Newspaper articles filled with neuroscientific lingo to explain the panic wave that has spread through America following 9/11. Television pseudo-documentaries seeking out the ‘terror’ gene. Radio shows interviewing think tank experts on the inbred drive among academics to betray the hand that feeds by criticizing government. Science has not been so efficiently used for propagandistic purposes for a very, very long time. (On that matter, see Counterpunch Wire: March 13, 2002.)
In this output, one of our most eminent Middle-East scholars proves to be the worst possible impetus to be informed about, let alone to read, al-Qu’ran. Bernard Lewis at times musters up important details to better understand the US’s role in the Middle-East: “Did You Say ‘American Imperialism’?” (National Review, December 17, 2001, pp. 26-30). But he also confirms from an expert’s vantagepoint the tone of Western Christian superiority in so much talk on Islam. Under the guise of the supposed critical merits and obviousness of the ‘secular’ strain of Western sciences, expressed in no less of a proud ‘secular’ journal as the National Review, he damns an entire civilization for its deep religiosity. Faced with scientific representation used to justify a hodge-podge amalgamation of dictators, oligarchs and the faithful, what is so utterly surprising, then, about the residents of the Middle-East projecting President W. Bush’s grin onto the face of your average North-American?
There must be charity in dialogue, as academic standards do require. Then, begin with Professor Lewis’s balancing out of the geopolitical equation. Notwithstanding the military campaign waged against Iraq in 1990-1991, and sporadically up until late August 2001, Lewis correctly points out that the US is not imperialist in the sense the British and French were. Admittedly, not only did America lack the will for direct rule over Iraq, it also lacked the skill. Now, freshly confident on the heels of a relatively easy victory in Afghanistan, made easier once both Pakistan and Russia submitted to the radical American choice of being against terrorists rather than ‘with’ them, America will soon be pulling out again from the land of their conquest before spreading their well-known seeds of benevolence elsewhere.
Even so, as the feedback from the first bin Laden/al-Quaeda press conference broadcast on al-Jazeera last fall demonstrated, the presence of the American military in Saudi Arabia is an affront to many a Muslim sensibility, not just to that of extremists. The naivete of many Americans regarding the implications of occupying foreign lands meets up quietly with stupor when asked how they would react to the presence of the Israeli Defense Forces stationed here to protect the interests of the ruling political and business class from, say, the anti-globalization movement. In bin Laden’s view, the presence of America does not so much equal imperialism as it does a crusade. Likewise, what W. Bush must keep quiet in public cannot betray the influence of Samuel Huntington’s monolithic analyzes on the megalomaniacs in his cabinet.
To his credit, Professor Lewis doesn’t substitute ‘crusade’ for the purported misuse of ‘imperialism’. And while not referring explicitly to the author of our best circulating propagandistic slogan, he does go on to demolish the ‘clash of civilizations’ argument on empirical grounds. Which provides the basis on which he can see the US in the Middle East as ultimately bringing stability. Still, this does not fail to align his thinking with some rather dubious instances of historical self-interest. Top on the agenda is protection of Israel and the flow of oil to Europe and the Americas. Despite its relatively modest ambitions, as Lewis would have it, the US is surrounded by the seething instability of Sadam Hussein’s weapons program and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in a politically, if not always economically, strapped transnational Muslim population. Which leads him to contend that “the real threat to the peace of the region is not the American presence, but the possibility of an American loss of interest and withdrawal.”
As always among defenders of the US’s peaceful business-only interests, fissures allow forgotten figures to stream into the foreground. First among them is Lewis’s claim that the only confirmed cases of chemical weapons use since WW2 have been in the Middle East. Even were we to lack accuracy in claiming that Napalm and Agent Orange are chemical weapons, both used extensively by the US in Vietnam, by splicing off Hiroshima and Nagasaki Lewis’s time-scale appears as truncated as a leg redesigned by the explosion of an anti-personnel landmine ‘Made in the USA’. What’s important cannot only be, as Politically Incorrect would have it, what the threat is ‘now’ or who wants to kill us ‘now’. Far from being spurious facts, what ought to be negotiated in the general media under the guise of the freedom to express dissent, is precisely this legacy of aggression.
Furthermore, in his continuous stance of refuting accusations that America conducts imperial practices in the Middle East, Professor Lewis sides entirely with public appearances in Washington against the analysis of Middle Eastern intellectuals. There would be no “deep-laid, long-term American strategy pursued relentlessly over decades” in the Middle East, as the latter hold. Which is where Lewis drapes himself with Hitchens’s hues: “For anyone with even a minimal acquaintance with how Washington works and how Washington officials deal with problems, such a view is not only absurd; it is grotesque.” Accusations leveled at the US about wielding the big democratic and human-rights stick with a between-the-lines Keynesean-inflexed international trade policy carrot, or by funding dictatorships known for their brutal population control with weapons purchased from the funder, are all dismissed as effects of faulty reasoning. In democratic Muslim calls for “evenhandedness” and halting the “double standards”, all Lewis hears is a plea for more imperialism-of the old variety, instead of complaints regarding the real ‘Empirism’ of a newer, subtler one.
How the old variety is transformed is that, contrary to the British and French invasions of earlier times, America has established bases in Saudi Arabia. The implications of this reality Lewis prefers to silence under the buzzword of “American Interests”. Had the State Department employed him, instead of the finest university in the land, his performance would have fared no better.
As he does speak from such an institution and with such impressive breadth of historical knowledge, one has no choice but to consider Professor Lewis as convinced of the rationality of the policies America has led in the Middle East. He seems to forget, though, that the oil barons now running the country politically have little if any education in world history, and that the question of interest may belie a truthful hole twistedly confirming his argument. In the British and French sense, imperialism this is surely not. Instead it’s the bullish tactics the Soviet Union were known for in the buffer states of central and eastern Europe, as it also managed to keep natural resources at bargain basement prices.
If the charges against the West’s “inconsistencies” are irrelevant as a general and overall accusation it does not rule out that they correspond to an essentially self-serving ambition in some Middle East countries, at least some of the time. Anyone specialized in historical analysis betrays weakness of method when suggesting that a rival argument only makes claims for all countries all of the time. It’s in the detail of American actions that critics hold it accountable for the rage sweeping the region. Still, America’s consumer society is a model for any number of Arabs-the veritable inventors of modern trade. But Lewis falls short of emphasizing that America has had the opportunity to support democrats in Arabic countries instead of brutal oligarchs and monarchies.
In exchange for stability, and by keeping the general population from within reach of the region’s enormous wealth, as well as excluding the UN from the region, the US Army has fallen prey to mercenary functions. As anyone can see with the little sympathy shed for the dead and imprisoned al-Quaeda fighters, mercenaries are hated without condition.
The days of George F. Kennan and the post-WW2 aristocratic posture in diplomacy are long gone. Professor Lewis should be among the first to realize that when the uncultured, self-interested American oil and arms barons throw their weight around internationally, it’s not just definitions that fall short of accuracy. The very theoretical models by which to manifest the meaning behind facts end up being shriveled on the scrap heap of critical inefficiency. There’s no greater conclusion to a neo-con science, as promoted by the National Review, than that.
Norman Madarasz is editor and translator of Alain Badiou’s Manifesto for Philosophy (SUNY Press, 1999). He can be reached at N_Madarasz@hotmail.com.