News and Features
Foreign creditors will eventually pull the plug.
The terrorism war begins to sag.
The perpetrator we were meant to bag
Remains at large, and wartime fervor fades.
Then Bush and all his hawkish White House aides
Drop sanctions as the way to tame Iraq
And say, "Without delay, we must attack."
If that war sags, there's still a backup plan.
It's war without delay against Iran.
And when the zest for that war, too, has faded?
That's easy: North Korea gets invaded.
But then it's hard to think of what to do.
Destroy Bahrain? Bomb France? Invade Peru?
Concerned that a much-needed international perspective is missing
from the debate in this country over the course of American foreign
policy and US relations with the world, The Nation asked a number
of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections
with us. It is our hope that, as in the early 1980s, when a "letter" in
these pages from the late E.P. Thompson expressing rising European
concern about the Reagan Administration's nuclear weapons buildup was
instrumental in building common bonds beween antinuclear movements
across the Atlantic, this series will forge bonds between Americans
concerned about how Washington is exercising power today and the rest of
the world. We begin with a letter to an American friend written by the
South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, whose opposition to apartheid
resulted in his spending seven years in prison.
This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write, and it may even be
a perilous exercise. Dangerous because your present Administration and
its specialized agencies by all accounts know no restraint in hitting
out at any perceived enemy of America, and nobody or nothing can protect
one from their vindictiveness. Not even American courts are any longer a
bulwark against arbitrary exactions. Take the people being kept in that
concentration camp in Guantánamo: They are literally
extraterritorial, by force made anonymous and stateless so that no law,
domestic or international, is habilitated to protect them. It may be an
extreme example brought about by abnormal circumstances--but the
criteria of human rights kick in, surely, precisely when the conditions
are extreme and the situation is abnormal. The predominant yardstick of
your government is not human rights but national interests. (Your
President keeps repeating the mantra.) In what way is this order of
priorities any different from those of the defunct Soviet Union or other
The war against terror is an all-purpose fig leaf for violating or
ignoring local laws and international agreements and treaties. So,
talking to America is like dealing with a very aggressive beast: One
must do so softly, not make any brusque moves or run off at the mouth if
you wish to survive. In dancing with the enemy one follows his steps
even if counting under one's breath. But do be careful not to dance too
close to containers intended for transporting war prisoners in
Afghanistan: One risks finding one's face blackened by a premature
Why is it difficult? Because the United States is a complex entity
despite the gung-ho slogans and simplistic posturing in moments of
national hysteria. Your political system is resilient and well tested;
it has always harbored counterforces; it allows quite effectively for
alternation: for a swing-back of the pendulum whenever policies have
strayed too far from middle-class interests--with the result that you
have a large middle ground of acceptable political practices. Why,
through the role of elected representatives, the people who vote even
have a rudimentary democratic control over public affairs! Except maybe
in Florida. Better still--your history has shown how powerful a moral
catharsis expressed through popular resistance to injustice can
sometimes be; I have in mind the grassroots opposition to the Vietnam
War. And all along there was no dearth of strong voices speaking firm
convictions and enunciating sure ethical standards.
Where are they now? What happened to the influential intellectuals and
the trustworthy journalists explaining the ineluctable consequences of
your present policies? Where are the clergy calling for humility and
some compassion for the rest of the world? Are there no ordinary folk
pointing out that the President and his cronies are naked, cynical,
morally reprehensible and very, very dangerous not only for the world
but also for American interests--and by now probably out of control? Are
these voices stifled? Has the public arena of freely debated expressions
of concern been sapped of all influence? Are people indifferent to the
havoc wreaked all over the world by America's diktat policies,
destroying the underpinnings of decent international coexistence? Or are
they perhaps secretly and shamefully gleeful, as closet supporters of
this Showdown at OK Corral approach? They (and you and I) are most
likely hunkered down, waiting for the storm of imbecility to pass. How
deadened we have become!
In reality the workings of your governing system are opaque and covert,
while hiding in the chattering spotlight of an ostensible transparency,
even though the ultimate objective is clear. Who really makes the policy
decisions? Sure, the respective functions are well identified: The
elected representatives bluster and raise money, the lobbyists buy and
sell favors, the media spin and purr patriotically, the intellectuals
wring their soft hands, the minorities duck and dive and hang out
flags... But who and what are the forces shaping America's role in the
The goal, I submit, is obvious: subjugating the world (which is
barbarian, dangerous, envious and ungrateful) to US power for the sake
of America's interests. That is, to the benefit of America's rich. It's
as simple as that. Oh, there was a moment of high camp when it was
suggested that the aim was to make the world safe for democracy! That
particular fig leaf went up in cigar smoke and now all the other excuses
are just so much bullshit, even the charlatan pretense of being a nation
under siege. This last one, I further submit, was a sustained Orson
Wellesian campaign to stampede the nation in order to better facilitate
what was in effect a right-wing coup carried out by cracker
fundamentalists, desk warriors proposing to "terminate" the states that
they don't like, warmed up Dr. Strangeloves and oil-greedy conservative
I do not want to equate your glorious nation with the deplorable image
of a President who, at best, appears to be a bar-room braggart smirking
and winking to his mates as he holds forth his hand-me-down platitudes
and insights and naïve solutions. Because I know you have many
faces and I realize how rich you are in diversity. Would I be writing
this way if I had in mind a black or Hispanic or Asian-American, members
of those vastly silent components of your society? It would be a tragic
mistake for us out here to imagine that Bush represents the hearts and
the minds of the majority of your countrymen. Many of your black and
other compatriots must be just as anguished as we are.
Still, Jack, certain things need to be said and repeated. I realize it
is difficult for you to know what's happening in the world, since your
entertainment media have by now totally blurred the distinctions between
information and propaganda, and banal psychological and commercial
manipulation must be the least effective way of disseminating
understanding. You need to know that your country has made the world a
much more dangerous place for the rest of us. International treaties to
limit the destruction of our shared natural environment, to stop the
manufacture of maiming personnel mines, to outlaw torture, to bring war
criminals to international justice, to do something about the murderous
and growing gulf between rich and poor, to guarantee natural food for
the humble of the earth, to allow for local economic solutions to
specific conditions of injustice, for that matter to permit local
products to have access to American markets, to mobilize the world
against hunger, have all been gutted by the USA.Your government is
blackmailing every single miserable and corrupt mother's son in power in
the world to do things your way. It has forced itself on the rest of us
in its support and abetment of corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It has
lost all ethical credibility in its one-sided and unequivocal support of
the Israeli government campaign that must ultimately lead to the
ethnocide of the Palestinians. And in this it has
promoted--sponsored?--the bringing about of a deleterious international
climate, since state terrorism can now be carried out with arrogance,
disdain and impunity. As far as the Arab nations are concerned, America,
giving unquestioned legitimacy to despotic regimes, refusing any
recognition of home-grown alternative democratic forces, favored the
emergence of a bearded opposition who in time must become radicalized
and fanaticized to the point where they can be exterminated as vermin.
And the oilfields will be safe.
I'm too harsh. I'm cutting corners. I'm pontificating. But my friend, if
you were to look around the world you would see that America is largely
perceived as a rogue state.
Can there be a turn-back? Have things gone too far, beyond a point of
possible return? Can it be that some of the core and founding
assumptions (it is said) of your culture are ultimately dangerous to the
survival of the world? I'm referring to your propensity for patriotism
(to me it's an attitude, not a value), to the fervent belief in a
capitalist free-market system with the concomitant conviction that
progress is infinite, that one can eternally remake and invent the self,
that it is more important to be self-made than to collectively husband
the planet's diminishing resources, that the instant gratification of
the desire for goods is the substance of the right to happiness, that
the world and life and all its manifestations can be apprehended and
described in terms of good and evil, finally that you can flare for a
while in samsara, the world of illusions (and desperately make it last
with artificial means and California hocus-pocus before taking all your
prostheses to heaven).
If this is so, what then? With whom? You see, the most detestable effect
is that so many of us have to drink this poison, to look at you as a
threat, to live with the knowledge of cultural and economic and military
danger in our veins, and to be obliged to either submit or resist.
I don't want to pass the buck. Don't imagine it is necessarily any
better elsewhere. We, in this elsewhere, have to look for our own
solutions. Europe is pusillanimous, carefully though hypocritically
hostile and closed to foreigners, particularly those from the South; the
EU is by now little more than a convenience for its citizens and
politically and culturally much less than the contents of any of its
And Africa? As a part-time South African (the other parts are French and
Spanish and Senegalese and New Yorker), I've always wondered whether
Thabo Mbeki would be America's thin globalizing wedge (at the time of
Clinton and Gore it certainly seemed so) or whether he was ultimately
going to be the leader who can strategically lead Africa against
America. But the question is hypothetical. Thabo Mbeki is no alternative
to the world economic system squeezing the poor for the sustainable
enrichment of the rich; as in countries like Indonesia and your own (see
the role of the oil companies), he too has opted for crony capitalism.
Africa's leading establishments are rotten to the core. Mbeki is no
different. His elocution is more suave and his prancing more Western,
What do we do, then? As we move into the chronicle of a war foretold
(against Iraq), it is going to be difficult to stay cool. Certainly, we
must continue fighting globalization as it exists now, reject the
article of faith that postulates a limitless and lawless progress and
expansion of greed, subvert the acceptance of might is right, spike the
murderous folly of One God. And do so cautiously and patiently, counting
our steps. It is going to be a long dance.
Let us find and respect one another.
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Americans
experienced a mixture of fear and warmth, a quickening of the national
spirit. The extraordinary heroism of the firefighters, police and others
in coping with death and destruction rebuked the mood of "infectious
greed" generated by this era of market dominance. Civil servants and
soldiers, even government itself, were accorded new respect in the face
of real dangers and collective need. These developments contained a
hopeful thread for reconstructing our frayed democracy.
Adding to the sense of possibility were the expressions of sympathy and
solidarity from around the world. We Americans, so often the object of
envy or criticism, found ourselves the recipients of a great outpouring
of concern, with countries all over the globe condemning the callous,
fanatical terrorism that could turn an airplane full of ordinary people
into a weapon of horrific destruction.
But the moment was brief and did not last. One year later, we mark not
only the terrible loss of life suffered that day but the tragic failure
of American leadership since then.
Abroad, the Bush team's initial military victory in breaking up Al Qaeda
cells and routing their Taliban protectors in Afghanistan has been
tarnished by a stream of postwar revelations of needless civilian deaths
from US bombs and of mistreatment of Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.
Meanwhile, the United States is failing the challenge of rebuilding
Afghanistan, leaving its people facing the same chaos, violence and
extortion that prevailed under the warlords whose depredations helped
usher in the Taliban regime.
America's early success in mobilizing an alliance against Al Qaeda has
been squandered. Rather than pursuing a limited military action in
Afghanistan designed to strike a swift blow against the terrorist
leadership responsible for the attacks and then joining in a sustained,
worldwide policing action to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, the
Bush Administration has exploited the tragedy as a license for an
endless war against endless enemies. It has used September 11 to
consecrate an American empire claiming the right to impose its writ
When the President targeted his spurious "axis of evil" and announced a
new doctrine of "pre-emptive attack," he alarmed allies everywhere. As
Jonathan Schell writes in this issue, Bush has claimed "a radically new
conception of America's role in the world," asserting that it has "the
right to overthrow regimes by military force at its sole discretion."
And now, under this unexamined doctrine, the President and his national
security team relentlessly tout inevitable war with Iraq, dismissing the
opposition of many US generals and much of the Republican foreign policy
Whether it is on the issue of invading Iraq or the desirability of an
International Criminal Court or what must be done to bring about peace
in the Middle East or the need to take seriously the dangers of global
warming, the Administration disdains the opinions of even our oldest
allies, making US leadership a source of resentment rather than hope.
Such actions, South African Breyten Breytenbach writes, have led to the
feeling that America is a cowboy state that "has made the world a much
more dangerous place for the rest of us." No US government has been this
isolated since the 1920s.
While pursuing its grandiose Pax Americana, the Administration has
failed to use this opportunity to honestly examine flaws in America's
past policies toward the rest of the world, and at the same time it has
pursued new policies that lose sight of moral means and goals. It
dismisses any attempt to probe the roots of terrorist attacks. Merely
asking, "Why do they hate us?" is deemed "objectively" pro-terrorist.
Terrorism is defined as metaphysical evil, divorced from its context.
Human rights as a foreign policy objective are jettisoned, and
friendships are sealed--no questions asked--with repressive regimes that
seem to be on "our" side. Russia, Indonesia, China, Pakistan and Egypt
have been allowed to hijack the rhetoric of antiterrorism to justify
repression of citizens opposing their current regimes. The lack of a
coherent US role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has allowed
extremists to drown out the voices of peace.
Bush's new international doctrines met with little dissent in the media
or from Congressional Democrats, with the exception of brave legislators
like Dennis Kucinich, Barbara Lee, Russ Feingold and John Kerry. Most
Americans were seduced into passive consent, either prompted by fear of
further attacks or cowed by an Administration that branded criticism as
subversive. The media catered to the hyperpatriotic mood, praising
Bush's every move and rarely, until recently, offering any critique of
his Administration's actions.
At home, the President issued no call for sacrifice. For the first time
in our history, we were summoned to a global war for which the wealthy
were asked to pay less in taxes, even as the federal budget plummeted
into the red. The Administration larded the military with money,
demanding billions for cold war weaponry and missile defense. It
defaulted on the core national security imperative of reducing our
dependence on imported oil, choosing instead to prop up feudal empires
and dictatorships (insuring that we will be widely hated as a cause of
misery and oppression in the Middle East and the rest of the world).
After resisting for months, the President cobbled up a massive "homeland
security" reorganization that omits any reform--and avoids any
investigation--of the intelligence agencies and their failures leading
up to September 11.
John Ashcroft, Bush's Attorney General, has become the worst threat to
civil rights and liberties since J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy
peddled fear and division in the early years of the cold war. As David
Cole writes, "With the exception of the right to bear arms, one would be
hard pressed to name a single constitutional liberty that the Bush
Administration has not overridden in the name of protecting our
freedom." Ashcroft has asserted unprecedented license for the executive
while insisting its acts be shrouded in secrecy. It is a measure of the
Attorney General's extremism that his summary detention policies have
been lambasted by the federal courts. In its first public opinion ever,
the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a conservative body
that has never in its existence denied the Justice Department a warrant,
decried Ashcroft's abuse of authority to undermine constitutional
And now, the Administration and the Republican Party--worried about the
flagging economy, stock market collapse and corporate crime
wave--attempt to exploit September 11 and the war on terrorism for
partisan advantage. The President has used his post-9/11 popularity to
raise unprecedented sums for Republican candidates. His political guru,
Karl Rove, urges Republicans to "focus on the war" and advertise their
loyalty to the President.
The anniversary of September 11 should be a time of renewed, and
genuine, patriotism as well as of grieving. But it should also be an
occasion to reflect on where we've traveled in the past year and what
changes in course need to be made. Americans who disagree with the
direction in which this Administration is leading the country should
start building an effective challenge to its policies, with an eye first
on the fall elections--a challenge founded on the bedrock principles of
justice, human rights and internationalism. Some things have changed,
but those principles have not. Another world was possible before
September 11. It still is.
Amid the elegies for the dead and the ceremonies of remembrance,
seditious questions intrude: Is there really a war on terror; and if one
is indeed being waged, what are its objectives?
The Taliban are out of power. Poppies bloom once more in Afghan
pastures. The military budget is up. The bluster war on Iraq blares from
every headline. On the home front the war on the Bill of Rights is set
at full throttle, though getting less popular with each day, as judges
thunder their indignation at the unconstitutional diktats of Attorney
General John Ashcroft, a man low in public esteem.
On this latter point we can turn to Merle Haggard, the bard of
blue-collar America, the man who saluted the American flag more than a
generation ago in such songs as "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "Okie From
Muskogee." Haggard addressed a concert crowd in Kansas City a few days
ago in the following terms: "I think we should give John Ashcroft a big
hand...[pause]...right in the mouth!" Haggard went on to say, "The way things are going I'll probably be thrown in jail tomorrow for saying that, so I hope
ya'll will bail me out."
It will take generations to roll back the constitutional damage done in
the wake of the attacks. Emergency laws lie around for decades like
rattlesnakes in summer grass. As Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch
points out to me, one of the main legal precedents that the government
is using to justify detaining "enemy combatants" without trial or access
to a lawyer is an old strikebreaking decision. The government's August
27 legal brief in the Padilla "enemy combatant" case relies heavily on
Moyer v. Peabody, a Supreme Court decision that dates back to
The case involved Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of
Miners, a feisty Colorado trade union that fought for such radical
reforms as safe working conditions, an end to child labor and payment in
money rather than in company scrip. As part of a concerted effort to
crush the union, the governor of Colorado declared a state of
insurrection, called out the state militia and detained Moyer for two
and a half months without probable cause or due process of law.
In an opinion that deferred obsequiously to executive power (using the
"captain of the ship" metaphor), the Supreme Court upheld Moyer's
detention. It reasoned that since the militia could even have fired upon
the strikers (or, in the Court's words, the "mob in insurrection"), how
could Moyer complain about a mere detention? The government now cites
the case in its Padilla brief to argue that whatever a state governor
can do, the President can do better.
Right under our eyes a whole new covert-ops arm of government is being
coaxed into being by the appalling Rumsfeld, who has supplanted Powell
as Secretary of State, issuing public statements contradicting offical
US policy on Israel's occupation of and settlements in the West Bank and
Gaza. Rumsfeld has asked Congress to authorize a new under secretary of
defense overseeing all defense intelligence matters, also requesting
that the department be given greater latitude to carry out covert ops.
Wrap that in with erosion or outright dumping of the Posse Comitatus Act
(1878), which forbids any US military role in domestic law enforcement,
and the silhouette of military government shows up ever more clearly in
the crystal ball.
The terrorists in those planes a year ago nourished specific grievances,
all available for study in the speeches and messages of Osama bin Laden.
They wanted US troops out of Saudi Arabia. They saw the United States as
Israel's prime backer and financier in the oppression of Palestinians.
They railed against the sanctions grinding down upon the civilian
population of Iraq.
A year later the troops are still in Saudi Arabia, US backing for Sharon
is more ecstatic than ever and scenarios for a blitzkrieg against Saddam
Hussein mostly start with a saturation bombing campaign that will plunge
civilians in Iraq back into the worst miseries of the early 1990s.
Terror against states springs from the mulch of political frustration.
We live in a world where about half the population of the planet, 2.8
billion people, live on less than $2 a day. The richest 25 million
people in the United States receive more income than the 2 billion
poorest people on the planet. Across the past year world economic
conditions have mostly got worse, nowhere with more explosive potential
than in Latin America, where Peru, Argentina and Venezuela all heave in
Can anything stop the war cries against Iraq from being self-fulfilling?
Another real slump on Wall Street would certainly postpone it, just as a
hike in energy prices here if war does commence will give the economy a
kidney blow when it least needs it.
How could an attack on Iraq be construed as a blow against terror? The
Administration abandoned early on, probably to its subsequent regret,
the claim that Iraq was complicit in the attacks of September 11. Aside
from the Taliban's Afghanistan, the prime nation that could be blamed
was Saudi Arabia, point of origin for so many of the Al Qaeda terrorists
on the planes.
Would an attack on Iraq be a reprisal? If it degraded Saudi Arabia's
role as prime swing producer of oil, if it indicated utter contempt for
Arab opinion, then yes. But no one should doubt that if the Bush
Administration does indeed topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Baghdad,
this will truly be a plunge into the unknown, one that would fan the
embers of Islamic radicalism, which actually peaked at the end of the
1980s, and amid whose decline the attacks of September 11 were far more
a coda than an overture.
Would Iran sit quiet while US troops roosted in Baghdad? And would not
the overthrow of Saddam be prelude to the downfall of the monarchy in
Jordan, with collapse of the House of Saud following thereafter?
Islamic fanatics flew those planes a year ago, and here we are with a
terrifying alliance of Judeo-Christian fanatics, conjoined in their
dream of the recovery of the Holy Land. War on Terror? It's back to the
thirteenth century, picking up where Prince Edward left off with the
Sparks fly in the debate over the war on terror.
Doomed by the incoherence of a foreign policy defined largely by biblical notions of the struggle between good and evil, the Bush Administration thrashes about in its hunt for the devil.
On September 23, 2001, midpoint between the horrific events of September
11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the New York
Times ran an intriguing headline. "Forget the Past: It's a War
Unlike Any Other," it advised, above an article by John Kifner noting
that "Air Force bombers are heading toward distant airfields to fight a
shadowy foe flitting through the mountains in a deeply hostile land
already so poor and so ruined by two decades of war that [it] is
virtually bereft of targets." It was a poor headline for an article that
began by noting the long history of conflicts among great powers over
control of Central Asia, but it was a message with a significant degree
History was often being ignored in the heated discussions of the coming
war and the attacks that provoked it, of course, but usually without
anyone having to instruct us to forget it. Pundits and politicians alike
could draw on a long tradition of keeping the public ill informed about
the role of the United States in the world. And once the "war on
terrorism" actually started, those who tried to speak about a context
for the attacks of September, or of how the history of US intervention
in the world had produced rage and frustration that could help fuel such
actions, were accused of justifying terrorism.
In The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a riposte to Samuel Huntington's
much-discussed "clash of civilizations" thesis, Pakistani writer and
filmmaker Tariq Ali sets the ambitious goal of challenging such
organized historical amnesia--"the routine disinformation or
no-information that prevails today"--and of speaking forthrightly about
many topics that have become unpopular or even heretical in the West, as
well as within what he calls the House of Islam. "The virtual outlawing
of history by the dominant culture has reduced the process of democracy
to farce," Ali puts it in one chapter, "A short course history of US
imperialism." In such a situation, "everything is either oversimplified
or reduced to a wearisome incomprehensibility."
Whereas Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis posits a cultural
conflict between Islamic and Western civilization, and sees religion as
"perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people,"
Ali argues that economics and politics, especially oil politics, remain
central to the friction between Western powers and states in the so-called Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. He
rejects Huntington's identification of the West with "human rights,
equality, liberty, the rule of law, [and] democracy," and he reminds us
of the vast disparities that exist among cultures and nations within the
Islamic world itself.
Few people are better disposed than Ali to serve as a guide to the
neglected and distorted histories relevant to the conflict in
Afghanistan, the broader "war on terrorism" now being fought on numerous
fronts by the Bush Administration, and the intimately related conflicts
in Pakistan, India and Kashmir, which have recently put the world on a
heightened nuclear alert. Ali, a longtime editor of New Left
Review and Verso books, is the author of three books on Pakistan and
has deep personal and political connections to the region. In The
Clash of Fundamentalisms he surveys a range of regional and
historical conflicts that remain open chapters, including the creation
of Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, the
unfinished legacy of Britain's brutal partition of India in 1947 and the
fallout from division of the world by the colonial powers. The book is
an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the nightmare of
history from which so many people are struggling to awake, and deserves
serious engagement and consideration. Ali broadens our horizons,
geographically, historically, intellectually and politically.
Despite his obvious hostility to religious modes of thinking--defending
against religious orthodoxy in favor of "the freedom to think freely and
rationally and [exercise] the freedom of imagination"--Ali has a
sophisticated appreciation of the many contradictory movements and ideas
that have organized themselves under the banner of Islam. He can debate
Islamic doctrine with the most ardent purists while at the same time
dispensing with the simplistic (and all too often racist) caricatures of
Islam that pass for analysis in the West. In The Clash of
Fundamentalisms he takes the reader on a necessarily schematic and
selective history of Islam, though one wishes he had provided more
signposts for those interested in further study than the scattered and
inconsistent references included in this volume.
Ali writes here of his "instinctive" atheism during his upbringing in
Lahore, Pakistan, and of being politicized at an early age. His
experiences then helped him understand Islam as a political phenomenon,
born of the specific historic experiences of Muhammad, who worked on a
merchant caravan and traveled widely, "coming into contact with
Christians and Jews and Magians and pagans of every stripe." Ali writes
that "Muhammad's spiritual drive was partially fueled by socio-economic
passions, by the desire to strengthen the communal standing of the Arabs
and the need to impose a set of common rules," thus creating an impulse
toward the creation of a universal state that remains an important
element of Islam's appeal.
Ali offers a fascinating discussion of the Mu'tazilites, an Islamic sect
that attempted to reconcile monotheism with a materialist understanding
of the world, including a theory of the atomic composition of matter;
some of its members also argued that the Koran was a historical rather
than a revealed document. "The poverty of contemporary Islamic thought
contrasts with the riches of the ninth and tenth centuries," Ali argues.
But he is by no means backward looking in his own vision. He is
particularly scornful of the mythical idealized past valorized by the
Wahhabites in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban and other Islamic sects. "What
do the Islamists offer?" Ali asks rhetorically: "A route to a past
which, mercifully for the people of the seventh century, never existed."
Ali sees the spread of reactionary impulses within Islam in part as a
response to "the defeat of secular, modernist and socialist impulses on
a global scale." Various forms of religious fundamentalism, not only
Islamic ones, have partially filled a void created by the failures of
parties operating under the banner of secular nationalism and Communism
in the Third World. These failures--his examples include Egypt and
Syria--were connected to the limits of the nationalist leaderships
themselves, especially their lack of democracy and suppression of
religious movements by politicians seeking to preserve and extend their
own power. But Ali also goes on to argue that "all the other exit routes
have been sealed off by the mother of all fundamentalisms: American
Consider, for example, the consequences of the US work to train and arm
the Islamic forces in Afghanistan, the mujahedeen, to wage a holy war
against the Soviet Union. A decade after the Soviets were expelled, the
country "was still awash with factional violence," while "veterans of
the war helped to destabilize Egypt, Algeria, the Philippines, Sudan,
Pakistan, Chechnya, Dagestan and Saudi Arabia." The factional
instability in Afghanistan, coupled with Pakistan's intervention,
created the conditions that led to the Taliban's rise to power.
To discuss the US government's role in overthrowing the secular
nationalist Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and supporting the brutal Shah for
decades; in operating through the intermediary of Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence units to back the mujahedeen in Afghanistan;
in repeatedly downplaying serious human rights abuses by US "friends"
such as Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto, whose governments
actively sponsored the growth of the Taliban; and in lending support to
groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sarekat Islam in Indonesia
and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan is not merely a case of obsessing about
past wrongs. As Ali argues persuasively, the past is indeed prologue.
Ali has a sharp mind and wit. His mode of history telling is lyrical and
engaging, humane and passionate. He repeatedly points to the lessons
learned by people in the course of struggle, challenging the pervasive
view that people can be liberated by those other than themselves,
setting out his differences with the advocates of "humanitarian
intervention." Ali writes that Western intellectuals have been far too
quick to support US-led military interventions such as the Gulf War and
to provide a liberal veneer of respect to wars prosecuted only
rhetorically in the name of human rights and democracy but actually
motivated by traditional "reasons of state." Where other people see
closed doors in history, he sees roads not taken and paths that remain
to be pursued.
Yet Ali spends too little time enumerating what some of those alternate
paths might be, especially for readers who are new to the history
recounted in The Clash of Fundamentalisms (certainly a
significant section of his readership, given the intense interest in
Islam, Central Asia, the Middle East and US foreign policy that has been
so much in evidence in recent months). In his final chapter, "Letter to
a young Muslim," Ali provides a thoughtful challenge to his
correspondent, but I fear he has not done enough to convince his reader
to change allegiances. He has more to say about the weakness of Islamism
than about any alternative vision of how a more just world might be
achieved. What would a compelling agenda look like in an era when, as he
notes, "no mainstream political party anywhere in the world even
pretends that it wishes to change anything significant"? What might a
radical secular program consist of today? How does one effectively mount
a challenge to the claim that there is no alternative to American-style
capitalism, or that attempts at fundamental change will reproduce the
horrors of the Soviet Union?
Indeed, The Clash of Fundamentalisms would have been stronger if
Ali had engaged this question more thoroughly. Though he expresses
contempt for the bureaucratic and dictatorial regimes that confronted
the United States during the cold war, at times he gives the Soviet bloc
more credit than it deserves. To suggest that China and the Soviet Union
were "striving for a superior social and economic system" is to give
those regimes far too much credit, and in essence to maintain some
illusion that Stalinist authoritarianism was a real alternative.
Ali at times repeats himself verbatim and gets a few details wrong (such
as misdating Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, rather than 1990). None
of this takes away from the importance of his argument that we are not
living in a radically new epoch in history, but in a period with all too
much continuity to the one before September 11.
Israel and Palestine will not find peace until both have security and sovereignty.
The Bush Administration has vigorously and effectively responded to the terrorist attack of September 11. The country seems united behind that effort. Certainly there was no hint of a doubt in the repeated standing ovations Congress gave the President's State of the Union address, including his bold declaration that the war on terrorism has just begun. The President singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the most likely next targets of America's aroused ire against terrorists and governments that attempt to acquire weapons of mass destruction that we, the Russians, the British, the French, the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis and the Israelis already possess.
No longer in government, I do not have the benefit of national security briefings or Congressional committee deliberations. So perhaps instead of making assertions, it may be more appropriate for me to ask some questions that have been on my mind both before and since September 11.
Which course might produce better results in advancing American security? Is it by continuing to boycott, diplomatically and commercially, such countries as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Cuba and threatening to bomb them? Or would we be better off opening up diplomatic, trade and travel relations with these countries, including a well-staffed embassy in each? If we are fearful of a country and doubtful of its intentions, wouldn't we be safer having an embassy with professional foreign service officers located in that country to tell us what is going on?
Our leaders frequently speak of "rogue nations." But what is a rogue nation? Isn't it simply one we have chosen to boycott because it doesn't always behave the way we think it should? Do such nations behave better when they are isolated and boycotted against any normal discourse? What do we have to lose in talking to "rogue nations" diplomatically, trading with them commercially and observing their economic, political and military conditions?
Instead of adding $48 billion to the Pentagon budget, as the President has proposed, wouldn't we make the world a more stable, secure place if we invested half of that sum in reducing poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease in the world? We are now twentieth among nations in the percentage of gross national product devoted to improving life in the poor nations. If we invested half of the proposed new military spending in lifting the quality of life for the world's poor we would be the first among nations in helping others.
Is it possible that such an achievement would reduce some of the gathering anger that the poor and miserable of the earth may be inclined to direct at the rich and indifferent? Why does a wealthy zealot like Osama bin Laden gain such a huge following among the poor and powerless of the world? Acting on the old adage "charity begins at home," why not invest the other half of the proposed new money for the Pentagon in raising the educational, nutritional, housing and health standards of our own people?
Our military services are the best in the world. But with a military budget at record levels, do we need to allocate another $48 billion--an amount greater than the total military budget of any other nation? Is not the surest foundation for our military forces a healthy, educated, usefully employed citizenry? And is not the best way to diminish some of the international trouble spots, which might embroil our young men and women, by reducing the festering poverty, misery and hopelessness of a suffering world?
Of course we need to take reasonable precautions in our airports and other strategic points to guard against terrorists or nut cases. As a World War II bomber pilot, I appreciate the role of both tactical and strategic bombing in all-out warfare. But is sending our bombers worldwide in the hope that they might hit terrorist hideouts or such hostile governments as Iraq an effective way to end terrorism? May it not more likely erode our current international coalition, while fanning the flames of terrorism and hatred against us as the world's only superpower, hellbent on eradicating evil around the world?
The Administration now has seventy-five officials hidden in bunkers outside Washington poised to take over the government in the event of a terrorist attack. Is it possible that paranoia has become policy? No such extreme measures were undertaken in World War II, nor in the half-century of cold war between the two nuclear giants, Russia and the United States.
All of us who love this land want our President to succeed. Nothing would give me greater happiness than to see him become a great President. But is it possible that our well-intentioned President and his Vice President have gone off the track of common sense in their seeming obsession with terrorism? Is there still validity to the proverb "whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad"?
For half a century, our priorities were dominated by the fear of Russian Communism--until it collapsed of its own internal weakness. As I listen to the grim rhetoric of Messrs. Bush and Cheney, I wonder if they are leading us into another half-century of cold war, with terrorism replacing Communism as the second great hobgoblin of our age.
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