FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Writing the Imperial Script

by

The rather grating tunes of empire are ringing out again from the orchestra of think tanks and Washington pundits, and alarmism is the key note being struck as Iraq continues its ever assured route to implosion. Do something quickly about the Middle East, says the roughly scribbled score sheet, or instability will spread like a contagion.

Majid Rafizadeh, president of the American Council, has tried warning his listeners and readers that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), sometimes known as ISIS, is a far more dangerous prospect than Al-Qaeda ever could be. “America’s rivals have been most assertive, decisive, and conclusive when it comes to preserving their national, geopolitical and strategic interests” (Front Page Magazine, Jul 4). Inflate the enemy, Rafizadeh desperately insists on, in the hope that something will be done.

What balm, then, do we apply to the sores of the region? The most characteristic response, in its schizophrenic combination of imperial sentiment, selective paternalism and scorn, is that of Philip D. Zelikow, director of the Miller Centre of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. In the New York Times (Jul 4), he suggested that the US “quarantine” the Middle East.

Zelikow’s role in the Bush administration was that of advisor and critic, a quiet, sotto voce Cassandra. If one is going to be doing the game of empire, best not to spoil the pieces with such rash conduct as using torture.

His presence said much of what went wrong in the Bush Administration, be it the calamitous stumbling in foreign policy or glaring conflicts of interest. For one, Zelikow had ties to both Father Bush and his offspring, having been an aide to Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to George H.W. Bush and then a member of the Bush transitional team in 2001. He was subsequently appointed to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board after 9/11. None of these would have been problematic but for the fact that he was appointed Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission in November 2003. Critics had some basis for suggesting that the Bush administration was essentially conducting an appendectomy on itself.

Broad strokes are offered in his July 4 contribution to the New York Times. While written as an op-ed, it reads like a policy prescription, a memorandum for the State Department courier. And such views are typically voiced from a position of sage and advisor. “Across the Muslim world, this is an age of revolution beyond the experience of any official now living. Hundreds and thousands have died; millions more flee their home.”

It is time, he argues, for a new strategy to combat this panoramic violence. Its language is that of imperial emissary and consul, with that rather distasteful sense of selective engagement. “A conscious, comprehensive new American strategy is needed. It should focus on effective self-rule as the goal across the region – rewarding it where it exists, and helping those areas withstand the maelstrom next to them. Quarantine the chaos, and immunize neighbouring states that can serve as positive contrasts.”

Zelikow’s work, when kept in its own quarantine behind desk and ordered paper, has its highpoints. His collaboration with Ernest May and Richard Neustadt at Harvard did yield a valuable bounty on the way history is distorted in the maze that is policymaking. Fitting, then, that he should have been involved as counsellor to Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, where myths and realities collided with certain fury. He was even termed Rice’s policy “soul mate”, something of an intellectual Virgil without ballast. While doubling up as supporter and opponent of some policies of the Bush administration, notably in the Middle East, there is little doubt that Zelikow was in for the longest of rides.

The most telling feature of the Zelikow corpus is that of beliefs about historical record, the lingering meanings that become the epic tales told outside their specific context. As he has noted in a Miller Centre Report piece (Winter, 1999), “if readers cannot make a connection to their own lives, then a history may fail to engage them at all.” This is history as self-help, as program, not history as examination and meaning. It has the dangers of being framed as a manual, not as a note of interpretation for the cool and distant.

Zelikow’s program of suggestions are mixed. Don’t prop up the current Maliki regime in Iraq with reassuring airstrikes. Let it lie in discomfort in its own very badly made bed – no “replacement regimes” should be entertained. (He ignores mentioning that the bedder was the US-led occupation force.) ISIS will not be able to hold its gains in any case – Zelikow is sure that sectarianism guarantees its own downfall in the end. He is happy to note that “the current extremist groups are mainly fighting one another, not us.” Back Muslim communities who integrate, rather than exclude. “We should seek ways to enlarge their strength and appeal.”

Be wary of Tehran. No working deals. No sweet notes of rapprochement. They are part of the broader regional problem, along with the Assad regime. Be, however, conciliatory and engaging with Kurdistan and Jordan, “bulwarks of relatively successful and tolerant governance.” Fortify and help such regimes, flanked by Sunni extremists and ISIS-held areas. There are good Islamic regimes. Cultivate them.

Other regimes should have the eye of Washington, be it Turkey, with its temptations of Islamic dictatorship finding voice in the Erdogan government; and Egypt, now under the control of Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after a questionable election. Palestinians should be helped to “build the institutions of a state able to govern, if necessary doing so even before defining that state’s scope.” Zelikow, in another notable omission, does not see Hamas in that picture. The suggestion here, as always, is that the Palestinian cause should run with an American-made ball.

This brand of history, which is both script and prescript, is the sort so admirably shredded by Graham Greene in The Quiet American (1955), whose Alden Pyle meddles in Vietnamese affairs because of a belief in formulae and programs of institutional reform and “aid”. Bring concepts of modern economy and capitalism to Indochina, and communists are bound to melt away. The nationalists will come around. What Greene did so well to expose was the idea of such revolutions – or counter-revolutions – as managerial conceits. Zelikow falls into that easiest of traps, assuming that, “Many in the region, craving modern governance and fearing fundamentalist or sectarian rule by force, still look for leadership from the United States.”

This might have something to do with a curiously Hegelian view on the part of various American policy makers, something rife through neoconservatives and liberals before them. Identify the premise, the contradiction, and then resolve it. This is dialectical history, and it is one replete with dangers. Architects are deemed rational agents; wise decisions can be made.

This is almost never the case. While Zelikow does not go the full way with the neoconservative platform, cautioning against a full-scale American intervention in the manner of the Bush administration, he ignores what brought about the basis of any “quarantine” to begin with. In place, he is suggesting patches, band-aids and picking friends from foe.

Zelikow throws in W. B. Yeats for good measure, though a highly abbreviated version – “Mere anarchy is loosed” and then “the worst are full of passionate intensity”. But what is omitted is that vital sense about the centre that does not hold, a centre that took a sound battering when imperial viceroys decided to forge political entities in the name of a “ceremony of innocence” that well and truly drowned. Zelikow should have been true then to what he says now – the quarrel of Islam remains an “internal one”.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
April 29-31, 2016
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
Ulrich Heyden
Crimea as a Paradise for High-Class Tourism?
Ramzy Baroud
Did the Arabs Betray Palestine? – A Schism between the Ruling Classes and the Wider Society
Halyna Mokrushyna
The War on Ukrainian Scientists
Joseph Natoli
Who’s the Better Neoliberal?
Ron Jacobs
The Battle at Big Brown: Joe Allen’s The Package King
Wahid Azal
Class Struggle and Westoxication in Pahlavi Iran: a Review of the Iranian Series ‘Shahrzad’
David Crisp
After All These Years, Newspapers Still Needed
Graham Peebles
Hungry and Frightened: Famine in Ethiopia 2016
Robert Koehler
Opening the Closed Political Culture
Missy Comley Beattie
Waves of Nostalgia
Thomas Knapp
The Problem with Donald Trump’s Version of “America First”
Georgina Downs
Hillsborough and Beyond: Establishment Cover Ups, Lies & Corruption
Jeffrey St. Clair
Groove on the Tracks: the Magic Left Hand of Red Garland
Ben Debney
Kush Zombies: QELD’s Hat Tip to Old School Hip Hop
Charles R. Larson
Moby Dick on Steroids?
David Yearsley
Miles Davis: Ace of Baseness
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail