Strange to Say, but Washington's War on Terror Has Bolstered Liberalism

By Kirsch, Adam | New Statesman (1996), September 5, 2011 | Go to article overview

Strange to Say, but Washington's War on Terror Has Bolstered Liberalism


Kirsch, Adam, New Statesman (1996)


The 11 September era in US politics ended in November 2008 with the election of Barack Obama as president. Among American liberals, certainly, criticism of many aspects of the war on terror has become notably less passionate since Obama took office, though it persists.

This is a sign of how deeply liberals' misgivings about the course of post-9/11 US politics were bound up with a personal hatred of George W Bush - something that pre-dated the terrorist attacks, going back to the disputed election of 2000. It must have been in spring 2002 that I first heard a distinguished academic comment off-handedly, without fear of contradiction, that the US under Bush was a fascist country - a foolish and self-refuting allegation (in a fascist regime, you'd be too scared to go around complaining that the leader is a fascist).

Fear conquered

By 2008, getting rid of Bush had become more psychologically urgent to many such people than getting rid of his policies - and this includes the members of the Swedish Academy who gave Obama the Nobel Peace Prize strictly on the strength of his not being Bush. It is plain that, in the realm of foreign policy, the United States is still very much in a post-9/11 mode, and will probably remain so until a new crisis compels us to shift focus from the Middle East and Pakistan to another part of the world, probably China.

A good gauge of this is the way Americans debated the Nato intervention in Libya. Before the September 2001 attacks, this war would have been viewed in the same terms as Bosnia, Somalia and Kosovo - as a case of humanitarian intervention by supporters, or nation-building by opponents. Instead, Libya has been discussed largely in terms of "regime change", an Iraq war coinage that reflects current American scepticism about the very idea that change could mean improvement.

All this is well known to observers of the US around the world - and one of the keenest lessons of the past ten years, for Americans, has been the revelation of how deeply the world resents the necessity of observing America and having opinions about it. What is perhaps less visible, and I think worth emphasising, is the way the 9/11 era nurtured some of the most admirable traits of American society and culture.

This may sound naive, given how much attention (rightfully) has been paid by the world's media to civil liberties violations and the growth of the security state. Yet, to measure the severity of these evils, it is necessary to recall accurately the emotional and political atmosphere in the US, especially in New York and Washington, after n September 2001. The Pearl Harbor comparison was obvious and immediately made, but 9/11 was a more wounding and frightening aggression - unlike Pearl Harbor, it did not come against a background of world war, and it targeted civilians, not a military installation. Otherwise, it would have been natural to fear that the Second World Warera oppression of Japanese Americans would be replicated after 9/11 by a targeting of Arab and Muslim Americans. …

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