Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 September 2001
Issue No.552
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

War, 21st-century style

The rhetoric is sweeping and popular support mounting, but few outside Bush's close circle can fathom what a "new kind of war" really is, reports Thomas Gorguissian from New York


Returning to the White House last Sunday, 16 September, US President George W Bush declared that the American people were facing "a new kind ... of evil." Pressing for a radical shift in the perception of war, Bush said, "The American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while."

That same day Bush promised retaliation by a "mighty giant," awakened by the world's worst terror acts. Less than 24 hours later, during a visit to the Pentagon, he spoke to reporters about "the primary suspect," i.e., Osama Bin Laden: "I want justice. And there's an old poster out West that says, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive'."

Bush has chosen some fiery words. The term "crusade" and the phrase "Wanted: Dead or Alive" stir emotions and revive memories, ultimately inflaming prejudices. Former CIA Director James Woolsey, reminding the American people of the realities of history, criticised using the word "crusade," noting that it's a bad word to use in any case -- and particular in this one, in relation to Islam and Muslims.

But the mood in America is all drum beating for a war. That is the political message. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, describing the purpose and the nature of the expected war, told ABC News, "What this war is about is our way of life, and our way of life is worth losing lives for." He then warned that "the era of antiseptic warfare -- planes dropping bombs from 20,000 feet; cruise missiles flying off in the night; no one getting hurt on the United States or the coalition side. That will not work with this enemy. Let there be no doubt."

The chances for other choices are very slim, Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution told Al-Ahram Weeklyin an interview. "This time, the response of the United States must be much firmer and much different." O'Hanlon has various scenarios which each have their drawbacks, but he believes "the key point is that we cannot use a limited dose of force just to send a message. That approach has been tried and failed. Generally, the only message sent is one of 'irresolute-ness'. And it leaves the Bin Ladens of the world free to strike again." And as is the case with any military option, it is rare to hear or read commentary that considers what the days or months after a major military attack might bring.

CNN has already coined the term "America's New War," a tag which continuously flashes across America's television screens. We all remember "Desert Storm," the "line in the sand" and other terms coined with every crisis and subsequent military involvement. And, as has always been the case in the last 10 years, corespondent Christiane Amanpour is there, this time in Islamabad -- at the time of this writing. Wherever she is, then the war is coming.

Welcome to CNN-ised foreign policy and the Amanpour-factor, which is shaping the mood in United States and abroad. It is worth mentioning here that James Rubin -- Amanpour's husband -- is no longer the spokesman of the State Department, as he was during Clinton-Albright era.

Making reference to Pentagon officials, CNN reported a few days ago that America's "new war" against terrorism will be fought "with unprecedented secrecy, including heavy press restrictions not seen for years." Yet all the pundits, talking heads and terrorism (i.e., Middle East experts) -- and they are many these days -- don't hesitate to talk extensively and with all confidence about potential scenarios, possible targets and when and where "The Noble Eagle," as the current military operation has been dubbed, can and will fly.

And in order to prove the secrecy of the plans these words of the president were broadcast: "I want to make it clear to the American people that this administration will not talk about any plans we may or may not have." Bush continued, "We will not jeopardise in any way, shape or form, anybody who wears the uniform of the United States."

So what kinds of weapons are going to be used?, you may ask. What are the targets? Everything is possible and justified.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera, the Qatari television station, and consequently to a large audience in the Arab World, US Secretary of State Colin Powell described the expected military action as only a possibility: "I hope there isn't going to be a war in the traditional sense. There isn't going to be a war against Arabs," he said. He also said: "It's not a war in the usual sense of battle fought by the military. It's a war for intelligence. It's a war that will use legal means [and] financial weapons." Secretary Powell's main message in this interview was "I think that many nations can provide assistance in the form of intelligence and removing from their land terrorist organisations."

"And there may be a time when military power is applied, and for the most part, that would be American power, but there may be other nations," Powell added. "I don't see Israel as playing a role in that kind of operation." Different messages for different audiences. This is what has come to be called "spin" in American politics. And the US is in a state of war. So the politics of war are active.

The US usually prefers to talk as the only super- power and so act "unilaterally." Anthony Lake, the former national security advisor in the Clinton administration, told the Weekly that America, in its current situation after the terror attacks, certainly has to respond and to fight terrorism. Then he added the conditions of this response, which include "thinking about it and acting carefully." "In order to be effective, [military response] needs cooperation with other countries," Lake noted.

Lake sees the cooperation and the coordination with Arab and Muslim countries as an "extremely important" factor in the fight against terrorists. He also stressed in the interview that "there is no reason why Americans should look at this war as a war against Arabs and Muslims." This approach -- unfortunately reflected in the words and acts of some Americans regarding their fellow citizens -- "serves the terrorists' aims," as Lake put it. More pragmatically, Lake said, such an approach "makes it harder for other governments to act with us."

The United States is at war, as many officials have repeated constantly, and the Bush presidency has become a war presidency, as many political pundits describe it. A few American voices, however, are suggesting that this is a problem will not be solved by force, by the "global campaign to wipe out terrorism" that officials are calling for, as Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas argues. He notes in a written response to questions by the Weekly, "We should not forget that 'wiping out' terrorism inevitably will mean wiping out many innocent people, which will only deepen the resentment of the United States around the world -- especially the Third World -- and strengthen the resolve of terrorists. It will not end terrorism, but create new terrorists." Jensen continued: "The appeal of war is that it seems strong and promises results quickly. It makes us feel safe. But if we are to fight a global war against terrorism, we will show the world our weakness and trade the promise of peace and justice for the illusion of victory."

Yet the president always stresses he cannot wait. The more he talks about revenge, about war, the higher his popularity soars. And that's reality now. Or so it looks. Watch it on CNN.

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