September 12, 2001

The fragility of American power

"We're going to go about our daily lives and carry on: this will show that terrorism is not going to stop American democracy." These were the brave words of New York City major Rudolph Giuliani at a news conference held hours after the World Trade Center attack. The next question came from a reporter who asked, to audible groans, whether or not the New York City primary would be canceled. Governor George Pataki, standing next to the mayor, confirmed that the election had indeed been called off. And that's just the beginning of what's been called off from New York to California, and points in between. All flights have been canceled everywhere in the country, and over London as well. The stock exchange did not open and will not open until further notice. NATO headquarters in Brussels was evacuated. The US military went on its highest alert. A flotilla of US warships sailed into New York City harbor – and that says it all.


With one well-coordinated blow, the entire free world has been paralyzed. It is as if a rock-wielding David has hit a glass Goliath straight between the eyes, shattering the imperial colossus and bringing down the whole top-heavy apparatus with an earthshaking roar. The entire US government was shut down. President George W. Bush, in Florida at the time, was flown at to the safety of Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Top government officials and congressional leaders were secreted to an undisclosed location: US fighter jets patrolled the skies above the nation's capital.


Most devastating of all was the attack on the Pentagon, which took a devastating hit – 800 dead – and not only in terms of physical damage. If anything was considered invulnerable, then surely this building, the sanctum sanctorum and architectural symbol of American military power, was it. What could be safer terrain than the capital of a world empire, a city where the fate of nations is routinely decided, where the supplicants of the world gather to humbly present their petitions to the Senate and lobby the White House?


The sheer fragility of the American Imperium is what is painfully apparent here. Painful most especially to the US government, whose complete inability to defend the country while claiming the mantle of the world's only superpower is exposed for all to see. It is the weakness of an entity that has grown too big, too overextended, too blinkered by pride (some would call it hubris) to see the pitfalls of the policies it has pursued, not only in the Middle East but around the world, from the Balkans to the Far East. Our foreign policy of global military and political intervention in the internal affairs of other nations, from Bosnia to Belarus, has produced what policy analyst Chalmers Johnson has referred to as "blowback." In his book of that title, as if in anticipation of the perplexed "Why?" of the average Americans'reaction to this carnage, Johnson wrote:

"Only when we come to see our country as both profiting from and trapped within the structures of an empire of its own making will it be possible for us to explain a great many elements of the world that otherwise perplex us."


The response of a weak adversary is always to exaggerate its own power, to make a great show of faux strength that mostly amounts to a lot of noise, and that is precisely what the US is now doing. We have pledged to go after the perpetrators or those who gave them safe harbor, and the usual parade of laptop bombardiers has declared "war" on "the enemy." But who or what is the enemy? And, most of all, where are they?


But the lack of any tangible, stationary enemy – say, a particular country or even a group of individuals – shouldn't stop us from making a formal declaration of war: "Let's not be daunted by the mysterious and partially hidden identity of our attackers," says Robert Kagan in the Washington Post. "It will soon become obvious that there are only a few terrorist organizations capable of carrying out such a massive and coordinated strike." If there are only "a few," then why not get more specific? Osama bin Laden, the all-purpose Arab arch-villain, is routinely blamed for any and all terrorist acts outside of Northern Ireland and the jungles of South America. However, the ambitious Kagan – co-author, along with Bill Kristol, of an infamous article proposing that the goal of US foreign policy must be "global hegemony" – is after more than that:

"It will become apparent that those organizations could not have operated without the assistance of some governments, governments with a long record of hostility to the United States and an equally long record of support for terrorism. We should now immediately begin building up our conventional military forces to prepare for what will inevitably and rapidly escalate into confrontation and quite possibly war with one or more of those powers. Congress, in fact, should immediately declare war. It does not have to name a country. It can declare war against those who have carried out today's attack and against any nations that may have lent their support."


We should declare "war" on a nameless enemy, about whose whereabouts we haven't a clue – as if some empty resolution penned by a parcel of politicians could possibly erase or rectify the horror of the past 48 hours. Surely, a formal declaration of war against the Unknown Enemy would only underscore our own impotence. Such a fatuous proclamation would turn tragedy into farce – a talent politicians of all stripes have in abundance.


Let's see if I get this straight: Tim McVeigh was a "lone nut" who blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building all by himself, but the World Trade Center terrorist plot just had to be aided and abetted by a foreign power. If Mr. Kagan has information that "some governments" cooperated with or even knew about the attack in advance, then why doesn't he name them? The reason is because, to Kagan and his ilk, it doesn't matter who did it – the point it to strike out at anyone or anything within range.


Mindless rage expressed in terms of a self-conscious demagoguery is what we get from David Horowitz, the wild man of the Neocon Right. He asks how it was possible for 4 commercial airliners to be hijacked from major airports within a set time frame, wonders how the Pentagon – the Pentagon – could've been pulverized so thoroughly, and avers:

"We know the answer. America is soft. America is in denial. America is embarrassed at the idea that it has enemies and must protect itself."


Huh? Is our alleged "softness" to blame for this horrific tragedy – the softness that prevents us from completely militarizing America, and converting a free society into a prison? America – in denial? But how could that be, when so many millions and so much rhetoric has been expended in the war on terrorism? No expense was spared, either in terms of tax dollars or basic civil liberties – and still it happened.


Even more absurd is the idea that our government is somehow "embarrassed" by all the enemies it has made, worldwide: you certainly couldn't tell that from our actions. Indeed, the whole point of being a superpower is that you don't have to be embarrassed about anything: you brazenly disregard moral principle, and go right ahead and bomb a Sudanese aspirin factory to get a presidential sex scandal off the front pages. The arbitrary and often deadly exercise of overwhelming military force is what being a superpower is all about.


Oh, but Horowitz would ascribe this to Clinton's personal evil, and dismiss any more systematic critical analysis of our role in the world as simple "anti-Americanism." But the real anti-Americans are those who would sacrifice thousands more of their fellow citizens in defense of a policy and a mindset that is pure hubris. Talk about blaming America first: Horowitz spends most of his piece attacking those "soft" Americans who have "been so eager to cash in on 'peace dividends' that it has stripped itself of even prudent defenses." Oh, how dare those selfish soft Americans try to get some of their hard-earned tax dollars back from a thieving federal government. Horowitz's big solution is – yawn – a missile defense "to protect against even worse terrorist acts in the future." Yeah, but what about the sort of attacks we have just experienced – a bunch of knife-wielding terrorists who commandeer a plane and ram it into the biggest, most visible symbols of American military and financial preeminence? What he doesn't want to admit is that there is no defense against such acts – short of abolishing the Constitution and instituting martial law, that is.


"America is in denial that much of the world hates us," rants Horowitz, "and will continue to hate us. Because we are prosperous, and democratic and free." But the US government is perfectly well aware that large sections of the globe have no love for the US government, and yet this has not had the slightest effect on US foreign policy. The whole Arab world is united in its opposition to our mindlessly pro-Israel stance – including the Saudi and Kuwaiti regimes that we prop up with our troops and treasure – but that has not altered our position one iota, no matter who occupies the White House. It is so typical of the paranoid and reflexively defensive Horowitz to inveigh against all those terrible foreigners who supposedly hate us because we're so wonderful. But I wouldn't count on either prosperity or freedom if the war Horowitz and Kagan would so dearly love to see declared and fought should ever come to pass. For the only way we can "win" such a battle is to lose the very values that we want to defend in the first place.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.


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