Friday, February 08, 2008
The last time the American empire shamed itself to thoroughly was in Indochina. After that horrendous sequence of atrocities, which compounded the traditional American support for Third World fascism, few were anxious to have another go. Instead of major theatre wars and mass aerial bombardment, the US returned to its classical technique of 'counterinsurgency' and repression via client-states and movements until more propitious circumstances for more adventurous action availed themselves. But in the meantime, someone had to work hard on burying the ghosts.
So, the moral arbiters of empire directed the spotlight at repression in the post-war states of Vietnam and Cambodia. Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman correctly noted, in After The Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina & The Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, that this was part of an offensive to reclaim territory lost to the antiwar movement. Forensically, and with a care for detail that is unusual in most political writing, they studied the claims about refugees from Indochina, the 'Boat People', the scale and extent of Khmer Rouge atrocities and so on. They pointed out that accounts in Western media were not merely hysterical, oversimplified and exaggerated - they usually simply ignored the brutalising impact of very recent US assaults on those countries. In a way, the crises were cited as proof that Western imperialism was right all along - these people were unfit for self-government, and the movements they supported were "pathological", "death-obsessed", "totalitarian" cults, to borrow the terminology of Paul Berman. Rather than in part reflecting the recently visited barbarism, it became the reason why that barbarism had been necessary all along, and why it should not have been abandoned.
Of course, we know what that book became famous for: a hysterical chorus of denunciations told the world that Chomsky & Herman were apologists for the Khmer Rouge. You can still read about this today, in the shrill (yet curiously imprecise) censures of Paul Berman and Francis Wheen. They will let anything pass on the part of the American Empire (oh, stop harping on Vietnam, stop blithering about the Contras, so what about the FRAPH, etc), but this thought crime on Chomsky's part will never be forgotten. I do not wish to rehearse that old controversy, however much others wish to - anyone can read the book in question, compare it with the criticisms and convince themselves that the critics were largely charlatans. However, the durability of that slippery critique and particularly its insistent return to prominence in the recent writings of 'anti-totalitarian' liberals points to the pressing need, once more, to restore the moral authority of the empire. Well, they're seriously embattled. The American empire isn't simply violent and venal - it looks it. Something has to be found to reinvigorate the old empire spirit. Something which defuses the ripple of awed disgust when someone mentions American war-making and humanitarianism in the same context. Darfur isn't doing the trick. Iran isn't a popular choice. It remains a staple of imperialist ideology that however much the US tortures Iraq, a post-occupation Iraq will be worse - but this is an increasingly difficult position to sustain.
So, I have some suggestions for the liberal imperialists (call it devil's advocacy). For a start, stop. Instead of insisting that Iraq was the right idea all along, it is time to fall back on the 'pragmatic' critique that it was the 'wrong war' or 'badly executed', or 'doomed to fail' because of 'hubris'. Some of you have already got that message very clearly, and are even now preparing your intellectual rebirth, while cannily relying on the forgetfulness of audiences. But some of you just don't know how to shut up about it. Second, change the subject. Talk about religion, instead. There are those who can be persuaded that attacking religious minorities is a progressive and noble thing to do, and others who are prepared to blame the whole mess, whatever it happens to be, on Sayyid Qutb. The overlap is not perfect, but you will find that attacking Islam is congruent with a whole host of foreign policy priorities - competing with China in Sudan, preparing for an attack to discipline the Iranian leadership, bombing Syria, keeping up the two occupations, supporting the atrocities in Gaza, warning the Pakistani elite to keep them under thumb, and so on. Third, stop frightening people about the wrong things. You think that when you rant and babble about Ahmadinejad and nukes, people are going to get scared of Iran. They aren't - it's you they're worried about. Wipe the foam from the edges of your mouth, sit down, and shut up for a bit. Luckily for you, many people will be more receptive to your message when Hillary or Obama is in the White House. Just take it easy - the world is not short of crises for you to exploit, so just conserve your energies and keep your powder dry for the moment. Fourth, attack Noam Chomsky. Yes, this does force you to fabricate and woof and slabber, but you don't have a choice in the matter. And anyway, no one is going to correct you or point out what a fool you are in the newspapers and magazines that you work for. So, get cracking. In a few years, you can return to slapping one another on the back and feting the humanitarianism of the masters.