Scattered Thoughts: War on Terror Edition

Listening to the BBC World Service on radio this morning, there was some kind of security consultant talking about bin Laden and Zarqawi. She was offering incredibly precise, strong readings of the current state of Islamist insurgents around the world, arguing that bin Laden is now largely irrelevant, that al Qaeda has no influence in Iraq, that bin Laden is just symbolic, and so on. For one, I was thinking, “JUST symbolic”? For another, I was thinking that this was roughly like listening to a live broadcast of a Roman augury: this entrail means this, this spleen means that. The expert was the same sort of person who used to confidently go on the air in the early 1980s and tell us about what was happening inside the Soviet government based on the order that various elderly officials appeared in the review stand at a military parade. I don’t care whether it’s right, left or center, prowar or antiwar: most of that stuff is bunkum. The people who really seem to have dug in and committed to reportage, the George Packers and Anthony Shadids and Ron Suskinds, seem to have a healthy respect for what is not known as well as what’s unknowable. The people who are in the heart of things, I suspect, know even more about what they don’t know. (Nod to Donald Rumsfeld: he got a lot of shit for his statement about the unknown unknowns, but it was one of the few smart things he’s ever said.) Not that this seems to have checked the public hubris of the American or British political leadership, of course. Perhaps because they have listened and still do listen too much to the kind of experts who peddle certainty the same way street-corner pushers sell crack cocaine.

Much of what is going to happen on the global scale of this conflict is not readable in the daily press of events, only in the slow accumulation of changes, movements, flows of money and information and organization. This has been one of my chief complaints all along about both the rhetoric and concrete policies of the Bush Administration. If you take them to have even an ounce of sincerity about a commitment to struggle against oppressive or destructive forms of fundamentalism, illiberalism, extremism, terrorism, then you need to abandon that struggle as a political platform on which to score short-term victories. It’s got to be a consensus policy that looks to the long-term.


Another theme I’ve written about before, but that has been much on my mind of late: what is the thing that makes the United States a legitimate or worthy adversary for extremism, terror, illiberalism? Why do we stand against all that? The answer of the Bush Administration, I think, has been: because we’re Americans, a reconfiguration of Manifest Destiny, a nationalist version of exceptionalism. Because we’re God’s people, or have a special national soul, because of our values or culture.

That is simply the wrong answer. Hey, I’m not ashamed to say that I like American culture, that I think it’s honestly preferable to the national cultures of many other societies. Nor would I disagree that a good deal of what makes the United States a free society comes from the habitus of its citizens. But in the end, the thing that is both exceptional about the United States and potentially exportable or shareable with the world in a struggle against fundamentalism or oppression is not apple pie and chevrolets. It’s a basic insight about the nature of governmental (and possibly non-governmental) power: that power must be constrained to be productive, that the rights of individuals are not provisioned by the state but define the limits of state power.

Amendment IX of the US Constitution may be its heart and soul: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” States around the world, whether weak or strong, failed or successful, imagine themselves to fill any void, to claim all powers. What rights their citizens possess, they possess because the state gives them their rights, and the state conceptually fills all the infinite spaces of possibility beyond. The US Constitution sees it differently: what rights humans possess, they possess before the state exists. The state is a steward of those rights, not the provisioner of them. What the state is not given as its powers, it is not permitted to do: all of what is unnamed is the people’s, not the state’s. In the 20th Century, the United States even began to extend, rightfully, this vision to other concentrations of power that can suborn the ability of individuals to act freely, in accordance with their rights, such as monopolies.

That’s what stands against terror. Which is, again, why the Bush Administration and the Republican Congressional leadership has been so fatally wrong-headed. It is a repeated, insistent article of faith within the Administration that what the executive office needs is a complete liberation from limitations on its power, that the President can do whatever is needful in pursuit of his goals, that oversight is treason, that the public is to be protected but not trusted, that rights are not human but American (and possibly not even that). That the Constitution is to be used for trivial statutory goals like restricting flag-burning or abortion policy as opposed to fundamental dispensations of liberty. It’s not just that this is a strategic mistake at a global level, that trying to lead from the premise that only Americans (and Tony Blair) have the proper national consciousness about extremism obviously alienates even potential allies, as opposed to a defense of liberty on terms that could be shared and applied in variant forms across the world. It’s an error at the deepest possible level of world-historical reasoning, a misunderstanding not just of the way forward but of the reason why we should be involved in a struggle in the first place.

Fixing that mistake is going to take more than closing Gitmo (which in this Administration probably just means a greater reliance on renditions and prison camps further away from public view). It’s going to take a completely different leadership at every level.


Lots of people have beaten up on the Euston Manifesto, and rightfully so. Not the least because the people who wrote it should be, by dint of their declared convictions, the first people to understand what’s gone wrong at the level of global politics in the last six years, and yet, they seem pitifully obsessed with phantoms, with the past rather than the future. It’s as if they’re trapped forever in a “New Times” meeting in the early 1990s in England or waking up with a hangover somewhere around 1977, wondering where the smartly dressed SDS of 1965 became the Weather Underground. I’ve been there, sort of, and yes, I can surely get on the bandwagon of complaints about the identarian, Third-World-romanticist, crypto-revolutionist left depending on the provocation and circumstance. But if you’re writing a manifesto, for god’s sake, a platform defining your foundational commitments, you’ve got to do better than trying to poke fingers in your favored eyes. You’ve got to set out some ironclad principles and then see, with an absolutely open mind and a consistent view, where those principles require you to be. The Eustonites wanted to craft a document that has all the hideousness and political calculation of an American party platform, a document that guarantees in advance that all its signatories can just return back to warblogging, flogging Angela Davis, to grinding the same old axes. It says it’s “fresh” when it’s as pungent as a five-day old tuna rotting on the fishmonger’s ice. A fresh document would set out foundational principles at some level deeper than saying, “We are against terrorism”, at some level other than a laundry list of pet causes, and would obligate its signatories to take stock of where and to whom their political and social fidelity lies.

A manifesto should be predictive, a guide to future action, not a set of scores being settled.


Here’s an analogy for you. Bush’s closest analogue among post-1945 presidents is Kennedy. Yeah, I know, that’s going to seem as if I’m saying Vietnam = Iraq. Well, it does somewhat, but the specifics on the ground and the surrounding circumstances are really very different. But the analogy is close in terms of the inner attitudes and public postures governing policy, as well as the enduring political mystique, and it might help some of Bush’s antagonists to understand the enduring popularity of Bush among some of his constituents. Having been only a fetus in 1963, I’ve always found the aura of Camelot pretty baffling: a hardcore Cold Warrior whose Adminstration stumbled on every major Cold War initiative it undertook except for the Cuban missile crisis (Kennedy’s Afghanistan, perhaps?), who acted on civil rights only when absolutely compelled to, whose personal conduct and honesty were lacking, whose policy initiatives were often poorly executed. Why is that guy a hero to liberals? But who flattered the self-image of many young educated people, who spoke in inspirational terms and gave people a larger vision of themselves and their times, who connected to the Eastern Establishment with particular intensity. Substitute some of the constituencies and forms and subtract Kennedy’s wit and ease with the press, and you’ve got some of the same mix of things going now. Not the least of which is the kind of hubris that blinds people to the long-term implications of what they’re doing, and which leaves others to clean up the mess.


I think it’s a mistake for the Democrats who are against the war to pin their star to a demand for troop withdrawals. I think it’s politically wiser to make this coming campaign about competence, accountability, responsibility. Somebody asks a Democrat, “Do you support our troops?” and I want the Democrat to be able to credibly turn that question around on his Republican opponent by saying, “Sure, I do: it’s my opponent who doesn’t. He’s the one who backed an Administration that put our soldiers in harm’s way without the least bit of preparation for the mission it was assigning them to accomplish. He’s the one who backed an Administration that threw out millions of dollars of groundwork for an occupation because it contradicted their pet orthodoxies. He’s the one working for an Administration that behaves like a kid who doesn’t want to hear contradictory information and shouts ‘la la la can’t HEAR you’. He’s the one who supports a political leadership that fired or shoved aside military leaders who told them what they didn’t want to hear. He’s the guy who collaborates with the men who didn’t send enough troops and didn’t properly equip the ones it did send.”

And so on: you get the point. It might be that a phased withdrawal will be the best thing to do if there’s a change in leadership, but why handcuff yourself to something that specific now? You have to be honest and say that you’ll consider all the options, but what you can point out is that considering all the options is exactly what the Republican leadership has steadfastly refused to do for the last six years. And that can be tied in turn to the attack on Republican corruption, to say that in both cases, it’s the arrogance of power that’s most at fault here, that the people who have been in charge since 2000 have shown themselves incapable of handling the responsibility of political power.

I’m not saying the Democrats don’t need a positive political platform of their own, but as usual, they’re handling that job piecemeal, in terms of specific policy initiatives (troop withdrawal, etcetera). On the deeper platform issue, I can only point back to my post-2004 observation that the Democrats kind of have to decide whether to go communitarian or libertarian in a fairly profound way, and note that more than a few people have noticed the political and philosophical appeal of the libertarian option lately. That platform would help direct the party’s address to the question of Iraq in a more profound way than just figuring out how or when to talk about troop withdrawals.

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5 Responses to Scattered Thoughts: War on Terror Edition

  1. joeo says:

    >I think it’s a mistake for the Democrats who are against the war to pin their star to a demand for troop withdrawals. I think it’s politically wiser to make this coming campaign about competence, accountability, responsibility.

    This could be the best move politically. But, I don’t think incompetence is the problem with the Iraq war. Invading Iraq was a bad idea for reasons we knew about in 1990. There wasn’t some competent way to invade and ocuppy Iraq that would avoid our current problems.

    Making the case for troop withdrawl is a pretty good move for the Democrats now. The worst thing for them politically is for bush, aided by democrat silence, to keep the status quo for 3 years and then the democrats have to face McCain in 2008 who wants to raise troop levels in Iraq. If our occupation is “incompetent”, it is hard to argue against raising troop levels.

  2. hwc says:

    I would think the Democrats would be licking their chops at the opportunity to run against someone calling for INCREASED troop deployments to Iraq. That strikes me as a very difficult sell. Two more years and the American public won’t care about winning or losing for the people of Iraq, just getting the hell out.

  3. texter says:

    Fixing that mistake is going to take more than closing Gitmo (which in this Administration probably just means a greater reliance on renditions and prison camps further away from public view).

    So scary and so true.

  4. withywindle says:

    When you talk of myopia and obsession with phantoms, I confess to pot and kettle thoughts. I do think that the ideals and practices you espouse are, in point of fact, shared in theory and practice by the Bush administration far more than you care to acknowledge. However, this is not a point you are likely to be convinced about anytime soon. A specific point or two, however:

    1) “Much of what is going to happen on the global scale of this conflict is not readable in the daily press of events, only in the slow accumulation of changes, movements, flows of money and information and organization. This has been one of my chief complaints all along about both the rhetoric and concrete policies of the Bush Administration.”

    This recent Swift revelation is precisely about following “flows of money.” Isn’t this program, therefore, something you would support? Wasn’t the action of the NYT and LAT in revealing it against what you support? Or is accumulating knowledge about flows of money not what you were talking about?

    2) You refer to the trivial statutory goals of abortion policy. Those of us who are pro-life cannot take your complaints about liberty and virtue seriously so long as you talk about the murder of millions as trivial.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Withywindle: on the administration, no, we are not going to agree. The interesting thing about the Swift revelation is that Suskind documents to a pretty convincing degree that the Swift program had run its course, that money has gone to cash couriers among various terrorist groups. But I suppose for me it’s partly that I might give a very different group of people (Republican or Democrat) a lot more slack to carry out that kind of work. This Administration, in my view, has made it more imperative to keep track of their abuses of power than to given them slack for legitimate efforts, and that’s their own damn fault, not mine.

    On abortion. I take murder seriously, very seriously. I don’t require a Constitutional amendment spelling out the specifics of murder. And so on. What is it about abortion that can’t be dealt with by statute? What requires a specifically Constitutional solution? The definition of a fetus as a person? Let me observe that a) this is the most contentiously religious/cultural question involved in the entire debate, and one I’d suggest we’re all better off leaving to individual judgement and b) a Constitutional solution might even have implications that anti-abortion advocates would find uncomfortable. For example, if you put language into the Constitution, fundamental language, that defines the fetus as a person, surely that casts doubt one even the “abortion in the case of danger to the mother’s health” interventions. It surely invites a major slew of derivative interventions into the state management of pregnancy. And so on. There are reasons to doubt just on that level alone whether it’s a good idea to make this a Constitutional rather than statutory change. (This is assuming you’re anti-abortion in the first place.)

    I seem to remember some very similiar arguments about the ERA, which today I would generally agree with.

    More importantly, I don’t see this Administration as even remotely sincere in their efforts in this regard. It’s bread and circuses, a toss to its political base. In fact, it reinforces my feeling of their total lack of sincerity about their “war claims”: a genuine war president would put national unity at the absolute imperative top of his list, unless the war was a civil one, as in Lincoln’s case.

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