The War in Context

   alternative perspectives on the "war on terrorism" and the middle east conflict

A cold warrior's crusade:
Fighting and losing the war on terrorism

Editorial, The War in Context, April17, 2002

Deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz is not a terrorist. He and Osama bin Laden do, however, share the same grandiose delusion. Each of them believes that they played a significant role in the downfall of the Soviet Empire. And let's face it, it's hard to believe that you've brought down an empire without also imagining that your life has become infused with a divine power; that somehow a transmutation occurred whereby "my will" became "Thy will."

For all great warriors, the experience of victory in one battle soon feeds the desire to succeed in an even greater conquest. Bin Laden and his followers took on the challenge of bringing the United States to its knees, while Wolfowitz and his followers sought to establish a New American Century. The problem for each camp is that their own world-shaking delusion forms the foundation for their world-shaping ambition.

Everyone knows that Al Qaeda's "victory" in Afghanistan had as much to do with US and Pakistani military backing, an ill-equipped and disillusioned Soviet army, and a tenacious band of tribal warriors, as it did with the power of Al Qaeda's jihad.

What has received less attention is the weakness of the claim that America's Cold Warriors "won" the Cold War. This unchallenged assertion has become yet another element in the unfolding mythology whose function is to fuel America's faith in its own greatness. In fact, victory in the Cold War was really just the prize of semantics. Having labeled the fifty-year power struggle between the US and the Soviet Union as a "war", it was inevitable that the end would mean "victory" for one side and defeat for the other. For a decade following the collapse of Soviet government, Cold Warriors could celebrate the power of capitalism in defeating communism while at the same time they mapped out the next phase in the divine plan whose duty it was theirs to administer. In the glow of indisputable economic and military supremacy it was all too easy to ignore the many facts that called into question the very idea of a Cold War victory; the fact that there was ultimately little evidence that communism was a contagion that would spread across the globe if America failed to stamp it out; the fact that the Soviet economy collapsed just as much from the strain of a US-driven arms race as it did from its ideological flaws; the fact that a decade of free-market economics has so far failed to be the panacea for post-Soviet economies that its promoters had promised - all of this could conveniently be ignored by those who chose to trumpet a Cold War victory.

In the minds of Cold War victors, such as Paul Wolfowitz, since their victory provided the supreme validation of the strength, virtue and goodness of the American Way, they now felt driven to pursue a supra-ideological mission: America, they believed, should now assert unequivocally its predestined role of global leadership. In this position, America would demonstrate that its friends would be protected and taken care of, that its enemies would be punished and that those who refuse to support the United States would regret not having done so.

Well before September 11, Wolfowitz and his cohorts (Richard Perle, James Woolsey, William Bennett, William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and other leading members of The Project for a New American Century, the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, and The Heritage Foundation) had been nurturing their imperial ambitions. These were usually couched in terms of "national security," "global leadership," and "American values," yet were unflinching in asserting America's need to exert its dominance in international affairs. The declaration of a "war on terrorism" simply provided a pretext to employ a tactic (fighting terrorism) that would support strategic goals far wider than simply the defeat of terrorism.

Had there been no terrorist attack on America, there is little doubt that Wolfowitz would have continued to advocate an attack on Iraq and that one way or another, America would continue to demonstrate its military role as the world's sole superpower and thereby unambiguously define the meaning of American leadership. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that Wolfowitz could ever have gained quite as much influence had it not been for September 11. So, even if we can't call them partners in crime, there's no denying that Paul Wolfowitz and Osama bin Laden each gave the other a helping hand, even if neither intended to do so.

Cold warriors take on terrorism

In conventional warfare the contesting claims made by each side ultimately risk becoming over-shadowed by the ugliness of violent conflict. Carving up territory, destroying lives and property, and seeing one group of people use brutality to exercise power over another, tends to make claims of moral clarity sound rather hollow.

Much better then it is - if one is driven by a missionary zeal - to engage in a war of mythic proportions, a war of good over evil, a war in which the world itself (led by America of course) might claim victory and succeed in eradicating the forces of darkness. Thus it is that for the poetic sensibilities of a Cold Warrior, a war on terrorism exercises the same righteous appeal as a war on drugs or the Cold War itself.

Still, whoever chooses to fight a war cannot avoid creating battlefields and sooner or later the justice of their cause gets measured by its physical results rather than the strength of its ideological premises.

When the war on terrorism was declared, its grudging supporters were quick to admit that it would likely provide cover for opportunists from Chechnya to Kashmir to Colombia, as all kinds of violent struggle and ruthless suppression would soon be described as yet another front in the war against terrorism.

Within days, Ariel Sharon was directing Israeli tanks into the Occupied Palestinian Territories and all too predictably he claimed that he was simply applying "the Bush doctrine," even if the White House itself might cast some doubt on this claim.

Wolfowitz nodded approvingly at the actions of Sharon, but Washington focused on Afghanistan and the destruction of the Taliban was seen as a vindication of US war aims and a validation of the chosen means of execution. Yet again, the Cold Warriors renewed the strength of their faith and chose to ignore any countervailing evidence. Never mind that Osama bin Laden's whereabouts remained unknown; that al Qaeda and Mullah Omar had probably withdrawn into Pakistan's ungovernable North-West Territories rather than been defeated; that the US military armed with B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships, "daisy cutters" and cluster bombs had not surprisingly demonstrated its preeminence over a ragtag tribal militia; that democracy and economic reconstruction for Afghanistan appear no closer now than they were four months ago. None of this need demand too much attention as the victorious Cold Warriors now moved on, this time to deal with Iraq.

But then came the waves of suicide bombers. For Wolfowitz and Sharon they demonstrated that Israel and the Palestinian Authority are key players in the war on terrorism, yet for many others both inside and outside the White House, including President Bush himself, the simplicity of their convictions had been fractured. Realpolitik crashed into "moral clarity" and suddenly black and white merged into every shade of gray.

And so we come to the greatest irony. At a time when it is definitely possible that the argument for or against a war on terrorism can conclusively be made, it is the very proponents of this campaign who are now struggling to give it a clear definition.

Ariel Sharon is right; he is fighting a war on terror. Can it be won? Of course not. Is it inflicting suffering on the innocent? Undoubtedly. Does his war conceal larger political ambitions? Almost certainly. But even as Paul Wolfowitz this week shared a podium with Benjamin Netanyahu with each expressing their support for Israel's war on terrorism, it was Wolfowitz himself who pointed out that "innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact."

Is Wolfowitz losing his faith and moral clarity, or is it dawning on him that the war on terrorism may ultimately undermine his greater crusade?

©2002 Paul Woodward