Just a war or a “just war”

By Robert Jensen

with Rahul Mahajan

Published in The Hindu · September, 2002

After the horror of 9/11/01, the grief of Americans was understandable.

A year later, the willed ignorance of Americans about the roots of the attack and the consequences of the U.S. response is inexcusable.

The tragedy of that day could have sparked not only raw emotions but a collective soul-searching about the U.S. role in the world and our priorities as individuals. Sadly, attempts at honest discussion of the disastrous effects of the unlimited war declared by the United States usually lead to charges of “anti-Americanism,” while anyone trying to delve into complex causes is quickly accused of “blaming the victim.”

But such a struggle to know and understand is the duty of citizens, and never before have those obligations been more important for us, citizens of the empire, and the rest of the world.

The effects of the U.S. war are clear. After a year of the American crusade, it’s no longer controversial in most parts of the world to observe that George W. Bush is as great, if not greater, a danger to world peace and stability than Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein.

The “war on terrorism” is only marginally about fighting terrorism and is mostly a cover for a largely pre-existing agenda of extending the American empire (and in particular the imperial control of oil) into Central Asia and the Middle East, two areas in which the push for “globalization” (meaning, expansion of corporate power) has had slight effect; for establishing American unilateralism as an explicit rather than implicit principle of global politics; and, domestically, for entrenching corporate crony capitalism and expanding the government’s repressive powers.

One of the most galling aspects is the overtly neo-colonial nature of the response. Across the globe, the United States is serving notice that governments whose policies it doesn’t like are subject to replacement by force, in a way we have not seen since the early 1950s, if not the prewar era.

In Afghanistan, U.S. officials picked Hamid Karzai on the basis of his relationships with oil companies (and his lack of a local power base, which makes him easily manipulable) and engineered a sham democratic process, a “loya jirga” in which the United States kept almost complete control over the selection of delegates and consultations they could make.

In Venezuela, in a replay of Reagan-era manipulations in Central America, they decided that Hugo Chavez must go — not simply for his efforts to empower ordinary Venezuelans by breaking the power of the oligarchy but also for his attempt to foster cooperation between oil-producing and non-oil-producing nations of the Third World. So, the United States helped engineer a coup, funded through the aptly misnamed National Endowment for Democracy, with the final go-ahead given by the United States.

In Palestine, Bush served notice that Palestinian democracy had to mean picking leaders approved by the United States and Israel. And in Iraq, the United States has decided that its long-stated goal of “regime change” justifies a war of aggression against a country that poses no discernible threat to any other nation, let alone to the United States. U.S. leaders take it as their right to install some other undemocratic regime that will take orders from Washington.

Perhaps equally galling is the lost opportunity to face what became known as the “why do they hate us?” question. Even though the men who planned the 9/11 attacks were cruel, fundamentalist fanatics, there must be rational reasons that so many people around the world who deplored the attack could not help pointing out that American was getting only a tiny dose of what it had been giving the world for years.

Unfortunately, U.S. politicians (Republican and Democrat alike) tapped into the unfortunate strain of arrogant ignorance, a deliberate know-nothingism, that is at the core of American political culture when it comes to foreign policy. Instead of an admission that U.S. foreign policy might engender such reactions from people, they told us the attacks were an attack on freedom — an idea that has risen to ludicrous new heights in a television commercial by the “public service” Ad Council which tells us to defeat terrorism by living our consumption-based, politically solipsistic way of life.

Forget rationality — Americans were not even allowed to discuss this question on an adult level. Early on, Bush simultaneously set the standard and revealed his own ignorance by saying, “I’m amazed that there’s such misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us … like most Americans, I just can’t believe [it] because I know how good we are.”

Such a statement, which would insult the intelligence of a child, was allowed to substitute for thinking about the most important question facing Americans. This set the tone for a non-discussion characterized by the stunning vituperation toward anyone who suggested, however faintly, that U.S. policy might be connected in some way with the attacks and their worldwide reception. The split in the United States after 9/11 was not so much between right and left, as between those willing to think and those who refused to.

People around the world who reacted empathetically and reached out to suffering Americans — people who perhaps for the first time thought of Americans as vulnerable human beings like everyone else — must feel particularly betrayed not only by U.S. violence but by the lack of intellectual integrity and basic humanity displayed by U.S. leaders and so much of the population.

The anniversary has not changed this. A small movement to challenge the empire from within is growing but has not yet been able to force Americans to face the enormously destructive policies of their government abroad. Instead, mixed in with the legitimate grief and memorials to the dead, anniversary events repeat the praise for America as a beacon of hope for the world and Americans as a uniquely moral people, and Americans seem confused about why anyone might see things differently.

American domination is suffering a loss of legitimacy worldwide — the heckling of government officials such as Tommy Thompson at the world AIDS conference in Barcelona and Colin Powell at the Earth Summit are only the most overt manifestations. Even the European ruling class is fed up with the arrogance and destructive policies of the United States, and with its stunning moralistic hypocrisy. It is especially tragic to see, as the rest of the world claws the scales from its eyes, that the Indian government and the narrow segment of the population it represents are succumbing more and more to the blinkered American view of world events.