Destroying the World to Save It

It is in the nature of events that they work forwards and backwards through time, reshaping the past as much as the future. The destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11 has been taken by many Americans as an epochal moment, a loss of innocence. It is neither of those things, but it has marked off a future direction — the US as a unilateral world power, striking at any nation or group that it believes may pose a threat to it at some stage. Simultaneously it has rendered the past, the period of the 1990s, as a distinct and naive period in which US power, and its limits, were largely invisible to its own populace, and to much of the West. In the 1990s, American culture reflected on itself as a universal state, rather than a particular political and historical situation; and the admission of irony into every level of public culture showed how this conceit had stepped up to an attitude of innate supremacy. Irony appeared at a point where history appeared to have stopped. Nothing would border or limit or contest ‘the American condition’. In fact the degree to which September 11 was taken as epochal was a measure of the culture’s inward focus and depoliticisation. A moment that had been repeatedly contemplated in a thousand movies became unbelievable because it had moved from the fantastic to the real.Yet September 11 will itself be set in context by what transpires in the virtually certain US invasion of Iraq in the coming months. The possible chain of events is too wildly uncertain to admit of any forecast. Saddam’s regime may have become so hollowed from within that resistance will be brief and perfunctory; or it may loose off a formidable arsenal and draw American land forces into a protracted campaign, with collateral damage further afield in the region. The Arab ‘street’ which failed to rise during the invasion of Afghanistan may do so this time, and the Saudi Arabian royal family may fall — possibly to be replaced by a government more sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, and other such movements. Or the Arab states may fall into line with the elimination of Saddam. It is difficult to know which result would be worse. The US attack will almost certainly involve thousands of Iraqi casualties — all the more so because the US will want a walk-over victory. Should Iraqi resistance be concerted, that figure will rise to the tens of thousands, at the very least. Yet a walk-over US victory would confirm the Bush administration in its unilateral path, and exacerbate the triumphalist mood of American culture — a mood which would substantially replace the ironic mood of an earlier period. Gore Vidal has argued that the modern United States was a genuine republic for only five years, between 1945 and 1950. One could be more severe than that and suggest that the US is an empire that imagines itself to be a republic, and is thus without limit in seeing its own interests as the universal interests of humanity. Such hitech military humanitarianism has a lethal potential never before encountered in human history. The old Vietnam adage of ‘destroying the village in order to save it’ becomes translated to the world as a whole. Should the US succeed in smoothly and easily taking over Iraq, the prospects for genuinely multilateral and global governance will be set back to a substantial degree. Should there be a reversal, the discrediting of US and UK efforts may open a space in which even a minimal level of supranational authority could be asserted.

Given the ludicrous degree of forewarning of the invasion, it is clear that there is scope for an antiwar movement to begin in an explicit and concerted fashion before the war has even begun. True, this comes at an inconvenient time, in which the mandatory detention campaign dictates some moral imperatives to radical energies. But given that the two issues are fundamentally related, it would seem possible, if not vital, to make the antiwar movement constructive rather than reactive. But such a movement must also have a constructive idea of genuine alternatives for global governance. A reformed Security Council, with a redistribution of permanent and rotating seats would be a necessary precondition of just global governance and the control of weapons of mass destruction. But of course there is one rogue state above all that it would have to first bring under its purview.

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