Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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4.4 Neoconservatism questioned: foreign policy beyond Bush

Some critics of neoconservatism argued that there were inherent limitations to the ability to use military power to bring about political change in a post-colonial world. The power to rule foreigners, either directly by occupation or indirectly by imposing compliant regimes, is undermined by the likelihood of widespread national resistance. Michael Mann wrote of an ‘incoherent empire’ that was incapable of producing durable political rule or even widespread economic order. Military supremacy, said Mann, is ‘not nuclear weapons or weight of numbers but global deployment and fire power’, but this cannot guarantee desired political outcomes, only a ‘massive intimidatory presence … vis-à-vis any which dares to stand up to it’ (Mann 2003: 24). Similarly, Emmanuel Todd charted the sharp economic and demographic constraints on US global power, speaking of a ‘“theatrical micromilitarism” that was becoming less and less convincing’ (Todd, 2003).

Moreover, while the ‘return to force’ was accompanied by an enhanced presidential initiative and autonomy in the use of force, the continuing price to be paid for the Iraq war was the subordination of political ends to military means and tactics. Bush could only order the strategic use of force by surrendering control over military tactics to the generals. If the military tactics then turned out to be inappropriate for the strategic objective – as was the case in Iraq where Saddam Hussein’s armed forces could be defeated but a new pro-Western state could not then be quickly imposed – Bush was left with little room for manoeuvre. Not surprisingly, therefore, critics also questioned whether the relations between means and ends were sustainable given the inability of the US military to conduct long-term counter-insurgency operations.

Of course neoconservatism suffered when the Bush Administration struggled to negate these constraints on the unilateral exercise of military power aimed at imposing political change on other societies. Emmanuel Todd writes:

If we want to understand what is happening, we must absolutely lay aside the idea of an America acting on the basis of a global plan that has been rationally thought through and methodically applied. American foreign policy has a direction, but it is about as directed as the current of a river. ... Things are no doubt moving but without the least bit of thinking or mastery. This is now the American way – the way of a superpower, there is no question, but one powerless to maintain control over a world that is too big and whose diversity is too strong for it.

(Todd, 2003, p143–4)

Richard Hofstadter, US commentator and social critic, once said that ‘the most prominent and pervasive failing [of American political culture] is a certain proneness to fits of moral crusading that would be fatal if they were not sooner or later tempered with a measure of apathy and common sense’ (quoted in Lieven, 2004, p6). And indeed domestic opposition to the war in Iraq, not least among Bush’s political opponents, and geostrategic realities soon tempered the application of the Bush Doctrine, though the consequences of – and for – Iraq and the rest of the Middle East will be long-standing.

Walter Russell Mead states that the US political system has never yet been able to ‘develop a coherent, politically sustainable strategy for American world leadership in peacetime’ (Mead, 2002, p321, emphasis added). The US impulse to spread its values and mores abroad, while never far from the surface in US politics, has been discredited and chastened by the Bush Administration’s blunders in the Middle East and the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.

Activity 10 The next intervention

In a newspaper article, two commentators (one of them, Robert Kagan, is closely associated with the neoconservative movement) argue that the US, while still seeking to wage the ‘war on terror’, needs to do so in conjunction with other liberal democracies. Now read the article [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Critics of the Bush Doctrine, among them Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University, have long argued that the international costs of cooperation offers the best way to deal with terrorism (Nye, 2008). Nye argues that that the unilateral exercise of coercive military power prevents such cooperation, not least by undermining US ‘soft’ power. By ‘soft’ power, Nye means the ways in which broader elements of US society and culture act as a target of positive example, encouraging other states to identify with – and perhaps even imitate – the US. This could, it is suggested, help make the US a pole of attraction for other forces and states in the international system. Such ‘soft’ power (cultural strength, economic advantage, modernist values), should it be used as a complement to the US’ ‘hard’ power (population size, economic clout, military might), could therefore advantage the US by making it a positive pole of attraction for other forces and states in the international system.

Activity 11 Interview with Dr Simon Bromley

Please read the transcript of an interview with Dr Simon Bromley of The Open University. Simon is an international-relations scholar who studies the nature of US power in the international system, and the author of American Power and the Prospects for International Order (Polity Press, 2008).

Please click ‘Reveal comment’ to read the interview.

Comment

Richard Heffernan
Hello. My name is Richard Heffernan and joining me today to discuss some issues relating to section 4 is Simon Bromley, who’s a colleague at the Open University who’s worked on this Course. And Simon is the author of ‘American Power and the Prospects for International Order’, which is published by Polity Press. And Simon’s going to talk to us today about some issues that have been raised.
Simon, many people argue the US is now the world’s only super power. Is this a view you agree with and if so why is this so?
Simon Bromley
It is a view I agree with if one’s talking about military power. After the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States clearly became the sole super power, militarily speaking. But if you look at the distribution of economic power around the world then I think it's not the case the United States is a super power. It's the most powerful economy but there are many other important centres of economic power in Europe and especially in Asia. And I think this raises a very real issue about the impact or consequences of, of the fact the United States is militarily a super power because if you have a world in which economic power and with that often political power, is dispersing away from the United States and yet the United States remains militarily the most important power. Is the United States able to use that military power to political effect in the way that for example it was through most of the Cold War to persuade allies, to reassure allies, to deter adversaries? So yes, it’s the sole super power militarily speaking but I think the political consequences of that are much more problematic. So therefore to describe the United States as the sole super power politically I think is, is questionable.
RH
If one distinguishes international power then between economic, political and, and military might what do people mean when they describe the US as a ‘hegemon’?
SB
I think by describing the United States as a hegemon they’re, they’re talking about a form of international influence and ability to shape the international system that doesn't rest simply upon the ability to coerce, that doesn't just depend on, on the military might as, as you put it. And I think one might unpack that in terms of three different aspects of the United States hegemony that people have talked about.
One is the ability to provide collective leadership for other States in the system; to address issues of concern to many States; to propose policies institutions, which are of benefit to the United States but of benefit to other States as well - leadership on trade liberalisation or monetary stability or something like that.
I think a second is the ability to set the terms of economic and cultural development across the globe. The United States is not in any sense now the only important centre of economic power in the world but it is still the centre of innovation in the world economy. It is the US economy that sets the terms of innovation for most of the rest of the system. It is still the case that United States culture and cultural forms set the terms of debate for many other cultures in the world. So there’s in a sense being at the forefront of economic and cultural development in which other countries whether by choice or, or by force of circumstance are kind of compelled to follow American leadership.
And then the third I suppose is, is the idea of American society as a, as an attractive society, a society that many people would seek to, er, move to if they could or, um, many societies seek to emulate. So those are aspects of leadership and ability to shape the international system which really depend on providing either, positive resources for others to benefit from or forms of persuasion and encouragement that don't rest on coercion and might.
RH
And this would imply that a hegemonic power is one that can also be challenged by other interests, by other actors within the political system, within the international order. So it’s not assumed that this is necessarily by everybody thinks this is a good thing.
SB
Absolutely not, and I think one of the crucial things about hegemonic power is that its exercise itself sometimes creates opposition, sometimes it creates consent. And one of the interesting debates I think that’s come out of the United States and it's allies after 9/11 and particularly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, is whether the United States is in some danger of squandering it's hegemonic leadership. That is, as it where, the misuse of hegemonic power can in a sense back-fire in countries that were very sympathetic to the United States, culturally and politically, may begin to turn against the United States.
RH
Can we then define the United States as an ‘empire’, as an imperial power in the way that we used to think Britain was an imperial power in the Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century, when it had physical holdings; it owned and controlled places around the globe. Does this description apply to the US today?
SB
I don’t think it does. I mean there is an important set of debates that argues that as the United States in a sense loses the capacity for hegemonic leadership so it will resort to more, imperial forms of control and influence. But I think one needs to treat that with a healthy dose of scepticism. Apart from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is not territorially occupying other territories, even if it has bases in them this is not direct rule of other territories in the sense that the European Empires entertained in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century.
If you compare the United States ability to re-order societies and politics on the ground with the transformation that the European Empires wrought in the colonial world, then the United States influence is puny. Um, one only needs to look at Iraq and Afghanistan to see that. So I think in the sense of a direct comparison to, as it were, the classical hey day of European Imperialism, personally I think it's a fanciful comparison. The United States doesn't have the capacity or the will for that kind of empire.
There’s another sense of empire though where I think it has slightly more legitimacy which is Empire as a strategy of co-opting foreign elites and controlling their foreign policies. And in that rather specific and limited sense of empire then I think it probably is accurate to describe large parts of America’s international influence as imperial.
RH
And that relates to its role as a hegemon…
SB
Yes.
RH
... as a kind of sense of attraction for people within the world.
SB
For those elites and for, er, and for them finding it in their interests to subordinate aspects of their foreign policy to the wider foreign policy of the United States, yes.
RH
What then was the significance of September 11 for the United States and it's standing within the world?
SB
I think there’s two questions there. There’s the significance of September 11 for the United States in terms of the way its political leadership and its military leadership, saw some of the issues and potential threats in the wider international arena.
The Clinton administration had been exercised by Al-Qaeda attacks on American interests since at least the mid 1990’s. Clinton was personally very exercised by the issue of the, as it were, as he saw it, the potential coming together of weapons of mass destruction and non-State actors. So that was on the radar of American policy makers, both political and military prior to 9/11. But it wasn't regarded as high order business. Other things were regarded as much more important. To give one very particular example: there were many discussions about going after Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan prior to 2000/11 and they, they never got anywhere even after Al-Qaeda attacks on, er, American naval vessel off – waters off Yemen. And the reason why they never got anywhere is because the higher order business was keeping Pakistan on side. And it was always argued that if you intervened in Afghanistan this would in a sense be proxy war against Pakistan because prior to 9/11 Pakistan was one of the only countries that recognised the Taliban government in, in Afghanistan.
So the United States, prior to 9/11 as it were, saw Al-Qaeda and other forms of, of terrorism of that kind as a problem but it was not regarded as the kind of the high order geo-political business. 9/11 changes that overnight.
RH
And the Taliban were the kind, the government of running Afghanistan who gave Al-Qaeda safe haven, who allowed them to organise their attacks from that, er, territory.
SB
Yes. That’s correct. So 9/11 changes that assessment. It suddenly puts what had been recognised as a problem to the, to the very top of the political agenda. Prior to that point, the Bush administration had been primarily concerned with modernising the American military triad national missile defence, the revolution of military affairs. They’d been concerned about the rise of China. They’d been concerned about the turn of politics and geopolitics in Russia so they’d been looking as it were at kind of great power traditional geopolitical issues. So 9/11 as it were changes the assessment. I think it also changes things in that it gives particular groups in the United States the neo Conservatives and some of the Nationalist Right an opportunity to influence foreign policy. That I think it's hard to see that they would have really got such a strong hearing at the highest levels without such a dramatic and catastrophic event as that.
RH
And, and that dramatic and catastrophic event was one in which the US lost more people in a domestic incident than ever before, putting aside Indian wars and things like that and the Civil War. And so the magnitude of the event galvanised the United States in a way that most people perceived would happen and, er, no doubt might have been intended in that way by the people who mounted the attacks.
After September 11, can you tell us the ways in which the foreign policy of the George Bush Administration differed from that of the George Herbert Walker Bush, Bush’s father, who was President from 1989 to 1993 and Bill Clinton who was President for eight years after that? You mentioned that there was a, a reaction and that there was a move to the right to impose American interests in response to September 11 but what are the particular differences from the Bush? Was it entirely reactive to September 11 or was there a, a desire on the part of the United States to go on the offensive after September 11?
SB
I don’t think it was entirely reactive. I think there was a, an important element of offensive intent in it. And it's not accidental that it, the President characterised it as war. And I think it's important to remember that. In what ways did the administration of George W Bush differ from those of those earlier ones that you spoke of? Well I think the emphasis on the United States military power as a tool for dealing with certain foreign policy problems was a significant difference. Iraq had been a long-standing problem for the United States, for all those previous administrations. As I’ve already mentioned the issue of non state actors and the like was on the radar. But there hadn't been at the kind of highest level serious attention to sustained use of military force to as it were resolve those problems. So that’s clearly a shift, the, the focus to the, to the idea that America’s military power might actually be the solution to these problems.
The second thing I think that was distinctive was to, to see the conflict that as it were materialised or was dramatically, kind of rendered visible by 9/11 in terms of a conflict over values and ideas. That this was not simply about defeating militarily particular antagonists or deposing a particular, er, leadership and regime in, in the case of Iraq. It was actually about a broader struggle to re-order key parts of the world in ways that were, kind of, more conformable to more consistent with the liberal democratic market capitalist order of the West of which the United States is the emblematic and most powerful component. So that conjunction of the idea that military power could be a solution with in a sense a reassertion of universality of American values as a solution to problems of international order I think was distinctive. And some of the things that are, that as it were often characterised as part of the Bush doctrine in a sense follow from that: the unilateralism, the focus on as it were dealing with problems before they materialise rather than waiting till people come and you know break down your door the, and so on. And there’s something else which I think is important which I think will be a, a fairly durable legacy which is one of the things that Bush did, influenced in part by the neo Conservative and Nationalist Right in the United States was to strongly link foreign policy to domestic politics. In a way that both the Clinton and, and Bush administrations, the other administrations that you mentioned, didn’t really do. Those administrations tended to treat foreign policy as very much a matter of elites, um, and not to engage the public directly in it. One of the innovations of Bush, which I think will survive his Presidency, is that you can't make now foreign policy in the United States over the heads of the American people. And one of the things that the, I mean, Bush did that in particularly partisan way of course, but one of the things that the neo Conservatives latched on to was if you want to mobilise the power of the United States externally you need to mobilise the political society domestically as well. So that you cannot conduct these kinds of as it were expensive and demanding in terms of lives and material kind of campaigns without popular support. Clearly, that popular support now is very problematic in the United States but the fact of the link between domestic policy and international politics won't change. That link has been kind of, re-forged in a really strong way and it may be that it will turn round that because of domestic opposition and foreign engagement becomes difficult but there will still be a link whether it's kind of positive or negative between those two dimensions.
RH
And that is a significant legacy of September 11?
SB
Yes.
RH
It’s placed America in the world and its people in the world in a way that sometimes has not been the case in the past?
SB
Yes, absolutely.
RH
One of the things we’ve looked at in the course is to discuss the difference between a preventative war and pre-emptive war. I wonder if you could tell us what your take on those two distinctions are?
SB
The term ‘pre-emptive war’ had a fairly widely understood meaning before September 11 in international diplomacy and indeed even in International Law. And it was regarded as something that in some circumstances was legitimate. The idea of pre-emptive war is a war in which a country, which has clear evidence of aggressive intent by another against it, starts the conflict first. In other words you don’t wait for the other country’s tanks to cross your border to attack them if you know they are massing tanks on your border and are about to cross it. That was seen in diplomatic practice and International Law as part of the right of self-defence. You don’t need to wait to be attacked in order to respond if you have kind of clear and compelling evidence of aggressive intent on behalf of, of some other actor whether State or non-State. And the official position of the United States is that what it has been doing since September 11 is pre-emption. But many people have argued that the United States has shifted the definition of pre-emption into what used to be called, and still is called by some, preventative war. And a preventative war is one which is designed to change the political and geopolitical circumstances in a given country or region in order to forestall a future potential threat. So for example, an attack in 2008 on Iran in advance of Iran having the capacity or capability to develop nuclear weapons would be a preventative war – not a pre-emptive one.
RH
The idea that they may be a threat in 2014?
SB
Exactly. And the worry in the wider international community about the notion of preventative war is that because the threats that are apparently being dealt with are in a sense indeterminate. They’re indeterminate as to their content; they’re indeterminate as to their timing. Who is to define what is legitimate in terms of preventative war? With pre-emptive war it's often the case that in a sense there is clear and publicly available evidence that can be given to other States in order to legitimate what you’re about to do. With preventative war because it's so future orientated and so indeterminate many people argue that this could never be legitimate. How could you possibly provide the evidence that would make it legitimate? And of course the fact that the Bush administration in particular legitimated the war against Iraq on the basis of what turned out to be, you know, mistaken or deliberately mistaken – deliberately misleading evidence has made that whole issue so much more sensitive.
RH
And the shift towards this new strategy was set out, as students will have discovered, in the National Security Strategies of the United States, published in 2002 and updated in 2006.
SB
Yes that’s right. I think that is exactly right although it is important to remember I think that notions of pre-emptive war are not new in terms of the United States discussion on foreign policy. So for example if you go back to the 1950’s and early 1960’s during the Cold War, before the Soviet Union gained a secure second strike capability in military terms, which means an ability to survive an initial nuclear attack and then respond in kind against the United States. Before that period when the Soviet Union was clearly not, as it were, super power status, there was serious high level discussion in the United States about pre-emptive war against the Soviet - well what would have been actually preventative war against the Soviet Union to forestall the ability of the Soviet Union to check American military power. And discussions of roll back of communism in Eastern Europe and even of limited nuclear war against the Soviets in the Fifties were discussions around pre-emption and prevention. Er, they didn’t get anywhere then but it’s I think important to recognise that the American military and aspects of the political elite have always thought about these issues in some strategic circumstances.
RH
What has happened in Iraq? Why when the United States and its allies foremost amongst them Britain, were able to relatively easily remove Saddam Hussein in 2003 has the US found it so difficult to stabilise the country and defeat the post Saddam insurgency since 2003?
SB
I think there’s two levels of answer to that, and I’m still not clear in my own mind which of them is, is more important. At one level one can point to a reckless, arrogant lack of planning for the aftermath. The number of troops deployed; the strategy employed; the relationship to neighbouring States in the region and the like and the immediate forms of post war occupation and administration. And you could look at a series of decisions that were taken both prior to the conflict in terms of the, as it were the commitment of personnel and resources but also to a series of decisions that the military and then civilian administrators took in the first few days, weeks and months after the conflict. And really it is an almost unbelievable catalogue of, of errors, stupidity, neglect, which is you know historians will one day try and explain how a country like the United States could have ever done such a thing. And it, and really ones mind does boggle at times that such a kind of serious undertaking was done with so little thought to the aftermath. And maybe they believed the Iraqi National Congress that they would be welcomed as liberators and that there would be a kind of alternative government in waiting in a sense. Who knows? But, so one level you could talk about failures of planning, execution and policy in the immediate run up and, and aftermath of the war which then create a situation of in a sense not just that you have deposed a regime but you’ve actually broken a State and that therefore there is no political order. And as we know from many other instances around the world, putting States back together where not just the regime has gone but the whole notion of Statehood has been compromised is exceptionally difficult.
That’s one possible answer and I think that has a lot of truth in it. But I think there might be some deeper questions around suppose that the planning and the execution had been better attended to, suppose that some of the decision making had been better, suppose there had been more troops on the ground to pacify particularly Baghdad immediately after the fall of, of Saddam’s regime. I think there’s still a question in what is effectively a fully postcolonial world now. And what I mean by that is even, even in the, as it were some of the weakest and least developed States the mass of the population is mobilised into national political spaces. So that you’re trying to administer or rule societies which are very different from the societies in which the kind of European Empires in, in the colonial period and in which the means of fairly low level but rather lethal violence are widely dispersed. It doesn't take a great deal of technology to blow up Marines using an explosive device at the side of a road. Everybody’s got, er, automatic weapons and so on. So that insurgent movements, resistance movements, whatever you want to call them, are able to deploy forms of violence against any occupying power which won't impose large numbers of casualties. But then that brings me to the other consideration which is - is the United States in terms of it's society and politics, capable of sustaining long commitments in which very, very quickly the population, the US population that is, do not regard vital national interests as being at stake. I mean clearly if the United States in a sense was at war with some major power they’d have no problem sustaining a war effort. The difficulty is can you sustain that kind of quasi-imperial administration in conditions of modern democratic politics? And my guess is you can't actually. I don’t think that’s specific to the United States. Britain has had exactly the same problem of sustaining its commitments in Iraq. So if you put those two things together that the, that the fact that the bulk of the population is mobilised into politics into, in the society you’re trying to occupy and re-order. That the means of low level but nonetheless lethal violence is widely dispersed and put that alongside the very limited tolerance of domestic populations in the United States or Britain for these kinds of, er, foreign entanglements. It maybe that even a much better planned and much better resourced occupation would have soon found itself in, in very similar difficulties. And I, I don’t think we know yet as to kind of what the balance is between those rather local bureaucratic considerations versus considerations which may actually tell us much more about the potential limits of military power, not just now but, you know, as we look to the decades ahead.
RH
Because the role of the insurgency in Iraq is that its objective is not necessarily to defeat the United States but not to permit the United States defeat it. So once it obliges the United States to spend as is estimated a five thousand dollars a minute in Iraq and causing fatalities to troops this is a way in which a gnat can bother a gorilla.
SB
Absolutely. I mean this is a form of, of, er, what’s sometimes called asymmetrical conflict in which the terms at stake are different for the parties. This is not like a war between two States in which both regard it as equally important that they win. As you say for the insurgents it's simply that they not be defeated. So that what's at stake for each side is very, very different and therefore the commitment to it is very, very different. And there are many instances of, in a sense the, what on paper looks like the militarily powerful party to the conflict – losing Vietnam is a classic case. If one compares the United States military power during Vietnam with those of the, the forces it was fighting against in Vietnam then you would have – if you just looked at the military balance of power - it's kind of it's a one way show. But again there was an example of asymmetric conflict that what that conflict meant to the North Vietnamese was vastly more important than what it meant in the end to the United States. So in these cases actually, in cases of asymmetrical conflict where the apparently weaker antagonist is able to exploit if you like the political weakness of the militarily stronger country, it doesn't at all follow that - to go back to our starting point in this discussion - that military supremacy translates into political victory.
RH
You mentioned earlier on Simon that the United States is the world’s only military super power and you mentioned, particularly with regard to Iraq, that in some cases she’s not able to assert her power and advance her interests around the world in ways that she would suggest. But it might be the case, might it not, that she is in fact weaker than both her friends and her enemies might suspect. For example, we know that the United States military budget is at present larger than the next twenty countries combined, which includes most of Europe, China and Russia. But if we look on September 11 2001, the US was attacked by nineteen people who were able to hijack four aircraft and murder three thousand people and cause countless billions in economic costs. And we know that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon cost something in the region of, United States dollars, four hundred thousand and five hundred thousand to execute. So the war on terror in a way is catching the United States off balance. This response is in a way much more difficult because the enemies are so diverse and are so small, and are so disparate that the United States sometimes might be seen to be lashing out rather than engaging in deliberate and direct attempts to resolve the problems it faces.
SB
I think there’s considerable truth in that but I think buried in it is a really difficult dilemma for the United States and not just for the present Administration but for any successor Administration. Which is that at one level you could argue, and many do argue, that the as it were the tools that the United States has chosen to deal with these questions namely a military confrontation are the wrong ones. That in a sense they should have concentrated on counter terrorism, on criminal investigations, on international co-operation, closing down financial networks and the like. And to an extent they’ve done that as well actually. But you could argue that they should have concentrated on that and not used the high power military option precisely for the reasons that we’ve been rehearsing. That it doesn't translate easily and or certainly not quickly into political victory. That said there is the question of the authority of States and there is particularly the question of the authority of great powers and in this case of the, of the sole superpower. And challenges to authority often have to be addressed in ways that don’t really figure in a cost benefit calculus. So that if the United States, as I think it probably did, saw the attacks of September 11 not just as, as it were, catastrophic in human terms and consequentially, in terms of economic damage and so on. But if they saw them as something that if left unanswered would fundamentally call into question the authority of the United States, both the authority of the State vis a vis its people domestically but perhaps more importantly the authority of the United States as the most important international power. Then in a sense you have to answer that unless you want to relinquish that authority and the of course the cost of relinquishing that authority would be much, much wider than those attacks. It would ramify across the whole field of American foreign policy and its whole standing in the world. And in a sense great powers are in a very awkward position because really the only way they can reassert their authority is to reassert the thing that defines them as States, which is about security and the monopolisation of the means of violence. In a sense they almost have to react in a militarily decisive way otherwise in a sense they’re not doing their job. And you may in a sense be in a position where in a sense you’re almost driven to do that even if actually the cost benefit calculus of doing that is not gonna, any time soon, give you what you want. So I think as it were in the end the diagnosis that the United States should have just pursued Al-Qaeda as, as it were, treated them just as criminals and regarded as a, as a police operation. In the end actually I think is a superficial analysis because I think what it ignores is the question of the great power of authority. And I think the, the paradox for the United States is that in a sense it may be the case that it was compelled to respond in something like the way it did and yet it still may not work. In other words this may not re-establish the United States authority and it may not do that certainly in the next foreseeable few years but it may not do it even in, you know, a decade or two.
RH
And might well weaken the United States.
SB
Indeed it might and sometimes this is a general feature of authority, isn't it, that sometimes attempts to reassert authority simply backfire whether, you know, at any level whether one’s talking about the authority of parents over children or of states over their populations or of States vis a vis other States. Authority is a very, very precarious relationship and sometimes if you misjudge its exercise, you simply undermine it even further. And it maybe that is what the United States has blundered into in Iraq.
RH
What finally then do radical Islamists want from the United States? Is the United States likely to defeat them or deal with them?
SB
What do they want from the United States? I think in most cases their grievances and their conflicts are actually very local and specific to the countries and regions they inhabit. I don’t think they have any global agenda and certainly no joined up agenda in terms of the different sites in which these activities take place. But the main antagonist they have in the particular countries and regions where they seek to operate have the United States as their external backer. So the main target of Al-Qaeda is the Saudi Regime in Saudi Arabia. The main external backer of the Saudi State is the United States. The main target of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan is the government in Islamabad but the main backer of Islamabad is Washington and so on. So in each case the grievance of these groups is actually against local elites, local leaders and so on. But because those local elites and local leaders are supported by the United States, and because of the failure of these groups to win their political struggles locally they have internationalised the conflicts, seeking to weaken their local antagonists by getting their external backer to go home. So what do they want from the United States – to answer your first question – is they want the United States to stop backing the local governments that they oppose.
RH
So if Belgium was the international hegemon they would think Belgium is the great Satan?
SB
Yes. I mean there’s a cultural element to it at, as well. There is a cultural conflict between the interpretations of Islam that legitimate this form of, of violence and a hostility to the cultural forms of the liberal democratic capitalist West. There is a cultural element to it and the United States is, is as it were as the kind of fountain origin of that cultural form is in that sense a kind of cultural antagonist. But that’s not the reason for the attacks. The reason for the attacks is to, to get the United States to stop supporting the government in Saudi Arabia. Stop supporting the government in Pakistan or whatever. Can the United States defeat this? No – not, not in our lifetime. Can it contain it? Yes. As a strategic threat Al-Qaeda is I think, I would suggest already vanquished. As a perpetual at least for the foreseeable future, and by that I mean decades, will these kinds of problems go away? No – they won't. And the reason why they won't go away is because the societies and States that are generating that conflict are so unstable and so weak and none of us know how politically as it were to, to mend them or to, to find ways of diffusing much of that tension, that it will continue to bubble away. So it can't be defeated but it certainly can be contained and I, I my own guess is that it in large part already has been contained.
RH
Simon, I’m very grateful to you for sharing your insights on this subject with us. Thanks ever so much.
SB
Thanks, Richard.
 

From President Bush to President Obama

On the 20 January 2009, George Bush was succeeded as president by the Democrat Barack Obama. Obama made clear in his inaugural address that the US was still ‘at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred’ and declared to ‘those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you’ (Obama 2009).

For Hillary Clinton, Obama’s Secretary of State, the US has to now secure its longstanding objectives, including defeating terror, by making best use of what she has called ‘smart power’. By this Clinton means ‘the full range of tools at [its] disposal – diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural – picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy’ (Clinton 2009). Such ‘smart’ power – a combination of the aforementioned ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power – will, it is envisaged, enable the US to make more effective use of both international diplomacy and military might; and renew and strengthen its international alliances. It means the US might choose, whenever possible, to pursue US leadership by working multilaterally with and through others as well as, whenever necessary, being always prepared to take unilateral military action. When facing its enemies, the US may now be willing to ‘extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist’ (Obama 2009), but will remain as determined as ever to protect and advance its security, interests, and values and those of its allies. As a result, the US may now recognise – in Secretary of State Clinton’s formulation – that it ‘cannot solve the most pressing problems on [its] own, and the world cannot solve them without America’ (Clinton 2009).

However, the US under Obama may well seek only to refine, not necessarily abandon its neo-conservative certainty. At the time of writing (March 09), it remains too early to say exactly how Obama’s foreign policy will differ from that of Bush. It is likely, however, given US history and Obama’s preferences, that there will be considerable policy continuity amid some change; the US-led ‘war on terror’ (even if that particular phase is not deployed) will certainly continue.

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