p o l e m i c n o r m a n b i r n b a u m
hen Henry Kissinger conducted American policy in Viet Nam his proclaimed priority was to maintain the “credibility” of the United States. The U.S. would concede nothing to its enemies and indeed inflict devastating, if not annihilating, punishment on them for opposing our imperial will. There was a difficulty. He knew that we were defeated in Viet Nam, and his diplomacy provided a decent interval before our Vietnamese allies were left to their fate. A generation later, Dr. Kissinger has now instructed the nation that our credibility is again in question, We cannot leave Iraq to its fate (not yet at any rate) without suffering a total loss of prestige. The scholar-diplomat suggests that Iraq’s neighbors must be involved in a solution, but the great realist refrains from mentioning Iran. As to the obvious, that the invasion of Iraq with its murderous brutality, manifest incompetence, and pervasive hypocrisy has already destroyed our credibility, Dr. Kissinger prefers discretion.
Still, like the ghost in Hamlet, his appearance reminds us of things past. The War on Terror is the bastard offspring of the Cold War. Like the Cold War, its American protagonists make it the central element of national politics, and impose their obsessions on the rest of the world. As was the Cold War, the War on Terror is a gigantic public works program, providing employment for experts, ideologues and charlatans, and constituting a rationale for limitless expenditures, civil and military, in the chimerical pursuit of “security.” Mobilizing the nation for the “war” gives American government an increasingly authoritarian cast. Enlisting other nations in it gives us at least partial sovereignty over them. It also gives many of our journalists, lacking knowledge or critical distance from power, the means to interpret a reality which they cannot otherwise master.
In 1889 Jacob Burckhardt decried “les terribles simplificateurs.” What would he have said of our world? In the struggle against Communism, much of western political thought lost its capacity for differentiation , its very sense of reality. Was the enemy Russian expansionism or Stalinist tyranny? The geopolitical struggle of the U.S. with the U.S.S.R. intensified after de-Stalinization and the outbreak of the Sino-Soviet conflict. Soviet offers of military and political détente were rejected. If the Soviet Union supported repressive regimes and insurgencies in the Third World when convenient, the United States sponsored dictatorial and exploitative governments. The imagery of a relentlessly aggressive enemy with an absolutist ideology lasted until, with Gorbachev, the edifice collapsed. In large parts of western Europe it had already been undermined by justifiable public skepticism.
Just as the anti-Communists of decades ago ignored the inner tensions within Communist states (and the lack of revolutionary zeal of much of the movement), the strident proponents of an Islamist menace ignore the divisions and problems of the Islamic world. The notion of a drive for a new Caliphate, from Indonesia to Morocco, is an absurdity. In the face of the American inspired reign of ignorance and untruth, it is striking how some Europeans have lost critical and historical sense.
They have even accepted the widespread American view that September 11 marks a world historical turning point. It is indeed important. Viewed apart from American narcissism (frequently expressed in whining self-pity), it represents the end of a certain kind of American exceptionalism. After the war of 1812, nations other than Great Britain (exceptingCanada) were limited by economic and geographical constraints in their capacity to bring war directly to the American homeland. That ended with the threats of Chinese and Soviet missile attacks. Cuba, to this day, is joined to the United States in a system of mutual assured destruction. Cuba has no nuclear weapons, but in the event of a U.S. invasion or a U.S.-sponsored insurrection, its armed forces might be able to destroy American nuclear power plants and render large parts of the southeastern United States inhabitable. As potentially devastating as the inter-continental attacks envisaged in the Cold War, or Cuba’s present capacity for retaliation, these had and have little that was arcane or mysterious about them. By contrast, the suicidal Islamists of September 11 are quite inaccessible to the average American imagination—and the complex chains of causation that led to the event defy the ordinary American capacity to depict world history. An uncoordinated global alliance resisting American power (including segments of European society imperfectly described as conservative) is an obvious fact which our foreign policy elite, or much of it, would be embarrassed to have to explain to its less sophisticated fellow citizens. That accounts for the vulgarities of discussions of “anti-Americanism” (or the denunciation of the Europeans, especially, as insufficiently martial). Above all, it accounts for the preposterous view that the United States is threatened with terminal destruction by an organized movement directed from Pakistan’s Northwest frontier or a system of caves in Afghanistan. An heterogeneous grouping of antagonists certainly will be reducing American power in the next decades—with considerable assistance from the incompetence of our elites and the ignorance of our citizenry. In this context, the War on Terror is part of the problem and not the solution.
The ideology of a War on Terror has its uses. It diverts attention, of course, from the less than sublime moral and political performance of our new Manicheans. In the Cold War, the United States was careful not to press accusations of human rights abuses against the Soviet Union too strongly, lest the United Nations deal with the racial segregation lawful in this country until forty years ago. Now the campaign for democracy has limits: the votes of Hamas, the U.S. agrees with Israel, must not be allowed to count. There is our own structurally imperfect voting system. The continuing struggle of many American citizens to preserve our constitutional liberties from our own government’s depredations is increasingly central to our politics. Time after time, it is reported that the New York City Police infiltrated peace demonstrations with provocateurs. They are not the only police force reported doing so.One is reminded of “old Europe.”
The reminder was reinforced when, recently, the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote to The Washington Post to protest a political cartoon they disliked—evidence not only for their opportunistic servility to the Bush White House but for the accelerating authoritarianism and militarization of American public life.”
The Cold War was conducted by ideological and material interest groups —arms manufacturers, a military-political apparatus monopolizing huge resources, and in Europe those who having been anti-Communist in Italy from 1923 to 1945, in Germany from 1933 to 1945, in Spain from 1936 to 1975 , sought a retroactive legitimation. It was also conducted by intellectuals; some of the most prominent amongst them, organized by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, accepted the covert funding of its projects by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The exposure of C.I.A. funding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its network of academics and journalists in the late 1960s led the late Irving Howe to declare that anti-Communism had become a racket. The matter was put in a British voice by The New Statesman, when it congratulated Irving Kristol—who edited the monthly Encounter for the Congress—for his skill “in making freedom pay.” What the activities of the Congress achieves may have repaid, upon reflection, the C.I.A.’s investment of very small amounts of money. Its publications, and the watchdog and police functions in academic matters undertaken by prestigious figures like Raymond Aron and Isaiah Berlin, created a climate in which thinking about alternatives to the Cold War was made more difficult.
Writing in The New Yorker before his public disenchantment with the Iraq War, George Packer invited intellectuals attached to freedom to follow the example of their ancestors and to found an organization like the Congress of Cultural Freedom to support the noble aims of George Bush. He did not mention the careerist cynicism, the ideological opportunism, and the sheer sordidness of much that the Congress did. At the moment, part of the foreign policy apparatus and a considerable number of the academics, former officials, and publicists concerned with foreign policy are in a considerable rush to take their distance from the White House and, of course, the ideologues supporting it. Not all of the latter are neo-conservatives; many are imperial unilateralists who see no need for sentimentality about democratization. It is striking that many publicly ask for covert funding of “moderate” or “secular” groups and thinkers in the Islamic nations—although insofar as these groups and thinkers do exist, they have good reason to fear being designated as American agents.
Many of our “experts” are, in fact, intellectually deficient. Their knowledge of history is often shallow or non-existent, their capacity to understand different cultures (even those of the Europeans) limited. They talk mainly to one another and fear nothing so much as being thought eccentrically attached to intellectual independence. An especial difficulty attaches to university studies of Muslim nations, since the Israel lobby and groups allied to it claim the right to practice surveillance of these programs, and purport to have detected in many of them large amounts of bias against Israel. This is part of a larger campaign against university faculties for their want of clear commitment to national purposes and values. The campaigners have not explained how universities supposedly critical of our nation’s role in the world have managed to produce McNamara, the Bundys, the Rostows, Kissinger, James Schlesinger, Shultz, Brzezinski, Rice, and Wolfowitz, as well as more academic spokesmen for empire like Bobbitt, Gaddis, Hanson, and Donald Kagan. As for opinion articles produced by Washington’s centers of research , many are best understood as statements of candidacy for posts in the foreign policy apparatus.
President Bush was widely regarded as performing poorly until September 11 gave him a chance to pose as national leader—a pose now disintegrating. Israel, meanwhile, with its strong lobby in the U.S., has an obvious interest in exaggerating the Islamic threat. It is experienced in deforming American policy, having used the issue of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union to sabotage the efforts at détente undertaken by Nixon, Ford and Kissinger. The War on Terror has enlisted those in Europe who regard America as a benign big brother, or a reliable paymaster. In the rest of the world, a familiar set of American clients, Arab tyrants, Indonesian and Pakistani generals, and Latin American thugs, have effected a seamless transition from Anti-Communism to sworn enmity to Terror. Their uninterrupted enjoyment of American funding and protection is a measure of the seriousness of the U.S. commitment to democracy.
The Israel lobby is now exceedingly active. It has detected signs of weakness in the American attitude to the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election—weakness in suggestions by some American commentators that if Hamas renounced resistance to occupation and accepted the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the United States might be prepared not to cripple the Palestinian Authority by terminating economic assistance (and might refrain from putting pressure on the European Union to do the same). The Ambassador of Israel has for his part written to the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times to instruct their editors and readers that the newspapers had furthered terrorism by allowing representatives of Hamas to defend its positions in opinion pieces. No doubt, the Amobassador, in his defense, could say that many American pliticians would agree with him. Nonetheless, his effrontery is still somewhat surprising. It is also unnecessary. In an especially preposterous trip to the MIdeast, Secretary of Rice attempted to persuade Arab regimes fearful of their own opinion that they should join, in effect, Israel and the U.S. in sabotaging the Palestinian Authorty on account of the Hamas victory.
Meanwhile, the chaos in Iraq demonstrates how ineffective is U.S. power.
The War On Terror has assumed theological dimensions. The U.S. Christians of the right clearly think that they are fighting a global reconquista against Islam. Their visions of history are in any event apocalyptic, and the attack on the Twin Towers was a gift to them. The subsequent frenzies of chauvinism are entirely reminiscent of the Cold War. A nation struggling with cultural and economic conflict unites—if in an inauthentic community. The definition of Terror (and the charge of insufficient energy in opposition to it) is frequently as vague as the use of the accusations of Communism, pro-Communism or weakness in the face of Communism—applied to Arbenez, Mossadegh and Nasser, Quadros and Allende, and to great figures like Nehru, Brandt, and Mandela. In the United States, charges of aiding the enemy are used daily in domestic political confrontations—just the other day by the President. to defame those who took exception to his abuse of power in the matter of wiretapping.
The United States has indeed been attacked, abroad and at home, and the bombings in Bali, London, Madrid, and (earlier) Paris attest the scope of problems that also includes the conflicts in the Holy Land and Kashmir, in Chechenya and Sinkiang, and severe internal difficulties in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia. This very incomplete list (one could add Iran and Turkey) is prima facie evidence that so undifferentiated a phrase as Terror tells us nothing. As China and Russia, the former Soviet republics, Cuba and Viet-Nam, the former states of the Yugoslav federation, struggle with their problems, we see how vacuous was the term “Communist” to describe them—just two decades ago.
There is no substitute for historical knowledge, reflectiveness, and sober political judgment. The career paths to high status in our foreign policy elite do not invariably reward these traits. American politics does not always encourage integrity: witness the cynical performance on the Mideast of Senator Hillary Clinton. There is, to our nation’s credit, revolt in the Congress and the American foreign policy apparatus by those not totally devoid of knowledge—and self respect. The sooner the rest of the world rejects the idea of a War on Terror, the larger the chances of an American return to reason.
This article appreared in a somewhat differet version as “La guerra fria et la guerra contra el terrorismo,” El Pais, 8 January 2006.
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