The Iraqi MacGuffin

The problem with the basic refrain (“Iraq is a big country, Saddam had lots of time to hide the WMD, so give us more time and we will definitely find them!”) is that its structure is the same as that of a judge who first punishes the accused and then, when forced to admit that he has no proof the crime has effectively been committed, he says: “Give me more time and I promised you that I will find material proofs that will justify my punishment!” So first you punish, and then you look for proofs of the crime… Not to mention the fact that this, precisely, was what before the war the UN weapons inspectors were asking for – more time – and were scathingly dismissed by the US. Based on all these facts, one is tempted to entertain the hypothesis that the US not only were not sure if Saddam had the WM or not, but that they positively knew he did NOT have them – which is why they risked the ground offensive on Iraq. (If the US were to take seriously their own claims that Iraq had the WM which can be immediately unleashed, they probably would not launch a ground assault, fearing too many casualties on their side, but would stick to air bombing.)

Here, then, we have the first practical demonstration of what does the Bush doctrine of preventive strikes means, a doctrine now publicly declared as the official American “philosophy” of international politics (in the thirty-one page paper entitled “The National Security Strategy,” issued by the White House on September 20, 2002)? Its main points are: American military might should remain “beyond challenge” in the foreseeable future; since the main enemy today is an “irrational” fundamentalist who, in contrast to Communists, lacks even the elementary sense of survival and respect of his own people, America has the right to preemptive strikes (i.e., to attack countries which do not already pose a clear threat to the U.S., but MIGHT pose such a threat in the foreseeable future); while the U.S. should seek ad hoc international coalitions for such attacks, it should reserve the right to act independently if it does not get sufficient international support. So, while the U.S. presents its domination over other sovereign states as grounded in a benevolent paternalism which takes into account the interests of other nations and their people, it reserves for itself the ultimate right to DEFINE its allies’ “true” interests. The logic is thus clearly formulated: even the pretense of a neutral international law is abandoned, since, when the U.S. perceives a potential threat, they formally ask their allies to support them, but the allies’ agreement is optional. The underlying message is always “we will do it with or without you” (i.e., you are free to agree with us, but not free to disagree). The old paradox of the forced choice is reproduced here: the freedom to make a choice on condition that one makes the right choice. The “Bush doctrine” relies on the violent assertion of the paranoiac logic of total control over FUTURE threats, justifying preemptive strikes against these supposed threats. The ineptness of such an approach for today’s universe, in which knowledge circulates freely, is patent. The loop between the present and the future is closed: the prospect of a breathtaking terrorist act is evoked in order to justify incessant preemptive strikes now. This closed loop was perfectly formulated in a TV debate in February 2002, when the actor and ex-Congressman Fred Thompson said, in defense of President Bush’s Iraq politics: “When anti-war protesters say ‘But what did Iraq effectively DO to the US? It did not attack us!’, one should answer it with the question ‘And what did the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers effectively DO to the U.S. before September 11? They also did nothing!'” The problem with this logic (in the same way that, if we had known of the plans for 9/11, we would have been fully justified in attacking the terrorists before the act, we now have the right to attack Iraq) is that it presupposes that we can treat the future as something that, in a way, already took place.

The ultimate paradox is that the very strategy of preemptive strikes will contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. When US attacked Iraq and not North Korea, the underlying logic was clear: once a “rogue” state crosses the critical limit and already acquires substantial nuclear weapons, one cannot simply attack it because one risks a nuclear backlash killing millions on our side. This, precisely, was the lesson North Korea drew from the attack on Iraq: the regime sees nuclear weapons as the only guarantee of its survival; in their view, the mistake of Iraq was to accept in the first place the collaboration with the UN and the presence of international inspectors.

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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 noteworthy paradox here is that the U.S. thus rejected the jurisdiction of a tribunal which was constituted with the full support (and vote) of the U.S. itself!

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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?”). Along the same lines, in October 2003, US representatives made in clear that any official recognition of the privileged position of Islam in the new Iraqi constitution will be unacceptable – the irony is here double: not only would it be nice if the US were to demand the same from Israel with regard to Judaism, but it was precisely Saddam’s Iraq which officially ALREADY WAS a secular state, while the result of democratic elections would be the privileging of Islam! In the same spirit, an unnamed senior US figure stated that “the first foreign policy gesture of a democratic Iraq would be to recognize Israel.” The (perhaps unique) opportunity to bring the “war on terror” within the scope of an international legal order was thus missed.

Another reason evoked by the supporters of the attack on Iraq was that it will give a new impetus to the stalled Middle East peace process – did it? The first thing to do apropos the Middle East is to abandon any notion that the crisis concerns the geographic reality of the meager land resources. One cannot simply oppose plenitude (the excessive gift out of pure love, enough for everyone and all) and scarcity with its selective “economizing” attitude (there is not enough for all, so some have to get it and others not), since excess itself has to be grounded in a scarcity, trying to fill it in. In other words, scarcity (the idea of something lacking, of “not enough for all”) is not a simple fact, but a structural necessity: before being a lack of something definite, it is a purely formal lack, a lack which emerges at its frustrating purest precisely when our needs are excessively fulfilled (recall Freud’s case of the merry butcher’s wife). Along the same lines, the possibility of the three most interesting deadly sins, envy, thrift, and melancholy, is inscribed into the very formal structure of desire: a melancholic is unable to sustain desire in the presence of its object; a miser clings to the object, unable to consummate it; an envious subject desire the object of other’s desire. So either the grass on the neighbor’s pasture is by definition greener than yours, or I just admire in awe my green grass, unable to let my animals eat it, or I just gaze at it with sad indifference of a melancholic… These paradoxes account for the truth of stories like the one about a farmer to whom an angel appears and tells him: “I will fulfill you a wish, doing to you whatever you want – only, beware, I will do twice as much to your neighbor!” The farmer replies with an evil smile: “Take one of my eyes!” Or the story about the poor farmers’ couple who sabotages their chance of plenitude – when a fairy offers to fulfill them three wishes, the husband quickly blurts out: “A sausage on my plate!” The angry wife snaps back: “You fool, may the sausage stick to your nose!” So the final wish can only be a modest: “May the sausage return from the nose to the plate!”

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One is tempted to speak here of a symptomal knot: is it not that, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the standard roles are somehow inverted, twisted around as in a knot? Israel – officially representing Western liberal modernity in the area – legitimizes itself in the terms of its ethnic-religious identity, while the Palestinians – decried as pre-modern “fundamentalists” – legitimize their demands in the terms of secular citizenship. So, we have the paradox of the State of Israel, the island of alleged liberal democratic modernity in the Middle East, countering the Arab demands with an even more “fundamentalist” ethnic-religious claim to their sacred land.

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The underlying problem is not only that Arabs do not really accept the existence of the State of Israel – Israelis themselves also do not really accept the Palestinian presence on the West Bank. We all know Bertolt Brecht’s pun apropos of the East Berlin workers’ uprising in July 1953: “The Party is not satisfied with its people, so it will replace them with a new people more supportive of its politics.” Is not something homologous discernible today in the relationship between the State of Israel and Palestinians? The Israeli State is not satisfied with the people on the West Bank and in Gaza, so it considers the option of replacing them with another people. That, precisely, the Jews, the exemplary victims, are now considering a radical “ethnic cleansing” (the “transfer” – a perfect Orwellian misnomer – of the Palestinians from the West Bank) is the ultimate paradox demanding closer consideration.

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One should not renounce the “impossible” dream of a binational secular state bringing together the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians. In the long term, the true utopia is not that of this binational state, but that of the Wall clearly separating the two communities. The pictures of the wall that separates the pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank occupied territories resemble uncannily the wall that separates East from West Germany till 1989. The illusion of this new Wall is that it will serve as the demarcation line separating “normal” rule of law and social life from the permanent state of emergency – that it will contain the state of emergency to the domain “out there.” This would have been another true EVENT in the Middle East, the explosion of true political universality in the Paulinian sense of “there are for us no Jews and no Palestinians” – each of the two sides would have to realize that this renunciation of the ethnically ?clean? Nation-State is the liberation for themselves, not only a sacrifice to be made for the other. The paradox is thus that, in the entire Middle East, the Palestinians, these ?Jews among-of the Arabs,? are, because of their unique position, the only collective agent on whom the role of the modernizer, of moving to a political form beyond ethnic identity, is imposed: the only true long-term solution to the Middle East crisis is the emergence of Palestinians as political modernizers.

[Extract. Article appeared on lacan.com (full text here). Minor editing.]