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January 27, 2003

On Some Rhetorical Devices of the War Party


COME TUESDAY

by Joseph Stromberg

This Tuesday, all will be revealed and all our lingering doubts stilled. We shall stand in wonder at whatever New Doctrines the Great Man, who holds the Great Office, has for us. It is very likely that the new doctrines will grow out of, and represent bolder statements of existing doctrines.

I can hardly wait.

In every election cycle of recent memory I have heard some idiot say that, "the President is our commander in chief." One certainly hopes not; it is bad enough that he commands anyone at all. A related dogma holds that, you may criticize the man in the Office, but you must love and admire the Office.

Thus is one of the great mistakes of American history – the elective monarchy – sanctified. Of course I think we should respect the Office, in the same spirit that one respects the less amiable kinds of snake. Such respect for the Office is purely prudential.

Still, it will be interesting to see what the Great Man has to say. Why is he a Great Man? – you might well ask. This follows by definition. The Great Office raises and sanctifies its sitting lease-holder.

WINDS OF DOCTRINE, WINDS OF WAR

While we are waiting to hear the newest twists on the "American Creed," it might be of some interest to look at a few arguments currently blowing in the idiot wind. I touch on some top contenders in no particular order.

THAT WAS THEN, AND THIS IS NOW

Currently doing well on the charts, is "that was then, and this is now." So what if clever US policy-makers subsidized, supported, and lionized Saddam Hussein, and egged him on in his war with Iran? That was then, and this is now.

Well, I’m happy that interventionists understand the time-flow, and that they have managed to do so just from looking at calendars and wristwatches. It saves them from having to read all those deep essays by Bergson, Wyndham Lewis, and Heidegger. We are all better off, this way, even if the neo neos itself and the con cons itself.

Yes, then was then, and now is now. Of course there is no point in writing history, if we can’t link the past, however recent, with the present. Absent such an attempt, what we are left with is the kind of lawyers’ history, made-to-order, which one finds, for example, at the American Journal of International Law, which has hardly ever found a US intervention it could not defend, provided the intervention could be suitably clothed in the vestments of instant international "law" under the Living U. N. Charter.

Now the reason critics of US policy bring up the past is that they wish to raise some reasonable questions.

For example: Having done so much to create Saddam Hussein, might the US Government bear some responsibility for his turning bad and becoming the New Hitler?

"Not really," say the interventionists, "that was then. That was the Cold War. You are not allowed to question anything that happened during the Cold War."

Oh.

Well, might the rate at which US lackeys and foreign employees "go bad" raise fundamental questions about the presumed cleverness of the State Department, the Defense Department, and the numerous post-constitutional covert agencies?

"No," say the interventionists, "mistakes will happen when you are carrying out the responsibilities of running the world. There is no pattern; there cannot be a pattern. History is all accident tempered by good deeds."

Oh.

Well, might it not be a mistake to subsidize, support, and lionize new allies of convenience in the new struggle against a third-rate power’s alleged schemes to Conquer the World? Might not some of our new friends "go bad"?

"No, no, no," say the interventionists, "the whole thing has to be seen in the Now. From the perspective of Now, there is no Then, and the Future is uncertain, but will necessarily be glorious and good, provided we are allowed to do what we need to do."

"Anyway," they will say, "Hussein may only want Regional Power. Talk of World Conquest is a red herring, except when we talk about it. On the other hand, no state can be permitted to be a Regional Power, nor may any state even look like a Regional Power without license from the US."

"We will not be threatened. There must be no power that we can’t control! You are for us or against us."

THERE IS NO ‘BLOWBACK’

Another popular entry just now is "there is no ‘blowback.’" Under this notion, all writing to the effect that there is blowback merely reflects a soon-to-be-illegal obsession with historical connection, pattern, and the like. This mania for connecting things springs from willful refusal to live in the Now and reject the Then.

Like their near-cousins in the Frankfurt School, the interventionists have deep thoughts on the persistence of refractory elements that deny the truth of the Now. The sole acceptable causal explanation of what those with Authoritarian Personalities might call "blowback" is a dreaded mental disorder known as "anti-Americanism."

The terrible malady called anti-Americanism is rooted in envy of American prosperity, resentment of US power, failure to see that the US has inherited the mantle of Trotsky’s permanent revolution, as well as a baffling rejection of the mindlessly vulgar and stupid phenomena making up American popular "culture."

"Put that T. S. Eliot down, boy, and listen to some Rap! Eliot was then, and Rap is now. If we catch you reading those old books again, it’s rabbit-slaughter soundtrack for you!"

Jawohl, Jam Master Sam.

So take it as given: there can be no relationship between "anti-Americanism" and any US actions of any kind, anywhere, at any time, no sirree, Bob.

Quit reading that article about US support for the military regime in Indonesia. That was the Cold War. It had no consequences. So what if the regime killed 500,000 to a million of their ‘own people’? They must have been COMMUNISTS. Those events had no impact on any later events. That was then, this is now. What some folks call ‘blowback’ has no connection with any past. Nowness is all.

THE MUJAHIDEEN ARE ENTIRELY DIFFERENT FROM THE MUJAHIDEEN

On their genial reading, or rather dismissal, of any kind of history, interventionists have taken to saying, that mujahideen-then and mujahideen-now are entirely different. This seems unlikely on the face of it and contradicts everything I have read on the matter, but, after all, that was then, etc. Otherwise, one would have to ask whether in undermining the Soviets by backing the mujahideen of the first part – many of whom became the mujahideen of the second part – clever US operatives lacked foresight.

Clever US policy-makers and operatives are not required to have foresight. They live and rule in the Now, and that ought to be good enough for anybody. They have Good Intentions and all that they do, they do in the name of the Greatest Country on Earth.

If the leaders of any other nation spoke this way, they would stand accused of cheap, self-aggrandizing sloganeering.

As far as the turban-wearing classes go, let us take the Neo-Cons’ bait. Let us spend all our spare time checking our sources to see whether or not mujahideen past have any connection with mujahideen present. (I bet they do.) I would, however, like to be able to bill someone for the wasted time. After all, the wasted time will offset whatever pleasure there may be in finding that there is a connection, and under present conceptions of Universal US Law, someone should pay reparations.

There are some other costs worth remarking. Under a more modest notion of US foreign policy – one that had something to do with defending the actual country – we wouldn’t have to give so much of a flying fornication about so many disagreeable foreigners and their quarrels, nor would we need to work out their genealogical connections to one another and the circumstances under which clever US policy-makers and operatives made their assignations possible by renting rooms for them, supplying refreshments, and handing them weapons of some-degree-or-another of destruction.

Don’t worry about it, though. Anything that took place before about 1990 is covered by the Cold War defense, namely that, the United States only did Good during the Cold War. That’s it. Any other view violates the Defense Education Bill of nineteen-whenever.

ABUSES OF JUST WAR THEORY

Another popular line of attack involves abuses of Just War Theory. This is quite old actually, and the manual, "How to Abuse Just War Theory," is part of the kit issued to every prospective warmonger at age six. There was a whole legion of writers that worked out the details in time for the Cold War.

All you had to do was trot out the seven points or so of traditional Just War Theory, throw in a few obligatory quotes from Reinhold Niebuhr, bend current facts to fit the terms of the theory, and – presto! – the possible slaughter of 80-100 million Russians was entirely just, indeed admirable, and Sts. Augustine and Aquinas sent their approval. This version of just war theory is kept in every warmonger’s desk for instant deployment whenever the exigencies of the empire demand it.

Recent uses of the Cold War version of Just War Theory show little improvement or development, as witnessed in the recent All-War issue of Intercollegiate Review. All the latest wave does, as far as I can see, is to raise anew the question of whether Just War Theory has any legitimate use at all, under modern conditions. On this, opinions differ.

LIBERVENTIONISM – THE UNNECESSARY CREED

So far I have not given much space here to "libertarians" noted for their support of the much-anticipated war with Iraq. This is because liberventionism is not a philosophy and it is not a systematic presentation of anything. Its derivative nature is tattooed on its forehead and other places popular in the present pop culture.

If a handful of "libertarians" want to support the forthcoming festivities, they can only do so at the price of ceasing to be libertarians of any kind. Their ongoing claim to the label is merely a species of intellectual fraud or theft. It is hard to know if any of these people ever were libertarians. Certainly they are rapidly converging with plain imperialists, warmongers, and "conservatives" in thrall to the Neos.

Cast your net wide enough, and you can phony up a pedigree for anything, I guess. This explains, finally, the popularity of the epithet "classical liberal" in sell-out circles. If libertarianism is just another word for classical liberalism and if every 19th-century liberal is a proto-libertarian, then, sure, you can quickly assemble a bunch of warmongers and interventionists and announce that they are the ancestors of liberventionism.

On this basis, J. S. Mill and William Gladstone begat Woodrow Wilson, and so on down the line, until adherence to the advanced welfare-warfare state, world empire, and bunker-busting nuclear weapons becomes the essence of libertarianism, suitably understood. Just complain about marginal details of the welfare state once a year, and you, too, can be as "libertarian" as the editors of National Review.

The fact that libertarianism carried forward part of the heritage of classical liberalism while repudiating the mistakes and sell-outs of historical liberals is left to one side. The liberventionists’ self-assimilation to an incoherent heap of liberal spare parts allows them to embrace statism with minimal embarrassment. Thus they weld the rusty muffler of absurd social contract theory to the exhaust pipe of war and blow smoke at everyone within range. We are already witnessing the arrival of "libertarian" Jaffaites and other monsters from the deep.

Liberventionism is thus not a creed but a maneuver; the appeal to an internally incoherent 19th-century liberalism is mere window-dressing.

There is a clue here, however. If libertarianism is merely "liberalism" and if the highest form of liberalism is Jacobinism, then clearly the Good may kill the Bad out of hand, any day of the week, using whatever nuclear bunker-busters, microwave death rays, and so on, our famously "science-based civilization" has made available. And pigs may fly – given enough genetic engineering.

IN A CAUSE WHOSE ‘TRIUMPHS’ WILL BE VERY COSTLY INDEED

About eleven years ago, Mr. Charles Krauthammer fretted aloud about the horrors which would accompany American "isolationism." "Isolationists" of the Left, he said, opposed US intervention because they thought it corrupted the world. Those of the Right opposed intervention because they thought it corrupted America.

The lesson to be drawn is that both schools were right. The US empire, now testing its strength, if not its popularity, corrupts America and the world. Why this is held to be a good thing, I cannot say.

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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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