Iraq and U.S. Faith in Violence

Guest Column: Alastair Crooke: Although there are different ideas about how and when to use it, there is, I think, a consensus in Washington on the idea that by applying its overwhelming advantage in military force, the U.S. can do good in the world. It can make the world a better place through the transformative impact of violence, in the way that the violence of the hero in a Hollywood movie “cleanses” the world of incorrigible evil.

I didn’t get a chance to get into this question in my fifth anniversary of the Iraq war piece, but I believe that an innate faith in the transformative power of military violence as a legitimate and effective tool of social engineering underlay the whole project. That, and the sermonizing of the arch ideologue of an armed Orientalism, Bernard Lewis, to the effect that violence is the only language Arabs understand — and, of course, Lewis is still called to brief the White House from time to time, even as America flails in a qaugmire into which he urged it.

It has always struck how Bush Administration sounded like Bolsheviks, rationalizing the trauma to which they were going to subject the Iraqis on the basis that this was good for them, that it was the necessary “surgery” to repair Iraq and make it well again. Condi Rice, exposed in recent writing as fatally lightweight, preferred, three years later, to hew to Engels’ notion that revolutionary violence was part of the “midwiving” of a new, and universally beneficial society waiting to be born — the Israel bombing of Beirut that killed hundreds of Lebanese was, she memorably proclaimed, “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” Their advocacy of violence, as David Bromwich points out, is always couched in cute euphemisms of progress, which are eagily swallowed by the media — “regime-change,” say.

Anatol Lieven wrote an interesting op ed in today’s FT about why he fears a McCain presidency, precisely because he finds the Arizona senator to be the candidate most wedded to a belief in dealing violently with those who stand in America’s way. (It has struck me for a while, now, that while the abuses McCain suffered in captivity at the hands of the Vietnamese are widely discussed in the U.S., there’s precious little discussion over just what it was that he doing over their skies before he was shot down.)

Wanting more discussion on this question, it was with great pleasure that I received a guest column from Alastair Crooke, the Conflict Forum founder who once served as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana’s Middle East adviser, and who has written forcefully and eloquently on the need for the West to begin engaging with the Islamists it prefers to ignore. (He sent this piece after it had appeared in the Guardian, if it seems familiar.) He argues that a dangerous myth persists that remaining resolute in a commitment to violence in the name of progress, the West can protect its values in the face of a mythological “Islamic” onslaught. Also, read his excellent critique of the “new orientalism” that underlines Western approaches to dealing with the Middle East.

The Armchair Warriors are Fighting a Delusional War

Calls for the west to use force to restore its values in the face of radical Islam reveal a profound detachment from reality

By Alastair Crooke

The French philosopher Michel Foucault notes that in all societies discourse is controlled – imperceptibly constrained, perhaps, but constrained nonetheless. We are not free to say exactly what we like. The norms set by institutions, convention and our need to keep within the boundaries of accepted behaviour and thought limit what may be touched upon. The Archbishop of Canterbury experienced the backlash from stepping outside these conventions when he spoke about aspects of Islamic law that might be imported into British life.

Once, a man was held to be mad if he strayed from this discourse – even if his utterings were credited with revealing some hidden truth. Today, he is called “naive”, or accused of having gone “native”. Recently, the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) marshalled former senior military and intelligence experts in order to assert such limits to expression by warning us that “deference” to multiculturalism was undermining the fight against Islamic “extremism” and threatening security.

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, in a recent interview with a German magazine, embellished Rusi’s complaints of naivety and “flabby thinking”. Radical Islam won’t stop, he warned, and the “virus” would only become more virulent if the US were to withdraw from Iraq.

The charge of naivety is not limited to failing to understand the concealed and duplicitous nature of Hamas and Hizbullah, Iran and Syria; it extends to not grasping the true nature of the wider “enemy” the west is facing. “I don’t like the term ‘war on terror’ because terror is a method, not a political movement; we are in a war against radical Islam,” says Kissinger. But who or what is radical Islam? It is those who are not “moderates”, he explains. Certainly, a small minority of Muslims believe that only by “burning the system” can a fresh stab at a just society be made. But Kissinger’s definition of “moderate” Islam sounds no more than a projection of the Christian narrative after Westphalia, by which Christianity became a private matter of conscience, rather than an organisational principle for society.

If radical Islam, with which these experts tell us we should be at war, encompasses all those who are not enamoured of secular society, and who espouse a vision of their societies grounded in the values of Islam, then these experts are advocating a war with Islam – because Islam is the vision for their future favoured by many Muslims.

Mainstream Islamists are indeed challenging western secular and materialist values, and many do believe that western thinking is flawed – that the desires and appetites of man have been reified into representing man himself. It is time to re-establish values that go beyond “desires and wants”, they argue.

Many Islamists also reject the western narrative of history and its projection of inevitable “progress” towards a secular modernity; they reject the western view of power-relationships within societies and between societies; they reject individualism as the litmus of progress in society; and, above all, they reject the west’s assumption that its empirical approach lends unassailability and objective rationality to its thinking – and universality to its social models.

People may, or may not, agree, but the point is that this is a dispute about ideas, about the nature of society, and about equity in an emerging global order. If western discourse cannot step beyond the enemy that it has created, these ideas cannot be heard – or addressed. This is the argument that Jonathan Powell made last week when he argued that Britain should understand the lessons of Northern Ireland: we should talk to Islamist movements, including al-Qaida. It has to be done, because the west needs to break through the fears and constraints of an over-imagined “enemy”.

Camouflaged behind a language dwelling exclusively on “their” violence and “their” disdain for rationality, these “realists” propose not a war on terror, nor a war to preserve “our values” – for we are not about to be culturally overwhelmed. No Islamist seriously expects that a “defeated” west would hasten to adopt the spirit of the Islamic revolution.

No, the west’s war is a military response to ideas that question western supremacy and power. The nature of this war on “extremism” became evident when five former chiefs of defence staff of Nato states gathered at a think-tank in Washington earlier this year. Their aim was not to query the realism of a war on ideas, but to empower Nato for an “uncertain world”.

“We cannot survive … confronted with people who do not share our values, who unfortunately are in the majority in terms of numbers, and who are extremely hungry for success,” Germany’s former chief of defence staff warned. Their conclusion was that the security of the west rests on a “restoration of its certainties”, and on a new form of deterrence in which enemies will find there is not, and never will be, a place in which they feel safe.

The generals concluded that Nato should adopt an asymmetrical and relentless pursuit of its targets regardless of others’ sovereignty; to surprise; to seize the initiative; and to use all means, including the nuclear option, against its enemies.

In Foucault’s discourse, he identified a further group of rules serving to control language: none may enter into discourse on a specific subject unless he or she is deemed qualified to do so. Those, like the archbishop, who penetrate this forbidden territory – reserved to security expertise – to ask that we see the west for what it has become in the eyes of others, are liable to be labelled as naively weakening “our certainties” and undermining national resolve.

But do we, who are brushed out of this discourse by the blackmail of presumed expertise, really believe them? Do we really believe, after so much failure, that Islamist alternative ideas will be suppressed by a Nato plunged into an asymmetrical warfare of assassinations and killings? The west’s vision for society holds power only so long as people believe it holds power. Do we really think that if force has not succeeded, that only more and greater force can restore belief in the western vision? If that is the limit to western thinking, then it is these “realists”, these armchair warriors fighting a delusional war against a majority who “do not share our values”, who are truly naive.

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14 Responses to Iraq and U.S. Faith in Violence

  1. thinkbridge says:

    Absolutely great post – my 1st encounter with your wonderful blog. Thank Tomdispatch for the link; I’m putting one to my blog so I can visit often. Your site stands out from the rest. So honest, insightful.

  2. Stuart says:

    Great article Tony (Again!)

    I found it ironic that the ‘Rootless’ Cosmopolitan can get to the root of the issue so often.

    You put it better than I can but we need not fear Islamists suppressing our values; but should fear their response to our attempt to suppress their values and deny them the freedoms we reserve for ourselves.

  3. FredJ says:

    Al-Qaida is not a group of philosophers challenging “Western Thought”. You can find that in Greenwich Village, most campuses, and the better Cafe’s on the Continent. They are a bunch of nihilists who destroy without much of a rational reason. Certainly they could not have rationally thought that “Islam” would benefit from the attacks of 9/11. And it certainly hasn’t worked out that way.

    If Al-Quida isn’t as big an enemy as it sometimes seems, it is certainly a genuine enemy. And the reason it is less than terrifying is most likely the war waged against it by the US.

    The phenomenon of “Radical Islam” is that of a rural, blood feud, and fundamentalist culture, empowered by unearned sudden oil wealth and dollops of western foreign aid. The military motor of Islamist power lies in the weapons supplied by Russia. Russia is an oil-exporter and profits from any rise in oil prices caused by Mideast conflict.

    That societies have taboos is a banal irrelevancy, and I think the Islamists are ahead of us on that one, anyway. It’s fun to pump yourself up by telling how you courageously ‘violated taboos’ by telling the ‘truth’. It’s also an old rhetorical trick that shouldn’t fool anyone with an IQ larger than his shoe size.

    In any case, the big conflict, the war in Iraq, was not undertaken to take down Radical Muslims at all.

    Regarding Bernard Lewis, no arguments need be made. I can simply recommend you read “A Brief History of the Middle East” and form your own opinion. See

  4. Laney says:

    FredJ writes: They are a bunch of nihilists who destroy without much of a rational reason.

    This is exactly what they aren’t. Their aim is to destabilize the region in order to overthrow the more-or-less pro western governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordon, and the Gulf.

    Bernard Lewis is no great authority on modern Arab political movements. If you really want to take a look inside those guys heads — as opposed to cheerleading for war — read Michael Scheuer “

  5. FredJ says:

    Bombing New York, London, Madrid and so on is not a “Rational” way to destabilize the Middle East. It’s just a way to get yourself killed. And to unite the world against you. The al-Queda/Taliban alliance could have uncontested control of Afghanistan if they hadn’t attacked the West.

    Scheuer’s book has had good reviews, I haven’t read it. My point is that dissing Bernard Lewis is uncalled for, uncultured, and misleading. His academic work is superb. He’s 90 something years old now and if he fails to accurately predict the unpredictable Middle East we can cut him some slack. Nobody else does it any better; at least not with any consistency.

  6. Tony says:

    Oh please, Fred. Perhaps in your Israeli foreign policy department Bernard Lewis is considered above reproach, in the real world his ideological dementia cannot simply be dismissed as harmless academic codgery, because it’s being sed to undergird a “bomb the crap out of ’em” strategy which has created the catastrophe in Iraq and elsewhere. Uncalled for? Hardly. More like overdue that this deferring to Lewis as an “expert” is called into question…

  7. Don Bacon says:

    George Bush is a believer in OBL, and quotes him.

    Hear the words of Osama Bin Laden: “This Third World War is raging” in Iraq. “The whole world is watching this war.” He says it will end in “victory and glory, or misery and humiliation.”

    Bin Laden has declared that “the war [in Iraq] is for you or us to win. If we win it, it means your disgrace and defeat forever. . . In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper after the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden declared that “the American people had risen against their government’s war in Vietnam. And they must do the same today.”

    “There’s a reason bin Laden sent one of his most experienced paramilitary leaders to Iraq,” Bush said. “He believes that if al Qaeda can drive us out, they can establish Iraq as a new terrorist sanctuary.”

    Bush would be nowhere without OBL, and the reverse is also true. It’s a classic co-dependency. As far as “western thinking” goes, there’s money to be made in everlasting war. “Islamofascists” are just the enemy du jour, replacing Huns, Bolsheviks, Nazis, Nips, Slopes and Commies.

  8. gracie_fr says:

    who “do not share our values”, who are truly naive.
    I would claim that the tag of radical Islam as it is applied to the Muslim world, is an ethnocentric epithet, tainted in part with ignorance and a biased overview of the Muslim “other”. Moreover, public awareness on the subject of terrorism in the United States, lately conflated with Islamofascim and Shari’a law in that they are wedded in a totalitarian ideology, or so we are told, is actually based on hardly more than crude reductive logic…..i.e.…. Terrorism is a common tool of radical Islamic groups. It is violent destabilizing and much of the time lethal. The Middle East, home of Hezbollah and South Asia, birth place of Al Qaeda is an incubator for militant hotheads jihadis who are out to destroy us. Therefore the Middle East is filled with actual and potential terrorists who increase proportionately with every passing year.

    In light of these hypothetical but probable circumstances, it would seem just as logical to assume that parallel analogies are occurring simultaneously, directed this time at Muslim communities. Thus Muslim populations are being told that the West, from whence came the “Crusades” with the bloodletting past and present that this implies, led by a crusading American president who admitted as much, is determined to destroy the Muslim ummah or community. Because of cable television, multi-use cell phones, and the internet, all of them carriers of images and news flashes open to interpretation, it is easy enough to broaden the accusations and proclaim the West as a decadent Godless jahiliyah place where its self indulgent secular citizenry are preoccupied with conspicuous consumption and wasteful extravagance which Alistair Cook gratefully mentions.
    As a countervailing measure to Islamofacism, it would be well to remember that a little empathy goes a long way. Consider that America’s use of imprecise precision missiles has damaged or destroyed some of the finest examples of Abbasid architecture in Iraq, not to mention many of the archeological treasures of Assyria and Babylon. This artistic inheritance is a sourse of pride to many Muslims. Consider too the disruption our coalition forces wreak on the pious life of ordinary people. In Fallujah as in Ghazni, the nuclear family is intimately connected to the clan and tribe. Where illiteracy prevails, family genealogies are recited with nearly the same attention as the isnads in the Hadith. Consensus decision-making takes place at all social and institutional levels. The observant rituals performed at the birth of a child, marriage, coming of age, division of property and burial are under stress during a war. What happens to a society torn apart by forced displacement? What happens to religious observance, a daily practice incumbent upon all Muslims? How does one perform ablutions when there is no water? Or prepare meals when there is no fuel? How does one offer the zakat when there is no hope of gainful employment? And how is a woman affected if the sanctity of her home is blown apart in a rain of helicopter gunship fire?

  9. Pat S. says:

    I agree in part with FredJ. I don’t see how the author can ascribe a violent response to philosophical questions as the sole province of Western tough guys, while assuming that discussing the issues with al-Qaeda is going to keep them from behaving in exactly the same fashion. The sad belief in violent response is a universal human trait, not an exclusively Western one.

    Mr. Crooke could have spent more time discussing the legitimacy of particular applications of violence in the conflict between Western and Islamic philosophy — technically, even the act of arresting someone caught on tape committing a terrorist act is itself an act of force, so where does one draw the line? Plus, there are certainly better people to talk philosophy with than the foot soldiers ready to die for martyrdom — the U.S. didn’t debate communist thought with the Spetznaz, they kept that to Soviet intellectuals, and there are plenty of Muslim intellectuals who’d be happy to have a debate. But al-Qaeda? If the generals of NATO can apparently speak only in the language of violence, I don’t see how al-Qaeda is providing any form of contrary example.

  10. Tony says:

    Pat, you’re not wrong about al-Qaeda, but al-Qaeda is a marginal element in the Muslim world, even marginal among those engaged in conflicts with the West and its allies. I think he’s talking about the use of force as a primary response in dealing with national resistance movements like Hamas, Hizballah etc. Unlike al-Qaeda, they are not nihilists, but are driven by a political program and objective. I think the offensive against Sadr in Iraq last week revealed the same flaw; the assumption that a politically popular movement can just be blown away like a criminal gang. Invariably, those strategies backfire, precisely because of the political support such groups enjoy

  11. Peter Principle says:

    The thing is, the first premise of the neocon argument (radical Islam out to destroy Western civ) doesn’t have to be wrong for the second premise (the utility of overwhelming conventional military force) to be wrong.

    Which is precisely why they usually end up making things worse, instead of just bad.

  12. Pat S. says:

    I agree with you there, but the author used “al-Qaeda” first, not me. 🙂

  13. mersin emlak says:

    Thanks for the post, I’ll keep checking back for more stuff, bookmarked!

  14. Laura Karen says:

    I agree with you Pat.s

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