‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception,’ Carl Schmitt wrote in different times almost a century ago, when European empires and armies dominated most continents and the United States was basking underneath an isolationist sun. What the conservative theorist meant by ‘exception’ was a state of emergency, necessitated by serious economic or political cataclysms, that required a suspension of the Constitution, internal repression and war abroad.
A decade after the attentats of 9/11, the United States and its European allies are trapped in a quagmire. The events of that year were simply used as a pretext to remake the world and to punish those states that did not comply. And today while the majority of Euro-American citizens flounder in a moral desert, now unhappy with the wars, now resigned, now propagandized into differentiating what is, in effect, an overarching imperial strategy into good/bad wars, the US General Petraeus (currently commanding the CIA) tells us: “You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually . . .. Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.” Thus speaks the voice of a sovereign power, determining in this case that the exception is the rule.
Even though I did not agree with his own answer, the German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas posed an important question: ‘Does the claim to universality that we connect with human rights merely conceal a particularly subtle and deceitful instrument of Western domination?’ ‘Subtle’ could be deleted. The experiences in the occupied lands speak for themselves. Ten years on the war in Afghanistan continues, a bloody and brutal stalemate with a corrupt puppet regime whose President and family fill their pockets with ill-gotten gains and a US/NATO military incapable of defeating the insurgents. The latter now strike at will, assassinating Karzai’s corrupt sibling, knocking off his leading collaborators and targeting key NATO intelligence personnel via suicide terrorism or helicopter-downing missiles. Meanwhile, sets of protracted behind-the-scenes negotiations between the US and the neo-Taliban have been taking place for several years. The aim reveals the desperation. NATO and Karzai are desperate to recruit the Taliban to a new national government.
Euro-American liberal and conservative politicians who form the backbone of the governing elites and claim to believe in moderation and tolerance and fighting wars to impose the same values on the re-colonized states are still blinded by their situation and fail to see the writing on the wall. Their pious renunciations of terrorist violence notwithstanding, they have no problems in defending torture, renditions, targeting and assassination of individuals, post-legal states of exception at home so that they can imprison anybody without trial indefinitely. Meanwhile the good citizens of Euro-America who opposed the wars being waged by their governments avert their gaze from the dead, wounded and orphaned citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and Pakistan…the list continues to grow.
War—jus belli– is now a legitimate instrument as long as it is used with US approval or preferably by the US itself. These days it is presented as a ‘humanitarian’ necessity: one side is busy engaged in committing crimes, the self-styled morally superior side is simply administering necessary punishment and the state to be defeated is denied its sovereignty. Its replacement is carefully policed both with military bases and with a combination of No’s and money. This 21st Century colonization or dominance is aided by the global media networks, an essential pillar to conduct political and military operations.
Let’s start with homeland security in the United States. Contrary to what many liberals imagined in November 2008, the debasement of American political culture continues apace. Instead of reversing the trend, the lawyer-President and his team have deliberately accelerated the process. There have been more deportations of immigrants than under Bush; fewer prisoners held without trial have been released from Gitmo, an institution that the lawyer-President had promised to close down; the Patriot Act with its defining premises of what constitutes friends and enemies has been renewed, a new war begun in Libya without the approval of Congress on the flimsy basis that the bombing of a sovereign state should not be construed as a hostile act; whistleblowers are being vigorously prosecuted and so on—the list growing longer by the day.
Politics and power override all else. Liberals who still believe that the Bush administration transcended the law while the Democrats are exemplars of a normative approach are blinded by political tribalism. Apart from Obama’s windy rhetoric, little now divides this administration from its predecessor. Ignore, for a moment, the power of politicians and propagandists to enforce their taboos and prejudices on American society as a whole, a power often used ruthlessly and vindictively to silence opposition from all quarters—Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake (released after a huge outcry in the liberal media), Julian Assange, Stephen Kim, currently being treated as criminals and public enemies, know this better than most.
Nothing illustrates this debasement so well as the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Abbotabad. He could have been captured and put on trial, but that was never the intention. The liberal mood was reflected by the chants heard in New York on that day: U-S-A. U-S-A. Obama got Osama. Obama Got Osama. You can’t beat us (clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap) You can’t beat us. Fuck bin La-den. Fuck bin La-den.
These were echoed in more diplomatic language by the leaders of Europe, junior partners in the imperial family of nations, incapable of self-determination. Cant and hypocrisy have become the coinage of political culture.
Take Libya, the latest case of ‘humanitarian intervention’. The US-NATO intervention in Libya, with United Nations security council cover, is part of an orchestrated response to show support for the movement against one dictator in particular and by so doing to bring the Arab rebellions to an end by asserting western control, confiscating their impetus and spontaneity and trying to restore the status quo ante. As is now obvious the British and French are boasting of success and that they will control Libyan oil reserves as payment for the six month bombing campaign.
Meanwhile, Obama’s allies in the Arab world were hard at work promoting democracy.
The Saudis entered Bahrain where the population is being tyrannised and large-scale arrests are taking place. Not much of this is being reported on al-Jazeera. I wonder why? The station seems to have been curbed somewhat and brought into line with the politics of its funders. All this with active US support. The despot in Yemen, loathed by a majority of his people continues to kill them every day by remote control from his Saudi base. Not even an arms embargo, let alone a “no-fly zone” have been imposed on him. Libya is yet another case of selective vigilantism by the US and its attack dogs in the west. That the German Greens, amongst the most ardent European defenders of neo-liberalism and war, wanted to be part of this posse reveals more about their own evolution than the intrinsic merits or demerits of intervention.
The frontiers of the squalid protectorate that the west is going to create are being decided in Washington. Even those Libyans who, out of desperation, backed NATO’s bomber jets, might – like their Iraqi equivalents – live to regret their choice.
All this might trigger a third phase at some stage: a growing nationalist anger that spills over into Saudi Arabia and here, have no doubt, Washington will do everything necessary to keep the Saudi royal family in power. Lose Saudi Arabia and they will lose the Gulf States. The assault on Libya, greatly helped by Gaddafi’s imbecility on every front, was designed to wrest the initiative back from the streets by appearing as the defenders of civil rights. The Bahrainis, Egyptians, Tunisians, Saudi Arabians, Yemenis will not be convinced, and even in Euro-America more are opposed to this latest adventure than support it. The struggles are by no means over.
The 19th century German poet Theodor Däubler wrote that:
“The enemy is our own question embodied
And he will hound us, and we will hound him to the same end.”
The problem with this view today is that the category of enemy, determined by US policy needs, changes far too frequently. Yesterday Saddam and Ghaddafi were friends and regularly helped by western intelligence agencies to deal with their own enemies. The latter became friends when the former became enemies. And so the planetary disorder continues. The assassination of Osama Bin Laden was greeted by European leaders as something that would make the world safer. Tell that to the fairies.
TARIQ ALI’s latest book “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad’ is published by Verso.