Year in Review: 2001

The year 2001 began with the culmination of the right-wing political coup engineered by the US Supreme Court: the installation of George W. Bush as president. It quickly became apparent that what was unfolding was a dramatic shift to the right, not only in the United States but in world politics as a whole.


Bush dropped his pretense of moderation, summed up in the election campaign claim that he was a “compassionate conservative,” and advanced an ultra-right program centered on the largest tax cuts for the wealthy in history. He named a cabinet filled with corporate executives and Christian fundamentalists. He expanded the US bombing of Iraq, ostensibly to enforce a “no-fly” zone, and set up a secretive energy task force, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, to plan the seizure of oil and gas resources in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Plans for wider military action were developed, requiring only a suitable pretext to implement. This was provided by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people. The simultaneous hijacking of four airliners, under circumstances that have never been seriously investigated, was carried out by Al Qaeda, an organization that arose from the CIA-backed Islamic fundamentalist insurgency in Afghanistan. The 9/11 attacks became the all-purpose justification for a program of militarism and destruction of democratic rights not only in the United States, but in all the major capitalist countries.

Less than a month after 9/11, the United States was engaged in a major war in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon had begun to ready contingency plans for an invasion of Iraq, which had no connection to the terrorist attacks. Members of the NATO alliance, including Britain, France, Germany and Canada, and non-NATO powers such as Japan and Australia joined in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

By the end of the year, the Bush administration had declared an open-ended “war on terror” that encompassed the entire globe. Congressional Democrats and Republicans endorsed both the military action in Afghanistan and an enormous buildup of state repression at home, embodied in the passage of the USA Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. 

President George W. Bush inspects troops in Georgia in 2001

The first months of the Bush administration

The far-right character of the Bush administration was quickly revealed in the composition of Bush’s cabinet and the social and economic policies it pursued. This was exemplified by the figure of Attorney General John Ashcroft, a Christian fundamentalist opposed to the separation of church and state and other basic democratic principles.

After the stolen 2000 election, the Democratic Party dropped any pretense of objections to Bush’s coming to power, fawning over the new president, as the WSWS explained in “Bush’s political honeymoon: why the Democrats are rallying behind an illegitimate government.” They were joined by former Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who went so far as to praise Bush, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, for proposing cuts in “corporate welfare.”

 With the aid of the Democrats, the Bush administration pushed through massive and historically unprecedented tax cuts for the rich, which delivered hundreds of billions of dollars to the wealthiest layers of society. At the same time, tens of thousands lost jobs in an intensifying recession, and the working class came under ever greater attack from all corners of government through the scrapping of workplace protections and environmental regulations, changes in bankruptcy laws that made it more difficult for ordinary people to get out from under crushing levels of debt, the establishment of limits on the right to counsel, the promotion of religious obscurantism, attacks on science, and efforts to dismantle the separation of church and state.

Bush sharply escalated the militaristic policies pursued by the Clinton administration, which had maintained a no-fly zone in Iraq enforced by occasional bombing raids. The WSWS pointed to the focus on Iraq by the neo-conservative elements brought into government with Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, and asked the prescient question, in the first week of the new administration, whether Bush was planning to go to war against Iraq.

The administration had to proceed more cautiously, however, when a US spy plane was brought down by a collision with a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province. After an initial aggressive reaction on the part of the White House, business interests, concerned about their multi-billion-dollar investments, demanded that the administration adopt diplomatic face-saving measures

While all layers of the political establishment preached and promoted collaboration with the Bush administration’s right-wing policies, the depth of the class divide in America found acute expression when protests and rioting broke out in Cincinnati,after police shot and killed an unarmed African-American youth. Contrary to most media claims at the time, that this was the product of toxic race relations in the city, the World Socialist Web Site stressed that decades of minority-owned businesses and black politicians had done nothing to help white or minority workers in the US, whose real problem was poverty, joblessness and growing social inequality. 


The terrorist attacks of September 11

The September 11, 2001 attacks

The attacks of September 11, 2001, destroying the World Trade Center in New York City and heavily damaging the Pentagon, were the deadliest acts of terrorism ever carried out on American soil.

The initial response of the WSWS, written only hours after the attack and posted the following day, “The political roots of the terror attack on New York and Washington,” laid out all the central political questions. The WSWS “unequivocally condemns the terrorist attacks,” it began.

Those responsible for the hijacking of four commercial passenger aircraft and their conversion into flying bombs are guilty of mass murder… These acts of homicidal terrorism manifest a toxic combination of demoralized pessimism, religious and ultra-nationalist obscurantism, and, it must be added, political opportunism of the vilest character.

The WSWS, however, placed central culpability for the attack on American imperialism. Since 1983, the US government had been bombing one or another Middle Eastern country, including Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Iran, the Sudan and Afghanistan.

The foreign policy of the US is a mixture of cynicism, brutality and irresponsibility. Washington has pursued a course that has inflamed the hatred of large sections of the world’s population, creating an environment in which recruits can be found for bloody terrorist operations.

The charge that the individual behind the attack was Osama bin Laden, “whose every move is tracked with the aid of the most technologically sophisticated and massive intelligence apparatus,” raises “a host of troubling questions,” the WSWS wrote. It noted that bin Laden and Al Qaeda were products of the decision of American imperialism to arm and train Islamic fundamentalist insurgents to fight the pro-Soviet government and subsequently the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

After pointing to the plans for war and attacks on democratic rights that were initiated immediately after the terrorist attacks, the statement concluded with the prescient warning: 

It is the policies pursued by the United States, driven by the strategic and financial interests of the ruling elite, which laid the foundations for the nightmare that unfolded on Tuesday. The actions now being contemplated by the Bush administration—indicated by the president’s threat to make “no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them”—will only set the stage for further catastrophes.

Two days later, a second editorial board statement, “Why the Bush administration wants war,” warned that the September 11 attacks would serve as the catalyst for a long planned increase in militarism abroad and attacks on democratic rights at home. The statement noted that these developments had deep social and political roots:

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been seized on as an opportunity to implement a far-reaching political agenda for which the most right-wing elements in the ruling elite have been clamoring for years. Within a day of the attack, before any light had been shed on the source of the assault or the dimensions of the plot, the government and the media had launched a coordinated campaign to declare that America was at war and the American people had to accept all the consequences of wartime existence.

The policies that are now being advanced—an open-ended expansion of US military action abroad and a crackdown on dissent at home—have long been in preparation. The US ruling elite has been hampered in implementing such policies by the lack of any significant support within the American population and resistance from its imperialist rivals in Europe and Asia.

Now the Bush administration has decided to exploit the public mood of shock and revulsion over the events of September 11 to advance the global economic and strategic aims of American imperialism.

Another commentary, headlined, “Anti-Americanism: The “anti-imperialism” of fools,” took a principled stand against demoralized middle class elements who responded to the September 11 attacks with vulgar anti-Americanism in the place of principled anti-imperialism. The WSWS explained that it was the American government and not the American population that was carrying out imperialist policies throughout the world:

The struggle against the policies and designs of the American government requires, in the first instance, the exposure of the latter’s claim that it is the true voice and representative of the people. Socialists are obliged to explain that the US ruling elite is carrying out anti-democratic and rapacious policies, with inevitably tragic consequences, in the pursuit of which it falsely invokes the name of the American people.

At the same time, the WSWS rejected the official explanation of the events of 9/11 and conducted its own review of the information that was coming to light about the US government’s own role in permitting the attacks to take place, despite extensive warnings and direct monitoring of the conspirators. This was summarized in a four-part series of articles by Patrick Martin, published in January 2002, under the headline, “Was the US government alerted to September 11 attack?” 


The NATO war in Afghanistan

One month after the September 11 attacks, the US government began its invasion of Afghanistan with a bombing campaign against the Taliban. The WSWS exposed the Bush administration's claims of “self-defense” as self-serving lies. Far from seeking to end terrorism or bring bin Laden “to justice,” the US ruling elite used the terrorist attacks as an excuse to further its own economic interests.

In its first statement on the invasion, the WSWS editorial board wrote:

But while the events of September 11 have served as the catalyst for the assault on Afghanistan, the cause is far deeper. The nature of this or any war, its progressive or reactionary character, is determined not by the immediate events that preceded it, but rather by the class structures, economic foundations and international roles of the states that are involved. From this decisive standpoint, the present action by the United States is an imperialist war.

The US government initiated the war in pursuit of far-reaching international interests of the American ruling elite. What is the main purpose of the war? The collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago created a political vacuum in Central Asia, which is home to the second largest deposit of proven reserves of petroleum and natural gas in the world.

The drive for US dominance in the Middle East and Central Asia came not from terrorist attacks but from the desire to exploit the energy reserves opened to foreign capital by the collapse of the Soviet Union. A WSWS article early in 2001 had already identified the potential conflict between the United States and China over the region.

The WSWS deepened its coverage with a historical overview of Afghanistan since the end of the Soviet occupation. Recounting the initial US support for Islamic fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, the WSWS simultaneously maintained a scathing critique of US imperialism and denounced the reactionary and ultimately pro-imperialist method of terrorism. Far from being irreconcilable opposites, the Islamic fundamentalists had a symbiotic relationship with American imperialism and served as important tools of US foreign policy.

The invasion of Afghanistan saw a further movement of pacifist and former radical “left” commentators into the camp of imperialism. Writers like Christopher Hitchens had first rallied to the cause of imperialist “humanitarian” interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Now they were using the 9/11 attacks as justification for giving the US government carte blanche to wage war against what they dubbed “Islamo-fascism.” In Germany, the Green Party, part of the coalition government with the Social Democrats, voted to endorse the war and the dispatch of German troops to join it.

As the conflict unfolded, the WSWS exhaustively reported the events of the war and the political repercussions in all the countries involved. There were articles on civilian casualties and the open repudiation of international laws and conventions, summed up in events like the massacre of prisoners of war by US and British forces in Mazar-i-Sharif, on worldwide anti-war protests, and the terrible conditions facing the population of the invaded country.

By the end of the year, the Taliban had withdrawn or been forced out of every major city. Hamid Karzai was placed in power by the occupying forces. Rather than signifying a stable situation, however, the new client state, as the WSWS explained, was riddled with rival ethnic and religious factions backed by competing foreign powers.

Far from being a self-contained episode, the invasion of Afghanistan was part of a new redivision of the world among the imperialist powers. In a commentary by Nick Beams on articles in the Wall Street Journal calling for the reestablishment of direct colonialism in “failed states” like Afghanistan, the WSWS pointed out that the subjugation of Afghanistan would inevitably lead to further conflict. Beams wrote:

The value of these articles is that they make all too clear thatunder the banner of the global fight against terrorism, the imperialist powers, led by the United States, are preparing nothing less than the re-organization of the world through the imposition of military power. This has immediate political consequences. Militarization of international relations inevitably implies militarization of politics at home: imperialism is incompatible with democratic forms of rule.

Furthermore they all make one significant omission as they harken back to the “glory days” of British imperialism. The carve-up of the world in the latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th did not bring peace and prosperity. Rather, it led to two inter-imperialist wars, resulting in hundreds of millions of deaths, as the major capitalist powers—the US, Britain, Germany, France and Japan—inevitably came into conflict with each other in the global struggle for resources, markets and spheres of influence.


The buildup of a police-state

The WSWS stressed that the escalation of US militarism abroad went hand in hand with further attacks on democratic rights at home. The Bush administration moved quickly to expand the government’s ability to wiretap phone lines and spy on Internet traffic, without any opposition from the political or media establishment. Legislation given the Orwellian title “USA PATRIOT Act” was pushed through Congress with near-unanimous support.

The administration was aided in this campaign by the widespread panic whipped up over a series of attacks on media and government targets using anthrax spores sent in the mail. While the attacks were initially attributed to Al Qaeda—or, in an ominous foreshadowing of future lies, to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein—the WSWS argued that a right-wing source within the US military-intelligence apparatus was far more likely. This analysis was ultimately vindicated when the anthrax spores were traced back to an Army biological weapons laboratory.

The WSWS also pointed to the connection between the sweeping attacks on democratic rights and the methods used to install the Bush administration in the first place, through the anti-democratic intervention by the US Supreme Court in the post-election crisis in Florida. As opposed to the media claims that September 11 “changed everything,” these attacks on democratic rights followed in the footsteps of the impeachment drive of 1998-99 and the stolen election of 2000.


The worldwide impact of 9/11

The Bush administration’s declaration of a “war on terror” after 9/11 was echoed by the governments of every major industrialized country. Some directly partnered with the US in the war in Afghanistan. All joined in the crackdown on people with Islamic fundamentalist or anti-imperialist sympathies. And in each country where it was active, the International Committee of the Fourth International and the WSWS sought to mobilize opposition to imperialist war and state repression.

No ally was more slavish towards Bush than British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose Labour government had just been reelected in June 2001. British imperialism saw the “special relationship” with Washington as the ticket to regain some of its lost influence in the Middle East and South Asia.

The Blair government sent the second largest troop contingent to Afghanistan and followed Bush’s lead in adopting anti-terror legislation, whose real target was the British working class and opponents of the war. Britain’s role in the war provoked popular opposition, including a demonstration of 100,000 people in London to demand an end to the bombing of Afghanistan. 

The British SEP and the WSWS held public meetings to distinguish our total opposition to the war from the position of the middle-class “left,” which dominated the Stop the War Coalition and called only for Bush and Blair to defer to the United Nations.

In Australia, the right-wing government of John Howard was the first to conduct an election campaign in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Howard declared open-ended support for US militarism and the “war on terror,” and used the “war card” to further boost his election prospects

The prime minister cited security grounds to justify the savage anti-immigrant policy of his government, backed by the Labor Party “opposition,” which began with his infamous refusal to allow 433 refugees rescued in Australian territorial waters by a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, to set foot on Australian soil. It culminated in the SIEV X tragedy in October, when a boat laden with asylum seekers sank in a part of the Indian Ocean under Australian military surveillance. More than 350 people drowned, but on behalf of the government, the minister for immigration publicly welcomed the anticipated deterrent effect.

The Australian SEP held public meetings against the war and the whipping up of xenophobia, opposing both the ruling Liberal-National coalition and the Australian Labor Party, the main bourgeois opposition.

In its 2001 election statement, the Australian SEP explained: “The unprecedented degree of unanimity between the two major parties has deep-going significance. It represents the culmination of a protracted process whereby the entire structure of official politics has moved sharply to the right.” In November, the Howard government was returned to office but the election results revealed that record numbers of voters had rejected both parties.

No region was more dramatically affected by the outbreak of war than South Asia, where the tensions generated by the US invasion of Afghanistan inflamed relations between the region’s two nuclear-armed states, India and Pakistan. The military ruler in Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, in response to a US ultimatum, reversed his policy of supporting the Taliban as a counterweight to India and aligned himself with the US invaders, despite mounting protests at home over the mass casualties among the Pashtun population of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

A suicide bomb attack on the Indian parliament in December, which India’s Hindu-supremacist BJP-led government blamed on Pakistan, led to both countries rushing troops, tanks and missiles to the border, threatening an all-out war involving the use of nuclear weapons. The year ended with the conflict inflamed to the boiling point, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the people of South Asia.

In Sri Lanka, President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Peoples Alliance government sought to exploit the global crisis, identifying its ongoing war against the separatist Tamil movement, the LTTE, with Bush’s global “war on terror” in the hope of winning imperialist support. Kumaratunga dissolved parliament, attempting to use the post-9/11 atmosphere to stampede the population behind it. Instead, the right-wing UNP won a narrow majority in the parliament.

The Socialist Equality Party of Sri Lanka was at the forefront of opposition to the war against the Tamils, and conducted an important political and legal campaign for the release of the Hatton Six, Tamil plantation youth who had been framed up as members of the LTTE, eventually winning their release.

The SEP ran a slate of candidates, both Tamil- and Sinhala-speaking, in the general election, opposing both of the main right-wing bourgeois parties, the Peoples Alliance and the UNP (United National Party).


Other political commentary and analysis

While the 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan were the axis of global politics in 2001, many other important events were analyzed and discussed on the WSWS in the course of the year.

On February 6, the right-wing Likud Party won the most votes in the Israeli general election, elevating former defense minister and war criminal Ariel Sharon to the post of prime minister. The WSWS examined in depth the murderous role played by the Israeli bourgeoisie in its attacks on the working class of the Middle East and examined in detail the political theories that underpin the Israeli bourgeois state.

Two series of articles by Jean Shaoul traced the history of the expulsion of the Palestinian population and the rise and decline of Labour Zionism. An editorial board statement, published September 7, took note of the increasingly open US support for Israel’s policy of assassinating opponents in the region and warned that Washington would follow in the footsteps of the Zionist regime.

The WSWS reported and analyzed the crisis in the Balkans, including the secession of Montenegro from Serbia in the former Yugoslavia and the arrest in April of Slobodan Milosevic, as well the initial proceedings against Milosevic before the imperialist kangaroo court known as the Hague tribunal.

A commentary by Peter Schwarz analyzed the controversy over the history of Lionel Jospin, the prime minister of France and leader of the social democrats, whose political roots lay in the ex-Trotskyist Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI).

The WSWS covered the strike carried out against the privatization of the London Underground. The militant action of workers was sabotaged and dissipated by the trade unions, while a leader of the fake “left,” Bob Crow, was elected general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), the main rail union.

The WSWS analyzed the mounting divisions among the major capitalist powers, revealed at the Genoa summit of the G-8, and reported on and condemned the violent attacks on demonstrators by the newly installed right-wing government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

We also examined three significant political upheavals in Asia: the electoral victory of right-wing populist and billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand in January; the judicial coup in the Philippines that ousted President Joseph Estrada, also in January; and the installation of Junichiro Koizumi as Japanese prime minister in April, in the midst of a sharp crisis in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. All three developments reflected the sharp divisions within ruling circles over how, in the wake of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, to implement the IMF’s free market agenda in the face of growing popular hostility.

In the United States, the American SEP conducted a broad campaign against a war criminal being allowed to remain at the head of a major American university. Soon after Robert Kerrey was installed as president of the New School University in New York City, it was revealed that the former Democratic senator and presidential aspirant had committed atrocities during the Vietnam War, which he had concealed for 32 years.

Along with unconditional support from the New School’s Board of Trustees, Kerrey was defended by the political and academic establishment and the media, which sought to both conceal and legitimize the atrocities of US imperialism in Vietnam. The WSWS explained the significance of the New School, known as a bastion of liberal thought in the US, placing a man charged with mass murder at its head. We wrote:

An entire generation has grown up in America with little knowledge of the Vietnam War and amidst a systematic attempt to rehabilitate the war and block any understanding of the issues that moved millions in the United States and internationally to oppose the war.

The defense of Kerrey and the attempt to legitimize the Vietnam War bear not only on the past and the present, but also on the future. They are part of the preparation for new crimes by American capitalism, crimes that are already in the planning stages.

Other important US events included the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the right-wing terrorist who killed more than 180 people in Oklahoma City. A WSWS commentary posed the question: “What is the socio-psychological process that transformed a working class youth into an unrepentant mass murderer?” The answer, David Walsh argued, lay in the combined processes of economic blight and political reaction, including the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War in which McVeigh took part. A subsequent article by Barry Grey condemned the grotesque celebration of the execution in the American media. 

In December, the collapse of Enron, the largest corporate bankruptcy to that point in history, shed light on the fraudulent character of the financial boom that dominated the last half of the 1990s. Enron was the one of the most spectacular in a series of financial scandals that the WSWS would analyze extensively in 2002.


Art, culture and history

Film reviews continued to be at the center of the arts coverage in the WSWS. Among the major films analyzed in 2001 were Pollock (the comment discussed some of the issues related to post-war artistic and intellectual life in America), the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, Amelie, The Pledge, and Memento. We also published obituaries of actor Jack Lemmon and director Stanley Kramer.

The growing influence of the WSWS brought an invitation to the Buenos Aires film festival, which provided a new opportunity to consider the state of current world cinema, as well as the specific condition of Latin American filmmaking.

We continued our coverage of the Berlin and Sydney film festivals. At the Sydney festival, Richard Phillips commented on the showings of two classic film works: the Apu Trilogy, written and directed by Satyajit Ray, and Marcel Ophuls’ epic documentary on the German occupation of France during World War II, The Sorrow and the Pity. Phillips also interviewed Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho.

The Toronto and Vancouver  film festivals took place in the midst of major world events, the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, respectively, and the problems of artistic perspective took on new significance in the light of those developments.

In November, the Bush administration attempted to recruit American film industry executives, without much resistance, for its drive to war.