Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 February - 3 March 2010
Issue No. 987
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

USA and USSR: Accidental parallels?

Just as the US sent the USSR into oblivion, Al-Qaeda has accelerated the economic decline of the US to the benefit of its nearest global rival, China, writes M Shahid Alam*

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'US wars in the Islamicate impose other painful costs, perhaps more debilitating than budgetary expenses'

During the Cold War, the US and USSR were archrivals, each the antipodes of the other. For some four decades they battled each other for survival and global hegemony, staring down at each other with nuclear tipped missiles, ready at the push of a button to embrace mutually assured destruction. What parallels could there possibly exist between such irreconcilable antagonists?

Dismissively, the sceptic might retort that their similarities start and end with the first two letters in their acronyms. The USA won and the USSR lost the Cold War. The USSR is dead and gone. Its successor, Russia, now ranks a distant second behind the US in military power, a position it retains only by virtue of its nuclear arsenal. Measured in dollars, the Russian economy ranked eighth in the world in 2009, trailing behind its former client, India.

On the other hand, the US still believes it can ride roughshod over much of the world like a Colossus. It came close to doing this for a few years after the collapse of communism. In the years since its occupation of Iraq, that image has been deflated quite a bit. Haven't the events of the last decade -- the growing challenge to its hegemony in Latin America, the economic rise of India and China, and the recovery of Russia from its collapse of the previous decade -- downsized the Colossus of the 1990s? Indeed, the near collapse of its economy in 2008 appears to have brought that Colossus to its knees.

SHARED GRAVEYARD? Coming back to the question of parallels, we can begin by pointing out that the US is in exactly the same place -- literally -- as the USSR once was: Afghanistan. The USSR was in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989: the US has been there since November 2001. Isn't this the oddest of coincidences? And a bit ominous too, since only a year after it withdrew its 100,000 troops from Afghanistan, the USSR collapsed.

Of course, no one expects the US to collapse, whether it leaves Afghanistan or stays on. Unlike the Soviets, who left Afghanistan after 10 years of a bruising occupation, the US is not in a mood to leave anytime soon. If necessary, claim some American politicians and generals, their troops could stay there for decades.

What is it that has drawn great powers -- three over the past two centuries -- into Afghanistan, but makes it so hard for them to leave in dignity?

Britain, the USSR and US have gone to Afghanistan for different reasons. Britain went into Afghanistan repeatedly to create a buffer state, to distance its Indian colony from Russia. Soviet troops entered to shore up a fraternal communist regime, but if things had gone well they would have walked through Afghanistan into the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. It is hard to say exactly why the US landed its troops in Afghanistan. Was it to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden? Or was Bin Laden only an excuse for stationing its troops in Iran's backyard, close to the Caspian Sea oil fields, just south of Russia and China, and looking to Pakistan with an eye to rolling back its nuclear programme?

ON THE ROAD TO RUIN: Vital questions, but answering them will take us away from the subject of this essay -- the question of parallels between the US and the USSR.

Afghanistan points us towards a more troubling parallel. Some people have argued that by ramping up the arms race, President Ronald Reagan accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. Irresistibly, Soviet leaders took the bait since their prestige depended on their ability to match the US militarily. With a smaller economy and a slowdown in growth that had started in the 1970s, the arms race made matters worse. As growth continued to decline, the ensuing stagnation in living standards bred popular discontent. When economic reforms failed to spur growth, disillusionment infected the leadership of the communist party. Collapse came quick: the system had lost its defenders.

Is it outlandish to suggest that the US has been travelling down a similar road since 2001? For sure, no one thinks that the United States is on the road to collapse. Nevertheless, increasingly one gets the impression that its recent military adventurism is hastening its descent to second spot -- behind China -- in the global hierarchy of economic and military power. The dramatic collapse of the USSR in 1990 gave a new impetus to American ambitions. It encouraged feelings -- and not only on the right -- that this unipolar moment in American history should be made irreversible. In particular, neoconservatives argued vigorously for a military build-up and a more muscular display of US military power everywhere, but especially in the Middle East.

Since the neoconservatives were embedded in the Republican Party, they had to cool their heels for eight years, from 1992 to 2000, during the presidency of Bill Clinton. When the Republicans returned to power in 2000, the neoconservatives quickly seized key positions in the administration of George W Bush, especially in the office of the vice- president and Department of Defense. In September 2000, the neocons had written that they would have to wait for "some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor" to launch their unilateralist policies to deepen their global hegemony. They did not have to wait long. On 11 September 2001, Al-Qaeda, a small group of non-state actors (or terrorists, in common parlance), obliged by attacking New York's World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, killing close to 3,000 Americans.

OSTS OF TERROR: At the press of a button, well-laid neocon plans for endless war were put into motion. They called it the "global war on terror".

The global war on terror was insanely ambitious. It was launched with an ultimatum to all weaker non-Western nations: You are with us or against us. To execute this war, the US would mobilise, expand and use its global military forces to threaten, attack and invade "unfriendly" countries. Neither international nor domestic laws would stand in its way. Various US agencies would kidnap, imprison without trial, torture and assassinate anyone resisting or suspected of resisting its policies. The goal was to immobile resistance to American hegemony with state terror.

A comprehensive accounting of the costs to the USA of this reckless policy of unilateralism will not be available for a while, but we do have some partial and tentative estimates. At the end of 2008, the direct budgetary costs of the global war on terror were expected to reach $758 billion. In March 2008, Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the indirect budgetary costs of global war on terror -- of restoring depleted military hardware and materiel and support for veterans of the wars -- would add up to $1.5 trillion. "All told," they wrote, "the bill for the Iraq war is likely to top $3 trillion. And that is a conservative estimate." Add to that the rapidly escalating costs of the Afghan- Pakistan War that is being ramped up even now, nine years after the Afghan War was declared to be a success.

THE HUMAN TOLL: US wars in the Islamicate impose other painful costs, perhaps more debilitating than budgetary expenses. We refer to the human toll of these wars, the erosion of liberties inside the United States, and the manner in which the global war on terror is undermining the US's economic leadership. The US military has kept its casualties low, at 5,340 in January 2010, with greatly improved body armour, armour plated troop carriers, and a war fought remotely from the air, which saves American lives by sacrificing those of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan Pakistan and Yemen. In terms of the near-sighted calculus of US politicians, low US military deaths make these wars attractive. They forget, however, that high civilian deaths in the countries they attack or invade make their wars unwinnable by fuelling resistance.

The figures for Americans wounded and traumatised by US wars are much higher. As of July 2009, according to official statistics, 34,592 American soldiers were wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A much greater number of veterans of these wars are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In November 2007, according to one official source, there were a "minimum of 300,000 psychological casualties" from the war in Iraq alone. The lifetime cost of treating them is estimated at $660 billion.

The economic damage of the wars can be gauged by the speed with which China has been narrowing its gap behind -- or even moving ahead of -- the United States since 2001. During much of the last decade, the US has concentrated a huge portion of its resources, policy focus and media attention on fighting multiple wars; it has borrowed from China and Saudi Arabia to finance these wars; its economy suffered a near collapse in 2008; and it has done little to repair its infrastructure, reduce its dependence on oil, or fix its expensive healthcare system. During the same years, China, free from the burden of wars, has directed its policy focus and resources to developing its infrastructure, green energy, manufactures, exports, higher education, and securing access to raw materials globally.

The damage to America's moral standing is not less worrisome. The United States stands before the world accused of engaging in a war of aggression against Iraq, waging an undeclared war against Pakistan, and sanctioning torture, kidnappings, assassinations and imprisonment without trial. "Fifteen years ago," writes Kishore Mahbubani, a former diplomat from Singapore, "if anyone had suggested that Western countries would endorse or allow the use of torture, they would have been dismissed out of hand." After 2001, torture became routine. In 2005, Irene Khan, the head of Amnesty International, stated: "Guantanamo is the gulag of our times." One year after he took office, Obama has not ended these human rights violations. Indeed, he has chosen assassinations as a major instrument of his war against the Taliban in Pakistan.

AL-QAEDA'S GREAT WINDFALL: What did it cost Al-Qaeda to produce this avalanche of misdirected and self-damaging actions by the United States? The sum total of investments the leadership of Al-Qaeda made in its attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon is trifling, as these things go: the lives of 19 men and an investment of between $400,000 and $500,000 in flight training, airline tickets, lodging in Western capitals, and box cutters. That is roughly equal to the cost of deploying one US soldier in Iraq for one year. Had the leaders of Al-Qaeda anticipated this dramatic payoff from their paltry investment? Was 9/11 part of a strategy to lure the world's most powerful military machine to place their boots on Muslim lands, where jihadists would successively engage and defeat them, and eventually drive the United States out of the Islamicate? Indeed, this was the strategy Al-Qaeda adopted towards the end of the 1990s. Challenged by their failure to defeat the "near enemy", the Egyptian and Algerian governments allied to the United States, Al-Qaeda decided to carry its war to the United States, the "far enemy", which they saw as the "head of the serpent".

Recently, Eric Margolis offered a succinct account of Al-Qaeda's strategy. Bin Laden, he writes, "would oust the modern 'Crusaders' by luring the US and its allies into a series of small, debilitating, hugely expensive wars to bleed and slowly bankrupt the US economy, which he called America's Achilles' heel." If this had not been their strategy, Al-Qaeda would quickly appropriate it as its own after watching America's frenetic response to the attacks of 9/11. The neoconservatives had been waiting for the men with box cutters, ready to launch their well-laid plans to redraw the map of the Middle East. If the United States could so easily be provoked into invading Muslim countries, Bin Laden -- not the US president -- would decide when and where the US would be fighting wars in the Islamicate. Indeed, Al-Qaeda has provoked the United States into attacking an ever- lengthening list of Muslim countries.

Nine years after it had been "won", the United States is escalating its war in Afghanistan. Some eight years after its "cakewalk" through Iraq, it is just beginning to draw down its forces there. In addition, according to Margolis, different factions of the US military are "involved in combat operations in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, West Africa, North Africa and the Philippines. A new US base at Djibouti is launching raids into Yemen, Somalia and northern Kenya. US forces aided the failed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006." If indeed, it was Al-Qaeda's strategy to lure American troops into the Islamicate, who can deny that they have done quite well? Repeatedly, the US has walked into one Al-Qaeda trap after another.

RIVALS TAKE THE LEAD: While the US is engaged in the "sequential destruction of Muslim nations" -- to borrow a troubling phrase from Liaquat Ali Khan -- China is making economic gains in the very countries that the US occupies, attacks or threatens to attack. Over the past decade, China has continued to make economic gains in Iran, Sudan, Venezuela, Syria and Afghanistan, while the US occupies, sanctions or launches military attacks against these countries. Two years back, China acquired rights to one of the world's largest deposits of copper in Afghanistan. In a report in The New York Times in December 2009, Michael Wines writes perceptively about the symbolism of this investment: "While the United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda here, China is securing raw material for its voracious economy. The world's superpower is focussed on security. Its fastest rising competitor concentrates on commerce."

A similar picture emerges from Iraq. US oil companies are not getting the oil deals they wanted -- production-sharing agreements instead of service contracts. In this area too, a partnership between a British and Chinese oil company walked away with a contract to develop Rumaila, one of the world's largest oil fields. Two US companies signed a contract for the much smaller oil field of West Qurna.

Surely, the Chinese must be saying, Al-Qaeda is its best ally -- though accidental and unacknowledged -- in the contest to displace the US from its leadership of the global economy. It is difficult at this stage to assess the long-term significance of Al-Qaeda for the Islamicate; its strategy has brought great suffering to Muslim populations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the gains it has brought to China are clear. The siren song of terrorism has lured the United States to ramp up its military expenditure, to finance its escalating wars by borrowing from its chief economic rival, to deplete its moral capital in the international community, and to shred its own safeguards against state tyranny. China cannot acknowledge the gifts it has received from Al-Qaeda, but privately, perhaps, the Chinese leadership must be toasting these windfall gains.

Instead of rising up to deal with the economic challenges stemming from the rapid rise of India, China and Brazil, instead of investing in programmes to develop alternative energy, instead of developing a network of high-speed trains, instead of reversing the decline in its K-12 schooling, the Christian right and the neoconservative cabal pushed the United States into a vast quagmire, stretching from one end of the Islamicate to another. All this while China has continued to challenge US dominance in a growing array of economic activities. And here is the parallel. In the 1980s, the United States out-spent the USSR into economic ruin. Since 2001, Al-Qaeda with its paltry investments in men and money has been drawing the United States into wars that are accelerating its economic decline. At least for now, China is the chief beneficiary of the perverse mechanism that forces the United States into embracing wars against the Islamicate as the panacea to its problems, when in fact they have been having the opposite effect.

EXPLAINING THE MADNESS: It was Euripides who first wrote, "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad." Is that what happens to the leaders of a country who doggedly follow a course -- as the Soviets did during the 1980s and 1990s -- that points in the direction of decline, or worse, ruin? In principle, democracies have the capacity to replace such ruinous leadership. Yet it would appear that the disastrous military policies inaugurated under President Bush are not going to be discarded under President Obama, his Democratic successor. Is it that both parties in the United States are captives of a political system that at least on the question of Islam and the Islamicate are dominated by a powerful conglomerate of pro-Israeli forces, led by Jewish Americans but with a strong following of Christian Zionists?

If Americans wish to see a reversal in their ruinous policy towards the Islamicate they will have to make some honest and courageous efforts to countervail the influence of pro-Israeli forces in their body politic, the time for which is running out. This will not happen by electing a candidate who dazzles the masses with rhetoric of change. Americans will have to elect a president and Congress with spine enough to stand up for American, not Israeli, interests.

* The writer is professor of economics at Northeastern University and author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The destabilising logic of Zionism .

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