Atelier n°. 11, article 13

Paul Mcgeough :
Sydney Morning Herald,March 9, 2002

The Lone Ranger

THIS is a new and scary world. A scoop in Time magazine this week revealed the post-September 11 security nightmare of a US intelligence alert that terrorists were smuggling a 10 kiloton Russian-made nuclear device into Manhattan. It didn't happen but a bomb that size could kill 100,000.

And in The New Yorker, a State Department official told Seymour Hersch: "The last thing we want is to hit Baghdad and have al-Qaeda hit Chicago. We'd look real bad. When we go to Iraq, we'll do it right." Note the "when", not "if". Today's United States is so pumped up on its own military and economic power not to mention its seething anger at what happened on September 11 that it is becoming fearless and unnervingly certain as it leads the world to a place that looks like the darker days of the Cold War.

The Attorney-General, John Ashcroft, articulates the problem: "A calculated, malignant, devastating evil has arisen in our world. Civilisation cannot afford to ignore the wrongs that have been done." And Vice-President Dick Cheney articulates the solution: "The United States, and only the United States, can see this effort through to victory."

And on the road to victory anything can be justified.

There is a clamour to give back the CIA's authority to assassinate, and shock troops are being dispatched around the globe as places that were humanitarian cot cases (ie, not of great concern to Washington) become countries of strategic interest (ie, good places from which to start or end wars).

A shadow US government has been set up in undisclosed bunkers away from the capital, in the event of a more damaging second terrorist attack on Washington.

Civil rights are being crimped; the President tried to argue that prisoners in the Afghan war should not be covered by the Geneva Convention; and White House spinmeister Ari Fleischer cautioned the nation that in times like these "people have to watch what they say, watch what they do".

On campus, it is becoming dangerous to say what you think an intimidating "blame and shame" list of more than 100 academics and students who questioned aspects of the war against terrorism is being circulated.

An army of news reporters wanting to cover the Afghanistan war in all its unvarnished detail keeps knocking at the Pentagon's door. But only the infotainment crews from Hollywood, led by Jerry "Top Gun" Bruckheimer, are allowed in.

And the Pentagon was only mildly embarrassed by the revelation that the duty list for its new Office of Strategic Influence would include spreading false stories in the foreign press so now, it outsources the dirty work. But if a multibillion-dollar PR contract to convince the Arab world that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was sexually impotent failed in the wake of the Gulf crisis, what would it take to convince the so-called Arab street that Osama bin Laden is a pedophile or a terrorist?
The country's absurd system of farm subsidies about $20 billion a year which The Washington Post describes as "the mother of all pork" has been put beyond question in public debate with a presidential decree that the farmers' cheques are about national security. Ditto this week's dramatic steel tariff decision by the President who says he's a champion of free trade.

The key objectives of the war against terrorism have not been met as best we can tell bin Laden is still alive and, though they have scattered, so too are much of his al-Qaeda leadership and the trained operatives they are assumed to have in place around the globe.

But this is not stopping the White House from moving right along to the next target Saddam. It wants him overthrown and the President reportedly has fixed April 15 as the date on which he wants to see on his desk a plan for how to do it.

And, rather bizarrely, at a time when many in Europe believe that Washington's temporary withdrawal from the political and diplomatic process in the Middle East has fuelled the latest round of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, exiled Iraqi opposition figures reportedly are doing the rounds of Washington, claiming that France and Russia will support a US attack on Iraq when they are offered access to the rich oil fields of southern Iraq but only as "junior partners" to the Americans. Of course.

The stakes never were this high when they played poker in Texas. Most of the rest of the world doesn't want another war with Iraq. So Bush can go it alone or, more likely, drag the rest of the world into a new conflict possibly as a response to a cornered Saddam shooting a weapon of mass destruction into Israel.

The increasing likelihood of an attack on Iraq provoked barely concealed diplomatic outrage around the world, but a European diplomat tried to hose down the issue in an interview with The Guardian. Taking a line that might have begun with "Dear boy", he continued: "Iraq policy is in process at the moment. What matters is that we agree on the end product and there is every sign that we will." This, an Administration source declared, was "horse shit".

He explained: "Relations now are worse than anyone can ever remember. It has become very fashionable in the middle reaches of [the US] Government to beat up on the Europeans as being useless whiners. That's especially true in the Pentagon, but it's true in most of the State Department, too."

All of which gives great credence to a claim reported in the The New York Times that the President is fuming about what he calls "weak-kneed European elites".

This is worrying stuff, but it is the history in the making of civilisation's most powerful empire, and the Bush camp is supremely confident. Europe was traumatised when Ronald Reagan leaned over the masonry barrier dividing Berlin and ordered Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall". But the wall indeed came down. Last year, much of the world trembled in fear that a US-led attack on Afghanistan might spark a Muslim uprising from the Magreb to the Philippines it didn't.

So Washington becomes even more arrogant. Bush has told the nations of the world that they are with him or against him and, frankly, he doesn't care. And it is this attitude that causes so much offence and disbelief in the capitals of Europe and elsewhere because it precludes debate, it allows for no compromise.

According to Newsweek: "[This] is nothing less than a reassertion of American power in the world by a greater willingness to use force, with or without the support of allies, even at the cost of American casualties. Some of Bush's top advisers believe that after Vietnam, the pendulum swung too far in the direction of multilateralism and anti-interventionism."

But the Europeans want to argue a case that political and economic help to the moderates in Iran will work over time, that economic and diplomatic involvement will do more than beating a war drum at North Korea, and that, for all Saddam's wrongdoing, the CIA has not been able to link him to the attacks on New York and Washington.

On September 11, the day commentator Michael Ignatieff likens to the tremor of dread felt in the ancient world when Rome first was sacked, the world and the US were united by sympathy, fear and an early sense of purpose. Now, and especially since Bush's "axis of evil" speech, there are rancour and hurt as it sinks in with the rest of the world that the US is multilateral only when it suits its unilateral agenda.

The French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, accused the US of having no particular interest in partnerships and Chris Patten, the EU's foreign affairs commissioner, claimed that the US was in "unilateralist overdrive".

But even Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State whom Europe believed to be the brake on White House excess, warned that Europe had to respect the "principles leadership" of the US even if it disagreed with it.

It now is becoming clear that what the US set out to do in Afghanistan and accomplished was to go to war alone.

Since September 11 it has increased defence spending by $A2 billion a week and its total defence budget now is bigger than the next 20 nations in the world, so it didn't need and didn't want to get bogged down by mealy-mouthed debates at the UN or the humanitarian trip-wires that could be set up around a NATO coffee urn.

This is the age of American unilateralism. Offers of help poured in to Washington in September, but they were accepted only according to a carefully executed script that gave a sense of world coalitions at work, but which would not get in the way of the US view of how it should conduct the war. So the UN was sidelined and NATO was acknowledged, but not welcomed in.

NATO pretty well is irrelevant in Washington. On September 11 it dropped everything and said, "An attack on one is an attack on all. What can we do?" But when its liaison officers arrived at CentCom (Central Command), the Florida bunker from which the military end of the war on terrorism is prosecuted, they were denied access.

Ignatieff writes in The New York Review of Books: "[The US now] is unilateral when it wants to be, multilateral when it must be, and it uses its power to enforce a new international division of labour in which America does the bombing and the fighting, the French, British and Germans serve as police in the border zones and the Dutch, Swiss and Scandinavians provide humanitarian aid.

"A new international order is emerging, but it is being crafted to suit American imperial objectives. The empire signs on to those pieces of the transnational legal order that suit its purpose (the World Trade Organisation, for example), while ignoring or even sabotaging those parts (the proposed International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol, the ABM treaty) that do not."

In background briefings, US diplomats reckon that Ignatieff has got it right. But a French diplomat exploded to the Financial Times: "This kind of complementarity cannot continue in the long term. The Europeans would be very, very uncomfortable with this role. It would mean giving the US carte blanche for its military operations. Frankly, the US neither respects nor appreciates what the Europeans are doing."

NATO chief Lord Robertson was a little more earthy, arguing that trans-Atlantic solidarity could not last if "the Americans do the cutting edge while the Europeans are stuck at the bleeding edge, if the Americans fight from the sky and the Europeans fight in the mud".