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


The terrorist attacks of 9/11 not only cost some 3,000 lives; they also deeply scarred the American consciousness and made a deep impact on both US foreign policy and the world at large. This module aims to help you understand the nature of terrorism in the post-9/11 world, including its causes, manifestations and ideologies.

The module assesses the wider consequences of 9/11 on domestic and world politics, along with the military and political response of the US and the UK to terrorist threats and the changing role of the media (via such methods as embedded reporting), and explores how the British state attempts to balance security and civil liberty in the face of the sudden and shocking arrival of home-grown terrorism on its shores.

This is a short course, covering international politics and media sociology.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of Level 2 study in Politics.

Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • construct an argument with appropriate use of evidence, concepts and theories from the humanities and social sciences

  • communicate arguments, ideas and conclusions effectively, using styles and language appropriate to the subject, and be aware of your purpose and audience

  • demonstrate a familiarity with and ability to selectively and appropriately refer to key concepts, theories and debates relevant to understanding the phenomenon of and debates about contemporary terrorism and the international consequences of 9/11.

1 Politics, media and war

Welcome to Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its impacts.

1.1 Introduction

In this section we will introduce you to the course and identify the key subjects, themes and issues you will be exploring. We’ll begin by covering the course’s objectives and structure, before moving on to discuss the events of 11 September 2001, the US responses to those events and finally, the causes of 9/11.

1.1.1 Course objectives and structure

Course objectives

This is a short course in international politics and media sociology, and has three objectives.

  1. To examine the military and political response of the US, the UK and their allies to terrorist threats. The course offers a brief and straightforward introduction to the changing nature of war and terrorism.
  2. To examine the role the media plays in defining the nature of political violence, representing global conflicts, and shaping popular and elite perceptions of the terrorist threat.
  3. To discuss the growing securitisation of many areas of social life, and explore how the British state balances the trade-off between security and civil liberty in the face of organised and disorganised terrorism.

The course’s overall objective, by exploring the varied geopolitical causes and consequences of 9/11, is to provide a simple introduction to contemporary, cutting-edge issues in international politics and media studies. It will help you to make better sense of some key contemporary global events and to evaluate some of the public policies an event such as 9/11 can prompt.

Course structure

The course is taught over 10 sections, with a series of activities throughout.

1.1.2 The events of 11 September 2001

President Franklin Roosevelt said that 7 December 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbour, ‘would live in infamy’. The same has to be said of the dark day of 11 September 2001, when terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (New York City) and the Pentagon (Washington DC) robbed some 3,000 people, mostly civilians, of their lives. The victims, while largely American, numbered nationals from some 90 countries. In addition to the destruction of a much loved architectural landmark, the attack on the World Trade Center cost the global economy countless billions in economic losses. The response of the US and its allies, notably the UK, but also Italy, Spain and others, was to launch a ‘war on terror’, which we will discuss in future sections. It also led to US-led interventions in Afghanistan in October 2001 to overthrow the Taliban regime, which had provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and in Iraq in March 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

9/11 is, for millions of people throughout the world, a rooted memory. Just as a generation can recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the assassination of President Kennedy on 22 November 1963, so we can quickly recall our own personal experience – how we felt and what we thought – as witnesses of 9/11. Few modern events have attracted such a global audience, which is something we will study later in the course. This owes much to the immediacy of the attacks and their relevance to Western audiences. Also important was the fact that the events were visually reported by the news media in real time and, by being subsequently and endlessly replayed and dissected, were reinforced among audiences well beyond the US.

The New York Times, unsurprisingly, has provided detailed reportage of the events of 9/11 and its aftermath. The newspaper’s website provides a timeline of the events of that day, which you may wish to look at briefly should you need to remind yourself of that day. (You may wish to browse the additional resources that have been posted by the New York Times on this webpage, but bear in mind that this is a huge resource. For the purposes of this course, you need only to remind yourself of the timeline and immediate consequences of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC.)

In the aftermath of the attacks, two New York Times journalists wrote a book reporting in detail the terrible personal experiences of some of those caught up in the events of the awful day in lower Manhattan. A review of this book – Dwyer, J and Flynn, K. 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers – provides some indication of the stories the authors unfold in their book. Please read the review now.

In January 2008, Guardian journalist Ed Pilkington wrote a very short newspaper article, where he tries to capture the moment of 9/11 and, however briefly, to identify its global impacts (many of which we will discuss in this course). Please read the article now.

Also writing in the Guardian newspaper, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the novelist Martin Amis commented in his customary style on the initial impact of the terrorist attacks. The article foreshadows many of the geopolitical debates that would be prompted by that day’s events in New York City and Washington DC. Please read this article now.

1.1.3 US responses to 9/11

The international impacts of 9/11 are obvious, when seen from the vantage point of 2008.

Since that date, as the US academic Phillip Bobbitt observes:

The United States has invoked the war power of the US constitution against terrorists. In an unprecedented action, American allies endorsed action on the basis of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which provides that an attack on one member of the Alliance shall be treated as an attack on all. The US Congress, the British Parliament, and other governing bodies have passed various statutes aimed at making the prosecution and detection of terrorists easier. The United States has reorganised its bureaucracy and authorised vast new funding for fighting terrorism. Coalitions led by the US and the UK have invaded and conquered Iraq in a campaign to prevent the proliferation of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] (among other reasons) and the UN has sanctioned, for the first time, the invasion of a member state, Afghanistan, in order to suppress terrorism. Most of the senior leadership of al-Qaeda has been killed or detained. Nearly 3400 of its fighters are either dead or in prison. Two thirds of the persons known to intelligence agencies at the outset of this war have been sequestered”.

(Bobbit, 2008, p13–15)

Yet at the same time, as Bobbitt also observes,

... al-Qaeda has continued to strike: indeed there has been a drumbeat of violence, and far from abating since the invasion of Iraq, it has picked up momentum. Since 9/11, al-Qaeda and its network of affiliates have carried out countless attacks. [...] Al-Qaeda today is a sophisticated operation – with a sophisticated propaganda machine based in Pakistan, a secondary but independent base in Iraq, and an expanding reach in Europe. [...] According to data released by the US Central Intelligence Agency in the spring of 2006, there were 11,111 terrorist incidents in 2005, in which more than 14,600 civilian non-combatants were killed. Figures in the [US] State Department’s annual report on terrorism disclosed a 400 percent increase compared with 2004.

(ibid, p15-16)

Of course, terrorism is not a new phenomenon. Before 9/11, as Tony Judt of New York University observes:

No one who has lived in Spain, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Japan, the UK, or France, not to speak of more habitually violent lands, could have failed to notice the omnipresence of terrorists—using guns, bombs, chemicals, cars, trains, planes, and much else—over the course of the twentieth century and beyond. The only thing that has changed in recent years is the unleashing in September 2001 of homicidal terrorism within the United States. Even that was not wholly unprecedented: the means were new and the carnage unexampled, but terrorism on US soil was far from unknown over the course of the twentieth century.

(Judt, 2008)

Open and liberal modern societies, when attacked by terrorists, are sometimes tempted to respond in illiberal ways. This is why, as you’ll see later in the course, the UK has to debate carefully the trade off between the security needs of society and the civil liberties of individuals.

Activity 1 The lesser evil: Political ethics in an age of terror

Now read an extract from the Canadian academic Michael Ignatieff’s book, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. Consider the following questions:

  • according to Ignatieff, what may ultimately render terrorism useless as a means of coercion?
  • to what extent can terrorism be considered a dangerous threat?

Click to view The lesser evil: Political ethics in an age of terror

1.1.4 Peter Bergen on ‘the causes of 9/ 11’

To consider the impacts and consequences of 9/11, we need to first briefly consider some of the ‘causes’. In the article ‘What were the causes of 9/11’, Peter Bergen addresses and comments on some of the most widely held views and opinions of the causes of 9/11 expressed by politicians, commentators and the general public.

Activity 2 The most credible explanations

Read the section of the article entitled ‘The most credible explanations [of 9/11]’.When you have finished reading this section, reveal the discussion below.


Bear in mind that Bergen’s commentary (as with the views expressed by most of the commentators you will encounter during the course of this course) is, naturally, first and foremost his opinion. Through studying this course, your opinion (provided it is evidenced by fact) will indicate an appreciation of the public debate on the issues at hand. When you are aware of alternative views to your own, and take these on board, your opinion is as valid as that of any commentator you will read. You should now briefly skim read all of Bergen’s article. We’ve included it to prompt you to think about – and not to try to memorise – some of what Bergen describes as the ‘plausible but flawed theories’ and ‘most credible explanations’ of 9/11. Again, the ways in which Bergen catalogues each opinion is only his view.

The rest of this section sets out the schedule and introduces you to the themes, issues, and subject matter you will encounter during the course of this course.

1.2 Preview: International relations and 9/11

Introduction by Richard Heffernan

Richard Heffernan

Hello, and welcome to Politics, Media and War: 9/11 and its Impacts. I'm Richard Heffernan, Reader in Government at the Open University.

We can all remember, quite easily, where we were and what we were doing when we heard of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Most of us saw footage of the attacks and the destruction of the twin towers on television or online, either in real time on the day itself or on subsequent days. It’s widely recognised that the events of that terrible day, which saw some 3,000 people (mostly civilians) lose their lives, have had a considerable impact, not only in the United States, but throughout the world, and here in the United Kingdom. 9/11 can, in some respects, be seen as a pivotal event in helping shape the contemporary world in which we live.

By exploring the varied geopolitical causes and consequences of 9/11, this course will provide a simple introduction to some of the cutting-edge issues in international politics. It will help you understand recent global events, make sense of the public policies 9/11 prompted, and help you be best placed to evaluate contemporary debates.

Throughout the course, you’ll encounter a number of readings drawn from a wide range of perspectives and reflecting the views of a variety of opinion formers, among them politicians, policy makers, commentators and academics.

Along with my colleague Paul Lewis, I’ve authored the first part of this course – sections two through to five – where you’ll examine the international consequences of 9/11. You’ll do this by considering the varied impacts of the terrorist threat posed by individuals and groups who claim Islamic legitimisation for their actions. You’ll also assess how Western governments, specifically the United States and the United Kingdom, have sought to respond to this threat.

Modern terrorism can be witnessed at work before and after 9/11 in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel and Indonesia. Increasingly, this threat reflects the modern phenomenon of ‘asymmetrical warfare’ as is waged by non state and state-sponsored actors. As you will see, such trans-border terrorist violence constitutes a direct challenge to the authority of all states. But it particularly challenges the right of a ‘great power’ such as the United States, currently the dominant world power, to regulate the international use of violence. Now, perhaps more than ever before, every country is or can be affected by what goes on inside other states, particularly those we define as ‘failing’ or ‘rogue’ states, which may possess weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and can be seen to pose a threat to their neighbours, their region and, quite possibly, the wider world.

In the wake of 9/11, then, the United States and many of its allies, foremost among them the United Kingdom, re-orientated their foreign and defence policies. This was an effort to counter the threats they felt they faced from such states and from non-state actors who could use weapons of mass destruction and other non-conventional means to attack them. This strategy was evidenced, in different forms, in the intervention in Afghanistan from October 2001 and in the war in Iraq from March 2003. In sections two through to five, then, you’ll examine the case the United States makes for its ‘war on terror’; consider the scholarly interpretations of the US’s policy that have been offered by a number of leading international relations academics; and explore the claims made by supporters and opponents of the US-led ‘war on terror’.

1.2.1 Section 2: Terrorism and its meanings

In the next section we will consider terrorism and its meanings and explore legal and ‘official’ definitions of the term. Terrorism, as Tony Judt mentions below, is ‘nothing new’.

Even if we exclude assassinations or attempted assassinations of presidents and monarchs and confine ourselves to men and women who kill random unarmed civilians in pursuit of a political objective, terrorists have been with us for well over a century. There have been anarchist terrorists, Russian terrorists, Indian terrorists, Arab terrorists, Basque terrorists, Malay terrorists, Tamil terrorists, and dozens of others besides. There have been and still are Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists, and Muslim terrorists. There were Yugoslav ("partisan") terrorists settling scores in World War II; Zionist terrorists blowing up Arab marketplaces in Palestine before 1948; American-financed Irish terrorists in Margaret Thatcher's London; US-armed mujahideen terrorists in 1980s Afghanistan; and so on.

(Judt, 2008)

Section 2 focuses specifically on one academic study of the historical nature of terrorism and will briefly review the particularities of the modern threat posed by al-Qaeda. The section then considers the ways in which politicians, particularly US President Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, have tried to characterise it. It also considers academic analysis of the historical forms terrorism takes and briefly explores the nature of al-Qaeda itself and modern Jihadist terrorism.

1.2.2 Section 3: States and sub-state actors in global politics

International politics reflects the notion of nation-state sovereignty, which embraces two broad principles.

  • Territoriality, where the state has a monopoly on the use of organised violence.
  • Non-interventionism, where states do not interfere in the internal affairs of other states unless they are themselves threatened by that state.

Both these principles are under challenge in today’s world. Wars were previously fought between competing nation states but in today’s world it is unimaginable that modern, advanced, liberal democratic nation states with market economies could go to war with one another. In the post-Cold War period, the commonest form of war is intra-state civil war. Inter-state disputes invariably pit liberal democratic states against non-democratic states or else involve disputes between less developed, non-democratic states.

Section 3 therefore considers the two contemporary military threats posed to modern liberal democratic states.

  • First, the perceived threat posed by non-liberal democratic, so-called ‘rogue states’ such as Iran, North Korea, and Iraq under Saddam Hussain.
  • Second, the threat posed by non-state and sub-state actors, particularly from terrorist organisations, guerrilla armies and insurgent movements. These can be supported or sponsored by rogue states.

War-making is no longer the monopoly of nation states because a new type of warfare has emerged, one described as ‘asymmetrical warfare’. This is increasingly fought out between states and non-state or sub-state actors that employ terrorist methods to advance their cause.

1.2.3 Section 4: The war on terror

In section 4, we explore the argument that states may engage in military pre-emption to protect themselves as well as to prevent evil and secure order. This section also considers the changed military and diplomatic politics of the US in the light of 9/11 (evidenced, in different forms, in both Afghanistan and Iraq). It explores how democratic states now face threats not only from conventional nation-states but also from terrorists and ‘rogue states’ that would use weapons of mass destruction and other non-conventional means to attack them.

In this section, you will also explore the role played by US neoconservatives in re-orientating US foreign policy in the light of the perceived threat posed by Islamic terrorism. The section then concludes with a brief assessment of British foreign policy and some discussion of how it has been affected by events since 9/11.

1.2.4 Section 5: The US as global hegemon – the practice of global dominance

Section 5 considers the role played by the US in the international system. By 2001, the US occupied a position of unprecedented dominance in world affairs and was aptly perceived as a unique kind of ‘global hegemon’. (By ‘hegemon’ we mean a world power that is so powerful it can help determine the policies of other powers in its vicinity, and is technically able to defeat any other power or combination of powers with which it might go to war.)

As we shall see, what this means in terms of US capacity to exercise power on a global scale and achieve the objectives it set itself is, however, a matter of considerable practical concern and extensive intellectual debate. The content of this debate and what it meant for the subsequent war on terror provides the subject matter of section 5. We examine:

  • what US hegemony has actually meant
  • the response of some of its major international partners to the way in which the US has used its unprecedented power
  • the subsequent emergence of what many have seen as a new kind of legitimacy crisis surrounding US global leadership
  • the implications for the future of the global ‘US empire’ that emerged with the demise of the Soviet Union.

1.3 Preview: The media and 9/11

Introduction by David Herbert

David Herbert

Hello, and welcome to the media section of this course. I'm David Herbert, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Open University, and I'm responsible for sections 6-8 of the course. I wrote section 8 myself and asked Mark Banks and Ben O'Loughlin to write section 6 and section 7, respectively.

The media play a crucial role in shaping how we understand people, places and politics. In section 6 Mark Banks, Reader in Sociology at the OU, looks at how television frames our view of events such as 9/11. So you’ll begin with the question ‘What is the role of television in creating the ‘spectacle’ of war, and in particular, how did the televising of the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 affect its social and political impact?’ You’ll then examine how both terrorists and governments are now involved in what critics have termed an 'image war' – a battle to control public opinion by manipulating the daily flow of media events, images and discourses - that is ways of writing and talking. You’ll then consider how the power of the media is double-edged, because it’s not only used by the state and government to try to shape or influence public opinion, but it also provides a platform for various opposition groups to question or challenge the policies and actions of these elite interests. In this context, you’ll examine the role of the ‘embedded reporter’, asking the question ‘How free are television and newspaper journalists working within military units to report the facts as they see them?’ In response to this, section 6 contains an interview with Stewart Purvis, former chief executive and editor in chief of ITN, who was in charge of ITN at the time of the Iraq war in 2003.

In section 7 Ben O’Loughlin, Lecturer in International Relations at Royal Holloway and Bedford College, University of London, asks the question ‘Who influences who in the relationships between political leaders, the media and citizens?’, and with a special focus on the role of journalists. First, you’ll examine Chomsky’s view that the commercial interests which shape news production and their relationships with political elites influence what counts as news to such an extent that any alternative voices have little chance of being heard. However, contrary to this view there are some examples where journalists have broken news stories that challenge political elites. One example examined took place during the Vietnam War, and you’ll consider Hallin’s argument that journalistic criticism can influence politics if there is already a division of opinion amongst political elites. This, however, remains a fairly conservative account of the circumstances under which journalists can challenge the political status quo. So you’ll also consider other examples of the political impact of journalists breaking news stories that challenge the interests of political elites.

In section 8, you’ll turn your attention from journalists to the public as viewers and readers of news, though again concerned with the impact of post 9/11 developments on democracy. New technologies have had a big impact on how we receive news this includes the multiplication of channels; the inclusion, even in mainstream news outputs, of non-Western sources of news such as al-Jazeera; and the development of interactive technologies using the internet. In some ways these changes push us to become more active viewers of news, having to choose between more sources and potentially having more perspectives available to us; yet we can also choose to select only those sources that don’t challenge us. It’s also arguable that commercial pressures in the market place produce increasingly similar global news ‘products’, dominated by a few powerful news organisations. So you’ll look at examples of how audiences are reacting to these changes, beginning with an American study of how the news channels that people watched shaped their understanding and misunderstanding of certain key facts in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. You’ll then look at a study that questions the British government’s motives and policies in its emphasis on public security post 9/11, asking whether what’s been called the securitization of politics may be used to hide or mask other political issues. A third study examines how mostly Bangladeshi youths in Tower Hamlets in the East end of London viewed and interpreted the news post 9/11. This links to an audio transcript which focuses on British Muslims and the media post 9/11. Ammar al-Ghabban, the author of that study, and other experts are interviewed on how different audiences interpret British media coverage of Islam and Muslims, the development of a British Muslim press, and the impact of government security policies on British Muslim youth.

1.3.1 Section 6: Media and the production of spectacle

The media, as we shall see, make a vital contribution to the ways in which we understand people, places and politics. The impacts of television, newspapers, radio, the internet and other media should not be underestimated; for the majority of Western populations they now provide the primary sources of information about what is happening in the world. With this in mind, sections 6–8 provide a three-part examination of the role of the media in framing the ‘war on terror’ and post-9/11 conflict. We will look predominantly at how television is implicated in the presentation of conflict.

  • First, given the media is a ‘mediator’ of the ‘spectacle’ of war, we ask how did the televising of the 9/11 attacks affect its social and political impact?
  • Second, to what extent is the media used by both terrorists and governments to pursue what critics have termed an 'image war' – the battle to control public opinion through manipulating the daily flow of media events, images and discourses? How far have the US government and TV networks become complicit in the creation of media images? To what extent has reporting been specifically designed to promote the apparent strategic success (as well as moral legitimacy) of post-9/11 US military activity?
  • Third, we examine how the power of the media can be simultaneously used by state and government interests to try and shape or influence public opinion. Does it provide a platform for those who wish to question or challenge the policies and actions of these elite interests? Television has been identified as a source of critique as news journalists attempt to fulfill their long-established professional and ethical responsibility to strive for ‘objective’, ‘factual’ and ‘critical’ (rather then simply ‘government-friendly’) reporting. In this regard, the ambivalent role of the ‘embedded reporter’ is examined. How far, we ask, do television and newspaper journalists working alongside and within military units possess the freedom to report the facts as they see them?

Section 6 concludes with the suggestion that the media is comprised of many diverse organisations, which in themselves contain many individual views and perspectives. So while the media can appear to act simply as a ‘tool’ of the powerful, promoting US (and UK) state and military interests, it also offers the prospect of dissent and a contradiction of the pro-military consensus.

1.3.2 Section 7: Interactions between policy makers, media and citizens

This section focuses on the operation of power in relationships between political leaders, the media and citizens, based on the underlying question: who influences who?

One approach is to consider the individual investigative journalist or 'news hound' sniffing out a story, undaunted by vested interests, determined to uncover facts and to break his or her story to the public at any cost. This might be called 'the heroic journalist narrative'. Another is to argue that the ownership and system of media production is such that the news contains stories and interpretations of them that systematically favour the ruling elite, and as a result is biased against non-mainstream views and voices. This has nothing to do with the views or actions of individual journalists: the argument is rather that in a capitalist society, audience share and commercial interests determine what counts as news.

An alternative approach, based on a study of US media coverage of the Vietnam War, focuses on relationships between political elites and journalists, rather than on the media production process as a system. In this perspective, news is not determined by the relationships between elites and production processes, but rather an outcome of the struggles both within and between social groups (including political elites and journalists). It is shaped by the particular cultures and histories of those groups in different contexts.

This section also explores just how much autonomy there is at the level of media culture and examines the degree of freedom that contemporary (and indeed public-corporation based) journalism can enjoy, and further explores the notion of the ‘heroic journalist’.

1.3.3 Section 8: Media audiences and users after 9/11

The section examines the relationships between the media, politics and audiences/users, with a particular emphasis on audiences/users post 9/11. Several changes in the media landscape since the 1980s have had a major impact on media audiences. These include:

  • the growth and diversification of the media (linked to new technologies and media deregulation)
  • the increase of 'media contra-flows' – especially into the historically dominant West from other parts of the world
  • the increasing element of interactivity brought about by new media technologies, particularly the internet.

In a different way, each nudges audiences into more active roles, pushing us to make more to decisions about what we watch, which perspectives we engage with, and who we interact with. To a considerable extent this makes the media a public sphere – ‘a space' or 'spaces' for discussion of issues of shared concern.

This section will contrast ‘liberal’ theories of the media, which essentially see the media in a benign light, providing information and opinion that a democratic public needs to make up its own mind; and ‘critical’ theories, which see the media as shaping public opinion in the interests of those who produce, own or control the media. Television news can lead to high levels of misperception concerning the invasion of Iraq, but ordinary individuals can also be highly sceptical of television news sources, even if they lack access to alternative sources of information. While media input can help shape people’s views, a whole range of social, cultural and individual differences can also shape audiences interpretations. Even biased news sources can produce critical and engaged audience responses, questioning the liberal stress on the importance of access to 'neutral sources'.

1.4 Preview: Political impacts in the UK – matching civil liberties with security

Introduction by Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

Hello and welcome to sections 9 and 10 of this course.

I’m Paul Lewis, Professor of European Politics at the Open University, and I’ve been responsible for this part of the course, which is concerned with the impacts of 9/11 on British society, and the civil rights issues it has raised. Although the primary events of 9/11 took place in the US, both the origins of the actions and the response to them were international or global in character. You’ll have examined these developments in the first five sections of the course. More recently, you’ve seen how these perceptions have filtered through the media. In sections 9 and 10, we will turn our attention to the consequences of 9/11 and the effects they have had on British society.

The primary development that followed 9/11 in Britain concerned the bomb attacks in London in July 2005 – as well as the discovery of a number of further terrorist plots. This turned attention from global issues to far more local concerns, most of which focused on the position and diverse attitudes of the British Muslim population. What motivated young Muslims, many of them born in Britain, to contemplate terrorist action and perpetrate such violence? What part did religion play in their mind-set? How far were they influenced by high-profile Muslim clerics with close ties to extremist international groups? How has the British Muslim population as a whole viewed these developments?

You’ll examine a range of sources to explore these questions, including the writings of Muslim scholars working in Britain; the views of polemical journalist Melanie Phillips; and the findings of Jason Burke, an investigative journalist and leading expert on al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. They trace the emergence of what is now seen as the ‘Muslim issue’ in British politics, starting with the Rushdie affair of 1989, through what Phillips calls the ‘Islamisation’ of parts of London and other major cities, to what she sees as the irresponsibility of the British authorities in tolerating the presence and activities of foreign extremists. You’ll also consider the problems of social exclusion and sense of disconnection from mainstream British society felt by many Muslims, and the rather slender evidence that exists about why a very, very small minority do become motivated to commit acts of terrorism.

In section 10, you’ll look at other ways in which the events of 9/11 and the spread of global terrorism have impacted on British politics. The British government, like those in other parts of the world, has responded to the rise of the terrorist threat by passing new laws to increase security, enhance police powers and protect citizens from new dangers. Such measures have, of course, been open to conflicting interpretations. Police protection for some people necessarily means restricting the activities and freedoms of others and enhanced security goes hand in hand with limitations on freedom. Some would go so far as to argue that the British state is effectively doing the terrorists’ work for them by undermining the ‘British way of life’ and eroding its core values.

Again, we use a range of sources to explore these issues. Key features of the British response to the terrorist threat are outlined by Sir Richard Mottram, the former permanent secretary to the Cabinet under Tony Blair for security, intelligence and resilience. Meanwhile, Open University professor Michael Saward identifies key features of post-9/11 British legislation. Finally, the prominent writer and journalist Henry Porter argues why Britain needs a new Bill of Rights, which is a subject also discussed by Richard Mottram and Henry Porter.

1.4.1 Section 9: The impacts of 9/11 on British society

Sections 9 and 10 explore the complex and diverse issues surrounding the impacts of 9/11 on British society as the ‘war on terror’ has progressed and further bombs were detonated in Bali, Morocco and in Spain – and then in London on 7/7. This action in particular directed attention to the position of British Muslims; how they were affected by the impacts of 9/11 and the actions taken in response to it; and how in turn they have responded in various ways to these developments. The position of British Muslims and their attitudes is an issue of major significance to the UK as a whole. Their attitudes are incredibly complex, and there is little firm evidence. In Section 9, we present some of the major approaches that have been taken to understanding these issues.

In this area there are some big questions that have yet to receive any clear answers.

  • Were the perpetrators of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks motivated primarily by religious or political convictions?
  • Are acts of terrorism best understood in terms of individual psychology or by motives derived from the socio-cultural context?
  • What are the perceptions and judgements of the overwhelming majority of the British Muslim population, who have no connection with the criminals nor any association with their activities?

There are no accepted answers to any of these questions and Section 9 presents a range of articles and extracts from books that explore them from some informed sources, and provides some of the best evidence that is currently available to help answer them.

1.4.2 Section 10: Security impacts on civil and human rights in Britain

Historian Timothy Garton-Ash states:

Our liberties are under threat from two sides. They are threatened by terrorists, especially takfiri jihadist ones, exploiting new technologies and an open society in order to kill, maim and terrify the innocent. And they are endangered by overreaction from the state, eroding those liberties in the name of defending us against these threats. Taken to the extreme, that means strangling freedom to save it. We have to balance our policies to defend against both dangers.

(Garton-Ash, 2008)

The war on terror and developments since 9/11– reinforced by 7/7 – have had distinct (if mixed and controversial) consequences for British society and its constituent groups. Similarly, the legislation and legal changes these developments gave rise to had diverse consequences for civil and human rights in Britain. Some people have seen the legislative and legal response as a natural and acceptable consequence of a manifest terrorist threat. Others have interpreted them as unacceptable infringements on established civil and human rights and a distinct threat to the democratic principles and practices that have become deeply embedded in British society.

According to the UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, ‘police data ... suggests there are currently [in the UK] at least 2000 known terrorist suspects, 200 organised networks and 30 terrorist plots’ (Brown, 2008). The government is obliged to protect the public and ‘match a change in our laws with stronger safeguards, so we protect both the civil liberties of the individual and the security needs of all individuals’ (ibid).

Section 10 spells out the nature of the British government’s response to the terrorist attacks, the legal changes and legislation that has been enacted, and the implications of these developments for human rights in Britain. Are our freedoms being eroded by the war on terror? Critics of the government’s approach suggest that new legislation and the introduction of new surveillance techniques are indeed endangering the privacy of British citizens.

2 Terrorism and its meanings

In this section, you will consider a number of definitions and discussions of terrorism, particularly relating to the international situation, post-9/11.

The notion of terrorism can be problematic. It is often challenged and contested, something expressed in the aphorism (which for some is now largely a cliché) ‘One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.’ For instance, while it is widely acknowledged in the UK that the Provisional IRA was a terrorist movement, few would accept the then South African government’s characterisation of the African National Congress in similar terms. There is no commonly accepted ‘official’ definition of terrorism, something that reflects the fact that neither modern states nor groups designated as ‘terrorist’ apply the term to themselves.

Some people adhere to a broad definition of terrorism in which nation states, not just non-state actors, can themselves be guilty of terrorism. Left-wing critics often claim that Western policy makers use the term ‘terrorist’ simply to demonstrate – and to generate – hostility toward groups of which they disapprove. Others strongly reject this view, describing terrorism as ‘the use of violence against civilians by non-state actors to attain political goals’ (Kydd and Walter, 2006, p1).

The term can also serve ‘an ideological function, for it implies crude extremism and indifference to human life’ (Freedman, 2007, p327). It is thus used not only to classify and explain particular groups and individuals, but also to condemn and marginalise them.

2.1 Some ‘official’ definitions of terrorism

The Encyclopedia Brittanica

The Encyclopedia Brittanica defines terrorism as ‘the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective. Terrorism has been practised by political organisations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence services, and police.’ (Jenkins)

The European Union

In 2000, the European Union (EU) adopted the following definition of terrorism as encompassing acts that ‘… given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an international organisation where committed with the aim of: seriously intimidating a population; or unduly compelling a government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act; or seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation’. (European Union, 2002)

The United Nations’ unadopted definition

In 2005, the United Nations (UN) proposed to define terrorism as something that involved ‘any act intended to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international body to act’ and constituted ‘one of the most serious threats to international peace and security’. However, in 2006 the 192 nation states comprising the UN failed to agree a formal definition. This was largely because of disagreements among members on whether a definition should encompass armed conflicts that take place in ‘situations of foreign occupation’. (United Nations, 2005)

The British government’s legal definition

Below is the British government’s legal definition of terrorism, applied by British courts, which is set out in Section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (as amended by the Terrorism Act 2006, indicated by square bracket).

  1. In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where–
    • (a) the action falls within subsection (2),
    • (b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government [or an international governmental organisation] or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
    • (c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.
  2. Action falls within this subsection if it –
    • (a) involves serious violence against a person,
    • (b) involves serious damage to property,
    • (c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,
    • (d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
    • (e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.
  3. The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.

2.2 Bush and Blair on the post-9/11 terrorist threat

Terrorism has been described as being ‘a weapon of the weak, turned to out of desperation, because better and more direct means of achieving objectives, which are invariably set high, are not available’ (Freedman, 2007, p327). Others, especially Western policy makers, see terrorism only as being a violent expression of anger and hatred.

US President George Bush

On 20 September 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush declared the attack to be ‘an act of war’ in an address to Congress. For him this meant the US and its allies had to embark on a ‘war on terror’ in response to the attacks – and the likelihood of further attacks – waged on the US. Bush’s impassioned speech, delivered very soon after the event, reflected the global revulsion sparked by the attack.

The terrorists' directive commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans, and make no distinction among military and civilians, including women and children. This group and its leader – a person named Osama bin Laden – are linked to many other organisations in different countries, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. There are thousands of these terrorists in more than 60 countries. They are recruited from their own nations and neighborhoods and brought to camps in places like Afghanistan, where they are trained in the tactics of terror. They are sent back to their homes or sent to hide in countries around the world to plot evil and destruction … Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber – a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. They want to drive Israel out of the Middle East. They want to drive Christians and Jews out of vast regions of Asia and Africa. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions – by abandoning every value except the will to power – they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism.

(Bush, 2001)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair

September 11th was for me a revelation. What had seemed inchoate came together. The point about September 11th was not its detailed planning; not its devilish execution; not even, simply, that it happened in America, on the streets of New York. All of this made it an astonishing, terrible and wicked tragedy, a barbaric murder of innocent people. But what galvanised me was that it was a declaration of war by religious fanatics who were prepared to wage that war without limit. They killed 3000. But if they could have killed 30,000 or 300,000 they would have rejoiced in it. The purpose was to cause such hatred between Muslims and the West that a religious jihad became reality; and the world engulfed by it. When I spoke to the House of Commons on 14 September 2001 I said: ‘We know, that they [the terrorists] would, if they could, go further and use chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction’.

(Blair, 2004)

In a scholarly article written for Foreign Affairs in 2007, Blair, who was soon to step down as prime minister, outlined his attitude toward terrorism in the wake of events that had followed 9/11. While Blair and Bush shared many beliefs about how to deal with the problem, Blair’s article reads differently in tone to Bush’s speech. Bush’s speech to the nation will use very different language and structures then Blair’s article for a scholarly journal. As a result, Blair’s article, being retrospective, appears more analytical. It places the modern terror threat in a wider global context.

The roots of the current wave of global terrorism and extremism are deep. They reach down through decades of alienation, victimhood, and political oppression in the Arab and Muslim world. Yet such terrorism is not and never has been inevitable … Terrorism did not begin on the streets of New York [on 9/11]. Many more had already died, not just in acts of terrorism against Western interests but in political insurrection and turmoil around the world. Its victims are to be found in the recent history of many lands: India, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and countless more. More than 100,000 died in Algeria. In Chechnya and Kashmir, political causes that could have been resolved became brutally incapable of resolution under the pressure of terrorism. Today, in 30 or 40 countries, terrorists are plotting action loosely linked with this ideology. Although the active cadres of terrorists are relatively small, they exploit a far wider sense of alienation in the Arab and Muslim world … The struggle against terrorism in Madrid, or London, or Paris is the same as the struggle against the terrorist acts of Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, or rejectionist groups in Iraq. The murder of the innocent in Beslan is part of the same ideology that takes innocent lives in Libya, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen. And when Iran gives support to such terrorism, it becomes part of the same battle, with the same ideology at its heart.

(Blair, 2007)

Both Bush and Blair’s references to terrorism (delivered by politicians charged with the leadership of their countries) should be seen as political statements that not only set out their attitudes toward terrorism, but also their response to it. Both, particularly Bush, spoke for the overwhelming majority of their citizens in the aftermath of 9/11. Leading politicians, expected to express their opinion on all forms of happenings, have to both explain the opinions they hold and justify the action such opinions prompt. They have to deal with the threat that terrorism poses. Commentators and academics, in contrast to politicians, often lay claim to being able to independently analyse phenomena like terrorism. Of course, while they may provide ‘fact’ and ‘analysis’, their commentary will also reflect their opinions, beliefs and political agenda.

2.3 What is al-Qaeda?

Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, set out his organisation’s principal objectives in a 2002 broadcast.

Why should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning and widowing continue to be our lot, while security, stability and happiness be your lot [the West led by the US]? This is unfair. It is time that we get even. You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb. And expect more that will further distress you. The Islamic nation, thanks to God, has started to attack you at the hands of its beloved sons, who pledged to God to continue jihad, as long as they are alive, through words and weapons to establish right and expose falsehood. In conclusion, I ask God to help us champion His religion and continue jihad for His sake until we meet Him while He is satisfied with us. And He can do so. Praise be to Almighty God.

(bin Laden, 2002)

Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism (and, more specifically, the terrorist threats posed by individuals and groups who associate themselves with – or are inspired by – the group) claims Islamic legitimisation for its actions. For President Bush, however:

Al Qaeda is to terror what the mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money; its goal is remaking the world – and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere. The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics – a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam

(Bush, 2001)

Of course the descriptions we apply to terrorist groups can be culturally loaded and are often contested. Some suggest that we should describe terrorists as ‘militants’, not necessarily as ‘extremists’ or ‘fundamentalists’; others strongly disagree. Some suggest that the links terrorist groups claim with political Islam should be highlighted so as to better understand the problem; others argue that the links should be disregarded and that terrorist activity be characterised as ‘anti-Islamic’ activity. The choice of terminology is, of course, a choice for each citizen to make.

Jason Burke on al-Qaeda and terrorism

The Observer’s Jason Burke is a leading expert on al-Qaeda. In the interview below, he provides some useful background on the nature of the terror threat posed by al-Qaeda, which he describes as a ‘label’ or a ‘franchise’, not in itself an organisation.

Activity 3 Interview with Jason Burke

Now read the interview with Jason Burke. When reading this, you should note:

  • the conversational, and therefore discursive, nature of the piece
  • how Burke distinguishes the nature of al-Qaeda, how he questions the use of the very term, and why he places the threat associated with al-Qaeda in a wider context
  • his observations about how the West should engage with terrorism in both military and political terms.

Click to view An Interview with Jason Burke

2.4 Who are the ‘jihadist terrorists’?

Who, then, are the terrorists? In a short review of Marc Sageman’s book, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), The Spectator reviewer Alan Judd summarises the author’s analyses of the key features of the modern Islamist terrorist found as far afield as the UK, Spain, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Indonesia.

Activity 4 Leaderless Jihad: Terror networks in the twenty-first century

2.5 Summary

Contemporary terrorism is a transnational problem. Advanced, modern nation states now no longer engage in open combat with one another. As we shall see in following sections, terrorism – whether it is the product of freestanding groups or of groups allied with particular states – reflects the rise of ‘asymmetrical warfare’. Terrorist acts therefore from part of a strategy reflecting war between two or more actors who have vastly different military capabilities.

The US has a state-of-the-art military capability: the 2007 US defence budget was some US $439,300,000 (which was larger than the 2005 military budgets of 168 nations combined). Yet on 11 September 2001, the US was attacked by 19 people armed with boxcutters who were able to hijack four aircraft. These attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon cost something in the region of US $450,000 to execute. Next section, you’ll be considering the impacts that modern terrorism has had on the foreign policy and defence strategies of major nation states, particularly the US, and further explore the role that non-state actors can have in contemporary international politics.

3 State responses to threats posed by non-state agents

The notion of state sovereignty, which emerged from the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, established the territorial integrity of the nation state; ensured that state interests would automatically transcend those of individual citizens; and made states the undisputed central actors in both local and global politics. Nation-state sovereignty was subsequently established by two broad principles:

  • territoriality, in which the state acquired a monopoly on the use of organised violence
  • non-interventionism, where one state would not interfere in the internal affairs of another state unless it was itself threatened by that state.

Of these two principles, the first eventually ensured that wars took place between competing nation states. Such wars - fought by states deploying their military might in pursuit of their own perceived political, economic, and sometimes ideological interests - are best illustrated by the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-15 and the World Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45.

In today’s world, however, it is unimaginable that modern, advanced liberal democratic nation states with market economies would go to war with one another again. In the post-Cold War period, the commonest form of war is intra-state civil war. Inter-state disputes invariably pit liberal democratic states against non-democratic states or else involve disputes between less developed, non-democratic states.

Modern liberal democratic states, while no longer faced by military threat from states similar to themselves, face two contemporary military threats:

  • the perceived threat posed by non-liberal democratic, so-called ‘rogue states’ such as Iraq under Saddam Hussain, Iran and North Korea
  • the threat posed by non-state and sub-state actors, particularly from terrorist organisations, guerrilla armies and insurgent movements. These can be supported or sponsored by rogue states.

3.1 Lowenheim: Predators and Parasites

Oded Lowenheim (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), is interested in why states, especially the most powerful states – the ‘Great Powers’ referred to in the extracts – react differently to different kinds of non-state agents that harm them and their societies. In his book Predators and Parasites: Persistent Agents of Transnational Harm and Great Power Authority, Lowenheim (2007) makes two key claims:

  • that control over a territory cannot be readily maintained without legitimate authority (and vice versa)
  • that a state cannot long maintain its sovereignty unless both internal and external actors recognise its legitimate authority to exercise political control over its territory.

Activity 5 Predators and parasites

Download the PDF below, and read the first extract from Lowenheim’s book (A). Here Lowenheim argues that the assumption that only sovereign states can legitimately employ violence across borders is a relatively recent historical development in the history of the states system, and that 9/11 directly challenged that assumption. He also argues that transborder violence employed by non-state actors constitutes a direct challenge to the authority of all states and particularly to the rights of Great Powers to regulate the international use of violence.

Now read the second extract (B), which presents a spectrum of Great Power responses to threats that cross their borders from other states and societies. It also discusses reasons why states may respond differently to different kinds of threats. A key part of the argument here is that Great Powers respond not only on the basis of the degree of material harm caused, but also by the degree to which it represents a challenge to their authority – especially their authority in relation to the role of violence in the international system. Please read this now.

The next, more lengthy, extract (C) discusses the ways in which al-Qaeda represents a challenge to the sovereign authority of the United States and that of other Great Powers such as Russia and China. Please read this extract now.

Now read extract (D), the final extract from Lowenheim’s work this section. Here he interprets the United States’ ‘war on terror’ as an attempt to restore the authority of the states system as well as its own authority as the hegemonic power that defines the nature of international order. As Lowenheim explains, modern states face new and different challenges to their sovereignty, particularly their control over their territory. This significantly challenges the previously undisputed notions of state sovereignty established in the Treaty of Westphalia.

Click to view Predators and parasites

3.2 Haass: The Opportunity

Richard Haass is currently President of the United States Council of Foreign Relations and was previously Director of Planning at the United States State Department.

Activity 6 The opportunity (1)

Please read extract 1 from Haass’s book, The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course’, where he further discusses some of the contemporary challenges identified by Lowenheim. When you have finished reading, reveal the discussion below.

Click to view The opportunity (1)


Haass reminds us that ‘every country is or can be affected by what goes on inside other states’. As we have seen, Great Power authority is now challenged by the rise of what Lowenheim described as Persistent Agents of Transnational Harm (PATHs). These PATHs are non-state and sub-state actors that possess – and use – the means of violence. This means that war making is no longer the monopoly of nation states. As a result, a new type of warfare has emerged, one increasingly fought out between states and non-state or sub-state actors. This is often described as asymmetrical warfare, a phrase that reflects the considerable mismatch that exists between the resources of such combatants. In asymmetrical warfare, combatants have markedly different military capabilities and the weaker side often uses non-standard warfare tactics such as terrorism. Here, then, there are no longer clearly defined battlefields, and the distinction between 'civilian' and 'military’ is blurred.

3.3 War, terrorism and ‘asymmetrical warfare’

Before the twentieth century, while civilian were often casualties of war, warfare drew a distinction between combatants from non-combatants. Combatants rather than non-combatants were the principal targets of their enemies (although non-combatants were frequently endangered and civilian casualties common). Modern asymmetric warfare abandons this non-combatant immunity. Guerrillas (being invariably non-state or sub-state combatants, not the organised force of an established state) target cultural, political, or population targets rather than military ones. As a result, civilians have been increasingly placed in the front line of modern warfare. Such guerrillas fight on their own terms, not those of their enemy, and use unorthodox means such as terrorism to attack the stronger opponent. In such asymmetrical warfare, the terrorist or insurgent often has the advantages of selectivity and surprise.

As Mary Kaldor (London School of Economics), observes, this means that:

... the strategies of the new warfare draw on the experience of both guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgency …. In conventional or regular war, the goal is the capture of territory by military means; battles are the decisive encounters of the war. Guerrilla warfare developed as a means of getting around the massive concentrations of military force which are characteristics of conventional war. In guerrilla warfare, territory is captured through political control of the population rather than through military advance …. Hence the strategic goal of these wars is to mobilise extremist politics based on fear and hatred. This often involves population expulsion through various means such as mass killing and forcible resettlement, as well as a range of political, psychological and economic techniques of intimidation …. At the turn of the twentieth century, the ratio of military to civilian casualties in wars was 8: 1. Today, this has been almost exactly reversed … the ratio of military to civilian casualties is approximately 1: 8 …. The terrorism experienced in places such as New York, Madrid or London, as well as in Israel or Iraq, can be understood as a variant on a new strategy – the use of spectacular, often gruesome, violence to create fear and conflict.

(Kaldor, 2007, p8–9)

Of course, we must remember that civilians, especially in the twentieth century, probably the most violent century known to man, have long found themselves in the front line of war. The Second World War may have been fought out between opposing armies, but civilian casualties were appallingly high: Nazi barbarity, not least on the Eastern front, led to the targeting of non combatants and the horrors of the holocaust suffered by European Jews and others. Still, bearing in mind the longstanding reality of civilian casualties, past wars – even when one side was more powerful than the other – tended to be state-versus-state conflicts. They were fought between the armies, navies and air forces of two or more states. These had a symmetrical disposition. Since 1945, with less state-versus-state wars, states face wars with non-state and sub-state actors. In these wars, states engage enemies much less powerful than themselves located within the civilian population. Such war has an asymmetrical disposition. These combatants seldom wear uniform, are difficult to distinguish from the general population, and are more willing to fight and die for their causes. The weaker side in an asymmetrical war does not fight pitched battles or defend territory, and cannot prevent the opposing force from going where (or doing what) they want. Rather, while hiding among civilians, they attack their enemy whenever – and however – they can.

Today, asymmetrical warfare, because it does not involve battles waged between states, is fought between belligerents of unequal strength. It can be usefully likened to the battle fought between a champion boxer and a viral infection. In a battle between ‘occupiers’ and ‘insurgents’ (perhaps the most common form of asymmetrical warfare), insurgents may only win by not losing. As can be glimpsed in Iraq since 2003, their objective in waging war is not necessarily to militarily defeat their larger, more powerful enemy, but impose a cost upon them that they will not want – or be able – to bear.

3.4 The clash of civilisations?

In this part, we look at the following subjects:

  • whether modern-day wars take place on cultural and religious grounds as opposed to economic or ideological grounds
  • attitudes towards religion, culture, society and culture around the world.

3.4.1 The clash of civilisations? (i)

For many commentators and politicians, 9/11 typified the new threats presented to states by non-state and sub-state actors in an age where warfare is asymmetrical and where civilians are placed on the front line of conflict. In 1996, well before 9/11, Samuel Huntington (Harvard University) published The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Here he extended an argument he had first presented in 1993 in Foreign Affairs: that wars, previously fought out between states and involving economic or ideological differences, would now be more likely to take place on cultural and religious grounds.

... the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future …. Civilizations are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition and, most important, religion.

(Huntington, 1993, p22)

For Huntington, such civilisational differences were particularly prevalent between Muslims and non-Muslims. His argument drew much criticism, particularly from commentators who argued that wars were just as likely to be within civilisations as between them. Critics also observed that the civilisations he identified were not homogenous and should not be considered unitary actors.

Many politicians and commentators saw 9/11 as being a ‘tipping point’ in international politics, if not necessarily a herald of Huntington’s clash of civilisations. At the 2001 Labour Party Conference, held in the shadow of 9/11, Tony Blair made his views plain. He believed that the terrorism attacks in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania had – and would continue to have – a profound impact on contemporary geopolitics.

In retrospect, the millennium marked only a moment in time. It was the events of September 11 that marked a turning point in history, where we confront the dangers of the future and assess the choices facing humankind. It was a tragedy. An act of evil …. This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.

(Blair, 2001)

Blair’s widely shared comments reflected the view that 9/11 heralded the beginning of a different and dangerous world order: terrorist groups backed by rogue states would now present an ongoing threat to the peace of the world and the security of the West. This view was prominent among policy makers who led the ongoing war on terror waged in response to 9/11, particularly in the US and British-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

3.4.2 The clash of civilizations? (ii)

However, not everyone agrees that 9/11 ‘changed everything’. International-relations theorists Caroline Kennedy-Pipe (University of Warwick) and Nicholas Rengger (St Andrews University) claim that:

… world politics does not seem to have been radically altered by 9/ 11. Rather, the deep-seated aspects of world politics that have always been recognised as such – debates over the role of force and its character, the permanent jostling for geopolitical position, the ideological, spiritual and philosophical divisions that have always been present – seem to be more clearly seen and more omnipresent in the world after 9/11 than they perhaps were before.

(Kennedy-Pipe and Rengger, p539-552)

3.4.3 The clash of civilisations? (iii)

The World Values Survey is a questionnaire conducted at regular intervals since 1980 across an increasing range of societies across the world. It provides a unique insight into attitudes towards religion, culture, society and politics. All the surveys are conducted with large samples of respondents across nationally representative samples of the population, making them a reasonably reliable source of data.

Activity 7 Political, social and cultural attitudes in Western and Muslim-majority societies in the World Values Survey
  1. Visit the World Values Survey and click on the online data analysis section.
  2. Choose the most recent period and pick a couple of Muslim-majority societies, (e.g. Bangladesh and Egypt) and a couple of Western societies (e.g. Belgium and the US) by clicking in the box besides each of the country names
  3. Now click on 'continue' to take you to a screen where you can choose which part of the survey to look at. The sections on 'Politics and Society' and 'Religion and Morale' are most relevant for our purposes.
  4. Click on the 'Politics and Society' tab. This brings you a screen that lists the question areas under 'Politics and Society' asked in the survey.
Support for Democracy

To see the question asked, click on a question area, for example, click on 'Having a democratic political system'. This will give you the exact question asked (or least the English version of it), and the responses available to respondents. To see how people answered these questions in the four countries you have chosen, click on 'Marginals'. This gives you a table showing the percentage of answers in each category in each country.

In the countries we chose, more than 80 per cent of the population in each country thought that having a democratic system is a 'very' or 'fairly' good way to govern their country. Perhaps surprisingly, enthusiasm for democracy is rather higher in Bangladesh and Egypt than in the US or Belgium, with 65.9 and 64.2 per cent rating democracy as 'very good' compared with 50.9 and 44.5 per cent respectively. This may be for a variety of reasons, for example, that democracy is less taken for granted in Bangladesh and Egypt than in the US or Belgium. Does this result suggest that we should be cautious about applying the ‘clash of civilisations’ argument at the level of political attitudes amongst general populations? Might differences be more evident at the level of political systems?

Religion and Politics

Another area where one might expect to see differences if the clash hypothesis is correct is in the relationship between religion and politics. Click on the 'Return to question list' tab, and then on 'Religion and Morale', and scroll down to religion and politics. A relevant statement there is 'Religious leaders should not influence government', so click on this to see the question, and then 'Marginals' for the country breakdown.

The question wasn't asked in Egypt, but in the other three countries the most striking differences is between Belgium, where 53.4 per cent of the population strongly agreed with the statement, and Bangladesh and the US on the other, where only 15.7 and 16.8 per cent respectively did. In both cases, a slight majority did either agree or very strongly agree: in Bangladesh this was 65.1 per cent, and in the US just 50.5 per cent. Can we see an Islam versus the West split?

Gender and Society

We might also expect differences in opinion between Muslim-majority societies and the West on gender and sexuality-related issues. Many of these items can be found in the 'Family' section of the survey, and you might like to compare items such as 'Men make better political leaders than women' and 'University is more important for a boy than a girl'.

On these and other gender and sexuality-related issues, it is clear that Muslim-majority societies are more conservative than Western societies. For example, look at the homosexuality item under 'Religion and Morale'. However, even here it is not as straightforward as you might think. For example, you might be surprised to learn that the majority of Egyptians disagree with the statement 'University is more important for a boy than a girl'.

Now you know how to use this survey data, you can check as many items and countries as you like, as well as looking at changes over time. We have looked at only a small sample of the material available.

4 Military pre-emption in foreign policy

In response to 9/11, and the perceived threats of ‘rogue states’, a case for states to engage in military pre-emption has been made. The idea is that states may, in certain circumstances, pursue a ‘just war’ to protect themselves as well as prevent evil, restore peace, ensure justice and secure order.

Activity 8 Defending the West

In an extract from his book Defending the West, James Gow, an academic at King’s College, University of London, refers to the US-led intervention in Iraq that began in March 2003. Please read the extract now.

Click to view Defending the West

The notion of a defensive ‘just war’ – one waged ‘to protect the innocent from certain harm’ through ‘proportionate force’ – reflects a long historical tradition. In Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power, Jean Bethke Elshtan argues that 9/11 again demonstrated that it is no longer ‘wise or prudent or even decent to wait for threats to develop fully, courting the potential loss of massive numbers of civilians’ (Elshtan, 2003, p190). In an open letter issued by the Institute for American Values, he argues (alongside many other US academics and intellectuals) that a just war should:

‘... only be fought by a legitimate authority, with responsibility for public order. Violence that is freelance, opportunistic, or individualistic is never morally acceptable. A just war can only ever be waged against persons who are combatants … . Although in some circumstances, and within strict limits, it can be morally justified to undertake military actions that may result in the unintended but foreseeable death or injury of some non combatants, it is not morally acceptable to make the killing of non-combatants the operational objective of a military action.’

(Elshtan, 2003, p201)

In this argument we can see clear reflections of the state sovereignty thesis that you encountered last section.

Activity 9 The opportunity (2)

In this next extract, Richard Haass (whom you encountered last section), recognises the need for states to take pre-emptive action in certain, particular circumstances. However, he also argues that while states need to limit terrorism, they also have to be aware that they will never be able to eliminate it. Now read the second extract from his book.

Click to view The opportunity (2)

The idea of a preventative war, one waged in the face of a ‘clear and present danger’, has been endorsed by the US in recent years, particularly as outlined by the statement of policy issued by the US State Department in 2002 and again in 2006.

4.1 The US national security strategy in 2002 and 2006

The publication of the US National Security Strategy in 2002 – updated in 2006 – shifted US foreign policy. It has moved away from decades of deterrence and containment (using power to forestall attacks by promising to respond with deadly force when attacked) towards a more aggressive stance of being prepared to attack an enemy before it attacks the US or its allies:

If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self defense, we do not rule out use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack … .When the consequences of an attack with WMD [weapons of mass destruction] are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize … . To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively … . America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones. We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few … . The US National Security Strategy will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests. The aim of this strategy is to help make the world not just safer but better … .

(US State Department, 2002)

The key objective of this strategy, described as the Bush Doctrine, is that the willingness to wage war to prevent a threat need not entail pre-emptive war (war waged against an opponent who is just about to attack), but rather a preventative war (a war fought, according to the US National Security Strategy, in order to ‘act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed’ (ibid)). In addition, it asserts that formal structures such as the United Nations or North Atlantic Treaty organisation (NATO) may at times be less effective than ‘coalitions of the willing’, or groups responding to particular situations, such as in the case of the intervention in Iraq in 2003.

The US, because it, again in the words of the US National Security Strategy, ‘possesses unprecedented – and unequalled – strength and influence in the world’ (ibid), enjoys safety from conventional, peer competitors. The US National Security Strategy of 2002, however, focuses on the belief that the greatest threat to the US no longer comes from conquering states, but from failed ones and an ‘embittered few’ who possess ‘catastrophic technologies’. Hence, in 2006, the US singled out seven nations as prime examples of such ‘despotic systems’: North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Belarus, Burma and Zimbabwe. According to one US military analyst, Lt Col Arnel Enriquez, the US now faces threats not from conventional nation-states, but from terrorists and such ‘rogue states’ who would use weapons of mass destruction and other non-conventional means to attack – not necessarily to conquer but to instil fear. (Enriquez, 2002)

To prevent dangers, the National Security Strategy sets out new ‘use of force principles’:

Table 1 Use of force principles
Primary PrincipleForce should be used proactively against rogue states and terrorists that possess the capability and motivation to harm the United States and its allies.
Preferential principlesUS partners in the region of interest should be the first to take up the fight, and the United States will assist. If the United States must use force, multilateral action is preferred, but the United States reserves the right to act unilaterally, if necessary, in self-defense.
Practical principlesThe action must target a specific threat and eliminate it. The use of force should be measured.
Source: Enriquez (2002)

In this regard, the US National Security Strategy of 2002 – heavily influenced by the experience of 9/11 – marked a significant departure from US military strategy. It had previously argued that the US should use its military might sparingly, only when absolutely necessary, and should bring overwhelming and decisive force against the enemy, minimizing US casualties. This would end conflict quickly by forcing the weaker force to capitulate. For many commentators, then, the National Security Strategy of President Bush could be the most important reformulation of US foreign policy in over half a century.

4.2 Neoconservatism and the Bush Doctrine

(The course team would like to thank Dr. Simon Bromley for his invaluable contribution to pages 4.2, 4.3 and 4.4 of this section. You can read an interview with Simon in section 4.4.)

For both the US’s critics and supporters, foreign policy under Bush has been marked by what is called a neoconservative agenda. The neoconservative moment in US foreign policy marked a departure from the interregnum presided over by Presidents George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton. The interregnum began with the dissolution of communism in Eastern Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union (1989–91). It was marked by an apparent triumph of liberal democracy and market capitalism as the only viable models of politics and economics. 9/11 posed a stark challenge to that optimistic reading of historical and geopolitical development. In the context of the shock of 9/11 and the fears it generated, a distinctive neoconservative interpretation of international politics was able to gain a wide audience in US society.

The political analysts Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke argue that the neoconservative vision and its resonance with US political culture after 9/11 was ‘one of fear’ (Halper and Clarke, 2004, p178). It was based on the view that, notwithstanding the US victory in the Cold War, liberal values and institutions were not widely shared outside the US and had to be (if necessary forcibly) imposed if the US was to have a benign, long-term geo-strategic environment. This was a ‘fear’ grounded in a premonition of potential future challenges: a recognition of the fact that the dissolution of the Cold War on US terms was not at all the same thing as the rest of the world adopting liberal–democratic and US values.

The basic premise of the neoconservative reading of international politics was that with the collapse of the Soviet Union (and hence the end of the Cold War) there was a single and unifying source of order in the international system – the combination of universal values and unrivalled military power embodied in the US. A prominent European analyst of international relations and US power, Christian Reus-Smit, says that neoconservatives believed that ‘America’s material preponderance and universal values [gave] Washington the means and the right to reshape world order’ (Reus-Smit, 2004, p3).

The degree to which neoconservatism represented a break with previous frameworks of thought about the US’s role in the world should not, however, be overstated. Nonetheless, the emerging geostrategic predicament that animated both the neoconservatives and (at least after 9/11) nearly all conservative US nationalists, centred around three principal concerns.

  1. The ability of the most powerful states in the world to maintain more or less exclusive control over the means of mass destruction.

    Proliferation of nuclear weapons threatened to undermine the nuclear oligopoly of the major powers, thereby creating a more competitive environment in which less stable powers eager to challenge the status quo gained access to nuclear (and other) weapons and ballistic missile systems. In addition, a rising level of general technological competence and capacity meant that technologies of mass destruction were becoming more widely accessible, including to non-state actors. This latter concern was not merely an artefact of 9/11: President Clinton had identified the prospect of non-state actors gaining access to weapons of mass destruction as early as 1995. These worries were the origins of the notion of preventative action, since both kinds of proliferation were seen as a threat not just to the US, but to the international system as a whole. As Robert Cooper, diplomat and sometime adviser to Prime Minister Blair, explained: ‘A system in which preventative action is required will be stable only under the condition that it is dominated by a single power or a concert of powers. The doctrine of prevention therefore needs to be complemented by a doctrine of enduring strategic superiority’ (Cooper, 2004, p63).

  2. The recognition that the rise of new regional powers, in addition to the emergence of a global terrorist threat, was likely to be a source of instability and potential conflict in the international system.

    While the neoconservatives were confident of the ability of the US to maintain its role as the sole global military power, the fall of the USSR and the rise of China (and, to a lesser extent, India) were seen as profoundly unsettling to the balance of power. The future alignments of such powers as Turkey, Ukraine, Iran and the like were also of concern, states that were themselves not of the first rank but whose strategic choices and alignments were crucial for the system as a whole. The fear was that there were ‘many countries that could become too powerful or too aggressive for regional balance’ (Cooper, 2004, p64).

  3. The concern that the unitary leadership of the US that was forged during the Cold War was unravelling.

    The most specific concern, articulated most clearly by Robert Kagan (2003), was that Europe – that is the European Union – was set on a perilous course of internal indulgence and external neglect. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) had always had an important element of internal Western confidence building about it, but during the Cold War it was also a functioning strategic and military alliance. However, NATO’s war against Serbia over Kosovo convinced US policy makers that NATO was now only a means of extending the zone of peace in Europe, a loose form of collective security. Even staunch defenders of the US commitment to Europe through NATO lamented the fact that it was no longer a functioning military alliance. More reassuringly from the neoconservative point of view, there was considerable confidence that – for the foreseeable future – Japan would stick to its alliance with the United States (given its potentially threatening competition with China). However, neoconservatives worried that Europe was becoming less pro-US than it had once been.

4.3 US power questioned and asserted

The yawning gap between military and economic considerations was seen by some as the true Achilles’ heel of US power. Although the US would not face a global competitor any time soon, the position of the US itself – in the Asia-Pacific, north Atlantic and western hemisphere – depended on the legitimacy created by institutionalising shared interests such that none of these regions sought to act independently, let alone counter to US priorities. In this respect, the Middle East was the outlier: a region where the US was unavoidably and deeply entangled because of oil and its longstanding support for Israel, but where it had no institutionalised presence and precious few common interests.

Consistent with the main thrust of US liberal–democratic values (and the strand of its political culture that emphasises its unique role in the world as the exemplar and bearer of progress), the neoconservatives discounted the idea that these challenges could be met merely by a balance of power and a reaffirmation of state sovereignty. Taming the threats of proliferation from ‘rogues’ and ‘evil doers’; bending rising regional powers towards the status quo; and forging a new basis for US international leadership all required addressing the internal or domestic constitution of states and societies as well as the foreign policies of friends and enemies alike. The National Security Strategy of President Bush (extracts of which you read earlier) represented some important continuities with pre-9/11 ideas. However, it also established two distinctive departures from established procedure.

  1. The notion that where the US led then others would follow.
  2. If there was a neoconservative doctrine – beyond asserting the legitimacy of unilateral preventative war and a determination to maintain military strength ‘beyond challenge’ – then broadly speaking, it was that a unilateral and coercive exercise of US power, especially military power, could reshape the world to the US’s advantage, and specifically reshape the Middle East to the US’s advantage.

The underlying premise was that the US would therefore be able to secure – especially in light of the challenge of 9/11 – an unchallenged and unchallengeable geopolitical leadership. The root idea was that the US could overcome the rivalries inherent in the balance of power not only by virtue of its military supremacy, but also by the example and universal appeal of its ideology and leadership.

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.

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.

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.
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’?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
And that relates to its role as a hegemon…
... as a kind of sense of attraction for people within the world.
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.
What then was the significance of September 11 for the United States and it's standing within the world?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
And that is a significant legacy of September 11?
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?
Yes, absolutely.
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?
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.
The idea that they may be a threat in 2014?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And might well weaken the United States.
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.
What finally then do radical Islamists want from the United States? Is the United States likely to defeat them or deal with them?
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.
So if Belgium was the international hegemon they would think Belgium is the great Satan?
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.
Simon, I’m very grateful to you for sharing your insights on this subject with us. Thanks ever so much.
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.

4.5 Criticisms of pre-emption or a preventative war

Robert Kaplan writes that Sam Huntington, the author of The Clash of Civilizations, whose work we briefly considered last section, considers the world

... a dangerous place, in which large numbers of people resent [US] wealth, power, and culture, and vigorously oppose our efforts to persuade or coerce them to accept our values of human rights, democracy and capitalism. In this world America must learn to distinguish among our true friends who will be with us and we with them through thick and thin; opportunistic allies with whom we have some but not all interests in common; strategic partner-competitors with whom we have a mixed relationship; antagonists who are rivals but with whom negotiation is possible; and unrelenting enemies who will try to destroy us unless we destroy them first.

(Kaplan, 2001)

Yet, for other commentators, anti-American sentiment is fuelled just as much by the US’s actions as by its existence. Peter Bergen is one of the few Western journalists to interview Osama bin Laden. For him, bin Laden’s hostility toward the US owes much to his opposition to:

... its policies in the Middle East. Those are, to recap briefly: the continued US military presence in Arabia; US support for Israel; its continued bombing of Iraq; and its support for regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that bin Laden regards as apostates from Islam.

(Bergen, 2001).

Writing in May 2003, Noam Chomsky – a longstanding left-wing critic of US foreign policy – argued that the US is not interested in pursuing

pre-emptive war, which arguably falls within some stretching of the UN Charter, but rather of something that doesn’t even begin to have any grounds in international law, namely, preventive war. The doctrine, you recall, was that the United States would rule the world by force, and that if there is any challenge perceived to its domination, a challenge perceived in the distance, invented, imagined, whatever, then the US will have the right to destroy that challenge before it becomes a threat. That’s preventive war, not pre-emptive war ... . [As a result] they will have institutionalized the doctrines of imperial domination through force and preventive war as a choice.

(Chomsky, 2003)

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)

4.7 A war for oil?

In this part, we look at the following subjects:

  • the suspicions that the “war on terror” was actually a “war for oil”
  • the rebuttals for those suspicions.

4.7.1 A war for oil? (i)

Opponents of the Iraq intervention claimed that the war was essentially a ‘war for oil’ that owed much to the fact that the US and the UK were beginning to run out of secure hydrocarbon energy supplies. Former UK Labour minister Michael Meacher was one proponent of this view:

It seems that the so-called “war on terrorism” is being used largely as bogus cover for achieving wider US strategic geopolitical objectives ... . By 2010 the Muslim world will control as much as 60% of the world’s oil production and, even more importantly, 95% of remaining global oil export capacity ... .The conclusion of all this analysis must surely be that the “global war on terrorism” has the hallmarks of a political myth propagated to pave the way for a wholly different agenda – the US goal of world hegemony, built around securing by force command over the oil supplies required to drive the whole project.

(Meacher, 2003)

This line of argument contains two distinct components:

  1. That ‘the war on terror’ was intimately bound in with (and conditioned by) the US’s commitment to exercise and maintain its hegemonic role in global affairs.
  2. That the pursuit of this objective was equally closely linked with activity to preserve and enhance control over global oil resources.

While the first component sounds like a criticism of US foreign policy in the early twenty-first century, and could indeed appear as such in many formulations and in terms of specific US actions, it was also to a large extent just a matter of fact. There was no doubt that at the beginning of the new century the US did occupy a position of unprecedented global dominance and was in many respects the global hegemon. (Next section we will examine the nature of this hegemony and the problems faced by the US in exercising its role with due wisdom and effectiveness, so we shall not pursue this further here.) It should be noted, though, that while US global hegemony itself might be a fact, both the way it is exercised and the degree to which the US might be committed to transform de facto hegemony into outright global control is another matter. The latter aspect in particular remains a matter of great controversy.

The second component, and a specific basis for criticism of US actions in the war on terror, is that of whether the US’s overriding concern to secure its control of oil resources as a primary economic asset and guarantee of security in the foreseeable future has been a major motive for the war on terror. This line of argument sees the invasion of Iraq, a country that on the face of it had few links with al-Qaeda, but which is oil-rich, as evidence for this. The link has been an easy one to draw in the popular mind. Other public figures drew the same connection, among them no less an establishment figure than Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Greenspan made this point in his memoirs: ‘I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil’ (Sunday Times, 2007).

4.7.2 A war for oil? (ii)

Other radical critics of the war on terror and post-9/11 US foreign policy find the role of oil as a motivating factor less easy to define. In the opinion of the left-wing US Retort Collective, a self-styled ‘gathering of some thirty or forty antagonists of the present order of things’, the oil lobby certainly gained an unprecedented degree of influence in core US decision-making circles:

The American addiction to cheap petroleum had shepherded the brokers, carpetbaggers, and hustlers of the oil business directly into political office. Five “supermajors” – elephantine oil corporations with wells, pipelines, refineries, and subsidiaries in almost every country on earth, more gluttonous and powerful than ever after the great round of mergers during the 1990s – had scaled the walls of the White House ... . In a bullish five years as CEO of the world’s largest oil-and-gas-services company, Vice President Cheney had siphoned $44 million in salary from Haliburton ... . As if to signal that Cheney’s view of politics now ruled unopposed in Washington, in December 2003 the administration trotted out the Bush family consigliere, James Baker – the consummate oil man – Special Presidential Envoy to restructure Iraq’s $130 billion debt ... . A sector of American capital, in other words – and a commodity whose geo-strategic significance had obsessed the American establishment ever since World War Two – had finally achieved transcendent power.

(Retort, 2006, p41–42)

Proof of the strength of the oil lobby in Washington is, however, not the same thing as acceptance of the idea that the pursuit of oil was the pre-eminent driving force in the war on terror. The Retort authors do not deny the significance of oil but aim to place it:

... on a larger capitalist landscape. American empire cannot forgo oil: its control is a geopolitical priority. But these strategic and corporate oil interests cannot, in themselves, credibly account for an imperial mission, however ineptly prosecuted, of the sort we have witnessed over the last two years. Rather, for them what the Iraq adventure represents is less a war for oil than a radical, punitive, “extra- economic” restructuring of the conditions necessary for expanded profitability – paving the way, in short, for new rounds of American-led dispossession and capital accumulation. This was a hyper-nationalist neo-liberal putsch, made in the name of globalization and free-market democracy. It was intended as the prototype of a new form of military neo-liberalism.

(Retort 2006 p72)

In terms of the oil issue, then, the precise nature and motives underlying the war on terror can again be seen as complex and indeterminate.

4.8 Europe, the US, and the war on terror

There are, it is argued, significant differences between the ways in which the US and Europe view the world and with it the present terrorist threat. For Professor James Sheehan of Stanford University:

Americans tended to see terrorism as a global movement that directly threatened their national security. To defeat it would require a war like the one that had destroyed the Axis powers in the Second World War – a comparison underscored by the constant association of September 11th with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour.

(Sheehan, 2008, p211)

In contrast:

Europeans, who had been fighting their own local forms of terrorism for several decades, were inclined to see it as a persistent challenge to domestic order rather than an immediate international threat. The proper remedy was more effective policing, stricter laws, better surveillance. They wanted to extradite terrorists and try them as criminals, not wage war against states that were suspected of supporting them. The notion of a ‘war on terrorism’ was misleading, warned Michael Howard, a British military historian, because the word ‘war’ “arouses an expectation and a demand for military action against some easily identifiable adversary … leading to decisive results. Few Europeans doubted that terrorism was a serious issue, but most did not accept the official American position that a global battle for national survival had begun on September 11.

(ibid, p211)

European states, then, in contrast to the US (and, as we shall see, Britain), may:

… still have armed forces – just as garrison states had economies – but politically, symbolically and economically, these military institutions are subordinated to the agencies that do what citizens regard as important: managing the economy, promoting economic growth, providing welfare, and protecting people for life’s vicissitudes.

(ibid, p221)

There is therefore, beyond the tactical differences of what to do about Saddam Hussain and Iraq, a crucial difference between the US and Europe.

… at the beginning of the twenty-first century, many more Americans were prepared to accept the necessity of using violence to resolve international disputes. In 2003, when a poll by the German Marshall Fund asked Americans whether they believed that, under certain circumstances, war was necessary to obtain justice, 55 percent strongly agreed. In France and Germany only 12 percent held that opinion.

(ibid, pxvi)

This, for Sheehan, is why when

… only three European governments – France, Germany and Belgium – actively opposed the war in Iraq; the rest responded with varying degrees of support or at least compliance. But the overwhelming majority of Europeans, including those whose governments had joined the American-led coalition, were strongly and often vocally against military actions.

(ibid p214)

4.9 Britain: between the US and Europe

In international politics, Britain, while European, tends to stand between the US and its fellow members of the European Union. Britain has long been the closest international ally of the US and this association, sometimes referred to as the ‘special relationship’, was strengthened in the aftermath of 9/11. As prime minister, Tony Blair endlessly argued that Britain had to act as a ‘bridge’ between the US and Europe if it were to defend its national interests:

There is only one superpower in the world today [the US] and we [Britain] are its strong ally. The most powerful political grouping that has created the largest economic market in the world is the European Union—and we are a leading member. It’s a great position.

(Blair, 2004)

Activity 12 Security policy in an insecure world

Academics Michael Cox and Tim Oliver, both of the London School of Economics, argue that Britain’s closeness to the US after 9/11 reflected Britain’s longstanding ‘special relationship’ with the US. But it also reflected Tony Blair’s longstanding support for the need for ‘liberal interventionism’ by the leading world powers. Please read this extract now.

Click to view Security policy in an insecure world

Bush and Blair were in complete agreement over the need to wage a war on terror and Britain played a key role in the US led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many people criticised this.

Activity 13 The collapse of British foreign policy

William Wallace is Emeritus Professor of International Relations, again at the LSE, a Liberal Democrat Peer in the House of Lords, and a trenchant critic of Labour’s foreign policy and of Blair’s close association with the Bush Administration. In ‘The Collapse of British Foreign Policy’ (2005), he argues that Labour’s failing owed much to Britain being too pro-US and not being sufficiently European. Please read the extract now.

Click to view The collapse of British foreign policy

The Iraq war has demonstrated that the US is not always and everywhere able to impose its will. However, it is still the undisputed global hegemon and British foreign policy, alongside numerous geopolitical developments, is largely structured around this fact. It is the concept of the US as global hegemon that we turn our attention to next section.

5 The US as global hegemon – the practice of global dominance

The 9/11 attack took place, of course, in New York and it is the US that has taken the leading role in fighting the ‘asymmetric war’ provoked (examined in sections 3 and 4). In 2001, the US occupied a position of unprecedented dominance and was aptly perceived as a unique kind of ‘global hegemon’. What this meant in terms of its capacity to exercise power on a global scale and achieve the objectives it set itself was, however, a matter of considerable practical concern and extensive intellectual debate.

This section we shall examine:

  • what US hegemony has actually meant
  • the response of some of its major international partners to the US’s use of its unprecedented power
  • the emergence of a new kind of legitimacy crisis surrounding US global leadership
  • the implications for the future of the global ‘US empire’ that emerged with the demise of the Soviet Union.

5.1 The US as hyperpower before 9/11

The term ‘hyperpower’ was coined to describe the new US status of planetary dominance in 1999, eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union (a competing superpower for several decades) and two years before 9/11. The removal of the USSR as a global competitor – most notably in its role as potential nuclear adversary and ideological competitor – left the US free to expand its global dominance. However, it also presented the US with major problems concerning the validity of its authority and how this enormous power might be exercised. At the onset of the twenty-first century, the US accounted for between 40 and 50 percent of global defence spending (more the double the total spending of its European allies, their number now augmented by former Soviet allies) and possessed military technology far superior to any potential opponent. Unlike imperial powers of earlier historical periods, it also had very substantial resources in other areas. The US was the third most populous country in the planet, had a birth rate at or near replacement rate (not the case in the great majority of developed countries), and accounted for nearly a third of the world’s economic production (Cohen, 2004). In this sense, it certainly merited description in terms that surpassed other current or previous global powers. But even before 9/11 uncovered the physical vulnerabilities of such a great power, it was apparent that the international position of the US left it with major challenges and political problems that stemmed from the very extent of its dominance.

In early 2001, before the Al Qaeda attack, G. John Ikenberry confronted the growing unease already felt at that stage about a global order so strongly dominated by US power (Ikenberry, 2001). He recognised that the US clearly had a ‘hegemony problem’: having started the 1990s as the world’s only superpower, growing disparities in economic and military power resulted in an 'extremely lopsided distribution of world power’ (p18). But it also retained an ‘unusual ability to co-opt and reassure’ (p20) and Ikenberry suggested that a key feature of the international status of the US after the end of the Cold War was that its power was largely accepted by the other democratic great powers.

... the most striking fact of international life in the decade since the end of the Cold War is that stable and cooperative relations between the democratic great powers continue largely unabated. In some ways these relations have actually deepened, such as with the creation of the World Trade Organization and the expansion of intergovernmental working groups under the auspices of the G-7. One reason for this is simple enough: There is a broad convergence of interests among the advanced industrial countries, all of which share deeply held common commitments to economic openness, democracy and multilateral management of global issues. The huge start-up costs of establishing an alternative to the U.S.-centered system also probably deter the other major states.

A critical ingredient in stabilizing international relations in a world of radical power disparities is the character of America itself. The United States is indeed a global hegemon, but because of its democratic institutions and political traditions it is – or can be – a relatively benign one. Joseph Nye’s arguments on ‘soft power’ of course come to mind here, and there is much to his point. But, in fact, there are other, more significant aspects of the American way in foreign policy that protect the United States from the consequences of its own greatness.

When other major states consider whether to work with the United States or resist it, the fact is that it is an open, stable democracy matters. The outside world can see American policymaking at work and can even find opportunities to enter the process and help shape how the overall order operates. Paris, London, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo and even Beijing – in each of these capitals officials can readily find reasons to conclude that an engagement policy toward to United States will be more effective than balancing against U.S. power.

... In effect, the United States spun a web of institutions that connected other states to an emerging American-dominated economic and security order. But in doing so, these institutions also bound the United States to other states and reduced – at least to some extent – Washington’s ability to engage in the arbitrary and indiscriminate exercise of power. Call it an institutional bargain. The price for the United States was a reduction in Washington’s policy autonomy, in that institutional rules and joint decision-making reduced U.S. unilateralist capacities. But what Washington got in return was worth the price. America’s partners also had their autonomy constrained, but in return were able to operate in a world where U.S. power was more restrained and reliable.

(G. J. Ikenberry, 2001, p19–20, 21–22).

5.2 The US as hyperpower after 9/11

Activity 14 History and the hyperpower

Three years on – and after 9/11 – the tone of an argument made by Eliot Cohen (Director of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies) was less positive. In ‘History and the Hyperpower’, Cohen stated that although the problems involved in exercising ‘imperial power’ had contributed to the development of a ‘tide of anti-Americanism’, the problems of hegemony could be mitigated by good statesmanship imbued with the qualities of prudence and the pursuit of consistent policies. At issue here is what he regarded as the post-imperial status of the US as a hyperpower. The US might not be a classical empire, but it could learn from the problems confronted by earlier imperial powers. It also needed to take account of the change in attitudes towards the US that had taken place since 9/11. Some basic lessons can be derived from the experience of classic empires. Please read the extract from Cohen’s article now.

Click to view History and the hyperpower

5.3 Domestic critics of US power

During the same year, in fact, the dangers of unwise statesmanship arising from imperial hubris were fully demonstrated in the view reportedly expressed by a senior Bush advisor that ‘we are an empire and when we act we create our own reality ... we are history’s actors and it is left to others to observe and study what we do’ (Suskind, 2004, p2). This was the kind of outlook that helped create a context in which the wisdom of the policies pursued by the Bush administration was critically challenged by many politicians and concerned citizens outside the US at the time of the invasion of Iraq. President Bush enjoyed a high level of domestic support in the early stages of the Iraq War and received little criticism from the Democratic Party as the formal opposition.

Different positions were, however, taken outside the political mainstream. Noam Chomsky is an eminent linguist, psychologist and philosopher. Since the nineteen-sixties and the war fought by the US in Vietnam, he has also been a major political figure and vehement critic of US foreign policy. His views on Iraq were equally pungent.

Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and company are committed to an ‘imperial ambition’, as G. John Ikenberry wrote in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs – ‘a unipolar world in which the United States has no peer competitor’ and in which ‘no state or coalition could ever challenge it as global leader, protector and enforcer’.

That ambition surely includes much expanded control over Persian Gulf resources and military bases to impose a preferred form of order in the region.

Even before the administration began beating the war drums against Iraq, there were plenty of warnings that U.S. adventurism would lead to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as terror, for deterrence or revenge.

Right now, Washington is teaching the world a dangerous lesson: If you want to defend yourself from us, you had better mimic North Korea and pose a credible threat. Otherwise we will demolish you.

There is good reason to believe that the war with Iraq is intended, in part, to demonstrate what lies ahead when the empire decides to strike a blow – though ‘war’ is hardly the proper term, given the gross mismatch of forces.

... The potential disasters are among the many reasons why decent human beings do not contemplate the threat or use of violence, whether in personal life or international affairs, unless reasons have been offered that have overwhelming force. And surely nothing remotely like that justification has come forward.

(Chomsky, 2003)

While there may be no easy answer as to how the hegemonic power of the US should be exercised, many Americans would agree with Cohen that ‘wise statesmanship’ is a sound prescription – although by no means all would share Chomsky’s view.

5.4 International critics of US power

Many influential politicians outside the US also thought the invasion of Iraq unwise and a misuse of US military power. Major voices from this position are presented here: Jacques Chirac (the President of France), Joschka Fischer (German Minister for Foreign Affairs) and Robin Cook (British Foreign Secretary 1997–2001 and Leader of the House of Commons until his resignation in March 2003). They all point to a number of weaknesses in the strategy developed by the US.

President Chirac expressed the view that:

... True to the spirit of the United Nations Charter, which is our common law, France considers that recourse to force is the last resort, when all other options have been exhausted.

France’s position is shared by the great majority of the international community. The most recent debates have clearly shown that the Security Council was not prepared, under present circumstances, to approve a precipitate march to war.

The United States has just issued an ultimatum to Iraq. Whether, I repeat, it’s a matter of the necessary disarmament of Iraq or of the desirable change of regime in that country, there is no justification for a unilateral decision to resort to war.

Regardless of the forthcoming developments, this ultimatum is calling into question our idea of international relations. It affects the future of a people, the future of a region, world stability.

(Chirac, 2003)

Joschka Fischer’s views ran on similar lines.

The inspectors have thus been able to score some successes. Already their presence on the ground has substantially diminished the danger emanating from Iraq. The need now is to gain experience with the new measures in place and evaluate them in the light of our common goal of ensuring Iraq’s complete disarmament. Why should we now turn away from this path? Why should we now halt the inspections? On the contrary, the inspectors must be given the time they need to successfully complete their mission.

... All possible options for resolving the Iraq crisis by peaceful means must be thoroughly explored. Whatever decisions need to be made must be taken by the Security Council alone. It remains the only body internationally authorized to do so.

Military action against Iraq would – in addition to the terrible humanitarian consequences – above all endanger the stability of a tense and troubled region. The consequences for the Near and Middle East could be catastrophic.

There should be no automatism leading us to the use of military force. All possible alternatives need to be exhaustively explored. ... Diplomacy has not yet reached the end of the road.

(Fischer, 2003)

Robin Cook resigned as Leader of the House of Commons for similar reasons.

... Only a year ago, we and the United States were part of a coalition against terrorism that was wider and more diverse than I would ever have imagined possible. History will be astonished at the diplomatic miscalculations that led so quickly to the disintegration of that powerful coalition. The US can afford to go it alone, but Britain is not a superpower. Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules. Yet tonight the international partnerships most important to us are weakened: the European Union is divided; the Security Council is in stalemate. Those are heavy casualties of a war in which a shot has yet to be fired.

(Cook, 2004)

5.5 The US’s legitimacy crisis

Robert Kagan is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations, and foreign policy adviser to the Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.

In his view, the widespread perceptions of the lack of US wisdom regarding the invasion of Iraq has led to a general weakening of US legitimacy in the international arena. The nature and outcome of weakening US legitimacy are analysed by Kagan in ‘America’s crisis of legitimacy’.

Activity 15 America’s crisis of legitimacy

Read Kagan’s article now. (Concentrate on the sections ‘Clashing views’ (p2–3), ‘Three pillars’ (p3–4) and ‘The importance of being legitimate’ (p14–16).) As you read, take some notes on:

  • the importance of legitimacy issues and where the problems that surround them come from
  • Kagan’s three reasons why the end of the Cold War has affected America’s legitimacy with its European allies
  • the ways in which the US might counter its legitimacy deficit.

5.6 The US’s problematic future as an empire

A general overview of the US’s imperial status is provided in the article ‘Empire by denial: the strange case of the United States’ by the British scholar Michael Cox. Cox identifies the particular problems facing US policy makers and the characteristics of contemporary US power. He goes on to develop his own view of the US ‘empire’, discusses the usefulness of this term as a description of the US, and asks what kind of future it now faces. He also identifies a number of particular problems, which again raise questions about the nature of contemporary US power and how it might establish legitimacy for its current global activities (Cox, 2005).

5.7 The US administration in 2008

In this part, we look at whether the war on terror has been a success for the US, using opposing viewpoints to argue the case for and against.

5.7.1 The US administration in 2008 (i)

Not all observers have shared the doubts about US power reported in the previous section, and some have remained more sanguine about its global exercise. For example, in ‘An American foreign policy for a unipolar world’, Charles Krauthammer argues that US power remains unique.

Activity 16 An American foreign policy for a unipolar world

Now read the extract from Krauthammer’s article. Krauthammer outlines several possible interpretations of the US’s role in a unipolar world, spelling out his preferred option as a variant of ‘democratic globalism’. While ‘the enemy’ might be irrational and therefore impervious to foreign influence, Krauthammer stresses the fact that the US retains control over its own extensive resources and that such conditions mean that there is still a real possibility that ‘we can prevail’.

Click to view An American foreign policy for a unipolar world

Others also endorsed the globalist, democratic realist approach. Edward Luttwak, for one, thought that the Bush conduct of the war on terror has been largely successful:

The Bush response to 9/11 was … a global attack against the ideology of Islamic militancy. While anti-terrorist operations have been successful here and there in a patchy way, and the fate of Afghanistan remains in doubt, the far more important ideological war has ended with a spectacular global victory for President Bush. [...] Until 9/11, Islamic militants, including violent jihadists of every sort, from al Qaeda to purely local outfits, enjoyed much public support – either overt or tacit – across most of the Muslim world. From Morocco to Indonesia, governments appeased militants at home while encouraging them to focus their violent activities abroad ... Other than the Algerian and Egyptian governments, every Muslim state preferred at least to coexist with militant preachers and jihadis in some way ... All this came to an abrupt end after 9/11. Sophisticates everywhere ridiculed the uncompromising Bush stance, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," as a cowboy stunt, but it was swiftly successful. Governments across the Muslim world quickly changed their conduct. Some moved energetically to close down local jihadist groups they had long tolerated, to silence extremist preachers and to keep out foreign jihadis they had previously welcomed.

[...] In different ways, other governments in Muslim countries all the way to Indonesia also took their stand with Bush and the US against the jihadists, even though jihad against the infidel is widely regarded as an Islamic duty. Suddenly, active Islamists and violent jihadists suffered a catastrophic loss of status. Instead of being admired, respected or at least tolerated, they had to hide, flee or give it up. Numbers started to shrink. The number of terrorist incidents outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq keeps going down, while madrassas almost everywhere have preferred toning down their teachings to being shut down. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, the dominant association of imams condemns all forms of violence without exception ... In Pakistan ... Bush forced the most dramatic reversal of policy. [As a result] the global jihadi mobilisation, triggered by post-9/11 enthusiasm for Osama bin Laden, was stopped before it could gain any momentum by all that Bush set in motion: the destruction of al Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan, the killing or capture of most of its operatives, and, most importantly, the conversion of Muslim governments from the support of jihad to its repression. Jihadism has been largely confined to Iraq and the border zones of Pakistan. [Bush's declaration]"You are with us or with the terrorists" was the right slogan and the right policy.

(Luttwak, 2008)

5.7.2 The US administration in 2008 (ii)

An alternative view to both Krauthammer’s and Luttwak’s is presented in ‘Winners and Losers in the Post-9/11 Era’ by Professor Joseph Nye (Harvard University). Nye concludes that while the US won the first round of the post-9/11 conflict, it lost the second by invading Iraq without sufficient international support. Writing in 2006, he leaves the question of a third, or subsequent, rounds open although he does makes some suggestions as to the factors that might be decisive (Nye, 2006).

Activity 17 Winners and losers in the post-9/11 era

Read Nye’s article now, and note what these factors are. You should also draw on any recent information to formulate your view on the current balance between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

Professor Francis Fukuyama acquired instant fame in 1989 when he proclaimed ‘the end of history’ and was later identified as a member of the neoconservative camp. In a 2007 article, ‘A self-defeating hegemony’, he spelt out ‘four key mistakes’ made by the Bush administration in its responses to 9/11. He also directs attention to the problematic nature of the global system that exists today and the absence of restraints on the imprudent exercise of power by the US.

Fukuyama takes Nye’s argument a little further and expresses strongly negative view of US foreign policy under Bush (although you may have recently seen other views and fresh evidence that support a different conclusion). His reference to the fundamental problem faced by the US in terms of ‘the lopsided distribution of power in the international system’ relates to other views presented this section about the position of the US as a global hegemon. (Nye, 2007)

Activity 18 A self-defeating hegemony

Read Fukuyama’s article now, and consider the full range of views presented this section in relation to his discussion of a ‘self-defeating hegemony’.

5.8 Middle Eastern views of current US administration

Finally, what are the perceptions in other parts of the world, in the Middle East and the Arab World, an area of critical importance in terms of current military commitments and the ongoing struggle against jihadist terrorism? Some information on this question emerged in a symposium on the Middle East held in Washington in 2006. Shibley Telhami, holder of the Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland and Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution, stated that:

I have been polling in six countries – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon – for the past five years with Zogby International to look at a variety of attitudes, not only attitudes toward the United States. If you ask me what has changed, I wouldn’t say that it’s the fact that many Arabs don’t like American foreign policy. Many Arabs didn’t like American foreign policy even when it was a little bit more balanced from the point of view of the Arab world.

Two things have happened over the past five years. One that we began detecting in 2000, 2001, after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians was the decline in trust in the United States. Trust is different from the question, do you like our foreign policies? Do you have confidence in the government? What we have seen is a dramatic decline in the confidence measure, particularly after the collapse of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. These continued to decline after 9/11.

Second, in the most recent survey, the United States is now seen as a primary threat. It’s not just that they don’t like America; the United States is seen as a primary threat in the Arab world by a majority of the public. In an open question that I asked – name the two countries that are the most threatening to you – the vast majority of people in every country named the United States and Israel as the two countries that are most threatening to them. Iran, you would think, would be seen as a threat, at least in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, those who identified it as a threat were is the single digits. This tells you, again, that the Iraq War has become a new prism through which Arabs are looking at the United States and the Middle East.

... I think that a lot of people have misunderstood the rise of frustration with the United States as being an endorsement of al-Qaeda’s agenda in the region. They have used all of these seeming trends – the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Palestinian areas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and so forth – as examples of this rising tide that endorses a pan-Islamic agenda. The evidence is not there. On the contrary, al-Qaeda has not been able to win hearts and minds. Most people have not endorsed its agenda. In fact, when asked what aspect of al-Qaeda do you sympathize with most, only 6 percent say that they sympathize with their advocacy of a puritanical Islamic state. Only 7 percent say that they sympathize with their methods. A plurality say that they like the fact that they are standing up to the United States. This is a negative, not a positive. If you look at these other Islamic groups and also at the positions of the public on social issues, you find that they are rejecting the agenda advocated by al-Qaeda, but they win by default because of the anger toward the United States.

(Telhami, S. et al, 2006)

5.9 Reflection

Activity 19 Reflection

This activity invites you reflect what you learnt so far, by considering one of two questions. It may help you to write down your thoughts; aim for about 1,000 words.

Please choose from the following options:

  1. Why should great powers consider terrorism to be a ‘considerable threat’ to global order? OR
  2. Has the United States become less or more powerful an international actor as the result of the consequences of 9/11?
Guidance notes

Why should great powers consider terrorism to be a ‘considerable threat’ to global order?

This question encourages you to define modern terrorism (as variously discussed in section 2). You should also briefly assess some of the impacts and methods of such non-state and sub-state terrorist actors, particularly those described by Oded Lowenheim (in section 3) as ‘persistent agents of transnational harm’. In thinking about the nature and form of modern terrorism, you need to draw on your work from sections 2 and 3. To answer the question it will also be useful to briefly analyse the degree to which ‘new’ forms of terrorism differs from ‘old’ forms of terrorism. You need to also carefully consider the relationships between terrorism and asymmetrical and symmetrical forms of warfare (as defined in section 3).

Has the United States become less or more powerful an international actor as the result of the consequences of 9/11?

This question invites you to consider the consequences of 9/11 for the United States. You need to draw some conclusion based upon your reading and reflection of the materials you have encountered. The question asks you to explore the standing of the United States in light of the international significance of 9/11, particularly as it subsequently affected the foreign policy of the United States, the United States’ perception of its international standing and the ways in which other world actors see the country. Answers to this question will draw on sections 3, 4 and 5 of the course. You can, having assessed the impacts of 9/11 on United States foreign policy, additionally, but briefly, reflect on claims that 9/11 changed ‘everything’ with the case that Caroline Kennedy-Pipe and Nick Rengger make in section 3 arguing that, by itself, 9/11 changed little in international terms or in global politics. You should also assess the arguments posed in section 4 for pre-emptive war and consider the neoconservative argument that the United States and its allies had no choice but to pursue a ‘war on terror’ in response to the threat that had been clearly demonstrated by 9/11.

6 Media and the production of spectacle

The media have become increasingly integral to the organisation of contemporary societies. Indeed, for the majority of Western populations, it is now television, newspapers, radio and the internet that provide the primary sources of information regarding political events. Thus, for the next three sections we will be concentrating on how the media have a distinctive role to play in framing public understandings of war and terror, examining both the production and consumption of post-9/11 media images and discourses.

While the media often appear to provide a clear and impartial analysis, it is first important to recognise that media production is rarely a politically neutral process. The information or images offered up by the media do not simply mirror some ‘objective’ or ‘factual’ reality that exists 'out there', but tend to be selected and shaped (explicitly or implicitly) in ways that support the world-views or interests of the people and organisation(s) making the media text. This is not to say that the events portrayed in, say, news and current affairs are simply works of fiction invented by journalists, but rather to suggest that what is often authoritatively presented as real, factual and objective is actually constructed through a process of selection. This process, when examined, can often reveal how embedded social and political values and organisational processes can work to produce different 'realities' of any given situation. You should bear this selectivity in mind as you tackle the readings chosen for this section's study.

6.1 The media spectacle of 9/11

The attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September provided a set of powerful and dramatic images that, as a result of modern telecommunications, were able to be rapidly transmitted around the globe – images that in the immediate aftermath were exhaustively repeated, analysed and pored over by horrified and fascinated media audiences. Indeed it was perhaps the striking and shocking visual spectacle of the attack that made it so amenable to constant replay and expert analysis. Thus, as well as being a catastrophic act of terror, we can say that 9/11 was also a shared media experience.

6.1.1 Activity: the media spectacle of 9/11

In an extract from Mass-Mediated Terrorism: The Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, Brigitte Nacos discusses the relationship between terrorism and the media. She takes as her starting point the ways in which the 9/11 attacks were initially interpreted by eyewitnesses and television viewers. The second part of the extract is concerned with the ways in which the manipulation of the media has now become central to operations of contemporary terrorism.

Activity 20 Mass-mediated terrorism: The central role of the media in terrorism and counter-terrorism

Now read the extract. As you read, try and answer the following questions, taking notes as you go:

  1. In what ways did the 9/11 attacks have a symbolic as well as material impact?
  2. Despite the apparently unprecedented and violent nature of the 9/11 attacks why does Nacos suggest that Americans were already 'familiar with the shocking images' (p.42)?
  3. Why do you think contemporary terrorists might consider it crucial to cultivate 'media-related goals' (p.46)?

After you have finished taking notes, reveal the discussion.

Click to view Mass-mediated terrorism: The central role of the media in terrorism and counter-terrorism

  1. Clearly, the 9/11 attacks caused many hundreds of deaths, inflicted physical destruction and precipitated short-term chaos on global stock markets – but they also had a powerful symbolic effect. By attacking key icons of the 'American way', such as the WTC and Pentagon, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks sent the clear message that the West is vulnerable to attack – even at the core of its economic and political powerbase.
  2. Nacos suggests that, despite the apparently unprecedented nature of the 9/11 attacks, Americans already possessed a 'familiarity' with the images they generated – primarily obtained, she argues, through routine depictions of catastrophic violence in popular cultural texts. For Nacos, the public's exposure to 'a steady stream of disaster movies and thrillers' (p.42) provided a frame of reference through which audiences could make sense of the 9/11 events. Thus, the language used here by eyewitnesses and TV viewers to describe the events of 9/11 is particularly interesting. It reveals not only the central role of the media in shaping how people relate to the 'real' world, but also the primacy of these fictional, popular cultural reference points in helping populations to make sense of factual events. Here, Nacos appears to be making some critical commentary on contemporary media culture – a culture where the line between the reality and the representation of terror has become increasingly blurred. In this case this is mainly through the efforts of media producers to provide audiences with fictional, stylised and sensationalised representations of disastrous events.
  3. Finally, the necessity of terrorists devising 'media-related goals' is linked by Nacos to an emergent recognition amongst terror groups of the communicative power of media in a global age. The 'perfectly choreographed' (p.45) and 'spectacular' nature of the 9/11 attacks was crucial in furthering the publicity goals of the perpetrators: as Nacos comments, without such images the 'impact on America and the rest of the world wouldn't have been as immediate and intense as it was' (p.47).

One argument suggested by Nacos, that political groups now fully understand the power of the media for disseminating and amplifying the impacts of their actions, has also been taken up by Retort (2005). (You will have already touched on their arguments regarding the war on terror and the oil lobby in section 4.) Like Nacos, they identify not just the human costs and material impacts of the 9/11 attacks, but their particular function as highly symbolic visual 'spectacles' and media events. Retort suggest that (unlike most historical acts of terror) the 9/11 attacks were deliberately designed to be witnessed by the (global) public, and that the perpetrators knew in advance the likely consequences of such a visible act of violence –widespread panic and a significant undermining of public confidence. This is controversial in so far as we may never know the precise motivations of the hijackers, or how they could guarantee in advance that the media would be on hand to witness the event directly. Yet Retort are surely correct in their assertion that the attacks helped underline how the media have now become a crucial vehicle for the public dissemination of terrorist causes and actions. Retort further argue that both terrorists and governments are now involved in what they term an 'image-war' – a battle to control public opinion through manipulating the daily flow of media events, images and discourses.

6.2 Government and spectacle

While terrorists increasingly look to the media as a means of promoting their causes, a number of critics have argued that the US and allied governments – especially since 9/11 – have themselves become more active in the 'image-war', attempting to ensure favourable media coverage of the 'war on terror' and its related military campaigns. The next reading deals with this issue.

6.2.1 Activity: Government and spectacle

In an extract from ‘9/11, Spectacles of Terror, and Media Manipulation: A Critique of Jihadist and Bush Media Politics’, Douglas Kellner offers a highly-charged condemnation of the (predominantly) US media. He does this first for its apparent abjection towards (and, indeed, explicit endorsement of) the Bush administration's aggressive rhetoric in the sections following the 9/11 attacks, and, secondly, for the ways in which its highly selective and partial (pro-US) reporting has helped to publicly legitimate post-9/11 military campaigns. Kellner provides an overview account of the activities of US (and other) media and George Bush's Government, in the early days of the 2003 Iraq War. He takes the controversial position that not only did Bush seek to use the war as a platform for boosting his own waning political popularity, but that both Government and the media became complicit in the creation of media 'spectacles' specifically designed to promote the apparent strategic success (as well as moral legitimacy) of post-9/11 US military activity.

Activity 21 9/11, spectacles of terror, and media manipulation

Read the extract, taking notes as you go. You do not need to read the whole thing, just the abstract and the section from ‘On March 19, the media spectacle …’ on page 15 to just above the ‘Concluding Comment’ on page 21. Then attempt to answer the following questions:

  1. What contrasts does Kellner draw between US and non-US media coverage of the 2003 Iraq War?
  2. Summarise Kellner's account of the role of embedded reporters.
  3. What evidence does Kellner provide to demonstrate that the US media were involved in varied attempts to the 'counter the negative spectacle'?

When you have answered the questions, reveal the discussion.

  1. Kellner argues that US television provided a highly partial and selective account of the unfolding 2003 war – tending towards commentary and analysis that favoured war and justified the invasion of Iraq in somewhat 'gung-ho' nationalistic terms. US broadcasters, such as the Fox and NBC network, are accused of providing little more than 'propaganda and one-sided patriotism' (p.17). By contrast, Arab networks such as Al Jazeera offered an opposing view that questioned the legitimacy of the military operation, presenting it as both an 'invasion' and 'illegal' in terms of international law. Kellner notes how other non-US networks such as Canadian CBC used more neutral and moderated language ('War on Iraq') than US networks ('War in Iraq', 'Operation Iraqi Freedom').
  2. Kellner is quite critical of 'embedded' reporters – those television and newspaper journalists who work alongside military units rather than being externally located and reporting at arm's length (these are usually called 'unilateral' reporters). He first accuses some (unspecified) embedded reporters of being 'gung-ho cheerleaders and spinners for the US and UK military' (p.16) producing reports that were unashamedly 'exultant and triumphant' (p.16). While Kellner does identify that some 'embeds' were capable of challenging the military viewpoint – see the account of the Washington Post journalist – on the whole he is inclined to argue that embedded reporters are compromised by their reliance on military support and thus can only offer 'propagandist' reporting. He then suggests that only independent (unilateral) reporters are able to provide accurate and objective accounts.
  3. Kellner goes on to detail how attempts by the US media to 'counter the negative spectacle' (p.20) included:
  • the 'rescue' of Private Jessica Lynch, an American prisoner of war who was apparently liberated from the clutches of Iraqi soldiers in a dramatic filmed event 'staged like a reality TV spectacle' (p.18) (the US account of this event has now been widely discredited)
  • the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in central Baghdad by a massed group of Iraqis (as Kellner notes, the reality is somewhat less dramatic)
  • the highly choreographed event of George Bush ('in full Top Gun regalia' p.20) apparently piloting an aircraft onto the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln in order to offer his 'Mission Accomplished' speech where he (somewhat prematurely) declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

Such attempts to create positive spectacles underlines the importance attached by the US to ensuring, not just a military victory, but what Retort would refer to as an image victory.

You should observe that while Kellner's argument is highly polemical (and might well be criticised for its emotiveness and its own selective use of material and argument) it also provides elements of a convincing critique of the role of the media in routinely promoting US governmental and military interests, as well as engineering specific 'spectacles' that function largely as propaganda.

6.3 Reporting the spectacle

A further criticism of Kellner's account might be that it underestimates the possibility of embedded reporters providing more objective and critical accounts of US (and other allied forces) government and military operations. It may also be the case that he somewhat idealises the degree to which independent and 'accurate' (p.17) reporting can be obtained by non-embedded 'unilateral' reporters.

Activity 22 Interview with Stewart Purvis

Stewart Purvis is the former Chief Executive and Editor in Chief of Independent Television News (ITN). Read the transcript of an interview Mark Banks conducted with him below by clicking ‘Reveal comment’.


Interview with Stewart Purvis

Mark Banks
I’m Mark Banks from the D271 course team. In order to help inform our discussion of ‘embedded’ and ‘unilateral’ news reporting, I spoke to Stewart Purvis. Stewart is the former Chief Executive and Editor in Chief of ITN, the main news provider for the UK broadcasters ITV and Channel 4. At the time of the 2003 Iraq War Stewart was in charge of ITN and co-ordinated its strategy for reporting on the conflict. I began by asking him what embedded reporting was and how it first emerged:
Stewart Purvis
Well, sometimes people talk about it as if it's a relatively new phenomenon but actually it goes back more than a century I think to the Crimean War where it was thought that it would be to the advantage of the British government at the time that the war should be reported from a journalist at the front line. The word wasn't used ‘embedded’ then but effectively that was the idea that the reporter would be with the military, sometimes wearing uniform, sometimes not wearing uniform, but would actually see it from the front line troops’ point of view and could report back with that perspective. And that has captured the imagination of military commanders and particularly in recent years as part of a kind of bigger picture. The bigger picture is on the battlefield it's logical to control all communications. You know you want your own communications to work; you want the enemies’ communications not to work or you want to hear what they’re saying and you don’t want any stray communications around. So the idea becomes if you bring the media into your control, into your communications net if you like, you have some advantage. And so this is why we suddenly had this almost an explosion of it in the two Gulf Wars really. First in the war which was basically about Kuwait and then the second war which was obviously about putting down Saddam Hussein. And in both, the allies if you like or the coalition or the British and American side, decided it was to their tactical advantage to have reporters with them. The other model, which is sometimes called independent, sometimes called unilateral, sometimes called freelance, is where the reporters may actually seek some form of accreditation as it's called, like a kind of pass, to be on the battlefield. But they don’t actually live with the troops and they basically make their own travel arrangements and they’re kind of free to move. Now obviously the downside of that is that they are out of the protection of the military in a sense that they are more liable to be attacked by either side. And sometimes, in the case of the ITN reporter Terry Lloyd, who died, they were attacked by both sides at the same time.
That’s right.
So that's the danger of that, of course.
Prior to embedding their reporters with British troops, ITN met with the Ministry of Defence to set down guidelines for the number of reporters that would be embedded, the units they would be attached to, and the rules that reporters would have to follow while embedded. These rules were primarily designed to ensure the safety of reporters and troops, and to guarantee operational security would not be compromised. Thus reporters were only forbidden from revealing sensitive information regarding military strategy or troop movements and location. According to Stewart, no other specific restrictions were imposed regarding what could be reported. ITN were free to allocate their own experienced reporters to units where they saw fit – and gave them the instruction to go out and do their jobs as objectively and effectively as possible. For Stewart the aim was quite clear:
Those of us back in the newsrooms in London we want them to be there on the big stories. We want them to, in a sense, work with the troops, want them to understand the troops, but we don’t want them to go native. We don’t want them to become cheerleaders for the troops. They’ve got to retain some independence as well.
Maintaining independence while meeting the demands of the military is however a difficult job. Military commanders could try to censor material that they considered unsuitable for public consumption. There was sometimes disagreement between reporters and commanders regarding what constituted sensitive or compromising broadcast material. Often reporters and military commanders had different ideas regarding what should be broadcast, as Stewart describes:
Well the reporting restrictions, which we don’t have a problem with are those which attempt to protect information which, if it got out, could endanger the lives of the unit. That’s always seemed eminently sensible to people. There's also information which a reporter may come across kind of almost accidentally in the course of covering a conflict which whilst not endangering anybody is to the embarrassment of the military. And this is the most sensitive area actually. For instance, there was an example in 2003 where a young woman ITN reporter went out with a group of British soldiers who were doing, basically some humanitarian work in an area which had been liberated and it didn’t go well. The local Iraqis did not welcome this humanitarian work and began sort of disturbances. And she fairly and freely with her camera team filmed this and reported this. The military commander said you can't show that. You can't send that back. Well, it didn’t, there was no ones lives at risk because there wasn't even a conflict going on in this area. You know, the Iraqis had long gone. The Iraqi troops had long gone. What he was really embarrassed about was his you know his job hadn’t gone very well. We don’t have any truck with that at all. I mean basically, we showed the piece. We almost challenged if you like the military commander. Now at one point he threatened to expel the reporter from the area. He didn’t in the end because it would have been of further embarrassment to him. So those are the two divides if you like or two themes. One is areas, which are rightly confidential for military safety and those, which are of embarrassment to the military, and we don’t accept that as a reason for not reporting.
So we see that the embedded reporter has a privileged access that enables them to witness and report back on events that the military may not want the outside world to see – this, arguably, is one advantage of their role. However, for many critics the idea remains that embedded reporters, by virtue of being so closely tied to the military, have given up their independence and relinquished their claim to objectivity. As we saw in the Kellner reading, the embedded reporter has been identified as little more than a propagandist or mouthpiece for the military view. I put this claim to Stewart:
I think there's some truth in that and I think, you know, anyone who doesn't think there's some truth is being rather naïve about that. But that's why you need other elements of the coverage. I mean it's why for all the resources that are put into embedded reporters you don’t rely on embedded reporters. And you know I can think of examples in 2003 where embedded reporters, relying actually not so much on information, but sometimes it turned out almost gossip amongst the military, got things wrong. I mean if you look back at the reporting of the so-called uprising in Basra, there never was such an uprising in Basra and I’m not sure why somebody thought there was. But it seemed an exciting new angle at the time and it, I’m sure it came from military sources because, you know those embedded reporters, those were the only sources they had to a certain extent. And you know that seems to me a classic situation of getting carried away with the excitement of the moment.
So overall what you seem to be saying is the embedded reporter obviously has a very difficult job but at the same time it’s, well it's an imperfect position in a sense.
Yes, yes.
That they’re trying to be objective. They’re trying to report the facts as they see them but they have kind of human traits which means that sometimes they can get kind of caught up and carried away with perhaps the military line.
I’m honest enough to say that when a reporter is with a unit which, if you like is at the front line of winning a patriotic war and things are going well and they are there when, you know, the war is won. You know, you don’t get as much independent reporting as you might do if they – you know earlier on in the conflict. So if I look back even I have to say amongst independent reporters but particularly with embedded reporters, you know when Kuwait city was taken for instance you saw scenes of euphoria, excitement in which the reporters were almost inevitably caught up. And you know one just has to be realistic about that whilst, you know, asking people to try to tone it down at times.
Stewart admitted that there is the real danger that reporters could ‘go native’ so to speak and come to over-identify with their military protectors. This is a clear disadvantage in terms of ensuring objective and unbiased reporting.
I then moved on to ask Stewart to comment on the role of ‘unilateral’ reporters, those reporters working independently from any military unit:
The role of the independent or unilateral reporter is to offer a different perspective from those who are embedded with the military forces. It's to use their experience, because you normally give these kinds of jobs to the most experienced reporters, to use their kind of cunning, their wile, and their kind of you know expertise to get to the story. And it's about access really, because if you’re embedded you have given up control of your freedom of movement because you will not be allowed to go where you want to. So the independent reporter, the unilateral reporter, is seeking to go to places that embedded reporters can't, and to offer new perspectives, new insights and with that comes new dangers.
It is a riskier assignment. I mean a lot more has been done to try to provide extra safety advice and escorts than used to be. But you know you are on a road and you don’t really know what's happening to the left and to the right of you. You’ve got no real communications other than a mobile phone, which may not work anyway. So you’re very much on your own and it's down to your kind of individual judgement. There are I mean we’re talking about quite a few people now who you know - maybe thirty in the UK - who would be capable of coping with that situation, maybe twenty if you’re realistic about it. And it does put a lot of responsibility on them and on their editors to put them into that situation. And in a world of kind of health and safety executives and legislation it is an extremely uncomfortable position now for editors to appear as I have for instance at an inquest and ask what health and safety checks were done on the road to Basra? The answer is none really other than the common sense of the correspondent involved and that's the uncomfortable truth.
I asked Stewart whether he thought the unilateral reporters were able to offer a more critical perspective on war, by virtue of being ‘dis-embedded’ from military units:
I don’t think they go out there to be critical. I think they go out there to be revelatory. And I can certainly remember in the first Iraq war where, and this is not uncommon actually, but it is a particularly clear example where the coalition position was that they had taken a certain town and were rather proud that they had taken a certain town, and when our unilateral reporter turned up – they hadn't. And how could this be? You know there was a military spokesman saying ‘we have taken this town’ and there was our man live telling us ‘well I can't see anybody here’. And that's, you know, that's a story. I mean, that's a big story because in a sense the military, the politicians sometimes, have been caught lying. And you could argue that they have not enjoyed those moments and therefore they see little benefit in having that freedom of movement, that freedom of reporting because it challenges their version of the truth sometimes.
Being able to challenge official versions of the truth is an important role of the media in democratic societies, one which the unilateral reporter may be in a stronger position to do, given the fact their reporting is not subject to the same levels of scrutiny or censorship as that of embedded reporters. I asked Stewart about the attitude of the military to these free–roaming and unfettered unilateral reporters:
Completely split. The military commanders basically do not like them at all because they have the potential to embarrass them by revelation. The people on the ground rather like them and quite often do what they can to help them. And the best example of this in 2003 was Mark Austin of ITV News, who was presenting the news every night from the battlefield without being embedded. This caused such extraordinary controversy that even his own – some of his own ITN colleagues who were embedded – complained about him to the military.
Saying – ‘How come this guy is kind of constantly turning up on the battlefield and doing these reports and he’s not embedded?’ And the answer is ‘Mark is a very experienced operator and knows how to get people on his side.’ So he had got all sorts of middle ranking commanders and frankly, you know, non-commissioned officers to help him do his pieces without any form of accreditation other than that they recognised him as Mark Austin.
We might conclude that the embedded and unilateral reporter, both do valuable but contrasting jobs. The embed has greater access to military commanders and troops, and is a privileged witness of frontline operations – yet they are also restricted in their movements, may have their reports censored and leave themselves open to accusations of siding with their military hosts, by producing propaganda or by ‘going native’. The unilateral reporter has greater freedom of movement and can report independently of military censorship – and plays an important role in what Stewart refers to as ‘revelatory’ reporting. But before you make up your mind about the relative merits and drawbacks of embedded and unilateral reporting you should continue with this week’s readings. On the next page, articles by David Smith and by Justin Lewis offer further insights into the nature of both embedded and unilateral reporting.

6.3.1 Activity: Reporting the spectacle

We now turn to two readings on embedded reporting that illustrate some of the complexities and ambiguities of this role. In 'Embedded Lines in the Sand in Basra', journalist David Smith deals with the ambiguities of 'embedded reporting'. The second reading, an extract from Lewis et al’s Shoot First And Ask Questions Later: Media Coverage of the 2003 Iraq War, considers research undertaken by a team led by Lewis at Cardiff University that examined the role of embedded reporters operating in British and US military units in Iraq.

Activity 23 Shoot first and ask questions later: Media coverage of the 2003 Iraq War

‘Embedded Lines in the Sand in Basra’ can be read here, while the extract from Shoot First And Ask Questions Later can be downloaded from the link below.

Click to view Shoot first and ask questions later: Media coverage of the 2003 Iraq War

Read both pieces now and consider the following questions, taking notes as you go:

  1. What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of 'embedded' reporting?
  2. How does the account of embedded reporting offered by Lewis et al compare with that offered by Kellner?

When you have finished taking notes, reveal the discussion.

  1. We might argue that the strengths of embedded reporting lie in its ability to convey detailed and direct accounts of events as they happen and unfold. Embedded reporters are not only closer to military action but have daily interactions with commanders, soldiers and 'media ops.' – vital resources unavailable to unilaterals. Thus, if they are able to maintain their objectivity, embedded journalists are able to provide a much more accurate and close-quarters version of war events than their unilateral counterparts.

    The main weakness of the embedded model is that it leaves journalists open to accusations of being in the control of the military. Romilly Weeks's and Juliet Bremner's accounts in the Lewis reading reveal how the military have tried to directly censor ('blue-pencil') or control journalists' reporting. Furthermore, the military may try and influence the news agenda by providing certain 'positive' stories which are fed to journalists in an attempt to present military activity in a favourable light. Censorship can also occur more indirectly through the ways in which journalists' movements may be restricted by military command – reporters such as Mark Austin commented on the routine use of 'safety' and 'operational security' as explanations for preventing access to sensitive areas.

    A second major weakness of embedding is it raises the fear that journalists will lose their objectivity and 'go native' (as Smith describes), coming to over-identify with their military protectors, so losing sight of their apparently neutral and objective status. When journalists' find themselves protected from injury or death by the military, or – as in the case of Clive Myrie – contributing first-hand to a military skirmish, they may find it difficult to maintain the detached objectivity that their work requires.

  2. Contrary to Kellner's claims that embedded reporters are strongly censored and controlled by their military hosts, both Smith and Lewis reveal how the job of mediating war is a complex process where embedded journalists must balance the necessity of working 'on the inside' while retaining their professional commitment to producing impartial and objective reporting. The accounts of reporters interviewed by Lewis's team reveal the difficult tension of maintaining journalistic impartiality and integrity amidst the very real necessity of relying on military hosts for personal protection and safety. While censorship (both direct and indirect) and pro-military reporting are not uncommon (as both Kellner and Lewis describe), the Lewis reading also reveals that embedded journalists often fight hard to protect their independent credentials and strive to provide factual rather than partial reporting.

    This is further made difficult by the fact that while embedded reporters may well strive to file impartial reports, the final decisions of how those reports are edited and used often rests with editors and executives located ‘back home’. As Kellner argues in the US case, network executives themselves often have ‘embedded’ relationships with the military and government – yet Lewis and team refuse to discount the possibility of embedded journalists producing (and eventually broadcasting) objective and balanced reports.

    A further contrast between Kellner and Lewis is that the former argues that only unilateral reporters can provide objective, untainted reports – yet Lewis reveals that unilaterals are often undermined by their physical distance (their disembeddedness we might say) from military operations and their subsequent lack of insight into the day-to-day operations of the war zone. They too are also 'fed' positive stories designed to promote the military in a favourable light – and (unlike the embeds) may not be in a good position to see through this.

Overall, we might conclude, then, that while (as Kellner suggests) many journalists can be said to somewhat cosily 'embedded' with the military, it is perhaps too simplistic to argue that embedded journalists lack the potential to provide impartial, objective or (even) critical reports – or to suggest that unilaterals always provide the most accurate and objective coverage.

6.4 Conclusion

In conclusion, this section we have identified the ways in which the execution and the reporting of 9/11 and the subsequent Iraq War have relied upon the production of media 'spectacles' in the context of an ongoing 'image-war'. The media is now seen as a vital tool for both terrorists and governments, offering a means to disseminate and communicate causes, values and beliefs, providing a channel for provoking (and assuaging) fear, creating moral legitimacy and swaying public opinion.

While the Western media tend to create spectacles and reports that promote only US and allied interests, we should note that the media spectacle is always somewhat unstable and inconsistent – and that independent and critical media images and discourses can disrupt the dominant message, providing a crucial corrective to more conventional and established pro-war arguments. Indeed, the idea that the media are a diverse constituency, containing a plurality of critical perspectives, dissenting voices – and, indeed, discerning audiences – is something that we will examine in the forthcoming sections.

7 Interactions between policymakers, media and citizens

During the course of this section, you’ll focus principally upon two approaches to the study of relations between policymakers (or political leaders), media, and citizens, based on the underlying question: who influences who? Both approaches have generated a large body of research in political communication, yet each understands these interactions very differently.

The intention of this section’s readings are to steer away from general terms used to describe relations between policymakers, media and citizens – ‘spin’, ‘propaganda’, ‘bias’ and so on – to develop an understanding of the importance of cultures both within organisations and within which organisations operate. You should reflect on the national, historical trajectories of media in any country; how these histories shape media engagement with their publics; and how governments try to ‘use’ media to generate consent among publics.

7.1 Manufacturing consent

In Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky provide an explanation for why mass media systematically ‘manufacture consent’ for government and large private corporations in the US. By analysing the political economy of mass media, they show how ownership and commercial demands lead to the privileging of a dominant ideology and its social hierarchy. This then leads to the marginalisation of ‘radical’ or other points of view that might challenge the dominant order. For Herman and Chomsky, this bias is structural: it is not caused by the particular viewpoints of the journalists involved, but simply the only way news can be within a capitalist society in which audience share and commercial sponsors dictate what counts as ‘news’.

They also suggest that professional journalistic practices such as over-reliance on official sources and fear of lawsuits from powerful interests contribute to the manufacture of consent. For these reasons, the mass media become little more than propaganda instruments for a dominant elite. Herman and Chomsky go on to use this framework to explain why the US news media bolstered the legitimacy of US military interventions in Latin America and Indochina. In light of the failure of US journalists to uncover the lack of WMD in Iraq in 2002-03, this approach seems to offer much. We might consider, then, the relevance and utility of this framework for explaining UK and US media coverage of the 2003 Iraq War, including not only the build-up to the war, but also the ‘actual’ phase of military engagement, and the aftermath or reconstruction period.

Activity 24 Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media

Please read the extract from Herman and Chomsky’s book now.

Click to view Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media

You should consider the following questions while you read. Please note that some questions (i.e. the second part of 2, and 3–6) cannot be answered directly from the extract, but rather encourage you to come up with your own answer in the context of the extract. The discussion will fill you in on anything you can’t answer, so when you have finished reading, take a look at it.

  1. What specific aspects of media-government relations do Herman and Chomsky identify as leading to the manufacture of consent?
  2. If Herman and Chomsky are correct, there seem no incentives for journalists to investigate ‘the powerful’. Can you identify and explain any exceptions to this rule?
  3. In this system, do journalists have any power?
  4. In this system, do audiences have any power? How do we know they are offering consent?
  5. How well does Herman and Chomsky’s framework apply to media-government relations in countries other than the US?
  6. Do we still live in ‘the age of the expert’, according to the definition given by Kissinger (p23)?
  7. If ‘media need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news’, how might the internet alter this flow today? Is it still possible to ‘control’ flows of information?
  1. The authors focus on key large organisations such as the White House, State Department, large companies or corporations, and major news organisations. Media and government institutions each have something to offer the other, but also demand conditions in return. These political, commercial and media institutions have reached an equilibrium in which the way in which they conduct and structure their relations leads to a routine ‘manufacture’ of consent.
  2. Think about the Watergate scandal in the US in the 1970s, or other cases in which journalists have sought to expose corruption or malpractice in powerful institutions. Such cases have been made into novels and movies.
  3. Journalists are able to relay information to the public, and the public can hold politicians and companies to account, either as citizens through the ballot box or as consumers through their market choices. Hence journalists have an indirect power.
  4. As for the last question, audiences are composed of individuals who can play certain roles, as consumer, activist, ‘good citizen’ and so on. However, consent for the exercise of political power by office holders or representatives is conventionally considered to be transmitted through electoral voting. This makes a democratic government ‘legitimate’.
  5. Given that these three main sets of institutions (political, commercial and media) operate in most if not all countries, we might expect to find similar structural relations. However, countries vary in terms of media ownership, the capacity of different branches of governments to check and balance each other (executive, legislature, judiciary), and in terms of the expected role of corporations in a society.
  6. Experts still testify before parliamentary committees, acquire informal roles in networks close to or inside government, and are regularly sought after by media. In an age of 24/7 rolling news and an expanding choice of news outlets in print and online, there is more space to fill than ever, and experts (e.g. academics, think tank staff, former officials) are often happy to step into the public limelight.
  7. The internet allows citizens to both produce and consume news, and while a majority of people may rely on major news organisations for their news ‘diet’, the notion of a linear ‘flow’ from media to public is increasingly unrealistic. This transforms how news organisations operate; rather than produce one front page per day, a newspaper such as The Times or Guardian updates its headlines by the minute online. For politicians, this makes for a more unpredictable media environment. Information could emerge at any time, from any source, and debates can be triggered and develop through blogs before a politician has time to respond. The result is a more ‘chaotic’ media-political relationship.

7.2 The uncensored war

Daniel Hallin’s study of US media coverage of the Vietnam War, The Uncensored War: the Media in Vietnam, sets out to demonstrate empirically that critical media reporting of the war did not cause the United States to ‘lose the war at home and so lose the war abroad’. He describes how both liberal and conservative commentators subscribed to a myth that by showing the reality of the war, citizens-cum-audiences turned against the US military involvement in Vietnam. In fact, media coverage of US action in Vietnam only became critical once the US political elite became divided. Media simply reflected these divisions. They did not ‘manufacture dissent’. Once elites became divided, journalists reported these divides, such that opposition to the war became a legitimate position.

Hallin suggests reporting is ‘indexed’ to the degree of consensus among elites. Political ‘elites’ (including political parties, different branches of state, and opinion-formers or intellectuals) enjoy complex relations that must be explained in each case under study. Just as audiences are not homogeneous, and ‘the media’ is not a singular body, so political elites are plural. Hallin’s study complicates Herman and Chomsky’s argument that US mass media necessarily and inevitably manufacture consent for war by showing the conditions in which media can come to play an opposition role to government.

Activity 25 The uncensored war

Please read the extract from Hallin’s book now.

Click to view The uncensored war

You should consider the following questions while you read. Again, note that some questions cannot be answered directly from the extract, but instead ask you to come up with your own answer based on your knowledge, experience and judgement. The discussion will fill you in on anything you can’t answer, so when you have finished reading, take a look at it.

1. Is Huntington correct to suggest that media undermine public attitudes towards democratic institutions (p4-5), and do media ever play the role of opposition?

2. How did US journalists characterise or describe US military defeat in Vietnam, according to Hallin? Why might this be so?

3. Has the myth that the US media caused its government and military to lose the war in Vietnam affected how media have covered subsequent wars, for instance in Latin America in the 1980s or Iraq in 1991 or 2003?

4. Does viewing the often bloody ‘reality’ of war necessarily turn audiences against war? How would we know?

  1. Huntington appears to hold to an expectation that deference is a virtue, and that politicians should be given space to conduct public affairs without intrusion. Yet we might counter this argument by saying that the media acts as a check and balance on political decision-making, and that a transparent political system will make for better judgements. Hence it can be argued that it is necessary for media to take a stringent stance towards politicians, but not necessarily an oppositional one.
  2. US journalists characterised the US defeat as one brought about by media reports that convinced US citizens that they should withhold their support for the war. Political and military leaders assume that certain images and stories of war will be intrinsically disturbing to publics-cum-audiences, e.g. bloodshed and the killing of innocent people ‘in our name’ or ‘by our boys’.
  3. Since the Vietnam War, political and military leaders have exercised far more strict regulations on journalists attempting to report from geographical zones in which military operations are being conducted. This reached a peak in the 2003 Iraq war in which US-led Coalition forces would not guarantee the safety of any journalist not embedded. Many journalists or ‘independents’ died in what appears to be fire from Coalition forces.
  4. Like arguments about violence or pornography on audiences, many commentators suggest that watching carnage from war and conflict zones ‘inures’ audiences, such that they become less shocked by such scenes. However, there are no studies that prove this. Equally, the suggestion that graphic scenes turn audiences against the policies that are thought to have led to them is unproven. If audiences believe the people being killed or injured are on ‘the other side’, they may endorse the violence. Scholars must take care to distinguish who is fighting and how audiences relate to them before making any claims about the effect of such scenes on audiences.

7.3 What is the media doing to our politics?

In May 2003, the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan accused the British Prime Minister Tony Blair of publicly lying. Gilligan stated that Blair used claims from a dossier he knew were inaccurate to justify a war in Iraq. The central, disputed claim was that Saddam Hussein could launch missiles against British targets within 45 minutes. This began a battle between the BBC and Blair government in which the Director General of the BBC lost his job; a scientist advising the government, David Kelly, took his own life; and a major enquiry into the build-up to war was conducted (the Hutton Enquiry). The case is interesting because the BBC is funded by the British state (or its taxpayers), yet must demonstrate its independence. It did so here by playing an oppositional role to the Prime Minister himself. In his book What the Media are doing to our Politics, John Lloyd, a Financial Times journalist, gives an account of the news broadcast, and argues the BBC was guilty of poor journalism.

Activity 26 What the media are doing to our politics

Please read the extract from Lloyd’s book now.

Click to view What the media are doing to our politics

You should consider the following questions while you read. When you have finished reading, take a look at the discussion.

  1. Based on Lloyd’s account, do you think Gilligan should have withheld this story until he had more firm information?
  2. Given your knowledge of political debates in the UK in 2002–03 in the run up to the Iraq War, could Hallin’s indexing model explain why Gilligan felt confident criticising the British government so openly?
  3. Does this case demonstrate that journalists do have power to resist government ‘spin’, or that they only have power when they (deliberately or accidentally) break the rules and conventions of their professional culture?
  4. Does responsibility for such a news story lie with the reporter, or with the ‘environment’ that conditions what a reporter thinks is normal, professional journalism?
  5. Lloyd returns to the radio presenter’s phrase, ‘Does any of this matter now?’ Is the reporting of reasons against a war relevant once the war is underway or over?
  6. Lloyd quotes Martin Kettle: ‘modern journalism is prone to behaving like a child, throwing its rattle out of the pram because it has not got what it wanted’. Is it fair or accurate to speak of modern journalism as a single entity? And what might Gilligan or the BBC here have ‘wanted’, apart from delivering professional news to a presumed audience?
  1. This is a subjective question and will depend on how convincing the reader finds Lloyd’s perspective that following procedure matters more than the consequence of the story (e.g. that it turned out to be correct).
  2. It could. Political dissensus meant that Gilligan could feel reasonably confident that criticising the government would not be deemed out of line, since many politicians were doing the same.
  3. It suggests that journalists are in a conflicted, difficult situation. If Gilligan had more clear information then he could have ‘resisted’ on very safe ground. Hence it is possible for journalists to have power, provided they gather reliable information.
  4. The reporter worked in a competitive news environment in which a scoop can deliver quick rewards to an ambitious journalist, and in which news organisations are under pressure to deliver ratings – even a public sector broadcaster such as the BBC. However, the reporter can withhold the report, and professional norms would suggest Gilligan should have withheld this report unless the information it was based upon was verifiable.
  5. Debates about whether a war was ‘just’ matters even once a war is underway, since any subsequent decision to increase troop numbers or begin another war will be evaluated in light of the reasons for the original war. Hence it does matter for practical policy reasons, as well as for reasons of general trust in the media and in politicians.
  6. Kettle is suggesting the BBC had a political agenda: to undermine the Blair government’s case for war. While the BBC depends on the UK state for funding, it is required to demonstrate its independence, and opposing government policy is one such way. However, we must be careful to distinguish the journalist, the news programme, the news organisation, and the media culture within which it operates. There is enormous variation in each of these respects, even within the UK.

7.4 Who lied to whom?

Seymour M. Hersh has spent several decades as an investigative reporter and presently works for The New Yorker. He has received most acclaim for his reports on the Mai Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2004. When reading it, bear in mind that – as we saw in Herman and Chomsky’s work – it is common practice for journalists at mainstream newspapers to rely on official sources for daily information. This makes for an easy, cheap story, and these sources are usually reliable. However, such a close relationship between government and journalists can sometimes lead to problems. In ‘Who lied to whom?’ Hersh investigates claims by US officials that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein had obtained ‘yellow cake’ uranium as part of a covert nuclear programme. The US officials claim to have received this ‘intelligence’ from British sources, and indeed the British government made public similar claims about the uranium. Hersh’s investigative report suggests how intelligence might be used by politicians as ‘evidence’ to support particular policies. This article was published a fortnight into the war.

Activity 27 Who lied to whom?

Please read Hersh’s article now. You should consider the following questions while you read. When you have finished reading, take a look at the discussion.

  1. Might this report have had an impact on the decision of the US and UK to go to war if it had been published before the war had begun?
  2. Who does Hersh rely upon for credible sources, and what makes them credible?
  3. Are the news media mentioned in the article who ‘fell for it’, such as The Guardian and Washington Post, responsible in any way for the 2003 Iraq war?
  4. If members of the public cannot trust mainstream media outlets, what options do they have for obtaining reliable news?
  1. WMD was a primary justification for war, though it had secondary meanings: the presence of WMD in Iraq would have implied that Saddam Hussein was ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘dangerous’. Additionally, the presence of WMD was central to many presentations given by the US and UK in the sections before the war, e.g. Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN of satellite images of WMD ‘sites’ in Iraq. Hence the report would have derailed the main justification given for the war. However, the war could have been justified on other grounds, including humanitarian reasons.
  2. He relies on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sources. As an independent body, they are ostensibly ‘non-political’ and therefore have no reason to give partial or inaccurate information.
  3. This is for the reader to decide, but if we are to say that journalists have ‘power’ then we might argue that they had some power to stop the war by informing publics who in turn could have held their political leaders to account. On the other hand, it should be noted that sufficient public criticism existed to enable more than a million people to march against the war on 15 February 2003, and that such large scale expressions of public opinion do not necessarily influence government policy, as was the case in this instance.
  4. Audiences increasingly turn to a variety of news sources, but due to time pressure, lack of media literacy, and loyalty to particular media sources, we can hardly say audiences ever gain a ‘full picture’. The difficulty of obtaining reliable news is one of the central questions in media-political relations in the twenty-first century, and leads to questions of ‘trust’ and ‘credibility’ that news organisations are as concerned about as citizens.

In the next section we will turn to studies of how audiences/users of the media have understood and responded to media and government presentations of post-9/11 issues and stories.

8 Media audiences and users post 9/11

This section you’ll be considering several perspectives on how audiences use and are influenced by different media in understanding issues and events post 9/11. In the process, our interactions with a variety of types of communication and media forms will be considered, including TV news, political speeches, government ‘leaks’ and official publications, satellite television, the internet and downloads to mobile phones. Different ways of researching media audiences will also be introduced, including surveys, critical readings, focus group studies, and ethnographic interviews.

Two particular changes in the media landscape since the 1980s have had a major impact on media audiences – each in a different way inviting (perhaps even forcing us) into more active roles, shifting our relationship with the media from that of viewer to that of user. The first change is the growth and diversification of the media. This is perhaps most obvious in the broadcast media with the explosion of the number of channels available to viewers, as a result of media deregulation and the development of satellite, digital and cable technologies. Some UK viewers currently still rely on analogue broadcast services, where choice remains limited to five television channels; but for increasing numbers a choice of viewing can be made between 100 channels or more.

But, perhaps more significantly, diversification is also a reality in media production, including limited but significant penetration of Western markets by non-Western media products such as Bollywood movies or, of particular relevance to post-9/11 discussions, non-Western news sources such as al-Jazeera television. (Al-Jazeera was launched in Arabic in 1996 and in English in 2006.) Thus we are presented with an increasing range of choice not just of channels, but of perspectives.

The second change in the media landscape is the growth of the internet, which greatly increases access to a wide range of information sources (and hence potentially to diverse perspectives). It also presents possibilities for interaction at a distance. As Cottle comments ‘New media technologies ... add new communicative ingredients into the media ecology mix ... unsettling established flows of 'top-down' communication and facilitating new political forms of organization and expression’ (Cottle 2006: p52-3).

You’ll look more at Cottle’s work this section, and how he considers the impacts of both news media diversification and the internet on media audiences/users. He also introduces the idea of the media as a public sphere – a 'space' or 'spaces' for discussion of issues of shared concern.

Discussions of media use raise questions about media effects. Ways of understanding how the media influence people have changed over the years. Historically, there has been a long-running debate between what Livingstone (2005) identifies as ‘liberal’ and ‘critical’ positions. The ‘liberal’ position sees the media in a positive light as providing the information and range of opinion that people in a democracy need to help make up their minds. By contrast, the ‘critical’ position sees the media as shaping public opinion in the interests of those who produce, own or control the media.

The arguments you’ll consider this section will provide evidence to support both positions, and perhaps also point beyond them. Thus, in support of the critical position, Kull et al. (2003–4) present evidence that suggests watching some television-news sources relates to misperceptions of the facts concerning the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, even when other factors such as political orientation and social background are taken into account. But al-Ghabban (2004) presents evidence that exposure even to biased media sources can stimulate critical debate and perhaps political action. This supports the central argument of the liberal position: the media provide information that aids democracy by enabling informed public debate. It also addresses a key contention of the critical position; news sources are likely to be biased and should be treated with scepticism. Al-Ghabban also makes the point that much more than media input shapes people’s views; a whole range of social, cultural and individual factors also come into play.

(Please note that, although you may find it interesting to do so, we do not expect you to read each of these sources in full.)

8.1 Perceptions, misperceptions, and the media: 9/11, Iraq and 7/7

In this part, we look at how people perceive the war on terror and where they get their information (or misinformation) from.

8.1.1 The media and US perceptions of the reasons for going to war in Iraq

Kull et al.’s article ‘Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War’ is a study of US television news audiences. It examines how certain misconceptions influential in shaping people’s support for the war in Iraq continued to circulate during 2003, in spite of evidence that should have undermined them becoming publicly available. The researchers also examined the influence of misperceptions on people’s support for the war, their distribution across different television audiences, and their prevalence in relation to certain political attitudes. They then perform an overall analysis to find out which were the most important factors in shaping support for the war.

The study raises some serious concerns about the relationship between the political executive, the media, and the public – at least in the US context. It suggests that, while the President cannot lead people to adopt positions that contradict their own values, he can ‘lead members of the public to assume false beliefs in support of his position’ (p597). This is undertaken in conjunction with a media willing to disseminate his statements in a supportive manner, Furthermore, it suggests that ‘the media cannot necessarily be counted on to play [the] critical role of doggedly challenging the administration’ (ibid.).

Activity 28 Misperceptions, the media and the Iraq war

Please read the article now. It is quite long and technical, so we advise that you read it in the sections outlined below (which will reduce the reading), and note your answers to the questions as you progress. When you have finished, reveal the discussion and check your answers against those provided.

p569–571 (‘The Iraq war ... media reporting’)

1. What puzzling polling evidence is addressed by the study?

2. What hypothesis did the researchers come up with to explain this puzzle, and how did they seek to test it?

p575 (Fig. 1), p576 ('Misperceptions and Support for the War' short introduction only – ‘The misperceptions ... higher support’), and p577–580 (Figs 2-5 only)

3. How widely shared were the three misperceptions identified amongst the American population, and how closely were misperceptions related to support for the war in Iraq?

p581–583 ('Misperceptions as a Function of Source of News’ and 'Combined Analysis'); p585 (section titled 'The Effect of Variations in Audiences' only), and p586 ('Misperceptions as a Function of Level of Attention to News' paragraphs 1 and 2 only)

4. How important was variation in primary source of news in shaping the level of misperception, and can the level of misperceptions be explained in terms of audience characteristics rather than source of news?

5. What relationship did the researchers find between level of attention to news and level of misperceptions?

p588–591 ('Relative Strength of Various Factors Related to Level of Misperception' to 'Analysis')

Note on technical terms: 'Regression Analysis'. This is a statistical method used to identify the most important factors in shaping a distribution (in this case, responses to a questionnaire). Repeated analyses are undertaken in which the least significant factor is eliminated after each analysis, until eventually only one factor remains. This enables the relative importance of different factors to be determined.

6. What other factors shaped misperceptions, and what was their relative level of importance?

p591–6 ('Analysis')

7. Why did so many Americans continue to have misperceptions concerning WMD, pre-war Iraqi links with al-Quaeda and world opinion, even after no evidence emerged to support the first two and contrary evidence concerning the third became available in the public domain?

p596–598 ('Conclusion')

8. What concerns for the democratic process do the authors express, and how justified do you think these concerns are?

  1. The study sought to explain polling evidence that suggested that a majority of Americans did not support the US invasion of Iraq without prior UN Security Council backing. However, once the President decided to go to war a majority supported his decision. They continued to do so even when evidence to support the administrations reasons for going to war (that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and the regime had links to al-Quaeda) failed to come to light. They also continued to believe that world opinion supported the invasion, even when opinion polls suggested that it did not.
  2. The researchers formed the hypothesis that in order to close the gap between their general beliefs about valid reasons to go to war and the post-invasion evidence, the American public 'in some way [came] to have false beliefs or misperceptions that would make going to war seem more legitimate' (p570). They sought to test this hypothesis using a series of public opinion polls between January and September 2003 that examined the relationships between misperceptions, support for the war, and the role of the media used to obtain information about the war.
  3. A majority (60%) shared one of the three misperceptions; 20% had two misperceptions and 8% had all three. The misperceptions were highly related to support for the war. Having a misperception correlated with increased support for the war in each case (Figs 2–4), and each additional misperception further increased the likelihood of support for the war, such that 86% of those with three misperceptions supported the war, compared with 23% of those who had no misperceptions.
  4. There was considerable variation in level of misperception depending on primary news source. Fox News and CBS viewers had strikingly high levels of misperception (80% and 71% respectively had one or more misperception), whereas those who used print media or public TV networks as their primary source of news had lower than average (i.e. 60% see 3 above) levels of misperception (47% and 23% respectively). The primary source of news was still a significant factor even when other factors (such as education, political affiliation, household income etc.) were taken into account.
  5. The effect of level of attention varied according to news source. For Fox News, increased levels of attention actually correlated with increased misperceptions. Overall, there was no significant relationship between level of attention and news source, ruling out the hypothesis that misperceptions were simply the result of inattention. Only for print media did level of attention positively correlate with decreased misperceptions, perhaps suggesting that we absorb information from television and reading in different ways.
  6. Intention to vote for President Bush was the most significant predictor of misperceptions, followed by primary news source, with Fox viewing most closely related to high levels of misperception, and public network viewing to low levels. Intention to vote for a Democratic candidate in the presidential election was the third most significant predictor (in the direction of low levels of misperception. Fourth was education, with high levels associated with lower levels of misperception), and age was weakly associated, with older people being slightly less prone to misperceptions. Other factors, including gender, income and level of attention (overall – but see 5 above) were not significant predictors.
  7. The researchers considered two 'exogenous' factors, i.e. factors to do with the external environment rather than the way that people process information ('endogenous’ factors). The two external factors were misleading statements by the Bush administration, and variations in media reporting (some of which was also misleading). Statements from Bush and senior figures in his administration are quoted to support the contention that the Bush administration made misleading statements during this period to support their pre-war assertions. Several forms of evidence are used to argue that media reporting was responsible for misperceptions, including:
    1. statements from Fox and CBS employees admitting, indeed proclaiming, their support for the government (p593)
    2. the greater prominence given to pro-war than to anti-war voices in coverage on the major networks (p593)
    3. the general media dynamic that an absence of finding does not make good news, so the failure to find evidence to support the government’s reasons for going to war gets less strong coverage than other news stories(p594).
    However, the researchers also argue that a further, psychological, explanation is needed to explain the persistence of misperceptions (p594–6). This is that Americans were receptive to the Bush administration's misleading statements because they wanted to believe them; if they were true they would align American foreign policy with their deeper beliefs about good reasons for going to war, and about America's role in the world.
  8. The researchers suggest that the findings are of concern for the democratic process for two main reasons. First, they suggest that a US president can lead a significant proportion of the population into holding false beliefs to justify the administration's policies, if these false beliefs enable the public to square these policies with their 'deeper value orientations' (p597). Second, they suggest that significant sections of the media cannot be relied on to act as a critical watchdog on government policies.

    The latter is a concern for democratic process to the extent that democracy depends on public access to accurate information, and on the media to act as an effective check on governments and other interested groups. How justified their concerns are is a matter of opinion. But in part your opinion may depend on your understanding of priorities within a democracy.

    For example, you could take the view that in times of national crisis citizens' first loyalty is to their country and therefore it is natural for criticism of the government to be muted for a time in the aftermath of a crisis like 9/11. You might then not be too worried about this evidence of persistent misperception. After all, levels of misperception dropped during the survey period, and clearly there were many dissenting views freely circulating in the American public sphere. On the other hand, if you take the view that public deliberation – opportunities for free and open public debate – are at the heart of democracy, you might be considerably more concerned. The latter view is called a deliberative understanding of democracy, which places public argument at its centre.

8.1.2 Implications of public misperceptions for democracy

Deliberative understandings of democracy (Elster 1998, Dryzek 2002) stress the importance of public argument for democracy. This relies both on public access to accurate information (ensured in part by the media's willingness and capacity to question the authorities and other vested interests), and on public access to a variety of shared spaces in which a range of different voices can be heard, listen to each other, and debate matters of shared concern.

Later this section, especially in the work of Simon Cottle, we will consider the implications of new communications technologies and news media diversification for the development of such spaces, and hence the prospects for deliberative democracy in the post 9/11 media landscape.

We now turn our attention from US to British interpretations of media sources. Dr Elizabeth Poole has studied representations of Islam and Muslims in British newspapers over the last 20 years (1988–2008), and also how different groups within the British public interpret these changing representations.

Activity 29 Interview with Dr Elizabeth Poole

Read the transcript of an interview David Herbert conducted with Dr Poole below.

Please click ‘Reveal comment’ to read the interview.


Interview with Dr Elizabeth Poole

David Herbert
I asked Elizabeth Poole, Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Staffordshire, to explain how British press representations of Muslims & Islam have changed over recent years. Dr Poole argues that the Rushdie Affair which began in 1988, and in which British Muslims protested against the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, marked an important turning point.
Elizabeth Poole
I think it’s been a gradual process since the Rushdie affair in this country which changed quite significantly, people’s perception of the ethnic other. Before the Rushdie affair, cultural values were not seen as kind of so important or ethnic minority groups weren’t seen as a particular threat to cultural values, whereas this in particular allowed Muslims to be seen as a cultural threat to the Britishness of society. And from that point and other events since then that have happened in Britain and abroad like the Gulf War, and obviously particularly since 9/11 and 7/7 and the Iraq War, increasingly there’s an idea that Muslims are as well as a security threat, a cultural threat. And therefore you get a shift toward cultural racism whereby the issues of importance to the press are things like Britishness and inclusivity and what it means to be British. So those have been the issues of importance particularly around Muslims, particularly before 9/11.
Dr Poole then explained that while 9/11 greatly increased the coverage of Muslims as a potential terrorist threat, it also stimulated broader debate, especially in the liberal press such as the Guardian and Independent. However, the breadth of debate was to narrow again after 7/7:
Initially following 9/11, you had coverage centring around three main topics, terrorism, counter terrorism and discrimination against Muslims which you mainly found in the, in the liberal press. And I thought initially and there’s been other research that’s been done in this area, post 9/11 there was a, a kind of seriousness injected into the tabloid press. And a lot of debate in the liberal press looked quite positive because there was a lot of discussion of Guantanamo Bay and about injustices against Muslims. But post 7/7 there’s been a big shift away from that really, so even in the liberal press you’ve got this kind of single narrative which dominates.
So I asked Dr Poole to explain in more detail how the relationship between representations of British Muslims and security threats had developed since 7/7.
The evidence shows that pre 7/7 this kind of security threat of terrorism was always assigned to a foreign other, even Muslims living in Britain, it was always exiles, that were engaged in activities supporting terrorism or extremism. Often the term terrorism particularly before 9/11 wasn’t used it was more extremism, fundamentalism, those kind of terms. Whereas obviously post 7/7 when you had British born Muslims who were engaged in kind of terrorist activity, that construction can’t be maintained. So then you’ve got a problem whereby you know to maintain social cohesion in society, to ensure you, that the Muslim community isn’t excluded, to ensure that Britain is still constructed or seen to be a multi cultural society. Then what we’ve seen is an individualisation of terrorism so rather than being seen as a collective, its very much been individualised and criminalized so this part is to do with the de-politicalisation of terrorism. What we’ve noticed is that very much you get the idea of the construction of the irrational fanatic who is an individual who has been misguided perhaps had some kind of psychological symptoms of psychosis and things like that beforehand, but they’ve kind of lost their way and been misled by the external other. So in that way you can still ‘other’ – you’ve still got a process of ‘othering’ going on but its still related to kind of foreign influences. Whereas the individual of the British Muslim is criminalised and individualised and that removes them from the British Muslim community. So this allows Britain to still be constructed as this kind of multicultural society, not racist because it’s removing the actions of the terrorist from the British Muslim community but still keeping it within a kind of global Muslim terrorist network by relating the influence coming from foreign Imams and groups abroad. So that’s what we’ve found since post 7/7 really.
Dr Poole summarises recent changes in British press representations of Islam and Muslims as follows:
We can see clearly that there’s been three phases in the representation of Muslims in the British press over the last ten, fifteen years that, there was a lot of variety in representation pre 9/11 although this did still centre around kind of conflict, it was to do with cultural conflict rather than security conflict. Then post 9/11 you’ve got some variety but a limited narrowing of that variety, but there’s still kind of a split representation between the dominant representation of terrorism and kind of counter terrorism. And then post 7/7 it has closed further really to a kind of single narrative.
Dr Poole also did some research before 9/11, which examined how contact with Muslim peers influenced how people interpreted media images of Islam and Muslims. The study found that while daily contact positively influenced people’s perceptions of British Muslims, they still shared the dominant and negative media image of Islam in general. I asked Dr Poole to explain more:
I took three different types of groups, Muslims, non Muslims who had a lot of daily contact with Muslims and a group that didn’t have any contact with Muslims. Fromthe findings of that research it did show that non Muslims do share the dominant discourse of the press, but it was interesting that non Muslims who had a lot of contact with Muslims, didn’t really know enough about their religious identity to be able to challenge the kind of dominant discourse of the press. So although they were very fair and liberal in their understanding of the kind of racial identity and issues they still tended to take onboard the dominant discourse of the press because they didn’t have any other kind of frameworks for interpretation. Whereas the non-contact groups very much shared the discourse of the press, but it was their particular readership of the red tops, which meant that they had very little recognition of who Muslims were really. Now I’m not saying that you know people are just influenced by what the press represents, it’s more that the press discourse fits with their preconceptions and then they use press discourse to interpret their own experiences through that. The Muslims though completely rejected press discourse on the basis of cultural bias. So its almost like a closure and not wanting to read or understand press discourse because there was an immediate sort of reaction that this is going to be biased, but where they didn’t know enough about issues going on in the world and then sometimes they fell into, just kind of following that dominant discourse as well.
In other words, people tend to accept press representations if this fits with their preconceptions, and where they do not have an alternative source of knowledge. So non-Muslims who had no contact with Muslims tended to accept the press discourse fully, having no reason to challenge it. Non-Muslims who had contact with Muslims made exceptions for Muslims they knew and to some extent for British Muslims more generally, but shared the negative view of Islam in general, lacking alternative knowledge. British Muslims rejected press discourse on Islam having an alternative source of knowledge based on their own experience; but where they lacked alternative sources of knowledge, as with some stories about Islam abroad in parts of the world with which they were not familiar, they too tended to accept the dominant negative press discourse.
Activity 30 Questions related to the interview

Once you have read the interview, answer the following questions.

  1. How and why did The Satanic Verses controversy (from 1988) mark a turning point in press representations of Islam and British Muslims?
  2. What changes followed 9/11 and 7/7?
  3. What does Poole’s research tell us about different groups’ readings of British newspapers representations of Islam and Muslims pre 9/11? What tentative general conclusion might be drawn from these findings?
  1. Poole argues that, as a result of The Satanic Verses controversy, British Muslims began to be represented as a cultural threat to British values. This is certainly one possible reading, although an alternative interpretation might be that the main change in representation was from that of passive cultural threat (mediated by representations of difference in terms of gender relations, language, dress and food, rather than religion) to one of active or militant cultural threat (symbolised by the book-burning incidents in Bradford and Bolton), and more focused on religion.
  2. After 9/11, the focus on representation of cultural threat was replaced by representation of physical, terrorist threat, and the volume of representations also increased greatly. At the same time though, the liberal press such as The Guardian and The Independent began to run articles examining different aspects of Muslim life in Britain, and to encourage debate about the issues raised. At this stage, the physical threat was still seen as mostly coming from abroad. However, after 7/7, the wider debate in the liberal press diminished, and the physical threat began to be located amongst British Muslims. However, this raised problems for the image still favoured by all mainstream newspapers of Britain as a functioning multicultural society, even though the idea of multiculturalism as a good thing in itself was under widespread attack. These problems were resolved by linking terrorist activities amongst British Muslims to the pathology of isolated individuals, often misled by radicals from abroad.
  3. Poole found that the extent to which individuals accepted the dominant negative press representation of Islam and Muslims depended on the extent to which they had access to alternative sources of knowledge. Thus individuals who had no regular contact with Muslims largely accepted the dominant press discourse. Individuals who had contact with Muslims but lacked knowledge of Islam tended to accept press representations of the religion, but held positive attitudes to multiculturalism, including their Muslim contacts. Muslims generally rejected the negative press discourses, but where the press covered events in Muslim countries they did not know, e.g. Egypt, they too tended to accept the negative press discourse.

8.2 Media flows and public debate

In Mediatized Conflict: Developments in Media and Conflict Studies, Simon Cottle reflects on the use made by Western news networks of material from al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera was founded in 1996, initially as an Arabic language news service and satellite broadcaster. It is based in Qatar in the Persian Gulf, and funded by the Emir of Qatar and (El Oifi, 2005, p75). An English language service based in London has been available since November 2006. In the extract provided, Cottle introduces Iskander and El-Nawawy's concept of 'contextual objectivity' to describe al-Jazeera's journalism, and then goes on to discuss several critical voices that have emerged within the West since 9/11 that use a mixture of media genres (e.g. documentary and satire). Figure 1, which is contained within the PDF downloadable below, maps these features of the contemporary media landscape alongside internet developments, presenting these environments as providing a range of public spheres or 'spherecules' (mini public spheres) within which public debate takes place. The size of the circles roughly represents the size (in terms of viewers/participants) of the public sphere, with the minority and new media forums described as spherecules because they each involve much smaller numbers than broadcast media. Nonetheless, because they tend to be densely networked together, collectively these spherecules can involve large numbers of people.

Activity 31 Mediatized conflict: Developments in media and conflict studies

Now read the extract from Cottle and answer the following questions. When you have finished, reveal the discussion and check your answers against those provided.

Click to view Mediatized conflict: Developments in media and conflict studies

  1. What is a 'media contra-flow', and why are US (and other Western) media interested in re-using content from al-Jazeera?
  2. What have been the effects of such contra-flows on Western media audiences?
  3. What is 'contextual objectivity' and how useful do you think it is as a concept?
  4. What is the significance of cross-over genre films and the internet (see also Fig. 9.1) for the development of the deliberative democracy?
  1. A 'media contra-flow' is a flow of media content in the reverse direction to dominant flows, which tend to flow from global, Western-based media corporations. Examples include:
    • flows from independent media producers in the West into Western corporate media systems
    • flows from non-Western media producers such as al-Jazeera into Western corporate systems
    • flows from Western producers into state controlled media systems in non-Western societies (such as from the BBC World Service into China).
    Western news networks have been interested in re-using al-Jazeera's content because of al-Jazeera's greater access in some contexts (e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq), and because of high public interest in some of this content (e.g. Osama Bin Laden's video messages).
  2. These flows increase the range of images (and to some extent perspectives) to which Western media audiences are exposed. In the case of al-Jazeera, its images may challenge Western constructions of journalistic 'objectivity' by presenting alternative viewpoints, but only to the extent that such viewpoints are evident in re-packaged visual content.
  3. 'Contextual objectivity' refers first to al-Jazeera's attempt to present news in a way that is free from particular political interests and agendas, but which nonetheless broadly fits with the concerns of its predominantly Arab audience. The term can be then be used to argue that there is a similar relationship between 'high quality' Western news services (such as CNN or the BBC) and their respective audiences.

    Of course how useful you think that the term is depends on your standpoint: it could be argued that it is misleading to compare al-Jazeera and organisations such as the BBC or CNN. The BBC and CNN are much less dependent on funding from a particular unelected, not (fully) commercially accountable source (i.e. the Emir of Qatar). On the other hand, the BBC has close links to the British political system (and claims to editorial independence might be viewed sceptically from abroad), while research has also pointed to the close links between political elites and the media in the US (recall Herman and Chomsky from Section 7).

    Furthermore, the term highlights relationships between media products, media producers, and their funders and audiences, in a way that makes simple notions of objectivity problematic. In response, it makes an argument that even if it is inevitable that all journalism has some kind of cultural, political or value orientation, there remain criteria by which some may be judged better than others; i.e. contextual objectivity may be defined in terms of accuracy, balance, construction of argument, etc. Thus, this may be considered a useful term for those concerned with evaluating standards of journalism in an increasingly polycentric world.

  4. Both cross-over genre films (such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11) and the internet have some significance for deliberative democracy. In the context of a media landscape that is increasingly commercially dominated, the former circulate alternative views while the latter provides spaces for their expression and discussion.

8.2.1 Developments in the British Muslim press

The next activity examines another kind of contra-flow – the development of an independent English language Muslim media, especially newspapers and magazines, in the UK. In this transcript from an audio interview, Dr Sameera Ahmed sketches developments in the British Muslim press from 1988-2008.

Activity 32 Interview with Dr Sameera Ahmed

Read the transcript below, and note your answers to the questions. When you have finished, reveal the discussion and check your answers against those provided.

Please click ‘Reveal comment’ to read the interview.

David Herbert
Partly in reaction to negative portrayals in the mainstream British press, British Muslims have increasingly developed their own English language media voice, for example through newspapers, magazines, and radio. The English language medium is important, because it enables Muslims to communicate with each other in spite of their very varied linguistic backgrounds, and also opens up channels of communication with mainstream society. Sameera Ahmed, until recently Associate Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and now Lecturer at the University of Oman, Jordan charts the development of the British Muslim press before 9/11:
Sameera Ahmed
So if we take 1989 as a watershed if you like, particularly after the Rushdie affair, there’s a kind of marked increase in the introduction of some Muslim publications. Some of them did exist prior to that date, but for example Q News, Muslim News, they saw it as a kind of catalyst. Where the Muslim community itself was conscious that the way they were being portrayed in mainstream media or the issues that were important to them, were being articulated in a very restricted manner and they wanted to actually present alternatives to this. So we see magazines and publications developing along those lines. Firstly, they wanted to give a Muslim perspective, not necessarily an Islamic kind of scholarly perspective, but at least a perspective from within the Muslim community. And they also wanted to challenge mainstream representations so where you had the stereotypical you know Muslims are A B and C, they wanted to say no, there’s more to it than that. And if we go back to what some of the editors articulate as their objectives they were very clear that they wanted to be Muslim publications presenting alternative perspectives from the Muslim community initially. But I suppose their wider objective was to then pan out if you like so that the general mainstream population may eventually take articles and issues that they debate. The Muslim press itself was developing somewhat prior to 2001 in terms of its readership, but also in terms of the topics that they were actually engaging with. So it wasn’t the traditional religious topics if you like, they were looking at social issues, they were looking at problems that perhaps young British Muslims were having, so in that way they were widening their original scope and paralleling some of the discussions and debates that were taking place in established mainstream press.
I then asked Dr Ahmed how the British Muslim press responded to the challenges of 9/11, and later 7/7:
Obviously, when September 2001 happened, they felt as if there was an intense focus, which obviously there was on the Muslim community and as if they were in many ways the spokespeople for the Muslim communities and go betweens if you like between the mainstream press and the actual communities. So obviously as soon as 2000 – you know September 11 happened, it was very much what is this event, what does it mean for the Muslim community immediately and in the future, why did it take place. You know there were many scholars that were clearly saying that this is un-Islamic and giving the reasons behind that. But then they looked further afield, what will the impact be, what were the kind of geopolitical implications of this for Muslims around the world, not just in the West. The Muslim press found itself in quite a unique position that it was picking up on individual cases of Muslims who had been detained under the anti terror legislation, but it was following their cases in more detail than perhaps mainstream press. I think they kind of followed the whole campaign through, from the arrest to… more often than not to the release without charge of many of the suspects, and they talked more broadly about how that was impacting on the Muslim community. So how Muslim community’s attitudes towards the establishment were changing, how were they seeing the police with the stop and searches, how was this affecting how they, basically, went about their day-to-day life?
Activity 33 Questions related to the interview
  1. How did the British Muslim press respond to The Satanic Verses controversy (also known as the Rushdie Affair), and what developments followed?
  2. What further developments have taken place since 9/11?
  1. The volume of Muslim publications increased. Both new and existing titles such as Q News and Muslim News took on new roles, including responding to presentations of Muslims in the mainstream media, raising issues for debate within the Muslim community.
  2. Since 9/11 some publications have taken on the role of unofficial spokespeople for the Muslim community, including mediating between the Muslim community and the mainstream press, publicising Muslim scholars condemnation of the attacks, and taking up the cause of Muslims held under anti-terror legislation.

8.3 Communicating risk and promoting community cohesion

In this part, we look at the following subjects:

  • the British government’s strategy of communicating the risk of terrorism to the public
  • working with local government to implement ‘anti-radicalisation’ policies.

8.3.1 Communicating terrorist risk

Gabe Mythen and Sandra Walklate’s ‘Communicating the Terrorist Risk: Harnessing a Culture of fear?’ offers a critical analysis of the UK government’s strategy to communicate the risk of terrorism to the British public. It examines how this strategy fits and interacts with broader notions of risk, crime and security circulating in British culture, framing the debate in terms of Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ thesis.

Beck (1992) argued that there has been a shift in advanced industrial societies from seeing social progress in terms of gaining positive things (‘e.g. income, health care, education, housing’, (Mythen and Walklate, 2006, p124)) to a more negative notion of avoiding bad things (‘e.g. crime, … pollution, AIDS and terrorism’, ibid.). In this context, the optimal strategy becomes one of minimising risk. Mythen and Walklate argue that this description captures something of a shift in how politicians talk about their aims, and has had a material impact on policy decisions, such as the increase (‘more than doubling’) of UK government expenditure on national security between 2004 and 2008 (ibid. p139, note 2). As well as mapping shifts in political discourse, the article also examines how increased concern with risk avoidance impacts on how we as individuals live our lives.

Activity 34 Communicating terrorist risk

Please read the sections of the article outlined below now, and note your answers to the questions as you progress. When you have finished, reveal the discussion and check your answers against those provided.

Abstract (p123) and p124–5 ('Risk, Security and the New Terrorism' to '... new form of terrorism') and p126–7 ('Putting aside ... threat').

1. What is meant by the phrase to 'think security'? Why, aside from any actual increase in threats, might an emphasis on security appeal to a government?

P127–9 ('Communicating Risk: Making Up the War Against Terrorism' – ‘Communicating risk ...’ to ‘... the same thing.’)

2. What examples of ‘national security issues being leaked backstage’ (p128) do the authors discuss? Why do the authors think they have been leaked, and what effects on public perceptions of risk has this had?

3. What criticisms of the phrase ‘war against terrorism’ do the authors make (p129)?

P133–7 'The State, Responsibilization and the Politics of Fear'

4. What is ‘responsibilization’, and in what ways is the government leaflet ‘Helping to Prevent a Terrorist Attack’ an example of it (p133–6)?

P137–9 'Conclusion' (first and last paragraphs only)

5. What are the main arguments presented in these paragraphs?

  1. To 'think security' means to put minimisation of harm (in contrast to maximisation of good) at the centre of the policy agenda, informing debates on issues including crime, the environment, AIDS and terrorism (p124). This emphasis may in part be because discourse on security has a more universal resonance than discourses on goods, since harms may potentially strike anyone, whereas goods are likely to be unevenly distributed. A discourse with potentially universal address has considerable appeal in increasingly diverse societies.
  2. Examples of national security issues being leaked unofficially include alleged plots to crash a plane into Canary Wharf, to launch surface to air missiles at Heathrow Airport, explosive strikes on the House of Parliament and a bomb plot at Old Trafford football stadium. The authors suggest that these may have been leaked to heighten public awareness of the government's efforts to combat the terrorist threat, and reassure the public of the effectiveness of the security services. However, it seems likely that the publicisation of these alleged plots has heightened public anxieties about the threat of a terrorist attack.
  3. Mythen and Walklate argue that the phrase 'war against terrorism' is problematic first because it differs from usual senses of 'wars against' in being directed against an abstract noun ('terrorism') rather than a specific nation or identifiable group. They also argue that refers to a potentially 'disparate sense of ideas' rather than 'a coherent ... set of achievable goals' (p129). The danger is that this diffuse notion influences and prejudices debate about a whole range of issues which require independent consideration.
  4. 'Responsibilization' is not precisely defined, but seems to refer to a process whereby the burden of responsibility for issues such as crime and terrorist activity is subtly shifted from the state to non-state actors such as individuals and community groups. Garland (2001) locates this development in the context of US and UK governments' response to their failure to 'solve' crime by initiating a discursive shifting to a 'culture of control', in which responsibility is shifted away from the state and on to individuals and 'communities'. The leaflet 'helping to prevent a terrorist attack' illustrates this trend through its emphasis on public responsibility to report suspicious activity to the authorities, yet says nothing beyond broad reassurances about the specific roles of public authorities.
  5. First, the authors point out that the discourses that the government have been producing on the new terrorism will, like fears about crime, be interpreted differently by different sectors of the public according to local, communal and individual experiences. Nonetheless, the way in which the government communicates risk has material effects (like increased defence and police spending), and arguably undermines democracy which, (as Cottle argues), depends public access to 'a free and undistorted range of information' (p138).

8.3.2 Anti-radicalisation: youth work and the government agenda 2001–8

Shamim Miah has more than a decade’s experience working with young Muslim people in Oldham, Greater Manchester, and has more recently become and advisor to local government on the implementation of ‘anti-radicalisation’ policies. In the following transcript from an audio interview, Miah assesses the impact of these policies on young Muslim people.

Please click ‘Reveal comment’ to read the interview.

Activity 35 Interview with Shamim Miah

Read the interview with Shamim Miah.

David Herbert
After disturbances across several Northern cities in the summer of 2001 the Government commissioned the Department of Communities and Local Government with promoting a community cohesion agenda to address tensions thought to underlie the disturbances. After 7/7 the same department was charged with promoting a new Preventing Violent Extremism agenda, with more direct emphasis on policing and preventing crime and disorder, coupled with new and controversial legislation designed to prevent terrorism, such as increasing the period of detention without trial and increasing police stop and search powers. Shamim Miah, for many years a youth worker and local government policy advisor in Oldham, Greater Manchester, began by explaining his role in relation to local government, and how he had seen government policy changing:
Shamim Miah
I’ve been working for the local government sector for a good part of eight years and that’s basically within social policy, policy advice and also I work at the equality issues following on from 2001. So when I started work within the policy field the equality strand was very much the key agenda, especially in the backdrop of the 2001 riots. But obviously after 2005 that particular agenda started to change from more community cohesion debates around community cohesion to more of an issue of dealing with radicalisation. So I’ve been increasingly actually taking that role on. It’s an interesting initiative really because initially it started off within the framework of community cohesion, so it was a case of you’ve got incidents happening within the community, you’ve got vulnerable individuals and also you’ve got people who are just getting on with their lives. So the best approach was to actually tackle it through the framework of community cohesion. So basically what you do you go out and do community development, community empowerment, community engagement with a view of dealing with those issues of radicalism and what motivates people. But I can see the agenda slightly shifting from the community cohesion debate to more of a crime and disorder one and that obviously has some merits, but also has a lot of kind of negative aspects as well. And that negative aspect primarily revolves around the idea of policing the community, and policing the community I don’t think is actually an agenda that Muslim community wants to embrace.
So I asked Shamim to explain what difficulties Muslims were experiencing as a result of recent changes:
Speaking to young people and also the general community, I think there’s a kind of genuine fear of Muslims being stopped and also genuinely fear that depending upon which internet site that they go on, whether it be for their own personal research or whether it be for a university dissertation, there might be, MI5 kind of tagging them. And also I mean I know quite committed individuals that work within the community regeneration field and community empowerment etc. quite fear of that knock on the door in the early hours of the morning by the secret service. So I think those aspects of it are quite live. Some people that are not in part of the Muslim community, I think that might be quite difficult for people to actually understand and comprehend. But those, those fears are quite realistic and that’s not just within the domestic fear, but also the fear of travelling if you’ve got a long beard, or if you’re a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab going from one country to the other. And those fears are actually kind of then passed on to those particular kind of social spheres that you’re actually entering. So I think that’s had actually had a huge impact, er, both in terms of psychological mindset and also in terms of the kind of sociological understanding of social factors.
Finally, I asked Shamim where he thinks government policy is going wrong, and what could be done to improve the situation. His view is that the government needs to engage with Muslim concerns about foreign policy and to recognise the diversity of Muslim opinion. He then goes on to argue that the positive side of young Muslims critical engagement with British foreign policy is that it shows them to be engaged in the kind of critical debate that should characterise democratic citizenship, and argues for a more constructive harnessing of these energies. Notably, he argues that young British Muslims critical engagement with the media is a key aspect of their performance of democratic citizenship.
Most of our consultation has actually allowed us to understand that this problem is a multi faceted problem to say that yes the community needs to take some ownership of the blame, but also the government also needs to be taking some of the ownership as well. But the line from the government seems to be that okay the ownership is all on the Muslim communities, it’s your problem, you deal with it. So I think that’s not necessarily a very helpful approach and the key area that consultation seems to kind of reach a stumbling block is the aspect of foreign policy.
So I think those, it’s quite clear that one of the core reasons why people are actually getting involved in these particular activities is because of their frustration of American foreign policy and also kind of UK foreign policy as well. So I think that is one aspect of government policy that I think that needs to kind of just ‘open up the doors’ –at least allow those particular debates and discussions to actually take place, not necessarily saying that the policy in Palestine or Chechnya or whatever the case may be, it needs to kind of stop today. But I think that there just needs to be a recognition and also a debate needs to be had between the community and also the government around the role of foreign policy in creating or motivating people to become radicals. So that’s one core component and I think the other core component I think I would say is perhaps to actually understand the, the discourses that’s actually currently taking place within the Muslim community, actually understand and appreciate the Muslim community for what it is. There are various strands within the Muslim community from the continuum of conservatism to liberalism. There’s a whole raft of interpretation of Islam and that actually makes up what the community is.
What’s really surprises me is that you speak to a twelve year old or a thirteen year old and you ask them to sit down and have a chat about the role of Afghanistan or Iraq and you’ll be quite surprised in their detail of knowledge, of facts and how they actually see those particular kind of events. And I think that is quite unprecedented for young people generally because I think that the Muslim community is highly a political literate community and I think in part the reason for that is because their access to information isn’t the normal media channels such as the BBC. They’ve got various other kind of global channels through cable television, Al-Jazeera is one classical example and also the internet has actually allowed young people’s horizons to be kind of broadened. And so their information – the diversity of information is more richer than the one that you actually get from either reading sadly to say even the broadsheets within the UK or the news channels.
Young Muslims have a very much a critical reading of news, also kind of government policies. I think it’s quite good in the one sense because that demonstrates what an active citizen should be. I mean when we’re talking about citizenship and Britishness, and I think this is the ideal kind of aspect of what Britishness should be, the element of discern, the element of critical reading and I think that’s quite important. And even if I do a workshop with them, you know for young people, I’m quite really taken aback about their challenging comments and also some of their kind of the, the scrutiny that some of your comments or the concept that you introduce that they will kind of put that kind of under. So I think it’s on the one hand I’m quite optimistic and providing that particular kind of energy and that zeal is actually channelled in a positive way.
Activity 36 Question related to the interview

How has government policy on community development changed since 2001, and what problems have these changes produced?


Miah outlines a shift from community development (oriented to address the issues thought to be underlying the disturbances in several northern English cities in the summer of 2001) towards anti-radicalisation and more of an emphasis on crime prevention post 7/7. Miah identifies several problems for Muslims with this switch of emphasis. First, a fear of new police powers in a range of areas being misused. These include fear of being accused of terrorist activity if radical internet sites are accessed out of curiosity or for research purposes; extended stop and search powers; and detention without charge for extended periods. Secondly, those wearing visible Muslim symbols such as the hijab or a long beard fear possible abuse from members of the public. Finally, Miah identifies a lack of government engagement with Muslim grievances about aspects of foreign policy, especially in Iraq. He argues that the government underestimates the level of young people’s understanding of foreign policy.

8.4 Young people’s media use

In this part, we look at the following subjects:

  • How communications about terrorist threats have been understood by the public
  • Finding out how students perceive their own security post-9/11.

8.4.1 Young people’s media use (i)

Our final article this section is again UK based, but focuses on a specific place and time: Tower Hamlets between September 2004 and December 2005. Al-Ghabban examines the experiences of young adults of white, Bengali and mixed race backgrounds who watch and use a variety of television, internet and mobile-phone mediated news sources. We change methods too, from inferences based on the critical reading of texts, to the conversations about media use that is characteristic of media ethnography. As you approach this article, a good reading strategy will be to try to answer one of the questions raised by Mythen and Walklate: ‘How [have] communications about the terrorist threat have been converted into meaningful understandings by members of the public?’ (ibid: p129).

Activity 37 Global viewing in East London

Please read the sections of the article outlined below now, and note your answers to the questions as you progress. When you have finished, reveal the discussion and check your answers against those provided.

P311–313 (end of first paragraph ‘...passionately believed’) and p314 (final paragraph)

1. What does al-Ghabban suggest ought to replace the ‘notional types of “active” or “passive”, “resistant” or “accepting” viewers’ (p314)?

P315–6 ('Method')

2. Who were his interviewees and why did he choose them (p315)?

P316–321 ('Discussion: Terrorism news talk' and 'Apocalyptic visions')

3. How does al-Ghabban distinguish between ‘cynical’ and ‘critical’ responses to media sources, and how did access to transnational media influence the understanding of the Bengali interviewees? How did Bengali Muslims and non-religious white interviewees perceptions of the risk of terrorist attack differ?

P323–324 ('Broader horizons')

4. How did interviewees explain and frame their downloading of images of hostage executions?

P324–5 ('Conclusions')

5. What conclusions does al-Ghabban draw concerning the effects of exposure to transnational media sources (or contra-flows, to use Cottle's (2006) term)?

6. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of ethnographic interviewing as a method of researching media effects?

  1. Al-Ghabban argues that a dichotomy between passive, accepting audiences and active (and 'resistant') audiences should be replaced with a perspective that recognises 'all readers orient themselves differently depending on their experiences and varying community, class, ethnicity and gender identities' (p312).
  2. His interviewees were a mixture of working-class Bengali Muslim and white middle-class non-religious school children, and a group of working class women with mixed ethnicity and religion in their late twenties. All participants lived in the Tower Hamlets area of east London. The students were volunteers for the project from the school at which al-Ghabban is a teacher. Although al-Ghabban does not fully explain the reasons for his selection in this section, it is possible to speculate that the Bengali Muslim and white non-religious students may have been chosen to enable a comparison between mono- and bi-lingual backgrounds and different religious orientations, and the older group perhaps served to increase the diversity in the sample.
  3. This distinction, derived from Buckingham (2000), serves to distinguish between two kinds of sceptical responses: more emotionally engaged and specific ('critical') and more distant and generalised ('cynical'). Access to transnational media gave Bengali Muslim students exposure to a wider range of perspectives on world events, and may have influenced some of them in becoming more politically engaged. While they rejected media stereotypes of Muslims, the Bengali Muslim students thought that the threat of terrorist attack was real, in contrast to their non-religious white school mates.
  4. Curiosity seems to have been a significant reason: 'I wanted to see how it was like'. This is combined with recognition of the moral dubiousness of viewing – 'not in a good way' – and moral condemnation of the action depicted: 'What they the kidnappers were doing was just as wrong as the war' (p324).
  5. Al-Ghabban's main conclusion is that while access to diverse media did not improve the impartiality of news sources viewed, nor give access to 'the democratic arena', his interviewees were able to form opinions and even get politically involved. Thus exposure to diverse one-sided sources generated not just cynicism but criticism, and even political engagement, such as going to protests. It is interesting to compare this with the conclusions of both Cottle and Mythen and Walklate, which stress the importance of access to accurate and impartial sources of information and to spaces for public discussion as a basis for deliberative democracy. In contrast, al-Ghabban's conclusion is that access to a range of opinion may be more important than the quality of news sources for stimulating political action and debate.
  6. Ethnographic interviewing allows us to see how media sources are interpreted in real-life contexts, and hence to the forms of engagement that real people actually have with the media. However, it is necessarily small scale and it is not possible to tell whether the sample studied is representative of wider trends.

8.4.2 Young people’s media use (ii)

Ammar al-Ghabban is a secondary school teacher with more than a decade's experience working in Tower Hamlets, East London, an area with a large Bengali Muslim population. From 2004–5 he took part in a national study as a researcher, interviewing his students about how post-9/11 media coverage was influencing their perceptions of security. In 2008 Ammar was interviewed about his reflections on that research; the result is the following audio.

Activity 38 Interview with Ammar al-Ghabban

Please read the transcript of an interview with al-Ghabban and note your answers to the questions below. When you have finished, reveal the discussion and check your answers against those provided.

Please click ‘Reveal comment’ to read the interview.

David Herbert
Our final interviewee is Ammar al-Ghabban, a teacher of media studies in a Bangladeshi majority comprehensive school in Tower Hamlets, East London. In 2004-5 Ammar took part as a researcher in a study called Shifting Securities, led by Professor Marie Gillespie at the Open University. This compared the experiences of groups from different cultural and religious backgrounds across the UK, of watching and reading the news in the aftermath of 9/11. Ammar’s article based on this study appeared in the European Journal of Cultural Studies in 2007, and is the fourth reading for Study Week 9. Ammar was at pains to stress that his young people aren’t typical or representative of British Muslims or indeed the general population; but nonetheless his study provides some insights into how young people, and especially those with access to multiple channels and languages, watch and use media news sources.
I began by asking Ammar which media sources his interviewees found most reliable:
Ammar al-Ghabban
Right. Well that would vary of course. I mean, actually, it's not sort of really obvious. I mean I think there was a feeling that I think British sources were viewed as being more reliable than American sources. That’s one thing that came across. There wasn't however a sense that there was this one source that was viewed as the most reliable, that was head and shoulders above – that just didn’t seem to be how people did news. They just didn’t seem to do it like that. There was no particular source that they held up above the others. There didn’t even seem to be a desire to have a source like that. There was no desire to find this wonderful source of neutral, unbiased information. That didn’t seem to be how people consumed news. The range of sources was pretty broad depending on different people in the sample of course. Generally I would say, as a generalisation, the Bengali kids I would have thought had broader news sources than the other people in the sample. Partly for language reasons and access to news in different - from different countries and different languages. And also perhaps, partly out of a desire to want to establish the facts of a situation and therefore more of a desire to consume a wider range of news in order to facilitate that. But yeah, I couldn’t give a really straightforward answer on what they found most reliable. There was general scepticism about western news sources amongst a lot of the Bengali people I worked with. But within that they would make distinctions between some news channels in Britain and America
I then asked Ammar if his students thought that some news channels could be trusted more than others. His answer sheds some light on why people watch news – not just for accuracy of information but also for entertainment:
It's interesting because I’m instinctively sort of thinking that perhaps a few of the kids thought the BBC was more reliable than some other news channels. But in terms of the way they felt about things in terms of how positive they felt about different news organisations that wouldn’t always come across in terms of which was the most neutral or reliable because I think the whole issue of enjoyment comes into it as well. There were clearly cases of people who enjoyed watching certain news programmes but that didn’t necessarily make them view them as being the most reliable. There was something about the sort of pleasure of viewing that perhaps in some ways might override reliability at times. It could be about the format and style of a particular programme. So for example I might have a person who is quite critical of the British media and this and that and will make a series of points but then they will actually say they actually like a particular programme. And I’d be thinking, well you know that I’d be asking well wouldn’t that programme be putting out those very views that you don’t agree with or find hard to swallow and so that kind of mixed thing went on. My experience was, is that a lot of people’s feelings about programmes and channels was quite generalised and the ability for them to identify and to speak about different channels and be quite clear about the differences I think that ability to do that was quite limited.
What impact did having access to different languages and channels have on Bangladeshi viewers?
Having access to Al Jazeera and I don’t think any of the people I interviewed really spoke any or much Arabic but it was purely perhaps the selection of images, the types of images that they saw were perhaps different to the images they would have seen in say the British media, on the British news channels. And seeing those images I think it meant something to them. It gave them a sense of an alternative way of viewing events. And I suppose although they couldn’t understand what was being spoken they had some understanding of the images that they watched – so there was that. There was also obviously – being sort of – they’re Sylheti speakers but they would have had access to Bangla TV and to some other Bengali channels which they perhaps tend to watch with their parents and I think that also gave them a different perspective to what they would have consumed on terrestrial TV here. And in terms of what that actually meant for them, I got an impression of a kind of satisfaction that they could see that things were being represented differently. And that was their instinct I felt that some of the things that were being said in the British media were perhaps not what they felt was the actual case like perhaps the misrepresentation of Muslims as a group of people. And I think seeing alternative images and alternative ways of dealing with the same subjects, I think was satisfying for them, and perhaps in some ways confirmed things that the may have felt. And I think they appreciated that as they would have done as well with using the Internet which came up quite a bit as well in terms of experiencing things on the Internet that they would not have been able to experience on television news channels. I think there’s the whole, one can't underestimate the whole sort of appeal of the discovery of finding things, finding things perhaps which other people haven't got and experiencing them. I think there’s a certain amount of enjoyment that goes along with that.
Ammar then explained how his Bangladeshi interviewees felt about how Muslims were being represented in the media, and how this related to their daily lives:
I think there’s the general feeling that they had was that Muslims as a group of people were being badly, badly misrepresented. That was something they were very uncomfortable with. And I think there was an awareness of some kind of link between the two the way they were being portrayed as a group in the media and the way people were then treating them in situations on buses and trains and walking down the streets. So I think there was an awareness of the link between those two things.
In his article, Ammar talks about some of his interviewees expressing what he calls an apocalyptic vision of the world, so I asked him to explain more:
It was only when I was actually reflecting on the interviews and reflecting on the data, that I kind of noticed certain patterns emerging and once again these are not representative of the community or of the group but just of the kids I was working with. And it was a sense of - a sense of a combination, a sense of powerlessness and of fate and that things, events, were out of their control. Their lives were out of their control. For example there was the sense that there could be a terrorist bombing at any time. There was the sense that crime was taking over. You know in lots of respects in the community be it gang violence, be it violence in general, all kinds of things. And then of course they also talked a lot about images of death and destruction that they’d seen in the media, the tsunami for example being one. And there was this sort of general picture that some painted of you know this kind of well very much a kind of apocalyptic vision. And it was something that two girls in particular touched on in a conversation that they were having. And it was something that there seemed to be some sort of similar themes in some of the other discussions as well and I think about a preparedness to die and we have to accept fate and we have to accept death and we have to accept these things. And that was something that I did see. There were other people I interviewed who did not say these things and did not, who did not articulate things in this way. But nonetheless there was this very clear pattern emerging. And, I found it interesting and I felt also that, that in some way actually articulating these fears and by describing this kind of this vision of the world and to some extent of their lives, I got almost a sense that they got some kind of pleasure from doing that as well. So it wasn't something that they were necessarily you know it was something that seeing them articulate it in those kind of group contexts it was a kind of understanding of the world. And articulating that understanding seemed to give them some kind of, ‘pleasure’ is maybe the wrong word - but some kind of satisfaction.
Finally, I asked Ammar to explain how his interviewees spoke about watching violent material, such as images of hostage executions downloaded from the internet onto mobile phones. His answer gives more insight into how and why we engage with the media – not just for information or entertainment, but also out of curiosity and even sometimes a kind of morbid pleasure:
There was a sense on their part of wanting to see, wanting to know, wanting to experience some of those images feeling like they, you have to - you just have to see it. And I would ask them why? You know, in terms of what they said, in terms of the reasons why, what motivated them. They weren’t particularly clear about that. But I just got a general sense of it being part of, almost part of their education you know sort of life education, seeing something as appalling and as graphic as that. It was something that they just felt well it was there and that they had to see it. I got the sense that they felt that it was just important for them to see. And of course they were horrified by it and disgusted by it. And some of them - I didn’t include this in the article - described things to me and told me not to see it you know and said I don’t think you should see this. This will upset you, you know. So that whole thing went on. As I say, what motivated some of them I think many of them the kind of curiosity perhaps kind of morbid curiosity but also a kind of you know as a sort of life event and sort of as part of ones - just I don’t know understanding of life and the world and things. You have something, which is on offer and which you can have it in five seconds if you want it, and it's - it's really tempting. I mean not as part of this research but as a teacher I was aware of the way these images were being passed around the school and I think kids had them on their mobile phones because you can do that apparently. And you know there was an element of, I think for a few kids probably a kind of coolness: ‘I've got this image on my phone here and it's really shocking. Do you want to see it?’ So that I think that was perhaps some of the younger kids were maybe a bit like that. But when I sort of sat down and actually discussed this sort of subject with kids thoughtfully, they were saying they’d be just horrified by it but they felt they had to see it. And I think maybe, young people are more prepared to admit the sorts of things that they’re interested in with respect to this than perhaps adults who feel like they shouldn’t say that sort of thing that they wanted to watch such terrible scenes.
Activity 39 Questions related to the interview
  1. How does al-Ghabban explain his interviewees choices of news source?
  2. What was the impact of bi- or multi-lingual access?
  3. Why did his interviewees watch images of violence?
  1. Al-Ghabban says that interviewees didn't choose news sources solely on the basis of reliability or trustworthiness, but also for entertainment. They were generally sceptical of Western news sources – more so of US than British – but this didn't prevent them from watching them. They tended to look at a range of sources and compare them to try to get as close to the truth as possible. They expected all sources to have some bias and not to present the full picture.
  2. The interviewees did not speak much Arabic, but got a sense of a different perspective from the images they saw on al-Jazeera. Some watched Bangla TV with their parents, and could understand some of the language there. Al-Ghabban states that they got a 'kind of satisfaction' from seeing things represented differently, and it my have confirmed their sense that the British media was not representing everything fully and fairly.
  3. Al-Ghabban attributes the young people's watching of violent images to morbid curiosity, which they were willing to be open about. He implies this curiosity is actually widely shared. The young people certainly used a moral frame themselves to describe the violence, expressing horror and disgust at the images. They also may have interpreted these events within the 'apoocalyptic vision' that al-Ghabban describes: a sense that things are out of control, shown both in terrorism and natural disasters. This may be a way of dealing with a sense of having limited control over their lives.

8.5 Conclusion (Media)

Over the past three sections we have considered interactions between the media, politicians and the public in the post-9/11 environment, especially in the UK and US. We have seen how the media have been central to the strategies of ‘terrorists’, governments and anti-war protesters; discussed different perspectives on the possibility of critical independent journalism and the influence of government and big business on how news gets presented; and examined some specific studies of how audiences make sense of an increasingly diverse but also commercially oriented media, including US TV audiences in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, and multicultural UK news audiences. Next section we return to a more political-science oriented approach, examining the domestic impacts of 9/11 in terms of civil liberties and the impacts on particular groups, including British Muslims.

9 The impacts of 9/11 on British society

The readings and activities this section focus on developments in British society since 9/11. The main immediate effect of the attacks in the US in Britain was, of course, to provoke feelings of great shock and sympathy for the victims of the tragedy. However, as the years have passed and the response of US policy-makers has evolved, so British views of the causes and consequences of 9/11 have become more complex. A similar view may be expressed about the impacts of 9/11 on British society. These, too, have become more complex as the ‘war on terror’ has progressed and further bombs were detonated in Bali, Morocco, Spain – and then in London on 7 July 2005. This action in particular directed attention to the position of British Muslims, how they were affected by 9/11 and the actions taken in response to it, and how in turn they have responded in various ways to these developments. As well as being an issue of major significance to the inhabitants of the United Kingdom as a whole, the position of British Muslims and the range of attitudes they display are questions of great complexity. Moreover, there is very little firm evidence regarding these attitudes. This section, we present some of the major approaches that have been taken to understanding this issue and examples of the limited evidence that is available.

In this area there are some big questions that have yet to receive any clear answer. Were the perpetrators of 9/11 and 7/7 motivated primarily by religious or political convictions? What are the perceptions and judgements of the overwhelming majority of the British Muslim population who have no connection with the criminals nor any association with their activities? Are acts of terrorism best understood in terms of individual psychology or motivations derived from some socio-cultural context? Should we see Muslim extremists as isolated individuals defined in terms of some singular pathology, or as actors situated in a particular cultural context? There are no accepted answers to any of these questions, and the best that the readings presented here can do is to present a range of perspectives from the most informed sources and provide the best evidence that is currently available.

9.1 The emergence of the ‘Muslim issue’ in British politics

We start with an extract by Tahir Abbas, Reader in Sociology at the University of Birmingham. It comes from the introduction to Islamic Political Radicalism: a European Perspective, which he edited. He surveys the developments in Britain since the Rushdie affair that have brought the Muslim community into prominence and impacted negatively on its position in British society.

Activity 40 Islamic political radicalisation

Read the extract below now, making notes on:

  • i) the major points he makes
  • ii) the particular problems of socio-cultural diversity that arise in this area in contemporary Britain.

Before the events of 9/11, the Rushdie affair of 1989 highlighted to the world that there were issues pertaining to the South Asian Muslim community regarded as relatively innocuous until then. Pictures of the ‘book burning in Bradford’ reverberated around the globe and the media reaction was particularly negative, home and abroad. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991 and troubles in far off Muslim lands firmly placed Islam and Muslims in the immediate sphere of media and political attention. After 9/11, and certainly after 7/7, a whole host of factors have negatively impacted on British Muslims. Increasing anti-terror measures, increased policing powers, racial and ethnic profiling in the criminal justice system, a civil societal debate around culture that places South Asian Muslims at its heart, although never quite explicitly, questions around the apparent unassimilability of Muslims, with a focus on community cohesion and widening cultural and economic and social positions – all of these have co-existed alongside the apparent and increasing ‘jihadi salafi’ radicalisation of young Muslims. Gender issues are also important to explore, as it is often men who are most likely to be embroiled. Young Muslim women have been shown to better engage with the theological, political and social pressures placed on their identities as being both British-born and a Muslim. Certainly, it is reasonably well confirmed that Muslim women outperform their male counterparts in higher education, and where possible are better able to negotiate issues of ethnicity, identity and high-profile religious minority status. What recent events have invariably revealed is a worrying lack of knowledge of Islam not just within majority society but also within Muslim communities. Politically, debates in relation to the ‘Muslims in Britain’ issue have been between the left, which focuses on economic structure and the Iraq war; the right, which has championed culture and the nation; and the liberals, who have focused on civil liberties and freedoms in a democratic society. Polarised societies remain in the hands of subjugated radical Islamists on the one hand and dominant neo-conservative Christian evangelicals, whose rhetoric is dominated by such notions as ‘good Muslims are with us’ and ‘bad Muslims are against us’, on the other. Furthermore, concerns about multi-culturalism, segregation and ‘Britishness’ remain palpable in a society that sees its elites struggle to appreciate the extent of its diversity while only slowly relinquishing any notions of empire or of remaining a player in the global marketplace. What ceases to enter the imagination is that often Islamic political radicalism is about the tensions of trying to be European, British Asian, Pakistani or Kashmiri as much as it is about being Muslim.

(Abbas 2007 p4–5)

9.2 The growth of ‘Londonistan’ and domestic terrorist activity

One prominent view of the problems of multiculturalism focuses on the concentration of jihadi activists in certain parts of contemporary Britain. This is outlined in British journalist and broadcaster Melanie Phillips’s book Londonistan.

She expresses a view widely held in many sectors of British society that parts of the country have, over the past few decades, become dominated by immigrant groups and in some cases dramatically Islamised. Districts of London have thus taken on the appearance of a ‘Londonistan’ and similar developments have taken place in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham (p34–35). In the wake of 9/11 and 7/7, this has given rise to different perceptions of the behaviour of immigrant communities and become strongly. The language used by Phillips conveys this sense of threat in several ways. For example, she sees religious dress as ‘outlandish’ and conveying a sense of antagonism, provoking ‘insecurity and unease’, not least because of the possibility it might offer of ‘deliberate concealment’ and thus develop into a ‘security issue’ (p33–34).

Another aspect of this development is the way in which London ‘has become a major global centre of Islamist extremism’ and a centre for the promulgation of extreme forms of politicised Islam that have been espoused by known terrorists (p36–42). While decrying these developments in themselves, Phillips is also strongly critical of ‘the supine response by the British establishment’ that allowed this to happen and has since been widely understood to have been a major security error. Phillips’ perceptions and the tone of her account are certainly different from some of the other readings presented in this course, which focus on diverse media concerns. You might want to consider Phillips’ perceptions alongside those reported by al-Ghabban in Section 8. There young Londoners (British Bengali Muslims and non-religious white English school students) were conscious of a British government determination to promote the notion of a terrorist threat and a media determination both to demonise Muslims and emphasise the violent implications of the Muslim faith and its prescriptions. You should not forget, of course, that Melanie Phillips is herself a ‘media person’.

Activity 41 Londonistan

Please read the extract from this book now and consider the following questions:

  1. What does Phillips identify as ‘one of the most striking features of Britain today’?
  2. What is the ‘bizarre fact’ about the British authorities’ response to the existence of extremist activity she draws attention to?
  3. What general conclusions does Phillips draw from the growth of ‘Londonistan’?

Click to view Londonistan

9.3 The impact of 9/11 and 7/7 on British Muslims

In a piece specially commissioned for this course, Dilwar Hussein (Research Director of a Muslim College of Higher Education in Leicester) focuses on the Muslim community in contemporary Britain and the way it has been affected by recent developments.

Activity 42 The impact of 9/11 and 7/7 on British Muslims

Read the piece now and consider the following questions.

  1. What does Hussein think the main impacts of 9/11 and 7/7 on British Muslims have been?
  2. What are the key five factors Hussein identifies as producing radicalisation?
  3. What is the key danger he identifies in the situation currently facing young Muslims?

Click to view The impact of 9/ 11 and 7/ 7 on British Muslims

9.4 How do British Muslims become radicalised?

In this part, we look at the factors that contribute towards radicalisation.

9.4.1 How do British Muslims become radicalised? (i)

There are certainly plenty of ideas about the place of Muslims in British society and the association with political and security issues since 9/11. What is more lacking is any firm grasp of the roots of terrorism in this context and, in particular, how the London bombers came to take the course of action they did in 2005 (as well as others who seem to have been equally prepared to embark on such activities). Dilwar Hussein refers to the inclinations and tendencies of those who committed the acts and then discusses the five factors that contributed to the context of radicalisation. But it is not possible to know precisely what motivated the four London bombers.

There are certainly some major theological currents that contributed to the recent rise of politicised Islam. Both Hussein and Phillips direct attention to the historic role of Muslim ideologues like Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna, although they interpret their role and significance in rather different ways. Phillips also draws a direct link between the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood and the emergence of a whole series of UK-based terrorists.

What is difficult to establish, however, is how far such ideologues and extremist centres have impinged in the British Muslim population more generally and actually influenced locally raised bombers and potential terrorists. An article by journalist and experienced reporter Jason Burke presents the results of recent investigations into these matters. Burke provides some interesting material on this situation and overturns, he suggests, several myths. The role of extremist mosques has, it seems, been exaggerated but the influence of propaganda and the role of media seems to be critical.

Activity 43 Omar was a normal British teenager…

Now read both Part 1 and Part 2 of Burke’s article carefully and consider the following questions.

  1. What emerges as a critical factor in his view?
  2. Which three categories of British Muslim militant have been identified by security analysts?
  3. What are the myths about radicalisation that the investigation Burke reports on have overturned?

9.4.2 How do British Muslims become radicalised? (ii)

Further insight into the background to the London bombing is provided by Shiv Malik’s account ‘My brother the bomber’. Malik worked for the BBC and researched a programme (never actually made) on the 2005 bombers, three of whom came from the Beeston area of Leeds. He was able to get in touch with Gultasab Khan, brother of the leader of the conspiracy, Mohammad Sidique Khan, as well as other members of the local community. His account of Khan’s personal circumstances and involvement in terrorist activities provides a useful individual account that supplements Burke’s more general analysis in a number of interesting ways. He directs attention to Khan’s activities as a leading member of a group reclaiming young Pakistani drug addicts that, after 9/11, became increasingly religious. As Khan and others began marrying outside the family circle (which generally favoured marriage between first cousins) they grew apart from the local community and increasingly identified with the jihadi network. For a number of reasons, then, British Muslim youths who had drifted towards fundamentalist or Islamist organisations were susceptible to the violent global jihadism that emerged in the mid-1990s.

This is plain from the anti-traditionalist rhetoric of Sidique Khan’s al-Qaeda-produced video suicide note. The video is 27 minutes and 29 seconds long. Most of it is filled up by a speech from senior al-Qaeda member Ayman al-Zawahiri, but the central feature is Khan’s address, which runs to six minutes and 11 seconds. It has two parts, but it is only the first – about British foreign policy that ever gets played in the mainstream media. Part two, which makes up three quarters of Khan’s speech, is addressed to Muslims in Britain, Here is an excerpt: ‘Our so-called scholars today are content with their Toyotas and semi-detached houses. They seem to think that their responsibilities lie in pleasing the kufr instead of Allah. So they tell us ludicrous things, like you must obey the law of the land. Praise be God! How did we ever conquer lands in the past if we were to obey this law?…By Allah these scholars will be brought to account, and if they fear the British government more than they fear Allah then they must desist in giving talks, lectures and passing fatwas, and they need to sit at home and leave the job to the real men, the true inheritors of the prophets’.

... the other big factor that has helped Islamist recruiters is the fact that in many communities Islamists are winning what some have termed a “civil war” within Islam. For simplicity’s sake, contemporary Islam can be divided into four schools: traditionalists, fundamentalists, modernists and Islamists … Islamism is a relatively recent offshoot of fundamentalism. It emerged in response to the final demise of Islamic authority with the fall of the Ottoman empire after the first world war, but harks back to the early days of the caliphate, when the Koran was the basis for law-making. It sees Islam not just as a religion, but as a socioeconomic system. The Koran is God’s version of Das Kapital. Islamists pick and choose teaching from across the ages, and while they read script literally and share a religious zeal with the fundamentalists, they are more akin to an ideological movement than a religious one. Their style of work is often compared with student far left of the 1960s and 1970s.

(Malik, 2007)

9.5 Managing the myth of Muslim religious extremism

These various accounts, both general and specific, shed some light on the dynamics of British Muslim communities and the evolution of the attitudes of the younger generation. They provide some insight into how a very, very few have taken to political violence in the name of a very specific form of Islam. But the insights are far from comprehensive and there are broad differences of interpretation. Tahir Abbas, for example, states that:

It is important to emphasise that the actions of these terrorists are almost entirely political and not at all theological. As young individuals experiencing acute social exclusion and faced with multiple challenges and confrontations in relation to religion, culture and society, their only solution is to take a radical Islamic perspective. They are determined to “go straight to heaven” through a process of creating political change by encouraging the world’s leaders to take action on Iraq specifically but also Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir as part of the wider struggle to liberate Islam and the Muslims from the offensive they currently experience.

(Abbas 2007 p4–5)

So both Malik and Abbas argue in the above extracts that the radical Islamic terrorist response is more political than religious. Yet the language used to justify acts of terror is generally more religious than political, and the Islamic context is far from irrelevant. At the core of the issue is a volatile mixture of the two and, as Peter Bergen has suggested, 9/11 itself was essentially ‘collateral damage in a civil war within the world of political Islam’ (Bergen, 2006). A think-tank organised by the Bush administration came to a similar conclusion, although stressed more the Islam than the politics (Woodward, 2007, p84).

Not surprisingly in this context, some observers stress the ‘centrality of psychological factors’ to the radicalisation process and dismiss as secondary the purely ideological or religious elements (Silvestri, 2007, p69). But Burke points out that militants are by no means ‘lone wolves’ or isolated psychopaths either (Burke, 2008). Nor, Malik suggests, do suicide bombers as a group seem to be deranged or schizophrenic, or suffer from some other mental illness in the normal sense of the term. It is, he argues, ‘the psychology of the group, not the individual, that is the key’ (Malik, 2007). Views on such matters clearly differ, but dynamics within the broader Muslim community certainly seem to play a large role.

10 Security impacts on civil and human rights in Britain

The war on terror and developments since 9/11 and 7/7 have had distinct – if mixed and controversial – consequences for British society and its constituent groups. Equally, the legislative and legal changes developed as a consequence had diverse effects on civil and human rights in Britain. Some people have seen the legislative and legal responses as a natural and acceptable consequence of a manifest terrorist threat. Others have interpreted them as unacceptable infringements on established civil and human rights and a distinct threat to the democratic principles and practices that have become deeply embedded in British society. This section presents a number of articles that spell out the nature of the government’s response to the terrorist attacks; the nature of the legal changes and the legislation that has been enacted; its implications for human rights in Britain; and the degree to which current changes can be interpreted as a direct threat to British freedoms.

10.1 Government perceptions of the terrorist threat

Sir Richard Mottram is an eminent civil servant who was a Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet in the area of Security, Intelligence and Resilience (the formal appellation in this context) and Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 2005 to 2007. In an extract from ‘Protecting the Citizen in the Twenty-First Century’, he outlines the distinctive nature of the contemporary threat from international terrorism, and explains what the British government set out to achieve in this context.

Activity 44 Protecting the citizen in the twenty-first century

Please read the extract now. His account is straightforward and clearly signposted, so you should have little difficulty with it. Please note:

  • what he sees as the distinctive nature of the ‘Islamist terrorist threat’
  • the precise objectives of the British government
  • the kind of specific developments that government strategy is trying to prevent.

Click to view Protecting the citizen in the twenty-first century

10.2 British policies and the background to post-9/11 legislation

Michael Saward is Professor of Politics at The Open University. In an extract from ‘The state and civil liberties in the post-9/11 world’, he details the response of the British government to 7/7 and places it in the broader context of discussions about security issues and civil liberties.

Activity 45 The state and civil liberties in the post-9/11 world

Please read this extract now.

Click to view The state and civil liberties in the post-9/ 11 world

In particular, you should note and assess the significance of the various features of the political environment that are identified. They include:

  • the rise in asylum applications over the past twenty years
  • the connection drawn between refugees and the terrorist threat (you can compare this with the views of Melanie Phillips presented in section 9.2)
  • the implications of recent legislation for the nature and practice of British democracy
  • views expressed by the judiciary
  • relations with European conventions and legislation.

You should make sure you understand the nature of these different factors and how they relate to the changing relations between state and citizen in contemporary Britain. Saward also outlines four separate pieces of legislation that might be claimed to change the state–citizen relationship, so make sure you identify these.

10.3 Are our freedoms being eroded by the war on terror?

Writer and columnist Henry Porter is an active campaigner on civil rights issues. He argues – in particular contrast to Richard Mottram – that new legislation and the introduction of new surveillance techniques are indeed endangering the privacy of British citizens and threatening civil liberties. In a piece for The Observer entitled ‘Why I Told Parliament: you’ve failed us on liberty’, he argues that we are currently seeing not only the most serious attack on personal freedom and privacy ever mounted in peacetime, but also the advent of the ‘database state’. On this basis, he advocates the introduction of a new Bill of Rights. Few of the threats he identifies are linked purely with the ‘terror laws’ he mentions in the summary, but a range of other measures are also linked with the security issue and the restrictions of personal freedoms introduced in order to prevent terrorist activity.

Activity 46 Why I told Parliament: You’ve failed us on liberty

Please read this article now. You should make sure you understand why he sees such a ‘shocking loss of rights in Britain’ and can identify the range of factors that seem to be responsible for this disquieting turn of events.

We have also conducted an interview with Henry Porter, and his responses can be heard in the audio you will listen to later this section.

10.4 Changing attitudes

In his article Porter alluded to ‘a profound but unacknowledged crisis in this country. Our liberties have been attacked, but we have also suffered a collapse in what I would call the liberty reflex, both in and outside Parliament’. This is an interesting observation, and one on which some empirical research has recently been published.

In a 2007 publication, Conor Gearty presented evidence on public attitudes to civil rights in general and to those of political extremists in particular as they have changed over time. Particularly notable is the evidence of significantly less commitment to civil liberties where the rights of ‘revolutionaries’ are concerned:

On holding meetings, the majority (52 per cent) believe they should not be allowed; on publishing books, 44 per cent believe it should not be allowed. Indeed, a mere 16 and 15 per cent, respectively felt they definitely should be allowed ... the proportion now saying they definitely should be allowed is the lowest that has ever been seen in British Social Attitudes surveys, and is about two-thirds of the proportion who held that view in 1985. Interestingly ... the change in attitudes to public meeting occurred between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, but there has been no large change since.

(Gearty (2007) p51–52).

Factors like the rate of ageing do not seem to be viable explanatory factors for this change, and a more likely explanation seems to lie with the different ways in which political parties discuss these matters, and particularly the Labour Party. A ‘startling’ change among Labour supporters (who would not, of course, been the same individuals 20 years on) is thus detected, whereby the proportion thinking that public meetings should definitely be allowed declined from 67 per cent in 1985 to 45 per cent in 2005. The support among Labour sympathisers for the pro-civil liberties position has fallen by roughly twice as much as it has for Conservative supporters. The fear of terrorism also seems to have had some impact on the commitment to civil liberties, although there is no evidence on this issue before 2005. Nevertheless, a majority of those surveyed before 7/7 – 44 per cent – thought that people exaggerated the risk of a terrorist attack (39 per cent did not), while only 20 per cent of those polled after 7/7 thought the same (and 69 per cent now disagreed). A large majority of adults now also thought that adults should have compulsory identity cards and that major restrictions on privacy and civil liberties were permissible for those just suspected of terrorism. It is therefore concluded that:

... there has been a marked decline in societal commitment to civil liberties in the course of the past 20 to 25 years, and that this is not capable of being explained away by age, party affiliation, or education. The extent to which this decline has been influenced by a growing fear of terrorist attack is difficult to gauge accurately in the absence of figures from earlier surveys. But what can be said with confidence is the general public is both generally less convinced about civil liberties than they were 25 to 30 years ago and reasonably willing these days to contemplate the giving up of freedom where this can be presented as necessary in order to defeat terrorism. The findings are clear that where a change can be presented as necessary in this way then public acceptability will be that much higher…the label ‘counter-terrorism’ does carry this strongly exculpatory dimension, inoculating its contents from a civil libertarian attack that might otherwise be thought to be devastating. The temptation this offers to political leaders is obvious.

(Gearty, (2007) p57–58)

10.5 The impact of the war on terror on British civil liberties

During this section, you have encountered a range of views on what has changed in Britain since 9/11 and the effect government responses have had on civil liberties. We finish this section with interviews recorded in May 2008 with Sir Richard Mottram, Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet (and thus closely associated with the Government for part of this period), and campaigning journalist Henry Porter, who holds strong views on the state of civil liberties in contemporary Britain, and what should be done to defend them from further attack.

The interview consists of two sections:

  • the first asks how the traditional role of the state has changed since 9/11 and whether it has had much of an impact on civil liberties
  • the second confronts the question of whether there really is the need for a new Bill of Rights, as Porter and others have argued.

The presentation of these different views gives you the opportunity to survey the material studied this section, to reflect on different views, and to develop your own ideas about the impact of security issues on civil rights.

Activity 47 Interview with Henry Porter and Sir Richard Mottram

Read the transcript of an interview conducted by Paul Lewis below.

Please click ‘Reveal comment’ to read the interview.


Interview with Henry Porter and Sir Richard Mottram

Paul Lewis
Hello. I’m Paul Lewis and in this audio I’ll be discussing with Henry Porter and Sir Richard Mottram, the effects that 9/11 and other terrorist activities have had on Civil Liberties in Britain.
Henry Porter is a campaigning journalist and prominent spokesman for civil rights. But first I spoke to Sir Richard Mottram, who, during Tony Blair’s government, was permanent secretary to the Cabinet for security, intelligence and resilience. I asked him how much he thought the states’ traditional functions of guaranteeing the security of its citizens had changed since 9/11 & 7/7.
Richard Mottram
Well I don’t think it has changed actually. I think that what's interesting about this country is that we didn’t discover terrorism after 9/11 or after 7/7. We’d actually had previous terrorist campaigns. We had a long history of tackling those within government and that experience I think has actually informed our approach in some quite interesting ways.
And what in fact can the government really do to combat the terrorist threat?
Well I think that you can do four sets of things which is what this government’s counter terrorism strategy is about and if you look around the world you see that other countries also have similar sorts of strategies. You can think about trying to prevent terrorism and that’s a really difficult thing to do. You can have a framework of laws and intelligence agencies and police, which pursue terrorists, bring them to justice. You can seek to protect your infrastructure to make it harder for a terrorist to attack and since you won't absolutely succeed in all of this in any significant campaign, you also need to put in place arrangements for civil emergency prepare – you need to prepare for this and a range of other contingencies. And the government, if you look at if you look at this government and if you look at what was done under the previous terrorist campaigns you can see all of these things. If you look in other countries, you see the same broad suite of approaches.
What do you think we learnt from the IRA experience? Did we derive any particular lessons from there which are standing us in good stead?
What I think we learnt from the Irish Campaign and Irish terrorism were a number of important lessons, which are relevant today. One is that you need to frame the way in which you tackle terrorism, always on the basis that you’re engaged in a battle of ideas. What terrorism is about is seeking to influence opinion on the part of the terrorist to produce an effect and you need to think about all that you do in relation to countering that effect. And then obviously, you also need to do other significant things like you need to change the balance, the calculus with the terrorists about how likely they are to succeed in their campaign. And you need obviously to protect your infrastructure and we did a number of things to try and do that. So I suppose that what we learnt really was this is fundamentally a battle of ideas. Think about the whole way that you tackle the problem in terms of how it will influence perceptions both here, and in the case of Irish terrorism, in Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland and more internationally. In the case now of international terrorism you’d have exactly the same considerations.
Richard Mottram is talking from previous government experience and his perspective reflects that. So how does someone outside of Whitehall see things? I asked Henry Porter how he would sum up the impact on British Civil liberties since the terrorist attacks.
Henry Porter
I think the most acute impact is in terms of surveillance. Surveillance has been hugely extended in every part of our lives. So that would include travelling down a motor way Your number is picked up by automatic number recognition cameras. Your e-mail Internet postal communications are no longer secure from the government’s possible scrutiny and monitoring. About half a million a year of these are intercepted and that was the last figure. So judging by the rise in the number of surveillance warrants, I suppose they are, conducted under RIPA, which is the Regulatory Investigative Powers Act, which is now running at about a thousand a week. I think that probably the e-mails and Internet connections are going to be a much bigger figure when we next get it. So those are the two crucial ones. Alongside that, I think is this movement of government databases to join up to link up and share information. So that’s sharing information horizontally and sharing information vertically. So information going up to the top and in that you will eventually have, I don’t think we have them yet, profiling mechanisms software to alert the Authorities to various types of person. But that merger is taking place now under the transformational government programme. And in a sense always in the background of any argument when you produce an argument saying well, this is you know invades my privacy and will endanger the privacy of people in the future, my children’s generation, who won't have nearly enough, nearly the freedoms that I’ve grown up with is this sense of security. We need it. The over-riding priority is security against terror. And you know then they add international crime syndicates. But the real impact of 9/11, which we didn’t really see at the time, we never saw it coming. We didn’t even see it coming after July 7th when Tony Blair said we must not let our way of life be changed. Our way of life has been profoundly changed and government has used this. It's not actually going to do much to fight terrorism. It may you know it may collect the odd terrorist but its real impact is to change the relationship between the State and the individual. And the State has moved using terrorism as an excuse, against the individual. And of course whenever you talk to anyone from government as I frequently do, they say: ‘oh no, no, no. It’s all supervised. We’ve got Parliament, we’ve got mechanisms, we’ve got…’ -. But the real truth is at the end of my street without any consultation among residents a number of cameras have appeared. Now there are about eight – little black globes, taking pictures – not of traffic but of people. Now that is a mechanism, an apparatus, which the Stasi would have given their eyeteeth for.
Now clearly this is an infringement of privacy. Has this information been used, do you think, against people to restrict their behaviour or to punish behaviours?
Well I think the Forward Intelligence groups and the police are definitely using it to anticipate - estimate numbers at demonstrations; see the sorts of people who are congregating. For once just recently actually a very large operation descended on the London City Hall where there was going to be a demonstration by anarchists and – the usual group. And there were so many police there that the anarchists you know and they have their right to their view; they have their right to demonstrate; they have their right to make their views heard – just didn’t appear. The oppressive numbers and the oppressive surveillance and the fairly aggressive attitude of the police just put them off and they didn’t appear. Now to many people that sounds like a good idea but to me that is suffocating some essential part of our democracy which has been alive to my mind basically since the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381.
So these are really sort of background conditions of surveillance in a sense which are in place. Are there concrete measures that are being taken at the moment, do you think, which are in course of legislation implementation, that further constitute a threat to liberties?
Well there are. But you know it's interesting. If you look at such things as the Civil Contingencies Act, or even the Enquiries Act, which would seem on the surface to have absolutely no bearing on terrorism or the fight against terrorism, the movement is to give the Executive much greater power over Parliament and therefore individuals. And if you look at the Civil Contingencies Act, which is really an astonishing Act that it slipped through Parliament barely touching the sides, and this is all done in this kind of new, urgent atmosphere that our absolute priority is to fight terrorism. Well, I mean, ditto with the ID Cards Act. That wouldn’t have gone through had we not had 9/11 although it does absolutely nothing to counter terrorism because all the Madrid Bombers had ID Cards. It doesn't, there’s no way – just because you’ve got an ID Card you don't stop the explosion. And in fact actually most bombers, certainly of an Islamist persuasion, want you to know their identity afterwards. So identity is not a problem for them. What it does is penalise other people and intrude in their lives in a profound way.
So given there is still a real terrorist threat, what should the government do to counter it or prevent…?
Well you know I’m a great critic of government but I really do think that the intelligence services, both MI6 and MI5 have really got their act together. MI5 was a very honed instrument when it started taking over Northern Ireland from MI6 in the, I think it was about the mid Eighties and it moved into Northern Ireland and did very well. And it came to this problem a very fit organisation. And now it's much, much larger. The last two heads have said that we’re watching anything between twenty five and thirty plots, that’s groups of people who appear to be intending some sort of attack or financing it or whatever. And all the time they’re improving their game. So you see, I’m not a sort of Liberal pushover in the sense that I think oh well, lets just let the terrorist blow up my children on the Tube, no. What I think is that we should refine our aim to the people we think are going to cause trouble in our society and not penalise across the board so that everyone has their privacy invaded and they’re intruded upon in whatever communications they make or even in their travel arrangements. I mean, a lot of this law comes from statutory instruments and secondary legislation of various sorts. And the Home Secretary announced, quite blandly, in January, that we would all be giving when we travelled abroad, thirty pieces of information including our mobile telephone numbers, our credit card numbers, our destinations, flight details outside the country and so forth. An astonishing intrusion. An astonishing cheek. Government completely failing to understand that they’re our servants. That we’re the boss and they have absolutely no right to demand this information on a general basis.
You have to tackle this problem on a number of dimensions so it is I think important to have a framework of law, which helps you to tackle the problem.
Richard Mottram again.
Where some offences have a particular terrorist dimension you need to be able to prosecute in relation to them. And so the law has – some of the law has been changed. But I’d say that those changes in the law are in a sense secondary. The important point is what is your objective? And your objective is to do two sets of things. Your objective is to enable citizens of your country to go about their lives reasonably freely. And that’s an important objective in its own right. And not to compromise the way in which they live their lives because you’re trying to deal with terrorism because that is in effect to be defeated by terrorism. And then to have a framework, a focused framework, of how you seek to tackle it. And what the government has done, as you can see a mixture of things. You can see certainly changes in the law, some of which have a very high profile, which may not be too much to do with the terrorist effect. And alongside that a whole series of practical measures particularly to strengthen the capacity of the intelligence services and the police working together to get a handle on the problem. And roughly speaking I think since 9/11 you will see that expenditure on counter terrorist capability in this country will have trebled between 2001 and 2011. So there are a whole series of practical measures you can take to focus down on how do you find the very small number of people who are attracted towards the extremist doctrines to the point where they might take terrorist action.
You said some changes in the law might or might not be associated with terrorist activities. What else would they be associated with?
Well the point I was trying to make was that a lot of terrorist offences are prosecuted under the law generally because very importantly in my view the best way to seek to defeat terrorism, particularly of a home grown kind, is always to present it for what it is, which is a crime and the participants in it are criminals. And through that process and the whole way in which a crime will be dealt with and they will be prosecuted fits within the general framework of how in our society people are treated, you know. So all the standard approaches with the minimum number of modifications. But the purpose of that is to give the community confidence that you’re not picking on particular people and applying particular measures and at the same time to sort of to de-legitimise those who seek to argue that this is something different. This is something that you know if I go and kill someone for a cause, I haven’t actually committed murder. Well if I go and kill someone for a cause, I have committed murder and I should be prosecuted for murder. Someone shouldn’t say well it's sort of okay because you did it for a cause. Now obviously terrorism has both a domestic and international dimension and some of this gets quite complicated. But the fundamental point is seek as far as possible to treat this as a problem within the general framework of the law and law enforcement and all the rules that go with that and minimise the number of variations you have.
Do you think as a whole this kind of package or developings of a group of measures now are actually limiting the civil rights of British citizens as a whole? What impact does it have on civil rights?
It has some impact on civil rights because there are certain things that are prohibited under the law to do with inciting terrorism for instance. Which you could, which there’s quite an interesting argument and debate to be had about how far that impacts on the free speech of individuals in relation to accessing terrorist material, in relation to all sorts of detailed things like that. It impacts potentially on your rights as a citizen if you are arrested because you can be detained subject to judicial process for currently up to twenty-eight days and so on. But I wouldn’t myself argue that these changes have fundamentally shifted the balance between the citizens’ rights and the human rights of all of us as a community too far towards the State. Now the reason why I wouldn’t myself argue that is because I believe that these processes in our society are superintended by, are governed by, are the responsibility of people separate from the executive. And as long as we maintain that independence of process in considering whether people should be prosecuted in the process of prosecuting them in the decisions of courts in appeals against decisions of courts and so on. Then I think that’s a fundamental guarantee of people’s civil liberties and a very important one in my view.
So a number of people do sort od talk about a fundamental shift occurring in the nature of British democracy – for example the balance between the executive in judicial branches. Henry Porter talks about the crying need for a new Bill of Human Rights to recalibrate the relations of the citizen and the State. You don’t see this as a major problem at the moment?
Well I don’t myself think it's a major problem because I think what we haven't done is undermined a fundamental framework of human rights which is protected in law, in which people have a right to go outside this country, to get judicial decisions in Europe and so on. And actually a framework which Ministers find very irksome on occasion which I always take to be and officials perhaps, you know – as a former official myself - we find some of this framework very irksome. It gets in the way of what we think is the right answer. I personally have always taken comfort from that because I think that’s the sort of society we should have. So I don’t myself believe that this has been shifted fundamentally but it is very important that the protection is maintained, that judicial independence is not compromised.
As well as judicial independence it is the role of Parliament that Henry Porter sees as fundamental to achieving the balance between security and human rights that has traditionally been in place in Britain. He argues that this cannot be achieved if it is left to the executives in Whitehall to decide this, that they alone should decide how to improve surveillance and security measures.
Parliament has to be much more vigorous and people have to understand what is going through Parliament. I mean I have been very struck in the last eight or nine years by a change of attitude and it may have actually happened over a longer period of time. But I do think that people are remarkably unaware, given the media we have in this country, about what is going on and what's going on particularly in Parliament and the issues that surround them. And therefore there’s much less pressure on Parliament to debate these things. You know last year I actually did a little – this is 2007 – I did a little survey of how many MPs were around in Parliament on Thursday. Well basically very few. The Speaker was always rushing to get up North on his ’plane. Basically business had ended after Prime Minister’s Question Time. Very little was going on. And that seems to be given the amount of legislation being passed I mean there are about twelve thousand to thirteen thousand pages of legislation going through Parliament maximum during Blair’s years. Now that compared to the previous Tory administration and Labour administration to about seven to eight thousand pages. It's that much more to read and understand. And why we keep on being caught out by measures which suddenly come into force it's because nobody’s really properly read the stuff. Nobody read in the Serious Organised Crime Police Act that Blair was proposing to ban people from demonstrating within a kilometre of Parliament Square. Nobody read it. It just suddenly came out. Nobody really understood until it actually happened. Every offence had became arrestable. And with that the police extended their DNA base to catch anyone they wanted to have on their DNA base basically.
Now do you think the balance in Britain is different from other countries, or established democracies, continental democracies, with regards to the pursuit of security and the preservation of liberties in this sense? Is Britain different? Is it outside the trend?
Well you know, we have got a difficult problem and it's different to most of the European countries. But we also have the longest, one of the oldest democracies in the world and you would have thought that with our Institutions we’d be able to balance better than I think we are doing, the interests of security and personal freedom. There has been I think since New Labour came in a very, very strong feeling that we should in some respect end this individualism, which is a threat to society. And I think that spreads right across the board and is in the background of so many Labour policies. Again, I think we’re missing the point that once these freedoms go and I’m particularly concerned about databases and the way that they move together, once these freedoms go it's almost impossible to get them back because it's so difficult to deal with a very, very large State database.
I asked Richard Mottram whether he felt there was a different balance between the preservation of civil liberties and the pursuit of security in Britain compared to the rest of Europe.
Well I think that the area of sensitivity really lies around sort of specific legislative measures. Say things like incitement and so on to terrorism and being in possession of literature and all those things which obviously are sensitive sort of on the cusp area, the question of the period for which you can be… detained and so on. And I think the assumption might be that we have a particularly draconian approach here. Actually it partly reflects the nature of our legal system compared lets say with the legal systems in continental Europe. In continental Europe you could, let’s say in France, you could be detained for many more days than twenty-eight if you were suspected of a terrorist offence while you were being investigated within the framework of their rather different approach to their system of legal investigation. So when you get into the detail of it all I think you would discover that we do not have a particularly draconian approach. And I think you could also argue that although we have a very significantly enhanced intelligence effort tackling this problem we also have quite a strong tradition of caution and accountability in relation to that effort and similarly caution and accountability in relation to the police. And I could think of European countries again where those things wouldn’t necessarily apply.
So how would you respond to Henry Porter’s argument that we’re currently seeing the most serious attack on personal freedom in this country ever seen during peacetime?
Well, I think that where I have sympathy for what he says is that there is a language about some aspects of these issues which is surprisingly uncaring about what I would regard as some fairly fundamental democratic rights that we enjoy and the fundamental importance of living within a State which is governed by the law. So there’s rhetoric and there are processes which certainly – processes of surveillance, you know the most obvious example is CCTV. There is concern about – which I think is misplaced – about the activities of the police and the intelligence agencies and so on. These are all things to worry about in a free society because if you get that balance wrong and if you allow the creeping erosion of judicial independence, you allow unaccountable intelligence activity, you don’t properly hold the police to account for what they do and so on. Then you would produce a society which was very undesirable to live in. But I don’t think there’s much evidence that that’s what’s happened in this country.
The government have been taking steps to increase the powers of detention in this country, up to ninety days in some circumstances. I wondered if this was something that Richard Mottram saw as a further threat to personal freedom.
I think this is essentially an argument about when is the best time to take a precaution against an extremely or a highly unlikely event. So on the side of the position of the government and some police is you can clearly envisage circumstances in which to be able to detain a suspect for only – only – perhaps only is the wrong word – for up to twenty-eight days subject to judicial supervision would be insufficient. In circumstances where let’s say there’d been multiple attacks and a massive terrorist problem of a kind that we’ve not seen yet in this country and where the whole resources of the State and the police and the intelligence agencies were simply overwhelmed. And there might be a risk that you were missing really important potential suspects if you were limited in that way. But that’s a very remote and extreme case. And the alternative approach would be to say well if and when I find myself in those circumstances then I will take the necessary measures. Argument against that is that might be just the wrong moment – plenty of examples of Parliament legislating in a panic for things in very undesirable ways. My own view is that the case for twenty, for going beyond twenty-eight days has probably not been made very effectively. And what I think is interesting is that the way in which this argument has been framed has always struck me as a very odd way of framing it because it's expressed in terms of detention, which is a slightly more than a slightly emotive word, in terms of you could be detained by the State for twenty-eight days and you could now under the new proposal be detained for forty-two days or you could have been detained for ninety days. In none of these cases is this actually what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is for defined periods, provided you get the approval of a judge you can be sort of rolled over, deprived of your liberty. So this could indeed have been presented in a much more comfortable, for me anyway, which would have been to say, to have said, given the nature of terrorism, given the complexity of teasing out the issues, we will allow for, subject to judicial supervision, a certain number of times judges could agree that you could be re-detained so to speak. Why wasn't it presented in that way? Well, I don’t know. But I think partly because actually it suited a political rhetoric to emphasise the opposite. In other words to play up the detention and to play up the length of the time and to say this shows that we’re really taking this issue very, very seriously. Because I think about things more from the point of view of an official, I suppose I’ve always found the rhetoric probably counter productive.
With Richard Mottram arguing for the government to make the case for longer detention times more effectively, perhaps this is the time for a new Bill of Rights to be drawn up to counteract the perceived loss of Civil Liberties. I asked Henry Porter what would be in it.
Well I think the Bill of Rights would be pretty much a standard Bill of Rights guaranteeing much of what is guaranteed in the Human Rights Act, which was brought in just after Labour came in to power. A good thing in my opinion at the time except it doesn't guarantee the rights that it says it does.
From the European Union, this is?
Yeah – it was brought in from – yeah and it was originally actually drafted all those years ago by British lawyers. I think it was brought in from Europe and the Bill of Rights it was kind of presented as a magnificent tool but it seems to me that it isn't that because one thing – one area it doesn't really guarantee is privacy. And that is a front line in this modern age where you know everything can be tracked and listened to and absorbed by the great and very speedy apparatus run by the State. So I believe that the Bill of Rights should guarantee the rights properly that is entrenching them, placing them beyond Parliamentary adjustment and unless there is a vast majority in favour of altering something. But I do think it should be because you can't trust Parliament. If you’ve got a weak Parliament which is being threatened by the Press and it has got a very over-ambitious executive and Whitehall has got a very long range agenda, then I do think that you need to place these things beyond the control of Parliament. And one of the things I think that should be done is that if you have a couple of Privacy Bills. One Privacy Bill like Canada, which applies both to commercial outfits; that is telecoms, airlines etc., banks, and so forth and also to the government to protect the individual and in fact assert – that information about me – is as much personal to me as my body or my image. And I really do think that we need to change our view. But it's curious that in this country which Orwell endlessly remarked was sort of full of these very private people obsessed with their hobbies and their gardens and their routines, that we of all the Western societies have kind of caved in and said ‘I don’t mind if somebody knows about me. I’ve done nothing wrong’. That really, infuriating argument.
What else would there be apart from privacy? Is that the main plan?
Well, I think privacy is my absolute – I mean freedom to assemble; freedom you know to protest. You know, the usual ones of belief, marriage you know, privacy, family life and all those things that – the Human Rights Act. The smaller it is, the more pure, the more like the Ten Commandments, the easier it is for Judges to say yes or no, this does comply or the government hasn’t in this respect. It does of course change and take away Parliamentary sovereignty but I keep on arguing to people – Parliament isn't sovereign. It's – look at what's happening – you see legislation passed without Parliament hardly murmuring. Parliament isn't sovereign, but what is sovereign is the Executive in Whitehall and they can do pretty much what they want, whichever Party they have. There’s a very long and persistent programme or project in Whitehall on certain things. And one of them is on privacy – invading people’s privacy. But to just go back on the sovereignty part. I mean I went to the Human Rights Joint Committee. That’s House of Lords and House of Commons and argued this, and said, ‘look, we need privacy – we need privacy and it's the crucial thing.’ And I could see around the room Labour peers and MPs, Conservative Peers and MPs and Lib Dems and so forth, all nodding. So I can't see where the problem is, why we don’t just legislate. Well I think we won't legislate until people really understand how much of their life is disappearing. And by the time they really get the picture, which is probably when my children are having children, which will be in about ten years time I would say, it will be too late.

Activity 48 Questions related to the interview

Now that you’ve read the above interview, note down some answers to the following questions.

  1. How would you describe the government response to 9/11 and 7/7, and what do you think has actually changed?
  2. To what extent have the steps taken been part of a response to the perceived terrorist threat, and how far have they affected civil rights?
  3. How strong is the evidence to support the view that a new Bill of Rights is necessary?

10.6 Reflection (2)

Activity 49 Reflection (2)

Now we offer you the chance to reflect on what you have learnt. Consider one of the three questions below. It may help you to write down your thoughts; aim for about 1,000 words.

  • To what extent can a ‘terrorist threat’ be manufactured by the news media?
  • Can news media ever be considered a reliable and independent reporter of matters related to terrorism, war and peace?
  • ‘The state will, in the face of a terrorist threat, inevitably have to restrict civil liberties.’ Is such an opinion defensible?

Reveal the discussion below to pick up some guidance notes relating to each of the three questions.

Guidance notes
To what extent can a ‘terrorist threat’ be manufactured by the news media?

This broad question encourages you to draw on each of the media study sections (sections 6, 7 and 8), but given the word limit you will need to be selective about the material that you choose. From section 6 you will have to carefully consider the role of the media in creating the ‘spectacle’ of 9/11. Reflect on how other institutions such as the government and military play a role in influencing either the media’s representation of the event or the public’s perception of it. You will wish, obviously, in order to discuss the ways in which the media frames or doesn’t frame the public’s attitudes to terrorism, to critically interrogate the notion of ‘largely determine’ that is presented in the quote you are invited to consider. For instance you might think that the media only ‘influences’ public attitudes or else has ‘little impact’ on them. You will also want to consider whether the media ‘creates’ or simply ‘reports’ such ‘spectacle events’. From section 7 you could consider the argument between Chomsky and Herman on the one hand and Hallin on the other, over the relationship between the media and government and explore how the media can either challenge or collaborate with government. Section 8 provides an opportunity to examine evidence about audiences directly, so you should consider the studies by Kull et al., Poole and Al-Ghabban for what light they shed on the question. Show how you understand and intend to answer the question in a brief introduction, and try to answer the question directly in your conclusion, drawing on the examples that you have considered.

Can news media ever be considered a reliable and independent reporter of matters related to terrorism, war and peace?

This question invites you to explore when and why news media can be considered to be reliable/independent (or not) and to identify the explanatory factors that come into play. In answering this question you will find it useful to refer to Herman and Chomsky from section 7 at some point in your answer, but you will also be able to refer to materials drawn from sections 6 and 8. You should explore what Herman and Chomsky mean by ‘manufacturing consent’ and consider if there are examples of this happening post 9/11 or not. Relevant materials from section 7 include the Gilligan and Seymour M. Hersh articles, the Kellner and Smith articles (section 6) and the Kull et al, Mythen and Walkgate articles (section 8) could also be used. You should carefully interrogate the question that is presented for discussion. Focus on the notion of media ‘independence’, the ways in which news is ‘produced’ and consider the ways in which governments and the military can either ‘influence’ or ‘determine’ the ways in which news agendas are made. Show how you understand and intend to answer the question in a brief introduction and try to answer the question directly in your conclusion, drawing on examples that you have considered. You will, to answer the question, find it useful to discuss the relationship between independent journalism and the state and to explore to degree to which government is able to influence the news that is presented by commercially oriented media, including US TV audiences in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq.

‘The state will, in the face of a terrorist threat, inevitably have to restrict civil liberties.’ Is such an opinion defensible?

This question presents a contestable opinion with which you are expected to critically engage. Its subject matter invites you, in line with course material, to explore the impacts of 9/11 on security policy in contemporary Britain. The question asks you to develop your own argument as to how this has affected civil liberties in Britain. You should examine - and critically consider - the trade off between the need for the British state to protect citizens by preventing terrorism and apprehending terrorists and having also to protect and enhance the civil liberties of the people. This question largely focuses on the issues raised in section 10, where background information on actions taken by the British government in response to 9/11 is presented as well as contrasting views on the implications of these measures for the civil rights of British (and other) citizens. There is, as presented by Mottram, the former senior civil servant, the broad government view that proportionate measures have had to be taken to protect the population against terrorism. The extract by Saward summarises the key measures taken by the state between 2000 and 2006 and identifies some areas where they might be seen to impact civil liberties. Gearty, a critic of the government’s approach, identifies the threat posed by the state to human rights, particularly civil and political rights. Porter, another critic, further develops the critical view and argues that our personal freedoms are under threat as never before. The interview shows Mottram and Porter elaborate their views at greater length and provides a more direct contrast of their views on terrorism and civil rights issues. It will be up to you to adjudicate between these different views and to construct an argument to support your own conclusion.


This free course provided an introduction to studying politics. It took you through a series of exercises designed to develop your approach to study and learning at a distance and helped to improve your confidence as an independent learner.


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This course was written by:

Dr Mark Banks, Department of Sociology

Dr Richard Heffernan, Department of Politics and International Studies

Dr David Herbert, Department of Sociology

Professor Paul Lewis, Department of Politics and International Studies.

Course image: Justin Brown in Flickr made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence.

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