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Imperial Wasteland

“War is the health of the state.” —Randolph Bourne (1918)

Leon Golub Courtesy of the Artist Estate

Like the tightly knit group of imperialists who provoked a “splendid little war” with Spain in 1898 to “establish the supremacy of the American republic throughout the East till the end of time,” the neo-imperialist power elites that crystallized in and around the Bush administration imagined when they invaded Iraq that the world was finally theirs. Drunk with power, dreaming eyes wide open of lasting hegemony at home and universal empire abroad, they seized a strategic opportunity and went to war. In so doing, they abandoned deterrence in favor of preventive war, thereby setting a perilous precedent for future such wars, trampled the provisions of the UN Charter regarding state sovereignty and wars of aggression, and simply discarded international humanitarian law. This deconstruction of the world institutional system has deeply undermined post-cold war hopes of a cooperative world order based on collective security, binding multilateral rules of conduct, and international law. As is now becoming apparent, it has set the stage for a dystopia of perpetual conflict between the “West” and radicalized social forces within the diverse communities of Islam. The self-fulfilling prophecy of a “clash of civilizations” is materializing before our eyes and we may soon cross the threshold of irreversibility, if it hasn’t already been crossed. If that happens, the war will have ushered in a permanent state of emergency, a new authoritarian age in which classical liberalism and constitutionalism will be durably suppressed by an invasive national security state governing through “shock and awe.”

9/11 was the proximate cause of this regressive transformation. The attack and the ensuing state of emergency shifted the domestic balance of forces, transfiguring a weak and illegitimate President into an American Caesar. Dissent was silenced, realism and rationality submerged. In an act of voluntary servitude, Congress relinquished its constitutional prerogatives. The country was unified behind and beneath the state. The attack thus lifted the usual domestic constraints in a liberal democratic society on the arbitrary use of state power.

In the aftermath of 9/11, executive power was concentrated and expanded to an extraordinary degree. Acting behind a deep veil of secrecy, the administration granted itself limitless powers: the power to break international treaties, violate conventions and to go to war; the power to kidnap, to torture and indefinitely detain without trial anyone identified by executive fiat as an “illegal combatant.” It gave itself the power to override the existing domestic legal order and created a parallel secret judiciary “system” under direct Pentagon and White House control. In a word, it reconfigured state sovereignty: “It is as if,” writes Judith Butler, “we have returned to a historical time in which sovereignty was indivisible, before the separation of powers has instantiated itself as a precondition of political modernity.” Yet the “lawless exercise in state sovereignty” she discusses and rightly denounces is not so much a throwback to absolute monarchy and arbitrary royal prerogative over the bodies of subjects, as it is a recurrence in new guise of the two great twin pathologies of western modernity: authoritarianism and colonialism.

Though rarely acknowledged, there is an ontogenetic link between colonial subjugation and authoritarian—or indeed totalitarian—state practices. In the first draft of her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt suggested as much, noting the continuity between European colonial despotism and totalitarianism, or “full fledged imperialism” as she then called it. Though she subsequently changed her mind on this critical point and came to stress the absolute historic singularity of Nazism and Bolshevism, her early thesis sheds light on the state of US culture and the culture of the State. The modern liberal democratic state was constructed on imperial foundations. As it emerged as the dominant pole of the world economy in the 19th century, the West created and enforced a hierarchical disciplinary world order axially divided into centers and peripheries. This was accomplished not by the invisible hand but by the visible hand of colonization: the non-western peoples were subjugated, forcibly integrated into the European-centered world capitalist economy whose expansion required their continued subordination and dependence. The liberal democratic state created “underdevelopment” and constructed the Third World. The legal order mirrored the deep structure: constitutionalism at home (at least in the case of England—France went through a series of bloody monarchical restorations), despotism abroad.

In 1841, only six years after the publication of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville criticized the fainthearted who didn’t understand that France, like any “people intending to war with the Arabs,” had to “empty the silos, burn the crops, seize the women, children and men… and suspend all political freedoms in Algeria.” They were suspended for over a century. During the Algerian war (1954-1962), France resorted to a prolonged state of exception, suspended basic civil rights at home, created special tribunals outside the normal constitutional order, set up concentration camps, and made torture a systematic tool of state policy. One million Algerians died during this last moment of France’s mission civilisatrice. Likewise, Britain starved millions of Indians by imposing cash crops in the subcontinent, used chemical weapons on insurgent Iraqis in 1923, and committed what the historian Bernard Porter has called “unspeakable atrocities” during the “Kenya emergency” (1952-1959): concentration camps, mass killings, and torture. This history of extreme violence and despotic rule is at the core of western modernity and coexists precariously with the master narrative of liberalism, development, and progress.

The United States’ historic experience has been similarly shaped by the dualism of liberal rule. Slavery, ruthless continental conquest, and global imperial ambitions are cloaked in a metahistorical narrative that makes the claim that the “total American experience” is one of pervasive political liberalism at home and nearly constant anti-imperialism abroad. When acknowledged, illiberal ideologies and imperial practices are dismissed as aberrations in an otherwise smooth democratic and anti-colonial trajectory. Yet they are as much a constitutive part of the total American experience as colonialism was an integral part of Europe’s.

Slavery differentiates the two experiences in that despotism was applied within the US whereas Europe exported its violence abroad: for most Europeans the master-slave relationship was less intimate and tangible, since it was one step removed from home (today the post-colonial state is confronted within to rebellions of the disempowered children of the former colonized). As Judith Shklar points out, “until the Civil War Amendments America was neither a liberal nor a democratic country, whatever its citizens might have believed… (America had in fact) embarked on two experiments simultaneously, one in democracy, one in tyranny.” The racial tyranny was coupled from the very start with the acquisition of a formal continental empire that morphed into a drive for world hegemony when the “frontier” closed. In 1895, Henry Cabot Lodge said: “We have a record of conquest, colonization and expansion unequalled by any people in the 19th century, and we are not about to be curbed now.” Three years later, the US defeated a decaying Spanish Empire and annexed Cuba and the Philippines. The suppression of the ensuing Filipino insurgency cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Submerged in the grand narrative, the colonial past has never passed. Not in France, not in England, not in the United States. Today it is resurgent. In France, revisionist politicians of the right are revisiting the “positive aspects” of colonization and trying to pass laws in parliament to that effect (after mass protests in the French overseas departments and petitions from leading historians, President Chirac has blocked the effort). In the UK and US neo-imperialism has become state policy. In 2002, Robert Cooper, at the time Tony Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser, made this systematic argument for a new “liberal imperialism”: “Among ourselves (in the West), we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era—force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth-century world of every state for itself. Among ourselves we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle… the opportunities, perhaps even the need for colonization is as great as it ever was in the 19th century.” But it is in the United States where the grip of neo-imperialism is most strongly felt. Here it is far more dangerous than the largely impotent albeit equally morally repugnant European imperial nostalgia: the United States has the means to conquer and destroy.

American neo-imperialism bloomed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Neo-conservatives and parts of the national security caste reveled in the “unipolar moment.” The new asymmetry of power between the US and the rest meant that nothing stood in the way of US world empire. Rome became the distant mirror, and Victorian England the nearer, of their global ambitions. In 1992, Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis Libby penned a confidential Defense Planning Guideline (DPG) for then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in which they made three major recommendations: “prevent any hostile power from dominating regions whose resources would allow it to attain great power status;” “discourage attempts by the advanced industrial nations to challenge US leadership or upset the established political and economic order;” and “preclude the emergence of any potential future competitor.”

A few years later, Jesse Helms expressed the consensus within the Right: “We remain uniquely positioned at the center and that is where we must stay… by being the standard bearer of moral, political and military might and right.” Triumphalism was fueled by the chattering neo-conservative caste. Charles Krauthammer (1998): “American bestrides the world like a colossus… not since Rome destroyed Carthage has a great power risen to the heights we have.” Mortimer Zuckerman (1999): “France had the 17th century, Britain the 19th, and America the 20th. It will also have the 21st.” The “realist” Henry Kissinger, too: “The US (enjoys) a preeminence unrivaled by even the greatest empires of the past.”

Once in power in 2000, this power elite, which for decades had toiled to restore the power and authority of the national security state, implemented its program. 9/11, in Donald Rumsfeld’s words, provided the US with “the kind of opportunities that World War II offered to refashion the world.” The power elite set out, as Anatol Lieven writes, to secure “unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority.” “Our goal,” wrote an influential neo-conservative academic, “is not combating a rival but maintaining our imperial position and maintaining imperial order… Our business (henceforth) is to bring down governments…to leave in place imperial garrisons for decades…and plan imperial wars using the maximum of force to demonstrate that empire cannot be defied with impunity” (Stephen Peter Rosen, 2002).

For the most part, the effort was couched in the language of liberal imperialism and benevolent colonial rule. “Afghanistan and other troubled lands cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets” (Max Boot, 2002). The apologists of empire conjured an apocalyptic picture of failed states, uncontrolled Third World population growth, endemic violence and social decay to buttress their argument that “the logic of neo-imperialism is too compelling for the Bush administration to resist (Sebastian Mallaby, 2002). Some prominent liberal human rights theorists were swept up in the cause: “The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.” Michael Ignatieff has since admitted his mistake.

The invasion of Iraq was supposed to lock-in American ascendance in the long term. Framed as part of a “Global War on Terrorism (GWOT)” of limitless spatial and temporal scope, it remains in the final analysis a demonstration of imperial hubris whose lineages are to be found in a cannibal past. In the late 19th century, peering with satisfaction over their transoceanic empire, the British imperial elites imagined that the Almighty had given them “a lease on the universe forever.” Forever didn’t last long, however: the British world order collapsed in 1914 in a sea of blood. In 2002, an anonymous senior US official proclaimed: “We’re an empire now and when we act we create our own reality.” But American elite dreams of universal empire are already been constrained by the reality of global backlash. The US is losing control: in Iraq and the wider Middle East, where unintended outcomes are challenging US power; in Europe where it has suffered a deep and possibly irreparable loss of credibility; in Latin America, where social forces are contesting US led neo-liberal hegemony; and in Asia, where the apparently irresistible rise of China is changing the balance of forces. The military expansionism of the American ruling caste, like the earlier militarism of the European ruling classes, is hastening the US’s decline.

The moment is perilous for democracy. The Pentagon is talking about a long haul, a fifty years global war. In Europe in the thirties, militarism and fascism overwhelmed the liberal state in crisis. The reactionary German legal theorist Carl Schmitt articulated the process of authoritarian state transformation. In his apology for authoritarianism, he argues that the State, as the highest expression of the political, accomplishes itself, discovers its true essence only in situations of emergency when “it chooses the enemy and decides to combat him.” That choice generates collective meaning, unifies the nation, depoliticizes civil society, and concentrates power. The state of emergency allows the State to transcend society and establish dictatorial autonomy. Having thus acquired the monopoly of political action and decision, the State, embodied by the sovereign, enjoys limitless powers, the most important being the power to override or crush the “existing legal order.” Since war is the purest form of the state of emergency, war becomes the ontological foundation of the State. If the Bush administration gets its way, perpetual mobilization and war will become America’s permanent way of life. The exception will become the norm. That is the principal danger that must now be averted.

—February 14, 2006


Philip S. Golub

PHILIP S. GOLUB is a contributing editor if Le Monde Diplomatique and teaches international relations at the Institute of European Studies, Université Paris 8, and at the Institute for Political Studies of Paris. Among other recent writings, he is co-author of Global Regulation: Managing Crisis after the Imperial Turn (Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2004) and L'empire américain (Balland, Paris 2004).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2006

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