The New Crusade


Title:                      The New Crusade

Author:                  Rahul Mahajan

Mahajan, Rahul (2002). The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism. New York: Monthly Review Press

LOC:       2002005061

HV6432 .M34 2002

Date Posted:      March 24, 2013

Reviewed by E. Wayne Ross

Civic-minded political culture is an endangered species in the United States. The apathetic, cynical, and disconnected electorate is often pointed to as the best evidence of the decline of participatory democracy. But the state of the electorate is really more a symptom than a cause. The heart of the problem is the incredible shrinking spectrum of political debate.

In a 1994 interview, Noam Chomsky, an MIT linguistics professor and political activist, illustrated the shriveled state of political perspective in the US with his comment that, “When you read John Dewey today, or Thomas Jefferson [the two leading philosophers of democracy in US history], their work sounds like that of some crazed Marxist lunatic.”

There is no doubt that the heinous attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 transformed US and global politics in many ways. But genuine participatory democracy—long a victim of domestic policies aimed at creating consumers rather than communities, shopping malls rather than libraries—is now further constrained by policies that value “security” over freedoms and a news media so narrowly focused on elite interests that it reduces the capacity for the rest of us to rule our lives in democratic fashion. And globally, US foreign policy continues to undermine democracy, quash human rights and serve the interested of the wealthy few.

Digging beneath the superficial media representations of the war on terror and the recent history of US foreign policy, The New Crusade examines the myths that surround the war on terrorism and the ways they are used to benefit a small elite (at home and abroad). In the tradition of Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions and Manufacturing Consent, Mahajan demonstrates how accepted accounts of the causes of the US military intervention in Afghanistan, the conduct of the war, and its consequences have been systematically distorted and explores the future directions of the war on terrorism.

Three basic questions are at the heart of this well-research and carefully argued polemic: (1) What measure of truth is there in the version of the events, causes, and consequences of the war on terror as conveyed by the US government and the mainstream media? (2) What is the larger historical context in which the war on terrorism can be understood and assessed? and (3) What can we expect to happen next, now that the military conquest of Afghanistan has been completed? Each of section of this slim book takes on one of these broad questions in a series short, jargon-free chapters.

The core of the book examines 19 “myths and realities” of the war on terrorism in assessing the “truth value” of the government and mainstream accounts. Here is a sampling of the myths that Mahajan critiques:

  • The 9-11 attacks constitute another Pearl Harbor. Mahajan argues that in some ways this analogy doesn’t go far enough (Pearl Harbor, a military base, was part of a colony annexed by the US; New York and Washington, DC are the economic and political centers of the US). In other ways, the analogy is overwrought(Japan was a state with a powerful economy and military with the means to dominate and exploit Southeast Asia; the perpetrators of the 9-11 attack were 19 men in a relatively small network with access modest resources). It’s not difficult to surmise, however,that the invocation of Pearl Harbor was a way to galvanize the nation for perpetual war.
  • They “hate us for our freedom”. No, they hate us because we don’t know why they hate us, and because even now we don’t want to learn.
  • The attack on Afghanistan is an act of self-defense. Mahajan lays various elements of international law to demonstrate that that the criteria for self-defense are more stringent than generally represented. For military action to be self-defense, for example, there must be an imminent threat of attack, no timely alternatives, and targeted specifically at those who pose the threat. Excepting self-defense, the UN Charter does not authorize the use of force by any state against any other, nor has any Security Council resolution.
  • The US is engaged in multilateralism, diplomacy, and restraint. There is no broad international support for the entire US agenda. Instead, on any particular issue, countries that can be browbeaten into assisting are. Bush’s peremptory assured that Osama bin Laden would not be turned over through diplomatic channels. Mahajan argues that the Bush administration deliberately sought war, not peaceful resolution, a violation of the UN Charter and replication of the Clinton administration’s strategy in the Balkans that lead to the bombing of Serbia.
  • The war in Afghanistan is a humanitarian war. The truth is, according to Mahajan, that while the Taliban were in power the US greatly aggravated the existing humanitarian crisis, only allowing significant amounts of aid after the Taliban left. The main obstacle to getting aid into the country in the fall of 2001 was the US government—which pursued tactics suggestive of an attempt to impose starvation and suffering as a means of political coercion Humanitarian successes since then are largely due to international relief agencies, not the US.
  • There is no such thing as a surgical strike with regard to a US bombing campaign. Mahajan cites estimates that the number of civilians killed per bomb in Afghanistan is about four times that killed in Serbia, even though the proportion of “precision” weapons used in Afghanistan is twice as high.
  • The US is fighting for our security. Rather, Mahajan argues, there is a pattern of opportunistic invocation of security to sell policies that have nothing to do with security and sometimes clearly increase risks to security. For example, bombing Afghanistan (which was notable for an almost complete lack of anti-American sentiment) is widely understood as increasing the threat of terrorist attacks in the future. The Taliban and Osama bin Laden are “side effects” of previous CIA operations, which helped create, train, and arm the groups of militants that were involved in the September 11 attacks.

For Mahajan the realities of the war on terrorism include:

  • The war is about power, not revenge. While the professed motivation of the war in Afghanistan is to get bin Laden, the most import reason for the war is imperial credibility. In order to maintain its status as the one, unilateralist, interventionist superpower the US government had to attack something. Secondly, a US-controlled client state in Afghanistan would give the US corporations great leverage over the oil and gas resources of the Caspian Basin. Mahajan convincing argues that this war is about the extension and maintenance of US government/corporate power, at home and abroad, every other motive is strictly secondary.
  • This is not a war on terrorism, rather it is a war fought against certain terrorists. The Northern Alliance, US allies in the war in Afghanistan, are as much terrorists as the Taliban and calls on the US by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan not to put the Northern Alliance in power went unheeded. Since the Northern Alliance starting taking over allegations of crimes against humanity have been rampant. Mahajan situates the US action in Afghanistan as part of a larger strategy of abetting state terrorism in Russia (against Chechen separatists); China (against Islamic fundamentalist and Ugir separatists); Pakistan (support for terrorists who are responsible for forcing the majority of the Hindu population to flee Kashmir); as well as the work of the School of the Americas in Latin American, Lebanese Phalangists, Haitian death squads, and Israeli state terrorism.
  • Restricting freedom in the defense of freedom. The real attack on freedom came from the Bush administration, particularly Attorney General John Ashcroft, who opportunistically rammed through an agenda based more on control and power than security. The USA PATRIOT Act abrogates fundamental civil liberties, allowing “roving wiretap”, “no-tell” searches and created a new category of crime—”domestic terrorism”—which is so broadly defined it could include acts such as throwing a rock through a window. As Mahajan notes, the USA PATRIOT Act extends the deprivation of basic rights of immigrants, which began in the Clinton administration, including the use of secret evidence in deportation hearing and extending to 7 days the length of time non-citizens can be held in custody without being charged with a crime. In combination with Bush’s executive order on the use of military tribunals the outlines of potential police state are evident.
  • The free press has reported for duty. Virtually all of the media’s coverage has reinforced the existing prejudices of the American public about antiwar views as well as antiwar protesters; paid little attention to the oil connection; and consistently attempted to minimize the human impact of the war on Afghanistan. Tony Burman, executive director of the CBC in Canada compared US and British television coverage this way: “It’s like watching two different wars. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has focused very much on the humanitarian issues in the region,” while the US networks have “almost exclusively” stuck to Pentagon briefings. Mahajan contends that because of the media’s reliance on “official sources” as the standard of newsworthiness, alternative points of view are routinely excluded. While government and corporate interests rarely attempt to overt control of journalists, they exert strong pressure toward self-censorship and encourage the acceptance of fundamental assumptions and parameters of those systems of power. As a result, despite the significant press freedoms in the US we have virtually no independent journalism. Despite the fact that the US is one of the freest societies in the world, our spectrum of political discourse is far more narrow than most of the world.

Mahajan makes a convincing case that as with other wars, the first casualty in the war on terrorism is the truth, or at least the whole truth. Perhaps more importantly Mahajan details the distinction between a “just cause” and a “just war.” The key issue, according to Mahajan is recognition that the problem of terrorist networks in neither a military matter nor solely a criminal one. It is, rather,a combined political and criminal matter that requires a solution that addresses both elements.Mahajan argues that this is precisely the time to address the underlying issues of global suffering and injustice, that it is time for “a grand bargain”—lifting the sanctions on Iraq, ending military support for Israel unless it withdraws to its pre-1967 borders; and demilitarizing Persian Gulf in exchange for the genuine support of the people of the work in ending the threat of al-Qaeda brand terrorism. Instead of winning over the people that share the same concerns but not the same worldview,Mahajan concludes that,

“the United States has chosen the most counterproductive thing possible, continuing as the arrogant, interventionist superpower and further victimizing some of the most wretched people on earth…In one of the most shameful spectacles in modern history, the richest and most powerful national on earth pounded one of the poorest, most desolate nations on earth for months while proclaiming its virtue to the world.”

In his account of the historical contexts of the war on terrorism, Mahajan deconstructs the elements of what he labels the “new white man’s burden,” that is justifying interventions on the grounds of protecting human rights or protecting “Third World” peoples from themselves. The war on terrorism, he argues has helped entrench US imperial ideology and taken the white man’s burden to a level that even Rudyard Kipling could not have imagined.Mahajan describes a massive economic assault lead by the US, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which has extracted the wealth from countries at the margins to increase the wealth, privilege, and control of First World elites.

Mahajan assess the “humanitarian intent” of US interventions in Iraq, where the US created conditions for disease (by destroying the country’s water supply) and then withheld treatment as tantamount to biological warfare. He goes on to examine the how the US is “making Africa safe for the AIDS virus” as it protects the profits of pharmaceutical companies; details the tragic results of “humanitarian” interventions in Somalia, Kosovo,Rwanda. The sad irony is that for most of us our “natural conclusion is that any talk of the United States as a brutal empire concerned with exploiting as much of the world as it can is sheer nonsense, and if we are to be blamed for anything it is for our naïve decency in a brutal world. “ Mahajan makes a compelling case that the more appropriate conclusion is that the US and the West must start showing humanitarian intent in situations it does not try to control if it wants to have any credibility.

The New Crusade concludes with a look at “new directions” in war on terrorism. Mahajan guides the reader through scenarios for the various candidates for military intervention in the perpetual war Bush has promised: the establishment of a US beachhead in Central Asia (from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgystan) to Somalia, the Philippines, Israel and Palestine, and, of course, Iraq. Mahajan describes a future that involves more frequent military interventions, fewer attempts to placate international sensibilities, and the ever-present excuse of protecting American security. Of course, there will be more appeals to Western cultural supremacy, arms proliferation, and increasing in military spending combined with a diminishment of democracy in the US—both in terms of the ability of individuals to affect decisions and in terms of the freedom of individuals to dissent from dominant institutions.

Mahajan leaves little doubt that that the biggest threat to the world comes from “rouge states” that demonstrate no regard for international law or the international community by waging numerous wars of aggression and targeting civilian infrastructure must be contained. Clearly, the most dangerous of these “rouge states” is the United States. The war on terrorism has placed the nation and its character on a proving ground, but Mahajan is surprisingly optimistic about the future possibilities. American values (e.g., individual rights, the rule of law, the right to self-determination, due process, etc.) are seen by some as a mere cloak for self-interest. But as Mahajan notes that these are values that have given hope to oppressed peoples around the world and, as history has proven, these are values that require an endless struggle to realize a better America.

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