrorist.

This evidence suggests that the U.S. is not serious about ending the threat of future September 11ths. Otherwise, it would behave differently. Instead, it has used that threat to further other policy goals — and that’s no mere guess on my part. Almost instantly, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld saw the attacks as “opening a door” to a more hard-line U.S. policy worldwide. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice says she asked her staff “to think seriously about ‘how do you capitalize on these opportunities’ to fundamentally change American doctrine, and the shape of the world, in the wake of September 11th.” What kind of change did she mean?

The Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell axis now running things under Bush II dusted off a “plan” they prepared under Bush I, for U.S. policy in the post-Cold War, but had no chance to execute. It meant shifting from a goal of defeating the Soviet Union to one of ruling the entire world so that no rival could ever rise again. It sounds absurd, but you can read it in official jargon in last month’s Harper’s. Colin Powell told Congress in 1992, “I want to be the bully on the block,” so all others will know “there is no future in trying to challenge the armed forces of the U.S.” This has been hailed on the right as a welcome rebirth of imperial thinking. Actually, it’s more like post-imperialism, since it assumes no rival empires. It was their dream for a decade; September 11th seemed to finally make it possible.

But what of the street vendor? Ah, there’s the rub. There’s no doubt the U.S. can, and is, implementing its Plan. But people will react because human beings react to attempts at dominating them. Not just the street vendor. Even in pliant, feudal Saudi Arabia, polls show more than fifty per cent resent U.S. policy. And what of China at some point? A billion and a half people. Are they going to put up with being dominated forever?

At bottom, the Plan is really a bizarre construct that reveals more about Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Powell et al. than it does about the world they assume they can control. It presupposes a notion of the “others” being dominated as an essentially non-existent fantasy; only our side is active, everyone else is cowed. Eventually, in the process, you create an intense reaction and, finally, a massively insecure world — spun out of your own fantastic daydream of total power.

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