Playing With Fire in an Age of Absurdity
Will future historians call the time when the United States was the world’s hegemonic power – the “indispensable nation,” as the hapless Madeleine Albright called it — the Age of Absurdity? Now that the Obama administration has set its stamp upon it, they very well might.
Absurdity is in the details; it is manifest in small things and on many levels. And it is manifest in the largest political issue of our time and any time: the question of war and peace.
The perpetual war regime Obama and his advisors have solidified – on the shoddiest of pretexts, but with the unbridled assistance of a compliant media and with full “bipartisan” support – is a potentially catastrophic case in point.
In this and other respects, Obama will be remembered not so much as an innovator but as a continuator of Bush-Cheney era policies. But, as thinkers of a dialectical cast used to remind us, sometimes quality emerges out of quantity.
And so it is that with more than a few – no one knows exactly how many — under-the-radar wars around the world to its (dis)credit, the absurdity level has been ratcheted up several notches under Obama’s tenure.
Along with a rise in religious zealotry, a phenomenon not unrelated to all those wars, this is why it has become harder than ever to make sense of what is going on in the world today. Things happen, apparently for no rhyme or reason. Incoherence reigns.
And people die. Obama will be remembered for this. And, to our shame, “we, the people” will be remembered for having acquiesced almost without resistance to what he and the people around him have done.
The peace movement is dead, the media are mute, and, in all likelihood, we will soon be engulfed in an electoral season in which the plain fact that Democrats and Republicans know not what they do will hardly even come up.
Meanwhile, war and preparations for war go on – seemingly in perpetuity.
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Perpetual war. What is it good for?
The answer is the same as for war in general – absolutely nothing. From deep in the heart of Motown some forty years ago, Edwin Starr got that right.
Evidently, the Obama administration’s foreign policy team – the humanitarian interveners, the unreconstructed Clintonites, the leftover neocons, the whole sorry crew – disagrees.
We cannot be entirely sure, however. They may just be irrational or, more likely, so bad at what they do that it comes to the same thing.
To clarify what I mean by irrationality, think of the difference between the ends of actions, their objectives, and the means through which persons seek to realize those ends.
Philosophers disagree about how, if at all, ends can be rational. But they all agree, as Immanuel Kant wrote in 1785, that “to will the end is to will the means thereto.”
By that standard, we must infer that Nobel laureate Barack Obama and his advisors at the National Security Council and the State Department and in the think-tanks that service the national security state either want war without end, or else that they are unconstrained by the most basic requirement of practical reason.
‘Practical reason” pertains to actions, as distinct from beliefs, which are the province of “theoretical reason. “ In both cases, rationality is a normative standard, the most basic one we have. There is no reasoning with, or dealing with, those who violate this fundamental norm.
It is unacceptable for someone to understand a logical demonstration or an empirical argument supported by incontrovertible evidence and then to reject the conclusions that follow. One cannot argue with such a person; the only thing to do is walk away.
And it is wrong to seek some objective and then, knowingly, to adopt means that are sure to have the opposite effect.
Insanity can be a mitigating factor. But our leaders are not insane – not in the clinical sense. When their actions are irrational, there is no denying their culpability.
To count as a rational agent, it is not enough that means and ends not be directly at odds – as when someone wants to go left, knows which way is left, and nevertheless goes right. Some notion of proportionality is also assumed.
Doing too little or too much can result from failures of judgment. But if the failures cannot be explained away – say, because they rely on information that is believed to be adequate but is not, or on flawed ways of thinking that are not immediately apparent – then charges of irrationally ring true.
It is tempting to lay all the blame for the manifest failures of means-ends rationality that characterize American policy in the historically Muslim world and in and around the lands that border Russia on incompetence alone, and to fault the Obama foreign policy team for its consequences. They are certainly guilty as sin. But everyone knows where the buck stops.
It was not insanity that led Barack Obama to make Hillary Clinton and now John Kerry his Secretaries of State, or that causes him to take Susan Rice and Samantha Power seriously. And there is no escaping his reprehensibility for the mischief he lets them and their underlings unleash around the world.
Obama is as guilty for this as he is for what the American military does and, worse, the CIA and the other tools of empire that he wields like a private army.
But can we blame all this on incompetence alone?
There is no clear answer to this question because there is also the likelihood that, at least to some extent, Obama and his team are deliberately pursuing preposterous objectives – adopting means to ends as rational agents should, but for ends that are reprehensible or incoherent or both.
On questions of war and peace, this seems to be the case: it seems that perpetual war is what Obama and the ne’er-do-wells under him want.
Why? Not out of partiality to military virtues or nostalgia for more barbaric times. European fascists and pre-war Japanese authoritarians were moved by ideals of this kind; Democrats are not. Though it can sometimes be hard to believe, neither are Republicans.
But without war and the threat of war the military-industrial-national security state complex would falter. Since even before President Eisenhower warned of what would happen if our republic ceded power to it, its unelected and unaccountable leaders have been calling the shots.
Therefore perpetual peace is out of the question. If enemies do not exist, the United States will have to invent them.
By the time Obama took office, the Iraq War was extremely unpopular. He could and did intensify it for a while, but it was plain from Day One that it had to be wound down, seemingly at least, before he could run for office again.
And so it was. It was only after Obama was reelected in 2012 that what the United States did to Iraq came back to bite him. Now Syria is a problem too, perhaps an even bigger one. This too is a result of what the United States did in and to Iraq.
When Obama took office, the Afghanistan War had been raging on for seven years. This was the war that Obama, and other “anti-war” Democrats like Howard Dean endorsed, even as they cautiously spoke out against its more prominent cousin.
Of the two wars, the one in Afghanistan was certainly he less unpopular, but also the less rational. Ostensibly, its point was and still is to combat “terrorism.” To the extent this is so, it is a textbook case of willing an end and willing the opposite of the means thereto.
Drones and assassins kill terrorists along with many others, but they also create more terrorists than they kill. You don’t need an advanced degree in military science or diplomacy to realize this; you don’t even need a High School diploma. It is common sense.
The Afghanistan War is and always has been a war of revenge – undertaken because the Furies demanded it.
Civilization was supposed to have put an end to such causae belli. In civilized societies, “reasons of state” might justify wars but not desires for vengeance. Evidently, the philosophers and tragedians of Greek antiquity hadn’t counted on George Bush and Dick Cheney.
In time, the Afghanistan War’s unpopularity came to rival the unpopularity of the war in Iraq. And so, after surging and un-surging in Afghanistan as they had in Iraq, Team Obama decided that it would make sense to wind down, or seem to wind down, the Afghanistan War too.
But, unfortunately, they felt that they couldn’t just cut and run; that is the way that bullies lose credibility and that empires fall. They needed a face-saving way out. But, like Iraq, Afghanistan was too broken to provide on. After more than a decade of American predations, how could it not have been?
All they could do, therefore, was dissimulate.
And so the two Bush-Obama wars were not so much concluded as repackaged – so that Obama could win in 2012, and so that the wars that, by then, were his to pursue could be continued indefinitely.
The military-industrial-national security state complex would surely have preferred less muted hostilities. But you can’t always get what you want, even when you run the show.
Nevertheless, they were on track for getting more than enough to keep them in business. It doesn’t take much blowback to keep the suicide bombers coming. That on its own would have been enough to scare Americans and Europeans into allowing the wars – and, more important, the preparations for war — to continue indefinitely.
But those wars had been going on for so long that they were starting to seem old, even to their most ardent proponents. The military had had enough as well; too much death and maiming, not enough glory.
Could this be why Team Obama, with support from unreconstructed Cold Warriors in Europe, decided that the time had come to provoke Russia?
A new Cold War would certainly make life more interesting – and profitable — for them. And with the fear of Islamist terrorism in the West receding, a new Cold War would be just the thing to raise anxiety levels back to where our rulers like them to be.
Then suddenly that plan became redundant. The Islamic State (IS) emerged seemingly from nowhere; a collection of bloodthirsty and crazed religious zealots, brutal enough to appall even Osama Bin Laden.
With them around, there was no longer any need to demonize Vladimir Putin, the man into whose eyes George W. Bush had once looked and saw that it was good.
Of course, the IS didn’t exactly come from nowhere. It came from a broken Iraq and from a more recently devastated Syria; in other words, from machinations orchestrated in Washington and perpetrated by NATO, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States and, of course, by the United States itself.
But the IS, so far at least, has left the West alone. It kills Westerners it captures; its brutality towards them, and others who fall into its hands, is unspeakable. But, to date, IS sponsored terror has been confined geographically to areas under its control.
It takes a lot of empathic understanding, of putting oneself in the minds of others, to ascertain the IS’s ends and to see the method in its madness. Could they really want to revive the political structures of the first centuries of the Muslim era or to subject entire populations to fundamentalist understandings of Sharia law?
On the other hand, ridding the Middle East of its corrupt leaders is an eminently worthwhile and understandable goal, as is removing Western domination of historically Muslim lands. But none of this obviates the fact that even Hollywood could not contrive a more god-awful collection of murderous brigands.
Indeed, the IS is so awful that it will take a lot of work on the part of the American government to keep it up and running for long. They are not ingenious enough.
On the other hand, if their actual goal is what they say it is – to rid the world of the Islamic State — then the IS menace might be around for a while; Team Obama is incompetent enough for that.
The IS’s leadership knows that they have no way to inflict serious harm directly upon the West. Following Al Qaida’s lead, their strategy therefore is to get the West to harm itself. They are past masters at that.
It is amazing how much leverage they are able to squeeze out of a few well-advertised beheadings, abductions and burnings.
It is ironic too: “off with their heads” is a Western trope; and Islam doesn’t hold a candle – pun intended — to Christianity when it comes to burning people to death.
Killing by fire is an American specialty as well. We did it to the Japanese with atom bombs and to the Vietnamese and many others with napalm and white phosphorus.
We are doing it still – to Arabs and Africans — with bombs and drones. Is it any wonder that they would object?
What is wondrous is the sheer hypocrisy of it all. They, the Oriental other, are unbridled monsters; when we do the same, we say, when it is too late, only that “mistakes were made.”
At least their brutality serves the purpose they intend. The United States does more damage to people and things than they, the monsters, can dream of, but nothing worthwhile for us comes of it – unless keeping a thriving perpetual war regime going is a worthwhile end.
Indeed, unless this actually is Obama intention, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi leaves our Commander-in-Chief standing in the dust when it comes to adopting suitable and proportionate means to ends.
And then, as if the IS were not enough of a godsend for our masters of war, there were the massacres at the Charlie Hebdo offices and at the Kosher supermarket in Paris.
An Al Qaeda offshoot seems to have been behind at least the former atrocity; there have been suggestions that the IS had something to do with the second, though it is not clear what, and the connection has never been confirmed.
But even the hint that the IS might now be intent on terrorizing Western populations is enough to bring George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror – the reality, not the name –back full force.
Why then still provoke Russia? Isn’t one hyper-dangerous ill thought out misadventure enough? Why pile more on – especially one that could lead to a nuclear war?
The question answers itself, and yet efforts to bring NATO and the EU right up to Russia’s borders continue. Obama, to his credit, is hesitant; but, in Congress and the media, the War Party is nipping at his heels, eager for a showdown in Ukraine.
This is absurdity squared. Not all the media flacks in the world can demonize Vladimir Putin enough to change the one obvious and basic truth that is of paramount importance in this situation: that it is reckless beyond belief – unforgivably reckless – – to infringe the basic security interests of a major nuclear power.
Yes, it would be good for business – in the United States and the EU – if Russia were again as weak and compliant as it was in the nineties, when the Clintons, forsaking promises Ronald Reagan had made to Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated NATO expansion.
Of course, it was never quite true that, as “Engine Charlie” Wilson put it when President Eisenhower nominated him to be Secretary of Defense that “what (is) good for the country (is) good for General Motors and vice versa.” This is even less true for today’s hedge funds and mega-banks and multi-national corporations.
But it remains steadfastly true that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Our political class today, far more than in Eisenhower’s time, is well paid for the services it renders.
Even so, one would think that the movers and shakers of American capitalism would be rational enough not to risk everything for just a little bit more. What happened to means being proportional to ends?
The problem, again, is not insanity. But in an Age of Absurdity, one thing can lead to another and, pretty soon, there is no world left. The majority of Democrats and Republicans these days either don’t understand this, or don’t care.
For now, Obama’s hesitancy is saving us – that and Russian diplomacy. European, especially German, diplomacy is helping too.
The German government, under Angela Merkel, has little love for Vladimir Putin and the people around him. But at least they can still understand how the world looks from Russia’s perspective, and they are still “realist” enough and rational enough to adopt proportionate means to the ends they seek to achieve.
If anyone in the American government is on the same page, they are keeping the news to themselves.
And so, Obama is under enormous pressure to supply the Ukrainian army with lethal weapons. Merkel disagrees; she understands the dangers the American War Party is courting. We can only hope that she prevails, and that the War Party loses big time.
The world is here now only because we somehow dodged the nuclear bullet in the forty plus years of the first Cold War, the one that was supposed to have ended in 1989 or 1991.
Will our luck hold out again if this new Cold War, the one Team Obama is revving up, expands and becomes entrenched?
Don’t count on it. In an Age of Absurdity, rationality hardly stands a chance.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).