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

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4.6 Criticism of the war on terror

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 virtually the whole world and all state leaders sympathised with the US and stood behind the Bush administration in its response to the terrorist threat and its declaration of a ‘war on terror’. This mood, however, began to dissipate in early 2002. For Paul Rogers of the University of Bradford, this was because:

... it became apparent that the war on terror’s deeper agenda was largely driven by the desire to facilitate what the more fervent neoconservative supporters of the Bush administration were calling a ‘new American century’. The Washington view was that it was essential to maintain control of the world. Its model was impelled by a unilateralist stance owing much to a central tenet of the neocon outlook: what is good for the White House is good for the world.

(Rogers, 2006)

Critics pointed to distinct signs of this approach in the 2000 neoconservative statement on Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century (Donnelly 2000). It was not difficult to link parts of this statement with the view that attack was the best form of defence and – in its arguments for the need to renew and expand the US’s military capacity – the idea that power not extended or used would soon weaken and atrophy. Thus, although the US’s unprecedented contemporary power was recognised and taken as the premise of the argument, the grand strategy of the US should be ‘to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible’ (Donnelly, 2000 p21, emphasis added). Yet, as controversy about the invasion of Iraq and its consequences strengthened, scepticism about the nature and implications of ‘the war on terror’ grew stronger in many quarters.

One more complicating issue is the precise meaning of the term ‘war on terror’ itself – and, indeed, whether such a concept really makes much sense. You have already encountered discussion of what terror and terrorist activity mean in a contemporary context, but there are similar – and perhaps yet more complex – issues surrounding the idea of a war on terror. The Observer correspondent Jason Burke, a leading analyst of these issues, tackles these problems in his work Al Qaeda and concludes that the term ‘war on terrorism’ is ‘effectively nonsensical’ (Burke, 2007, p22). Others pointed out that the term itself might be strictly nonsensical, but that it did perform certain political functions for the administration. One highly critical version of this view was expressed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been the National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter:

Constant reference to a ‘war on terror’ did accomplish one major objective. It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue. The war of choice in Iraq could never have gained the congressional support it got without the psychological linkage between the shock of 9/11 and the postulated existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Support for President Bush in the 2004 elections was also mobilized in part by the notion that ‘a nation at war’ does not change its commander in chief midstream. The sense of a pervasive but otherwise imprecise danger was thus channeled in a politically expedient direction by the mobilizing appeal of being ‘at war’.

(Brzezinski 2007)

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