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September 11
A Year Later

Unilateralism and ‘the ultimate equation of right and might’

Editor’s note: Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at Washington’s Institute for Policy Studies, has lectured and written about the Middle East for 25 years. The following are excerpts from an interview NCR correspondent Claire Schaeffer-Duffy conducted with Bennis about her newly released book, Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis, Interlink Publishing, 46 Crosby St., Northampton, MA 01060-1804.

NCR: What are some of the most important changes in U.S. foreign policy since 9/11?

Bennis: I think that some of the existing tendencies in U.S. policy, particularly the tendency toward unilateralism … became much more virulent after 9/11. The Bush administration had already put unilateralism to be a point of pride, rather than a point of embarrassment as it was under Clinton, on the agenda of foreign policy. But what was different before 9/11 was that a number of countries were beginning to mobilize against that kind of assertion of unilateral power. You had symbolic things like the United States losing its seat in the Human Rights Commission at the United Nations; it lost its position on the international Drug Enforcement Agency; in Durban, the World Summit Against Racism goes forward despite the U.S. walkout ... So there is a beginning of a challenge to U.S. dominance in the world. Sept. 11 comes along and that shuts down. And then it becomes a question of how is the United States going to orchestrate a response to 9/11 -- deal with the massive human solidarity that the whole world extends to Americans? Essentially what happens is that the Bush administration squanders this solidarity and takes a war response, as opposed to a law-based response, to the crime of Sept. 11 overall and ultimately it fails. It fails to find the perpetrator. The biggest shift has been with what we now have as a clear, ideological defense of unilateralism.

Why has this rise in virulent unilateralism occurred?

Because the people in power in Washington now are ideologues, in my view, and they have a strong commitment to the view that the United States is not only the most powerful country in the world -- something that’s quite indisputable -- but that it is the best country in the world, the most moral, the most right. It’s the ultimate equation of right and might. Because we have the power to impose our will on everybody else, we should do that, because we will be therefore making the world better because we are Americans. It’s not grounded … in a real commitment to specific political changes for democratization.

What inspired you to write your book?

I had been in Europe for a couple of weeks before Sept. 11, and I flew in about 18 hours before the attack. I was sort of jetlagged that day and it was all, not only shocking, but it was a bit surreal to me as I watched it. … What I was struck by very soon was that while everybody in the world was shocked at these events … only in America, only here, were people also surprised.

That difference between shock and surprise struck me very powerfully. Everyone else in the world -- even the people who most mourned with us and stood with us filled with horror at what had happened -- were not surprised that somebody might have tried to do this, given what our policies had meant around the world. They understood why some people thought it wasn’t such a bad idea. And that was where I started thinking about the policy issues. … We may not be able to stop every single act of terrorism by changing our policies, but we can absolutely change the degree to which such acts do or do not get such massive support.

So your book is both an exposé of virulent unilateralism in the United States as well as a look at the human consequences of our policies prior to 9/11?

Absolutely. The second chapter, which is by far the longest chapter in the book, is a whole history of U.S. policy specifically in the Middle East region. Because even though the war was fought ultimately in Afghanistan, the question of the U.S. role in the Middle East was very much central to this crisis.

I trace from the turn of the last century up to today what U.S. policy in the region has meant and how it is seen in the region. In other sections I also look at the more immediate developments, both on the Israel/Palestine front and in Iraq, that have been put in place by U.S. policy. All of that goes into the understanding of the framework, of how to look at the events of 9/11 and the response to them.

Does your book offer any ways to correct the course of U.S. policy at this point?

It’s not a prescription. I mean, it’s a book. I’m working with a number of organizations now that are trying to prevent the expansion of the war to Iraq. I think the book contains a lot of history that gives people some ammunition for fighting against that growing war trajectory.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002