Becoming Imperialist: Part 3

In a recent NY Times/CBS poll, 6 out of 10 Americans said they felt that invading Iraq was a bad idea. Three out of four said things are going badly there. Yet 69% back funding the war as long as US troops remain in the country (“Poll shows opposition to Iraq War at all time high,” by Dalia Sussman, New York Times 24 May 2007). Last week, Congress reflected these views by funding the ongoing campaign despite opposing it. In reluctantly supporting the bill, long-time war opponent Richard Durbin (D-Ill) said, “We do not have it within our power to make the will of America the law of the land” (“Congress passes deadline-free war funding bill”, by Shailagh Murray, Washington Post 25 May 2007). People who criticize the Bush administration in good faith ironically reproduce an imperialist mindset, first, by reinforcing the authority of military experts and, second, by asserting their belief that, if supported properly, US troops could have pacified and democratized Iraq successfully. As Durbin’s statement suggests, the casualty has been democratic rule in America, as political questions are transformed into technical solutions. It behooves us to recognize the ways in which current debates on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran further assert military authority over what should be political discussions.

The unfolding misadventure in Iraq might have led prominent critics to roll back the War on Terror and articulate a principled, anti-imperialist view. As expressed in the recent Congressional elections and innumerable opinion polls, most Americans are deeply unhappy with current US foreign policy. But politicians and media figures have couched their criticism of the Bush administration in terms of how they would fight a better war (John Kerry in 2004) and pay greater heed to US soldiers (John McCain). As we’ve seen in the ousting of Donald Rumsfeld for his crime of defying the generals, political posturing in the Robert Gates hearings, where deferral to military professionals became a political imperative, recent congressional debates on the non-binding resolution opposing the “surge” (but, first and foremost, “supporting the troops”), and the failed attempts to attach “timelines” to military funding bills, politicians across the spectrum are competing for military endorsements.

The anti-political militarization of the American public is hardly a new phenomenon. Similar processes of attitudinal transformation characterized both world wars and, more recently, the Cold War’s fight with communism. The latter has often been compared to the War on Terror, both in terms of the global nature of the threat – to the “security” of “freedom and democracy” and of the need for a massive military response. Yet the current war has distinctively anti-political consequences quite different from the Cold War. For instance, unlike the Cold War, the War on Terror is by definition perpetual and total. The enemy, terror, will threaten us – the free, civilized world – everywhere and forever. Moreover, unlike the communists, this enemy has no political ideology worthy of attention. Thus, it must be confronted with brute force aimed at its eradication. This powerful idea turns war, an occasional and momentous event, into a permanent and everyday condition.

For an illustration, take the recent comments of outgoing National Director of Counterterrorism, Henry Crumpton In a call-in public radio show in Minneapolis, Crumpton suggested that the constitution of the current emergency is so new, “war” is no longer an appropriate model for an effective response to the common enemy. When asked whether he thought the emergency powers and practices of the War on Terror would ever be repealed, Crumpton responded by invoking what he saw as an emerging global model of enduring technocratic authority appropriate for a “new era”:

“If you look at the new era of conflict, and I think that’s really what we’re facing, terrorism will be an enduring aspect of [what’s become] a global society. In that sense, this is a new challenge, and really unprecedented … It behooves us to be cognizant of this and to develop the instruments of statecraft that can be most effective in addressing the threat. The best analogy I’ve heard is how we deal with disease. We can eradicate one virus, but there will be mutations and other viruses will come up. But we manage this risk, and we do it through professionalism and …through international cooperation. We need to think about warfare (sic) of the future much like we think about international public health.”

Crumpton’s comments, and the broader approach they represent, imply that war is not a political event but a permanent medical-technical problem. For instance, it implies that the major conflicts of this “new era” will no longer be fought by peoples who swear allegiance to particular nations, ideologies, or religious doctrines, or those who have specific political interests at stake, but between humans (us) and the viral agents of a bio-social disease. The latter is both global and insidious, infecting brains and bodies and turning human beings into microbial monstrosities. Moreover, it endangers everyone, not primarily as individuals or as citizens of states, but as vulnerable cells in a global body. The age of diplomatic containment and deterrence, and public participation in the common interest, has given way to an era of medicalization, professionalism and eradication.

The outgoing czar’s assertions reflect a broader tendency to ignore the history and substance of cultural and political differences. Such historical ignorance diminishes our ability to engage in political debates over questions of justice, social hierarchies, sovereignty, national borders, rights, and resources. Even the militant politics of nationalism, and the apocalyptic tones of good and evil, give way to this anti-viral, anti-politics. Presumably, since neither the doctor nor the virus have any coherent political aspirations or grievances, there is no need for dialogue. Calls for the rule of military professionals have mobilized bipartisan support. Moreover, we are all beholden to those experts who have the technical know-how necessary to eradicate “viral terror” through “professionalism,” namely, the Generals, the field commanders, the agents of “intelligence,” and “the troops.” These are the War on Terror’s equivalent of medical experts, and our repeated demands for their wise leadership are putting democratic politics at risk.

The War on Terror is a misnomer: it is not a war in two senses. War, as the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz famously defined it, is the pursuit of politics by other means. But the discourse of the War on Terror removes the political dimensions and replaces them with biological and medical metaphors. And while wars are occasional, the War on Terror is enduring, with no end in sight.

We might think of the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan as tragic occasions to reconsider the underlying logic of the War on Terror, including the notion that security can only be achieved through the technocratic “rule of experts.” Our reliance on these “experts,” and their mouthpieces in the press, impedes our ability to question the deeper assumptions of militant imperialism that animate the global war machine. In order to effectively oppose imperialism, we must reaffirm the cultural and historical differences that make us autonomous political actors, not bodies for doctors to cure of viruses. Doing so may open space for substantive political opposition to the Global War on Terror and its imperialist manifestations.

This is the third and final section of a larger project on imperialist discourse and its effects in US foreign policy. The first and second sections, published by counterpunch, can be found here ( and here (

Mark N Hoffman, Kevin Parsneau, and Arjun Chowdhury are doctoral candidates in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. They can be reached at