The Iraqi Borrowed Kettle (2)

In order to illustrate the weird logic of dreams, Freud evoked a joke about the borrowed kettle: when accused by a friend that you returned him a borrowed kettle broken, your reply is: (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. Such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments, of course, confirms per negationem what it endeavours to deny – that I returned you a broken kettle… Did the same inconsistency not characterize the justification of the attack on Iraq in early 2003? (1) Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction which pose a “clear and present danger” not only to his neighbours and Israel, but already to all democratic Western states. (2) So what to do when, in September 2003, David Kay, the CIA official in charge of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, had to concede that no such weapons have so far been found (after more than thousand US specialists spent months looking for them)? One moves to the next level: even if Saddam does not have any WMD, he was involved with Al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attack, so he should be punished as part of the justified revenge for 9/11 and in order to prevent further such attacks. (3) However, again, in September 2003, even Bush had to concede: “We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the 11 September attacks.” So what to do after this painful concession, with regard to the fact that a recent opinion poll found that nearly 70% of Americans believed the Iraqi leader was personally involved in the attacks? Next level: even if there is no proof of the link with Al-Qaeda, Saddam’s regime is a ruthless dictatorial regime, a threat to its neighbours and a catastrophe to its own people, and this fact alone provides reason enough to topple it… The problem, again, was that there were TOO MANY reasons for the attack.

Which, then, was the real reason? Strangely, there effectively were three: (1) a sincere ideological belief that the US are bringing to other nations democracy and prosperity; (2) the urge to brutally assert and signal the unconditional US hegemony; (3) the control of the Iraqi oil reserves. Each of the three levels has a relative autonomy of its own and should not be dismissed as a mere deceiving semblance. Recall the most fundamental American reaction (at least) since the Vietnam war: we just try to be good, to help others, to bring peace and prosperity, and look what we get in return… The fundamental insight of movies like John Ford’s Searchers and Michael Scorcese’s Taxi Driver is today, with the global American ideological offensive, more relevant than ever – we witness the resurgence of the figure of the »quiet American,« a naïve benevolent agent who sincerely wants to bring to the Vietnamese democracy and Western freedom – it is just that his intentions totally misfire, or, as Graham Greene put it: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

The underlying presupposition is the old one: under our skin, if we scratch the surface, we are all Americans. That is our true desire – so, all that is nededed is just to give people a chance, liberate them from their imposed constraints, and they will join us in our ideological dream… No wonder that, in February 2003, an American representative used the word »capitalist revolution« to describe what Americans are now doing: exporting their revolution around the entire world. No wonder they moved from »containing« the enemy to a more aggressive stance. It is the U.S. which is now, as the defunct U.S.S.R. was decades ago, the subversive agent of a world revolution. When Bush recently said, “Freedom is not America’s gift to other nations, it is God’s gift to humanity,” this apparent modestly nonetheless, in the best totalitarian fashion, conceals its very opposite. Recall the standard claim of a totalitarian leader how, in himself, he is nothing at all – his strength is only the strength of the people who stand behind him, he only expresses their deepest strivings; the catch, of course, is that, in this case, those who oppose the leader do not only oppose him, they also oppose the deepest and noblest strivings of the people… And does the same not hold for Bush’s claim? If freedom effectively were to be just America’s gift to other nations, things would have been much easier – those opposing the US politics would be doing just that, opposing the politics of the US as a single Nation-State. However, if freedom is God’s gift to humanity (and – therein resides the hidden proviso – if the US perceives itself as the chosen instrument for distributing this gift to all the nations of the world), then those who oppose the US politics are eo ipso rejecting the noblest gift of God to humanity…

As for the second reason, in their recent The War Over Iraq, William Kristol and Lawrence F. Kaplan wrote, “The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there. /…/ We stand at the cusp of a new historical era. /…/ This is a decisive moment. /…/ It is so clearly about more than Iraq. It is about more even than the future of the Middle East and the war on terror. It is about what sort of role the United States intends to play in the twenty-first century.” One cannot but agree with it: it is effectively the future of the international community that is at stake now – the new rules that will regulate it, what the new world order will be.

Re oil, as it was reported in the media in June 2003, Paul Wolfowitz not only dismissed the WMD issue as a “bureaucratic” excuse for war – he now even openly admits that oil was the true motive: “Let’s look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil.« And it seems obvious that the key factor was the middle one: using Iraq as a pretext or exemplary case to stake the coordinates of the New World Order, to assert the right of the US to preventive strikes and thus to elevate its status into that of the unique global policing power. The message was not addressed to the Iraqi people, but primarily to all of us witnessing the war – we were its true ideological and political targets.

At this point, one should ask the naïve question: the US as a global policeman – why not? The post-ColdWar situation effectively called for some global power to fill in the void. The problem resides elsewhere: recall the common perception of the US as a new Roman Empire. The problem with today’s US is not that it is a new global Empire, but that it is NOT, i.e., that, while pretending to be, it continues to act as a Nation-State, ruthlessly pursuing its interests. It is as the guideline of the recent US politics is a weird reversal of the well- known motto of the ecologists: act globally, think locally. This contradiction is best exemplified by the two-sided pressure the US was exerting on Serbia in the Summer of 2003: the US representatives simultaneously demanded of the Serbian government to deliver the suspected war criminals to the Hague court (in accordance with the logic of the global Empire which demands a trans-state global judicial institution) AND to sign the bilateral treaty with the US obliging Serbia not to deliver to any international institution (i.e., to the SAME Hague court) US citizens suspected of war crimes or other crimes against humanity (in accordance with the Nation-State logic) – no wonder the Serb reaction is one of perplexed fury…

The first permanent global war crimes court started to work on July 1st, 2002 in The Hague, with the power to tackle genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Anyone, from a head of state to an ordinary citizen, will be liable to ICC prosecution for human rights violations, including systematic murder, torture, rape, and sexual slavery. Or, as Kofi Annan put it: “There must be a recognition that we are all members of one human family. We have to create new institutions. This is one of them. This is another step forward in humanity’s slow march toward civilization.” However, while human rights groups have hailed the court’s creation as the biggest milestone for international justice since top Nazis were tried by an international military tribunal in Nuremberg after World War II, the court faces stiff opposition from the United States, Russia, and China. The United States says the court would infringe on national sovereignty and could lead to politically motivated prosecutions of its officials or soldiers working outside U.S. borders; and, the U.S. Congress is even weighing legislation authorizing U.S. forces to invade The Hague where the court will be based, in the event prosecutors grab a U.S. national.

The same logic of exception applies also to economic relations. BBC reported, on December 21st, 2002 that “US blocks cheap drugs agreement”. The United States has blocked an international agreement to allow poor countries to buy cheap drugs. This means millions of poor people will still not have access to medicines for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. ‘One-hundred and forty-three countries stood on the same ground, we were hoping to make that unanimous.’ The principle of allowing developing countries access to cheap versions of drugs still protected by copyright had been agreed at WTO talks a year ago. The same story repeated itself in Cancun in September 2003, where the US insisted on the subsidies for cotton farmers, thus violating its own sacrosanct advice to the Third World countries to suspend state subsidies and open themselves to the market.

And does the same not hold even for torture? The exemplary economic strategy of today’s capitalism is outsourcing – giving over the “dirty” process of material production (but also publicity, design, accountancy…) to another company via a subcontract. In this way, one can easily avoid ecological and health rules: the production is done in, say, Indonesia where the ecological and health regulations are much lower than in the West, and the Western global company which owns the logo can claim that it is not responsible for the violations of another company. Are we not getting something homologous with regard to torture? Is torture also not being “outsourced,” left to the Third World allies of the US which can do it without worrying about legal problems or public protest? Was such outsourcing not explicitly advocated by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek immediately after 9/11? After stating that “we can’t legalize torture; it’s contrary to American values,” he nonetheless concludes that “we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.“ This is how, today, the First World democracy more and more functions: by way of “outsourcing” its dirty underside to other countries…

This inconsistency has deep geopolitical roots. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are deeply conservative monarchies, but economically American allies, fully integrated into the Western capitalism. Here, US has a very precise and simple interest: in order to be able to count on these countries for their oil reserves, THEY NAVE TO REMAIN NON-DEMOCRATIC. That is to say, it is a safe bet that democratic elections in Saudi Arabia or Iraq would bring to power a pro-Islam nationalist regime riding on anti-American attitudes. We therefore know now what “bringing democracy” means: the US and its “willing partners” impose themselves as the ultimate judges who decide if a country is ripe for democracy – along these lines, Rumsfeld already stated in April 2003 that Iran should not become a “theocracy,” but a tolerant secular country in which all religions and ethnic groups will enjoy the same rights (one is tempted to add here: “What about demanding the same from Israel?”).

The (perhaps unique) opportunity to bring the “war on terror” within the scope of an international legal order was thus missed – why? One of the pop heroes of the US- Iraq war is undoubtedly Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the unfortunate Iraqi information minister who, in his daily press conferences, heroically denied even the most evident facts and stuck to the Iraqi line – once, however, he did struck the truth. When asked if it is true that Americans are in control of parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: “They are not in control of anything – they don’t even control themselves!”


In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” things we don’t know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the “unknown unknowns,” the threats from Saddam about which we do not even suspect what they may be, what we should reply is that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns,” the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves. These disavowed beliefs and suppositions are what Americans (the US political elite) do not control.

[This article is identical to the previous one. However, there are additional paragraphs in it towards the end. Found as pdf online, authenticity uncertain.]