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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

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In the years since September 11, as the Cold War has been superseded by a much vaguer and more nebulous war on “terror,” it has become surprisingly difficult to specify the contours of U.S. anti-imperialism.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 Michael on 07/27 at 04:42 AM
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