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After the Attack…The War on Terrorism

There is little we can say directly about the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.—except that these were acts of utter, inhuman violence, indefensible in every sense, taking a deep and lasting human toll. Such terrorism has to be rid from the face of the earth. The difficulty lies in how to rid the world of it. Terrorism generates counterterrorism and the United States has long been a party to this deadly game, as perpetrator more often than victim.

The U.S. strategy of retaliation in the form of a global war on terrorism—already commencing on October 7 with military strikes in Afghanistan—is certain to compound this tragedy in the months and years ahead. For this reason it is now more important than ever that the realities of U.S. militarism and imperialism be brought to light, along with the role of propaganda in removing them from the scrutiny of the domestic population.

Militarism and U.S. Capitalism

That the United States is the dominant global empire—the modern Rome—is crystal clear. Since the 1940s, if not earlier, the United States has been engaged in a struggle to maintain and even expand its position as the world’s foremost military, economic, and political power. Today the United States accounts for about a third of all world military expenditures. It is the world’s leading international arms seller. And it is has rained death and destruction on more people in more regions of the globe than any other nation in the period since the Second World War.

Consider the following. The United States has employed its military forces in other countries over seventy times since 1945, not counting innumerable instances of counterinsurgency operations by the CIA. In the Middle East/Islamic world alone, over the last twenty years the U.S. military:

  • shot down Libyan jets in 1981;
  • sent military personnel and equipment to the Sinai as part of a multinational force in 1982;
  • sent marines to Lebanon in 1982;
  • dispatched an AWACS electronic surveillance plane directed against Libya to Egypt in 1983;
  • used AWACS electronic surveillance aircraft to aid Saudi Arabia in shooting down Iranian fighter jets in the Persian Gulf in 1984;
  • fired missiles at and bombed Libya in 1986;
  • shot down Libyan fighters in 1989;
  • escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers during the Iran–Iraq war;
  • fought the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991;
  • fired missiles and carried out bombing strikes against Iraq on numerous occasions in the last decade;
  • carried out military exercises in Kuwait (aimed at Iraq) in 1992;
  • deployed its armed forces in Somalia in 1992;
  • demolished one of the few pharmaceutical plants in Sudan in a missile attack in 1998;
  • fired sixty cruise missiles equipped with cluster bombs at Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998.
  • commenced war operations in Afghanistan in 2001.*

More than a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians were killed in the Gulf War, and as many as a half million children have died as a result of U.S.–imposed sanctions since the war. U.S. support for Israel in the form of billions of dollars of military aid each year coupled with its refusal to rein in Israel’s territorial ambitions have made it a principal party to the war of terror inflicted on the Palestinian people.

What explains this imperialist thrust? U.S. capitalism, as we have long noted in these pages, has been dependent since the Second World War on large infusions of military spending both to support its imperial interests abroad and to prop up the economy. In this respect the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union had negative as well as positive consequences for the U.S. ruling class. How was the huge military budget of hundreds of billions of dollars a year to be justified with the disappearance of the “evil empire”? Tied up with this were the growing challenges to U.S. economic power from rival capitalist states, which during the Cold War period had generally submitted to U.S. ends within the context of the broad Cold War alliance.

In the years that have intervened since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. ruling class has thus been seeking a substitute for the Cold War with which to justify its imperial designs. Various alternatives have been offered: a war on terrorism; the struggle against “rogue states” a “clash of civilizations” (Islam and China vs. the West, as proposed by Samuel Huntington); a war on the global drug trade; and humanitarian intervention—all of them up to now seen as unsatisfactory, but sufficient to keep the military budget from shrinking drastically after the Cold War. Fortunately, a godsend appeared in the form of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But the rapid victory over Iraqi forces in the Gulf War was so complete and so devastating that Hussein could no longer serve as the credible threat needed to justify U.S. worldwide military commitments. As General Colin Powell voiced the problem in 1991: “Think hard about it. I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains.”*

There is no doubt that this was viewed as an insoluble dilemma within the corridors of power in the United States. Only weeks ago, at this writing, it looked like President Bush’s proposal to expand U.S. military spending through the creation of an anti–missile defense system (abandoning the ABM treaty forged with the Soviet Union) was going to have some stiff opposition in Congress—although most of the Bush program would no doubt have been adopted in the end, since both Republican and Democratic parties have continually supported increasing military expenditures.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have now changed all of that. The United States is gearing up for what is being touted as the first war of the millennium. For a Wall Street suffering from economic stagnation and growing uncertainty, the one bit of really good news is the skyrocketing virtually overnight of U.S. military expenditures with more increases to be expected in the very near future, sending the stocks of military contractors soaring.

Notwithstanding the shock and horror associated with the terrorist attacks, the U.S. ruling class was quick enough to grasp this as an immediate opportunity for a new global military crusade of a scope approximating that of the Cold War; hence it wasted no time in fanning the flames of war. The militaristic response was cast in stone before the north tower of the World Trade Center fell to the earth. In President Bush’s major speech to the nation on September 20, 2001, he indicted Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist network for the attacks and issued threats to the Taliban government in Afghanistan, indicating that they too were a target for having harbored the enemy. But he did not stop there. He also declared that “there are thousands of these terrorists in more than sixty countries.…Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” The United States, was entering into “a lengthy campaign unlike any we have seen,” which would include dramatic military strikes and covert actions. Ground troops would be committed and losses could be expected. The United States would utilize “every necessary weapon of war” (the statement purposely did not exclude the use of nuclear weapons) against these enemies. “God,” Bush exclaimed, “is not neutral,” evoking the familiar Christian notion of divine retribution against sinners.

But behind this speech is a still more frightening reality. Congress has turned over to the President with only one dissenter (Representative Barbara Lee from California) the power not only to conduct this ill–defined war as he pleases; but also to define the enemy itself, which is already being projected as of worldwide scope. A war is to be fought, Bush and his administration made clear, and it is to take place in many different countries—extending to whole nations (which make better targets than hard to find terrorists). Yet, the U.S. public is still left in the dark as to who these additional enemies are—outside of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan—or where the U.S. military will choose to strike next after Afghanistan. Bush’s speech thus establishes the basis for a series of military interventions without definite geographical boundaries or moral restraints on the weapons to be used; and without any limits on the numbers or types of enemies to be encountered. On top of this is a plan for greatly expanded federal powers for the maintenance of internal security, including the creation of a cabinet–level Office of Homeland Security.

It is possible that given time the U.S. ruling class will split over some of these issues: the extent of the militarization; the number of countries that will be targeted in this war; and the infringements on the freedom of U.S. citizens. There will probably be pressure from allied nations to temper the militarism. But these are questions of degree. The U.S. power elite appears solidly behind a global expansion of the U.S. military role and severe global retaliation for the attacks. There can be no doubt that the world is facing what István Mészáros in his Socialism or Barbarism has called “the potentially deadliest phase of imperialism” resulting from the global–imperial projection of U.S. power.

The Propaganda of Empire

A core tension in capitalist societies hampered by universal adult suffrage is how to reconcile inegalitarian economics with formally egalitarian politics. For those in power, the concern is an age–old one: how to keep the propertyless many from abridging the privileges of the wealthy few. Under democracy, only in a time of a crisis of the system can the solution be one of brute force. More generally the solution must be found in the realm of ideology or propaganda. The point is to depoliticize the masses or delude them so they will not act in their own interests.

The problem is even greater when the democratic capitalist society is also a major empire. The mass of the population must be persuaded to subsidize the expense of empire, though its benefits are hard to locate. And when the inevitable war comes the masses must be convinced to fight and die for the empire. Under conditions of democracy, to be frank and honest about the purpose and nature of imperialism would be counterproductive to these aims. Hence in Britain, empire was justified as a benevolent “white man’s burden.” And in the United States, empire does not even exist; “we” are merely protecting the causes of freedom, democracy, and justice worldwide.

It has proven to be a difficult job in the United States to enlist popular support for foreign war and empire. Since the late nineteenth century the U.S. government has worked aggressively to convince the citizenry of the necessity of going to war in numerous instances. In cases like the First World War, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, the government employed sophisticated propaganda campaigns to whip the population into a suitable fury. It was well understood within the establishment at the time—and subsequently verified in historical examinations—that the government needed to lie in order to gain support for its war aims. The media system, in every case, proved to be a superior propaganda organ for militarism and empire.

This is the context for understanding the media coverage since September 11. The historical record suggests we should expect an avalanche of lies and half–truths in the service of power, and that is exactly what we have gotten. The U.S. news media—which love nothing more than to congratulate themselves for their independence from government control—did not so much as blink before they became the explicit agents of militarist and imperialist propaganda.

One way to grasp the extent of the propaganda barrage is to ask how a democratic society with a truly independent and free press would respond to events like those of September 11. In moments of crisis, a democratic media system needs to generate factual accuracy on everything relevant. It needs to be skeptical toward those in power and those who wish to be in power. And it needs to provide the basis for a wide range of debate over policy proposals to address the crisis, including historical background and context so that citizens can make sense of the problems and determine the best possible solution. Every medium need not do all this, but, in combination, the system as a whole should make this readily available to the larger population. Such a free press would “serve the governed, not the governors,” as Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once put it.

Even allowing for the suddenness and merciless nature of the attack, none of these responses, which one could reasonably expect of a free and independent press, were evident in the U.S. media system in the weeks following September 11.

To the contrary, the Manichean picture conveyed by the media was as follows: A benevolent, democratic, and peace loving nation was brutally attacked by insane evil terrorists who hate the United States for its freedoms and affluent way of life. The United States must immediately increase its military and covert forces, locate the surviving culprits and exterminate them; then prepare for a long–term war to root out the global terrorist cancer and destroy it. Those who do not aid the U.S. campaign for just retribution—and logically, this would mean domestically as well as internationally—are to be regarded as the accomplices of the guilty parties, and may well suffer a similar fate.

The reasons for this grossly distorted coverage go beyond notions of conspiracy, and reflect the weaknesses of professional journalism as it has been practiced in the United States, as well as the control of our major news media by a very small number of very large and powerful profit–seeking corporations.

Professional journalism emerged around one hundred years ago, propelled by the need of monopoly newspaper owners to offer a credible “non–partisan” journalism so that their business enterprises would not be undermined. To avoid the taint of partisanship, professionalism makes official or credentialed sources the basis for news stories. Reporters report what people in power say, and what they debate. This tends to give the news an establishment bias. When a journalist reports what elites are saying, or debating, she is professional. When she steps outside this range of official debate to provide alternative perspectives or to raise issues elites prefer not to discuss, she is no longer being professional. Most journalists have so internalized their primary role as stenographers for official sources that they do not recognize it as a problem for democracy.

In addition to this reliance on official sources, experts are also crucial to explaining and debating policy, especially in complex stories like this one. As with sources, experts are drawn almost entirely from the establishment, given that their main purpose is to express the consensus of those in power. Since September 11, the range of “expert” analysis has been limited mostly to the military and intelligence communities and their supporters, with their clear self–interest in the imposition of military solutions rarely acknowledged and almost never critically examined. Since there has been virtually no debate between the Democrats and Republicans over the proper response, the military approach has simply been offered as the only option. The obvious question, which should have been the first one off of any self–respecting journalist’s tongue, was beyond the pale: on what grounds are we to believe that spending tens of billions more on the military and CIA—the same people who failed to stop the September attacks with their existing bloated budgets—will solve this problem?

It is possible in the weeks and months to follow that the range of debate may broaden in elite circles. It is likely that some will assume the “liberal” and “internationalist” position that the United States should put the brakes on the full–throttle militarism and jingoism as that would prove to be counterproductive to long–term U.S. aims in the Middle East and the world. Those adopting this approach will inevitably argue that the United States needs to win the “hearts and minds” of potential adversaries through more sophisticated peaceful measures, as well as having an unmatched military. But fundamental issues will remain decidedly off–limits. The role of the military as the ultimate source of power will not be questioned. The notion that the United States is a uniquely benevolent force in the world will be undisputed. The premise that the United States and the United States alone—unless it deputizes a nation like Israel—has a right to invade any country it wants at any time it wishes will remain undebateable. And any concerns that U.S. military action will violate international law— which it almost certainly will—will be raised not on principle, but only because it might harm U.S. interests to be perceived by other nations as a lawbreaker.

Here we should recall the media coverage of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. From the time the United States launched its ground invasion in earnest, in 1965, until late 1967 or early 1968, the news coverage was a classic example of the “big lie” of all war propaganda. The war was good and necessary for freedom and democracy; those that opposed it were trivialized, marginalized, distorted or ignored. By 1968, the coverage began to take a more charitable stance toward antiwar positions. But while it reflected growing public opposition to the war to a certain degree, this coverage was influenced much more by the break that emerged in U.S. elite opinion by this time: some on Wall Street and in Washington realized that the cost of the war was far too high for any prospective benefits and favored getting out. The news coverage remained within the confines of elite opinion. The United States still had a “007” right to invade any nation it wished; the only debate was whether the invasion of Vietnam was a proper use of that power. The notion that the very idea of the United States invading nations like Vietnam was morally wrong was off–limits, although surveys revealed that such a view was not uncommon in the general population.

Another flaw of establishment journalism is that it tends to avoid contextualization like the plague. The reason for this is that providing meaningful context and background for stories, if done properly, will tend to commit the journalist to a definite position and invite the very free and open debate that professional journalism is determined to avoid. So it is that on those stories that receive the most coverage, like the Middle East, the U.S. population tends to be every bit as, if not more, ignorant than on those subjects that receive far less coverage. The journalism is more likely to produce confusion, cynicism, and apathy than understanding and informed action. Coverage tends to be a barrage of disconnected facts—a perfect prescription for paralysis. What little contextualization professional journalism does provide tends to conform to elite premises.

The lack of context in the journalism since September 11 has been astonishing by almost any standards. There have been numerous detailed reports on Osama bin Laden and his reputed terrorist network, and related investigations of factors concerning the success or failure of a prospective military invasion in Afghanistan, but otherwise the cupboard is bare. Consider the following: There has been a blackout on the subject of the role of the United States as arguably the leading terrorist force in the world. In 1998, for example, Amnesty International released a report which made it clear that the United States was as responsible for extreme violations of human rights around the globe—including the promotion of torture and terrorism and the use of state violence—as any government or organization in the world.* The U.S. role in propping up corrupt regimes in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and its appalling record of supporting and bankrolling the Israeli assault on the Palestinians are outside the purview of most U.S. residents. Even relevant information about Osama bin Laden, such as the fact that he formerly received support from the CIA via Pakistan in the no–holds–barred war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, is rarely mentioned and never highlighted. Few individuals in the United States have obtained any clue from their news media about the heterogeneous nature of Islam and the Arab world—aside from the simplistic distinction between “moderate states” and “Islamic extremists.”

Beyond the professional code, U.S. media corporations exist within an institutional context that makes support for U.S. empire seemingly natural. These giant firms are among the primary beneficiaries of both neoliberal globalization (their revenues outside the United States are rapidly increasing) and the U.S. role as the preeminent world power. Indeed, the U.S. government is the primary advocate for the global media firms when trade deals and intellectual property agreements are being negotiated. For these firms to provide an understanding of the world in which the U.S. military and capitalism are not benevolent forces might be possible in theory, but it is incongruous practically.

In sum, the government, the military, and the corporate media are all in overdrive to sell the necessity, inevitability, and virtues of a war on terrorism with few boundaries, to be carried out by the most powerful military force on the planet. They need popular support but cannot afford to tell the simple, disarming truths. Much of the U.S. population, to its everlasting credit, is skeptical about such a militaristic response; hence the need for propaganda.

For those who seek to oppose U.S. militarism and imperialism and to promote peace in these dire circumstances, the road ahead is clear. We need to debunk the militaristic lies and build a broad coalition that will be able to turn back the war campaign. If we falter and Washington’s warlords are not stopped, history shows that the cost to humanity will continue to mount—to be paid mainly in the blood of the innocent in the poorest most exploited regions of the globe.

  • See Ellen C. Collier, Instances of Use of United States Forces Abroad, 1798-1993, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, CRS Issue Brief, October 7, 1993—available online at http://www.fas.org/man/crs/crs_931007.htm. The Congressional Research Service lists sixty six instances of the employment of U.S. military forces abroad over the period 1945-1993 (245 over the period 1798-1993). This list has be updated for the last eight years, bringing the total since 1945 to over seventy.
  • Quoted in Toronto Star, April 9, 1991. See also David N. Gibbs, “Washington’s New Interventionism,” Monthly Review, 53 (September 2001), 15-37.
  • Amnesty International, The United States of America: Rights for All (London: Amnesty International, 1998), see especially chapters 7 and 8. Available online at: http://web.amnesty.org.