The American bully strikes back

A reader responds to Gary Kamiya's "War Without End"

Published October 10, 2001 11:11PM (EDT)

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Somebody hates me enough to try to kill me. Is it reasonable for me to kill him and then try to alleviate the conditions that caused his hatred? From his l997 speech to this week's videotaped statement, Osama bin Laden has been laying out the case for his, and other Islamic militants', hostility to the U.S. very clearly. A few of the grievances are long-standing and have never been seriously dealt with by the U.S. government: the Israeli settlement policy, the continual bombing of Iraq, U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and the failure to support the creation of a Palestinian state. All of these grievances could be resolved with sufficient political will in Washington.

It was the U.S. refusal to respond to these grievances that eventually led to a series of terrorist actions against American targets: the bombings of embassies, military facilities and the USS Cole and the first attack on the World Trade Center. These actions finally succeeded in getting our attention on Sept. 11 when the magnitude of the attacks finally became great enough. In light of this, the U.S. military response -- waging an undeclared war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, however unenlightened that regime may seem by Western liberal standards, and using as the excuse the elimination of bin Laden's network and by implication a broader web of terrorist cells -- has to be exposed for what it is. It is the action of a government that adamantly refuses to acknowledge its complicity in the creation of the grievances in the first place and furthermore the actions of a government that sees itself as somehow morally justified in wiping out anybody who presumes to take its own grievances seriously enough to actively try to get our attention. The aggrieved are supposed to come, hat in hand, hoping to gain an audience. As Leroi Jones once said, "Mr. Charlie likes us to use 'nice methods' because he knows that nice methods never work." So we wipe the slate clean in Afghanistan and then "allow" the Afghan people to create a regime of their own choosing, namely one that the U.S.approves.

The only justification for such a policy is retribution. It is certainly not justice. Let's try an analogy. A husband beats his wife, denies her dignity. She rebels and hurts him. He kills her. Can we say that justice was done, that somehow she deserved it? Of course not. But on the international level, the biggest bully on the block finally gets a blow struck against him and, in return, destroys the nervy attacker. Then the bully announces that he is going to create the conditions for no further attacks, including establishing the types of regimes that will be allowable, the value systems that will be acceptable and so on. The arrogance of power simply continues in an outwardly more humane form.

I'm sorry, but the argument is ethnocentric and self-indulgent in the extreme. There are at least two alternatives in the world, right now, to U.S. hegemony: the Chinese and the Arabic/Muslim. Allowing for a little confusion, we might include Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and North Korea with China. We could throw Cuba in as a footnote. The hegemonic mentality sees the Chinese as, in Gary Kamiya's word, "ominous" and the Arabic/Moslem as pre-modern or worse. How dare anybody not share the world view of the U.S. and the West. Certainly how dare anybody lift a hand actively to resist the U.S. vision of the world.

It would not be so bad if U.S. actions in the world were based primarily on the "liberal" values of the Bill of Rights -- judicial review, limited government and electoral politics. But these lofty ideals are almost always used as camouflage for oil interests and other corporate access to resources and labor markets, strategic national interests, support for regimes that further these interests and the destabilization of regimes that oppose them. Instances of U.S. idealism without the camouflage are few and far between, for example, perhaps, Haiti and Somalia.

So let's drop the cloak that justifies waging war against Afghanistan as somehow a justifiable cleansing that prepares the way for a more humane world. It is just another self-righteous blow struck by the bully, this time seeming more reasonable because it is retribution for the audacity shown by the bullied in daring to strike a blow himself. Murder committed to defeat murder. War to end war. All we end up with is more death. The eye-for-an-eye leaving everybody blind.

As to Kamiya's reference to "knee-jerk anti-American reaction of ossified leftists," I have to see such an attitude as the domestic equivalent of the "wipe the slate clean" policy in the world and the "end of ideology" philosophy; in other words dismiss any critics who don't accept the political consensus. I would assume that stronger methods would be rationalized to silence the critics if they (we) seriously threatened the prevailing hegemony, perhaps jail and even death, presumably as traitors to the U.S. world view. It is deeply troubling to read Kamiya's rationalization for another U.S. military attack on a Third World country because it does not come from the usual super-patriot fringe but from within the heart of the supposedly liberal- critical tradition in U.S. journalism.

There would be no anti-Americanism, whether "knee-jerk" or otherwise, if U.S. foreign policy were conducted on the basis of deep respect for the cultures and values that prevail in other parts of the world and a genuine "humility" in the implementation of its economic interests. But it is not humility for the U.S. to wait three weeks to retaliate, largely because it took that long to construct enough acceptance, some of it grudging, by strategically important other countries and to delineate the optimum targets. And it is not a "kinder, gentler America" that rounds up enough support worldwide to avoid condemnation for another essentially unilateral U.S. military action.

It is truly wishful thinking to hope that U.S. policymakers have learned a profound lesson from recent events and are now prepared to abandon U.S. unilateralism and act with restraint and compassion in the world. Certainly we will drop food all over the parts of Afghanistan that our supposed friends in the Northern Alliance control, as part of the strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the people. But let's not kid ourselves. If we set up the Northern Alliance as "our man" in Afghanistan and it turns against us and doesn't allow the U.S. to exercise significant control over the nation's destiny, it will be the next target for the U.S. military. The convenient thing about the Soviet Union and the Cold War was that it made U.S. economic imperialism and huge military budgets seem to be a justifiable self-defense against foreign aggression. Terrorism, with "nation-building" waiting in the wings, are the new justifications. For U.S. policymakers, the Sept. 11 disaster was actually quite conveniently timed. The U.S. government can now engage in huge military buildups and military adventures, even restrict civil liberties, relatively unopposed at home. I wouldn't be surprised if creates some excuse to invade Cuba again.

Bin Laden has pulled it off. He has transformed even liberal opinion makers into apologists for the U.S. global strategy and hence further widened the gulf between the U.S. and the Islamic part of the Third World. Where the "ominous" Chinese come down remains to be seen, but they are not likely to be as easily bullied as some of our dubious friends. Those of us who hope for a truly pluralistic globe can only hope that China holds out and that the rest of the Islamic world is not completely cowed.

The scholar Robert Neville, in his book "Boston Confucianism," wrote, "No intellectual is only a Westerner or only a Confucian except through culpable ignorance." I think we have to modify the quote slightly to include, at least, Islamist. It is time now for genuine world citizenship, not just more subtle rationalizations for U.S. dominance.

-- David Alford

By Salon Staff

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