Saturday, August 19, 2006

Reflections on the Latest Israeli Invasion of Lebanon

Like most sentient humans within the reach of mass media over the last month, my mind has turned frequently to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Though I am no expert in foreign affairs or in Soutwest Asian politics, I have felt an urge to write on the subject -- an urge thus far restrained by the concern that I may not actually have anything particularly useful or interesting to say. But here I go anyway.

Three general points have occurred to me so far. This post includes reflections on what it means that war was initiated on what seems to be an especially weak pretext this time around, and on the implications of Stephen Harper's position on the war. I ran out of steam and the third, if I want to do it justice, is copmlicated, so I may come back to it at a later date. Anyway, the two points discussed here and the one held in abeyance may all be on the obvious side, but I think they deserve a moment or two of measured contemplation despite that.

(1) It felt to me like they didn't feel they had to try very hard at all in their efforts to sell this war to us.

Any state that initiates war will generally have an official pretext for doing so. This pretext may be constructed based on raw material (things that have happened or are happening) that are real or not-so-real, and may require more or less distortion of context to make it sell. Generally speaking, whenever an individual instance falls in those ranges, the push to war is tied to lots of other reasons of state that are deliberately left out of the official pretext. This pretext is used to mobilize support among the initiating state's domestic population, as well as to mask and/or augment the workings of power politics in terms of getting the war effort recognized as legitimate (or at least getting it left alone) internationally.

Noam Chomsky has argued that one legacy of the popular movements that crested in the '60s and '70s is that they have had something of a "civilizing" influence on Western states. His classic example is comparing the massive anti-war demonstrations and sentiment before war had even begun against Iraq in 2003, and contrasting that with the years it took for any significant anti-war momentum to build after the initial U.S. invasion of Vietnam. It is the period since that civilizing influence took effect that I'm most interested in, and the direction of change since that high point.

Take the relationship between the U.S. and Sandanista Nicaragua in the '80s. Some of the same maniacs running Washington now would've been happy to take the traditional U.S. approach to governments they didn't like in Central America and send in the marines, but they ended up having to wage a long and horrible proxy war via the Contras. In other words, despite their best efforts, they never quite managed to construct a pretext that allowed for as direct an intervention as they would've liked.

If you look at the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. actually did send in troops. It is relevant that the U.S.S.R. was no longer a factor, of course, but they were also handed a gold-plated pretext by Saddam. Which isn't to say that one country invading another would've necessarily lead to a U.S. intervention if it had happened in some out of the way place in the South Pacific, say -- it was a lot about the U.S. intervening to shape its place in Bush Sr.'s "New World Order", and also about oil -- but the conquest of Kuwait provided raw material for a pretext that was hard to argue with.

Then take the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. There was still a pretext -- Milosevic was not a nice man and did some pretty horrid things. But significantly more distortion was required to sell the pretext, including skewed media attention to the crimes of friends as opposed to those of enemies, U.S. lying about/reliance on complete misreporting of the content of the proposed Rambouillet Accords, and confidence in the lack of Western popular interest in the fact that the bombing created circumstances favourable for the exact atrocities that the leaders claimed they wanted to prevent. There was also considerable effort by a certain segment of the left-liberal intelligentsia -- the ones subsequently dubbed the "cruise missile left" by Edward Herman and others -- to give the effort legitimacy by bending human rights rhetoric to imperial purposes (a trick long used by liberal imperialists, which was yet another fact inadmissable in the mainstream). In any case, the raw material for this required considerably more work, but the work was diligently put in, and the pretext was reasonably effective across much of the West.

During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, circumstances were a bit different because 9/11 had just happened, the role of al Qaeda was unproven but highly probable, and the connection of al Qaeda to the Taliban well known. It required no effort at all to build all of that into a pretext that brushed aside the warnings of impending disaster by aid agencies, the moral degeneracy of murdering innocent Afghani peasants who had exactly no say in their government because a handful of middle-class Saudis murdered a few thousand New Yorkers, and the role of the invasion in advancing U.S. imperial interests. Even in Canada, this created some of the harshest conditions I have experienced for on-the-street anti-war leafletting.

Things began to revert to the existing trajectory for the Bush Jr. war against Iraq. Raw material for a pretext was very, very scanty. It took a very aggressive and very deceptive state-run propaganda campaign to convince a majority of the U.S. public of the existence of the non-existent connection between al Qaeda and Iraq and the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. For the first time, the U.S. made it clear it didn't give a bent penny that most of the rest of the planet didn't buy it, and its reliance on such weak, weak source material betrayed heightened arrogance.

Then comes the invasion of Lebannon. Raw material is next to nil: abduction of two Israeli soldiers -- low-level aggression by combatants against combatants in a situation of longstanding low-level hostilities, by a resistance force against the army which still occupied and occupies part of their homeland -- technically violated an agreement that has been consistently violated by both sides, but far more so by Israel, since it was signed. In other words, this was a routine event that was chosen arbitrarily by Israel to launch a long-planned offensive. And of course you have to compare this to the routine Israeli Defense Force abduction of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians more or less at will, and their ongoing detention of thousands of them.

(I should add that this final example may not fit perfectly with the rest because in this case it is an Israeli offensive rather than an American one. It would make sense to put it in the context of all of the other Israeli military operations over the last few decades, and their pretexts. However, I don't know that history particularly well, so I can't do that. In addition, there is evidence that though this attack was carried out by the IDF, a significant portion of the impetus for it came from Washington, so I don't feel too bad about setting up the context the way I have.)

The point I'm building to here feels, like I said, like an obvious one, but one worthy of reflection: The imperial planners in Washington and their lieutenants in Israel are either so confident or so desperate -- both possibilities are scary -- that they don't even really feel the need to try very hard in creating pretexts for war. Despite this one being arbitrary and flimsy, it did seem to work among the Israeli public and the U.S. public, the only ones that matter.

The need for pretexts to meet a certain threshhold is at least some kind of constraint on what imperial power can do, or on how it can go about doing what it wants to do. The steady trend towards lower and lower standards for pretexts means imperial power can operate increasingly freely. That's scary. It might even mean that things are coming to a point where, barring a major working-class upheavel in the U.S. (unlikely, at least in the short to medium term) or Southwest Asia (getting more likely, though who knows what form it might take), the most likely barrier to set limits on this trend is increasingly open interimperial rivalry. I know some on the left have actually called for this, with Europe or China or both as the counterweight to the U.S., and there is evidence that a significant split between the U.S. and Europe is in progress, but I can't think of any moral or rational justification for why in a nuclear world this is any more desireable than a unipolar imperium.

(2) Stephen Harper's Reasons

Lots of left, progressive, and even liberal Canadian blogs have railed against Stephen Harper's boosterish support for the Israeli/American war of aggression and his complete lack of concern for the majority of the casualties, who were Lebanese civilians -- entirely predictable and therefore intended casualties of IDF violence, U.S. right-wing and IDF sophistry notwithstanding. But I think it's important to clarify what this support means.

It is, for one thing, not a response to a new or newly powerful domestic constituency within Canada that has a direct interest in the conflict itself. Of course there are domestic political implications, with Jewish Canadian and Muslim Canadian votes at stake, but I seriously doubt that this particular position was part of Harper angling for a majority government in the New Year, or at least not quite in that way. Frankly, I don't believe Harper's position had anything directly to do with what was going on in Southwest Asia at all. It was all about Washington, and about signalling Ottawa's new position with respect to Washington. It was about a capo di regime pledging fealty to the Big Boss.

This version of fealty, which goes beyond the longstanding quiet Canadian complicity in war and empire, has a couple of origins, I think. One is similarity of worldview: Bush runs and is furthering the kind of state Harper wants to exist in Canada. The extreme obeisance to Washington is both symbolic of that new direction, but as I've talked about in the (distant) past it is also a mechanism for facilitating the restructuring of the Canadian state as well. The other reason, I think, is seen by its advocates on the right as a realpolitik assessment of where the world is headed and how Canada (which should probably be understood to read "Canadian owning and managerial classes") can best position itself in the new configuration. In other words, we depend heavily on the U.S. economically, and as the world realigns and develops new polarizations, let's go with our strength and not be shy about whose side we're on. It is not clear to me that, from a narrow and purely owning-class self-interested perspective, that the hard right around Harper is wrong. It is a morally repugnant position, certainly, and one that is politically repugnant to me, but I'm not convinced that their assessment of the narrow spectrum of material intersts that they represent is at all incorrect. And that's a huge fact that liberals and lefties are going to have start wrestling with more openly as we move forward -- moral/aesthetic arguments about how dumb or gauche George Bush is will not change the course of the country if owners and the managers who most directly serve their interests decide once and for all that it is best for them to weigh in irrevocably on Washington's side as the ongoing crisis that is the 21st century unfolds.


Spartacus O'Neal said...

From Gaza With Love is a blog that might interest you.

troutsky said...

Great analysis and accurate projection as well.Sad because I always felt Canada was positioned to temper and balance the hegemonic ambition of the US right (through the influence popular movements on US Middle)We are headed for a crisis, which , unfortunately for our children, seems to be (historically) the only way change occurs. It is our job to try to keep that change from reverting to totalitarian fascism.

Scott said...

Hi Jay...thanks for the recommendation!

Hi troutsky...thanks for the kind words! I think you are right about what our job is, or at least part of our job. I think there is some capacity for Canada -- as a symbol at least, and perhaps in more concrete ways -- to temper the ambitions of the U.S. right, through being a sort of concrete reminder and example for liberal movements down there, but I think it is limited. I think the relationship between happenings in the two countries is complicated. In many ways, I have been feeling that the degree of damage that our homegrown right will end up being able to do here depends a lot on how effectively U.S. social movements are able to mobilize and beat back the right down able the establishment liberals (and Liberals) up here are at preserving the gains thrust on their reform-liberal forbearers by the left of those days, and how interested they are in such preservation, depends in large part on how much space there is to manouver. If there is enough space, elite Canadian reform-liberals will be able to preserve a subset of such gains without shedding their illusions (and to much self-congratulation, I'm sure); if not enough, then the struggle to preserve even past gains (let alone worry about how oppressive "liberal Canada" has always actually been at home and abroad) will be a project exclusively of those of us farther left, as in many ways it started earlier in the 20th century. If there is insufficient space, they will do as liberals have always done and accommodate "necessity" (i.e. power). And one determinant of how much space there is in Canada is what happens in the U.S. in the next few years, I think.