Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
US missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan have provoked an angry reaction in many parts of the world. Alex Callinicos looks at the role of US imperialism and the double standards of those who support its actions
'The arrogance of power'-that was how one of the chief opponents of the Vietnam War, Senator William Fulbright, summed up American Imperialism in his day. That same arrogance was on display when BM Clinton ordered his armed forces to fire some 75 cruise missiles at Afghanistan and Sudan on 20 August.
There was, for example, the arrogance which American officials displayed when they told the world to accept on trust that they had 'compelling evidence' that the sites attacked were used for 'terrorist' purposes. As if an 'intelligence community' which had failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union or the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait could be trusted to get the time of day right.
In fact, It rapidly emerged that the Sudanese factory destroyed by the missiles because, according to Washington, it was manufacturing the ingredients of VX nerve gas was, in all probability, making badly needed medical supplies. As one Sudanese asked the Guardian, 'If it really were a chemical plant, why did it have hardly any guards?'
Then there was the arrogance with which the American state claimed its right to exact revenge anywhere it chooses. Clinton's loyal valet in Downing Street put it very well: 'A country like the United States ... must have the right to defend Itself.' Tony Blair's choice of words was precise: 'A country like the United States...' In other words, not any old country. If, for example, Somalia sought to retaliate for the hundreds of its civilians killed by US troops during their disastrous 'humanitarian' intervention in that country in 1993, on Blair's and Clinton's logic, that wouldn't be all right.
The right of great powers to pursue their will anywhere in the world has been brutally reasserted. No wonder both the Clinton administration and the Republican dominated Congress have been waging a bitter campaign against the efforts of their European allies to set up a permanent International War Crimes Tribunal. Given the barbarities committed by the Pentagon and the CIA over the past half century, there must be no risk of them or their minions being held to account for past or future crimes.
Sudanese factory bombed by US aggression: no evidence of chemical weapons
Along with arrogance there was also hypocrisy. The main target of the US attack was the compound at Khost in Afghanistan which Washington claims is the main base of the radical Islamist Osama bin Laden, dubbed by Clinton 'America's Public Enemy Number One'. Bin Laden's International Islamic Front for Fighting Jews and Crusaders has been accused of setting off the bombs which killed over 260 people at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on 7 August.
If bin Laden is a terrorist, he was made in the US. He was a hero of the guerrilla war in Afghanistan against the Russian occupation of the country In 1979. According to a fascinating profile in the Financial Times, his family, of Yemeni origin, became close allies of the Saudi royal family early in the 20th century. As a result, their company was given the contract to build the king's palace in Riyadh, and later reconstructed the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina. By 1991 the family company had a turnover of over $38 billion, bigger than multinational giants such as Boeing.
Bin Laden is thus no marginal figure, but has emerged from the upper echelons of the Saudi state, one of Washington's key allies in the Middle East. According to the Independent's Robert Fisk, 'he has many sympathisers' In Saudi Arabia, 'including some members of the royal family as well as preachers'. Bin Laden decided to use his inheritance (estimated at $300 million) to help the Islamist mujahideen guerrillas resisting the Russian occupation forces In Afghanistan. Apart from building roads and shelters, he helped bring at least 9,000 young Arabs to fight what they regarded as a holy war.
The Financial Times points out, 'Mr bin Laden is usually thought of as the archetypical "stateless' modern terrorist not beholden to any government. At that time, though, he was not operating as a freelance adventurer. The Saudi recruitment drive was overseen by Prince Turk! bin Faisal, the kingdom's intelligence chief. And the most prominent fundraiser for the mujahideen was Prince Salman, King Fahd's brother and number four in the royal hierarchy.'
The Afghan guerrillas and their foreign allies also received massive support from the West. To Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher they were 'freedom fighters'. Eager to see Russia trapped in its own Vietnam, the CIA, working closely with the Pakistani military dictator General Zia and his main security arm, InterServices Intelligence (ISI), poured resources into the mujahideen war effort. Bin Laden's camp at Khost, the main target of the last month's missile attack, was built with CA help.
One reason why cruise missiles were used rather than aircraft was that the rival armed groups now fighting over Afghanistan still have plenty of Stinger and Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles supplied to them by, respectively, the CIA and Britain's M16 for use against the Russians. The skills and weapons which now make the Islamist guerrillas feared in the west were acquired from that same west.
So what turned bin Laden, in Washington's eyes, from 'freedom fighter' into 'terrorist'? After Russia finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, he and thousands of other former mujahideen returned home. They saw their own regimes with new eyes, as corrupt, failing to correspond to the teachings; of the Koran (as they understood them), and compromised by their connection with western imperialism in general and the US in particular.
For bin Laden the turning point seems to have come when the Saudi royal family allowed US troops onto their soil after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Like many of the Muslim clergy, he seems to have regarded the presence of 'infidel' soldiers as defiling the Islamic holy places, and reducing Saudi Arabia, as he told Robert Fisk, to 'an American colony'.
Western intelligence now claims that bin Laden and his 'Wahhabis' (as they are known, after the Muslim sect associated with the Saudi royal family) are behind all the various armed struggles mounted by radical Islamists--in Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia itself, for example, but also in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Central Asia. Whether or not this is so, we can see that essentially the same nationalist politics has been redirected from one superpower to another.
Pakistanis burn American flag as anger over retaliation strikes spreads throughout the world
From bin Laden's perspective, once it was Russian imperialism that was the evil external force attacking an Islamic country, and now it is US imperialism. And so what was once a useful tool of Washington has turned out to have a will of its own.
This brings me, finally, to the cynicism of the US attack. There is, of course, the obvious cynicism involved in the operation, so neatly timed to coincide with Monica Lewinsky's second session before the grand jury. But, quite aside from the apparently interminable struggle to keep the presidential pants on, there is the question-what was the broader strategic purpose of the operation?
Clinton's National Security Assistant, Sandy Berger, said the missiles had caused 'moderate to severe damage' to the compound at Khost-hardly the sort of gung-ho, 'we stopped their clocks' bluster we got used to during the Gulf War. But even If the entire complex was flattened, so what? How is blowing up a few buildings likely to stop a guerrilla movement which necessarily operates on a scattered and small scale basis, and which therefore doesn't conveniently (as Saddam Hussein did in 1990-91) assemble all its forces in one place so they can be wiped out by western air power?
Politically the attack will have strengthened bin Laden. The Financial Times described the Islamic world as 'broadly united in its condemnation of the US attacks', and went on to note, 'Even those countries which would have most to gain from the eradication of a fundamentalist network under the alleged tutelage of Osama bin Laden were once again forced to ponder the price they would have to pay, in terms of domestic stability, for their relationship with the US.'
Of Washington's key Arab Allies, the Saudis stayed silent, while the Egyptian government implicitly condemned the attacks. Already last February, at the height of the crisis caused by Clinton's threat of renewed war with Iraq, both regimes made clear the increasing difficulties the US alliance was causing them. In particular, the spectacle of the US continuing to support an Israeli government flagrantly sabotaging the peace process with the Palestinians was infuriating Arab masses and rulers alike. Predictably, Israel, along with Britain, was among the first countries to endorse the missile attacks.
The February crisis revealed the extent of US isolation in the Middle East. Only the Kuwaiti emir, directly dependent on US bayonets for his very political existence, supported another assault on Iraq., This latest adventure will only have increased that isolation-and enhanced the prestige of the Islamist opposition. Even an old friend of the CIA like Major General Hamid Gul, chief of Pakistan's ISI during the Afghan War, regards bin Laden as a hero. 'He is a darling through out the Islamic movement, because he has been a symbol of defiance,' the general told the Guardian.
In other words, the main political effect of the attacks will be further to destabilise pro-western regimes in the Islamic world. This fact makes one wonder about the calculations made by Clinton and his advisers. Either they just didn't foresee the rather predictable consequences of their actions, which is possible-never, after the Vietnam War, underestimate the stupidity of the US national security state.
Or they did foresee, but didn't care. They preferred a brute assertion of US power. This wouldn't scare off bin Laden and the rest of radical Islam But it would remind the rest of the world-including the other great powers- of Washington's overwhelming military superiority and its willingness to use it unilaterally (Boris Yeltsin's initial angry denunciation of the attacks showed that he for one had got this message).
And declaring what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called 'the war of the future' against 'terrorism' would give the national security state a reason to continue consuming vast resources and acting as a global bully (according to the Observer, the FBI, which is supposed to be a domestic American law enforcement agency, has been, in the wake of the East African bombings, directing police raids in such far flung spots as Kenya and Albania).
I prefer this second explanation. Either way, one thing is plain. Imperialism as a system of organised military violence which allows the rulers of the richest countries in the world to dominate and trample on every one else is alive and well. It must be fought.