This essay is Chapter 5 of Kevin Barrett, John Cobb Jr., and Sandra Lubarsky, eds., 9/11 and American Empire: Christians, Jews, and Muslims Speak Out (Olive Branch Press, 2007).
AMERICAN EMPIRE AND THE WAR AGAINST EVIL
Rosemary Radford Ruether
THE UNITED STATES HAS EMERGED AS THE GREATEST SUPERPOWER in human history. Its political, economic, military, and cultural power reaches more parts of the globe than any previous empire. In September, 2001, before the current war in Iraq, the United States military maintained 725 foreign bases in 37 different countries in all parts of the world.1 Its military budget equaled the combined military budgets of the rest of the countries of the world. The Roman empire, the Chinese empire, the Islamic empire at their heights of power were parochial compared to the global reach of the United States. The critical question that confronts Americans and the peoples of the rest of the nations of the planet is how benign or destructive is this massive American power.
The United States has long entertained a sense of itself as unique and divinely chosen to be a model for the rest of the world. Our Puritan ancestors in the Massachusetts Bay Colony spoke of their settlement as a “city on a hill” called to be a beacon of light for all humanity. Nineteenth-century US expansionists claimed we had a “manifest destiny” to spread across the continent and into the Caribbean and Pacific islands, exhibiting to the world the superiority of our civic virtue and democratic institutions.
This ideology of American goodness and greatness, however, as often been countered by voices of prophetic critique who have pointed out our glaring failures and called us to repentance and renewed fidelity to the principles of “liberty and justice for all” as the heart of our civic creed. John Winthrop in 1630 warned that we could become cursed rather than blessed if we “played falsely with our God” and failed to exemplify the virtues to which we pretended.2 Martin Luther King confronted us with the sorry history of slavery and racism and exhorted us to realize an American Dream betrayed to our African-American populace.
Having first emancipated itself from the British empire in the late eighteenth century, the United States began to follow in the footsteps of that empire in the nineteenth century. With the Monroe Doctrine we staked our claims to rival British power in the Americas. After buying up or conquering French and Mexican territories within the continental US, we put our feet on the path of empire with the Spanish-American War in 1898. Claiming to intervene as liberators, the US blocked and suppressed independence movements that were well underway in Cuba and the Philippines, to substitute our own colonial control for that of the displaced Spanish. With the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, we swept across the continent, pushing aside the American Indians and taking most of their land.
Repeated military interventions in the first half of the twentieth century in Caribbean and Central American nations, such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, showed our determination to prevent any independent political or economic development in what we defined as our “backyard.” In the second half of the twentieth century this interventionism would become global, with major wars and coups in Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and elsewhere, wrapped in the flag of anti-communism.
The end of the World War II saw the collapse of the colonial empires of Britain, Holland, and France, as these nations were forced to rebuild national economies shattered by the war. The United States, as the nation whose own national economy had been unscathed by the war, emerged as the defender of the Western capitalist world against the rival communist bloc. This rivalry was defined not simply as political and economic, but as ideological and even theological. The term “godless communism” turned this power struggle into a crusade of good against evil, God against godlessness. The US defined itself as God’s representative to defend a divinely blessed “American way of life” and to extend it to the rest of the world against its diabolical enemies.
From the ’50s through the ’80s this American hegemonic power was seen as relatively benign by our European allies and by those elites around the world who benefited from our power. Deeper anti-Americanism surfaced among those who aspired to “national liberation” from American-led neocolonialism. But efforts to shake free of this power and to foster alternative paths to development were undermined and defeated by a combination of economic strangulation through world financial institutions, embargo by the US, and either direct or surrogate military intervention.
All of these methods were brought to bear to destroy the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in the 1980s, crushing the bold experiments in popular education and health and a mixed democratic socialist model of society, rendering this tiny nation more impoverished than before. As one American supporter of the revolution put it to me in Managua “they had to destroy the threat of a good example,” i.e., the danger that an alternative way of development through democratic socialism might actually work to improve people’s lives.
Although the Soviet Union was defined as our bête noir, its military power, economic aid, and ideological influence operated to create a certain global balance of power in the ’60s to the ’80s. The US developed strategies of multilateral cooperation with our allies, collaboration in international treaties, and forms of assistance designed to show that the capitalist mode of development was superior to that of socialism, even while doing everything possible to prevent actual successes of the socialist path. In the late ’80s, however, it became evident that the Soviet Union was about to collapse and break up into its constituent nations. The USSR was economically exhausted by a $300 billion military budget that rivaled that of the US but constituted twelve percent of its GNP, in contrast to the US military budget, which was only six percent of its GNP. It could no longer hold together an alliance and form of government that had become distasteful to most of its people.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, US hegemonic militarism faced a crisis of legitimacy. Without communism as its enemy, its vast military budget and role as policeman of the world was in danger of losing its rationale. Many Americans began to speak of a “peace dividend,” anticipating a scaling back of the huge Cold War military budget by half. They hoped to free large sums to rebuild the infrastructure of US society, such as roads and bridges; to re-fund schools; and to rethink matters such as national health care insurance. Alarmed by such talk, the Pentagon began to cast its eyes across the globe for new enemies. It defined a military strategy as one that must be ready to fight “two wars at once,” and lumped together remaining pockets of communism with militant Muslim nations as the enemies. In a precursor of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” it listed Cuba, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, and Iran as the evil enemies that we must be ready to fight.
A new alliance of the Christian right—with its wars on gays, feminists, and reproductive rights— with national security and free-trade neoconservatives who believed in American military and economic supremacy, had emerged in the Reagan years. This alliance seemed to be somewhat in retreat with the 1990s victory of Bill Clinton, who sought to capture a middle ground of American politics that included moderate concern for social welfare at home and humanitarian international alliances abroad. But the weakness of this centrist vision, as well as his personal peccadilloes, laid the ground for a new victory of the Christian fundamentalist–national security state alliance with the non-election of George W. Bush in 2000. This alliance of the neoconservatives and the Christian right would sweep Bush to victory in the 2004 election, again with some unanswered questions on the rigging of voting machines in key states, such as Ohio.
The hard-right ideologues of this Bush “team,” such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, had already laid the ideological ground in the mid-’90s for a different vision of the American future. With no international rival for hegemonic power, they believed the way was clear for the US to seize control of the whole world, eliminating not only any actual rivals but any potential rivals to American power. This new imperial dream would demand not a scaling down but a vast increase of the American military budget, dwarfing the military budgets of the rest of the nations of the world. America was to have absolute military predominance, both to intervene militarily in any nation that threatened it, even before any attack had actually been mounted, and also to defend itself against any missiles that might be directed at our national territory.
But the authors of this strategy of American imperial expansion feared that Americans lacked the will for such adventures. In a 2000 document called Rebuilding America’s Defenses, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) opined that we needed a “New Pearl Harbor”: that is, an attack by an outside force that would generate a paroxysm of fear and hatred and thus create the national will for such a military expansion, a prediction that would eerily come true on September 11, 2001.3
Several critics, including process theologian David Ray Griffin, in his 2004 book The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11, have accumulated a large amount of evidence to support the thesis that the Bush administration had considerable advance information on the coming attack on September 11 and decided to facilitate it happening in order to create the desired crisis. The major media has chosen to ignore these findings, treating them as an unsubstantiated “conspiracy theory.” But careful examination of the data gathered by Griffin reveals that his case is impressive.
A great deal of very specific knowledge of the planned attacks was known more than six weeks before the attacks. Questions also surround the failure to intervene to prevent the attacks on 9/11, suggesting that the military had been given orders to “stand down.” There are also questions about the actual nature of the plane that hit the Pentagon, which does not seem to have been the Boeing 757, as well as whether the planes that hit the upper levels of the Twin Towers could have caused the towers’ collapse without explosives planted in the buildings. Finally there is the extensive evidence of continual cover-ups and denial of information during the subsequent investigation.4
All this points, in my opinion, to some level of US government complicity with the attacks themselves. What is unquestionable, however, is that the attacks were immediately seized upon by the Bush administration to leap forward in its plans for global dominance. Leaders of the administration, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, reveal their mentality in frequent references to the attacks as an “opportunity” to “remake the world.” We know now that demands to respond by invading Iraq were made within a day of the attacks, despite lack of any evidence of Saddam Hussein’s involvement. It was only with difficulty that such war proponents were persuaded to pursue the attack on Afghanistan first and then build the case for the invasion of Iraq. There is no doubt that the Bush administration continues to profit enormously by cloaking its imperialist aggression in the guise of a war on “terrorism” on behalf of American security.
In the 1990s such plans for greatly expanded American empire had been impeded by new efforts to withdraw from international engagement. Conservative “realists” believed that with absolute military predominance, US collaboration in multilateral alliances to curb civil wars abroad, heal diseases, and prevent environmental degradation could be discarded as not serving our “national interest.” In his 2000 campaign for the presidency, George W. Bush himself disparaged US involvement in “nation building” and pledged to withdraw from such engagements.
There was also a concerted attack by conservatives on “big government,” both federal government projects that nationalized funding and standards of social welfare and also the United Nations as a potential “world government” that might lessen absolute US sovereignty. Any kind of international law against violations of human rights that might possibly be applied to US personnel or its allies, such as Israel’s Sharon or Chile’s Pinochet, was seen as an intolerable affront to our national autonomy.
When George W. Bush came to power in 2000, he quickly showed his alignment with the neoconservative view of unilateral and militarist American power. In rapid succession he curbed US contributions to international family planning, rejected American participation in the Kyoto climate treaty, dismantled international arms control treaties, and rejected the jurisdiction of the World Court for any crimes that might involve the US. But this policy direction gained a new rationale with the terrorist attacks on the two major symbols of American military and economic power, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001.
9/11 gave the Bush administration the new global enemy it needed to justify its global imperial strategy. “Terrorism” became the new incarnation of evil. The fight against terrorism was defined not as a collaborative effort to defend all victimized people against non-state violence, but rather as a world war without end to be fought with the most advanced military technology, including nuclear weapons. This was to be directed not primarily against the small enclaves of terrorists, but against the nations that “harbored them.”
But such armaments of all-out war, designed to combat other nation-states, are a completely ineffective tool for catching “terrorists” who are by definition stateless, who slip across borders and are more likely to gather in Northern Germany and London than in Baghdad. Indeed, as the July 2005 bombings in London have shown, there is a whole new generation of home-grown terrorists, who grew up places such as Leeds, England and learned their ideas and skills on the Internet. After four years of the “war against terrorism” there is little evidence that such groups have diminished. On the contrary, especially with the occupation and resulting chaos in Iraq, it is clear that we are creating the incitement for new recruits all over the world.
By designating its global imperial strategy as a war against terrorism, the Bush regime assured itself of both a bipartisan consensus and popular support, while denouncing any critics of these policies as incipient traitors and collaborators with “terrorists.” With such a war against terrorism projected as virtually endless, the far-right ideologues sought to make their power permanent and irreversible in the US and across the world. Thus it is no surprise that, having pushed over the Taliban regime that supported the al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan (without apprehending its leaders), the Bush administration quickly set its sights on what had already been defined as its larger goal; namely, Iraq.
Iraq was the major target for US supremacists for two reasons: it has vast supplies of oil, and it represented unfinished business from the Gulf War of 1990 for US dominance over the Middle East. Iraq represented a challenge to the imperial hegemony of the US and its client state Israel over the region. Even though his fabled weapons of mass destruction evidently did not exist at the time of the US invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein represented at his heights of power in the 1980s an aspiration to leadership in the Arab world.
Though Iraq was deeply weakened and impoverished under international sanctions in the 1990s, Hussein continued to thumb his nose at American demands for control. To smash his remaining power and to reshape Iraq according to our imperial demands became a main objective of both ideological and military–economic US supremacists. Although the initial conquest of Iraq was relatively easy, and the hunt for its fugitive leader finally netted him from an underground hiding place eight months later, Iraq today shows little evidence of becoming that showplace of American benevolence that we promised. Basic utilities of electricity, water, gas, and phone service still have not been adequately restored even in the capital city, much less throughout the country.
The occupying American army in its endless search for dissidents, in house to house searches that invariably kill and injure passersby as much or more than activists, in bombing raids that destroy whole cities, shows itself mainly adept at hardening the anger and hostility of ordinary Iraqis at our continued presence. The occupation has also become a bonanza for big government contractors, such as Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown, and Root, who have literally wasted billions of dollars, much of it Iraqi money earmarked for reconstruction, in schemes of private enrichment.5
Yet the designs of world hegemonic power that underlie this crusade against Iraq are, more than ever, clothed in the vestments of absolute moral righteousness. Saddam Hussein was depicted as a diabolic plotter who threatened the national security of the United States and the whole world. Even though his military budget was a pittance compared with that of the United States (in 2001 it was $1.4 billion, compared to the almost $500 billion that funds the American military machine), his weapons were depicted as threatening to overwhelm those of the United States.
His evil treatment of his own people and his neighbors was undoubtedly worthy of criticism, but the rhetoric used to denounce these evils conceals the fact that many of these crimes were committed when he was an ally of the United States and with the connivance of the very critics who now attack him. In the 1980s Donald Rumsfeld was shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand and promising him our everlasting support. In the 1990s when we decided to depose him he became the global Devil. The plans for war against Iraq were depicted as one more episode in an apocalyptic drama of good against evil, the angels of Light against the forces of Darkness, America, God’s chosen people, against God’s enemies.
Juan Stam, a Puerto Rican pastor and theologian, has analyzed George W. Bush’s religious rhetoric and found that it weaves together two types of language. One of these is the language of apocalyptic warfare, the war of good against evil, which absolutizes the US as good against our enemies as the epitome of evil. The second language is messianism. America in general and George W. Bush in particular are depicted as messianic agents of God in combating evil and establishing good throughout the world.
This language was exemplified at its extreme in speeches made by General William Boykin, a conservative Christian charged with the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In speeches to his religious constituency, Boykin declared that America is an object of hate by other nations because we are uniquely a “Christian nation.” He went on to claim that our “spiritual enemy can only be conquered when we confront them in the name of God.” Muslims, by contrast, he believes worship an “idol” and not the true God. Boykin then opined that God had put George W. Bush in the White House at this time. “We are an army of God raised up for such a time as this.” In effect George W. Bush is God’s elect Messiah put in power to lead the apocalyptic warfare of God’s angels against the demonic power in the last days. Although the Pentagon distanced itself from Boykin’s rhetoric, it did nothing to actually counteract it.
This language creeps continually into White House declarations of their identity and role. Neoconservatives Richard Perle and David Frum titled their 2003 book The End of Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. In her recently released “New Pentagon Papers,” former military intelligence officer Karen Kwiatkowski reveals the atmosphere of extreme fanaticism that took over Pentagon intelligence policy just before the invasion of Iraq, suppressing accurate information on the Middle East. She writes:
“I saw a dead philosophy—Cold War anti-communism and neoimperialism—walking the corridors of the Pentagon. It wore the clothing of counter-terrorism and spoke the language of a holy war between good and evil. The evil was recognized by the leadership to be resident mainly in the Middle East and articulated by Islamic clerics and radicals. But there were other enemies within, anyone who dared voice any skepticism about their grand plans.”
I would add to this analysis of holy war language by suggesting that the Bush administration alternates between two different rhetorics, designed to appeal to two different audiences. One is the religious rhetoric of apocalyptic messianism designed to appeal to the religious right supporters of the regime. The other is a co-optation of liberal progressive language that speaks of America invading Afghanistan and then Iraq to “liberate” their people from oppressive tyrants, to bring them freedom, democracy, and, of course, the American way of life, namely the free market. For Americans affronted by the first rhetoric, it is hoped that they will be reassured that our true intentions are expressed by the second kind of language.
What we have here is a fallacious but long-standing ploy in American political language; namely, the equation of political freedom with a neoliberal ideology of the “free market.” But the free market has nothing to do with social and political freedom and flourishes quite well in dictatorships of the right or left. Basically what neoliberals mean by the free market is the right of mega- corporations to batter down any restrictions on their ability to monopolize the world’s markets, preventing small nations from protecting their national production and subsidizing health care, education, and basic commodities for the poorer classes. What our presence in Iraq means economically is a wholesale sell-off of Iraqi resources to favored American corporations such as Halliburton. This is veiled behind arguments that such corporations are simply the best and most efficient means to do the “job” of rebuilding Iraq, although the exact nature of such “rebuilding” in Iraq has not yet become clear. So far it seems to have little to do with actually making daily life more livable for Iraqis.
What are we to say about the emergence of America as a superpower in the first decade of the twenty-first century? Is it a force primarily for human good or for evil? It is my belief that the direction charted by the Bush administration to direct American power toward global empire is a disaster both for the world and for the American people itself. It means dismantling many of the fragile structures of international cooperation designed to curb militarism and to foster social welfare, environmental health, and peace. It has further enflamed hatred in general and against the United States in particular, both in the Islamic world and much of the developing world and also antagonized many in Europe who have come to see the United States as a kind of “rogue nation.” In a poll taken in the European Economic Union nations in December 2003, Europeans declared that Israel and the United States were the primary threats to world peace.
This imperial agenda is also further distorting the US economy, delaying any reinvestment in needed infrastructure, education, health, and social welfare. The whole world, and finally ourselves, will be impoverished, both morally and economically, by this wrong-headed drive for imperial power. Above all, it must be questioned for its idolatrous moral absolutism, for its claims to represent good against evil, God against the Devil, resisting any critique of its own power. Not only critics from Muslim and developing nations, but also our European allies are deeply offended by this rhetoric and direction of American power.
The Christian churches have a responsibility here to challenge the misuse of religious language for imperial power. To posit the United States as the representative of absolute moral righteousness against absolute evil violates the basic principles of Christian theology, which understand that all humans are flawed and all are in need of divine grace and self-critical repentance. To speak of any nation and its leader as messianic is the opposite of Christian faith in Jesus Christ as crucified Lord who unmasks the power of empires and stands with the poor of the world. Christian churches and theologians, in allowing Christianity to be used by the neoconservatives for their imperial plans, have failed to do their theological work in protecting the authentic vision of Christian faith and challenging its counterfeits.
Ideally, Christian churches should make such a critique of the misuse of religious language in concert with Jewish and Muslim colleagues who also have a stake in questioning such abuse of religion. This language not only falsifies Christianity, but it seeks to split Christians and Jews from Muslims, who are being set up as the demonic adversaries of this messianic crusade. Christians, Jews, and Muslims need to stand together to make clear that the word Allah is the word for God in the Arabic language shared by all Arabic-speaking peoples, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The three peoples of the Abrahamic faith share a common faith in the same God. If there is an idol to be denounced, it is the idolatrous appropriation of language for God into the sacralization of oppressive military and economic power.
Christians and all people of faith and good will also need to stand together to unmask the misuse of liberal and liberationist language about “freedom,” “democracy,” and “liberation” to cover up blatant invasions and occupations of other countries in order to control their economic resources, as well as to repress critics at home. The basic religious and ethical stances of biblical faith, shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, is to stand with the oppressed and impoverished peoples of the world against every empire. The American empire, no less than the Roman empire, needs to be challenged by a religious vision that calls for “good news to the poor, the liberation of the captives, the setting at liberty of those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
Finally and most basically, the American people themselves must challenge a domestic and foreign policy that guts our own traditions of democracy, human rights, and prophetic self-critique. We need a new generation of prophets to arise to denounce the misuse of American might for blatant power mongering and self enrichment of the super-rich. Even more, we need new prophets who will redefine how America can become simply one nation among others in a world community that together seeks “liberty and justice for all.”
1 See Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004), 154.
2 For this citation of Winthrop, as well as the general inspiration of this article, see Tom Barry, “El complejo de poder: se acabo ‘el gringo bueno’” in Envio: Revista Mensual de la Universidad Centroamericana, no. 248 (November 2002), 45–50.
3 The Project for the New American Century, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century (www.newamericancentury.org).
4 See David Ray Griffin, The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2005).
5 See Ed Harriman, “Where has all the Money Gone?” in London Review of Books 27, no. 13 (July 7, 2005), 3.
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Rosemary Radford Ruether is one of America’s foremost Christian theologians. Although she is a Roman Catholic, she has taught at Protestant schools: Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, and Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California. Her many books include Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power (1972); Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (1983); Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (1992); Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Tradition (1998); To change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism (2001); and Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History (2005).