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The war on terror is the new Cold War and will not help bring peace

By Ken Macnab - posted Thursday, 14 August 2003

President Bush announced the "war on terror" to Congress shortly after the September 11 attacks. His policy was elaborated in other speeches, such as his State of the Union Address in January 2002 and his speech at West Point Military Academy in June, and the document titled The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, released in late September 2002.

Some key aspects of this "war on terrorism" are worth noting. The first is a distinctive interpretation of history that places America at the centre of a new world view. Out of the conflicts of the 20th century had emerged "a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise." Integral to this view of history is a belief in an American "mission," a "crusade," a new "manifest destiny".

Second, the American leadership has not the slightest doubt about its ability to arbitrate for the whole world, to identify the "good" and the "evil", the "civilised" and the "uncivilised", those "with us" and those "against us", those supporting "freedom" and those supporting "terror", those possessing threatening "weapons of mass destruction" and those merely having these same weapons for their own protection.


Third, the definition of "terrorism" at the heart of this war is vague and changeable, and is mainly political rhetoric, permitting selective and self-serving application. The focus of the war is flexible, including "thousands of terrorists in more than 60 countries," "regimes that sponsor terror" such as the "axis of evil," "rogue states" and other American-chosen targets.

Finally, although there are statements about peaceful methods of pursuing the "war on terrorism", such as promoting "human dignity" and working with others to "defuse regional conflicts", the only methods given any real support are aggressive and militaristic. Moreover, at West Point, Bush proposed selective pre-emptive military strikes, whereby America must "confront the worst threats before they emerge".

All this largely ignores the lessons of the history of terrorism. For a start, terrorism has rarely been defeated by force alone. Force on its own is frequently counter-productive because it ignores the origins of terrorism and plays into the hands of the terrorists by reinforcing the original prejudices.

Next, the issue of defining terrorism is complicated by perspective and purpose. Hence the old adage: "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". However, we need to define terrorism clearly and analyse it impartially. Put simply, terrorism is the selective use of violence to intimidate, terrorise and coerce for social or political purposes, carried out not only by individuals and groups, but by organisations and states.

A number of more specific conclusions deserve emphasis.

First, there has been a world-wide tendency to exploit the September 11 tragedy. If you can label your opponents "terrorists", you can claim the high moral ground for your own actions, including the use of violence and terror. Moreover, President Bush himself is now exploiting and manipulating the tragedy for international and domestic political advantage.

Second, the methods by which America is pursuing the "war on terrorism" are a serious challenge to international standards and institutions such as the United Nations. The concept of anticipatory pre-emptive attack is dangerous and is not an accepted part of international legal custom. Neither "anticipatory self-defence" nor "pre-emptive strike" (or any other such Orwellian Newspeak) are justified by Article 51 of the UN Charter, or by the classic formulation by the United States after the 1837 Caroline incident.


Third, in its zeal the American government has seriously undermined the very respect for human rights and the rule of law on which it bases the claim to be the leader of the free world. The American Patriot Act of October 2001 and new Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security have created dangerous powers and procedures. Countries such as Britain and Australia have followed suit.

Internationally, flouting of the rule of law is being justified by the "war on terrorism". Despite originally supporting the proposal, the US withdrew from the International Criminal Court, determined that no Americans would face "foreign" tribunals on war crimes charges. Similarly, when the UN's Economic and Social Council recommended adoption of a new protocol to the Convention against Torture, on the inspection of places of incarceration to prevent cruel practices, Australia voted against and the US abstained.

Opportunities for the "leaders of the free world" to practise some of what they preach are ignored. Both the UN World Food Summit in Rome in June 2002 and the World Summit on Sustainability in Johannesburg early in September saw the outcomes tailored to suit the richest countries of the world.

Fourth, the rhetoric and methods of the "war on terrorism" seriously exacerbate the "double standard" which is enshrined within virtually all the policies of the leading powers. Recently, Ambassador Richard Butler sharply criticised the "hypocrisy" of the United States and other major powers for insisting on their right to retain chemical, biological and nuclear weapons while demanding that others dispense with theirs or never obtain them.

Finally, there is little new about the current "war on terrorism," apart from its scope, intensity and the centrality of the American role. Those leading it are shaping it to be the New Cold War (or Cold War II if you prefer), with all the features that characterised the original Cold War: the rhetoric of good and evil, civilised and uncivilised, take our side or suffer the consequences; the oversimplification and labelling and demonising; inflated military budgets; reduced care for domestic issues; the justification of violence, including terrorism, to defend the national interest; the collusion of the media in inflaming feelings and sustaining morale; the curbing of freedom of speech and access to information, and attacks on critics as traitors; the reduction of civil liberties and human rights; and the hypocrisy of supporting some instances of terrorism while condemning others.

Octave Mirabeau's comment is worth remembering: "The greatest danger of bombs is in the explosion of stupidity that they provoke."

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Article edited by Merrindahl Andrew.
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This article summarises a paper called The Implications of the War on Terrorism which was delivered by Ken Macnab on Thursday 10 October 2002 at the Annual Conference of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia in Canberra.

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About the Author

Dr Ken Macnab is an historian and President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

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