Kermit Snelson on Sun, 8 Sep 2002 19:41:14 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Call it Empire: An Exercise in Strategic Culture

As nettime has recently become somewhat of a showcase for the USA's
neoconservative commentariat, from Robert Kagan to John Fonte and now
Francis Fukuyama, I thought I'd add the following gem from the _New York
Times_'s cultural "critic-at-large", Edward Rothstein.

Rothstein's intervention in today's NYT is the single most succinct and
blunt statement I've ever seen of this group's central goal:  the top-down
transformation of the USA's traditionally liberal, civil, commercial,
democratic culture into a "conservative" one based on a hierarchical,
more-than-somewhat Confucian military ethic, all in preparation for
stewardship of a first-ever planetary empire.  Or "Empire", as Rothstein
capitalizes it in his last sentence.  And all this at the expense of what
they obviously consider to be the most pliant imperial cannon fodder ever
created:  we, the people of the United States.

Rothstein's piece could hardly be more clear.  Kipling's poetic musings
concerning "the White Man's burden", he writes, were "misunderstood."
Imperialism, he writes, "is now being associated with democratic reform,
sometimes to the great satisfaction of its subjects."  The key to victory in
the current war on terrorism, he writes, is an "American neo-imperialism"
that overthrows current Arab "tyrannies" and replaces them with new regimes
modeled on that one existing paragon of Middle Eastern democracy:  Israel.
And the theory that explains all of this counter-intuitive stuff is the
counter-intuition-in-chief:  the US must destroy (or "challenge", if you
prefer Rothstein's euphemism) world liberalism in order to save it.  Sort of
explains why the EU has recently featured so prominently in the US
neoconservatives' gunsights, doesn't it?

For those who would doubt the organized nature of the movement to which arts
and music critic Rothstein belongs, or its ultimately military purpose,
here's a hint.  Check out Rothstein's presence, along with Francis Fukuyama,
Sam Huntington and Robert Kaplan, on the syllabus for the US Naval
Postgraduate School's "Seminar in Comparative Strategic Cultures", hosted as
part of "Course NS 4036: Special Topics in National Security Policy." [1]
For confirmation of Walter Benjamin's rather well-informed observation that
"All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing:  war",
need we look any further than the Pentagon?



Cherished Ideas Refracted in History's Lens

The New York Times
September 7, 2002; Page A17

What ideas have changed since 9/11?

One school of thought says not many: the world can be interpreted pretty
much as it was before. The attacks, in this view, were different from
earlier examples of terror only in degree, not in kind. They were horrific
acts perpetrated by a terrorist organization with limited means and a
circumscribed membership.

In this view, the major international challenge has been to respond with a
careful balance of military force and negotiation. The major domestic
challenge has been to increase security while restraining temptations to
cast the blame too widely or seek villains too crudely. The major
psychological challenge has been to manage grief. And the major intellectual
challenge has been to make a sober assessment of the "root causes" of the
attacks, to prevent them in the future.

Over the past year, though, these familiar views have come to seem
increasingly inadequate. They present an eminently rational vision, in which
nothing need be disrupted too much: warfare, like grief, will be "managed."
The only things required in the long run are more generosity of spirit and
empathy in American foreign policy.

But the world will not long permit such illusions. In fact, 9/11 did not
represent a moment of continuity in which ideas remained unchanged, but
marked a decisive tear in the interpretive fabric. Reinterpretation and
revision are still taking place. Like other wars, this one seems to divide
experience into a before and an after, altering both understanding of the
past and prospects for the future.

The enemy, after all, is not the narrowly defined Qaeda, but a wellspring of
Islamic terrorist organizations, sponsored and embraced and sometimes feared
by numerous states in the Arab world, many possessing networks in both
Europe and the United States.

The battle against these organizations is dangerous and precarious. American
society, the apotheosis of Western liberalism, is by definition an opponent
of fundamentalist and totalitarian terror. But it is also a society
reluctant to grasp the nature of the beast. It is most devoted to procedure
and reason, to tolerance and egalitarianism, hoping to find similar values
even in its enemies, despite the ever-mounting evidence.

More troubling is that this battle, even if infallibly waged, requires that
liberal society strain against those very values, constricting tolerance and
encouraging suspicion. Fundamentalist terror may not be representative of
mainstream Islam, but that still doesn't make it any easier to root it out
of mainstream Islamic communities in Western nations. Society is forced to
challenge liberal values in the act of defending them.

Adding to the tensions, this war demands that American citizens trust
authorities even though all their impulses have been trained to distrust
authorities. And while waging war requires a belief that you are just, these
same critical impulses have tended to encourage a skepticism of that

This means that self-scrutiny will be an unavoidable part of any war. But
under the force of experience and the need for action, these impulses will
be modified in as-yet-untold ways. How could they not be when tolerance and
American self-criticism reach their limits?

That kind of transformation has already taken place with a notion often
invoked by international commentators and American intellectuals, explaining
the "root causes" of Al Qaeda. In this view, terrorism is caused by social
and economic injustice; it is an expression of political frustration and
material desperation. The root cause argument invokes the grievance not to
dismiss it, but to give it credence  and suggest unacknowledged guilt.

But this notion, which has often been selectively applied to serve political
purposes, fails to account for the lure of fundamentalist ideology or for
the resentment of modernity that permeates Islamic terror. And poverty, the
accumulating evidence suggests, far from causing terrorism, barely even
correlates with it. So the empathetic invocations of "root causes"  a
reflexive part of post-9/11 rhetoric  have become far more rare,
particularly as it has become clear just what sorts of societies and values
are championed by terrorism's practitioners.

Other concepts and explanations are also changing under the pressure of
experience. For in fighting this kind of enemy, the United States is also
seeking to transform the tyrannies that support it. The establishment of
democratic institutions in the Middle East has become a preoccupation. In
Afghanistan, the hope for a Western-style parliament in a country that has
never known one seems undiminished. After a decade of dictatorial governance
and financial corruption, the Palestinian Authority is being pressured to
enact democratic reforms, and internal dissent is becoming more evident. The
successful prosecution of America's war may well be inseparable from the
attempt to encourage the development of modern democratic societies in a
region that has only one.

This form of nation building once had another name: imperialism. The word
still jangles with jingoistic echoes. And American neo-imperialism may yet
turn tragic with frustrations, as Kipling long ago predicted in his
misunderstood paean to "the White Man's burden."

Yet this idea is bound to change character. After all, instead of
exploitation, imperialism is now being associated with democratic reform,
sometimes to the great satisfaction of its subjects. Maybe even 19th-century
imperialism will be reinterpreted and invoked by example since many
non-Western nations developed democratic institutions solely because of
imperialist influence. Imperialism's exploitation often had a virtuous flip
side; perhaps there is a way, despite Kipling's skepticism, to separate the

The exercise of this kind of power and influence in this war though, will
require not single acts but continuous and continuing decisions, active
involvement in the destiny of nations. The United States already possesses
political, cultural, economic and military power on a scale unknown in the
history of humankind. What will happen if this war is waged successfully and
such power grows? America will inspire unjustified hatreds and justified
enmity, gratitude and allegiance, disgust and envy; it will need to use the
power unilaterally but will also need to forge alliances and defer its use;
it will demand obligations but also incur them.

Sounds familiar, yet strange. An old idea transformed. Call it Empire.

 2002 The New York Times Company

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