Which Side Are We On?
Tuesday, November 13 2001, 9:20 PM
The war, such as it is, has been good for President Bush. Of course, any president lives for the chance to play Commander-in-Chief, but for Bush, war has been a truly special gift: it has made him almost articulate. In a painfully obvious effort to capture the gravity of the moment, the tempo of his public statements has slowed until even he can manage to make sense of what his speech writers and spin doctors have scripted for him. But while his grammar and phrasing are clearer than ever, his grasp of politics and history could still use some polishing.
In a recent speech transmitted by satellite to government officials in Eastern Europe, Bush compared the contemporary forces of fundamentalist Islam to "the fascist totalitarians before them." Having identified Eastern Europe as the area of the world that had suffered under these repressive ideologies "for more than fifty years," we can only presume that he meant to refer to communism here rather than fascism. No matter — everyone knows that communism and fascism were just different flavors of totalitarianism anyway. Both shared "the same intolerance of dissent, the same mad global ambitions, the same brutal determination to control every life and all of life." Like their "fascist totalitarian" ancestors, Bush intoned, the Taliban had imprisoned women in their homes and banned children from flying kites. He might have added that of late they had also required all non-Muslims in Afghanistan to wear Nazi-style identity badges in public, but then again, he might also have added that up until September 11, all of this and more was perfectly acceptable to the administration in Washington. At the very least, the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan without so much as an unkind word from the State Department. More damningly, as some commentators have suggested, the US government winked and smiled and kept the arms and money flowing while Pakistan's secret service worked on the ground to deliver Kabul to Mullah Omar and his Merry Men.
It would not be the first time our government had sided with the fundamentalists. In the 1980s, American arms and money went to the Mujahedeen (including one Osama bin Laden) battling what was billed as — and what nearly all of us now reflexively refer to as — the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Here was a prime example of "fascist totalitarianism" in action: a ruthless superpower attempting to bring a proud and independent people under the boot-heel in pursuit of its mad global ambitions. It was a thrilling tale of freedom-loving desert-dwellers fighting back the Red Menace; rifle-toting horsemen holding off Big Brother just as 1984 rolled around on the calendar. Yes, it was a good story and like so many other stories we were told during the Cold War, not a bit of it was true. Even while the conflict was going on, anyone who cared enough to glance at the historical record could have learned that the USSR sent its armed forces into Afghanistan to support a sitting government rather than to overthrow one. At worst, the Soviet action in Afghanistan was no different from the American actions in Korea, Vietnam, and El Salvador: the bolstering of an allied government against a domestic insurgency.
In this sense, the USSR might still have been criticized for sticking its tanks into the internal affairs of a country whose people should have been allowed to choose their own fate, but even this version of the story fails to stand up to scrutiny. In an interview published in France in 1998, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski finally revealed that US aid to the insurgents in Afghanistan began on July 3 1979 — a full six months before the first Soviet soldier had crossed the border. "And that very day," Brzezinski went on to say, "I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention." (Le Nouvel Observateur, 15-21 Jan. 1998) The Soviets went for the bait and bled themselves dry fighting one of our government's many proxy armies. Afghanistan became an anarchic nightmare of ethnic warlordism, out of which the Taliban emerged to impose their version of ultra-orthodox sharia law. Bin Laden and his multinational jihadi organization settled in for the long haul.
What, exactly, was our government attempting to accomplish by distributing sacks of cash and anti-aircraft missiles to Afghan fundamentalists? According to Brzezinski, the US was helping to speed the downfall of communism, and the program's success in this respect is undeniable. But it also resulted in the overthrow of a secular government that brought women into public life, professional careers, and government service, cancelled peasant debt, introduced land reform, and broadened ordinary Afghans' access to health care and education. (People's Weekly World, 6 Oct. 2001) If this was the agenda behind totalitarianism's mad global ambitions, most of us could use quite a bit more of it and in a hurry, too. Those who backed our government's tireless pursuit of the Cold War would no doubt claim that the anti-communist crusade was carried out in the interest of human rights, the closing of the gulag, and the opening of the iron curtain, but this would be the worst kind of hypocrisy. Now that China has opened its economy to international investors, just how loudly does anyone in Washington cry about its human rights violations? Who in the Bush administration has ever asked about the standard of living for an average Russian these days? Judging by their actions rather than their words, all the American Cold Warriors ever really wanted was a Pizza Hut in Moscow and a Nike factory in Hanoi.
In a statement released to most of the world on November 3, 2001, but available to people in the US only by way of foreign internet sites, Osama bin Laden made the case that the current conflict in Afghanistan was one pitting the loyal Muslims of the East against the atheist and infidel Crusaders of the West. For his part, President Bush has made an effort to downplay a religious interpretation of the war, arguing that law-abiding states and lawless terrorists make up the identities of the two sides. Neither version of the story, however, squares with the historical facts. Had the fundamentalists never attacked an American target, they would have retained their status as convenient, if occasionally embarrassing, friends of the State Department. And had the US done anything other than to aid in perpetuating the grinding poverty and intolerable inequality with which most of the world lives each day, the hatred and resentment fueling the fires of fundamentalism would never have found a home. This is not a war between Christians and Muslims or lawmen and terrorists — it is a war between religious fundamentalists and market fundamentalists, driven into battle with one another by nothing so much as their mutual stubbornness and irrationality. Bush and bin Laden both claim that this is a war dividing the world into two sides, but this too is wrong. There are also those few of us left for whom neither side's vision of the future is an acceptable one.
J.C. Myers is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.