Monday, May 2, 2011

Come Home, America

Osama bin Laden is dead. Good riddance. I heard the news last night as I was preparing to go to bed. I was unable to sleep much due to my excitement at the news. I vividly remember September 11, 2001 and I will never forget the anger I felt that day. I sympathize with the Americans who were celebrating in the streets last night at the news of bin Laden's death at the hands of American Special Forces. But then there was the morning. A pounding headache, the product of too little sleep and a drafty bedroom, was the first bit of reality to hit me today. As I read over the morning news, I noticed that little had changed. Details of the operation that neutralized bin Laden were coming through the news wires. As expected, a gigantic number of articles sprouted up all over the Internet discussing the future of the War on Terror and the jihadist movement that Osama bin Laden presided over, at least in spirit.

However, as the excitement and euphoria of the night before wore off in the midst of a busy day, I came to the realization that many of the same, tired ideas of the early days of the War on Terror were being trotted out again. Bin Laden was being compared to Hitler. May 02 was V-E or V-J Day depending on how you viewed bin Laden's death, either as a final, crushing blow to jihadism or just one major step along the still bumpy road to total victory. But do these comparisons make any sense? Bin Laden was not the head of a major, industrial nation-state with a powerful conventional military, as was the case with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It is not even completely clear that he was still playing a major operational role within the increasingly decentralized jihadist movement. And yet, there are still many who wish to describe the war against Islamic terrorism as an existential "World War IV."

Ever since the end of the Cold War, Americans have been looking for a new enemy to replace the communists. To a certain extent, tinhorn Third World dictators filled the gap, but bin Laden was the real deal. But despite al-Qaeda’s obvious power as a potent terrorist organization, I just don’t see bin Laden-style jihadism as an ideological movement of major macro-historical importance. Communism presented a major ideological challenge to the West because it was centered on a powerful, industrial nation-state, the Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union is now the butt of jokes on Seth MacFarlane shows, at one time it was considered an extremely formidable power. Some scholars, such as Robert C. Allen, have pointed out that Soviet economic growth was indeed real, and that Western concern over Soviet power was well-founded. Furthermore, Marxist-Leninist communism presented itself as a potentially successful path toward independence from colonialism as well as industrial development within a single generation, all attractive ideas for many people living in the Third World. Extreme Islamism has few of these attributes and that is why it will ultimately fail even more spectacularly than Marxist-Leninist communism eventually did.

Perhaps bin Laden's real significance is that he provided us with a monster, a real monster, to slay. Now that the deed is done, perhaps we can have a more frank discussion of the most pressing issues underlying the problems of the Middle East such as energy policy, water rights, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the failure of neoliberal economics to provide full employment and an equitable distribution of the social product, and the plight of minority groups. Furthermore, with bin Laden gone, perhaps we can begin to wind up the War on Terror, retooling it as a matter for criminal justice and intelligence agencies but not conventional military power or nation-building. Most importantly, it is now time for Americans to abandon the dreams of empire so popular in neoconservative circles and to become a normal nation again. It is time to come home.


  1. I am not one for conspiracy theories but the circumstances - Bin Laden hiding in a villa rather than a cave and especially the rapid 'burial at sea'- make this case very fertile ground for such ideas.

    PS: John for president!

  2. Thank you for the kind comments! Apparently there are already Osama bin Laden conspiracy theories brewing. I don't think they will disappear any time soon, even if the White House decides to release photos of bin Laden's dead body.

    There are still active conspiracy theories about the deaths of John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, and Elvis, just to name a few. We can probably add bin Laden to that list.

    To be fair, though, the secrecy promoted by the United States government does not help it much. There is a reason why there are so many conspiracies surrounding America and not, for example, Sweden or Namibia. I guess it comes with the territory of being a superpower, but it is not something I relish. I would rather the U.S. be a normal country and not an empire.

  3. Certainly, most Americans (especially New Yorkers) feel ecstatic and rightfully so. As for me... I don't know... ten years of finding the SOB, and nothing changing, killed any desire of mine to celebrate. And yes, the whole process of deposing bin Laden is very fishy...

    I know nothing would change the very second I heard the news. An enemy is gone, but American military operations worldwide are far from over, at least Washington would say so. As is the case with Iraq, they will change the reason for continuing. It will go from "fighting terrorism" to "bringing the people democracy". I will not celebrate until our troops are home. Forgive my pessimism.

  4. Thank you for the comment, CA.

    There is nothing to forgive. I am afraid you are essentially correct. Bin Laden's death and the subsequent capture of what is reported to be a treasure trove of intelligence from his mansion might be a severe blow to al-Qaeda, or at least to the portion of the al-Qaeda movement that exists in South Asia.

    But as you point out, the major problem is the war addiction of our ruling elite. What are the rationales for staying in Afghanistan now?

  5. Interesting post, but I’d ultimately disagree with this:

    ‘Furthermore, Marxist-Leninist communism presented itself as a potentially successful path toward independence from colonialism as well as industrial development within a single generation, all attractive ideas for many people living in the Third World. Extreme Islamism has few of these attributes and that is why it will ultimately fail even more spectacularly than Marxist-Leninist communism eventually did.’

    I’d say that one of the strangest dilemmas for the modern left is how so many of its causes turned into Islamist causes. From Algeria to Afghanistan to Palestine to Bosnia to Kosovo there are so many causes that adopted Marxist or liberal left ideology and then degenerated into theocratic savagery.

    It was quite bemusing that in George Galloway’s debate with Christopher Hitchens, Galloway referred to Hitchens’ belief that the Algerians were justified in using terrorism. Something Hitchens did not seem too keen to disagree with.

    Now I think the left has to look through a glass darkly so to speak.

    I find it curious that the so-called liberal left seems the most unapologetic. Hitchens still thinks the anti-colonialist left were right to support the Mujaheedin against the Soviets. The absurd Charlie Wilson’s War depicts the Mujaheedin as goodies against the Russky baddies. I’m no fan of the USSR, but I think supporting the forces of medieval backwardness was a pretty ridiculous choice. And whilst no doubt some of the Mujaheedin’s supporters think they were right to support the 2001 Afghan war, the simple fact is only the Marxists COULD have brought secular modernity to the Afghans. Just as I feel horrified by the treatment of Turkey’s Greek population, I suspect that only Turkish Fascism stopped it from turning into an Anatolian Arabia.

    I suppose that Afghanistan might not seem utopian but to many Muslims it seemed a better path than militaristic Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

    Perhaps the slightly ironic thing is that as an Orthodox Christian, I can sort of see where some of the appeal of Islamism comes from. Just as many Orthodox have long felt that Anatolia belong to us and that the East of Europe will save the West, and that some day Hagia Sophia will be regained, I suppose I can see why pan-Islamism has defeated the Western concepts of Marxism (which has a curiously parochial utopianism). I can easily understand why the Islamists see the golden age of Granada as preferable to the ideas of Marxism. Since the 80s, Greece has had wealth such as it never had before (thanks largely to Germany and France) but being a bourgeoisie tourist driven nation has not made them grateful or admiring, merely seems to have given many Greeks other ideals and to glamourise their past (which can be understandable or sinister depending on what it is). I think to an extent it is the same with the Islamic world.

    For this reason, I have to admit the death of Bin Laden does not encourage me to think that Islamism will be weakened in any way. In fact you could say that the way the USA has been so indulgent to Pakistan could give them greater confidence that the West is weak.

  6. Hi Gregor,

    Thanks for the excellent comments. I agree that many left-wing causes have degenerated into violent religious or nationalist causes. Many left-wingers seem to support violent fundamentalists just because they oppose the United States or capitalism.

    However, when I wrote about Marxism-Leninism, I was mainly thinking about the Cold War era, when Communism dominated many nation-states, including one of the two superpowers and the most populous country in the world in Red China. Islamists don’t control many nation-states and the nations that they do control (such as Iran) are not as powerful as the old Communists states were, at least from a conventional military standpoint.

    I think you are right about Islamism generally being a potent ideology I am just not sure that the very narrow and very violent Sunni Islamism espoused by bin Laden is as strong as some make it to out to be.

    The current Muslim Brotherhood, which seemingly mixes a more moderate Islamism with a greater attention to issues like poverty, is perhaps the model for a more successful future Islamism (Hezbollah is a good example for the Shi’ites). Al-Qaeda’s version of Islamism is just too puritanical and too violent to ever be as influential as people like bin Laden hoped. For example, the extremism and violence of al-Qaeda in Iraq helped to push the Sunni tribes of Iraq into an alliance with the Americans.

    The Left needs to do a better job understanding religion in general. I oppose groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah. I would much rather see secular social democrats or similar groups come to power, if only to protect the Christians in the Muslim world. But, at least in my opinion, the secular Left has not done a good job redefining itself after the end of the Cold War.

    Left-wingers have either decided to become aggressive champions of liberal capitalism and atheism as the only alternatives left for humanity, or they have become Hard Lefties and support every awful, bloody regime or organization out there just because they are perceived as opposing “Western imperialism.”

    After reading about the work and ideas of the Social Catholics, I now believe that perhaps the only thing that can save the Left is if it adopts a personalist philosophy that is centered on the dignity of the human person. Personalism need not be limited to Catholics or even Christians; it can potentially influence Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and even atheists (although I still think atheists might have trouble combining materialism with a complete philosophy of the human person).

    Otherwise, it looks like the main competing ideologies of the future will be aggressive liberalism and aggressive ethno-religious nationalism, and that is rather scary.