Disassembling the US vs. Them

Since Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1947, the idea of an international “other” has been a principal thread in U.S. foreign policy. Although they appeared to end in 1991, Cold War thinking and policies have been influential and omnipresent, hidden only by a temporary penumbra cast by the fall of the Soviet Union and Clintonian globalization.

For almost a half century now, the United States has built its policies in opposition to a perceived inimical and unreasonable adversary or set of adversaries. With the rise of Gorbachev and the fall of the USSR, one such enemy was lost, drawing one scholar to observe that the Cold War was ending, and it would be missed. It would have been missed indeed.

But before the Cold War ever ended, new threats were manufactured, and new international evils were predicted. In 1989, China acquired a sinister and malicious image as a result of the Tiananmen square massacre. A few years following, the concept of rouge nations was formalized into policy, adding to the list of old Cold War mini-powers. It became the newly discovered duty of the United States to ensure that these so-called rogue states remained harmless. Such a rationale was used to justify the over 250 billion dollars spent annually on defense, preparing for possible asaults. Iraq posed a continual threat, China a potential threat, and a host of other nations required sanctions and constant reproach.

Such adversarial rhetoric continued throughout the 1990s. NATO was expanded, new weapons built and sold, and the missile defense system pioneered to insure against perpetual threats to U.S. security.

Then, on Sept. 11, the Twin Towers collapsed and the Pentagon was punctured by a threat we did very little to address or anticipate. Now not a soul would deny that a terrorist threat is credible and real. On Sept. 20, Bush II seized the opportunity presented by the terrorist’s self-imposed bedevilment and declared, “The only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it and destroy it where it grows … And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.” With words as chilling as March in Murmansk, he continued, “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”

It doesn’t take a senior political science professor to recognize such language. Replace the word “terrorist” with “communist” and Bush II could easily be mistaken for the 1966 Lyndon Johnson expounding on Vietnam and the United States need to contain the international communist menace.

Now, we could have expected strong language. There’s no denying that the acts of Sept. 11 were acts of war. But the danger of putting it in such a way is that sweeping statements have consequences.

If the United States is at war with terrorism everywhere, and all governments that harbor terrorists are guilty of terrorism by association, it therefore follows that the United States should declare war on these governments. I don’t know how such logic wouldn’t be a source of unease to a calculating observer. Bush II, with such language, put himself into a Johnsonian bind – he can now only follow or retreat from his promises.

The problem here is that Bush II, with his address, rekindled an imagined bi-polar order of “us vs. them,” and every state that gets swallowed by such an othering process becomes a soulless enemy. It was this tragic dilemma that led the United States to atrocities as the Vietnam War, Salvador Allende’s assasination, Iran-Contra and numerous other foreign policy disasters.

The Cold War contra-dichotomy model is more dehumanizing of others than it is reinforcing of our identity.

This is now more relevant than ever as the war in Afghanistan is bound to cease and we will have to decide whether or not to retreat from our threats or declare war on possibly more than a handful of countries deemed guilty of terrorism by association. The ambiguity of defining what constitutes a terrorist and what to do when a nation, such as Sweden, refuses to imprison suspects, are questions that will have to be answered carefully and on a circumstantial basis.

Wholesale statements and Cold War “us vs. them” policy are insufficient for our needs and inappropriate to the emerging context within which we find ourselves. It is my hope that when the time to decide comes, the administration will pursue the sensibility demanded of them and refrain from painting issues in black and white as it has done in the past.