After 9/11: Empire Uncaged

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

Michael Ames Connor interviews Rahul Mahajan

RAHUL MAHAJAN IS a founding member of the Nowar Collective and the Green Party candidate for Governor of Texas. He is the author of The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, April 2002 and is writing a book on Iraq and U.S. policy. His email is He was interviewed for Against the Current by Michael Ames Connor, a teacher unionist and member of Solidarity in Portland, Oregon.

Against the Current: The U.S. ruling classes have responded to 9/11 in a variety of domains — political, military, economic, etc. What aspects of this response were to be expected, and what aspects were surprising to you?

Rahul Mahajan: The foreign policy response was fairly predictable. After a decade in which Iraq was constantly and explicitly targeted, where every foreign policy official ended every speech with “Delenda est Iraq” [“Iraq must be destroyed–ed.], the administration’s use of the 9/11 attacks to justify war on Iraq seemed almost a foregone conclusion.

The war on Afghanistan, the dramatic expansion of the worldwide U.S. military presence (it’s in at least a dozen new countries since 9/11), the hypertrophy of the military budget and renewed plans for the weaponization of space and “full spectrum dominance,” the attempted coup in Venezuela, the open license given to client states like Israel and Colombia — and to “allies” in the war on terrorism like Russia and China — to commit massive state terrorism in the name of fighting terrorism, were all somewhat expected.

Less expected, but not a huge surprise, was the open talk in some circles about a new colonial project in the Middle East and Central Asia. I’m a little surprised by the attempts to legitimate the idea of nuclear first strikes even against non-nuclear nations.

The whole picture when you put it together is a frightening increase in the pace of imperial expansion and the open virulence of American militarism.

Some of the crackdown on civil liberties domestically was also very expected. Ever since Seattle and the resurgence of militant global resistance, there has been serious concern in the ruling class about what Samuel Huntington called in 1974 a “crisis of democracy,” meaning of course that there’s too much of it for their taste.

Some of the measures go so far that they are really testament to the efficacy of organized fanaticism (when it has big guns to support it), including effective revocation of habeas corpus, termination of attorney-client privilege, and recent attempts to limit or remove even the right to representation.

It’s not commonly recognized that, bad as the USA-PATRIOT act is, the executive branch is going far beyond that legislative authority in its actions. Now that the legislative and executive branches have openly repudiated the Constitution, it remains to be seen what the judicial branch will do. So far, it doesn’t look very hopeful.

The main economic response was a massive wave of corporate profiteering, not just with military spending but also with attempts to cut taxes (called the “stimulus package”) and through Homeland Security spending.

The recent scandals, which are not about accounting but about the fundamental contradictions of unregulated capitalism, are not really part of the response — they were coming whether 9/11 happened or not.

All of this was very predictable, given the iron grip of free market fundamentalism over the ruling class everywhere. I hadn’t expected, however, such phenomenal negligence with regard to the safety of ordinary Americans from terrorist attacks.

What Security?

ATC: You’ve identified ways that corporate interests overrule measures to protect ordinary people from harm. Can you give us some examples, and talk about what they reveal about U.S. priorities?

RM: The airlines’ desire for profits above all, combined with the fact that the FAA is essentially an industry advocate rather than a regulatory agency, are the reason that there weren’t armored cockpit doors on September 11, 2001, and thus the reason these attacks could happen.

The same logic continues, and we still don’t have them. They still aren’t X-raying checked baggage at airports, and apparently even the December 31, 2002, deadline will not be met. Clearly, a country that can spend $400 billion on a military budget that is supposedly for “defense” can afford to buy X-ray machines.

Another clear example was the resistance to nationalization of airport security. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that police are more effective than rent-a-cops, that ordinary prison guards are better than the ones in privatized prisons, and so on.

All of these measures were startling in their extremism to increase corporate profits by pennies on the dollar, while obvious and reasonable measures for our safety were sabotaged or ignored.

One example that doesn’t get a lot of play but is particularly striking has to do with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Created in 1972, it has 144 signatories. It never had an enforcement mechanism, so countries like Iraq and the United States were free to violate it.

From 1995 to December 2001, signatories engaged in ceaseless negotiations to create a mechanism based on mutual inspections. At every turn, the United States balked, raising most often the concern that inspections might imperil the profits of biotech companies.

In December 2001, Bush killed the enforcement mechanism and thus the BTWC, a move that has made all of us, whether in Britain, the United States, or Iraq, more vulnerable to the threat of bioterrorist attacks in the future.

ATC: In the wake of 9/11, explicit racism became somewhat more legitimate — from attempts to minimize the importance of Afghani casualties, to official racial profiling, to disparate treatment of official enemies according to race. What is the role of racism in shaping the U.S. response, both popularly and politically?

RM: With regard to wars, I think the racism of U.S. policy planners plays a minimal role, with some striking exceptions, like Bush’s treatment of the Palestinians. In the past, with Japan and Vietnam, for example, it played a much greater role.

Personalities play some role in the making of policy and no doubt members of current and past administrations have had often high degrees of racism. But the primary role is played by cold and bloodless calculation of how to serve what are called “U.S. strategic interests.”

Racism plays a tremendous role in foreign policy in the following sense: The planners constantly appeal to and rely on the visceral racism of large segments of the American public to help whip up war hysteria, as they did before the Gulf War, or to count on acquiescence and indifference, as they did with the sanctions on Iraq that have followed the war.

We are seeing it play that same role today with talk about the next war.

Means of Control

ATC: You’ve argued that “Empire” is an increasingly useful way to understand the United States in the world today. Why is that term important to your analysis?

RM: First, I must say that I don’t mean “empire” as some vague, disembodied, decentralized mechanism the way Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri talk of it. [Readers interested in a critical discussion of this concept can read Charlie Post’s review of Hardt-Negri in ATC 99, July-August 2002–ed.]

I mean very much that the United States is an empire, by far the most powerful in world history. That’s a fact that much even of the left seemed to forget in the `80s and `90s, although the post-9/11 reaction has again made things clearer, to the point that we have a resumption of the old debate about liberal vs. conservative imperialism in the mainstream media.

Historically, empires that achieved any stability created systems to maintain political control over the provinces in order to continue exploitation and appropriation of resources and labor.

They used a multiplicity of methods, from direct military occupation and taxation to exaction of tribute, and they created elaborate ideologies of the master race or the Christianizing mission; but the key was political control for economic benefit and military dominance was always the essential underpinning to that political control.

That’s the state of the United States in the world today. The 1945-September 11, 2001 era divided into roughly two phases of imperial expansion. In the first, which we can arbitrarily break off at 1971, the primary methods of expansion of imperial control were outright wars, counterinsurgency (or insurgency, depending on whether the state was ally or enemy) operations and coups, and bilateral
economic “aid.”

The Vietnam War made a major dent in that and forced re-evaluation. It also led to the destruction of the Bretton Woods system of financial controls, which cleared the way for the next era.

In the second phase, the primary method was multilateral economic instruments — the creation of debt through the IMF and World Bank, structural adjustment, and the proliferation more recently of “free trade” agreements.

Of course, this phase saw open use of military means as well, especially after the Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet Union. I’m just concentrating on what was the primary mechanism for expansion.

Even before 9/11 all this had led to the point where the United States government, and the banks and other corporations for which it stands, had more control over the policy of almost any country in the Third World than the democratically elected governments of those countries — the essence of empire.

With the U.S. military, on any given day, in 140 countries (and permanent bases in half of those) and the constant willingness of the American ruling class to conduct diplomacy with cruise missiles, the military basis of that empire was very clear.

Since 9/11, we see another massive shift. The “globalization” agenda has gone so far, so fast, achieved so much, that it’s getting increasingly difficult to get too much more that way. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), for example, is going to be a major challenge to push through.

There were also many countries, like the former Soviet Central Asian republics and most of the Middle East, whose oil makes it a critical element of worldwide imperial control, which had not been much affected by that global neoliberal process. And so, since 9/11, we see that once again the military aspect is dominant, with wars and counterinsurgency coming to the fore and the “free trade” agenda receding into the background.

ATC: The U.S. elite has been able to win militarily in Afghanistan, and roll back formal protections from the various police agencies. Yet they haven’t been able to implement everything they’ve wanted, and the world is no more friendly to U.S. corporate and military interests today than a year ago. There are limits to what they can do, and opportunities for resistance. What are the priorities for the U.S. left in building a mass anti-war movement?

RM: The Bush administration has gone way too far, and done it in a particularly arrogant and explicit manner. They have aroused essentially universal condemnation for their acts, and are even causing a split in the American ruling class much like their split over Vietnam, where the argument was not about the morality or lack thereof of the eventual goals but rather over whether certain methods were the most effective.

In essence, it’s a reflection of the tension between exploitation and stability — turn up the exploitation high enough and you can threaten the imperial stability of your exploitative system.

There is a remarkable confluence of a domestic crisis of legitimacy with an international one. Domestically, free market fundamentalism has been revealed as a sham that helps only the richest and leads consistently to lies, misreporting of profits, and other effects that are harmful even to the interests of the capitalists, at the same time that our political ruling class has been revealed, not just as war criminals on a large scale, but as petty thieves, with their hands constantly in the till.

Internationally, American rule has begun to chafe so much that the normally timid governments of the rest of the world, which have learned never to speak their minds where the United States is concerned, have finally had enough.

A revealing moment was the AIDS conference in Barcelona, where Health Secretary Tommy Thompson was booed by dozens of hecklers and his speech disrupted. [See Sam Friedman’s report elsewhere in this issue–ed.]

The remarkable thing was that the audience cheered the hecklers. And the audience was not exactly drawn from the oppressed of the world; it was government officials and representatives of “legitimate” NGOs, who are finally ready to join the rest of us in saying “Ya Basta!”

Time to Organize

So there is a potential domestic openness plus potentially significant international support. This is a time for the left in the United States to rise to the occasion and make sure not to limit itself by thinking small.

There is significant potential to appeal directly to the American people about the war on terrorism. Nobody supports every element of Bush administration policy since 9/11, so for every person there is a road into resistance.

The war on Iraq is the crucial issue, the pivot about which the whole agenda turns currently. If Bush gets the war, against the opposition of the world, he will use his “victory” as a hammer to smash all domestic opposition and move him that much closer to the eventual goal of removing the vestiges of democracy we have left in this country.

If we can mobilize to end the war (and in the end it does fall to us here in the heart of the beast), that victory could catalyze the growth of a serious movement to end rampant American militarism, end the assault on democracy, and maybe even show people that, in fact, another world is possible.

ATC 100, September-October 2002