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“Failed States” at Home and Abroad: 
Balancing Weakness and Insanity

by Paul Street
June 21, 2004

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Last week an interesting article appeared in the New York Times under the title “Report Says Aid to Weak States is Inadequate” (June 9, 2004, p. A3).  The story, written by Elizabeth Becker, notes that a bipartisan federal “Commission on Weak States and U.S. National Security” has issued a report recommending that the U.S. do more to “improve societies” that are being badly governed by “failed states.” “Failed states,” as everyone knows, are “breeding grounds for terrorists.”

According to Becker, “failed states” are “those that generally cannot provide security for their citizens, or their territory, and that are corrupt and illegitimate in the eyes of their citizens.” 

So where does that place the United States?  We all know about the scandalous failure of the George W. Bush administration to take elementary action to secure Americans from the preventable terror attacks of September 11 2001 – a monumental national security malfunction that perversely wrapped the Bush gang in the flag of, well, national security. 

As the recently released reports of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States show, the pre-9/11 Bush administration had numerous reasons to expect terrorist actions very much like what occurred on the fateful day. The Bush gangsters did not move to protect the American people in advance of the terrible events.  The evidence included an extremist Islamic terror attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, which did amazingly little to wake “the national security state” up to the depth and degree of danger posed to ordinary Americans by terrorists and the terrible U.S. foreign policies that help drive those terrorists on to despicable actions mass-murder.

Potentially more disastrous is the post-9/11 Bush administration’s determination to pursue a nakedly imperialist, dangerously messianic foreign policy that is likely to spark new, plausibly nuclear, Muslim terror attacks on U.S. soil.  “Small nuclear weapons,” notes Noam Chomsky, citing numerous establishment studies, “can be smuggled into any country with relative ease, along with other potentially very destructive varieties of WMD.”  A 1998 MIT study found that “a well-planned operation to smuggle WMD into the U.S. would have a 90 percent probability of success.” 

Given the Department of Energy’s finding that there may be as many as 40,000 nuclear weapons in the humiliated former Soviet Union (whose unraveling was recently celebrated as one of the late Ronald Reagan’s supposed great accomplishments), it is chilling to learn that one of Bush II’s first actions was to cut back the small U.S. program to help Russia safeguard and dismantle these terrible WMD. In a diffuse age of radioactive globalization, when technological and socioeconomic development no longer permits the core industrial states to retain their “virtual monopoly of violence” (Chomsky), White House policies pose grave threats to American security.

We are talking here about something more than state “failure.”  We are talking about a governing regime’s sheer indifference to its national citizenry’s safety.  As Chomsky argues in Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (2004), this unconcern expresses the policymakers’ preference for “hegemony” over “survival.”  This preference might seem bizarre from a democratic or humanist perspective but it is eminently rational within a delusional doctrinal framework that privileges global dominance and related elite class power over human community and endurance.

“Insane state” seems better than “failed state” as the description of what’s going on in Washington. 

There’s also the little matter of Americans’ social and economic security, technically outside Becker’s definition, but deeply relevant to any serious discussion of state success and failure.  Under the influence of concentrated wealth, the U.S. federal government continues to shred its elementary social-democratic welfare and regulatory functions in the name of “personal responsibility” and the “free market.” The 44 million Americans who lack health insurance and the 34 million Americans who live at or beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate definition of “poverty” are testimony to the depth and degree of socioeconomic insecurity that U.S. policymakers are more than happy to tolerate in the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society. Among the past products of that insecurity, one seems relevant to the issue of terrorism: Timothy McVeigh.  

Which brings us to the second part of Becker’s definition.  Americans routinely express the sentiment that their politicians and policymakers are corrupt and beholden to special, big money interests. "Voter turnout in the world's remaining superpower," notes Steven Hill, "has lurched to 138th in the world, sandwiched between Botswana and Chad" (Hill, Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics, 2002). This low voter participation reflects a common-sense conclusion that their votes are largely irrelevant in the American plutocracy – “the best democracy that money can buy.” 

Their judgment is born out by policymakers’ routine betrayal of the United States’ Constitution’s dictum that government serves the “general welfare.”  The betrayal is seen in the routine implementation of measures that serve the privileged few, over popular opposition, while citizens are treated as mere spectators by state and media. Bush’s radically regressive tax cuts are one of the more spectacular examples. 

There’s a further irony relating to socioeconomic security in “failed” societies. Having determined that “weak states” are a danger to U.S. national security, the Commission on Weak States does not note that the United States’ neo-liberal global economic policy has long been effectively dedicated to the weakening of Third World states’ capacity to provide basic social and economic security to their own populations.  This, it is worth noting, relates quite significantly to the terrorist threat.

The U.S.-enforced march of savage capitalist globalization on the not-free-trade neo-liberal/IMF model of the "Washington Consensus” brutally undercuts traditional social structures, values, and supports. It leaves nothing in its wake but the atomized, soul-crushing chaos of the alienating, inequality-generating marketplace. It drowns past human solidarities in what Karl Marx once famously called "the icy waters of egotistical calculation," creating outrageous contrasts of fortune and rampant popular anomie that encourage certain displaced personalities to engage in suicide bombings and large numbers of unattached young men to become recruits to extremist Islamic terror networks.  

It doesn’t help that, as Gilbert Achcar has noted, by "helping to defeat and crush the Left and progressive nationalism throughout the Islamic world," the U.S. "freed up the space for political Islam as the only ideological and organizational expression of popular resentment. Popular resentment, like nature, abhors a vacuum.” “The resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism," Achcar observes (in his Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder, 2002), is not the culturally inevitable form of radicalization in Muslim countries; until recently most people in Muslim countries spurned the ideology. It won out only by default, after its competition" - progressive secular and popular nationalism – "was eliminated by their common adversary," the United States.

“Failed states” and powerful crazy states give rise to terrorists.  People like like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, who have executed an illegal and bloody invasion and occupation that has so far cost and estimated 22,000-55,000 Iraqi lives and exacerbated a public health crisis that will certainly claim many more Iraqis in future months and years?  These guys make McVeigh look like a boy scout. They are products and agents of an at once “failed” and crazy state.

Paul Street is a writer and researcher in Chicago, Illinois.  He can be reached at

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