At this moment, with much of the Western world inundated by daily stories of terrorism, when gunmen swooping across bars, hotels, soccer matches, and community centers in California, Mali, France and beyond have undermined our sense of the everyday, when we are told that we are in an unending conflict against an enemy we cannot see, is it possible to still say no to war?
Now is not the time for muddled thought. So let me make the response short and to the point: we must absolutely say no to the militarism that proliferates all around us. Mediatized images of foreign Others stir our desire for vengeance, blood-lust, and retribution. What is lost in the muddle is the intractability of social experience.
Now, more than ever, we must hold on to what critical tools we have: a sense of historical perspective, in linguistic and cultural texture, which alone can allow us to think our way out of this impasse.
Even in the space of one tweet, such perspective is possible. Listen now to the words of architect, advocate, and satirist Karl Sharro:
Sharro’s tweet is many things, but first and foremost it is a reminder that words matter. They are the building blocks of narrative. You can’t understand what is going on in the Middle East today, none the less know how to craft coherent policy towards it, if you don’t understand its complex history. This is a history that is only accessible through the narratives we tell about the region. Language mediates politics: it creates perceptions (of fear, anger) that mobilize violent responses. In that sense, language is politics.
Sharro whittles down the Middle East narrative to a number of foundational points:
1) The failure of post-colonial elites to create democratic societies. As such, common people had no space for public and participatory engagement to change their own societies.
2) The appeasement of military autocracy by both Arab progressive parties and Western governments
3) Euro-American meddling in the region, which brought neo-colonial clientele relationships as well as outright military occupations.
4) The decline of universal values which disenfranchised people on both sides of the North-South divide could share to create alliances.
5) Subsequently, a radical interpretation of Islam as the only ideological platform capable of mobilizing the disenfranchised in the Middle East.
6) The recent collapse of the regional security order, allowing theocratic regimes to engage in proxy wars for territory, oil, and political hegemony in the region.
An entire region’s history cannot be reduced to a few bullet-points. Yet it is important to remember these cardinal historical realities as we try to grope our way out of the rhetoric of “the War on Terror” that has, like some Rusmfeldian zombie, re-emerged to grip the collective consciousness of the G7 nations in recent weeks.
ISIS is, at its core, a form of militarized resistance to local authoritarianism (Assad) and Western colonial intervention (Bush’s Iraq war), one expressed along extreme ethnic and millenarian lines. Yet despite their desire for global jihad, ISIS is just one military player in what has become an eight-sided civil war, a Gordian knot that could bring about a third world war.
This is not a regional matrix that will be made more stable by Western military intervention. Instead, Western militarism will only serve to legitimize the rhetoric of extremist elements in the region: that Islam is really at war with the West, that peaceful co-existence between cultural worlds cannot be attained.
The deeper the West becomes enmeshed militarily in the Middle East, the greater will be the growth of radical jihad as an anti-colonial response to it. We should always remember the basic rallying point that Al-Qaeda has used all these years: no Western boots on Islamic soil. They don’t want us over there- so why are we over there?
The whole gamut of “policy tools” that Western governments have at their disposal- from active boots on the ground to aerial bombings, from the maintenance of military bases to the financial support of various military dictatorships- must be rejected if radical jihadism is to be curtailed in any sustainable way.
The question is simple: if it was Western neo-imperialism- from the Russian and American adventures in Afghanistan to Bush’s occupation of Iraq to the ongoing support of a state-power (Israel) whose growing settlements in the West Bank violate international law- which created radical jihadism, it is impossible to see how more Western militarism will lead to its demise. More intervention will breed more opposition.
It is so telling that, in the days immediately following the occupation of Baghdad in 2003, the highest officials from the Bush administration could simply not fathom the possibility that there would be an active insurgency against the American presence in the region. With no plan to rebuild basic social services after Shock and Awe was complete, the Americans were left scrambling to deal with a military resistance whose origins they were completely ignorant of. While Sunni and Shiite militias worked to violently oust the colonial occupiers, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz were still peddling visions of Iraqis welcoming the Americans as “liberators,” with no sense of the ethnic conflicts and regional political blocks that were roiling the country just beyond the Americans’ reach.
A fundamental mis-recognition was at play here: the Americans refusal to admit to themselves their own colonial ambitions in the region- that they wanted to build Iraq in ways consistent with American interests and institutions- left them completely bereft of the social tools needed to rule over a colonized population.
Past Western imperialists- most notably their British cousins- would have scoffed at how unprepared the Americans were for the rigors of managing the new colonial mandate. But it was the Americans’ willful refusal to conceptualize their occupation as a mandate- that is, as a form of rulership over a population that would need to be disciplined into being loyal to the new political order- that doomed it from the very beginning.
This kind of blindness is no longer possible: it is time Americans from all walks of life recognize the nature of their own force in the world. If we want to prevent more attacks such as the ones we saw in Paris, San Bernadino, and beyond, then we must admit the obvious reality: America is an empire, one that has meddled for the better part of a century in the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa in order to bend these regions towards its own interests. That the American government has often framed this as providing a gift to the world- “liberating it from dictatorship, exporting democracy”- only reinforces the ideological blindness that defines American life.
What is needed now is the creation of a new, logically consistent foreign policy, one that rejects tout-corps imperialist activity of any kind, from the maintenance of military bases to the bombing of foreign states to the funneling of billions of dollars in military aid to governments of our choosing. Only when a foreign policy of genuine multi-lateral respect emerges, premised on the rejection of intervention of any kind, will the jihadist movement lose its raison-d’etre. When there are no Western boots on the ground, the jihadists will realize that it’s far more difficult to build sustainable societies than it is to oust foreign occupiers (as difficult as the latter task admittedly is).
You cannot combat anti-colonial nationalisms, of however millenarian a variety, by more colonialism: did Ireland, Algeria, Vietnam, and countless other wars for colonial liberation not teach us this lesson? How many more attacks, how many more quagmires, how much more bloodshed (of self and Other) needs to occur for Americans to learn this most basic of 20th century lessons?
Is there a role to play for Euro-American governments in the Middle East? In a humanitarian capacity alone. We should not forget that in the seething cauldron of civil war that has roiled Iraq and Syria, millions of innocent people have been murdered, maimed, injured, and displaced, creating the greatest refugee crisis since World War Two. A responsible foreign policy would work with multi-lateral structures such as the United Nations and the Arab League to provide a basic level of humane support to people whose lives have been shattered.
If the West wants to think of itself as a benevolent cultural force, than now is the time to show it: in the provision of food, water, and clothing to people suffering on the ground, and in an open policy that welcomes those displaced to find a new life in our abundant lands.
The West and Islam are not each other’s civilizational Others. No resident of a Western country should fear being bombed every time they enter into a subway or walk through a crowded public space, while no resident of an Islamic country should fear Western military intervention or regional autocracies backed by Western money.
American war-mongering and radical jihadism do not speak for empathetic people in this world. We are a silent majority that refuses to be defined by these two respective forces of violence.
The rejection of the war machine at this moment is not fantastical, utopian, or naive. It is, in fact, the only way to burst through the cycles of retribution we now find ourselves in. But such a breakthrough can only occur when the West gives up all of its imperialist pretensions. To remold the Middle East in the West’s image will only serve to further destabilize and radicalize it. It is not a monolithic cultural zone, a collective backwardness that needs our tutelage. It should only be engaged with on the basis of genuine respect, linguistic education, and mutually beneficial trade free of military threats of all kinds.
If the West doesn’t renounce imperialism, then it is not hard to predict what the future will bring. This year it’s Syria, next year it will no doubt be Libya, Mali, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond. War begets war, threats multiply even as they are momentarily stamped out, the hideous cycle continues.
A new, open, and far more savage colonialism will be upon us, a world-wide American crusade to win a never-ending “War on Terror” whose true causes remain mystified to the very aggressors who pursue it.
Rejecting the new crusade of the 21st century is not isolationism. It is a form of engagement with the world that respects the sovereignty of difference, a principle that the American experience has never been able to truly understand.
Say no to the War Machine. Now and forever.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.
Note: Cover Image from Chris Hondros/Getty Images. The caption to the image reads: “Iraqi children cry after their parents were killed when U.S. Soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division out of Ft. Lewis, Washington, fired on their car when it failed to stop and came toward soldiers despite warning shots during a dusk patrol January 18, 2005 in Tal Afar, Iraq. The car held an Iraqi family of which the mother and father were killed. According to the U.S. Army, six children in the in the car survived, one with a non-life threatening flesh wound. U.S. military said they are is investigating the incident.” For more, see http://www.gettyimages.ca/detail/news-photo/iraqi-children-cry-after-their-parents-were-killed-when-u-s-news-photo/52018187