Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Here be Dragons

This is where the urge to argue, pontificate, and analyze (usually on slim evidence) begins to fascinate me, because it inevitably breaks down into projection, or at least mirroring the "enemy" you've worked so hard to identify, analyze, and pontificate on. And that, as I've said ad nauseum, is the problem with power. That is why there is no power without resistance; and resistance creates the conditions for power to operate.

Glenn Greenwald gives us one example (I'm sorry, but if that excerpt of his book is exemplary, he's no better than the George W. Bush he decries). Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett are other prime examples: don't bother them with information about the subject, they are experts on fallacious reasoning! But Robert Wright understands all too well what is going on, especially when it's applied to the Middle East:

Still, seeing terrorist groups as rational actors is the first step to combatting a pernicious right-wing meme: the idea that terrorism is ultimately incoherent, grounded in pure religious zealotry or some supposed Arab irrationality or whatever. If you buy that meme, you're likely to think there's no point in even talking about serious territorial concessions in Palestine, or reconsidering American military deployment in Iraq or the Middle East broadly.
Of course, the people who decry "terrorists" as "those who hate our freedom" are also the people first in line to give up our freedoms. They zealously support whatever outrageous claim Bush makes, from wiretapping anyone's phone he chooses to eliminating habeas corpus for "dangerous persons" (read: "enemy combatants") to letting Dick Cheney call himself "not a part of the executive branch." Irrationality, of course, is the first step in demonization. Once the "other" is no longer human, no action taken against it is unjustified. I imagine the same process was used in World War II, where we began the war appalled that military force would be directed toward a purely civilian target (Guernica; London; Nanking) and later decided it was "necessary force" when dealing with a "ruthless enemy" (Dresden; Hiroshima; Berlin).

Wright's argument, drawn from the work of political scientist Robert Pape, is that the "insurgents" are fueled by military occupation. End the occupation, the insurgency ends. Far from 'following us over here' as Bush keeps claiming they will do, the fighters start cleaning up the place where they live. Pretty much what we would do, of course, if we were occupied and finally drove the occupiers out. What makes Wright's (and Pape's) argument more compelling is that it is based on some evidence: interviews with two would-be suicide bombers, conducted by Judy Miller. Much harder, as I've often said, to see the "other" as bestial and sub-human when you actually sit down and talk with them. The refusal to do that, of course, as Josh Rushing noted, is what keeps war and belligerence going. Much easier to fight an enemy you refuse to recognize as human, or as having a legitimate grievance.

We've been over this ground before, haven't we? And now, of course, it's moving into left blogistan. But let's leave it there, at least insofar as left blogistan is concerned. This is human nature. Dese are de conditions dat prevail. This is the "fallen state of Creation," as Niebuhr would observe. How far we have fallen is the interesting observation now. The other morning on NPR James Banford noted that we were all aghast in the '70's when it turned out the CIA was opening mail and running secret prisons. But now the CIA is running secret prisons all over the world, and the NSA is wiretapping potentially every American citizen in the country, and nobody seems surprised, much less outraged. And now we find out that, not only is an analysis like Wright's being ignored (that much has been obvious for years) but our leadership is actively deluding us in order to maintain, by hook or by crook, support for "their war". This is not news, either, but how they are doing it, is:

It's an interesting passage in that it essentially confirms the point made above -- that the only change here is one of labels, that the 'Sunni insurgents' and 'Baathist dead-enders' are now 'al Qaeda' merely by dint of blowing things up. But it also suggests that the change of labels isn't simply a matter of the US military and American journalists but also appears to be the norm among ordinary Iraqis themselves.

I'm skeptical of that claim. But it is also worth noting that it has long been claimed that the Iraqi government, like the US government, has systematically overstated the role of 'foreign fighters' and 'al Qaeda' since they too do not wish to see the insurgency as Iraqi and either inter-sectarian or anti-occupation in nature.
So add another piece of Wright's puzzle: we can decide who we are fighting, even if that decision contradicts the facts on the ground. It isn't only terrorism that is "ultimately incoherent, grounded in pure religious zealotry or some supposed Arab irrationality or whatever." As Nietszche observed: the man who fights dragons too long becomes a dragon himself. Certainly Cheney has decided the best way to walk through the valley of the shadow of death is to be the meanest SOB in the valley. But that makes all Americans SOB's, in the end.

The problem is with trying to fight the dragon, instead of understand what motivates the dragon in the first place (which, of course, is the practice of diplomacy, v. the practice of war). And maybe, with Sen. Lugar's speech, a few more people in the Congress are starting to understand that.

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