Tom Engelhardt

Consider the debate among four Democratic presidential candidates on ABC News last Saturday night. In the previous week, the price of a barrel of oil briefly touched $100, unemployment hit 5%, the stock market had the worst three-day start since the Great Depression, and the word “recession” was in the headlines and in the air. So when ABC debate moderator Charlie Gibson announced that the first fifteen-minute segment would be taken up with “what is generally agreed to be… the greatest threat to the United States today,” what did you expect?

As it happened, he was referring to “nuclear terrorism,” specifically “a nuclear attack on an American city” by al-Qaeda (as well as how the future president would “retaliate”). In other words, Gibson launched his version of a national debate by focusing on a fictional, futuristic scenario, at this point farfetched, in which a Pakistani loose nuke would fall into the hands of al-Qaeda, be transported to the United States, perhaps picked up by well-trained al-Qaedan minions off the docks of Newark, and set off in the Big Apple. In this, though he was surely channeling Rudy Giuliani, he managed to catch the essence of what may be George W. Bush’s major legacy to this country.

The Planet as a GWOT Free-Fire Zone

On September 11, 2001, in his first post-attack address to the nation, George W. Bush was already using the phrase, “the war on terror.” On September 13th, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz announced that the administration was planning to do a lot more than just take out those who had attacked the United States. It was going to go about “removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism.” We were, Bush told Americans that day, in a state of “war”; in fact, we were already in “the first war of the twenty-first century.”

That same day, R.W. Apple, Jr. of the New York Times reported that senior officials had “cast aside diplomatic niceties” and that “the Bush administration today gave the nations of the world a stark choice: stand with us against terrorism… or face the certain prospect of death and destruction.” Stand with us against terrorism (or else) — that would be the measure by which everything was assessed in the years to come. That very day, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that the U.S. would “rip [the bin Laden] network up” and “when we’re through with that network, we will continue with a global assault on terrorism.”

How quickly the President’s Global War on Terror was on the scene. And no nation was to be immune.

A global assault on terrorism. How quickly the President’s Global War on Terror was on the scene. And no nation was to be immune. On September 14th, the news was leaked that “a senior State Department official” had met with “15 Arab representatives” and delivered a stiff “with us or against us” message: Join “an international coalition against terrorism” or pay the price. There would be no safe havens. The choice — as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage would reportedly inform Pakistan’s intelligence director after the 9/11 attacks — was simple: Join the fight against al-Qaeda or “be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.” The price of a barrel of crude oil was, then, still under $20.

From that day to this, from the edge of the $20 barrel of oil to the edge of the $100 one, the Global War on Terror would be the organizing principle for the Bush administration as it shook off “the constraints,” “took off the gloves,” loosed the CIA, and sent the U.S. military into action; as it went, in short, for the Stone Age jugular. The phrase, Global War on Terror, while never quite catching on with the public, would become so familiar in the corridors of Washington that it would soon morph into one of the least elegant acronyms around — GWOT — sometimes known among neocons as “World War IV,” or by military men and administration officials — after Iraq devolved from fantasy blitzkrieg into disaster — as “the Long War.”

In the administration’s eyes, the GWOT was to be the key to the magic kingdom, the lever with which the planet could be pried open for American dominion.

In the administration’s eyes, the GWOT was to be the key to the magic kingdom, the lever with which the planet could be pried open for American dominion. It gave us an interest everywhere. After all, as Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke would say in January 2002 (and this was a typical comment of that moment): “The estimates are anywhere from 50 or 60 to 70 countries that have al Qaeda cells in them. The scope extends far beyond Afghanistan.” Administration officials, in other words, were already talking about a significant portion of existing states as potential targets. This was not surprising, since the GWOT was meant to create planetary free-fire zones. These al-Qaeda targets or breeding grounds, after all, had to be emptied. We were, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials were saying almost immediately after 9/11, going to “drain” the global “swamp” of terrorists. And any countries that got in the way had better watch out.

With us or against us, that was the sum of it, and terror was its measure. If any connection could be made — even, as in the case of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, a thoroughly bogus one — it immediately offered a compelling home-front explanation for possible intervention. The safety and security of Americans was, after all, at stake in every single place where those terrorist mosquitoes might be breeding. If you had the oil lands of the planet on your mind (as was true with Dick Cheney’s infamous Energy Task Force), then the threat of terrorism — especially nuclear terrorism — was a safe bet. If you wanted to fortify your position in new oil lands, then the ticket was to have the Pentagon move in — as in Africa — to help weak, possibly even failing, states prepare themselves against the forces of terror.

For us or against us in the GWOT, that was the way all things were to be judged, no matter the place or the complexities of the local situation

For us or against us in the GWOT, that was the way all things were to be judged, no matter the place or the complexities of the local situation — in Pakistan no less than the Gulf of Guinea or Central Asia. And that was to be true at home as well. There, too, you were for us or against us. Those few who opposed the Patriot Act, for instance, were obviously not patriots. The minority who claimed that you couldn’t be at “war” with “terror,” that what was needed in response to 9/11 was firm, ramped up police action were simply laughed out of the room. In the kindliest light, they were wusses; in the worst light, essentially traitors. They lacked not only American red-bloodedness, but a willingness to blood others and be bloody-minded. End of story.

In the wake of those endlessly replayed, apocalyptic-looking scenes of huge towers crumbling and near-mushroom-clouds of ash billowing upwards, a chill of end-time fear swept through the nation. War, whatever name you gave it, was quickly accepted as the obvious, commensurate answer to what had happened. In a nation in the grips of the politics of fear, it seemed reasonable enough that a restoration of “security” — American security — should be the be-all and end-all globally. Everything, then, was to be calibrated against the successes of the GWOT.

Domestically, a distinctly un-American word, “homeland,” entered our everyday world

Domestically, a distinctly un-American word, “homeland,” entered our everyday world, was married to “security,” and then “department,” and suddenly you had a second defense department, whose goal was simply to make the American people “safe.” Alone on the planet, Americans would now be allowed a “safe haven” of which no one could rob us.

From Seattle to Tampa, Toledo to Dallas, fear of terrorism became a ruling passion — as well as a pure money-maker for the mini-homeland-industrial complex that grew up around the new Department of Homeland Security. A thriving industry of private security firms, surveillance outfits, and terror consultants was suddenly among us. With its help, the United States would be locked-down in an unprecedented way — and to do that, we would also have to lock down the planet by any means necessary. We would fight “them” everywhere else, as the President would say again and again, so as not to fight them here.

The Elephant and the GWOT

If the Global War on Terror initially seemed to be the royal road to the Bush administration’s cherished dream of a global Pax Americana and a local Pax Republicana, it was, it turned out, also a trap…


Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt

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