The New Tartuffe
In February sixty American academics and professionals published a statement in Europe called ‘What We’re Fighting For.’ It is a defense of the US military action in Afghanistan and more generally of what has taken the media name of ‘war on terrorism.’ The statement is addressed to ‘all people of good will,’ and in particular to ‘our brothers and sisters in Muslim societies.’
Since I consider myself a person of good will I have allowed myself to write a brief reply to their statement. I am an Iranian who has lived in the West for the past twenty or so years, six in the US, where I have family and friends. I still have strong emotional ties with Iran and, although I do not consider myself a Muslim, I feel I share the fate of my birthplace and its people, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim. I abhor all religious fanaticism and believe in the separation of church and state, which is one of the norms that the signatories of the statement affirm.
All these facts make me, I think, an ideal addressee for the statement, at least if we take the printed words at their face value. My reply is also directed to all people of good will.
One’s reaction to the statement depends in large part on whether one believes it is proffered in good faith or not. I do not think it is. I do not even think it is intended to persuade ‘Muslim brothers and sisters.’ I think in its duplicitous affirmations it is an affront to ‘all people of good will.’ I think in its reasoning it is an insult to the mind.
I will shortly explain my reasons for making these unkind statements. But let me first say a few words to those who accept ‘What We’re Fighting For’ at face value, perhaps mostly American.
Despite the stately and somewhat pompous tone of ‘What We’re Fighting For,’ the first thing that occurred to me after reading it was a little Mulla Nasrudin story. Mulla is a popular figure of Iranian satirical folklore, and the story goes:
One day, sitting at his doorstep, Mulla Nasrudin is approached by a few villagers asking to borrow his donkey. ‘I know I said you could use the beast when you need it,’ Mulla replies, ‘but unfortunately it is already taken by someone else.’ No sooner has Mulla finished his sentence than the donkey starts braying in the barn.
- ‘If it is not here, what is that noise then?’
– ‘You are taking a donkey’s word over mine?’
The affirmations that the statement contains and form its moral backbone, so to say, simply do not stand up in the face of historical evidence. The human rights principles that the signatories invoke to justify US military action can be summarized by the affirmation of equal freedom and dignity of all human persons as such. Downstream from this come the right of self-defense and government obligation to protect its ‘innocent people’ against loss of life, possibly by pre-emptive strikes against potential aggressors, which together make use of ‘coercive force’ not only justified but morally necessary.
Now, taking these affirmations in good faith requires us to conclude that any use of coercive force that does not meet these criteria is not only morally wrong, especially if it involves massive loss of human life, but must itself be militarily suppressed. Do they realize what they are saying? Flirting with the language of universals, with those little words – all, every, any – can get them in trouble!
The signatories ‘recognize’ that ‘at times’ US foreign policy has been arrogant or unjust, but consider this irrelevant to their justification. Why? Because in this case the ‘innocent people’ are only from Guatemala or Iran or Palestine? Besides, the qualification ‘at times’ makes sense only if it can be shown that injustice and arrogance have been exceptions rather than rule in US foreign policy toward so-called Third World countries: mistakes in implementation of otherwise upright policies, aberrations in application of otherwise just principles, or misjudgments of otherwise good intentions.
History belies all this. Read any half-decent political history textbook of the twentieth century. Or even better, take any de-classified CIA or NSC documents, whether on Korean War or Vietnam or Chile or Iran I challenge the signatories to point to even a single instance that American foreign policy has not been dictated by strategic interests and that this is crucial these strategic interests, when a so-called Third World country has been at issue, have not been seen by the decision makers in Washington to be better served by installing or supporting a brutal regime.
The consistency is amazing! Again and again you find the same story, going back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The mask that was used then to conceal and deceive was ‘Manifest Destiny’ or the ‘task of God;’ now it is ‘freedom’ or ‘human rights.’ ‘The cannon opens a continent, and through this opening we will see God pass’ There has been progress, to be sure, in the cynicism of the imposture.
The signatories say it is justified to deploy military force against any ‘government’ that harbors or otherwise supports ‘the network of Islamicist terrorists.’ Does it not worry them that this network was put together by the US from scratch? That these ‘stirred-up Moslems,’ in Brzezinski’s words, are literally the waste left behind by the US campaign to set up ‘the Afghan trap’ (his words again) for the Soviet Union? For over twenty years Afghanistan has been paying for this in hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of refugees and a whole country in ruins. ‘We fight to defend ourselves,’ says the statement, ‘but we also believe that we fight to defend those universal principles of human rights and human dignity that are the best hope for humankind.’
Is it possible to take this embarrassing prattle of human rights seriously? This singular will, multiplied sixty times, to let oneself be deceived so as to deceive others with good conscience? They ‘recognize’ that fanatic religious movements ‘have complex political, social, and demographic dimensions, to which due attention must be paid.’ But it is not clear what purpose this ‘due attention’ would serve or, indeed, in what it consists. Would this due attention also fall on stirring up ignorant religious sentiments and providing monetary and logistic support to fanatic bands as US did against Naser in Egypt or against Mussadeq in Iran? What the signatories need in their readers is not good will but historical amnesia. Don’t look back or under, just listen to us, take our word! Stare at your TV screen! Let yourself be lulled! The ‘End of History’ is at hands for you! ‘A Yea and Amen to ignorance!’
Of course all this is beside the point. The New Tartuffe’s manifesto is not meant to bring to light any evidence or rationally defend any thesis. And it is definitely not written in good faith. Its aim is to construct a new and versatile Devil to serve US capital and power interests, and to mobilize public support. If, as the signatories assert, the enemy is after ‘our destruction’ because of ‘who we are,’ it is pretty much decided what the appropriate reaction should be: in effect, ‘Your life or theirs!’ To induce this attitude in the Western public, to judge from what beams from mainstream media and appears even in more learned discussions, is conducted like a marketing campaign, like a ‘corporate management of demand.’
And of course as always ‘public-oriented intellectuals’ (that is to say, the venal type) are at the helm. ‘They want to kill us because they hate us, and they hate us because they envy us, they envy our power, our freedom, our life of pleasure, our cities, our buildings, etc.’ Or because these West-haters have a ‘death cult,’ like another recent learned discussion in a prestigious journal has it.
Is this not a bit too convenient?! ‘Fall into line: we will kill the Big Bad Wolf before it can kill us!’ Read Huntington’s report (he is one of the signatories of What We’re Fighting For) on the state of US democracy submitted to the Trilateral Commission in 1975. He there stresses that ‘détente has had negative implications for the cohesion of Trilateral [i.e., North America, Western Europe and Japan] societies.’ What is required for US government to regain its sagging authority, he counsels, is ‘a sense of purpose.’ How does a ‘democracy’ acquire a sense of purpose? It can only be ‘the product of the collective perception by the significant groups in society of a major challenge to their well-being and the perception by them that this challenge threatens them all about equally.’
There you have it from the horse’s mouth. The now famous tract on ‘the clash of civilizations’ that appeared in 1993 is, of course, by the same author. Here too our ‘policy-oriented intellectual’ shows the way: the West has to prepare itself for a showdown with the Islamic world and possibly with a Confucian-Islamic league. ‘The coming war has got nothing to do with what we do but with who we are, etc.’ The same boring cant repeated again and again under different names: Fukuyama, Huntington, Moynihan, etc. It is very disturbing to see supposed intellectuals have become the choice instrument of tyranny, however gentle this tyranny might be. ‘I should have everything to fear,’ wrote Beccaria in the middle of the eighteenth century, ‘if the spirit of tyranny went hand-in-hand with a taste for reading.’
Never before has a region been more strategically important to US than is Caspian Sea region today, said Cheney in 1998. We know that throughout the nineties US tried to recapture the control of Caspian Sea region oil from the Europeans. To this end, it took steps to effect a rapprochement with Iran by jumping on the bandwagon of the ‘new moderate government of Khatami.’ It expanded its relations with the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia and Azerbaijan, partly through Turkey. It went as far as negotiating with the Taliban in 1996 for the purpose of using Afghanistan to transit Central Asian oil to Pakistan.
The problem, however, was that all these arrangements were at best makeshifts replete with risks, relying on others’ good will and control in a volatile region and subject, in any case, to too much competitive pressures. Military presence and military ties with the region’s governments solve all these problems. This has always been the American way since World War II. The ‘military option’ not only puts US government in control of the most important resource of the capitalist world-economy and hence puts US oil companies in the driving seat, but it also allows US to asserts its supremacy vis-à-vis other capitalist powers. Since the crisis of the early seventies whose most important outcome was US loss of control of world liquidity, US ‘warfare state’ has had to market (which sometimes has meant promoting and managing demand for) its ‘protection services’ as a source of revenue. Reagan sought the assistance of Japanese capital through the alienation of US assets. Bush forthrightly called it ‘donations’ (i.e., protection payments) during and after Persian Gulf War. The ability to assume protection costs of the global working of capital is the weapon that US uses, increasingly as a matter of course, to maintain its position at the commanding heights of worldwide capitalist regime. Here too one may repeat: the route of ‘compulsion is more certain than that of cunning.’
Read annual United Nations Human Development Reports. Since the middle of the seventies the gap between the rich and the poor has steadily increased, both internationally and within almost all national societies. Both world trade and foreign direct investment have contracted to the three regions of North America, Europe and South East Asia. Many countries, especially poorer ones, have been reduced to the desperate suppliers of primary material and cheap labor to the markets of rich countries and thus completely dependent, even for the livelihood of their populations, on commodity markets. Nowadays, whole countries can go bankrupt. Environmental problems of all sorts, from climate change to biodiversity loss and other ecological stresses, now seriously place the future of life under question on planetary scale. These are the problems that world citizens must be grappling with. These are the problems that must be addressed by governments, especially the more powerful ones. For this, sober reflection and honesty are required, and not stirring up ignorant sentiments and hysteria. In any case, ‘smart bombs’ cannot compensate for stupid politics.
The worst kind of loss of freedom is narcissistic neurosis. That ‘policy-oriented intellectuals’ and ‘Office of Strategic Influence’ and emotional blackmail against reflection are still needed by the ‘captains of industry and consciousness’ gives us hope that the outlook for intelligence and courage is not all that bleak. As Danton said: ‘De l’audace, encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace!’
Amir Ahmadi is an Iranian living in Australia. He can be reached at: email@example.com