On the brink

Everything on a world scale is now subordinated to the perspective of war. The fact that the attack on Afghanistan (and other countries) has been delayed does not mean at all that the risk of hostilities has diminished. Alan Woods looks at the world situation as the build up towards war unfolds.

Everything on a world scale is now subordinated to the perspective of war. The fact that the USA did not immediately unleash a devastating attack has surprised many. This delay, however, is not the result of a change of heart. Nor does it signify that the risk of hostilities has diminished. It certainly does not mean, as the pro-American Economist asserts in its latest editorial, that George W. Bush has finally acquired "skill, subtlety, leadership, and above all, intelligence".

The prevarications in Washington do not suggest any of the above-mentioned qualities. On the contrary. In the more than two weeks since the frightful events of September 11, the leadership of the most powerful country in the world has presented a lamentable spectacle of confusion, division, vacillation and disarray. Having first breathed fire and thunder, having declared war (against an unnamed enemy), having aroused the nation to a display of flag-waving patriotism not seen since 1941, President Bush has not embarked on any decisive military action. He resembles, not FD Roosevelt, but Bottom the weaver in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, who "roared like a sucking dove".

George W. Bush may be popular with Tony Blair, but he has been a sore disappointment to the right wing Republican hawks who wanted immediate action. Paradoxically, they may have had a point, like a man who continually announces "it is nine o'clock", and is proved to be correct at least twice every 24 hours. From the standpoint of US imperialism, it would have been preferable to strike immediately against Afghanistan. They would have had the element of surprise. They would have galvanised public opinion, at least in the USA. Once the bombs had started to fall, they would have compelled all their wavering allies to take a stand, and most, if not all, of them would have fallen into line. There would have been protests in some countries, but there will be protests anyway.

The arguments for delay are unconvincing. The business of "proving" the involvement of bin Laden is farcical. Two weeks later, no hard evidence has yet been made public. Yet that fact did not prevent them declaring war or demanding that bin Laden be taken "dead or alive". They had already made up their minds and no proof was necessary, except for external consumption. Now the heads of state of NATO have allegedly been shown "conclusive and convincing proof" of bin Laden's involvement. Such "proof" can easily be manufactured by the CIA or FBI - and no doubt has been in this case. And still they do not make it public.

The farce of this question is only one manifestation of the vacillations in Washington. It is clear that within the Bush administration, serious cracks have opened up on how to proceed. This is not accidental. Behind the public show of confidence and all the brave words, the representatives of US imperialism are seriously worried. They realise that what is at stake in Afghanistan is not bombing from a great height as in Kosovo, but a conflict that will involve ground troops. The precedents for this are not at all promising.

In war, as in insurrection, as Danton explained, audacity is necessary. A firm, decisive leadership that goes onto the offensive can catch the enemy unawares, while injecting a spirit of courage and confidence into the ranks of one's own soldiers. By contrast, vacillations and hesitation, the constant postponement of the offensive, can undermine the morale of the troops and encourage the enemy, who will interpret it as weakness.

It was very clear that the Taliban, with the circus of the council of clerics and the other diplomatic manoeuvres, were playing for time, and Washington has given them what they wanted. The bombing of Kabul and the other cities - which was pretty pointless before - now becomes utterly meaningless from a military point of view. They will be bombing ghost-towns. Meanwhile, the humanitarian catastrophe inside Afghanistan has caused a massive flood of refugees into Pakistan, Iran and other neighbouring states, further unsettling them.

Disarray in Washington

The disarray in Washington is clear from the briefest perusal of the speeches of Bush and other members of his administration. The first prerequisite for a coherent military strategy is clear military objectives. This is just what is missing in the statements emanating from the White House.

On September 20, Bush suggested that there would be two targets: Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organisation, and then he threw in the overthrow of the Taliban regime for good measure. Later, carried away by his own rhetoric, he seemed to broaden the USA's war aims to a full-blown, open-ended war of global proportions: "Our war on terrorism," he thundered, "begins with al-Qaeda but will not end until every terrorist group of global reach [?] has been found, stopped and defeated." Clearly, the Pentagon was not amused by this and ever since then other officials have been trying to retreat, focusing exclusively on al-Qaeda. They have even been hinting lately that it was not a US war aim to change the government of Afghanistan. This is certainly not meant to be taken seriously, since it remains to be seen how al-Qaeda can be destroyed without bringing down the Taliban.

Clearly alarmed by Bush's public outbursts, calmer heads like Colin Powell (a man with Presidential ambitions who does not want to be responsible for the inevitable loss of American lives) have argued that it would be better to let Afghans do the fighting. His position seems to have gained ground inside the administration lately. The talk is about splitting the Taliban and putting together an anti-Taliban alliance inside Afghanistan.

However, when all is said and done, this conflict will not be solved by diplomatic means alone. The Taliban hard-core has no intention of handing over bin Laden - or (which is the same thing) of putting their heads on the chopping-block. Old rivalries die hard in Afghanistan, where memories are long, and outstanding bills are traditionally settled in blood. Once they relinquish power, the knives would be out. To hand power over to their enemies would be to sign their own death warrants. And despite their fervent belief in the joys of the after-life, the Taliban leaders, like the Pope, are in no hurry to leave this one. They therefore have every reason to fight, and none at all to surrender. By their dithering, the US imperialists have given them all the time they need to dig in and prepare to resist. There is no doubt they will have made good use of it.

All this suggests that the military action, when it starts - as it certainly will - will be a messy business, with more casualties than would otherwise have been necessary. This will further complicate life for the regime of general Musharaf in Pakistan. It appears that the US strategists have thought nothing out to the end. They may bring the Taliban down (after all, these reactionary ruffians long ago lost any sympathy among the masses that may have had), but what will they put in their place? Any government installed on US bayonets will necessarily be regarded as American puppets, and will probably not last long when the US troops withdraw (which they will be in a hurry to do). As the Economist puts it: "But the risk is that Afghanistan will be left with no government at all, and could become even more unstable and troublesome." In other words, the remedy may be worse than the disease.

Unstoppable momentum

Despite all the delays and vacillations, a steady and unstoppable momentum towards war is being built up. The military preparations are proceeding relentlessly. The US military presence in the Persian Gulf has been stepped up, and 20,000 British troops are on exercises in Oman. The breaking off of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia is a further indication that Afghanistan - now almost totally isolated - is going to be attacked.

Other manoeuvres are taking place in this sinister game of chess called world power politics in which the people of the planet are mere pawns. Iran, only yesterday regarded by the USA as one of the main "terrorist states", is now being courted by Washington, using British foreign secretary Jack Straw as the go-between. Russia's Putin is trying to use the crisis to strengthen his position. By immediately associating himself with the word wide struggle against terrorism, he hopes to get America's blessing for his dirty war in Chechnya - or, at least, silence western criticism. As ever, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and in the world of international diplomacy the two can easily change place. Meanwhile, Moscow is stepping up its aid for the Northern Alliance. This, they hope, will be e key piece on the chessboard to ensure that the Americans do not completely control Kabul when the fighting ends.

For its part, as the days pass, Pakistan's military regime is getting increasingly nervous about the effects of supporting the US military action in Afghanistan. Washington's manoeuvring with the Northern Alliance, against which Pakistan has been supporting the Taliban for years, has provoked indignation within the ISI - Pakistan's military intelligence, which practically created the Taliban, and which has its own interests in Pakistan. In addition, the Northern Alliance has received the backing of Russia, Iran, and - worst of all from Islamabad's point of view - India. Washington hoped that the involvement of the Northern Alliance would reduce the number of American casualties in the inevitable ground war, but now finds that it is treading on a political minefield.

Sensing the prospect of aid from America, the Northern Alliance, badly shaken by the recent assassination of its leader, Ahmad Shah Masoud, has recovered its fighting spirits and gone onto the offensive. But the Alliance has only 10,000 soldiers, compared to the Taliban's 40,000 or so (the reports of 300,000 "volunteers" are clearly propaganda from the regime). Moreover, the fatal weakness of the Northern Alliance is its narrow ethnic base: it is mainly composed of Tajiks and Uzbeks. In order to inflict a serious defeat on the Taliban, Washington needs to enlist the support of members of the majority Pashtoon nationality. Hence it is manoeuvring with the ex-king, Zahir Shah. It remains to be seen how far America will succeed in these manoeuvres.

The British, having tried and failed three times to conquer Afghanistan, finally withdrew and resorted to bribery instead, paying off tribal chiefs - with some success. Since there are some in the State Department who have read a little history, they will certainly be trying the same tactic. Zahir Shah will not arrive empty-handed. What the 86 year-old ex-monarch lacks in bodily strength, he will make up with the power of his bank-balance, generously funded by Washington. This will be enough to buy the loyalty of a number of tribal chiefs and Taliban defectors. But will it be enough to prevent a fight? This is most unlikely. The hard-core Taliban will fight because they have no other alternative. They know that even if they hand over bin Laden, Bush will only make new demands, and in the end, their heads are at stake.

Having been unceremoniously dumped by their old friends the Pakistan military, the Taliban are now in a perilous position. But this does not mean they cannot put up a fight. The spectacle of a foreign invader on Afghan soil can act as a powerful stimulus to Afghans to embark on a desperate struggle. They have the advantage of fighting a defensive war on terrain which they know well and which is perfectly suited to guerrilla warfare, and quite unsuited to the high-tech methods of the US army. If the fighting starts - as seems inevitable at this point in time - it will certainly not be a one-sided affair.

The Pentagon is painfully aware that it is very easy to go into a country like Afghanistan, but very difficult to get out again. The ghost of Vietnam still haunts them over three decades later. And the Vietnam war was lost, not in Vietnam, but at home, as a result of a massive anti-war movement in America. After that, they had a humiliating experience in Iran over the hostages incident; they were forced out of Lebanon after a suicide car bomb claimed the lives of a large number of US servicemen. Last, but not least, they had to abandon Somalia, one of the poorest countries in the world, with no army but only bare-foot militias, without achieving any of their aims.

Afghanistan is a far more difficult target than Somalia. The terrain is a nightmare, the infrastructure pulverised and the population well-versed in guerrilla warfare. Moreover, by their hesitation and dithering, the Americans have given precious time to the Taliban to pull all their forces out of Kabul and entrench in strategic points, caves and tunnels in the mountains from whence it will be difficult to extract them without severe loss of life.

If, from a political standpoint, the enterprise is risky, from a strictly military point of view, the dangers are even greater. What targets could the US attack inside Afghanistan? It would begin with an air bombardment to soften up the enemy. There would be little point in bombing Kabul and the other cities, since the Taliban have long ago evacuated their forces from these places. They could, on the other hand, easily destroy most of the stocks of fairly antiquated armour and artillery left behind by the Russians.

The next step will be much harder, since no attack on Afghanistan can be considered a success unless it results, at the very least, in the destruction of bin Laden's famous terrorist bases. For this, however, ground troops will be necessary. As we have pointed out from the beginning, the Americans will not attempt to invade Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq ten years ago. That is why the build-up of US and allied troops this time is not on the same scale as then. They will presumably rely on special elite units like the British SAS and the US Rangers and Seal units, who - they hope - will inflict the maximum damage with the minimum of losses and then get out quickly.

But it is by no means certain that such a quick getaway will be possible. As Andrew Krepinovich, a US military theoretician, has stated most profoundly: "No war plan has ever survived contact with the enemy - once war breaks out, it has a dynamic of its own". America's military planners are setting a course for uncharted and dangerous waters. The conditions on the ground were recently described by The Economist as follows:

"In Afghanistan's terrain of towering peaks and deep valleys, where it can take a week to walk a distance - as the crow flies - of 25 kilometres (15 miles), any military operation must rely heavily on local allies who know where to find water, food and shelter. In a few weeks' time, snow will start to fall, often in blizzards that make helicopter flights impossible."

Under such conditions the high-tech military hardware of which the Americans are so proud will be of limited use, whereas the primitive weapons like bazookas and rocket-propelled grenades used by the Afghans, which are generally considered obsolete in the West, can be used very effectively. The guerrillas will know every crevice and cave where they can take shelter both from the weather and from air strikes, and from whence they can only be dislodged by hand-to-hand combat. This makes casualties among US and British forces a virtual certainty. The risk of casualties rises even more steeply if the US decides to go for more than one target. Whereas the Taliban do not appear to possess much in the line of anti-aircraft defences, Iraq has modernised and improved her air defence systems since the Gulf War, and will not be a push-over this time. Things will not be so easy as some people imagine.

The growth of instability in Afghanistan - the inevitable consequence of US military action - will above all affect the Pushto-speaking peoples who live on both sides of the porous border that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. The destabilisation of Pakistan is therefore on the order of the day. No wonder the Islamabad government is striving with might and main to put pressure on the Taliban to make concessions! Thus, US imperialism, by barging in like an elephant in a china shop, will create an even more unstable world than the one that existed before September 11 - a world in which the suffering of millions of people will inevitably find its expression in a desire for revenge and therefore more terrorist lunacy - precisely the opposite of what was intended.

The Middle East

The situation in the Middle East is extremely fragile, and likely to be further destabilised by US military actions. The Saudi regime, under heavy pressure from Washington, has broken off diplomatic relations with its Taliban friends, and generally done all the Americans have asked for. But there are limits even for Washington's Saudi stooges. The situation in Saudi Arabia is far from stable. Despite its big oil earnings, the regime is no longer in a position to grant the same lavish concessions to its citizens as in the past. There is growing unrest and criticism of the corrupt ruling clique. The splits and quarrels inside the royal family are a reflection of this ferment in society. For the regime to be seen as openly supporting US military action against a Moslem state might be the last straw. As usual, the American imperialists have acted with incredible clumsiness. The very fact of stationing US troops in Saudi Arabia (the land where Islam was born, and the site of its most holy places) was an act of sheer stupidity, and quite unnecessary. Now they are compounding the original error by putting pressure on the Saudis to let them use the country's air bases to attack Afghanistan - which is very much like asking them to commit suicide. By their blundering, they may well succeed in pushing the Saudi regime over the precipice.

The Saudi royal family is a reactionary clique that combines a western lifestyle, complete with whisky, fast cars and expensive prostitutes with a public image of religious puritanism, partly derived from its adherence to the strict Wahhabi sect. Whenever they felt threatened by popular unrest, they would either play the religious card, leaning on the most conservative sections of the clergy for support, or else they would start beating the drum on the Palestinian issue which they have shamelessly exploited for decades in their own selfish interests, while all the time supporting American imperialism. The immense power of the most reactionary wing of the clergy in Saudi Arabia is the direct result of these unscrupulous manoeuvres by the royal family. It played a most active role in "fighting Communism" in Afghanistan and the Gulf - in close alliance with the Americans - and until recently financed and backed the Taliban. Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire who has family ties to the royal elite, is the product of this milieu. Now all this has come back to haunt them. Pressurised on the one hand by Washington and on the other by the Islamic reactionaries, the Saudi regime is caught between a rock and a very hard place. Its future is now in the balance as never before.

The US State Department professes itself "satisfied" with the Saudi response, although the latter has yet to agree to the US demand to use its bases. However, the reaction of other supposedly friendly Arab governments has been less than satisfactory. The Americans are particularly disappointed with the negative response of Egypt. But this is hardly surprising. Faced with mass unemployment and poverty, Egypt has the additional problem of the Palestinian issue on its doorstep, which is acting as an unsettling influence on its own masses. Washington has put pressure on Tel Aviv to reduce its attacks on the Palestinians and to talk to Arafat, as a means of placating Egypt and other "moderate" Arab regimes. But the killing has continued, with no end in sight.

The turbulence on the West Bank shows no sign of dying down, but Washington has twisted the arms of Sharon and Arafat to meet and pretend to talk. The Americans cannot afford to allow the Israelis to carry on battering the Palestinians, for fear of the effects on the "moderate" Arab states they need to support their coalition. The Israelis grit their teeth and agree to shake Arafat's hand, but keep a big stick behind their back, ready to strike once world public opinion is diverted. And the "cease-fire" is constantly being disrupted by new killings, provocations and counter-provocations.

The Palestinian inferno

In the Middle East, where the present crisis has its origins, the stage is set for new upheavals, especially if the USA decides to bombard Iraq and other Arab states. This is quite likely, in view of the fact that the number of ships, aircraft and submarines which have been deployed in the Gulf and Indian Ocean by America and Britain seem to represent more firepower than would be needed to attack Afghanistan alone. There is a strong body of opinion in the Pentagon that holds that Iraq represents a far bigger military threat than Afghanistan, and therefore it is probable that the offensive against that country will be followed fairly quickly by attacks on Iraq and possibly the Sudan and Somalia also.

Even without this, the repercussions of an attack on Afghanistan will be sufficiently serious throughout the Middle East and further afield. In the words of Mr. Krepinovich : "This is an enemy whose centres of gravity are hard to find. You could destroy some bridges and wreck whatever power supplies exist. But that might seem to the world like an attack on Moslem civilians".

Immediately after September 11, it seemed that Washington would swing in the direction of Israel. To judge by the smug expression on the face of the Israeli leaders, they thought the same. But life is always more complicated than the most elaborate theories. The interests of US imperialism in the Middle East are not confined to Israel. Far more important for its calculations is the oil that lies in Arab territories and is as vital for the US economy as life-blood for the human body.

In his haste to put together the celebrated "anti-terrorist coalition" President Bush now not only seems willing to twist arms in Tel Aviv, but, to judge from the most recent statements, to jettison the Jewish lobby altogether. Certainly, the statement that Washington would be prepared to contemplate a Palestinian state must have infuriated Sharon. Of course, words are cheap, and no details of the hypothetical "Palestinian state" have been provided. It therefore remains in the realm of propaganda, intended to calm the jangling nerves of government circles in Cairo, Riad and Amman.

We can state in advance that the US policy planners who are responsible for this speech are not remotely concerned about the fate of either Jews or Arabs. It is a question of vested interests. And if it suits US interests in the Middle East, they will sell out Israel without even blinking. Paradoxically, such a step would be easier for Bush than it would have been for Clinton, since the Jewish vote in the USA has traditionally gone mainly to the Democrats, and only to a lesser extent to the Republicans. Bush probably reckons he can afford to offend Israel, and simply ride out the storm.

The conduct of the Israelis in the last period has not been to the liking of the Americans. The so-called cease-fire, introduced as a result of American pressure, has resulted in more deaths and violence. It is clear that the hawks in the Israeli Establishment are itching to crack down hard on the West Bank and Gaza. This is very inconvenient for Washington, which is desperately trying to enlist public support from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for its military adventure in Afghanistan. In all probability, the talk of a Palestinian state was meant to put pressure on Tel Aviv - a warning that America's patience was running out.

There is a lot of bluff in all this. The fact of the matter is that, in order to get a Palestine state, Washington needs the agreement of the Israelis. This will not be easy to obtain. There is the little matter of the Jewish settlers, whose numbers have doubled since the Madrid agreement, and who will not go quietly. The policy favoured by Sharon is not more concessions to the Palestinians (and certainly not a Palestinian state), but merciless punishment. The treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli imperialists is characterised by extreme and increasing savagery. In essence, they behave towards the Arabs in the same way as the Jews were treated in Europe for hundreds of years. The so-called Palestine Authority is like a ghetto state, where the masses are corralled in conditions of absolute misery and desperation. This constitutes a continual and intolerable provocation to the Arab masses throughout the Middle East.

Trotsky warned long ago that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine would be a cruel trap for the Jewish people. How prophetic this was! Over half a century after the establishment of Israel, there is no peace or security for the Jewish people. By placing their confidence in US imperialism, their future will be even more insecure. Washington's aggressive policy towards Afghanistan and Iraq will add to the general instability of the whole region. It will create a favourable environment for the birth of new terrorist groups and suicide bombings inside Israel, and ultimately new wars. This is hardly what the founders of Israel had in mind when they spoke of a land flowing with milk and honey!

For his part, Arafat now finds himself in an impossible position. He is desperately trying to get the backing of US imperialism. He would like to be Washington's puppet, but there are limits beyond which he dare not go. The people of Palestine have paid a heavy price in blood during the uprising, and will not accept minor concessions. By paying lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, Washington seeks to strengthen his position. Arafat can continue with his manoeuvres, in the hope that he can get some kind of a deal and sell it to the Palestinian masses. After more than a year of bloody fighting, the latter must be beginning to tire of a situation which is hurting them more than the Israelis. The Americans are hoping they can stitch up some kind of a deal. But the intransigence of Tel Aviv is a serious stumbling block. Eventually, some kind of an unstable agreement may be reached under American pressure. But it will blow up in their faces, just as the last one did. No lasting solution is possible without a revolution throughout the Middle East.

If a Palestinian state were ever established on a capitalist basis, it could only be a puppet state of Israel. This would solve nothing, but would represent a continuation of the present vicious cycle of violence. Every time the Americans imagine they have solved the Palestinian problem, it only gets worse. But in the last analysis, Washington cannot afford to break with Israel, which is its only stable base in the Middle East. The future is therefore a bleak one, not only for the Palestinians, but for the Jews and all the people of the Middle East. There will be new attempts to reach a compromise, but every time the deal will break down, resulting in a fresh orgy of violence and killing.

The chief concern of US imperialism is to use the terrorist outrage in America as a pretext for strengthening its position on a world scale. This involves a reminder to the world of its military power. After the attack on Afghanistan will come other "reprisals" against Iraq, and maybe Sudan and Somalia. Probably, they will limit themselves to bombing. They might get away with this, although not with a ground war. Despite all the hypocritical propaganda about avoiding civilian casualties, they are quite indifferent to the suffering and devastation they cause. They are well aware that "collateral damage" - that is, the killing of a large number of civilians - is inevitable. In this case, however, it is not an attack on civilisation but a just war against "terrorism".

The Pentagon and State Department may be indifferent, but the scenes of death and destruction in Arab lands will cause a storm of protest in the Middle East. More American embassies will be burned. This will be the starting point for new terrorist actions. There appears to be no shortage of young middle class fanatics prepared to die in order to kill others. They will be driven mad by the continuous bombing of their countries and those of fellow Arabs and Moslems. We will enter yet another diabolical spiral of senseless violence.

Whatever the outcome of the present crisis, the Arab-Israeli conflict can never be resolved on a capitalist basis. The future is one of constant crises and upheavals, interrupted by unstable agreements which will break down, only to repeat the infernal cycle time and again. This bleak perspective could only be altered by the emergence of a genuine Marxist leadership which would put forward an alternative programme, strategy and tactics, based on a class policy and the mutual struggle of all working people in the Middle East against capitalism and imperialism. It is the absence of such a perspective that pushes desperate sections of the youth towards the self-defeating tactics of individual terrorism which do nothing to undermine Israeli or American imperialism but actually strengthen them, as the recent events so graphically showed.

'America's best friend'

Instead of firming up, the morale of the American-led coalition is getting weaker and more unstable by the day. This is true, not only of Pakistan and the "moderate Arab states, but also of Washington's European allies, who, with one exception, have never been very enthusiastic about supporting US military adventures. True, chancellor Schroeder has talked about offering German troops, but nobody is betting on this, since in practice, any attempt to do so would risk splitting the ruling coalition. In Italy there have already been sizeable anti-war demonstrations in Milan, Rome and Naples. As time goes on, the doubts and questions in European capitals will grow, and the anti-war movement will become more vocal.

After decades in which the West, and particularly the USA, has placed all the emphasis on technological warfare, and the media have tried to present a sanitised image of war, where it becomes no more than a superior computer game, the harsh facts of life will come as a shock to US public opinion once they are known. Even now, before a shot has been fired in anger, doubts are growing on both sides of the Atlantic. What will happen when the fighting starts? Yet in the midst of all these problems, US imperialism still has one man it can count on. Onto the stage steps the Reverend Tony Blair.

The obtuseness of George W. Bush is quite clear. But what are we to say of Mr. Blair? This born-again Christian and ardent admirer of the United States loses no opportunity to display his love for the American people - by pushing them to go to war at every conceivable instant. He "helps" the US President - just as he previously "helped" his old pal Bill Clinton - not by restraining him and pointing out the risks entailed, the loss of life, the political repercussions and so on. No, not a bit of it! The leader of the British Labour Party goes to Washington to stiffen the President's faltering resolve, to make him act like a man, to issue the orders, to fight, to die if needs be, in the cause of western civilisation.

Listening to the speech of the British prime minister with tears in his eyes, George W. Bush told the world that "America has no truer friend than Great Britain". One or two other countries were probably less than pleased to hear this. But they probably consoled themselves with the thought that America's friendship changes fairly frequently, and that, at the moment, such friendships as this tend to attract the attentions of the terrorists, and it is preferable that the next terrorist outrage should take place in London rather than in their own back yard. Every European leader seems to grasp this elementary fact - except for Tony Blair who appears to think that it was well worth while exposing his fellow Britons to bomb blasts for the sake of a few kind words from the latest occupant of the White House.

Blair, as usual, is strutting around the stage, puffing himself up like the bullfrog in Aesop's fable, in an effort to look like a great world leader. These antics fool nobody. His attempt to ingratiate himself with Washington merely underlines Britain's subordinate place in the world - her humiliating dependence on America. In the Gulf War of 1991, Britain furnished the grand total of one armoured division. The SAS attempt to hunt down Iraq's Scud missiles was a flop. True, Britain is now the only country that continues to drop bombs on defeated, bleeding Iraq, along with the United States. That is her real role: to act as a fig-leaf for US imperialism, to vote together with the USA on the Security Council, and thus to conceal the fact that the USA is an aggressive bully without a friend in the world.

The fact that neither Bush nor Blair will do any of the fighting and the dying is surely not the point, since there are plenty of others available to perform these functions on their behalf. Tony Blair does his fighting from the pulpit of a church, from where he utters warlike sermons which will undoubtedly turn his own country into a target for terrorist madmen, while making the world an even more unstable and dangerous place to live in. One begins to doubt whether Bush is really the most obtuse politician in the western world. Before Blair's visit President Bush was trembling on the brink of the abyss. In the (admittedly unlikely) hypothesis that the President of the United States paid the slightest attention to what Blair had to say, he would have "helped" him to jump into the abyss. In the words of the sermon on the mount: "blessed are the peacemakers".

A world of poverty and war

The economic effects of the crisis are continuing to ricochet around the globe. In the USA, over 100,000 lay-offs were announced in the air lines alone. Delta Air Lines cut its workforce by 13,000, some 16 percent of the total. Alitalia announced the sacking of 17 percent of its workforce. Air Canada will shed 5,000 workers. And so on. To these figures we must add a large numbers of derivative jobs in hotels, catering, airports, tourism and so on. The cumulative effects on economic activity must be significant, aggravating the fall.

In the IMF's latest World Economic Outlook, its forecast for global growth has been revised sharply downwards: from 3.2 percent six months ago to 2,6 percent this year. But this forecast was made before September 11 and is now completely out-dated. The IMF's chief economist, Kenneth Rogoff, was reported as saying that a recession in the USA was a "done deal". He was persuaded to withdraw the remark. But that is the real state of affairs. And a recession in America signifies inevitably a world economic downswing which is likely to be severe.

In the new economic climate, governments are rapidly scaling down their spending. The talk is of austerity (except, of course, for arms spending). Everywhere, plans are being laid to place the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of the working class, the old, the sick, the unemployed. In Britain, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown has warned ministers not to ask for any more public money. In all countries the ruling class is preparing to place the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of the workers, the unemployed, the old and the sick, using the excuse of the so-called war on terrorism.

According to figures recently released by the IMF, the number of people living in poverty will increase by ten million in the coming months. This is a recipe for further instability and social upheavals. Thus, the whole fraud of market economics stands exposed. Instead of a future of guaranteed peace and prosperity for the peoples of the world, it has brought only the spectre of crises, mass unemployment, poverty and war to millions of people. The cause of this crisis is not the terrorist actions of September 11. Monstrous as they were, these were only the catalyst that brought things to a head. As we have repeatedly explained, the crisis was the inevitable result of the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system. The massive overproduction of goods - particularly in the new technology sector - has manifested itself in falling profits and investment, a crisis of the stock exchange and a downward spiral of world economic activity that had already commenced before September 11. That the terrorist attacks will have aggravated and accelerated the crisis is clear, but the causes must be looked for elsewhere.

The illusions of the last period are fast evaporating. John Gray, a professor at the London School of Economics, writes:

"The entire view of the world that supported the market's faith in globalisation has melted down... Led by the United States, the world's richest states have acted on the assumption that people everywhere want to live as they do. As a result, they failed to recognise the deadly mixture of emotions - cultural resentment, the sense of injustice and a genuine rejection of western modernity - that lies behind the attacks on New York and Washington."

One does not have to agree with professor Grey's analysis in order to accept his conclusion that faith in the global market system has suffered a melt-down. Of course, millions of people would like to enjoy American and European living standards. The point is that the universal imposition of the "market economy" and "market values" has not achieved this, but, on the contrary, has spelt massive impoverishment, social dislocation, brutal exploitation and huge and growing inequality. That - and not a "rejection of modernity" - is what gives rise to a general "resentment and sense of injustice".

The fact that the wealth of the planet is being systematically creamed off by a handful of corporate fat cats, the majority of whom live in a handful of developed countries - that is what people resent. But the inequality and injustice of the market economy is not confined to the plunder of the third world. In Britain, the USA and all other advanced capitalist countries, we have seen the wholesale destruction of workers' rights, deep cuts in the social wage, massive looting of the state under the slogan of privatisation, and a huge increase of the gulf between rich and poor. Now even the relative improvement in living standards obtained by the working of excessive hours, overtime and so on, will be eliminated as factories close and companies go bankrupt.

The privatisation of public utilities - schools, hospitals, transport, water, gas etc. - was always a retrograde step even for the developed countries. But for countries like Pakistan it was sheer lunacy - a license to plunder state property on a massive scale. The devastating consequences of this can be seen today in Russian and Eastern Europe. On the other hand, the wholesale elimination of tariff barriers in the name of liberalisation has led to a massive destruction of native industries, which cannot compete with the modern industries of the developed world. Good! say the devotees of globalisation. If they cannot compete, they must disappear! Which would sound more convincing were it not for the fact that America, Britain, France, Germany and Japan were all in favour of protectionism when their industries were weak, and only discovered the blessings of free trade when they were strong enough to compete successfully on world markets. And we will soon see how long this fervent support for the "principle" of free trade will last once the recession begins to bite!

A lesson in dialectics

The reactionary effects of terrorism are now plain to be seen. Everywhere, reaction is on the rampage. In the USA, civil rights are under attack. The right wing Bush administration is preparing an assault on democratic rights under the pretext of "anti-terrorist" legislation. Congress has already approved 40 billion dollars for "security", and the CIA has got back its "licence to kill". Already over 350 suspects have been detained in the USA in relation to the terrorist attack and nearly 400 others have been brought in for questioning. One does not have to be a genius to predict that surveillance, phone-tapping and all kinds of police control and harassment will not be confined to terrorists, but will be used against left wingers, the labour movement and anyone else the powers-that-be do not like. Bush has already said as much, when he stated that "whoever is not with us is with the terrorists (!)".

The reactionaries are talking about giving the FBI permission to seize unopened emails and voice messages with a search warrant, instead of a court order, and to detain foreigners who are considered to be a "threat to national security", without trial and with only minimal judicial oversight. This could, in practice, mean indefinite detention. Such measures pose a clear threat to civil liberties. They would increase the government's powers of surveillance in other areas, not connected with terrorism. Moreover, the US attorney-general wants intelligence agencies to get information from law-enforcement agencies. This was banned because the FBI in the 1960s used these powers to harass people like Martin Luther King. He also wants US courts to be allowed to use intelligence information gathered by foreign governments, even if that information had been gathered illegally. Opponents of this proposal say it would be unconstitutional.

At the moment, George W. Bush is riding high in the opinion polls in the States, despite his mishandling of affairs from day one after September 11. This support is not a genuine reflection of the aspirations of the American people. It is a natural instinctive mood for "national unity" in the face of aggression. Ten years ago his father obtained similar results in the polls, but one year after the Gulf war he was defeated in the presidential elections.

Dialectical materialism - the wonderfully profound philosophy upon which Marxism is based - teaches that, sooner or later, everything turns into its opposite. This profound truth will become evident in the coming months and years when the American ruling class will have its lesson in dialectics, though it will not derive much profit from it. Twist and turn as they will, whatever the American imperialists do now will be wrong.

Like a heavy rock thrown into a lake, the events of the last three weeks have stirred things up. But the reactionary pro-war mood is only a superficial manifestation, like froth on the surface that will be blown away by the wind. Far more important are the deep undercurrents of discontent which must sooner or later come to the surface. The chronic instability that is the most general feature of the world situation must be reflected at a certain stage in the consciousness of the working class and the labour movement. There will be an upsurge of criticism and a growing opposition to the conduct of affairs - both economic and military. The stage is being prepared for a massive swing to the left internationally.