MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS
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Intensify the witch-hunt
By David Keen
London School of Economics/reprinted from Le Monde Diplomatique 2007
Israel's attacks on Lebanon, the United States' pre-emptive strikes on Iraq (and perhaps Iran), use of torture and imprisonment without trial - all tactics in the war on terror - have been counterproductive. They fuelled anger and multiplied the enemy. Such anger will only be increased by the estimate of 655,000 deaths in Iraq since the US-led invasion, recently calculated by a team from Johns Hopkins University and published in the British medical journal The Lancet (1). For every Taliban killed in Afghanistan, several more are radicalized by civilian casualties caused by western troops; the flow of Taliban across the border from Pakistan has not been effectively stemmed.
Perhaps making us safer is not the real aim. Winning the war may not be the point. Militarily counterproductive tactics have been the norm in many developing countries; widespread attacks on civilians tended to attract support for the enemy. In Sudan, government-backed raids on civilians (today in the west, in the past in the south) stimulated support for rebel groups. They were also lucrative. In the south, the lure of oil has been a key motive in the creation of famine.
During civil wars in Cambodia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, military factions sold arms to their opponents while avoiding military confrontation, since this kind of collusion offered the prospect of prolonging conflicts that legitimized the presence of government soldiers in resource-rich areas. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwandan troops tended to avoid confrontation with their enemy (interahamwe fighters responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide) to concentrate on extracting valuable minerals.
We know that militarily counterproductive tactics in civil wars may also bring political benefits: the continued existence of a reviled enemy - Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, interahamwe militia or Chechen terrorist/rebel - may help to justify the suppression of democratic freedoms and free speech. President Putin has tightened his control of NGOs in Russia in the name of defeating terrorism and subversion. Maintaining the enemy can be even more useful than defeating it.
In the global war on terror, too, making money has been a key aim. US interest in Afghanistan is inseparable from the oil and gas fields of the Caspian, just as US interest in Iraq is linked to the oil. Beyond that, fresh legitimacy has to be found for the vast US military-industrial infrastructure that burgeoned during the cold war (another profitable war in which the enemy was rarely directly engaged). The demon-du-jour has been redefined as fundamentalism, rogue states, drugs, narcoterrorists, al-Qaida, Hizbullah. The terrorist remains elusive but the targets for retaliation - Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or Lebanon, Iran - are readily found on a map.
As Hannah Arendt understood in relation to 1920s Germany, when a military reversal (defeat in the first world war) is combined with serious social and economic uncertainty, the search for a clearly identifiable enemy may become intense. The point is not to be right but to be certain, however flimsy the evidence. The lack of evidence linking Saddam and 9/11 is seen as an irrelevance.
Through actions that provoke the enemy, both sides may prove themselves "right". When Algeria fought for independence from France, Frantz Fanon advocated the use of terror to provoke the enemy and bring out its oppressive nature. Today's terrorists have turned the US into something that resembles their own propaganda: the indiscriminate nature of the US war on terror (targeting Iraq after 9/11) creates the impression that victims are targeted just because they are Arab or Muslim. Anger at the indiscriminate response is exacerbated in the West by such events as a police raid on a house in Forest Gate, London, in June 2006. A Muslim man was shot in the shoulder. No terrorism charges were brought.
If terrorists can seek to nurture the enemy's brutality, the same may apply to counter-terrorists. Those waging a counterproductive war on terror stand to gain the perverse satisfaction of confirming that the enemy was just as dangerous, brutal, indiscriminate and pervasive as they imagined.
The imprecision of retribution may be functional, as in the ancient witch-hunt. There need be no logical connection between the crime and the chosen victim. The focus is frequently on the evil intentions of the victim, which (as with Saddam Hussein) are presumed to be harmful.
It is the weakness of the victim (the lack of weapons of mass destruction, the military vulnerability of Lebanon) that attracts the persecutor. The victim may be forcibly invited to collude. Witch-hunts were legitimized by the witch's confession; Saddam was invited to confess to WMD he did not actually possess: torture and confession may legitimize arbitrary detentions. Those who challenge the morality or efficacy of the witch-hunt may be labeled as witches, or now as anti-American.
Punishment may be taken as evidence of guilt. (Arendt observed of the Holocaust: "Common sense reacted to the horrors of Buchenwald and Auschwitz with the plausible argument: 'What crime must these people have committed that such things were done to them'.") Many Americans, deferential to their president, took the targeting of Iraq as evidence that it must be linked to 9/11. On the eve of the war, a poll suggested that 72% of Americans believed it was likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11.
Failure brings hidden benefits and the persistence of enemies. But an obvious defeat can still humiliate. President George Bush's close adviser, Karl Rove, proclaimed in the run-up to attacking Iraq: "Everything will be measured by results. The victor is always right. History ascribes to the victor qualities that may not actually have been there. And similarly to the defeated." It follows that defeat or quagmire in Iraq threatens the legitimacy of the war on terror.
One trick is to maintain an appearance of winning through the creation of a new theatre of operations. As the then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said at a meeting of the US National Security Council on 25 September 2001, "Look, as part of the war on terrorism, should we be getting something going in another area, other than Afghanistan, so that success or failure and progress isn't measured just by Afghanistan?" (2).
Of the 19 hijackers of 9/11, 15 were Saudis, but oil prevented retaliation against Saudi Arabia. Instead, the enemy shifted constantly: from Osama bin Laden to the Taliban to Iraq to Iran to Hizbullah and back to the resurgent Taliban. When each persecution compounds the underlying danger, democratic politicians may respond with totalitarian logic. "The evil has not yet been eliminated. But do not question the witch-hunt; intensify it!"
That brings us to Iran. A recent Time magazine report highlighted reasons why the US might be expected to "reap a whirlwind" from attacking Iran: the likelihood that Iran would retaliate by fomenting terrorism, inciting Hizbullah, creating mayhem in Afghanistan and Iraq, and blocking oil from movement through the Persian Gulf. The feature added fatalistically: "From the State Department to the White House to the highest reaches of the military command, there is a growing sense that a showdown - over its suspected quest for nuclear weapons, its threats against Israel and its bid for dominance of the world's richest oil region - may be impossible to avoid" (3). The message is that no one wants war, but it is coming anyway. We are invited to re-experience the sense of ominous inevitability that preceded the attack on Iraq.
Are we really so in love with destruction, so fond of our favourite nightmares that we cannot hold back from actions that we know will be self-defeating?
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