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The longer answer

In the comments section of this site, a reader recently asked if I’ve revisited my (sometimes stringent) criticisms of intellectuals who opposed the war in Afghanistan in 2001.  I gave him a short (300-word) answer in comments, and I said that “I would now follow up with a really angry essay in which I say that however much credibility the left lost because of Chomsky’s claims that we’d engaged in ‘silent genocide’ in Afghanistan, we lost far, far more because of the liberal hawks’ march to Baghdad-- oops, I mean the liberal hawks’ enthusiasm for having other people march to Baghdad.” But I inexplicably neglected to mention that I’ve since published an essay like that, in the most recent issue of the American Quarterly.  The essay, “The Loyalties of American Studies,” is available online for those of you with access to Project MUSE, but for everyone else, the relevant excerpt reads as follows.  (The context has to do with anti-imperialism in American studies, and represents my attempt to state more fairly and carefully my disagreements with intellectuals to my left.)

In the years since September 11, as the Cold War has been superseded by a much vaguer and more nebulous war on “terror,” it has become surprisingly difficult to specify the contours of U.S. anti-imperialism. Opposition to the Bush-Ashcroft domestic agenda with regard to civil liberties, from the USA-Patriot Act to Guantanamo, seems to be nearly universal among liberal, progressive, and leftist scholars in all fields. With regard to American affairs abroad, however, there is no similarly near-universal agreement about what constitutes legitimate or productive opposition to U.S. neoimperialism. To put this another way, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have paradoxically confused the terms of anti-imperialism in the United States. On the one hand, the Bush administration has conducted itself arrogantly and appallingly in world affairs, not least in war, but, on the other hand, not every one of Bush’s opponents abroad deserves the support (even the “critical” support) of U.S. anti-imperialists.

To say this is to provoke serious debate among anti-imperialists on the American left, and perhaps among many American studies scholars as well—which is, of course, what I mean to do. Even among American progressives who, with varying degrees of reluctance or enthusiasm, supported U.S.-led wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan (many of whom, like myself, are willing to concede that both wars were badly conducted on moral and/or tactical grounds and therefore more easily justified in theory than in practice), there is no support for the neoconservative and explicitly imperialist Project for the New American Century (PNAC). (PNAC, formed in 1997 and chaired by second-generation neoconservative intellectual William Kristol, is dedicated to the proposition “that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle; and that too few political leaders today are making the case for global leadership.") Rather, such progressives disagree with intellectuals to their left about what constitutes an “imperialist” war. My own grounds for supporting a military rather than a police/intelligence response in Afghanistan were that the attacks of September 11 demonstrated that Al Qaeda and the Taliban, as its ally and state sponsor, had attained a level of global reach that made it imperative that the Taliban be overthrown and its terror training camps destroyed. (Since then, the Al Qaeda attacks in Bali in 2002 and in Madrid in 2004 have demonstrated that the removal of the Taliban was, by itself, not a sufficient means of opposing the spread of Al Qaeda’s global reach and that exclusively military responses to terrorism are ineffective and possibly counterproductive.  As to the oft-rehearsed argument that the attacks of September 11 constituted “blowback” for American policies in the Middle East or during the Cold War with regard to the United States’ support for the Afghan mujahideen two decades ago, some populations around the globe have good reason to consider the United States their enemy on the basis of past and present U.S. policy, and some of them would find ready sympathizers within the United States, also for good reason. But, by any standard I can credit, Al Qaeda is not one of them.) I acknowledge that for some critics the overthrow of the Taliban was another exercise in American imperialism and therefore indefensible. Additionally, many critics of the war in Afghanistan have argued that the Taliban have not in fact been routed and are regrouping. But it appears to me that the cogency of the second argument undermines the credibility of the first. What the United States can plausibly be charged with in Afghanistan is not imperialism, but a long-standing pattern of criminal negligence: far from propping up a client state of the empire in Afghanistan, we have, by turning to invade Iraq in 2003, allowed Afghanistan to drift back into state failure—precisely the condition that made possible the emergence of the Taliban in the mid-1990s and the partial Talibanization of Pakistan before 2001 as well. A similar charge of criminal negligence can be made with regard to our more recent conduct in Liberia, whose pleas for U.S. intervention after the fall of Charles Taylor confounded both the Bush regime, bent on invading Iraq, and hard-left anti-imperialists, bent on construing all such interventions as illegitimate.

I am well aware that there are those critics for whom no use of U.S. power can be considered legitimate so long as the U.S. is a global hegemon. Such critics insist there is no way to remain loyal to the anti-imperialist traditions of American studies while supporting a military operation in Afghanistan that killed some thousands of innocent civilians and extended the United States’ global reach more deeply into Central Asia (entwining us further with unsavory regimes in Pakistan and Uzbekistan in the name of promoting “freedom"). But serious anti-imperialists must, I think, draw a clear line between a legitimate struggle against Al Qaeda and an illegitimate project of remaking the Arab world by force. Those of us who supported the overthrow of the Taliban did not thereby commit ourselves to the idea that the U.S. can act wherever, whenever, and however it wishes; nor did we commit ourselves to a course of action in which the primary response to Al Qaeda is always and everywhere a military response. On the contrary, after the Taliban were overthrown, the best course of action for the U.S. would have been to pursue international police and intelligence action against Al Qaeda; war in Iraq constituted one of the worst possible courses of action. This position is not inconsistent with condemning the U.S. bombing of the wedding party in Kakrak in July 2002—an atrocity even if (again, if) unintended—and not inconsistent with arguing that the Bush/Cheney program in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban has proceeded as if it were designed to produce a resurgence of Al Qaeda in that part of the world, and a resurgence of the Taliban itself in Afghanistan. On the contrary, it is merely to say that the fight against Al Qaeda is a legitimate fight, pursued by the Bush administration in a dangerously incompetent and counterproductive manner.

The war in Iraq, by contrast, represents a decisive and perhaps irreversible step in U.S. foreign policy: over that threshold, we are explicitly engaged in a preemptive, imperialist, and potentially neocolonialist enterprise, even if, like Paul Wolfowitz or Robert Kaplan, one sincerely believes that we are doing it for the good of the planet. To oppose the neoconservative program, as many liberals did, by suggesting that Iraq was a distraction from Al Qaeda and Afghanistan was to miss the point. For Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and the PNAC crew, it was the other way around: for them, after September 11, Afghanistan was a distraction from the redrawing of the Middle East beginning with Iraq. Indeed, for PNAC, Al Qaeda itself was not even so much a pretext as a distraction. I want to stress this point, not least because it indicates which war was an imperialist war. Iraq was the priority from the very start, as is made clear by the 1998 PNAC letter to President Clinton calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein; for PNAC, Afghanistan was and is a sideshow.

Posted by on 07/27 at 04:42 AM
  1. While I didn’t object to overt military action after 9/11, I’ve always had a problem with the attacks in Afghanistan.  My question, which I’ve never seen answered, is how much control, if any, the Taliban had over Al Qaeda?  All the reports at the time claimed the Taliban didn’t even have control over the northern half of the country.  How could they have cooperated with US demands to “turn over” Al Qaeda terrorists when they couldn’t even defeat a group of opium growing mountain men in the north?  Meanwhile, much evidence exists to claim the terrorist camps are actually along the western border of Pakistan in the Waziristan area, far from Taliban influence.  Although I’m sure the Taliban were great sympathizers of Al Qaeda, attacking them has only left us with a few hundred detainees rotting away and more bomb craters.  Again, the US has missed the target.  And given the disgusting machinations against Iraq, you don’t have to be a Chomsky groupie to think that a pipeline through Taliban lands was the actual priority.

    Posted by  on  07/27  at  11:24 AM
  2. I’m with you on the questions about the extent to which the Taliban is synonymous with Al Qaeda, and I completely agree that Pakistan is the wild card here (though I don’t agree that the presence of camps in western Pakistan means that they were “far from Western influence”:  even Tariq Ali, with whom I’m implicitly arguing here, insists that there were very strong connections between the Taliban and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence).  But when you get to that pipeline, you lose me.  I apply Occam’s razor to such things-- surely there are easier ways for the Carlyle Group to lay a pipe?

    Posted by  on  07/27  at  11:42 AM
  3. Agree strongly with you here and in the longer piece--and I appreciated the Danny Postel article you linked to earlier this month that has some parallel thoughts. They very much echo my own comments on Chomsky’s work at my blog.

    I think there’s a very complex intellectual history of American anti-imperialism and what seems to me to be its disastrous encounter with Third World nationalism on one hand and the kind of reconfiguration of politics as gestural and representational on the other that took place from the late 1960s through to the 1990s, with postcolonial theory coming in as the “finishing move” of anti-imperialism’s transformation into a generalized, weakly imagined, and almost wholly ungrounded presence within the American left.  To fully “unthink” that ghostly, habitual presence will require unthinking much more than anti-imperialism, I think--it will require revisting, as Postel suggests, what exactly it is that we are for and less what it is that we are supposed to be against.

    Posted by Timothy Burke  on  07/27  at  12:20 PM
  4. Thanks, Timothy-- and welcome back (I’d begun to think you’d done a Chun).  The overlap between Danny Postel’s thinking and my own was one of the more pleasant surprises of my recent life, and stemmed from our revisiting the left’s debates over Kosovo (his work is far more extensive than mine).  Before that, I think we were antagonists-- his side more associated with the traditional left, mine with the academic theory-left.  Which reminds me that I have one small disagreement with your complex intellectual history, wrapped in a more general agreement.  There’s postcolonialism and then there’s postcolonialism.  Neither Anthony Appiah’s nor Edward Said’s work, like it or no, is gestural or representational (did you see Tony Judt’s essay on Said in the Nation last month?).  When I think of naive, gestural, and Third Worldist expressions of anti-imperialism, I think of a handful of American 20-year-olds showing up at antiwar rallies chanting “Palestine must be free from the river to the sea” more readily than I think of postcolonial theory. . . .

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  04:29 AM
  5. I think Said’s is, but in a more complex way. I think Orientalism was generative of a very destructive modality of criticism, but only partially because of the actual framework of criticism that Said laid out in it--and Said himself turned away quite explictly from the worst methodological parts of the the model that Orientalism generated in Culture and Imperialism.

    In any event, though, the problematic mode of postcolonial criticism that Orientalism helped to engender is very different from the really frustrating combination of mystification of sovereignity as a condition and the epistemological despair that has its roots in some of the subalternists but turned into a vague and very unsatisfying anti-imperialist praxis when it collided with identity politics. Think Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes” for a classic example of that intellectual formation.

    Posted by Timothy Burke  on  07/28  at  05:13 AM
  6. My position was a little different.  For what it’s worth, (I mean, who the hell am I?) I would have supported the war in Afghanistan had Bush asked Congress for a declaration of war but opposed it because he didn’t.  Call me old-fashioned if you will, but by withholding support for warmaking not tied to a finite and predefined set of objectives, the “left” would have established a clear line of demarcation between legitimate self-defense and what actually happened with Iraq.  Had Bush been forced to do this, turning the focus to Iraq would not have happened so effortlessly.  It was not impossible to foresee very soon after 9/11 that this is where things were heading and it seems to me that my position would have been easier to defend than one of pure pacifism.

    I suspect that this feeling was largely what motivated the Chomskyans, and they were far from wrong to feel that way.  But I fault both them and the “liberal hawks” for not finding this way to oppose the drift into “War on Terror” while also not opposing America’s right to self-defense.  But it was a crazy time, and I suppose I shouldn’t be too critical.  Still, should something like this come up in the future, I would hope the “left” would think more about this way of viewing it.  There is democratic value to asserting that peace is the default state and war is an aberration that needs to be carefully circumscribed. 

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  06:57 PM
  7. I opposed the war in Afghanistan based on Chomsky’s criticism and then changed my mind when the residents of Kabul were obviously overjoyed by their liberation (by the Northern Alliance warlords).

    But as a matter of fact, Chomsky was right to warn about the possibility of mass starvation and also right to point out that most people in the US resolutely ignored the issue.  Chomsky wasn’t making up the warnings--they originally came from the NGO’s that fed people in Afghanistan, including but not limited to Christian Aid.  David Rieff confirms this in his “A Bed for the Night”.  There were starvation deaths in Afghanistan because aid was cut off, probably in the 10-20 thousand range (Jonathan Steele, Guardian, May 23, 2002 if my memory is correct) and if the Taliban lines hadn’t collapsed before the winter really began, the death toll could have been much higher.  People quickly forgot this, but the Taliban initially seemed to stand up quite well under the American bombing, to the point where Donald Rumsfeld was saying that the war could go on for as long as two years. 

    What was the reaction of the American press and the American government?  The government dropped some food packages, which as the NGO’s pointed out were a drop in the bucket compared to what was needed.  Only truck convoys could do the job.  But you wouldn’t know that from the mainstream American press.  As I recall, the NYT didn’t do a huge multi-page story on the starvation issue until after the danger had passed, though you could find people fighting over it quite openly in the British press when it mattered.  There were ludicrous propaganda stories about the aerial food drops and much concern about Afghan poverty.  We can all see how sincere the followup has been.

    My criticism of Chomsky is mainly limited to his exaggerated use of numbers.  He talked as though millions might starve--what the NGO’s actually said when I looked at their websites at the time was that millions would be at risk and the number who might die could be 100,000 or so.  As for the term “genocide”, I wish he hadn’t used it, but the facts were plain enough--the US government and the press were perfectly willing to risk an enormous death toll in Afghanistan and was determined not to pay any more than cursory attention to it until, fortunately for Afghanistan, the danger passed.  And his cynicism about the Bush Administration’s performance in Afghanistan has been amply borne out. 

    Posted by  on  07/29  at  04:52 AM
  8. Incidentally, the differences between Bush and his predecessors can be exaggerated.  The differences are important, but where they are similar is in the cynical indifference to human life when cynical indifference is a viable policy option.  See, for instance, the sanctions on Iraq.
    Chomsky’s extreme skepticism about American policy and the American press is mostly justifiable and what made him such a popular whipping boy in the fall of 2001 was that he didn’t temporarily stop saying what he normally says in deference to the hysterical jingoism that swept the country after 9/11.

    And in case it matters, I was as worried and scared as anyone then (and now) and like a lot of people, spent much of 9/11 finding out if any of my friends had been killed.  But I was frankly shocked at the reaction of the center-left, where for a few months you couldn’t talk about root causes without someone saying that you were claiming the US had it coming.  Nowadays anonymous authors from the CIA write books making Chomsky’s points about the origins of anti-Americanism.

    Posted by  on  07/29  at  05:01 AM
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