Platypus Review 11 | March 2009
I was intrigued to find in The Platypus Review #7 a commentary by Chris Cutrone on the U.S. role in world politics. I found it more sophisticated and original than anything I had previously come across in the mainstream media either here or in Europe.
Before launching my machine, I would like to situate myself. I'm a foreigner, philosopher of sorts, and not a student any more (That means I'm old.). I have lived in the US for only two months. I come from Finland, a country which is in many senses the exact opposite of the U.S.: tiny, internationally insignificant, linguistically isolated, and culturally homogeneous. Our religious right-wing - indeed any extreme right wing - is trifling. In fact it would not be too great an exaggeration to claim that Finland has politically incarnated, for the last fifty years or so, the wet dream of U.S. left-of-center Democrats.
American patriots, both Republican and Democrat, tend to cherish the idea of the U.S. being the shining beacon of morals and democracy on Earth. I have yet to encounter a single soul outside the U.S. who would agree. Rather, the U.S. is considered an unequal, structurally racist and imperialist banana democracy with its too-short-a-step from slavery to the partial successes of the civil rights movement, the lack of equal general education, the lobbyist-controlled corrupt governing, the semi-open ballot sabotage, the state of exception-power of the executive branch, the reprehensible CIA-coups and the unilateral military interventions.
The idea of the U.S. being the ultimate power fighting for democracy on the global scene is doomed to sound obscene. If there were elections in Belarus an international delegation of electoral monitors would be sent. Why would the same not be done with regard to the U.S.? Just think about Florida in 2000 - and it is not the only possible example.
Last but not least, there has always been, from the European point of view , a lot more conservative whining about the excesses of the welfare state than genuine and stable welfare state structures in the U.S.
It must be underscored that this attitude does not stem from any irrational "anti-Americanism". Firstly, the harshness of the European criticism is the obverse of the fact that the U.S. is regarded as one of "us"; as a country from which we are supposed to expect more. Secondly, the rest of the world does appreciate America, only on different grounds than the U.S. patriots do, namely for "aesthetical" reasons.
What I have stated thus far compresses exactly the received Europeanish pseudo-progressive wisdom that Cutrone wants, in his article, to reject, or at least call into question. His point of view, certainly, is not that of an American patriot. Instead, Cutrone points out that the Left in general has been confused and self-contradictory in its opposition to U.S. imperialism. Furthermore, Cutrone emphasizes that Europeans in particular have been self-righteous, double-faced and irresponsible regarding the role of the U.S. in present-day global capitalism. As for the U.S., the anti-war rhetoric of the Democrats, claims Cutrone, has been unprincipled and opportunistic.
Cutrone asks, what and on what grounds does the anti-war movement actually oppose? Is it opposing any "imperialist" intervention whatsoever? Or any unilateral intervention by the U.S. ? Or any intervention that fails or is not efficient enough? And is the argument that the US should not "spread democracy" supposed to be a progressive or a conservative argument?
The real reason for the occupation in 2003, according to Cutrone, was that Iraq had become a failed state. Sooner or later, someone had to intervene. This is where the Bush administration comes in: in doing what someone would have had to do anyway, it ultimately acted "responsibly". U.S. companies surely have profited from the intervention but some capitalists would have profited anyway, so why bother? All the other options concerning Iraq would not have been less "imperialistic" or "capitalistic". And what if the Bush policy succeeds? Then what will the basis for opposition to U.S. "imperialism"? These are good questions, and all too easily ignored by the inverse self-aggrandizement of the Europeans.
Francis Fukuyama has formulated a critique of the Iraq war which is based on the notion of its "necessary" failure - necessary, because there was no plan for the day after.
Fukuyama labels the brand of neo-conservatism he does not want to subscribe to (any more) as "Wilsonianism minus international institutions." Invented by Reagan, this doctrine has undergone a revival in the Bush administration. Against this doctrine Fukuyama advocates "realistic Wilsonianism"; the notion that the spreading of democracy cannot rely on naked military force but has to take into account the local cultural factors, the specific history and the developmental phase of societal institutions of the country in question. Fukuyama 's argument is not opportunistic, although it is based on the Iraq war being a failure. He makes a systematic Straussian point.
I venture to outline a basic intuition behind a typical European counter-reaction to the Iraq war. It boils down to three points: firstly, the Reaganist-Bushian doctrine is not just unilateral but exceptionalistic; secondly it has a nationalistic agenda, which if necessary, is covered up by downright lies and finally it is counter-productive. These points are well-rehearsed, of course.
The doctrine is unilateral, because it disregards international law. As Fukuyama puts it: the Bush administration had made it clear that the U.S. would not be bound by what the Security Council did. Also, the notion of pre-emptive war is not only a fundamental revision of the Westphalian tradition of international law but also a tacit endorsement of U.S. exceptionalism. Many countries face terrorist threats - Russia, China and India, for example - but if any of these nations announced a general strategy of preventive war as a means to deal with terrorism the U.S. would undoubtedly be the first to object.
Still, the most glaring example of the U.S exceptionalism is not the case of Iraq. After demanding that the Serbian war criminals should be submitted to the International Criminal Court, the Bush administration demanded that the governments of the EU agree to a blanket exemption of all U.S. citizens from the jurisdiction of the very same court. How irritating can you get?
Against Cutrone's claim that the cause of the occupation was not oil, but the fact that Iraq was a failed state, I'm inclined to repeat the standard anti-war criticisms. What about the control of Iraq oil fields, taking Iraq out of OPEC, breaking the anti-Israeli Arab front, weakening the Saudi oil monarchy and attempting to provoke a regime change in Iran? How do these sound for reasons? And although it could be said that Iraq was a failed state from the beginning, it managed to create a series of relatively successful, though certainly authoritarian, regimes between 1958-1991. It was the Gulf War that ruined the state of Iraq. Again, the U.S. is cleaning up the mess it has itself created.
The original justifications (weapons of mass destruction, links to al-Qaeda) the Bush administration gave for the occupation evaporated. Bush himself gave them up and fell back to the general human rights-argument. Well, why not? The key question is, however: how are the potential object countries discursively hegemonized as the most urgent countries to be intervened in? When the world is being asked whether it endorses a particular intervention or not, the decisive justifying step for unilateral action has already been accomplished. When the question "would you endorse an intervention in Iraq?" is on the agenda everywhere, the intervention is already justified. "Saddam is a terrible dictator, so..." "Yes, but on the other hand..." Why just Iraq, out of all the undemocratic states in the world? Why not Columbia?
Now, do these points form a coherent whole? Well, yes. It is not contradictory or opportunistic to oppose exceptionalism and to claim that the interventions are by and large counterproductive as far as the first argument is regarded as the primary one.
But what have I been doing here? Arguing like the ultimate liberal democrat, presenting well-wishing arguments for international co-operation? Have I forgotten that the maintenance of order in global capitalism is and remains "a bloody business", as Cutrone puts it?
Well, maybe. But is this to say that nothing matters until the revolution comes?
I fully agree that the mainstream European critique is double-faced: the USA is doing the dirty job for the European states while they can retain the position of a Hegelian beautiful soul. And Cutrone may well remind me that he is not actively endorsing the role of the U.S. in the scene of international capitalism, he is just realistic. The Left should acknowledge the facts of the situation, make correct analysis and then conquer the situation, if possible.
But this is exactly where my (or Zizek's) central question regarding Cutrone's reasoning comes in. His basic presupposition is that the hegemonic position of the U.S. in global capitalism is a fact - a fact to be understood, analyzed and for the time being accepted, but definitely not whimpered about. But are the "undiminished capacities" of the U.S. really so indisputable?
I think Cutrone's argument testifies to his perverse Wilsonianism. What if the military tours de force of the U.S. are the obverse of its impotence? Has the U.S. not been, until the recent financial crisis, the ultimate consumer of the world economics? As its economics and financial institutions have been dependent upon being trusted by the rest of the world, maybe the overspending and growing indebtedness of the U.S. have made feats of strength a necessary prop for maintaining that trust? Perhaps we have been witnessing a series of ultimately fake military interventions by the U.S. against adversaries known to be weak in order to maintain its continuing financial credibility? Now that the bubble has burst, shouldn't we just face the fact that the era of the U.S. is just over?
As is well known, the U.S. is constantly fighting against the dangers it has itself created. The examples have been cited ad nauseam by the anti-war movement: the Taliban, Bin Laden, Saddam etc. were all originally backed and financed by the U.S. Not to mention that the Iraq intervention has accelerated the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran and has made Iraq, instead of Afghanistan, the training ground and operational base for jihadist terrorists. What if all this has not just been unwise or contra-final but bears testimony to a certain Hegelian cunning of reason instead? Maybe the apparent counter-productivity of the US-interventions - the fact that they tend to strengthen and even constitute in the first place the very enemies supposed to be eliminated - tacitly serves as a guarantee that the military power of the U.S. will be needed forever?
I may be carrying my point about the non-intentional conspiracy too far here, but perhaps the conservatives did not even want (on the level of Rumsfeldian "unknown knowns") to win the recent presidential elections. I mean, what has the Republican strategy been after Reagan? To let the debt rise to the utmost and then send for the Democrats to deal with it. Enter Obama... |P