Monday, August 29, 2011
The wars go on, interminably, but the ‘war on terror’ is over. Liberties lost have yet to be regained. Secret prisons, kidnapping and torture continue to operate, with the connivance of a post-Bush administration. Still, the war on terror is finished.Now that it’s over, can we figure out what it was?Common sense on the Left holds that the war on terror was an adventurist project for reshaping a strategically significant energy-producing region in the interests of the American ruling class. As a corollary, it enabled an authoritarian retooling of participating states in dealing with internal foes, under the rubric of ‘counter-terrorism’ – but the dominant logic was geopolitical, driven by competition between the US and potential rivals such as China and Russia, and centring on the control of energy resources. If the US controlled the oil spigot, then it could reduce the flow of oil to its rivals and impede their ability to grow. However, the wager on military force failed, the argument runs, leaving the US in a weaker position. The termination of the war on terror marks a strategy-shift signposted by the ‘realists’ in the Democratic Party, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, who favour consolidating US hegemony through tighter alliances with the EU and others.This analysis has its strengths, but I wish to make a slightly different argument. If the war on terror was a bid to advance US hegemony internationally, it could also be understood as an attempt to restructure relations of force domestically, tilting them in favour of business and a stronger coercive state. The same sequence was repeated in numerous advanced capitalist states, notably those that explicitly allied with Bush, suppressing some of the emerging crises afflicting US-led neoliberal capitalism and decisively weakening oppositional forces for a time.The Bush administration, however, ultimately rested on a narrow and highly unstable bloc, susceptible to the instability unleashed by its own policy gambles. By 2005, the occupation of Iraq was going badly, and the war was beginning to channel multiple sources of discontent with the administration, both among elites and popular constituencies. The administration that departed in 2008 was a lame duck. Even so, some of the political forces mobilised by the war on terror have had lasting effects that continue to operate in the context of the recession and the Obama presidency.