By Immanuel Wallerstein
Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University

Commentary No. 79, Dec. 15, 2001,”The Swooping of the Hawks?”

“Whom the Gods would destroy
they first make mad”

The day of the hawks may be here. Poor hawks. They have been so frustrated by American presidents – and not merely by such Democratic wimps as Clinton and Carter. George W. Bush wouldn’t send the troops into China earlier this year when the Chinese had the audacity to down a U.S. plane that overflew their territory. George Bush, father, wouldn’t march on Baghdad. Ronald Reagan himself virtually gave the crown jewels away at Reykjavik when he met with Gorbachev. Let’s not talk about Ford. And Richard Nixon (and his sidekick Henry Kissinger) actually made a deal with Mao Zedong, not to speak of signing that dangerous 1972 ABM treaty. The last gutsy thing an American president did was when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan. And that was done by Harry (“give ’em hell”) Truman.

But Osama bin Laden did the hawks the favor of mobilizing American nationalism behind their program of America can do anything it wants in the world because America is the land of liberty, the only real land of liberty. And it looks like the hawks are going to go for broke. The U.S. government is withdrawing from the 1972 nuclear treaty. The U.S. government is seriously considering war on Iraq, according to the clear warning of Vice-President Cheney. The U.S. government has ended any semblance of impartiality in the Israel/Palestine imbroglio. And the U.S. government is certainly twisting arms all around the world, trying to make sure there is no serious dissidence from its decisions.

For the moment, the U.S. public seems ready to back almost any macho assertion of U.S. power, anywhere. What has succeeded is success. The U.S. armed might has undone the Kalashnikovs of a bunch of mad mollahs in Afghanistan, and installed in power what is probably a bunch of mad warlords, but at least they’re the U.S.’s warlords – for the moment, that is. And hey, fellas, all that matters is whether you’re ready to cooperate with the Pentagon, isn’t that so? Well, they seemed for the moment to have ousted the mad mollahs. Come back in six months to be sure.
More than that, the U.S. public is ready to denounce as traitors (or almost) any U.S. citizens that are raising any questions about these policies. The ostensible opposition, the Democrats in Congress, are scared out of their wits that they might be targeted as anything less than enthusiastic about a militarist program that even Nixon and Reagan, not to speak of Bush the elder, would not have touched when they were president. Ah, for the good old days, when all the U.S. had in power were Johnson and McNamara. The hawks are really serious these days – no moral twinges, no intellectual hesitations. If, while they’re at it, they can seriously limit civil liberties within the U.S. and throw tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to the poor suffering megacorporations, well all the better. But this is all secondary to showing the rest of the world that what the U.S. says goes, and the rest of the world better believe that it doesn’t matter if they don’t like it.

So, for the few sober types that are still around, let us try to calculate what will actually happen. Will the U.S. do it? Quite possibly. Why? Bombastic aggressiveness is usually a sign not of strength but of weakness. If the U.S. government really felt that everything was going its way, it wouldn’t need to bomb Baghdad. One doesn’t need to read Machiavelli or Gramsci to know that force is not the optimal way to control the world; it’s second best or third best. I will not review here the arguments in Commentary 76 (“Superpower?”), but simply assert again that the U.S. is today a hegemonic power in decline.

When a hegemonic power is in decline, it has only two plausible alternatives: adjust to reality intelligently, reaping the continuing rewards of past accumulation; or pull the house down. What our hawks are proposing is pulling the house down. Some of them may believe that they and their friends will survive Armageddon, and still be on top – with a little “collateral damage,” to be sure. Others, more lucid, may not care (Apr่s moi, le d้luge!). And some may be Dr. Strangelove – mad!

We are living a dangerous moment. It’s not so easy to be a hawk. They don’t get that many opportunities. This is one of those rare moments. If they don’t grab it, or fail to make it, they may not get another chance like this for a long while. That means, of course, that, if they are stopped now, the worst may pass. What does this depend upon?

It depends on the degree of awareness of the danger – not merely among the immediate targets of the destruction but among all those who are supposedly in the camp of the U.S. government – the political center in the United States, the member governments of NATO, the military leaders who understand the consequences. And it depends on the degree of intelligent and rapid mobilization of those Franklin Roosevelt called “left of center.”

They all have been relatively mute these past three months – partly by the emotional reaction to the events of September 11, partly by the world’s lack of sympathy with the methods and goals of Osama bin Laden, and more recently partly by the seemingly rapid fadeaway of the Taliban. This is what the hawks have been counting on. If the day of the hawks may be here, this is the moment to counter them with vigorous action.

Immanuel Wallerstein

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These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]