With the final assault on Tora Bora, and the installation of a new Afghan government, the first part of the ‘war on terror’ has come to resemble the Hollywood movies of an era prior to those of the ‘Die Hard’ tradition — which can now be seen as expressions of deep American anxiety regarding the vulnerability of hi-tech power. Now, it has become pure James Bond, with the swarthy villain slipping away from his underground headquarters before it is obliterated, thus making a sequel possible.
Perhaps he is in Saudi Arabia; or is he in an undersea redoubt, or orbiting in outer space? History repeats itself, first as the movie, then as the Austin Powers movie. The Americans will be hoping he is, as seems most likely, dead in the Tora Bora mud, along with whoever happened to be living on top of it.
Their worst nightmare is that he has slipped out to Saudi Arabia, whose status of ‘ally’ in the anti-terror campaign is yet to move it to do anything about the 6,000 or so Al-Qaida forces that may still be within its borders, or about the official status of the Wahhabi set of teachings that advances a version of Islam almost as chauvinistic and militant as the Born Again Western triumphalism abroad in Washington.
The Saudis’ expulsion of American troops is a surprising development which may represent a degree of desperation on the part of what is really a big family business that happens to have a nation attached to it. The fall of Saudi Arabia (i.e. Ibn Saud’s Arabia — it is as if, say, Tasmania was called Sir Rupert Clarke’s New Dorset or somesuch) has long been predicted, and worked for by both Islamic fundamentalists and Arab marxist-leninist groups such as the PFLP. If, as now seems possible, the September 11 attack was timed to coincide with bin Laden’s kidney disease entering its terminal stage, then the fall of the house of Saud — and a reorganisation of Middle Eastern power — may be his parting shot.
Yet it would be foolish to pretend that anyone now had any idea what was likely to happen. When the attack on Afghanistan commenced many in the Left across the world — including writers in this magazine — predicted the possibility of a far more difficult struggle for the United States, with far greater political turmoil breaking behind it. In retrospect one can see a certain degree of wishful thinking in much of it. No-one seriously doubts the need to think about the problem of large-scale terror and international governance, but the risks to the world from an unimpeded United States seemed far greater than anything atomic, biological or chemical that rogue elements could throw at us — even in a compliant power such as Australia.
As it turned out the event went much like the Gulf War, to the extent that a single American combat casualty can be newsworthy, at about the same rate as several thousand Afghan civilians. The ease with which the ‘war’ was conducted has given large sections of the country a triumphalist air that — when combined with the USA Patriot Act — has taken the country to a point at which the disdain for international dialogue typical of its isolationism has fused with a sense of invulnerability. That this new sense of national mission and right has occurred out of a train of events begun by a display of utter vulnerability is not the least paradoxical aspect of recent months.
But unless there are more attack plans from Al-Qaida and related groups waiting in the wings, their sense of security could be reasonably accurate for the short term. In the medium term, no such guarantee is possible, but nor is any sense that an ironhanded Pax Americana will hold. The future simply is unknowable, because we are in a period of which the ultimate meaning will be wholly defined in the light of what is to happen.
Are we at the beginning of a period when the American empire extends to its furthest point, taking into the orbit of its influence not merely Russia but a range of Islamic states, before China acquires sufficient military might to end the era of single superpowerdom? Or are we at the beginning of a period of instability and conflict with lulls lasting months or years before each succeeding shock to the global body politic?
Such a period could see US invasions or direct military action in Iraq, Colombia, the Philippines, and elsewhere, and attacks on the US mainland — and those of its allies — perhaps involving the destruction of whole cities. We have been accustomed to processes, with a slower burn — the drift to World War II, the dismantling of the USSR — and we have to go back to the era of World War I to find a period of twenty years or so when events as they turned out to be were so unpredictable. Many have argued that World War I was virtually inevitable, given rival expanding empires. Perhaps, perhaps not; but what is certain is that it was made far more likely by the inability of Europeans to imagine what a war of the future would be like, except in terms of the wars of the past.
The core of our sense of Edwardian innocence pivots on that lack of imagination, and a similar inability to think through the future as a different sort of thing, rather than a more extreme version of the past, exists today. The bellicose Right, who imagine they do not live in a world where weapons of awesome power cannot be made in backyards, is matched by sections of the Left which have failed to understand the threat to ‘actually existing liberty’ and the crucial difference that a concerted and widespread campaign in its defence could make at this historical juncture.
At the centre there is a complacency rooted in the assumption that a way of life will continue for ever, with a few loud bangs. If there is any scope to make a difference at the current historical moment, it rests in an effort to extend the public ability to imagine the best that is possible with concerted action and the worst that is possible in its absence.
Guy Rundle is co-editor of Arena Magazine.