Another ‘flight forward’?
Daniel Lazare asks whether or not any lessons have been learnt from forty years of war and disaster
The best way to think about 9/11 and its consequences is as a single great cover-up. For decades, America had consorted with a rogue’s gallery of gangsters, drug smugglers and war criminals in the course of its ‘crusade against communism’. The struggle was not without its setbacks, but in the end it proved victorious when the Soviet Union self-destructed in 1989-91. But, as the US basked in the pleasures of being the world’s sole remaining superpower, something went terribly awry, when one of the criminal gangs it had relied on to do its dirty work took aim at America instead.
With the dust still swirling in Lower Manhattan, Washington therefore faced a choice: either come clean about what had gone wrong or try to bluff its way out. The first was impossible. Not only would it require full disclosure concerning America’s support for bloodthirsty, jihadi cutthroats in Afghanistan, but it would also mean revealing other skeletons in the imperial closet: the Nazis whom the US recruited to fight the Soviets after World War II, the brutal militarists it used to suppress leftwing revolt in Latin America, the warlords it worked with in south-east Asia, and so on.
So George W Bush, aided by key Democrats like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, opted for the latter. This meant denying any connection with al Qa’eda, even though the CIA had worked side by side with Osama bin Laden in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan; suppressing a section of a congressional report dealing with Saudi Arabia’s extensive ties to the 9/11 hijackers; and seeing to it that the media did not raise any inconvenient questions either (America’s lapdog press was happy to oblige). The ‘Vulcans’, as Bush’s neocon foreign-policy team was known, then focused on toppling the Taliban, even though their connection with 9/11 was only tangential, while allowing bin Laden to escape. It geared up for war with Iraq, even though Saddam Hussein had had nothing to do with the World Trade Center at all.
The answer to one disastrous misadventure was thus to throw itself into others that were even worse. The Marxist historian, Tim Mason, called this a “flight forward” into war and used it to describe Hitler’s decision to throw himself into the maelstrom in September 1939, so as to escape from growing economic and political problems that were threatening his regime at home.1 If so, then America’s decision to go to war some 60 years later was similar: a flight forward from an imperial crisis that could have wreaked havoc if the truth were allowed to escape.
In either case, it did not work, and both efforts ended in disaster. But in the wake of the Afghan debacle, the big question now is whether the US will do the same by blundering into yet another imperial misadventure - or reconsider before courting disaster. Believe it or not, there are small, but intriguing, signs that Joe Biden has begun hitting the pause button. But rest assured: any interruption will be short-lived, as imperial aggression asserts itself yet again.
First the good news: On August 31, Biden announced that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was “about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries”. He added: We’ve been a nation too long at war. If you’re 20 years old today, you have never known an America at peace.”
The US had thus turned a corner. Since then, indications have grown that the president means what he says - itself a novel development in terms of US politics. On September 12, for instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that it had resolved a technical dispute concerning monitoring equipment at the Iranian nuclear site in the city of Natanz. The issue was important, because it meant that talks could resume in Vienna about reactivating the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord. Even more significant, as a retired Indian diplomat named MK Bhadrakumar pointed out, was the fact that the US and Russia were jointly coordinating a return to negotiations.2
As Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov put it on September 9 following a meeting in Moscow with Robert Malley, the US diplomat in charge of the Vienna talks,
Importantly, we share with the Americans an understanding of the need to make further progress at the negotiations, which need to resume from the point where the sides stopped in June, when the negotiations were interrupted.3
What? The US and Russia share an understanding? How bizarre!
Another indication that a change was afoot was a telephone call that Biden made the same day to Chinese president Xi Jinping. The White House summary of the conversation was couched in the blandest diplomatese:
The two leaders had a broad, strategic discussion, in which they discussed areas where our interests converge, and areas where our interests, values and perspectives diverge. They agreed to engage on both sets of issues openly and straightforwardly.
But, as Bhadrakumar pointed out, the tone was very different from the confrontational language that the White House used to describe a similar chat in February.4 On that occasion, the White House readout fairly bristled with confrontationalism:
President Biden affirmed his priorities of protecting the American people’s security, prosperity, health and way of life, and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific. President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan.
In one case, Xi was virtually a war criminal, in the other a potentially valuable diplomatic partner. Even more revealing was the Chinese version. Five times longer than the White House statement, it showed Xi treating Biden in the second talk like an errant schoolboy, lecturing him about the need to coordinate with respect to global warming, Covid-19 and economic policy. If relations had run into difficulty, the statement emphasised, it was “due to the US policy on China” and had nothing to do with the people’s republic.
“When China and the United States cooperate,” the summary went on, “the two countries and the world will benefit; when China and the United States are in confrontation, the two countries and the world will suffer.” Xi even quoted an ancient Chinese poem: “Mountains and rivers may block the way, yet another village will appear amidst willow trees and blooming flowers” - meaning, evidently, that progress is possible only if America proves more cooperative.
One can imagine Biden squirming uncomfortably in his seat. The fact that the US allowed China to have the last word may be an indication that the administration knows that the old bluster will no longer do and that it is time to move on to something more mature.
But enough of the good news. Here is how such hopes are likely to prove wrong and why a few swallows do not make a spring.
Yes, the Biden administration may want the nuclear talks in Vienna to resume. But it is not the only one with a voice in such matters. Israel has one too, and not only is it as powerful as ever in Washington: it may actually be more so. The US-Israeli relationship has changed in ways that many fail to recognise. Due to economic growth, Israel is 10 times less dependent on US military aid than it was 40 years ago, while cheap, home-grown defence technology is now 90% effective against Gaza-launched rockets and missiles. What is more, the Jewish state is no longer reliant on the US for political support. Thanks to the growth of ethno-nationalism in Brazil, Hungary, India and elsewhere, it now has other friends it can depend on as well.5
It is another example of how Washington’s power has diminished over the years. Moreover, Biden boxed himself in during last year’s presidential campaign, when he declared that he would re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the 2015 nuclear accord is formally known, but only if Iran acceded to a number of non-nuclear demands - that it cease violating human rights, that it call a halt to “destabilising activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region”, that it stop fostering terrorism and that it terminate its ballistic-missile programme.6
These are demands that Iran cannot possibly accept, regardless of whether a ‘moderate’ like Hassan Rouhani is in control or an alleged hardliner like current president Ebrahim Raisi. After all, why single out Iran’s human-rights record, when Israel and Saudi Arabia’s violations are just as egregious, if not more so? Why blame Iran for funnelling aid to Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon and Houthi militias in Yemen, when the US invasion of Iraq has done far more to destabilise the region, not to mention US-Saudi aid to pro-al Qa’eda jihadis in Syria and Libya?
The charge of fostering terrorism is outrageous, since it has long been obvious that the US has looked on, while the Saudis and the other Persian Gulf petro-monarchies channelled military and financial aid to Islamic State and al Qa’eda. Indeed, Biden admitted it himself in 2014, when he told an audience at Harvard:
... the Saudis, the emirates, etc … were so determined to take down [Syrian president] Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war … [that] they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad - except the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al Qa’eda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.7
What could be clearer? As for ballistic missiles, why should Iran abandon a military programme whose purpose is primarily defensive, when the US has spent trillions militarising the Gulf since the 1970s - money that is almost entirely devoted to isolating the Islamic republic?
All of which is absurdly one-sided. To be sure, Biden still has time to retreat from such rhetoric in order to put US-Iranian relations on a sounder footing. But doing so would arouse a storm of opposition in Israel and the Gulf states, as well as in Washington, where a vast neoconservative lobby still holds sway. Conceivably, Biden might have stood up to such pressure last spring, assuming he even wanted to. But post-Afghanistan, that is no longer the case. The far-right Israeli government of Naftali Bennett believes it has backed Iran into a corner, and it is determined to keep pushing until something breaks. In its current weakened condition, the US has little choice but to go along with it.
The same can be said for China, where the US has also boxed itself in. Biden does not seem to comprehend the damage he did in August 2020 by endorsing wildly-unsubstantiated charges of the Trump administration that China was engaged in genocide against the Uyghur minority in its far-western province of Xinjiang. Somehow, he thinks he can do business with Beijing despite accusing it of the diplomatic equivalent of serial child molestation. But he cannot, given that China’s anger is all too understandable.
Again, Biden would have to contend with a storm of protest if he so much as tried to backtrack. As for the South China Sea, another prime area of contention, the problem is that both countries have drawn lines in the sand - China by declaring jurisdiction over 90% of the waterway, and the US by insisting on free navigation, fishing and oil exploration rights (all under US naval supervision, needless to say). With hardliners dominant in both countries, compromise seems increasingly distant. But, if a clash occurs, China will enjoy a decided advantage of fighting in its own backyard, whereas US forces will have to travel from thousands of miles away. You do not have to be Sun Tzu to know how that one will turn out.
The paradox is that it takes strength to execute an orderly retreat, while weak countries have no choice but to engage in a show of bravado. For that reason, Biden is more likely to get himself into trouble in the coming months rather than less - not despite getting his fingers burned in Afghanistan, but because the debacle has exposed the US as a paper tiger.
The concept of a “flight forward” into disaster is as pertinent now as it was in 2001 - or, for that matter, in 1939.
T Mason Nazism, fascism and the working class Cambridge 1995, p316.↩︎
Quote starts around at 53:00 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcKVCtg5dxM.↩︎