An Englishwoman in Washinton

Now you should 'Just say no' - not only for the good of your health but also for the good of America.

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

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Protests about America’s ‘war on terrorism’ don’t get much of a hearing in Washington DC.

One day we hear that European politicians and commentators object to the treatment of the Camp X-Ray prisoners; the next we hear that President Bush’s description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil’ is crude and offensive. There may be diplomatic efforts to placate the European critics, but here in Washington – the heartland of the US political establishment – nobody seems terribly bothered by the accusations.

In recent weeks it has become clear that the Bush administration enjoys being seen as a tough but lone crusader in the international arena. There’s no doubt that President Bush relished heading the international alliance against terrorism in the days following the 11 September attacks – but now that some cracks are appearing in the alliance there is no great soul searching or apprehension here in the USA.

Even before 11 September Bush made it clear that his administration would steer a more unilateralist path for US foreign policy. Prior to the terrorist attacks this approach looked petty and pointless, as America quibbled over greenhouse gas emissions and outdated Cold War missile treaties. But since 9-11 the Bush administration has attempted to draw strength by claiming that only America has the stomach to be tough in a crisis.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer spoke for many Bush supporters when he dismissed criticisms of the administration as little more than petulance from those who find themselves irrelevant in today’s war climate. With a pomposity that has become popular post-11 September, Krauthammer wrote: ‘If the Europeans refuse to see themselves as part of this struggle, fine. If they wish to abdicate, fine. We will let them hold our coats but not tie our hands.’ (1)

Far from being perturbed by international criticism, the Bush administration is now looking for any and every opportunity to transfer its tough battlefield rhetoric into domestic politics too.

So the ‘war on terror’ has even been used as a focus for Bush’s limp economic strategy. Before 11 September, the economic strategy centred on calling for tax cuts. In January 2002, during his State of the Union address, Bush’s economic strategy was reworked. The ‘war on terror’ and economic recovery would go hand-in-hand, with Bush speaking of national security and economic security in the same breath: ‘We have clear priorities and we must act at home with the same purpose and resolve we have shown overseas. We will prevail in the war, and we will defeat this recession.’

The war on drugs has also been given a facelift. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has kickstarted a high-profile advertising campaign that links casual drug use with support for terrorists. The ads have appeared on TV, radio and in nearly 300 newspapers nationally. In one, the image of a typical American youth says, ‘Yesterday afternoon, I did my laundry, went for a run and helped torture someone’s dad’ – followed by the words, ‘Drug money helps support terror. Buy drugs and you could be supporting it too’.

The message is nothing if not blatant. Now you should ‘just say no’ – not just for the good of your health but also for the good of America. As Bush explained on the website set up to accompany the anti-drugs campaign: ‘If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America.’ (2)

The Bush administration is keen for the ‘war on terror’ to expand into all areas of policy because only in this context can it appear resolute and decisive. Instead of worrying about appearing tough and bloody-minded, the cabinet is revelling in the fact that it finally seems to have a sense of mission. Bush’s aides have made it clear that ‘war on terror’ is going to be the defining feature of the Bush presidency – and European criticisms can only enhance the credibility of US politicians’ claims that they are the only true crusaders for freedom.

At the moment, the expansion of the war on terror into more and more policy areas is paying off. Bush is popular, not just for his conduct in the war, but on all issues. But success today does not guarantee long-term success in the future. Indeed, linking everything to the war against terrorism could turn out to be a high-risk strategy.

For one thing the war against terrorism is far from a safe political bet for the administration. Bush may have been able to play the decisive and resolute leader when he toppled the Taliban, but the aims of the war are so vague and all-encompassing that it is hard to see how it could remain focused and successful in the future. Bush has to keep up the image that the war is being pursued to its ultimate conclusion, but what that means in practice is anybody’s guess. Messy, embroiled conflicts like the Gardez clash in east Afghanistan in early March 2002 don’t marry with America’s presentation of a resolute war with clear aims.

Also, by linking everything to the war the administration risks tarnishing its real war effort with issues that provoke a more ambivalent response among the US public. What will happen when the administration proves to be less effective in combating economic woes than it was in fighting the Taliban? And while the war on terror might be popular, the war on drugs is less so. Many believe the war on drugs is pointless and unwinnable – hardly sentiments that Bush wants associated with the defining feature of his presidency.

Read on:

America’s axis-tential crisis, by Brendan O’Neill

The lessons of the drugs war, by Michael Fitzpatrick

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) ‘The Axis of petulance’, Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, 1 March 2002

(2) See the Anti-Drug website

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Topics Politics


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