Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Oil at $100 vs the 'war on terror' By Tom Engelhardt
Consider the debate among four Democratic presidential candidates on ABC News
last Saturday night. In the previous week, the price of a barrel of oil briefly
touched US$100, unemployment hit 5%, the stock market had the worst three-day
start since the Great Depression, and the word "recession" was in the headlines
and the airwaves. So when ABC debate moderator Charlie Gibson announced that
the first 15-minute segment would be taken up with "what is generally agreed to
be ... the greatest
threat to the United States today", what did you expect?
As it happened, he was referring to "nuclear terrorism", specifically "a
nuclear attack on an American city" by al-Qaeda (as well as how the future
president would "retaliate"). In other words, Gibson launched his version of a
national debate by focusing on a fictional, futuristic scenario, at this point
far-fetched, in which a Pakistani loose nuke would fall into the hands of
al-Qaeda, be transported to the US, perhaps picked up by well-trained al-Qaeda
minions off the docks of Newark, and set off in the Big Apple. In this, though
he was surely channeling Rudy Giuliani, he managed to catch the essence of what
may be George W Bush's major legacy to this country.
The planet as a terror-free fire zone
On September 11, 2001, in his first post-attack address to the nation, Bush was
already using the phrase "the war on terror". On September 13, deputy secretary
of defense Paul Wolfowitz announced that the administration was planning to do
a lot more than just take out those who had attacked the US. It was going to go
about "removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states
who sponsor terrorism". We were, Bush told Americans that day, in a state of
"war"; in fact, we were already in "the first war of the 21st century."
That same day, R W Apple Jr of the New York Times reported that senior
officials had "cast aside diplomatic niceties" and that "the Bush
administration today gave the nations of the world a stark choice: stand with
us against terrorism ... or face the certain prospect of death and
destruction." Stand with us against terrorism (or else) - that would be the
measure by which everything was assessed in the years to come. That very day,
secretary of state Colin Powell suggested that the US would "rip [the bin
Laden] network up" and "when we're through with that network, we will continue
with a global assault on terrorism".
A global assault on terrorism. How quickly the president's "war on terror" was
on the scene. And no nation was to be immune. On September 14, the news was
leaked that "a senior State Department official" had met with "15 Arab
representatives" and delivered a stiff "with us or against us" message: Join
"an international coalition against terrorism" or pay the price. There would be
no safe havens.
The choice - as deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage would reportedly
inform Pakistan's intelligence director after the September 11 attacks - was
simple: Join the fight against al-Qaeda or "be prepared to be bombed. Be
prepared to go back to the Stone Age". The price of a barrel of crude oil was,
then, still under $20.
From that day to this, from the edge of the $20-barrel of oil to the edge of
the $100 barrel, the "war on terror" would be the organizing principle for the
Bush administration as it shook off "the constraints", "took off the gloves",
loosed the Central Intelligence Agency, and sent the US military into action;
as it went, in short, for the Stone Age jugular.
The phrase global "war on terror", while never quite catching on with the
public, would become so familiar in the corridors of Washington that it would
sometimes be known among neo-conservatives as "World War IV", or by military
men and administration officials - after Iraq devolved from fantasy blitzkrieg
into disaster - as "the Long War".
In the administration's eyes, the "war on terror" was to be the key to the
magic kingdom, the lever with which the planet could be pried open for American
dominion. It gave us an interest everywhere. After all, as Pentagon
spokesperson Victoria Clarke would say in January 2002 (and this was a typical
comment of that moment): "The estimates are anywhere from 50 or 60 to 70
countries that have al-Qaeda cells in them. The scope extends far beyond
Administration officials, in other words, were already talking about a
significant portion of existing states as potential targets. This was not
surprising, since the "war on terror" was meant to create planetary free-fire
zones. These al-Qaeda targets or breeding grounds, after all, had to be
emptied. We were, as defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials
were saying almost immediately after September 11, going to "drain" the global
"swamp" of terrorists. And any countries that got in the way had better watch
With us or against us, that was the sum of it, and terror was its measure. If
any connection could be made - even, as in the case of Saddam Hussein and
al-Qaeda, a thoroughly bogus one - it immediately offered a compelling
home-front explanation for possible intervention. The safety and security of
Americans was, after all, at stake in every single place where those terrorist
mosquitoes might be breeding.
If you had the oil lands of the planet on your mind (as was true with Dick
Cheney's infamous Energy Task Force), then the threat of terrorism - especially
nuclear terrorism - was a safe bet. If you wanted to fortify your position in
new oil lands, then the ticket was to have the Pentagon move in - as in Africa
- to help weak, possibly even failing, states prepare themselves against the
forces of terror.
For us or against us in the "war on terror", that was the way all things were
to be judged, no matter the place or the complexities of the local situation -
in Pakistan no less than the Gulf of Guinea or Central Asia. And that was to be
true at home as well. There, too, you were for us or against us. Those few who
opposed the Patriot Act, for instance, were obviously not patriots. The
minority who claimed that you couldn't be at "war" with "terror", that what was
needed in response to September 11 was firm, ramped-up police action were
simply laughed out of the room. In the kindliest light, they were wusses; in
the worst light, essentially traitors. They lacked not only American
red-bloodedness, but a willingness to blood others and be bloody-minded. End of
In the wake of those endlessly replayed, apocalyptic-looking scenes of huge
towers crumbling and near-mushroom-clouds of ash billowing upwards, a chill of
end-time fear swept through the nation. War, whatever name you gave it, was
quickly accepted as the obvious, commensurate answer to what had happened. In a
nation in the grips of the politics of fear, it seemed reasonable enough that a
restoration of "security" - American security - should be the be-all and
end-all globally. Everything, then, was to be calibrated against the successes
of the "war on terror".
Domestically, a distinctly un-American word, "homeland", entered our everyday
world, was married to "security", and then "department", and suddenly you had a
second defense department, whose goal was simply to make the American people
"safe". Alone on the planet, Americans would now be allowed a "safe haven" of
which no one could rob us.
From Seattle to Tampa, Toledo to Dallas, fear of terrorism became a ruling
passion - as well as a pure money-maker for the mini-homeland-industrial
complex that grew up around the new Department of Homeland Security. A thriving
industry of private security firms, surveillance outfits, and terror
consultants was suddenly among us. With its help, the US would be locked-down
in an unprecedented way - and to do that, we would also have to lock down the
planet by any means necessary. We would fight "them" everywhere else, as the
president would say again and again, so as not to fight them here.
The elephant and the 'war on terror'
If the "war on terror" initially seemed to be the royal road to the Bush
administration's cherished dream of a global Pax Americana and a local Pax
Republicana, it was, it turned out, also a trap. As manipulatively as they
might use their global war to stoke domestic fears and create rationales for
what they wanted to do anyway, like so many ruling groups they also came to
believe in their own formulations.
The "war on terror" would, in fact, be a presidential monomania. According to
journalist Ron Suskind in his book The One Percent Doctrine, "The
president himself designed a chart: the faces of the top al-Qaeda leaders with
short bios stared out. As a kill or capture was confirmed, he drew an 'X' over
the face." According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, the president
kept that "personal scorecard for the war" in a handy desk drawer in the Oval
Office for the next hot piece of good news on terror.
In the universe of the "war on terror" and homeland security, everything would
be obsessively US-centric. In fact, the administration's "war" brings to mind
an old joke in which various nationalities are asked to write essays on "the
elephant". The Frenchman, for instance, writes on L'elephant et L'Amour.
In an updated version of the joke, the American would, of course, write on "The
Elephant and the global war on terror".
The media picked up this obsession. On some days you can still see this
reflected clearly in news accounts - as in this typical first paragraph from a
news piece in the January 2 Wall Street Journal on the aftermath of fraudulent
presidential elections in Kenya.
Kenya's marred presidential vote and
the violence that has spiraled from it are threatening an island of stability
in the otherwise volatile Horn of Africa and