8.

THE WINDS OF FEAR

Leaders like wars because wars remind people they need leaders.—Plato, ca. 400 B.C.

The history of the United States is not the story of triumphant anti-imperial heretics. It is the account of the power of empire as a way of life, as a way of avoiding the fundamental challenge of creating a humane and equitable community or culture.

—William Appleman Williams, 19801

What think you of Terrorism, Mr. Jefferson?

—John Adams, 18132

PROBABLY THE BEST MIND at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference had belonged to “a very clever, rather ugly” young member of the British team who was no team player—the economist John Maynard Keynes.3 He’d foreseen that the crippling reparations imposed on Germany would lead to further conflict, and he’d had the courage (or arrogance) to resign when his warnings went unheeded. Twenty-five years later, as the Great War’s sequel came to an end, Keynes was in demand. If the world didn’t want more Nazis and Bolsheviks, something had to be done to prevent mass unemployment and poverty.

Keynes’s ideas for smoothing out the boom-bust ride of free markets had already influenced the New Deal, and his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) is still widely regarded as the twentieth century’s most important work of economic thought. Simply put, Keynesianism argues that governments should tax during the good times and spend during the bad. It doesn’t always work and is subject to temptations and abuses, but no one has ever had a better idea. Even Richard Nixon would proclaim himself a Keynesian, though with fingers characteristically crossed behind his back.4

In July 1944 Roosevelt invited Keynes to a three-week conference at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to plan the postwar economic order.5 From these meetings—and others among the Allies—emerged the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The latter institutions were intended to act like national treasuries at the world level: as counterweights and stabilizers of the market cycle. Three years later the United States and other countries agreed on the Marshall Plan for economic reconstruction, especially in war-torn Germany and Japan. The big mistake of 1919 was not repeated: instead of trying to bleed the vanquished for their sins, the Allies helped them rejoin the world economy.

In financial terms, the “Allies” meant the United States. America had emerged from the war with no damage on its home turf, and an industrial capacity greater than the rest of the world’s put together.6 The war economy had shown that planning worked, that government provision of jobs and basic needs could eliminate the underclass. Keynes had found a balance between capitalism and socialism. Even Britain—bombed, broke and rationed—saw a steady improvement in nutrition and health throughout the war and a narrowing gap between rich and poor.7 Almost all western democracies used their wartime experience to build modern welfare states along Keynesian lines in the 1940s and 1950s.

This was the high-water mark of American prestige, the moment at which the United States, admired for bravery in war and generosity in peace, eclipsed Britain as world leader.8 In those few charmed years between the end of the World War and the beginning of the Cold War, America was seen to be pragmatic, sophisticated and engaged. America did business with Russia, allowed the Japanese emperor (shorn of empire and godhood) to keep his throne, and installed a stable German republic on the western side of the line across Europe which Churchill dubbed the Iron Curtain.

The dismantling of Britain’s empire soon began, the British consoling themselves with the “special relationship” they thought they enjoyed with their successor.9 This warm, hazy and one-sided illusion (few Americans have even heard of it) would lead Tony Blair disastrously astray half a century later.

The Bretton Woods world order was both strengthened and undermined by the Cold War. The threat of Soviet and Chinese communism ensured that reconstruction funds for Germany, Italy and Japan did not dry up too soon. And within the western democracies, capitalism was obliged to do what it does best: compete with the rival product. So big business, especially in Europe, learned to get along with big government—with redistributive taxation and “socialist” programs such as national health care, today a cornerstone of life in every advanced country except the United States. The result was a generation of prosperity.

For a while it looked as though the “developing” countries (or Third World) would also benefit. If something like the Marshall Plan had been extended to the poorest regions of the planet—as seemed likely for a while—the world might be a very different place today. But the rivalry between the power blocs soon took the form of an arms race, as the United States and the U.S.S.R. built arsenals of nuclear weapons vastly more powerful than those dropped on Japan.10 To settle their quarrel over how life should be lived, both sides made it clear that they were willing to destroy all life on Earth. The standoff (compared to two men knee-deep in gasoline, each with a lighter in his hand) was known as MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. Yet it doesn’t really help to call the cold warriors or even the Nazis “madmen”—for such language suggests that these events were anomalies from which we can learn nothing. The unsavoury truth is that they stem from common human flaws that grew uncommonly dangerous through technology, culture and circumstance.

Other civilizations had feared that angry gods might end their world, but never before had men held the means to do it themselves. The social, political and psychological costs were incalculable: paranoia, nihilism, escapism and mysticism spread like toadstools beneath the overcast. Charlatans, extremists and the weapons trade thrived in the atmosphere of doom. General Douglas MacArthur, whose long career began in the Philippines and ended in Korea, had this to say in 1951: “Our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear.”11

The most brilliant critique of the atomic age was a dark comedy, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.12 Non-Americans who saw the film may have thought the script absurd: Who could credit a rogue U.S. general setting off Armageddon because he believes that adding fluoride to drinking water is an “international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids”?13 But in truth, many American extremists of the time did believe exactly that, as Richard Hofstadter showed in his 1963 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Among similar ideas touted by the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society were these: that the Marshall Plan had served “the world policy of the Kremlin”; that the Supreme Court was “one of the most important agencies of Communism”; that President Eisenhower (a Republican and war hero) was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”; and that a gun-control measure proposed after the shooting of President Kennedy was a plot to make the United States “part of one world socialist government.”14

In most countries, thinking of this sort is confined to a few harmless cranks. The exceptions—places where the cranks are too many to be harmless—tend to be ethnically polarized back-waters, such as Northern Ireland and apartheid South Africa, or nations in trauma such as Germany after the First World War. Yet such thinking is widespread in America, part of a circle of beliefs including anti-Darwinism, anti-intellectualism and the neo-Manichaean view that Americans are God’s Chosen beset by satanic enemies—whether heathen Indians in the seventeenth century or an “axis of evil” in the twenty-first.

The United States has been modern history’s big winner—the culmination of the five-century Columbian Age—so why do many Americans exhibit a mindset typical of losers? One answer is that the frontier culture descends from the Puritans who lost the English Civil War and from the equally beleaguered “Scots-Irish” Presbyterians who forsook their role as British colonial pawns in Ulster for the American colonies in the eighteenth century. In his amusing yet serious book Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant (himself a gun owner of Scots-Irish background) argues that “Scots-Irish Calvinist values all but guarantee anger and desire for vengeance against what is perceived as elite authority.”15 Isolated, unschooled, messianic in their thinking, threatened by the Establishment’s (sometimes) enlightened policies towards Indians and blacks, the frontier folk came to see themselves as victims. Of all white Americans, they worked the hardest and ran the highest risks, yet the profits flowed to the big cities in the East. Caught between the central power and the outlying “savage,” they feared the loss of their precarious gains to the network of governance dogging their heels across the continent.

Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, once said, “This country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.”16 Such a statement from a major politician in any other country would be unthinkable. It exposes not only the mental desert of the hinterland but the rift between what we might call Backwoods America—descended from the frontier—and Enlightenment America, descended from the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. These two subcultures interpenetrate (as they always have), the friction between them feeding the polarity and starving the middle ground. Backwoods America clings to its fundamentalism and its firearms because they are touch-stones of the pioneering myth, of an autonomy that has slipped from the small man’s grasp. During the Cold War, many such Americans felt newly empowered by righteous might against the godless Soviet horde. They became, as it were, Afrikaners with atomic weapons—locked in their ethnic bunker, armed with Jehovah’s wrath and with his fires.

Consider these two quotations:

Secret and systematic means have been adopted and pursued, with zeal and activity, by wicked and artful men, in foreign countries, to undermine the foundations of [our religion] and thus to deprive the world of its benign influence on society. . . . These impious conspirators and philosophists have completely effected their purposes in a large part of Europe.

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men . . . are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.

One of the above was said by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1951 as he pursued his communist witchhunt. The other comes from a Massachusetts sermon preached in 1798. Readers may be able to tell which is which by the diction, but not, I think, by the content.17

Backwoods America not only fears outsiders but has always needed them to define itself, to make the parochial central, to sustain an archaic worldview rooted in a biblical apocalypse it both dreads and desires. This America also, paradoxically, serves the needs of a centralized secular power, famously called by Eisenhower the “military-industrial complex”—the love match of capital and conquest first brokered during the Civil War.18 It is no accident that the “wild” Indian of the West is attacked soon after the rebel South is vanquished; that the communist bogeyman appears soon after the last Indian is confined on a reservation; that the Muslim fanatic is inflated to the level of a worldwide conspiracy soon after the Red Menace gives up and starts dining at the Moscow McDonald’s. “Evangelicals have substituted Islam for the Soviet Union,” a leading evangelical admitted in 2003. “The Muslims have become the modern-day equivalent of the Evil Empire.”19

The Third World War has been fought in the Third World.20 The hydrogen bombs haven’t killed us yet, but for billions they killed the future. The warmongers were sane enough to stop short of bombing each other (though they came close during the Cuban Missile Crisis), confining themselves to bombing each other’s non-white allies by conventional means, including napalm and chemicals.21 Since 1950 some thirty countries have been bombed and invaded by the United States, the U.S.S.R. or China—in that order of activity, with the United States far ahead.

The military historian John Keegan pointed out (in 1989) that the nations which had fought the Second World War learned “that the costs of war exceeded its rewards” in proportion to their losses. The United States, with fewer than three hundred thousand battle deaths and an untouched mainland, was “the least damaged and most amply rewarded.”22 The Soviet Union, which lost 7 million troops and as many civilians, bore the brunt. America, Keegan concluded, was the most ready among the Second War’s winners to fight new wars; Russia, for all its bluster, was one of the least.23

In Korea some fifty-four thousand Americans died, and in Vietnam, nearly sixty thousand.24 The number of local people killed in those wars cannot be accurately known, but it was certainly many millions; mid-range estimates are 2 and 3 million, respectively. As in the frontier wars, the Philippines, and the Middle East today, non-white life was cheap. The comedian Dick Gregory summed it up: “What we’re doing in Vietnam is using the black man to kill the yellow man so the white man can keep the land he took from the red man.”25

For most of its forty years—if we assume it ended with the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989—the Third World War was a stalemate. In Indochina the Americans lost, and in Central Asia so did the Soviets. The hidden toll was the squandering of the world’s hope and treasure and the strengthening of the worst elements—warlords, weapon dealers, fanatics, profiteers—in many countries, including the big two. Military budgets spun out of control, absorbing more and more of the wealth of the postwar boom. Funds for developing countries failed to keep up with promises or even with population. The sideshow of the Space Race—intended to persuade the enemy that the missiles really worked and the public that missiles could be fun—added to the cost. In the long run, the capitalist superpower was able to outspend the communist one, and to do so without beggaring too large a sector of its citizenry. But both powers, especially the United States, lived high by exploiting an offshore “underclass” in the Third World.

At the start of this book, I discussed the two main types of empire: centralized and tribute (also called territorial and hegemonic). The ancient New World provides a textbook example of each: the centralized Inca Empire of Peru, and the tribute network of quasi-independent states dominated by the Aztecs of highland Mexico. By the early twentieth century, all the European empires had become the centralized kind, with formal systems of law, education, health, public works and (in some cases) citizenship extended to their colonial subjects.26

When the United States took the Philippines from Spain, it acquired this set of imperial obligations. It soon found that unless there is a strong source of colonial revenue or good prospects for white settlement, such an empire can be more trouble than it’s worth. This realization, along with the collapse of China’s “illimitable” market, influenced America’s decision to get out of the overseas empire business in the 1930s.

Much the same calculation lay behind the breakup of the European empires after the Second World War. Some territories were let go reluctantly, but most were freed because liabilities were growing faster than returns. The inherent contradiction between democracy at home and dominion abroad also ensured that the age of formal empires was done: there could be no such thing as an “imperialism of liberty.”

Yet both Cold War superpowers needed worldwide economic empires to pay for their military machines and home prosperity. So they opted for the other, cruder type of imperialism, where quasi-independent vassal states are dominated and milked of their surplus through compliant local elites. Both Washington and Moscow reinvented the Aztec Empire.27 Like the Aztecs (and earlier hegemons such as Sparta and the Mongols), the superpowers overthrew baulky regimes, installed puppets, exploited labour and resources, yet shouldered no obligations for the welfare of the people indirectly under their control. In most cases the local ruler was a loathsome dictator, propped up on the principle that “he may be a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch.” One example of the breed was Saddam Hussein, in the days when President Reagan’s envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, was shaking his hand.28

President John F. Kennedy had dressed this new imperialism in frontier rhetoric, making it sound altruistic, complete with an echo of Kipling: “Our frontiers today are on every continent. . . . Only the United States . . . bears this kind of burden.” 29 Inside the active theatres of war, puppet regimes were pressed, as in Vietnam or Afghanistan, to “request” military help; outside, order was kept by coups d’état. Of the coups engineered by America, the most notorious—because they overthrew freely elected governments—were those ousting Mohammad Mussadegh in Iran (1953), Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala (1954) and Salvador Allende in Chile (1973), condemning those countries to years of state terror, torture and, in Guatemala, one of the vilest civil wars of modern times.30 In the Soviet sphere, democratic governments never had much chance to get elected in the first place, but reformers such as Imre Nagy in Hungary (1956) and Alexander Dubček in Czechoslovakia (1968) were ruthlessly toppled.

While the United States quashed freedom abroad, it remained (unlike the Soviet Union) a relatively free society at home. However, the American left was no more immune than the right from the old Puritan ague of extremism. By disrupting the 1968 Democratic Convention, by the terrorism of the Weathermen and other outrages, left-wing radicals handed the White House to Richard Nixon in 1968, albeit by less than 1 percent of the popular vote.

By the time Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974, a majority of Americans said they had lost confidence in both business and government. A Harris Poll found that “65% of Americans oppose military aid abroad because they feel it allows dictatorships to maintain control.”31 Many had forsaken the view that the fight against communism justified any means. Nixon’s successor, Jimmy Carter, the best-intentioned if not the most effective president of recent times, edged away from the “sonofabitch” policy, allowing a popular revolt to oust Nicaragua’s strongman Anastasio Somoza, a villain from the pages of Gabriel García Márquez.32

Carter had the bad luck to hold office during the energy crisis and the Iran hostage affair. Conservative ideologues such as Irving Kristol complained that there was far too much talk “about the need for Americans to tighten their belts . . . even resign themselves to an economic philosophy of no growth. It is dangerous and irresponsible.”33 The sweater-clad Carter lost the 1980 election to the B-actor Ronald Reagan, who told folks what they wanted to hear: there was lots of oil and no need to turn down the furnace. It was “still morning in America.” (One of Reagan’s deeds was to undermine the new Sandinista regime in Nicaragua by fomenting and arming freelance terrorists, based in neighbouring Honduras and funded by the “Iran-Contra Affair.”)

The economic problems of the 1970s—“stagflation,” falling shares, soaring gold—were caused mainly by the Vietnam War and Middle Eastern politics (just as a similar set of problems has now arisen from the war in Iraq). But the right seized its chance to blame the New Deal and the Keynesian consensus, and to try to undo them. Conservatives wanted a return to laissez-faire capitalism, rebranded as monetarism or “Reaganomics.” Their guru was Milton Friedman, a far-right economist at the University of Chicago who revived the ideas of Keynes’s old foe Friedrich von Hayek.

Instead of subordinating business to the public good through democratic institutions, as Keynes had argued, Friedman wanted to let the stock market run the world. There was no need to tax and redistribute wealth: so much money would be made that it would “trickle down” to the poor. Greed was good.34 It was as if the World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Slump and the growing ecological and energy crises had never happened. History didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was belief: the world had simply to take the preacher’s hand and throw away the crutches.

What is remarkable is how easily these shopworn ideas were touted as new. Friedman was not an original thinker but a salesman. His recipe of deregulation, free trade and tax cuts for the wealthy was simply a revival of the late Victorian status quo—the laissez-faire chariot race that had ended in the wreckage of 1914-45. Predictably, the slashing of regulation brought fraud, speculation and crisis. Half a trillion dollars disappeared on Reagan’s watch in the Savings and Loan collapse. Equally predictable was a sharp widening of the gap between rich and poor. “Since 1975,” says the CIA’s Factbook on the United States (a source that can hardly be accused of leftist bias), “practically all gains in household income have gone to the top 20% of households.” While America’s streets filled with beggars, the ratio in salary between a shop-floor worker and a CEO in the top U.S. corporations climbed from thirty-nine to one in 1970 to more than a thousand to one by 1999.35

When the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down, there was talk of a “peace dividend.” Many in America and the outside world thought they had seen the last of the Dr. Strangelove generals. Military budgets everywhere could be cut back, and the resources they had wasted could be put into improving human lives and tackling the environmental crisis.

In 1989 British prime minister Margaret Thatcher—a good friend of Reagan and Friedman, but no fool—warned the world: “The problem of global climate change is one that affects us all, and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level. It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay.”36 Her words are a sad measure of how much time has been lost, how action on the environment has been derailed for twenty years, mainly by Big Oil.

The peace dividend was squandered during the Clinton years, partly because of pressure from Republicans—both in Congress and through the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan. Once the communist alternative had given up, the full arrogance of monopoly capitalism returned. With automation and rising population, labour became cheap and easily replaced. Workers could be kept docile—especially on their rights and the environment—if they were always in debt and always worried about losing their jobs.37 A constant barrage of advertising, new gadgetry and easy credit lured the biddable consumer into peonage. During Bill Clinton’s last year as president, banking regulations in place since the 1930s were rashly discarded—clearing the way for the lending boom and mortgage bubble that burst in 2007-08.38

In Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, The Corrections, a character who takes a shady job with mobsters in a post-Soviet Baltic republic is “struck by the broad similarities between black-market Lithuania and free-market America. In both countries, wealth was concentrated into the hands of a few; any meaningful distinction between private and public sectors had disappeared; captains of commerce lived in a ceaseless anxiety that drove them to expand their empires ruthlessly; ordinary citizens lived in ceaseless fear of being fired.”39 What made monetarism seem to work in the United States was not so much the “free market” touted by Friedman as de facto protectionism against foreign competitors and, above all, “military Keynesianism”—a steep increase in weapons spending under Reagan and both of the Bushes.40 Unlike genuine Keynesianism, in which public money, stored up in good times, is spent during bad times on education, health, housing and other labour-intensive projects of lasting worth, military Keynesianism pours taxpayers’ money down missile silos, feeding only the military-industrial complex.

While the United States, through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, has been imposing free markets and “small government” on other nations, it has borne little resemblance to an open market itself. In the form of servicemen’s benefits and pensions, America runs a generous welfare state. But only for the military. The dearth of such programs in civilian life ensures a steady supply of cannon fodder from city ghettoes and struggling farms. So many American jobs depend on defence spending that the military machine has a ready-made constituency at election time.

Corporations such as General Motors, Chrysler and Boeing do so much military business on easy terms that they are, in effect, state-subsidized industries. Newer military contractors have burgeoned since 2001, supplying U.S. forces with everything from gasoline to mercenaries. Such firms—which include Halliburton (run by Dick Cheney before he became vice-president and in which he retains large holdings) and Blackwater—feed so exclusively on government money that they amount to state-owned industries, except that their well-paid executives and investors are entirely unaccountable to the electorate. The citizen bears the cost but has no control; it is the worst of both worlds. Halliburton has even moved its head-quarters to the tax haven of Dubai.41

Republicans are fond of attacking “tax-and-spend” Democrats. Recent Republican administrations should be called “spend-and-borrow”—because they are taxing the future instead of the rich. George W. Bush has repeated Reagan’s policies even more recklessly, pushing for colossal tax cuts in the midst of a war now costing $150 billion a year. “Our Congress has been hijacked by corporate America and its enforcer, the imperial military machine,” wrote the acerbic novelist Gore Vidal in 2002.42 In 2003 the conservative Financial Times of London agreed: “On the management of fiscal policy, the lunatics are now in charge of the asylum.”43

It seems to be the unspoken goal of the neoconservatives to beggar the public purse in order to wreck social spending and leave a mess for Democratic or moderate Republican successors. 44 Certainly, it is a Friedmanite article of faith that the state should spend only on law enforcement and defence. If such policy continues, the United States will become like a Third World dictatorship where the military is the only effective institution. Or not even that—if the nation’s right of force is sold off to “contractors” and mercenaries.

The worldwide spread of free-trade agreements, known as globalization, is the modern version of the nineteenth-century World Market dominated by the British. Yet when Queen Victoria died in 1901, the world economy—a rough index of the human load on natural systems, on earth, air, water, fisheries, forests and minerals—was only one-fiftieth (or 2 percent) of what it is today. Monetarism’s great fallacy is to assume that the world is infinite and growth can therefore be endless. It takes no account of human and environmental costs or of long-term limits. Deregulation is just what it says it is: a free-for-all to grab the most in the shortest time. Globalization is a feeding frenzy. Its “efficiency” is measured only in the short term and by criteria that ignore depletion, pollution, waste disposal, social harmony and public health. The supposed “rights” of capital trump those of sovereignty, ecology, labour—and future generations. The economy has become a tyranny. Unless trade agreements include tough environmental and labour standards (as they do to some extent within the European Union), capital will always seek out the dirtiest river and the most exploitable human being.

The quest for easy money is as old as money itself. But it is hardly surprising that the delusion of endless growth and the denial of natural limits have taken their most virulent form in the United States—in the culture forged on the frontier. “The very essence of the frontier experience,” writes the naturalist Tim Flannery, “is to exploit [resources] as quickly as possible, then move on.”45 The world is less a home in which to live than a treasury to ransack, and the loot needn’t be shared out fairly or even used wisely, because there will always be more somewhere else. Back in the 1830s, an American explained to Tocqueville why Mississippi steamboats were so flimsily built: “There is a general feeling among us about everything which prevents us aiming at permanence. . . . We are always expecting an improvement.”46 Because the United States, alone of nations, was formed by both the Industrial Revolution and an ever-receding frontier, the expectation of growth and throw-away plenty has become a cultural norm.

When John Steinbeck made a midlife road trip across America with his dog Charley more than forty years ago, he was appalled by the middens he saw along his way: “American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash,” he wrote. “In this, if in no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production . . . chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and the atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea.”47 (Then, most evenings, Steinbeck cooked his dinner in a throw-away aluminum frying pan to save himself the bother of washing dishes on the road.)

There was a time when those hoping to live the American dream had to move to America to do so. Now the dream has Americanized the world. As Walter LaFeber wrote of the Open Door Policy of the late nineteenth century: “Capitalism, like Christianity, was a religion that would not keep. It had to be expanded constantly, imposed if necessary.”48 The new form of the old myth of unending plenty is that everyone will be able to live like Americans if they think like Americans. No matter where they are and how downtrodden they may be, if they convert to the faith of market fundamentalism they will become consumers of goods and enjoyers of democracy. This is the Big Lie of our times.49 While its spell lasts, a few will get obscenely rich, others will thrive as middlemen, and the rest will either scrape by or starve. We can already see this happening: after a generation of Friedmanite trade policy, there are a thousand billionaires on Earth, yet 2 billion people—one-third of mankind—live in the deepest poverty.

China has embraced the new economics, yet shows few signs of becoming the free society that, according to Friedman’s dogma, free markets will produce. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein persuasively argues that the opposite has more often been the case: monetarism thrives in dictatorships and sweat-shop tyrannies. Despite phenomenal growth, “Communist” China now has no universal health care, and 700 million Chinese (more than half the population) earn less than two dollars a day. Numbers in India, a liberal democracy, are similar. What kind of progress is this? Did America throw off the divine right of kings only to enthrone, worldwide, a divine right of things?

The abject poor now outnumber the whole of mankind when Queen Victoria died. In one century, the world has become a small and crowded place. All frontiers have long been overrun. The climate itself is already buckling under our demand. Even if the current economic myth were to work as advertised and enrich us all, before 6 billion (soon to be 9 billion) human beings could become consumers on anything like an American scale, the Earth would be unable to support them.

But for Bill Clinton’s dishonourable discharge on an intern’s dress, the 2000 election might not have been close enough for George W. Bush to steal.50 The world then watched in disbelief as the United States failed to carry out a thorough recount—something that would have been done as a matter of course in any other democracy.51

While many people had been worrying about the planet, America’s war profiteers had been wondering how to keep the lucrative game of militarism on the go without the Russians. They needed a new enemy, and for a while they auditioned China for the role. A Defense Planning Guidance document written early in 1992, while George H. Bush was president and Dick Cheney secretary of defence, argued that the United States should achieve such a lead in weaponry and military capability that it would be unassailable. This doctrine, known as “full-spectrum dominance,” was a demand for a blank cheque.52 It was also life support for Ronald Reagan’s (and later George W. Bush’s) unworkable Star Wars fantasy—a “missile shield” that would allow America to shoot without being shot at, a modern version of shooting Indians from the train.53

In 1997 Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush (George W.’s brother), William Kristol (son of conservative ideologue Irving) and others who would surface in or near the future Bush regime founded what they called the Project for a New American Century. Their opening statement called for “an international order friendly to our security [and] our prosperity.” In January 1998 the group sent a letter to President Clinton, urging him to “aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power.”54 The letter’s signatories included Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, all of whom became leading members of Bush’s staff. Most had longstanding ties, directorships and holdings in the weapons, military supply and oil businesses—as did Cheney (the former CEO of Halliburton) and Condoleezza Rice (a former Chevron executive).55 An oil tanker called the Condoleezza Rice had to be quietly renamed when Rice went on the public payroll.

On September 11, 2001, a new, though not unknown, enemy took three thousand lives on American soil.56 Of the nineteen hijackers, fifteen were Saudi Arabians and most had been living and training in the United States for years. However, there was little doubt they had links to the Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden and that his organization, al Qaeda, was training in Afghanistan, a theocratic dictatorship ruled by the Taliban (at one time fostered by the Americans as anti-Soviet “freedom fighters”). The subsequent war on that country was therefore seen by many world leaders as legitimate, or at least tolerable.

The war against Iraq in the spring of 2003 had no such legitimacy. None of the September 11 terrorists was an Iraqi, nor was there any evidence that al Qaeda ever had ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime. There was also no evidence that Iraq still held “weapons of mass destruction”—a shorthand cliché for nuclear or chemical weapons in the wrong hands. (Of course, the nations that have by far the most WMD are the United States, its allies and the former Soviet Union.) As recently as February 2001, General Colin Powell had said that the sanctions applied since the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein “have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction.”57

Two years later, at a televised meeting of the United Nations, Powell (then secretary of state) was obliged to argue exactly the opposite. He did not make his case: the best evidence he presented was weak; the worst was already known to be false.58 Furthermore, Hans Blix, the United Nations weapons inspector, was already achieving real disarmament by destroying Iraq’s Scud missiles.59

While Washington would settle for nothing less than conquest in Iraq, it pursued a policy of negotiation with North Korea, a far more dangerous dictatorship with proven nuclear technology and long-range missiles, but no oil. The last-minute argument for war—that Saddam Hussein was a vicious tyrant—was true enough, but so were several of America’s close friends in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The world was dragooned to war on false pretences. Bush knew it, Powell knew it, informed opinion around the world knew it, and so did Bush’s most pliant ally, British prime minister Tony Blair.60 Millions protested in the streets of the world’s great cities, including a large demonstration in New York, where al Qaeda had struck only eighteen months before.

Some recalled that the first Gulf War, started by the first President Bush, had also been sold on false pretences: an emotional report to the Human Rights Caucus of Congress by a fifteen-year-old girl, saying that Iraqi troops had torn hundreds of Kuwaiti babies from incubators. This was later exposed as a lie concocted by a PR firm; the girl, identified only as “Nayirah,” turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States.61

Let me be clear that I do not subscribe to claims that the George W. Bush regime might somehow have known in advance about al Qaeda’s plans for September 11, 2001. (Of course, it was known that al Qaeda and other groups posed a threat, and there are documents to that effect, nothing more.) Nor do I belittle the horror and suffering of that day. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, like Austria-Hungary in 1914 and Germany in 1933, those in Washington seeking to advance a militarist agenda swiftly took advantage of the terrorist outrage to do so. This exploitation of the September 11 attacks is inexcusable.

The banners in the streets saying “No Blood for Oil” were dismissed as cant by Bush and Blair. We now know better. Alan Greenspan, the head banker of the United States government throughout most of Bush’s tenure, recently confirmed what the evidence suggested and what Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld’s deputy at the time) also admitted in June 2003: the Iraq War, Greenspan said, was “largely about oil.”62 In short: a cabal of weapons dealers and oil profiteers who came to power in the world’s mightiest nation by dubious means took advantage of the September 11 attacks to start an unrelated war they had been wanting to wage for years. And Tony Blair helped them do it.

Blair is the one I find hardest to understand. Britain was the former colonial power in Iraq; there were seasoned experts on hand who understood the special dangers of the country and the region. Why did Blair squander his political capital on backing the most extreme policies of the Bush administration—and all for nothing in return? Bush, whose war made oil prices triple, would not even throw Blair a crumb on the issue of climate change because it might “hurt the American economy.”

The kindest assumption one can make is that Tony Blair thought he was talking to the America of Franklin Roosevelt, unaware that the heirs of Joseph McCarthy had taken charge. Perhaps, like many Britons, he harboured the naïve idea that America is not really a foreign country—just a bigger, richer England. Clearly he believed in the “special relationship” which he thought London still enjoyed with Washington, and he himself with George Bush. One theory is that he hoped he could use the American alliance to enhance Britain’s power within the European Union. Another is that strong religious feelings played a role both in his friendship with Bush and in the conviction that his actions were, as he so often claimed, “the right thing to do.” Both theories reveal how deeply British politics have become Americanized in recent years.

Whatever Tony Blair’s motives may have been, they had a side effect in which the American right rejoiced: the Iraq War split the European Union, the world’s only credible democratic counterweight to American hegemony. If Europe had stood together against the war, the disaster might have been avoided or at least contained.

As everyone now knows, the experts’ warnings were fulfilled: the war was won but the peace lost, the entire region destabilized. The consequences to world peace are still unfolding and may yet become more serious. The suffering has far outweighed the benefit of deposing Saddam Hussein: some four thousand Americans dead, perhaps ten times that number of Iraqi battle deaths, more than 150,000 civilian deaths and over 2 million Iraqi refugees driven into exile—a tenth of the country’s population.63

The damage to human rights and to the moral standing of the United States has been incalculable. Ancient freedoms such as habeas corpus, a foundation of English-speaking democracy for a thousand years, were lightly brushed aside. Since the initial attack on Afghanistan, the Bush regime has violated Geneva Conventions on the treatment of war prisoners that even Nazi Germany observed.64 Guantánamo Bay (in eastern Cuba, only one hour’s flight from Miami) is merely the most visible Gulag in an archipelago of offshore prisons where men and boys have been held without charge, trial or access to lawyers for years. The full extent of the abuses is still unknown, but they certainly include torture, solitary confinement and degradation of the sort that came to light at Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison outside Baghdad.

The methods countenanced in Bush’s “war on terror” have given all repressive regimes of both right and left an excuse for their own atrocities. Vladimir Putin sings the antiterrorist song as he leads Russia back to autocracy. The Castro brothers savour the irony that Washington keeps its prison camp in Cuba to escape the reach of U.S. law.65 Those who stand to gain most from the war on terror are the terrorists themselves. In this sense, writes the cultural historian Morris Berman in Dark Ages America, “Rumsfeld, Perle, Abrams, Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rice [etc.] are bin Laden’s comrades in arms.” Propaganda about Iraq and terrorism became a self-fulfilling prophecy: “We took a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one.”66

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