I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats
American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.
-President Barack Obama, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
Fame requires every kind of excess.
-Don Delillo, Great Jones Street
I am in no way disposed to argue in some timeless/placeless way the concepts of just war or the virtues of turning the other cheek or the meaning of Matthew 10:34: “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword,” or the essential good or evil of human nature. Given the surround of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, his just war comments fit the surround he himself had recently created. He is undertaking a surge of warfare in Afghanistan; it’s not to be confused with Vietnam or Iraq, but Americans are familiar with the word “surge.” And the surge in Iraq worked, at least on the level of representation. We now hear and see more about Afghanistan than Iraq.
What is the surround that caused Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan? Talk is always of Obama’s attempt “to square the circle,” but I think “circling the line” is more appropriate, perhaps a line in the sand on which opposing sides stand. That can be turned into the geometric pattern all Nature prefers: the circle, the Uroborus or great Mandala or Yin and Yang in which all polarities intertwine and feed into each other. No one stands apart, alien and other, but every identity intertwines with the other. So he escalates troop numbers, but declares a withdrawal date. He campaigns on the unjustness of the Iraq war and promises to withdraw but also campaigns on the rightness of pursuing Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
“Conditions on the ground” at the very moment the President is giving his speech point to very few Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, point to the probability of Al Qaeda and Taliban being more culturally and religiously amenable to Islamic Pakistan and Afghanistan than are culturally and linguistically xenophobic twenty-something American soldiers, point to a Taliban not an alien army invading but embedded in their own culture and country, rather like Christian Fundamentalists are embedded in American culture, point to the very narrowly enjoyed but immense profits made by American contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan who look upon both war theaters as “markets,” point to an American preference to “paranoia" that holds we must fight someone vaguely “over there” to keep our children safe and prevent nuclear mushroom clouds forming over Peoria.
Whether our response to 9/11 with a “War on Terror” was appropriate, whether, therefore, war, just or unjust, was not a rational response but only one which appealed to Bush’s advisors, whose own embedded surround was `Nam and not 9/11, was an assertion of overwhelming U.S. military force, of “shock and awe” that would erase the humiliation of `Nam, is, unfortunately, not a matter that occupies the surround Obama has to deal with. And, as a Rorty-like pragmatist, Obama will not take on our cultural short term memory loss, for to do so would make it just so much more difficult to bring the line of battle with its Conservative and Liberal opposites into a reinforcing circle.
There are also conditions of the present surround that are repressed, not simply because they are too painful to deal with but because we have no way of dealing with them. First to come to mind, of course, is the concept of preventive war and the legitimacy of a preemptive attack. Preemptive attack is a “shocking and awesome” gambit for a democracy, whether it joins the ranks of despicable acts in history or sets a precedent in a new millennium. Legitimacy here depends on certainty. Was it a gun or just his pipe he was reaching for? What cannot be brought into the moment of Obama’s peace speech is the wrongness of the U.S.’s preemptive attack on Iraq. It’s not an issue he really has to deal with and as a pragmatist he won’t. The war is already going on. He didn’t initiate it, and it’s not Iraq. Nevertheless, there is no way Just War theory can legitimize Iraq, a war that produced “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
The present moment represses the name of the “aggressor.” The “aggressor” on September 11th, 2001 is not a nation nor community of nations but a gang of murderers. Historically, they might be called “raiders” or “marauders” or “hoodlum gangs,” “thugs, brigands, mobsters and marauders,” or, “pirates” or “rogues and masterless men,” or, in the Roman fashion, “barbarians at the gate.” Whoever and whatever threatens a powerful and entrenched order of things must be “brought to justice.” What is at stake here is the preservation of that order, an order that will summon every defense on its behalf in the name of its own preservation. You might say that the strength of terrorism is in direct proportion to the strength of the order it terrorizes. Rome, therefore, would inevitably breed its own barbarian, all those who do not share the glories of being Roman.
In short, you can only stop terrorism by vanquishing the resentment that unsuccessful hegemonies create. I say “unsuccessful” because no one can argue that the prosperity Americans have enjoyed is equally shared in the world and that American enlightened self-interest has not supported tyrants, eliminated anti-American populist regimes, and allowed its corporations to exploit native populations and loot native resources. We will hold back the progress of any nation for the sake of the safety of our own business interests. We are obviously “enlightened” within the limited parameters of profit to shareholders and return on investment. It has become increasingly obvious since Reagan that “enlightened self-interest” means what Ayn Rand took it to mean: focus first on your own interests and consider what good it may do others as a by-product. Hegemony, in Gramsci’s view, must make more encompassing and subtle cultural accommodations to what falls outside its own immediate interests.
So “Just War” theory is enlisted as a sort of Nietzschean alibi to help form the circle. There is also no way that “Just War” theory can justify either Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, both wars violate each of the four conditions of just war: an aggressor, lasting, grave and certain damage, all other means besides war attempted, a clear notion of what success is, and “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” The last is particularly unnerving as it is clear Iraqis have been thoroughly devastated by our “WMD” defensive assault. This operation will most likely be repeated in Afghanistan.
Just War theory can fly as an alibi here because everything I have listed is intensely debated. Everything I have observed since asserting “no one can argue” has been argued and continues to be intensely argued. It is not a part of the present surround to find agreement on any issue relating to Iraq and Afghanistan and because there is deep divisiveness regarding President Obama himself (the Tea Party rebels are not rebelling against Wall Street but against Obama), he must, as Clinton did before him, lean heavily toward those who oppose him. Such a setting, such a surround allows no way for Obama to withdraw from Afghanistan, turn the search for bin Laden and Al Qaeda over to CIA operatives, Interpol and Israel Intel, leave the Taliban Afghans and non-Taliban Afghans to settle the matter as an internal affair, and respect Pakistan’s sovereignty. Such a course of action would, given the present surround, the context of the moment, fail, Obama argues, as a preventive against another 9/11.
There is now and perhaps remaining for a very long time in the American mass psyche awesome power tied to the word “preventive.” Though the word “preemptive” is repressed, the word “preventive” is not. Here is the President making that case: “To abandon this area now would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on Al Qaeda and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.” Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker amplifies the case: “The consequences could also include a second Taliban emirate, a long, bloody civil war, and a sharp, destabilizing increase in Islamist violence, not only in Pakistan but also in India and elsewhere.” Preventive war is just war, an arguable statement in itself but one that has trumping power at the moment. It is an assertion that time and place make reasonable.
Questions are repressed: Have we tried “other means of putting an end” to Al Qaeda besides occupying military force? Can terrorists elude 100,000 troops deployed on one piece of real estate? Are we sending troops into all countries that have non-democratic emirates or regimes? If Taliban and non-Taliban Afghans clash in a civil war, do we intrude? Is the American military presence in the Middle East a preventive to Islamist violence or a catalyst? How far can we intrude into the nuclear powered but increasingly destabilized Pakistan, ostensibly in pursuit of Al Qaeda, without becoming engaged in nation building? At what point will President Obama openly address the need to secure control of Pakistan’s nuclear weaponry?
The present moment gives President Obama no chance of turning a line drawn in the sand into a reconciling circle. The Karzai Afghan regime, confined to the capital, is not happy about the withdrawal date. Pakistan sees the writing on the wall: the U.S. military will make greater encroachments, greater demands on its sovereignty. Obama, a liberal, will never conduct the war in a fashion satisfactory to conservatives. Liberals will never smile on any trace of the Bush doctrine. And a majority of Americans suffering economic hard times will remain convinced that Wall Street and the government are teamed up in a war against them and there’s no justice to it. Americans display an increasing lack of compassion (witness the celebratory greeting of “Work not Welfare” and the failure of mobilizing Americans in the cause of health care for 30 million who can’t afford it). Demonization of the “losers” makes it clear that “enlightened self-interest” means no more than “I’ve got mine, you get yours.” I think this sort of analysis unwinds itself, more a matter of close observation than interpretation, although we remain confirmed in our belief in our global compassion as well as in our belief that the unfortunate have only their own lack of entrepreneurial ambition to blame.
But at the very moment President Obama is presenting his just war defense and grounding all American actions in an enlightened self-interest, we Americans come face to face, yet again (perhaps Bernie Madoff the most recent) with an example of self-interest pursued steadfastly. The marital infidelities of the celebrity golfer Tiger Woods, a name that has the power of the mightiest of brands, are tabloid fare. But I am fascinated by this moment in time when two world famous men of mixed race offer, if you will, the two faces of self-interest. Tiger Woods has enacted on the world’s stage the Trivium of Self-Interest (written by men): First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the ladies. To be more precise Tiger has enacted a very American version of this: he has first gotten fame and celebrity. If it is true that some today are famous for being famous, then money may be superfluous, or, can be expected to follow fame just as night follows day. The Salahis, the couple who crashed the first Obama State Dinner, are pursuing the road to self-interest by going for fame first.
The power that Tiger Woods’s fall from grace has on us is the power of the brand. What we do, what we wear, what we want are what Tiger shows us. If we eat up the world the same way he does, we become him. Sharing his desires is sharing his celebrity. His infidelities are no more than part of his celebrity, regardless of what we say to ourselves or to our friends. You cannot destroy the magnetism of the celebrity brand by exposing what magical power the celebrity has to fulfill his own self-interest. That his reputation is tarnished cannot dwindle in any way the power of his celebrity but will in time increase it. Think of the style in which Johnny Depp played John Dillinger or some seventy years before Clark Gable played Rhett Butler.
But I will remain with this moment now: think of Amanda Knox, the American study abroad student who many believe slit her roommate’s throat. The Italian press calls her “Angel Face” and that celebrity status will not diminish, regardless of how heinous her crime. Those who pursue their own self-interest with extraordinary vigor and passion can find the fifteen seconds in the spotlight that all Americans desire, and may, in fact, find the fame, whether it is notorious, as with Tiger, or praiseworthy, as with Obama. “Fame requires every kind of excess,” DeLillo writes.
Tiger then counters Obama’s praise of American enlightened self-interest and shows us the true face of our “enlightenment,” one that asks only for the spotlight that now ensures the fulfillment of all our desires. Unenlightened self-interest, whether it be Ayn Rand’s objectivism or Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme or Goldman-Sach under Lloyd C. Blankfein’s wagering of “vast sums in world markets in hopes of quick profits” uses the world in the most narrow of ways, in ways that are reduced to the size of personal ambitions, of lust and greed, fantasies and megalomania. Evil doubtlessly exists but while much of what we say it is may cross cultural borders, much differs when one culture applauds something as a foundational element of success while another culture may see that same thing as evil.
Is it more evil to use people to satisfy one’s lust or to use them to fulfill one’s desire for power? And should we measure evil by its effects on others, thus making Madoff’s and Blankfein’s use of others more evil than Tiger’s use of women? The measuring we immediately see is as difficult to deal with as the defining, for it is clear that at this moment in American culture Blankfein’s success at the helm of Goldman Sachs augments the power and prestige of this Wall Street giant, an exemplar of free market ideology. Madoff’s evil lies outside all that, a criminal aberration that one can expect in any grand scheme. Even Biblical creation had its miscreant Satan. Whatever the global ill effects of Blankfein’s search for “quick profits” are – and perhaps many in the undeveloped countries as well as in the Middle East can describe them – Tiger’s actions - his use of fame and fortune to get all the women he wants – have neither corrupted the women, who may themselves achieve some fame and fortune as a result, nor the American cultural mass psyche, which is not traumatized by Tiger’s license to “get it all” and only amused by the awkwardness and lack of skill this public exposure reveals.
He got caught. All the finesse and skill he displays on the golf course creates his celebrity and phenomenal branding power – the “Athlete of the Decade” - and all this in our culture gives him free rein to make use of whatever he wishes. This is a shared dream, call it the American Dream. The dream of fame and fortune is not a wife, two kids, a dog and a white picket fence. The power that comes with fame and fortune enables the pursuit of an unenlightened self-interest. Tiger was inept at the use of power, a novice compared to Nixon who, had his own demons not gotten in the way, would have exercised power without public exposure. Of course, on the scale of what is monumental and what is picayune, we would have fared a great deal better as a country had Nixon confined his appetites to models and cocktail waitresses.
If we could speak as a culture candidly to ourselves, outside the defenses of “family values,” “Just War,” and “enlightened self-interest,” we might just admit that the American Dream goes no further than “free rein - and the means - to do whatever we wish.” Within this frame, call it a moral frame, we can only be amused and perhaps titillated by Tiger’s escapades. Within this frame it is not difficult to see why and how we are enlightened no further than our own skins. But neither individual nor society is capable of speaking candidly but always lies enwrapped within some story of what we are. Thusly, alongside the dream we have of having everything - the money, the power and the women – Tiger doubtlessly shares our dream of having it all, but only in an enlightened way.
I suspect if we could reconcile the two, bring them into a harmonious circle, we would be in some miraculous fashion meld the better angels of our nature with our doggish appetites. And if this could be done, President Obama would have no need to strive so eloquently to bring the words “war” and “just” together in the same sentence before a peace audience.
From guest contributor Joseph Natoli