Chalmers Johnson reviews Holmes
October 23, 2007 § Leave a comment
From Asia Times Online Middle East News – Intellectual fallacies of the ‘war on terror’ Chalmers Johnson. Lots of quotes but read the original. It can be also found at American Empire Project A Guide for the Perplexed. The article and the book it reviews and the books that book reviews, bring together a powerful study of bureaucracy and psychology in understanding the war.
Holmes has written a powerful and philosophically erudite survey of what we think we understand about the 9/11 attacks – and how and why the United States has magnified many times over the initial damage caused by the terrorists.
Stephen Holmes is a law professor at New York University. In The Matador’s Cape, he sets out to forge an understanding – in an intellectual and historical sense, not as a matter of journalism or of partisan politics – of the Iraq war, which he calls "one of the worst (and least comprehensible) blunders in the history of American foreign policy" (p 230). His modus operandi is to survey in depth approximately a dozen influential books on post-Cold War international politics to see what light they shed on America’s missteps.
"Far from guaranteeing an unbiased and clear-eyed view of the terrorist threat, as Kagan contends, American military superiority has irredeemably skewed the country’s view of the enemy on the horizon, drawing the United States, with appalling consequences, into a gratuitous, cruel, and unwinnable conflict in the Middle East." (p 72)
I would argue that Fiasco (Penguin 2006) by the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks is more comprehensive, clearer-eyed, and more critical.
How did a tiny group of individuals, with eccentric theories and reflexes, recklessly compound the country’s post-9/11 security nightmare? Here Holmes considers James Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (Viking, 2004). One of Mann’s more original insights is that the neocons in the Bush administration were so bewitched by Cold War thinking that they were simply incapable of grasping the new realities of the post-Cold War world. "In Iraq, alas, the lack of a major military rival excited some aging hardliners into toppling a regime that they did not have the slightest clue how to replace … We have only begun to witness the long-term consequences of their ghastly misuse of unaccountable power". (p 106).
element of bureaucratic politics in Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s manipulation of the neophyte Bush: "The outcome of inter- and intra-agency battles in Washington, DC, allotted disproportionate influence to the fatally blurred understanding of the terrorist threat shared by a few highly placed and shrewd bureaucratic infighters. Rumsfeld and Cheney controlled the military; and when they were given the opportunity to rank the country’s priorities in the war on terror, they assigned paramount importance to those specific threats that could be countered effectively only by the government agency over which they happened to preside" (p 107).
Holmes regards Huntington’s work as a "false template" and calls it misleading. Well before 9/11, many critics of Huntington’s concept of "civilization" had pointed out that there is insufficient homogeneity in Christianity, Islam, or the other great religions for any of them to replace the position vacated by the Soviet Union. As Holmes remarks, Huntington "finds homogeneity because he is looking for homogeneity" (p 136).
but Holmes’ argument that "a savvy pro-war party may successfully employ humanitarian talk both to gull the wider public and to silence potential critics on the liberal side" (p 157) is worth considering.
How did pro-war liberals help stifle national debate on the wisdom of the Iraq war, as illustrated by Paul Berman in Power and the Idealists (Soft Skull Press, 2005)? Wildly overstating his influence, Holmes writes, Berman, a regular columnist for The New Republic, "first tried to convince us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, far from being a tribal war over scarce land and water, is part of the wider spiritual war between liberalism and apocalyptic irrationalism, not worth distinguishing too sharply from the conflict between America and al-Qaeda.He then attempted to show that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden represented two ‘branches’ of an essentially homogeneous extremism" (p. 181). Berman, Holmes points out, conflated anti-terrorism with anti-fascism in order to provide a foundation for the neologism "Islamo-fascism." His chief reason for including Berman is that Holmes wants to address the views of religious fundamentalists in their support of the war on terrorism.
Holmes writes of Fukuyama’s argument, "[T]o recognize that America’s fundamental problem is Islamic radicalism, and that terrorism is only a symptom, is to invite a political solution. Promoting democracy is just such a political solution" (p. 209).
…during the Cold War, the United States ruled largely through indirection, using seemingly impartial international institutions, and eliciting the cooperation of other nations. He laments the failure to follow this proven formula in the post-9/11 era, which led to the eclipse of the State Department by the Defense Department, an institution hopelessly ill-suited for diplomatic and nation-building missions.
His conclusion on Yoo and his fellow neocons is devastating: "[I]f the misbegotten Iraq war proves anything, it is the foolhardiness of allowing an autistic clique that reads its own newspapers and watches its own cable news channel to decide, without outsider input, where to expend American blood and treasure — that is, to decide which looming threats to stress and which to downplay or ignore" (p. 301).
Is Islam the Culprit or Merely a Distraction?
In addition to these broad themes, Holmes investigates hidden agendas and their distorting effects on rational policy-making. Some of these are: Cheney’s desire to expand executive power and weaken Congressional oversight; Rumsfeld’s schemes to field-test his theory that in modern warfare speed is more important than mass; the plans by some of Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s advisers to improve the security situation of Israel; the administration’s desire to create a new set of permanent U.S. military bases in the Middle East to protect the U.S. oil supply in case of a collapse of the Saudi monarchy; and the desire to invade Iraq and thereby avoid putting all the blame for 9/11 on al Qaeda — because to do so would have involved admitting administration negligence and incompetence during the first nine months of 2001 and, even worse, that Clinton was right in warning Bush and his top officials that the main security threat to the United States was a potential al Qaeda attack or attacks.
Holmes notes, "According to the classic study of resentment, [Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)] ‘every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering; more specifically, an agent, a "guilty" agent who is susceptible of pain — in short, some living being or other on whom he can vent his feelings directly or in effigy, under some pretext or other.’ If suffering is seen as natural or uncaused it will be coded as misfortune instead of injustice, and it will produce resignation rather than rebellion. The most efficient way to incite, therefore, is to indict" (p. 64).
"Because Americans…. have sunk so much of their national treasure into a military establishment fit to deter and perhaps fight an enemy that has now disappeared," he argues, "they have an almost irresistible inclination to exaggerate the centrality of rogue states, excellent targets for military destruction, [above] the overall terrorist threat. They overestimate war (which never unfolds as expected) and underestimate diplomacy and persuasion as instruments of American power" (pp. 71-72).
The day after 9/11, American leaders in Washington D.C. suddenly felt unprotected and defenseless against a new threat they only imperfectly understood. They responded in various ways.
Unintended consequences also played a role, Holmes argues: "If conservative Congressmen had not blocked [Pennsylvania Governor] Tom Ridge’s nomination as Defense Secretary [in 2000] for the ludicrously immaterial reason that he was wobbly on abortion, then the Cheney-Rumsfeld group, including Wolfowitz and [Douglas] Feith, would have been in no position to hijack the administration’s reaction to 9/11" (pp. 93-94).
There was little or no countervailing influence. "By sheer chance," Holmes writes, "Rice and Powell — no doubt orderly managers — have pedestrian minds and perhaps deferential personalities. Neither provided a gripping and persuasive vision of the United States’ role in the world that might have counteracted the megalomania of the neoconservatives, and neither was capable of outfoxing the hard-liners in an interagency power struggle" (p. 94).
The costs of equating al Qaeda with Iraq and of concentrating on a military response were high. "It meant that some of the troops sent to Iraq in the first wave believed, disgracefully, that they were avenging the 3,000 dead from September 11…. Cruel and arbitrary behavior by some U.S. forces helped stoke the violent insurgency that followed" (p. 307).
By reacting to the threat of modern terrorism with an attack on a substitute target — without even bothering to calculate the enormous potential costs involved — the Pentagon greatly overestimated what military force could achieve.
Although Holmes tries not to overstate his case, he suspects that the humanitarian interventionism of the 1990s — at one point he speaks of "human rights as imperial ideology" (p. 190) — may have played at least a small role in the public’s acceptance of Bush’s intervention in Iraq. If so, it is hard to imagine a better example of the disasters that good intentions can sometimes produce. The result in Iraq, in turn, has more or less silenced calls from the Left for further campaigns of military intervention for humanitarian purposes. The U.S. is conspicuously not participating in the U.N. intervention in the Darfur region of Sudan.
"If Saddam Hussein had actually possessed the tons of chemical and biological weapons that, in the president’s talking points, constituted the casus belli for the invasion, Rumsfeld’s slimmed-down force would have abetted the greatest proliferation disaster in world history" (p. 82). He quotes Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor: "Securing the WMD required sealing the country’s borders and quickly seizing control of the many suspected sites before they were raided by profiteers, terrorists, and regime officials determined to carry on the fight. The force that Rumsfeld eventually assembled, by contrast, was too small to do any of this" (pp. 84-85).
With this book, Stephen Holmes largely succeeds in elevating criticism of contemporary American imperialism in the Middle East to a new level. In my opinion, however, he underplays the roles of American imperialism and militarism in exploiting the 9/11 crisis to serve vested interests in the military-industrial complex, the petroleum industry, and the military establishment. Holmes leaves the false impression that the political system of the United States is capable of a successful course correction. But, as Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, puts it: "None of the Democrats vying to replace President Bush is doing so with the promise of reviving the system of checks and balances…. The aim of the party out of power is not to cut the presidency down to size but to seize it, not to reduce the prerogatives of the executive branch but to regain them."
There is, I believe, only one solution to the crisis we face. The American people must make the decision to dismantle both the empire that has been created in their name and the huge, still growing military establishment that undergirds it. It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire. By doing so, Britain avoided the fate of the Roman Republic — becoming a domestic tyranny and losing its democracy, as would have been required if it had continued to try to dominate much of the world by force. To take up these subjects, however, moves the discussion into largely unexplored territory. For now, Holmes has done a wonderful job of clearing the underbrush and preparing the way for the public to address this more or less taboo subject.