Saturday, May 13, 2006

Reassessing the US and Iraq

A friend recently asked me my opinion of the US, and whether I believe it is a 'defender of freedoms and happiness' or just a bully. Part of my reply:

It's too easy to point to the mess in Afghanistan and Iraq for all the wrongs that the US has done. I, and many in Europe, do not for one minute believe that the US is in for the sake of spreading freedom and democracy, despite its own claim (so-called Operations "Enduring Freedom" and "Iraqi Freedom"). One was about revenge (face and honour after attacks of 911), the other about oil (and power to control the world's most valuable resource).

I guess the question is what (super)power-dom does to a country. Like the saying, power corrupts, and certainly as the only superpower after the the Cold War, the US has been able to project its power (economic, military, soft pwer ('culture', media, entertainment) unchallenged. And that ability comes with responsibility but also arrogance. The US can do whatever it wants, trample over interantional agreements (Kyoto, international criminal court, Iraq, and perhaps soon Iran). It conducts politics in its own way, governed by its own interests. If it wanted, the US has/had the ability and resources to stop famine in Africa, prevent human rights abuses in the Sudan, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Balkans immediately etc. But it doesn't/didn't want to, because those places are of little interest and value to the US. All these places, and more, experience terrible human rights abuses and oppression, probably far worse than than anything Saddam attempted, but the US sits and does nothing (to be fair so does the rest of the interantional community). Instead the US seems to pick on the small fish (Axis of Evil), those countries that are either international outcasts already or pose no real challange to the US' power, but leave the real abusers (Saudi Arabia, China, Israel) well alone. End of the day it comes down to money and balancing your interets against those of others. And often freedom and happiness of others loses.

Just read something which sort of backs up my arguments about how power corrupts. Some self-proclaimed neo-conservatives, who were adament that the Iraqi campaign was necessary and good are now changing their opinions. Even Fukuyama, who was an supporter of the 'neo-liberal' peace and and saw it necessary to deal with Iraq, reassessed the Bush doctrine of pre-emptivism. In a recent Speigel interview , Fukuyama defended his reversal of opinion about the 'benevolent hegemenon', all because "Iraq happened".

Part of that is a structural problem in the world right now where America is so powerful that it creates a huge amount of resentment. There's a very high background level of anti-Americanism no matter what. The Bush people made it worse by the way they proceeded [ in Iraq], but it would have been difficult even in the absence of that. (Fukuyama)

Somewhere else (uni essay 2003) I once wrote that the heigtening of tensions in the current international climate can be partly attributed to the US' own perceived insecurities:

The new world order with fragmented and weak entities under the auspice of a single superpower, the U.S., unrestrained in its capacity to project its power anywhere, anytime in the name of catch-all justifications of 'humanitarianism' or 'pre-emptive strikes', has perhaps also contributed to the increasing mutual suspicion leading to a more unpredictable environment.


Opposition exists in all sorts of relationships that are unequal, and the categorisation of people, whether as mad, terrorists, queer[1] or rogues only heightens anxieties. The United States after 9-11 is traumatised. Yet the state is able to use the state of emergency as a pretext to modify its course in foreign affairs and at home, mould the hearts and minds of people and states, and pre-emptivism and the instilment of fear to determine the life or death, inclusion or exclusion of states and peoples everywhere. This ability to determine others, to label others and subject others to one's perception of the 'Other' is "the characteristic (privilege) of sovereign power…to seize hold of life in order to suppress it" [2]. The Liberal ideology functions best gripped in a (false?) sense of fear, in order to construct the "regulated formation of the social body [3]", through which it can further delimit and 'hierarchise' unbalanced relations of domination and assert domination.

[1] Edward Said used this word, when he describes how the Orient is perceived by the West as everything that it is not, "living tableau of queerness", whereby feelings of suspicion and curiosity are aroused; Said, 1995, pg 103. The word today also has connotations to 'homosexuality', which Foucault has discussed in depth in The History of Sexuality, as a construct of the modern era.

[2] Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality-Volume I: Introduction, Penguin Books, London, 1976, pp135-136

[3] Ibid. pp140-141. A 'social body' in this sense is very much reminiscent of the construction of the Kantian 'federation of free states', possessing the characteristics of Republicanism, submitting to the common 'pact of peace' and common goals of 'universal hospitality': See Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, Hackett, Indianapolis, 1983


At the end of the day, it's a battle of 'hearts and minds' (thank you for the admission, Pentagon), not freedom and happiness. It's about trumpeting 'our' values and lives and blackening those of others that are seem as different or incompatible. No wonder the 'democracy project' that the US claims to be supporting and spreading around the world is not selling well.

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