An Occident Waiting to Happen

The ‘war on terror’ has an intellectual arm, and many of the most significant contributors are ‘liberals’. One key problem is the prevalence of pleas for a lack of understanding. Those who have attempted to understand causes have been portrayed as themselves a cause of 9/11. A prime example is the work of Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor with a reputation for liberal stances on civil liberties. For Dershowitz, attempting to understand and eliminate the root causes of terrorism was “exactly the wrong approach” – and indeed helped to explain why 9/11 happened in the first place. For Dershowitz, the sensible response to terrorism is to send out this message: “we will hunt you down and destroy your capacity to engage in terrorism.” What is most troubling here is the wilful blindness to root causes, combined with the old fantasy that terrorists are finite and can be physically hunted down and destroyed. It was Ami Ayalon – head of Shabak, Israel’s General Security Service between 1996 and 2000 – who observed that “those who want victory” against terror without addressing underlying grievances “want an unending war.”

Chaos and double standards

The lack of connection between chosen victim (Iraq) and stated problem (9/11) is reminiscent of a witch-hunt. And just as the old Salem witch-hunts were informed by settlers’ paranoia about Native Americans and “living on the edge of chaos”, so too the intellectuals who bolster the ‘war on terror’ tend to dwell on the threat of chaos. An article by Robert Kaplan called ‘The Coming Anarchy’ – which circulated widely around US embassies after its publication in February 1994 on the even of the Rwandan genocide – illustrates the sense of threat and paranoia that significantly preceded 9/11. Kaplan portrayed the global ‘threats’ of overpopulation, drugs, disease and refugees as a kind of witch’s brew threatening to spill over into a more orderly and rational Western world. The analysis is often credited with helping to reinforce US isolationism in the mid-1990s. Kaplan’s emphasis on conflict as a kind of mindless evil fed easily into a sense of powerlessness in the face of suffering overseas, with whole areas of the world in danger of being dismissed as beyond help. 9/11 compounded these existing fears of chaos and mindless violence. The perceived anarchy beyond the West was now held by Kaplan to justify ignoring international laws and procedures:

foreign affairs entails a separate, sadder morality than the kind we apply in domestic policy and in our daily lives. That is because domestically we operate under the rule of law, while the wider world is an anarchic realm where we are forced to take the law into our own hands.

This analysis was echoed by Tony Blair’s adviser Robert Cooper. In 2005, Cooper was nominated by Prospect magazine as one of the top 100 ‘public intellectuals’ in the world, and his views throw disturbing light on what came to pass for respectable analysis. Cooper stated in April 2002:

The postmodern world has to start to get used to double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But, when dealing with old-fashioned states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era–force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.

In many ways, this is a restatement not only of attitudes during the Cold War (peace and democracy at home; burning villages and backing coups abroad) but also of the double standards institutionalised in slave-owning democracies run by the Greeks and the Romans (and, to a large extent, the US pre-1865). Influential columnist and author Robert Kagan said Cooper’s notion of an international double standard for power would appear to lie at the heart of Blair’s global strategy. This may sound like criticism, but Kagan intended not to bury the British Prime Minister but to praise him: “give Blair credit for trying. He is the only world leader today who really is trying to find the synthesis of the American and European worldviews.” Kagan himself argued that the US “must live by a double standard”, and he subtly delegitimised European concerns with international law by suggesting that these reflected Europe’s military weakness – a situation reversed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the US had complained that European powers were ignoring international law and international opinion.

Yet all this lauding of double standards represents a practical as well as a moral error: as Evelyn Lindner’s research suggests (see her Making Enemies, for example), deprivation does not necessarily call forth violence; but when expressed ideals of equality and dignity are violated by double-standards, violence becomes likely.

In his book Breaking the Nations, first published in 2003, Robert Cooper (then serving as Directory-General of the External and Politico-Military Affairs for the Council of the European Union) noted:

It would be irresponsible to do nothing while even one further country acquires nuclear capability. Nor is it good enough to wait until that country acquires the bomb. By then the costs of military action may be too high. Hence the doctrine of preventative action in the US National Security Strategy.

Then there was a sensible note of caution: “If everyone adopted a preventative doctrine the world could degenerate into chaos as countries tried to second-guess their neighbours and get their retaliation in first.” But then came an outrageous resolution of the problem of generalised chaos:

A system in which preventative action is required will be stable only under the condition that it is dominated by a single power or a concert of powers. The doctrine of prevention therefore needs to be complemented by a doctrine of enduring strategic superiority–and this is, in fact, the main theme of the US National Security Strategy.

In other words, because we must have the principle of pre-emption, we need a doctrine “of enduring strategic superiority”. And what is the way to maintain this superiority? Why, pre-emption of course! Such are the circularities that kow-towing creates.

The vision of a world split between order and chaos has also been expressed by US liberals. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said of the Cold War superpowers:

They represented different orders, but they both represented order. That is now gone. Today’s world is also divided, but it is increasingly divided between the ‘World of Order’–anchored by America, the EU, Russia, India, China and Japan, and joined by scores of smaller nations–and the ‘World of Disorder’. The World of Disorder is dominated by rogue regimes like Iraq’s and North Korea’s and the various global terrorist networks that feed off the troubled string of states stretching from the Middle East to Indonesia.

Casualties in this ‘world of disorder’ do not seem to have the same status as those in the US. An article in a book called Worlds in Collision (published in September 2002) was entitled “Who may we bomb?” It sounds like an anti-war article, but the author actually seems to be taking the question quite straight. (Strictly speaking, it should be “whom may we bomb?”, but that seems a small point in the circumstances.) Acknowledging that the case for bombing Iraq may be weak, Barry Buzan argued that in a case like Afghanistan, the militarisation of society makes it very hard to draw a line between civilians and soldiers, and further, that “Some Afghans clearly deserve the government they got [the Taliban]”. Buzan went on to draw a parallel with civilians in Japan and Germany who were attacked in World War Two and who also apparently “deserve[d] the government they got”, because of governments coming to power through “popular revolution” or having “mass support”. Again, let us try to generalise this argument. Suppose we do not like the Bush administration (and many do not). Does that mean American civilians are legitimate targets (for example, for terrorist attacks) because they “deserve the government they got?” Clearly, it does not. Remember that it was Mohamed Siddiq Khan, one of the July 2005 London bombers, who made the argument – in a video recorded before the atrocities – that civilians in the West were “directly responsible” for the deaths of Muslims when they supported democratic governments that perpetrated atrocities.

Leading liberal Michael Ignatieff has also been chipping in with unhelpful suggestions of his own. He declared, “Sticking too firmly to the rule of law simply allows terrorists too much leeway to exploit our freedoms To defeat evil, we may have to traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war.” Electing himself as spokesman for a new consensus, he adds, ” everyone can see that instead of waiting for terrorists to hit us, it makes sense to get our retaliation in first.” By contrast, in the last line of a New York Times article, he proclaims, “We have to show ourselves and the populations whose loyalties we seek that the rule of law is not a mask or an illusion. It is our true nature.” But how exactly are we going to do this if we recoil from “sticking too firmly to the rule of law”? The kindest thing to say about this contribution is that Ignatieff is very confused.

The ‘clash of civilisations’

Part of the intellectual context for 9/11 and its backlash has been set by Samuel Huntington’s influential thesis of a Clash of Civilisations. Huntington was responding to the breakdown of the East-West division and of the realist paradigm and also to the perceived unhelpfulness of the chaos model; in contrast to these models, he found the essence of contemporary and future conflict in competing ‘civilizations’, and saw the West as in danger of losing its place as a dominant civilization in the face of a number of new threats, including China, Latin America and, notably, Islam. Immigration was seen as (literally) bringing these threats home–especially immigration from Latin America to the US and from Islamic countries to Europe. Meanwhile, humanitarian interventions were seen as following ‘civilizational’ lines.

Huntington’s argument has important empirical flaws. First, civilizations are not as distinct as Huntington makes out. Second, one gets little sense from Hungtington of how ethnicity is a result of conflict as much as a cause of it. Third, there are plenty of ‘counter-examples’ to Hungtington’s thesis on the cultural fault-lines of interventions. US-led interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were designed, at least in part, to help Muslims. So too, arguably, was the intervention in Somalia. Conversely, when Muslims have been killed in large numbers, the culprit has frequently been governments in the Arab world, as Paul Berman points out; of course, Saddam Hussein himself is responsible for killing very large numbers of Muslims; the Sudan government’s genocide against predominantly Muslim people in the west of the country is another example.

Even more significant, perhaps, than these empirical flaws is the dangerous nature of Huntington’s argument. First, the emphasis on the ongoing and impending conflict between the West and Islam can be seen as highly convenient for a US military establishment in search of a new enemy in the post-Cold War era, not least to justify continued military spending. (Some of the sources cited by Huntington on the strength of the Islamic threat are precisely US military personnel, so there is a weird circularity about the argument.) Second, the book climaxes with an emphatic and intolerant rejection of multiculturalism in the US as the only way to keep “Western civilisation” strong; Huntington’s horror of cultural contamination is a distasteful echo of the horror expressed by extremists in the Islamic world; the advocacy of cultural ‘purity’ as a route to strength and safety has distinct fascistic overtones and clearly resonates (from whichever strain of fundamentalist thought) with the views of those who seek a ‘moral revival’ to ward off vulnerability to external and internal enemies. A third danger with Huntington’s thesis–perhaps the most important–is that his diagnosis/prediction of an inevitable clash between civilizations has the potential to be damagingly self-fulfilling. Certainly, bin Laden has favoured this idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’. Huntington’s ‘West’, in other words, is an occident waiting to happen–and Bush and Blair are helping to fulfill the prophesy.

Endorsing torture

Since the US-led coalition has been moving back in many ways to the methods and the mind-set of witch-finders and inquisitors of old, it is not surprising that it is beginning to welcome back their favourite means of securing information and compliance: torture. In one of the more frightening tomes on terrorism and counter-terrorism, law professor Alan Dershowitz observes wistfully that “we could easily wipe out international terrorism if we were not constrained by legal, moral, and humanitarian considerations.” It is hard to think of a more deluded statement. Pulling himself back from this vision of nirvana, Dershowitz proposes “a series of steps that can effectively reduce the frequency and severity of international terrorist attacks by striking an appropriate balance between security and liberty” It is here that torture enters its ugly head. Dershowitz suggests that torture could be a justifiable response to terrorism, giving the example of a ticking bomb where forcibly extracting information could save the lives of large numbers of civilians. He also argues that with the US already subcontracting torture to third-party states, it is better if any torture gets an official warrant from the President of the Supreme Court; yet as Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth points out, “the fact that sometimes laws are violated does not mean you want to start legitimising the violation by getting some judge to authorise it. If you start opening the door, making a little exception here, a little exception there, you’ve basically sent the signal that the ends justify the means, and that’s exactly what Osama bin Laden thinks.” Significantly, Dershowitz scarcely considers the terrorism that torture may precipitate. Sayyid Qutb, whose radical doctrines have fed into terrorism, himself was radicalised by being tortured in an Egyptian prison. So too was bin Laden’s longstanding professional partner Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moazzam Begg, a British Muslim imprisoned at Bagram in Afghanistan and then Guantanamo Bay, said, “One of the quotes I heard people tell the guards a lot is that they weren’t terrorists before they came in, but they certainly will be when they leave.” Nor, as we have seen, is torture a reliable route to good information.

Ignatieff’s suggestion that ‘coercive interrogation’ may be necessary has been noted. As part of his argument that “Either we fight evil with evil or we succumb”, he adds that we should be prepared to consider the necessity of “relentless–though nonphysical–interrogation” that violates human dignity when this is a “a lesser evil” than “allowing thousands of people to die”–a tragedy which the information gained could supposedly prevent. Ignatieff goes on to say of such an interrogation that “its necessity would not prevent it from remaining wrong” . Ignatieff is clearly concerned to emphasise that he doesn’t like interrogation that infringes dignity and hence he wants to hold onto the label of “evil” for such acts. However, for a leading and intelligent liberal, he ends up in a remarkably extreme and dangerous territory: namely that we should do evil things.

Ignatieff says he is against physical torture; but even as he seems to close this door, he opens a window. First, “relentless interrogation” seems to come pretty close, particularly when it is “a violation of their dignity” and “would push suspects to the limits of their psychological endurance”. Second, if survival necessitates “fighting evil with evil”, there is no logical reason to stop short of physical torture. Ignatieff might feel that this is going too far, but others can easily pick up his slogan (perhaps reassuring themselves that this has come from a leading liberal with a Chair in Human Rights Practice at Harvard), and create their own definitions of just how much “evil” is necessary to “fight evil”. Of course, the process of defining–and redefining – how much evil is “necessary” is part of the shameful story of Abu Ghraib. As Ignatieff himself observes (and his confusion runs pretty deep on these issues), “If you want to create terrorists, torture is a pretty sure way to do so.”

The French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault noted the importance of changing fashions for punishment and the proper sphere for interventions, and in particular a shift in the fashion from addressing the criminal’s body (for example, through torture and execution) to working on his mind (for example, through a period of incarceration). Ignatieff’s and Dershowitz’s attitudes to torture (and, significantly, torture even before a crime has taken place) suggest a new ‘respectability’ for physical, bodily solutions to the problem of international violence. Their views here are broadly in line with the general assumption that evil has a finite, physical embodiment that can be physically eliminated–perhaps a natural (if immoral and counterproductive) response to the elusiveness of the modern terrorist. In many ways, this new emphasis on the body contrasts with the old model of deterrence, where the emphasis was on influencing the mind of your opponent. It also contrasts with approaches that seek to understand how terrorists came to be what they are. We would be wise to remember, in the midst of this new zeal for the tools of inquisition and authoritarian government, Foucault’s analysis of why torture and execution originally fell out of fashion. Foucault noted that the publicly tortured or executed criminal was being too often transformed, in the eyes of the watching public, into some kind of hero – whilst the government took on the aspect of a villain.

Promising ‘humanitarian intervention’

The concept of humanitarian intervention has helped win important support for the ‘war on terror’ from some on the left and from liberals, including Michael Ignatieff and Paul Berman. Stephen Holmes points out that in the 1990s–for example, over Bosnia and Kosovo–liberals often lambasted the UN and were quick to point out the limitations of acting through multilateralist organizations. UN failings in Rwanda in many ways reinforced this unease and added to the sense that bolder action should have been taken earlier, even if this meant acting unilaterally and on the basis of information predicting a genocide. These are uncomfortable points. Certainly, when I was working on Iraq for Save the Children Fund in 1993, UN-bashing was a fairly popular activity. Holmes sees the left’s championing of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the 1990s as paving the way for the Iraq war; and certainly conservatives have often taken up the issue opportunistically. For his part, Blair seems to have seen himself as on a humanitarian roll. In his book Blair’s Wars, John Kampfner details the five wars in which he has been involved. First there was the bombing of Iraq under Operation Desert Fox in 1998. Then there was Kosovo – an earlier example of intervention to pre-empt which also provoked. When Clinton was hesitating over ground troops for Kosovo in 1999, Blair complained that “Americans are too ready to see no need to get involved in the affairs of the rest of the world.” His plea for humanitarian intervention was seen as seminal by some rightwing US interventionists. Then there was Sierra Leone (where local people had made Blair feel he was single-handedly responsible for their freedom). And then there was Afghanistan. Kampfner observes that, “with each war, Blair’s confidence grew.” Then there was the attack on Iraq in 2003. The road to this hellish ‘war on terror’ has been paved with good intentions as well as bad. A noxious cocktail of self-interest and self-delusion has nurtured the dangerous and deluded view that justice–like God, Halliburton and history–is ‘on our side’.

DAVID KEEN teaches at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Endless War? Hidden Functions of the ‘War on Terror’ (Pluto, 2006).