Monday, June 30, 2008

Benjamin Barber's Fear's Empire

There's no complete substitute for reading books and articles written near the time of a particular historical event. Because the perspective and tone, as well as the reminders of what was known and unknown at the time, tell you a lot that may get lost or blurred in accounts written later.

Benjamin Barber's Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy was first published in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq. Those were the "Mission Accomplished" days, when Bush and his preventive war doctrine were riding high and the neocons were eager to spread the war to Iran and Syria as quickly as possible. Barber wasn't on their side. In 2004, the paperback edition was published with a new preface by Barber, which gives a feel for how quickly the picture had changed. Much of the criticism and the warnings that Barber had made in the original edition had been validated already by events. It was obvious to anyone whose mind hadn't been bleached clean by OxyContin that while the initial invasion may have looked like Ken Adelman's promised "cakewalk", the occupation was going to be a very different matter.

As Barber puts it in the new preface:

Just a year into what was to be a happy story of liberation vindicated, the preventive war strategy was in tatters. It had unraveled more or less along the lines foretold by skeptics in the media, cautious warriors in the Pentagon, and scholarly Islamics [sic] in academia well before President Bush took his coalition of the willing roaring into Iraq in quest of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and the head of Saddam Hussein.
You may notice that Benjamin Barber has not been one of the authorities that you see on TV a lot when the talking heads convene to discuss the Iraq War. By the conventions of our broken media, having been right about the problems, risks and criminal nature of the preventive war in Iraq disqualifies someone from being taken as a serious foreign policy analyst. While having been wrong, even spectacularly wrong, remains a sign of one's seriousness on such matters.


Barber's book takes a look at the doctrine of preventive war and its internal contradictions. Although he specifies that preventive war is against international law, what he emphasizes in Fear's Empire are the practical problems in the Bush Doctrine (which really should be called the Cheney-Bush Doctrine). Some of them were evident before the invasion of Iraq. The administration's militant rhetoric and Bush's designation of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the "axis of evil" did not make Saddam and his government step down and flee the country and invite the Americans in to occupy the place, which is surely the only way that Cheney and Bush would have been persuaded to not launch the war. But it did scare North Korea into thinking the US was about to target it militarily, which led to six years of diplomatic conflict, the building and testing of their plutonium bomb, and finally this year to an agreement that more-or-less returns things to the situation in 2002.

Barber also points out that "containment" as it came to be discussed as a reasonable alternative to the Cheney-Bush preventive war doctrine was not all it was cracked up to be. But he doesn't use that as an argument for preventive war. On the contrary, he reminds us that the containment policy that governed the decades-long nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union had its own high levels of risk and wasn't nearly as stable as it often appears in memory. Military containment is no substitute for a sensible engagement with the world.

Barber as a political theorist has focused a lot of the issues of globalization, of which he is an engaged critic. In other words, he recognizes the reality of globalization, appreciates its value and warns that retreating into isolationism or unilateralism is not a viable or sensible solution. But he also explains here that globalization as it was been promoted by the US, even under the Clinton administration, has in practice treated economic freedom in the form of "free market" neoliberalism, aka, the Washington Consensus, as equivalent to democracy. And it's not

Barber favors a strategy that encourages the development of democracy in other countries by more non-coercive means, such as international support for public education systems in developing countries, with the support not tied directly to immediate US political policies. He also emphasizes that a system of international law and a consistent recognition of national sovereignty are part of what constitutes democracy in the international system, even when some of the individual governments are not democratic internally. Barber argues that what is still often called the anti-globalization movement would more accurately be described as the "democratize globalization" movement. But he stresses repeatedly that the notion that the United States can quickly implant democracy in non-democratic Muslim countries like Iraq by invading sovereign nations in preventive wars is not founded in reality. It's an arrogant, foolish dream, even when it's decked out with the grand idealistic rhetoric favored by the neocons.

The book's title refers to a central point Barber makes about terrorism. Terrorism's real goal in to spread terror, i.e., fear. The Cheney-Bush administration found it convenient for their own authoritarian purposes to maximize the American public's fear in response to the 9/11 attacks. They got their war in Iraq, they got their huge increases in military budgets to fund militarily useless projects like the "missile defense" boondoggle, they put the torture policy and their massive warrantless domestic spying program into effect, Halliburton and Bechtel and Blackwater got big-bucks crony-capitalist-type deals for work in Iraq. And, of course, major oil multinationals are finally getting their contracts for Iraq's oil. (see U.S. Advised Iraqi Ministry on Oil Deals by Andrew Kramer New York Times 06/30/08)

The experts who specialize in such things tell us that some kind of major new terrorist attack in the US is as inevitable as earthquakes. And the "experts" must know what they're talking about, right? In any case, it is actually worth remembering that such an attack is probable, though it may come from home-grown white supremacists or some cult group rather than Sunni Salafi terrorists like Al Qa'ida. McCain's lobbyist buddy Charlie Black got caught rather flat-footedly talking about the effect such an attack might have on this year's Presidential election. But I hope the Democrats are giving some serious thought to how they would handle such an event, also. Because whenever such an attack comes, one main thing we the public as well as any of our elected representatives who care about the good of the country need to do is: find ways not to panic. Fear is human and normal. But it can also lead people to do and support self-destructive things. Barber writes of the political hysteria in the US leading up to the Iraq War:

Democratic outcomes depend on democratic struggle and the readiness of citizens - or those who would be citizens - to wage it. This is the core meaning of citizenship. Noisy dissidents like Abou Jahjah in Belgium or Michael Moore in the United States (who disrupted the 2003 Academy Awards by waving his Oscar and ranting theatrically about a "fictitious war" and a "fictitious president") are not betrayers of democracy; they are civic alternatives to fear. When they are silenced, fear succeeds, and the victory of fear is the triumph of terrorism even if terrorist cells are broken and terrorist agents destroyed, even if the nations that harbor and support them are subjected to the awesome power of the American colossus and collapse. When citizens fail, imperious leaders are able to match fear for fear with their adversaries, and all too quickly there are no citizens - only masters and their subjects. At the height of the American campaign against Baghdad, civic dissent in America seemed to many to have been put on hold. Criticizing the president who had put American troops in harm's way on the basis of palpable deceptions and blatant lies somehow was equated with betraying the troops the president put in harm's way. Preventive war was doing a better job at preventing democracy than preventing terror. (my emphasis)
And in his conclusion he writes, in a passage relevant to the next major terrorist attack and to the continuation of a foreign policy based on fear and militarism that John McCain represents:

If Americans cannot find their way out of fear's realm, they are lost. No friendly European ally will dissuade them from the course of war, no adversarial rogue state will seem puny enough to ignore. Since fear is about perception not reality, the terrorists can win without firing a shot. They need only stoke the American imagination - or stoke the imagination of those in government and the media entrusted with stoking the public's imagination. Nine-eleven was a horrendous day that exacted a terrible price from individual American families, and (we are promised) there will be others. But as an assault on America's powerful common body, such attacks are as bee stings to a grizzly bear, momentary flashes of pain easily brushed off with the swipe of America's massive paws. America cannot at once be as powerful as it boasts and as vulnerable as it fears. Its power belies its fear - or should. This is not to minimize the personal tragedy visited on terror s victims or argue that the war against terrorism should not be fought. It is only to maintain a perspective that remembers terrorism is a function of powerlessness and hurts the powerful only as they allow themselves to be hurt. Democracy defeats terrorism because democracy makes imagination into a tool of empathy and action, depriving it of the anxieties that beset it when it is otherwise idle or taken in by fear's grim games. (my emphasis)
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