The Islamic world
Let us turn to the third region of major concern, the (largely) Islamic world, also the scene of the global war on terror (GWOT) that George W Bush declared in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attack. To be more accurate, re-declared.
The GWOT was declared by the Reagan administration when it took office, with fevered rhetoric about a “plague spread by depraved opponents of civilization itself” (as Reagan put it) and a “return to barbarism in the modern age” (the words of George Shultz, his secretary of state).
The original GWOT has been quietly removed from history. It very quickly turned into a murderous and destructive terrorist war afflicting Central America, southern Africa, and the Middle East, with grim repercussions to the present, even leading to condemnation of the United States by the World Court (which Washington dismissed). In any event, it is not the right story for history, so it is gone.
The success of the Bush-Obama version of GWOT can readily be evaluated on direct inspection. When the war was declared, the terrorist targets were confined to a small corner of tribal Afghanistan. They were protected by Afghans, who mostly disliked or despised them, under the tribal code of hospitality – which baffled Americans when poor peasants refused “to turn over Osama bin Laden for the, to them, astronomical sum of $25m”.
There are good reasons to believe that a well-constructed police action, or even serious diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban, might have placed those suspected of the 9/11 crimes in American hands for trial and sentencing. But such options were off the table. Instead, the reflexive choice was large-scale violence – not with the goal of overthrowing the Taliban (that came later) but to make clear US contempt for tentative Taliban offers of the possible extradition of bin Laden.
How serious these offers were we do not know, since the possibility of exploring them was never entertained. Or perhaps the US was just intent on “trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They don’t care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose”.
That was the judgment of the highly respected anti-Taliban leader Abdul Haq, one of the many oppositionists who condemned the American bombing campaign launched in October 2001 as “a big setback” for their efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within, a goal they considered within their reach.
His judgment is confirmed by Richard A Clarke, who was chairman of the Counterterrorism Security Group at the White House under President George W Bush when the plans to attack Afghanistan were made. As Clarke describes the meeting, when informed that the attack would violate international law, “the president yelled in the narrow conference room, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.’” The attack was also bitterly opposed by the major aid organizations working in Afghanistan, who warned that millions were on the verge of starvation and that the consequences might be horrendous.
The consequences for poor Afghanistan years later need hardly be reviewed.
The next target of the sledgehammer was Iraq.
The US-UK invasion, utterly without credible pretext, is the major crime of the 21st century. The invasion led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people in a country where the civilian society had already been devastated by American and British sanctions that were regarded as “genocidal” by the two distinguished international diplomats who administered them, and resigned in protest for this reason. The invasion also generated millions of refugees, largely destroyed the country, and instigated a sectarian conflict that is now tearing apart Iraq and the entire region. It is an astonishing fact about our intellectual and moral culture that in informed and enlightened circles it can be called, blandly, “the liberation of Iraq”.
Pentagon and British Ministry of Defense polls found that only 3% of Iraqis regarded the US security role in their neighborhood as legitimate, less than 1% believed that “coalition” (US-UK) forces were good for their security, 80% opposed the presence of coalition forces in the country, and a majority supported attacks on coalition troops. Afghanistan has been destroyed beyond the possibility of reliable polling, but there are indications that something similar may be true there as well. Particularly in Iraq the United States suffered a severe defeat, abandoning its official war aims, and leaving the country under the influence of the sole victor, Iran.
The sledgehammer was also wielded elsewhere, notably in Libya, where the three traditional imperial powers (Britain, France and the US) procured security council resolution 1973 and instantly violated it, becoming the air force of the rebels.
The effect was to undercut the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated settlement; sharply increase casualties (by at least a factor of 10, according to political scientist Alan Kuperman); leave Libya in ruins, in the hands of warring militias; and, more recently, to provide the Islamic State with a base that it can use to spread terror beyond.
Quite sensible diplomatic proposals by the African Union, accepted in principle by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, were ignored by the imperial triumvirate, as Africa specialist Alex de Waal reviews. A huge flow of weapons and jihadis has spread terror and violence from west Africa (now the champion for terrorist murders) to the Levant, while the Nato attack also sent a flood of refugees from Africa to Europe.
Yet another triumph of “humanitarian intervention”, and, as the long and often ghastly record reveals, not an unusual one, going back to its modern origins four centuries ago.