Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Straining for effect

Afghanistan's elections will not be the 'turnaround' that policy planners are looking for - neither on the battlefield, nor on the 'home front'. The recent spate of insurgent attacks on US troops and occupation facilities, we are told, signals a desperate effort by a hated gang to disrupt the 'democratic process' by frightening potential voters. It is also an attempt to 'weaken the will' of the 'international community'. Leaving aside the shrill rhetorical pitch of such claims, and the thought-killing cliches that they are typically expressed with, what lesson can be extracted here? As Jason Burke has pointed out, it is unlikely that the insurgents are as interested in the polling booths as the warmongers' agitprop would have us believe. In fact, the best thing going for the Taliban-led resistance is that the current government will remain in power, alongside its warlord allies. But there is clearly an attempt to prepare public opinion here. If the Taliban are seen as anxious to stop people from voting, then a reasonable turnout can be presented as a triumph - I hesitate to say 'of the will', but certainly of the tremendous, earth-pounding military force currently in use. If so, it is a rather desperate PR gambit. There can be no 'purple-finger' chicanery in these elections, and even moderate optimism - forget the contrived jubilance of February 2005 - would be a tough sell even if the elections weren't the sideshow they manifestly are.

The trouble for the war's publicity agents is that they are running out of options. Neither homecoming funerals nor electoral theatre can shift opinion. The sense of weary dissipation in the public appeals of ministers, with their paltry tributes to the troops and affirmations of pot-pourri patriotism, is very palpable. Consider the thoughts of Bob Ainsworth, the void currently known as the secretary of defence. He opens with a gently narcotising series of impressions from a recent visit to Afghanistan. He sees, or rather hallucinates, brave and compassionate troops throwing their lives in harm's way to ensure that the starving children of Afghanistan can be free, and London's public transport systems unmolested. In contrast, he depicts antiwar opinion as detached and vaguely amoral. I realise that some people find Ainsworth particularly grating, but I just find this yawn-inducing. Given that the aim of Ainsworth's piece is to persuade an audience - a relatively left-wing and antiwar audience at that - it has to be considered a crashing failure. But such guilt-tripping would be no more convincing on Question Time or Newsnight. Why is a government minister reduced to such transparent, belligerent posturing? The last time I saw politicians look this pathetic, clapped out and condescending was in the last years of the Major administration. Yet, I don't think it is just to do with the enervation of the Brown government. What has collapsed is the sustaining meta-narrative of the 'war on terror'.

The lexical armoury of the warmongers has been deprived of its most emotive props, these being in order: 1) the idea that the present war is literally a war against fascism comparable to WWII; 2) the idea that the war is part of a broader struggle not only against 'clerical fascism' or 'Islamofascism' or cognate terms, but also against 'totalitarianism', a fight to the finish in the defence of 'civilization' or 'Western values', and; 3) the idea that military conquest is an appropriate means to accomplish putative humanitarian ends. I don't mean to say that these ideas are disappearing. Far from it. The latter in particular will continue to be revisited both intellectually, in the guise of an aggressively marketed 'R2P' doctrine, and rhetorically as various 'failed states' come under the spotlight of the Obama-Biden administration. But they do not inform the idiom of empire in the way that they had for approximately seven years. The reason for this is, in part, that they didn't really work. Certain key constituencies, well-to-do liberals among them, can be mobilised by such appeals. But for most people, I think, it was just not intuitively correct to invoke the spectre of totalitarianism or fascism in relation to the various putative threats so designated. Similarly, however distorted one's impression of 'Al Qaeda' was, the idea that it was a realistic long-term challenger to liberal democracy could only ever have temporary and partial appeal. The humanitarian justification for war had the weakness that it was laced with sometimes bloodcurdling demands for, and promises of, violent revenge. Again, for a sizeable minority of people such murderous humanitarianism was a powerful motivational force, and a good reason for some to get out of bed in the morning. But the fact is that it was the sinister augury of imminent nuclear holocaust - not heartstring-plucking over the Kurds - that did the most to gain support for, or acquiescence in, the invasion of Iraq.

This conceptual overstretch has been played out, and the current managers of the American state know it, as do their coat-tailers in Downing Street. All that remains is an anaemic line about 'stability' and 'fight-them-over-there-not-here', which no one really believes. Even the imperial bunting that bedecks the Sun's pages, and the Andy McNab 'thought for the day' pieces, seem awfully wan and desultory these days. Given that this war is a long-term commitment that will consume troops and resources in abundance, the absence of a workable patter is a serious problem for war planners. They need recruits, they need cheerleaders, and they need an atmosphere conducive to such expenditure of blood and treasure. This is why they now find themselves straining for effect, in a desperate attempt to badger the public, revive some antiquated idea of civic duty, or lure the kids with fantasies of adventure on the frontline.