I am sure I am not the only one to have been reminded in the past
months of some wise and prescient words of one of the most impressive
figures of 20th century America, the radical pacifist A.J. Muste.
As the US entered World War II 60 years ago, he predicted with considerable
accuracy the contours of the world that would emerge after the US
victory, and a little later, observed that "the problem after a
war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and
violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?"
Far too many people around the world were to learn the bitter
meaning of these words. It is only in folk tales, children's stories,
and the journals of intellectual opinion that power is used wisely
and well to destroy evil. The real world teaches very different
lessons, and it takes wilful and dedicated ignorance to fail to
These are, unfortunately, leading themes of history. In his major
study of European state formation, Charles Tilly observed, accurately
enough, that over the last millennium, "war has been the dominant
activity of European states," for an unfortunate reason: "The central
tragic fact is simple: coercion
works; those who apply substantial force to their fellows get compliance,
and from that compliance draw the multiple advantages of money, goods,
deference, access to pleasures denied to less powerful people." These
are close to historical truisms, which most of the people of the world
have learned the hard way. The deference commonly includes the awed
acclaim of the educated classes. Resort to overwhelming means of violence
to destroy defenseless enemies with impunity tends to win particular
admiration, and also to become natural, a demonstration of one's virtue;
again, close to historical-cultural universals.
One normal concomitant of easy victories over defenseless enemies
is the entrenchment of the habit of preferring force over the pursuit
of peaceful means. Another is the high priority of acting without
authority. The incarnation of the God who comes to Earth as the
"perfect man" with the mission of eradicating evil from the world
needs no higher authority. What is true of the most ancient Indian
epics from millennia ago holds as well for the plagiarists of today.
The preference for force, and rejection of authorization, have been
notable features of the last decade of overwhelming and unchallenged
power and crushing of much weaker adversaries, in accord with policy
recommendations. As the first Bush administration came into office,
it undertook a National Security Policy Review dealing with "third
world threats." Parts were leaked to the press during the Gulf war.
The Review concluded that "In cases where the U.S. confronts much
weaker enemies" that is, the only kind one chooses to fight
"our challenge will be not simply to defeat them, but to defeat
them decisively and rapidly." Any other outcome would be "embarrassing"
and might "undercut political support," understood to be thin. With
the collapse of the sole deterrent a few months later, the conclusions
became even more firmly established, not surprisingly. These are,
I think, some of the considerations that should be at the back of
our minds when we contemplate the world after Sept. 11.
Whatever one's judgment about the events of the past weeks,
if we want to reach a reasonable assessment of what may lie ahead,
we should attend carefully to several crucial factors. Among them
(1) The premises on which policy decisions have been based;
(2) Their roots in stable institutions and doctrines in very recent
history, to a large extent involving the same decision-makers; and
(3) The ways these have been translated to specific actions.
I'd like to say a few words about each of these topics.
The new millennium quickly produced two terrible new crimes, added
to the gloomy record of persisting ones. The first was the terrorist
attacks of Sept. 11; the second, the response to them, surely taking
a far greater toll of innocent lives, Afghan civilians who were themselves
victims of the suspected perpetrators of the crimes of Sept. 11. I'll
assume these to be Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network. There
has been a prima facie case from the outset, though little credible
evidence has been produced, and there have been few successes at home,
despite what must be the most intensive investigations ever by the
coordinated intelligence services of the major powers. Such "leaderless
resistance" networks, as they are called, are not easy nuts to crack.
An inauspicious sign is that in both cases the crimes are considered
right and just, even noble, within the doctrinal framework of the
perpetrators, and in fact are justified in almost the same words.
Bin Laden proclaims that violence is justified in self-defense against
the infidels who invade and occupy Muslim lands and against the
brutal and corrupt governments they impose there words that have
considerable resonance in the region even among those who despise
and fear him. Bush and Blair proclaim, in almost identical words,
that violence is justified to drive evil from our lands. The proclamations
of the antagonists are not entirely identical. When bin Laden speaks
of "our lands," he is referring to Muslim lands: Saudi Arabia, Egypt,
Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, and others; the radical Islamists who
were mobilized and nurtured by the CIA and its associates through
the 1980s despise Russia, but ceased their terrorist operations
in Russia from Afghan bases after the Russians withdrew. When Bush
and Blair speak of "our lands" they are, in contrast, referring
to the world. The distinction reflects the power that the adversaries
command. That either side can speak without shame of eradicating
evil in the light of their records... that should leave us open-mouthed
in astonishment, unless we adopt the easy course of effacing even
very recent history.
Another fact with grim portent is that in both cases, the perpetrators
insist on underscoring the criminality of their acts. In the case
of bin Laden, no discussion is needed. The US pointedly rejected
the framework of legitimacy that resides in the UN Charter. There
has been much debate over whether the ambiguous Security Council
declarations provided authorization for the resort to force. It
is, in my opinion, beside the point. To resolve the debate would
have been simple enough, had there been any wish to do so. There
is scarcely any doubt that Washington could have obtained entirely
unambiguous Security Council authorization, not for attractive reasons.
Russia is eager to gain US support for its own massive crimes. China
hopes to be admitted to the coalition of the just for the same reasons,
and in fact, states throughout the world recognized at once that
they could now enlist the support of the global superpower for their
own violence and repression, a lesson not lost on the global managers
either. British support is reflexive; France would raise no objections.
There would, in brief, have been no veto.
But Washington preferred to reject Security Council authorization
and to insist on its unique right to act unilaterally in violation
of international law and solemn treaty obligations, a right forcefully
proclaimed by the Clinton administration and its predecessors in
clear and explicit words warnings that we and others may choose
to ignore, but at our peril. Similarly, Washington contemptuously
dismissed the tentative offers to consider extradition of bin Laden
and his associates; how real such possibilities were we cannot know,
because of the righteous refusal even to consider them. This stand
adheres to a leading principle of statecraft, called "establishing
credibility" in the rhetoric of statecraft and scholarship. And
it is understandable. If a Mafia Don plans to collect protection
money, he does not first ask for a Court order, even if he could
obtain it. Much the same is true of international affairs. Subjects
must understand their place, and must recognize that the powerful
need no higher authority.
Thucydides remarked that "large nations do what they wish, while
small nations accept what they must." The world has changed a great
deal over several thousand years, but some things stay much the
The atrocities of Sept. 11 are regarded as a historic event, which
is true, though not because of their scale. In its civilian toll,
the crime is far from unusual in the annals of violence short of
war. To mention only one example, so minor in context as to be a
mere footnote, a Panamanian journalist, condemning the crimes of
Sept. 11, observed that for Panamanians the "sinister times" are
not unfamiliar, recalling the US bombing of the barrio Chorrillo
during "Operation Just Cause" with perhaps thousands killed; our
crimes, so there is no serious accounting. The atrocities of Sept.
11 are indeed a historic event, but because of their target. For
the US, it is the first time since the British burned down Washington
in 1814 that the national territory has been under serious attack,
even threatened. There is no need to review what has been done to
others in the two centuries since. For Europe, the reversal is even
more dramatic. While conquering much of the world, leaving a trail
of terror and devastation, Europeans were safe from attack by their
victims, with rare and limited exceptions. It is not surprising,
then, that Europe and its offshoots should be shocked by the crimes
of Sept. 11, a dramatic breach of the norms of acceptable behavior
for hundreds of years.
It is also not surprising that they should remain complacent,
perhaps mildly regretful, about the even more terrible suffering
that followed. The victims, after all, are miserable Afghans "uncivilized
tribes," as Winston Churchill described them with contempt when
he ordered the use of poison gas to "spread a lively terror" among
them 80 years ago, denouncing the "squeamishness" of the soft-hearted
ninnies who failed to understand that chemical weapons were just
"the application of modern science to modern warfare" and must be
used "to procure a speedy termination of the disorder which prevails
on the frontier."
Similar thoughts are heard today. The editors of the New Republic,
who not long ago were calling for more military aid for "Latin-style
fascists...regardless of how many are murdered" because "there are
higher American priorities than Salvadoran human rights," now explain
correctly that "Operation Enduring Freedom is not a humanitarian
intervention," so that "If we leave behind a country in chaos that
can no longer serve as a base of operations against us, then we
will have accomplished a necessary objective," and should "lose
the obsession with nation-building" to try to repair what we have
done to Afghanistan for 20 years.
While few are willing to sink to that level, it remains true that
atrocities committed against Afghans carry little moral stigma,
for one reason, because such practices have been so familiar throughout
history, even when there has been no pretext other than greed and
domination. And retribution knows no bounds. For that there is ample
historical precedent, not to speak of authority in the holiest texts
we are taught to revere.
Another aspect of the complacent acceptance of atrocities was
described with wonder by Alexis de Tocqueville in his report of
one of the great crimes of ethnic cleansing of the continent, the
expulsion of the Cherokees through the trail of tears "in the middle
of winter," with snow "frozen hard on the ground," a "solemn spectacle"
of murder and degradation, "the triumphal march of civilization
across the desert." He was particularly struck that the conquerors
could deprive people of their rights and exterminate them "with
singular felicity, tranquilly, legally, philanthropically, without
shedding blood, and without violating a single great principle of
morality in the eyes of the world." It was impossible to destroy
people with "more respect for the laws of humanity," he wrote.
That is a fair enough description of what has been unfolding before
our eyes. For example, in the refugee camp of Maslakh, where hundreds
of thousands of people are starving, dozens dying every night from
cold and starvation. They were living on the edge of survival even
before the bombing, which deprived them of desperately-needed aid.
It remains a "forgotten camp" as we meet, three months after Sept.
11. Veteran correspondent Christina Lamb reports scenes more "harrowing"
than anything in her memory, after having "seen death and misery
in refugee camps in many parts of Asia and Africa." The destruction
of lives is silent and mostly invisible, by choice; and can easily
remain forgotten, also by choice. The easy tolerance of the "vivid
awfulness" that Lamb recounts merely reflects the fact that this
is how the powerful deal with the weak and defenseless, hence in
no way remarkable.
We have no right to harbor any illusions about the premises of
current planning. Planning for the war in Afghanistan was based
on the unchallenged assumption that the threat of bombing, and its
realization, would considerably increase the number of Afghans at
risk of death from starvation, disease, and exposure. The press
blandly reported that the numbers were expected to increase by 50%,
to about 7.5 million: an additional 2.5 million people. Pleas to
stop the bombing to allow delivery of food and other aid were rebuffed
without comment, mostly without even report. These came from high
UN officials, major relief and aid agencies, and others in a good
position to know. By late September, the Food and Agricultural Organization
(FAO) had warned that more than 7 million people would face starvation
if the threatened military action were undertaken, and after the
bombing began, advised that the threat of "humanitarian catastrophe"
was "grave," and that the bombing had disrupted the planting of
80% of the grain supplies, so that the effects next year could be
even more severe.
What will happen we cannot know. But we know well enough the assumptions
on which plans are based and executed, and commentary produced.
As a simple matter of logic, it is these assumptions that inform
us about the shape of the world that lies ahead, whatever the outcomes
might be. The basic facts have been casually reported, including
the fact that as we meet, little is being done to bring food and
other aid to many of those dying in refugee camps and the countryside,
even though supplies are available and the primary factor hampering
delivery is lack of interest and will.
Furthermore, the longer-term effects will remain unknown, if history
is any guide. Reporting is scanty today, and the consequences will
not be investigated tomorrow. It is acceptable to report the crime
of "collateral damage" by bombing error, the inevitable cost of
war, but not the conscious and deliberate destruction of fleeing
Afghans who will die in silence, invisibly, not by design, but because
it doesn't matter, a much deeper level of moral depravity; if we
step on an ant while walking, we have not purposely killed it.
People do not die of starvation instantly; they can survive on
roots and grass, and if malnourished children die of disease, who
will seek to determine the immediate cause? In the future, the topic
is off the agenda by virtue of a crucial principle: We must devote
enormous energy to meticulous accounting of crimes of official enemies,
quite properly including not only those literally killed, but also
those who die as a consequence of their policies; and we must take
equally scrupulous care to avoid this practice in the case of our
own crimes, adopting the stance that so impressed de Tocqueville.
There are hundreds of pages of detailed documentation of the application
of these principles; again, I suppose, close to a historical universal.
It will be a welcome surprise if the current case turns out differently.
And we should remember that we are not observing all of this from
Mars, or describing the crimes of Attila the Hun. There is a great
deal that we can do right now, if we choose.
To explore what is likely to lie ahead from a different perspective,
let's ask whether there were alternatives to the resort to devastating
force at a distance, a device that comes naturally to those with
overwhelming might at their command, no external deterrent, and
confidence in the obedience of articulate opinion.
Alternatives were prominently suggested. By the Vatican, for example,
which called for reliance on the measures appropriate to crimes,
whatever their scale: if someone robs my house and I think I know
who did it, I am not entitled to go after him with an assault rifle,
meanwhile killing people randomly in his neighborhood. Or by the
eminent military historian Michael Howard, who delivered a "scathing
attack" on the bombardment of Afghanistan on October 30, not on
grounds of success or failure, but its design: what is needed is
"patient operations of police and intelligence forces," "a police
operation conducted under the auspices of the UN on behalf of the
international community as a whole, against a criminal conspiracy,
whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international
court." There certainly are precedents, including acts of international
terrorism even more extreme than those of Sept. 11: the US terrorist
war against Nicaragua, to take an uncontroversial example uncontroversial,
because of the judgment of the highest international authorities,
the International Court of Justice and the Security Council. Nicaragua's
efforts to pursue lawful means failed, in a world ruled by force;
but no one would impede the US if it chose to follow a similar course.
Could the legitimate goals of apprehending and punishing the perpetrators
have been attained without violence? Perhaps. We have no way of
knowing whether the Taliban offers to discuss extradition were serious,
since they were dismissed for the reasons already mentioned. The
same is true of the much later afterthought, overthrowing the Taliban
regime, a high priority for many Afghans, much as for innumerable
others throughout the world who suffer under brutal regimes and
I mentioned a few of those who suggested alternatives, and one
of many examples of appropriate precedents. What about the most
important place to inquire: what are the attitudes and opinions
of the people of Afghanistan? To determine their views is a difficult
task, no doubt, but not entirely impossible. There are some reasonable
ways to proceed.
We might begin with the gathering of 1000 Afghan leaders in Peshawar
at the end of October, some of them exiles, some who trekked across
the border from within Afghanistan, all committed to overthrowing
the Taliban regime. It was "a rare display of unity among tribal
elders, Islamic scholars, fractious politicians, and former guerrilla
commanders," the NY Times reported. They unanimously "urged the
US to stop the air raids," appealed to the international media to
call for an end to the "bombing of innocent people," and "demanded
an end to the US bombing of Afghanistan." They urged that other
means be adopted to overthrow the hated Taliban regime, a goal they
believed could be achieved without mass slaughter and destruction.
A similar message was conveyed by Afghan opposition leader Abdul
Haq, who was highly regarded in Washington. Just before he entered
Afghanistan, apparently without US support, and was then captured
and killed, he condemned the bombing and criticized the US for refusing
to support the efforts of his and of others "to create a revolt
within the Taliban." The bombing was "a big setback for these efforts,"
he said. He reported contacts with second-level Taliban commanders
and ex-Mujahiddin tribal elders, and discussed how such efforts
could proceed, calling on the US to assist them with funding and
other support instead of undermining them with bombs.
The US, Abdul Haq said, "is 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. And we
don't like that. Because Afghans are now being made to suffer for
these Arab fanatics, but we all know who brought these Arabs to
Afghanistan in the 1980s, armed them and gave them a base. It was
the Americans and the CIA. And the Americans who did this all got
medals and good careers, while all these years Afghans suffered
from these Arabs and their allies. Now, when America is attacked,
instead of punishing the Americans who did this, it punishes the
For what it's worth, I think there is considerable merit in his
We can also look elsewhere for enlightenment about Afghan opinions.
There has, at last, been some belated concern about the fate of
women in Afghanistan. It even reached the First Lady. Maybe it will
be followed some day by concern for the plight of women elsewhere
in Central and South Asia, which, unfortunately, is not all that
different in many places from life under the Taliban, including
the most vibrant democracies. There are plenty of highly reliable
and expert sources on these matters, if we choose to look. And such
a radical departure from past practice would lend at least some
credibility to the professed outrage over Taliban practices just
at the moment when it served US propaganda purposes. Of course,
no sane person advocates foreign military intervention by the US
or other states to rectify these and other terrible crimes in countries
that are US allies and clients. The problems are severe, but should
be dealt with from within, with assistance from outsiders if it
is constructive and honest, not merely hypocritical and self-serving.
But since the harsh treatment of women in Afghanistan has at last
gained some well-deserved attention, however cynical the motives,
it would seem that attitudes of Afghan women towards policy options
should be a primary concern. These no doubt vary considerably, and
are not easy to investigate, but it should not be completely impossible
to determine whether there are mothers in Maslakh who praise the
bombing, or who might, rather, agree with those who fled from their
homes to miserable refugee camps under the threat of bombing and
expressed the bitter hope that "even the cruel Americans must feel
some pity for our ruined country" and refrain from the threatened
bombing that was already bringing death and disaster. And Afghan
women are by no means voiceless everywhere. There is an organization
of courageous women who have been in the forefront of the struggle
to defend women's rights for 25 years, RAWA (Revolutionary Association
of the Women of Afghanistan), doing remarkable work. Their leader
was assassinated by Afghan collaborators with the Russians in 1987,
but they continued their work within Afghanistan at risk of death,
and in exile nearby. They have been quite outspoken. A week after
the bombing began, for example, they issued a public statement that
would have been front-page news wherever concern for Afghan women
was real, not a matter of mere expediency.
The RAWA statement of October 11 was entitled: "Taliban should
be overthrown by the uprising of Afghan nation," and continued as
follows: "Again, due to the treason of fundamentalist hangmen, our
people have been caught in the claws of the monster of a vast war
and destruction. America, by forming an international coalition
against Osama and his Taliban-collaborators and in retaliation for
the 11th September terrorist attacks, has launched a vast aggression
on our country. Despite the claim of the US that only military and
terrorist bases of the Taliban and Al Qieda will be struck and that
its actions would be accurately targeted and proportionate, we have
witnessed for the past seven days leaves no doubt that this invasion
will shed the blood of numerous women, men, children, young and
old of our country."
The statement went on to call for "the eradication of the plague
of Taliban and Al Qieda" by "an overall uprising" of the Afghan
people themselves, which alone "can prevent the repetition and recurrence
of the catastrophe that has befallen our country...."
In another declaration on November 25, at a demonstration of women's
organizations in Islamabad on the International Day for the Elimination
of Violence against Women, RAWA condemned the US/Russian-backed
Northern Alliance for a "record of human rights violations as bad
as that of the Taliban's," and called on the UN to "help Afghanistan,
not the Northern Alliance."
Perhaps Afghans who have been struggling for freedom and women's
rights for many years don't understand much about their country,
and should cede responsibility for its future to foreigners who
couldn't have placed the country on a map a few months ago, along
with others who had helped destroy it in the past, led by commanders
who were condemned for international terrorism by the highest international
authorities and are supported by a coalition of other leading terrorist
states. Maybe, but it is not obvious.
The situation is reminiscent of the Iraq war, when the Iraq opposition
was barred from media and journals of opinion, apart from dissident
journals at the margins. They forcefully opposed the US bombing
campaign against Iraq and accused the US of preferring a military
dictatorship to overthrow of Saddam by internal revolt as was
conceded publicly, when Bush (#I) returned to collaboration with
his former friend and ally Saddam in carrying out major atrocities,
this time quite directly, as Saddam brutally crushed a southern
Shi'ite revolt that might well have overthrown the murderous dictator,
under the watchful eyes of the US military that had total control
over the region, while Washington refused even to allow rebelling
Iraqi generals access to captured Iraqi arms. The Bush Administration
confirmed that it would have no dealings with Iraqi opposition leaders:
"We felt that political meetings with them would not be appropriate
for our policy at this time," State Department spokesman Richard
Boucher announced on March 14, 1991, while Saddam was massacring
southern rebels with US acquiescence. That had been long-standing
government policy. The same is true of preference for force over
pursuit of possibly feasible diplomatic options, policies that continued
in the decade that followed, until today, and are quite natural,
for basically the reasons that Abdul Haq enunciated.
Another sensible way to assess the prospects for the future would
be to review the actions of today's commanders when they launched
the first war on terrorism 20 years ago: there is ample evidence
of what they achieved in Central America, Southern Africa, the Middle
East and Southeast Asia, all accompanied by much the same lofty
rhetoric and passion that we hear today. There should be no need.
Back to repercussions