Tuesday, April 10, 2007

War of the Poses

Opening a recent Foreign Affairs article, Tony Blair demonstrated an ability to imbue rank dishonesty with self-righteous arrogance that would make Douglas Feith envious:
Our response to the September 11 attacks has proved even more momentous than it seemed at the time. That is because we could have chosen security as the battleground. But we did not. We chose values.
Mr. Blair's fellow citizens may be alarmed by this public confirmation that their Prime Minister has chosen to focus less on their defense at home than on the American neoconservative project abroad. That scheme, despite its original ambitions for knocking off two or three obstructionist regimes in a neat row on our way to permanent preeminence in the Middle East, and the increasingly shrill and alarmist rhetoric that, still, accompanies it, has been reduced to struggling to achieve the minimal level of security (seems you've had to concern yourself with someone's security after all, Mr. Prime Minister) in Iraq necessary to preserve the effective de-nationalization of its oil industry while simultaneously minimizing the political fallout that comes with responsibility for leading one's nation into humiliating defeat.

That and making threatening noises toward Iran (having had to discard, at least for the moment, plans to engage that previously non-hostile nation in Blair's clash of "values"--by toppling its democratically elected government) and pretending that Iran somehow has the power to threaten us the way Iraq once did in the fevered, shared imagination of President Bush and the Prime Minister.

With his short but still somehow interminable essay Mr. Blair is counting on the short reach of your memory; security, after all, was invoked as necessitating the invasion of Iraq without delay. The hysterics he and President Bush engaged in prior to invading Iraq were designed to manipulate and extend rational fear following 9/11, when al Qaeda expanded its war on the U.S. by engaging us on the "battleground" of domestic security.

Blair's government engaged in the manipulation of intelligence in a fashion similiar to the well documented orchestration that occurred in the U.S., to lead a recently terrorized public into believing that Iraq was at that very moment itself advancing as a "gathering" threat. In what was perhaps Prime Minister Blair’s most conspicuous and deliberate misconstruing of intelligence he asserted that Iraq had the capability (and—even more remarkably—was suicidally willing) to launch weapons of mass destruction against Western outposts in minutes. Security was all the rage back then. Mr. Blair would like you to forget about his fling with the now embarrassing fashion of that moment. But like an old photo revealing a middle-aged man's youthful penchant for Angel's Flight slacks and gold chains, documentation exists.

The lofty rhetoric about democracy and freedom was merely adjunct to the hysteria, recall; the Prime Minister, still following Bush's lead right off the edge of the dance floor, behaves as if the reverse had been the case, even as he offers the pathetic argument that, yes, Iraq was indeed a threat because they were after all in violation of those "fourteen U.N. resolutions." At least Blair doesn't share the habit of some of his American counterparts of citing as a casus belli United Nations resolutions one moment and in the next cursing or ridiculing the institution as obstructionist and corrupt and international law as a moral hindrance.

But to take this argument at face value (that is, as if its source retains a modicum of credibility), Blair is still pushing the same false dichotomy that got him, and us, into this mess: that we have no choice but to engage al Qaeda and its sympathizers in a global contest of cultures, or face extinction and the withering away of human progress. No sensible person can believe that the Jihadis are going to conquer U.S. or British soil, and Blair's own domestic and immigration policies suggest he doesn't take seriously the threat of importing Islamic radicalism (the only conceivable way the Islamists could establish a presence in and threaten the existence of the West), so the question needs to be put to him: what would this defeat look like?

And there is the likelihood of a defeat, albeit different from that invoked by Blair, as a result of the overreaching of the Bush/Blair coalition. But what is at stake is not our very existence but our influence and dominance in the Middle East. The consequences of surrendering the Middle East might ultimately precipitate our decline; but our new imperialists cannot engage the public on such frank terms. They would then have to acknowledge that we are in effect fighting to maintain an empire of sorts, and that we are not curing the world but straddling it. It would furthermore provoke the question: what sort of world order is this that depends on our subjugation of the oil-rich Middle East, and is it worth keeping?

At points Blair's essay reads like a variation on Sokal's Hoax using Friedman-esque terminology, but belies an almost sinister grandiosity beneath the unintentional humor:
Globalization begets interdependence, and interdependence begets the necessity of a common value system to make it work. Idealism thus becomes realpolitik.
More questions arise. What is this "common value system"? What is its extent? How is it achieved? Who determines it? Who enforces it? Idealism thus becomes imperialism.

What is really at work here is that our governments will not, and cannot, retreat from globalization on their terms, even in the face of the repercussive blowback against Western influence and dominance of the Middle East that is the global Jihad. Anything less than the aggressive redoubling of Western penetration and influence of the Middle East is seen as retreat by Blair and Bush. Iraq reveals how arrogant expressions of might thwarted are revealed as craven acts of desperation.

But no matter how righteous our anger toward those responsible for 9/11, who had after all been identified and located even before they struck, any actions beyond their destruction still had to meet the same standard as before 9/11, as a reasonable response to a real threat.
Bush and Blair were impatient with this because they believed they were justified nonetheless and granted a historic dispensation; delusions of grandeur. What they will never admit, even to themselves, is that they couldn't bear to see their chance at greatness pass, when it seemed that it would all be relatively easy and the reward, permanent domination of the Middle East, would carry their names into eternity. Hence the lying. This is how the vanity of small men wrecks great nations.

Blair uses the bulk of his essay to argue for global anti-poverty and pro-democracy programs as part and parcel of this imperial strategy, and, as his opening paragraph unblushingly asserts, making as if this has been the case all along. The Great Society goes global and militant, no doubt with unintended consequences that will make the domestic version's look trivial.
As if this will make the discredited folly of attempting to forcibly reform Islam on behalf of its presumptively captive population (as if the people, society, and governance of Islam are three distinct and unrelated things and—contrary to every other example in human history—the latter two somehow descended on an unwitting populace and its culture rather than arising from it) look like just another aspect of our generosity.

The proposition is absurd on its face, and anyway rendered tragically moot by our failure in Iraq; but it is also exposed as disingenuous by the fact that the chosen primary targets are secular and Shi'ite nations that, while tyrannical and backward, oppose the global Jihad. Where the effort was truly against radical Islamists with global designs (and where we bore the responsibility of avenging the murder of 9/11), Afghanistan, resources were drawn away to engage in a war of choice against Iraq.
Iran, a natural enemy of those responsible for 9/11 and a logical ally against them, presents a challenge that is clearly not "existential" or "global", but regional; and it is furthermore their region, which they've sought to dominate for centuries, long before the current manifestation of Persian governance came into being. Viewing Iran solely through the prism of the Khomeni revolution is like trying to understand the United States as a product of the Bush Administration. These movements and theories attach themselves to the larger historical forces from which they spring and into which they are eventually subsumed.

Iraq and Iran were not selected for their unique brutality and bear no relevance to the struggle against the global Jihad, and our targeting of them doesn't represent a "global" or "universal" fight against terrorism and tyranny; indeed, we continue to align with and support petty tyrants and others who do our bidding, some of whom can even be characterized as terrorists, against nations that hold the same geostrategic importance they held before 9/11: Iraq for its oil, Iran for the challenge it presents to Israel, to the Sunni Arab states, and to American hegemony in the Middle East. It is a war about "values" after all: the value of resources and the value of a presence in the Middle East.

The Prime Minister goes on, forwarding garbled ideas with artless prose, to seek to tie in the aggressive military adventurism of the Iraq war with a sort of renewed international liberal activism, offering this bizarre tautology:
The is a danger of a division of global politics into “hard” and “soft”, with the “hard” efforts going after the terrorists, whereas the “soft” campaign focuses on poverty and injustice. That divide is dangerous because interdependence makes all these issues just that: interdependent.
I defy you to find the meaning in that. These things are interdependent because they are interdependent. My fellow Americans, we can take cold comfort in knowing that we are not alone in having elected a man incapable of sound reasoning to our highest office. No explanation is offered as to how and why this assertion is true, much less to what extent and where precisely it applies.

"Universal" and "global" are profligately employed in the article as to the scale of Blair's "battleground of ideas"; any military action taken by the U.S./British coalition is to be seen as part and parcel of the grand liberal anti-poverty and democratization project. It is the world's worst nightmare, liberal activism married to military power and applied on a global scale. But it gets better, continuing the same paragraph:
The answer to terrorism is the universal application of global values; the answer to poverty and injustice is the same. That is why the struggle for global values has to be applied not selectively but to the whole global agenda.
I'm reminded of being very young, and thinking that all that really stood in the way of world peace and prosperity was the requisite will and proper marshalling of resources. It's frightening that world leaders still think in these childlike terms; rather, it's frightening that the democratic world has come to operate on the institutionalized dishonesty that makes this sort of nonsensical talk effective.
But as for its relevance to a struggle with radical Islamists, it's the "they hate us for our freedom" argument extrapolated to "they will love us for our beneficence", proving that these conservative and liberal pieties exist on the same absurd continuum. The Prime Minister even engages in a bit of comedy, mentioning Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaigns as models for remaking the world over post-9/11.

Walid Phares has a book out, with a title that seems designed to make it indistinguishable from the still swelling mass of spent wood fiber sacrificed more for the purpose of advancing the careers of various experts than uncovering the truth, The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy, that I haven't read. But the prevalence and unchallenged nature of the idea expressed by Mr. Blair's delirium and Mr. Phares' book title has me thinking that the one idea upon which we need to make war is the idea that we are engaged in a "war of ideas"; driving a stake through it once and for all, before dismembering the corpse and burying its parts in equidistant remote locations.

Just how little scrutiny this radical and, to me at least, nonsensical notion receives, just how much it is a point of ecumenical agreement across the spectrum of opinion, even among those who recognize the folly and mendacity of the Iraq war, that we have to refute the jihadis' "ideas" and replace them with our own, is a marvel. Those who argue that we are engaged in a global battle of ideas have unwisely accepted the war on the jihadis' terms. For them it is just that: a battle to the death between two opposite worldviews. It was, and is, desperation. Those who argue that we “must” defeat the Jihadis in a battle of ideas argue that we should be every bit as desperate as they are. The Jihadis have been claiming, and counting on, the existence of a "war on Islam" for decades; Bush and Blair have given it to them.

Among the reasons initially offered for this global engagement of values was the notion that 9/11 had suddenly exposed the illusory nature of our security; we had to engage the Ummah because modern transportation and communications had brought it to our shores. That we already knew. The real revelation we have not yet come to accept, the more intractable and distasteful and therefore little spoken of reality, is that the terrorists showed up here because we have for so long been engaged over there.

This is commonly discarded as the self-loathing of leftist Amerika-with-a-k types; but in reality the typical out-of-hand rejection of this obvious fact is the foreign policy equivalent of reflexively rejecting as “blaming the victim” any acknowledgement that hardships often befall people as consequences of their own actions. Perhaps this explains how an oddity like Blair, the liberal imperialist, can find himself explaining away a disastrous war of aggression four years later by chiding those who offered him better advice, all the while posturing as a moralist.

Behind every circus elephant is a man armed with a large shovel. Behind every imperial misadventure is a politician armed with high-minded rhetoric.

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