The American way of war

Print edition : February 02, 2002

The successful use of air power in Afghanistan by the U.S. may prompt it to use the same tactic to intervene in other countries that allegedly aid terrorists.

BY Washington's logic, firecrackers should now be going off everywhere in celebration, as the counter-terror crusaders zero in on Osama bin Laden's hideout in Tora Bora. However, Europe is cool, there is apprehension throughout the South, and outright despondency blankets much of the Arab and Muslim world.

The reasons are obvious: at least 4,000 dead, a large number of them civilians, four million refugees, a return to tribal chaos with the dismemberment of central authority. What bin Laden and his organisation did was horrific and inexcusable - but to do this to a country in the name of justice? Once again, the Americans have destroyed the town in order to save it.

Washington, however, will not allow these details to spoil its triumphant mood. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have been obliterated, but this victory has a wider significance for the Pentagon. Massive, precision-guided air power can win wars, with almost no commitment of U.S. ground troops, and thus with almost no casualties.

With this renewed confidence in what military historian Russell Weigley called "the American Way of War" - massive firepower, high technology, total victory - Washington is now seriously considering the same sort of intervention in other states that allegedly provide aid and comfort to the terrorists, with Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Iraq being the prime candidates.

And it would be surprising if the events in Afghanistan have not given a boost to plans for a strong U.S. military role in the war against drugs in Colombia. Newsweek reports that Colombian authorities seeking a more decisive U.S. role are now "trying to show the parallels between the Taliban and their own guerilla movements..."

Along with the return of confidence in the American Way of War, there is emerging a renewed respectability in direct intervention in the affairs of developing countries. Respect for national sovereignty and self-determination has been further eroded in Washington and London since September, with conservative intellectuals giving voice to opinions that powerful states cannot articulate... yet.

One influential formulation comes from Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times: ''...the best medium-term solution will be to revive the old League of Nations Mandate System, which served well as a 'respectable' form of colonialism between the wars... Countries that cannot live at peace with their neighbours and that wage covert war against the international community cannot expect total independence. With all the permanent members of the Security Council now backing, in varying degrees, the American-led initiative, it should not be difficult to devise a new form of United Nations mandate that places terrorist states under supervision."

Not surprisingly, few of these visions address the fundamental reasons for extreme responses like terrorism: colonial borders that ensured post-colonial conflict, continuing marginalisation of the new countries in an inequitable global economic order, continuing Northern control of areas containing massive oil and gas riches to fuel the oil- and energy-intensive civilisation of the West.

The next phase in Afghanistan is turning into the latest experiment in the New Trusteeship or New Mandate System, following the failure of the first major initiative owing to Somalian recalcitrance in 1993. The European Union is asked to provide - under British leadership, of course - a permanent occupation force, while the United Nations is brought in to broker a "representative government" among competing tribal groups to fill the political vacuum.

Washington appears to be operating under the following principle: be unilateral in military action but multilateral in political engineering - thus getting others to take the blame if the political structure collapses.

Meanwhile on the domestic front, laws and executive orders restricting the rights to privacy and free movement have been passed with astonishing speed and ease. Not even the Cold War was presented in such totalistic terms as the War against Terror.

Writing in The Nation, David Corn observes that a mere nine weeks into this war, legislation had been passed and executive orders signed in the U.S. that establish secret military tribunals to try non-U.S. citizens; impose guilt by association on immigrants; authorise the Attorney-General to lock up aliens for indefinite periods on mere suspicion; expand the use of wiretaps and secret searches; allow the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings that aliens cannot confront or rebut; destroy the secrecy of the client-lawyer relationship by allowing the government to listen in; and institutionalise racial and ethnic profiling.

Many of the U.S.' European allies have similarly rushed to take advantage of the anti-terrorist climate to try to push through a whole raft of legislation that had been waiting in the wings before September 11. In Europe, however, citizens and Parliaments are not going as gently into that good night - including, surprisingly, the British Parliament, which shot down Tony Blair's draconian proposal to allow prosecutors to apprehend and keep in jail indefinitely any foreigner suspected of terrorism.

Post-September 11 U.S. legislation is equally worrisome for its international consequences. What we see is the institutionalisation of a regime of legal unilateralism: the latest package of laws and executive decrees self-endow Washington with the power to do almost anything abroad to bag terrorist targets. The U.S. forces displayed this power just recently, when, in an act indistinguishable from piracy, they boarded without consent a Singaporean ship in the Arabian Sea, overpowered the crew, and launched a fruitless search for terrorists.

Inter Press Service

Walden Bello is executive director of Focus on the Global South, a research, analysis, and advocacy programme of the Bangkok-based Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute.

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