Thinking beyond the US invasion of Iran
As the world waits to see if US/Israel will attack Iran, Hamid Dabashi examines the state of war this game of waiting has generated
Once again the drums of war are roaring in Washington DC. Once again the signs and signals of a pending US/Israeli attack on yet another country, this time Iran, are heard louder than ever. The build-up to an anxiety-provoking crescendo has already started to gain momentum. Direct threats, indirect allusions, guarded remarks, provocative bluffs -- no one knows exactly what the Bush administration has in mind -- and that precisely seems to be the point: generating and sustaining a general condition of suspenseful uncertainty, an atmosphere of amorphous fear and intimidation, and a perpetual state of war.
The practice of anti-war activism throughout the world has hitherto been a periodic and scattered mobilisation against one war or other that the US/Israel has launched -- very much chasing after the evolving military designs of the neo- conservatives in the US, and the reinvigorated Zionists in Israel, and simply reacting to their proactive acts of global terrorism. As we are waiting for the Iran war to happen (or not to happen), it is now perhaps time to step back and take stock of what this transcontinental axis of global terrorism -- the United States of America and the Jewish state of Israel -- is up to and thus rethink the civic manners of opposing and resisting it. When the US launched its wrath on Afghanistan in October 2001, even such progressive and astute American observers as Richard Falk (seconded by the editorial staff of The Nation ) thought that it was a "just war". This argument was no mere act of historical folly. It was a singular sign of political naiveté.
We are now way beyond those perhaps innocent yet angry misreadings of what has fast come upon us. After the mayhem of Iraq, instead of constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and wonder if US/Israel will or will not attack Iran, will or will not bomb Syria, will or will not completely take over Somalia, will or will not militarily engage North Korea, will or will not try for yet another coup in Venezuela, we need to think beyond such probabilities, and reach into the heart of the state of war that this very waiting game entails. As all indications testify, a Democratic US congress will not make any significant difference in this state of war. Looking at the emerging patterns of this state of war, it is now safe to suggest, for example, that what the US is perhaps (and such conjectural phrases are the symptoms of this very state of war) planning to do in Iran is modelled on what Israel did to Lebanon last July -- hence the necessity of no longer treating these two imperial and colonial nexus of warmongering in the world as two separate political propositions and state entities, but in fact collapse them into a singular axis of state terrorism aimed at undisputed global domination.
For that drive towards global domination to be politically effective and psychologically enduring, the state of war is far more important than the actual act of war, and the threat of violence politically far more destabilising than the act of violence itself. For the state of war, and the threat of violence, change the very political culture in which we receive and interpret any particular act of war, or occurrence of violence, so much so, that the enormity of the human cost, infrastructural damages, and the environmental catastrophes, for example, contingent on any act of war gradually begin to dwindle and dissipate in the miasmic emergence of the omnipresent state of war. For more than five years now, US/Israel and its European allies have been systematically at it inflaming acts of "shock and awe", as the former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld called it, in one place or another, so that now the law of diminishing returns has set in, and the staggering acts of violence in Iraq under the US- led occupation, or the barefaced barbarity of Israel in Palestine and Lebanon cease to register their enormous weight and unfathomable consequences. In other words, the state of war numbs the human consciousness, and thus we fail to respond (for we lack any meaningful language) to the fundamental acts of moral depravity that we witness on a daily basis in Palestine and Iraq in anything remotely resembling a corresponding calibre.
So, as the US/Israeli military and intelligence agencies, think tanks, and, above all, mass media (all integral to the same militarised state of mind) are engaged in discussions on how to deal with "terrorism", the world, as well, needs to reverse the order, return the gaze, and begin to wonder how to deal with these two terrorist states and save humanity from their mutual, complementary, and strategically integrated acts of terrorising the world. These two galvanised military machineries masquerading as nation-states are today the most violent source of militarised madness on our planet (and beyond). The Iraq war, in particular, competing with Israeli atrocities in Palestine, has long since ceased to be a singular crime against humanity. Initiated and sustained as it is by the US-led colonial occupation of a sovereign nation-state, the world needs to invent new terms to name, and grasp it.
For this military machinery to work best, the threat of violence or state of war is a more effective tool for creating fear and sustaining hegemony, than is the actual fact of violence or event of war, which is effectively the neutralising moment of its catharsis. The key to sustaining the state of war, the warmongers in Washington DC seem to have learned, is to constantly keep alive an immanent specter of the enemy, as the Nazi theorist of political power Karl Schmitt and his philosophical shadow Leo Straus both fully realised. Both Karl Schmitt (in theological terms) and Leo Straus (in philosophical conviction) believed that the absence of this enemy and the neutralising effect of liberal democracies will be tantamount to the death of state as the modus operandi of moral virtues. A pending war, predicated on the ghostly apparition of a monstrous Muslim goblin about to leap from darkness and swallow the earth, is thus politically far more expeditious than is the actual event of war. In this psychopathology of power, the American neo- conservatives have learned their lessons as much from the advocate of the German Nazi Karl Schmitt as from the guru of American neo- conservatism Leo Straus -- and then perfected their theory with widespread practice.
CRAFTING A CHRONOLOGY: As the world is waiting to see if US/Israel will or will not attack Iran, we can begin to think through the state of war that this waiting game has generated and sustained. The laundry list of US/Israel litany against the Islamic Republic is long and tiresome: they sponsor terrorism, they do not support the Arab-Israeli peace process (never mind that Israelis are murdering Palestinians in Gaza on an hourly basis), they are fomenting trouble in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, and on top of it they intend to develop nuclear arms. But how this old and banal list is revamped and brought to a crescendo is the way that the state of war -- while both Afghanistan and Iraq are burning and the US is heavily engaged in Somalia -- is kept apace.
In December 2006, Iran hosted a provocative conference on the Jewish holocaust, rightly attracting global condemnation. The conference, along with outlandish comments by Ahmadinejad were evidently meant to cover up the humiliating defeat of the Iranian president's faction during the City Council and the Assembly of Expert elections in the same month. At the same time, the UN Security Council voted to impose sanctions on Iran and its trade in sensitive nuclear materials and technology. The US/Israeli reaction to the holocaust conference was swift, angry, and over- determined. "Iranians" are insensitive to Jewish suffering. Their president has said he wants to wipe Israel off the map. They now intend to develop a nuclear arsenal. So two plus two equals let's bomb the living daylight out of Iran. The Security Council resolution, meanwhile, failed to silence Ahmadinejad's bellicosity.
The new Christian year began on similarly ominous notes. According to a 7 January article in the British daily Sunday Times, two Israeli air force squadrons were "training to blow up an Iranian [nuclear] facility using low-yield nuclear 'bunker- busters". Quoting "several Israeli military sources", the Sunday Times reported: "as soon as the green light is given, it will be one mission, one strike and the Iranian nuclear project will be demolished." Moreover: "Israeli and American officials have met several times to consider military action. Military analysts said the disclosure of the plans could be intended to put pressure on Tehran to halt [uranium] enrichment, cajole America into action or soften up world opinion in advance of an Israeli attack." The Israelis denied that this report was in any way accurate. The net effect was an evident increase in the state of war -- a war that may or may not happen.
Soon after this Sunday Times report, in a speech on 11 January 2007, President Bush announced a new Iraq strategy in which additional US troops were to be dispatched to Iraq. Many observers read this troop increase as being more a sign of preparation for a military engagement with Iran, than it was an attempt to bolster security in Iraq -- the latter, a seemingly impossible task for this administration. The day after President Bush's speech, US forces accompanied by military helicopters stormed the Iranian consulate in the Kurdish city of Arbil, arresting five employees. The US, the common wisdom suggested, was provoking Iran into some sort of rash military action, so it could use it as an excuse to attack Iran. But this was all in the realm of speculation -- precisely what the state of war (not the actual war) demands and exacts.
Soon after that provocative act in Arbil, on 14 January, US Vice-President Dick Cheney upped the ante and declared Iran was "fishing in troubled waters". About a week after the Arbil incident, on 20 January, a US defence official (speaking to the press on the condition of anonymity) blamed Iran for the kidnapping and killing of a number of American soldiers in Karbala. This incident in Karbala, as suspicions and speculations had it, was in retaliation for the arrest of five Iranians by US troops in Arbil. But all of these were matters of doubt, suspicion, innuendo, anonymity and above all denial. There can of course be no doubt that the Islamic Republic will do anything that it can to affect developments in its neighbouring Iraq, in a manner that would be compatible with its interests. Nor is there any question that the Islamic Republic must not interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq. But is US/Israel in a moral position to point the finger at the Islamic Republic? How could anyone blame the Islamic Republic for having five agents in Iraq, if that indeed is true, when US/Israel and its European allies have mobilised the army of Attila the Hun from half way around the globe and, officially, illegally, immorally, and murderously occupied Iraq against the will of its people. If five Iranians have been identified as interfering in Iraqi affairs, how many tens of thousands of Americans (Israelis?) and British share that shameful identification?
Echoing Vice-President Cheney's threatening remarks and confirming these suspicions, a Kuwait-based newspaper Arab Times reported that the US might launch a military strike against Iran before April 2007. The report cited "a reliable source" and predicted that the attack would be launched from the sea, while Patriot missiles would guard all Arab countries in the Gulf. The news was brought home to the Ayatollahs in Qom and Tehran by their next-door neighbour. But why would the Kuwaitis know something that others did not? The question remained on the borderline of un/certainty, where the state of war is habitually intensified.
Such speculations and haphazard guesses were rampant until President Bush's State of the Union address delivered on 23 January, when, as the BBC World Affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds put it, "one of the notable features of President George W Bush's State of the Union speech was its hostile attitude towards Iran. He accused the 'regime' in Iran of arming 'terrorists like Hizbullah' and of directing 'Shia extremists' in Iraq." Again: no particular declaration of war was evident. But the suggestion was as tall and thick as is the Israeli apartheid wall. You could not possibly overlook its threatening shadow.
PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE AS PSYOP: The following particular reference of President Bush in his State of the Union Address was quite noteworthy:
"If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by Al-Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country -- and in time, the entire region could be drawn into the conflict."
How did that happen? When did President Bush learn about the difference between Sunnis and Shias? This particular presidential pronouncement on Shia- Sunni hostilities seems to have been the handiwork of a certain Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, who teaches American military personnel about matters Islamic (and thus ipso facto dangerous and detrimental to American national security) at the Department of National Security Affairs of the Naval Postgraduate School. The latter, according to its website, "is an academic institution whose emphasis is on study and research programs relevant to the Navy's interests, as well as to the interests of other arms of the Department of Defense. The programs are designed to accommodate the unique requirements of the military."
In his recently published book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future (2006), Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr reported to his students at the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and whoever else wishes to learn about Islam and Shiism that Americans had better watch out because there is a new chimerical creature called the "Shia Crescent". Stretching its venomous posture all the way from Pakistan, through Iran and Iraq, and then down to Syria and Lebanon, this creature is about to gobble up the region in its "epic" hostility with Sunnism. With this, it threatens the moderate US allies and interests, for the protection of which Professor Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr has been hired by the US military, in his current position at the Naval Postgraduate School. It is precisely this presumed threat that appears in President Bush's State of the Union address.
To be sure, there are such observers as Michael Hirsh of the Newsweek who believe that this particular attention of President Bush to the Shia- Sunni divide in the Muslim world is due to the presumed resurrection of Henry Kissinger in the US president's post-catastrophe strategy in Iraq. "In an extraordinary series of moves," Michael Hirsh reports in Newsweek on 1 February 2007, "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other US officials have been seeking to create a united front of Sunni Arab regimes and Israel against Shia Iran as part of an aggressive new approach to Tehran." But whereas Henry Kissinger's "fingerprints", as Michael Hirsh calls it, can be gleaned in his classical line of negotiating from a position of power, Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr's "fingerprints" (to borrow Michael Hirsh's term) are reflected in a more substantial and circumstantial stipulation. His significant imprint is reflected in the manner in which the state of war is not just sustained, but, as well, put on automatic piloting. If the role of Osama bin Laden was to give the US global imperialism ( aka "war on terror") a generically Islamic disposition, then the function of Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr's book (perhaps, as Michael Hirsh suggests, circumstantially commensurate with Henry Kissinger's strategies) is to give that cosmic battle with "Islamic terrorism" an innately Islamic disposition. In other words, if Afghanistan is in a state of utter desolation and the Taliban are about to take over, or if almost four years into the US-led invasion of Iraq the country is from one end to another, suffering total devastation, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis maimed, murdered, tortured, raped, incarcerated, and made into refugees in their own homeland, then the United States has really nothing to do with any of this. It is really this "epic battle", as President Bush puts it, "between Shia extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by Al-Qaeda" that is to blame. The circumstantial appearance of Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr's argument, Henry Kissinger's strategic council, and President Bush's renewed strategy of aggressive domination in Iraq, and the potential invasion of Iran are all integral to sustaining a state of war that is now almost entirely self-propelling, and on automatic piloting because the US is dragged into an epic (cosmic and pre-eternal) battle. This is not due to its own will or volition, but is in fact entirely despite itself, and against its best intentions.
As a major ideological intervention in aiding and abetting the US/Israel "war on terrorism", Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr's book on The Shia Revival, published while he is employed by the US military, opens a whole new chapter on the politics and power of knowledge production. In the entire gamut of the sociology of knowledge, and in the deepest layers of Michel Foucault's theorisation of the relationship between knowledge and power, no one ever imagined a day when the military apparatus of a globalised empire, as Chalmers Johnson's groundbreaking Blowback Trilogy has convincingly demonstrated, will itself begin to generate its own homegrown knowledge about its enemy, and start disseminating it to the public at large. For this reason, Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr's book on The Shia Revival is best read as a piece of military psyop meant to prepare the public at large for an even more prolonged state of war against "Islamic terrorism". The latter is ostensibly, a terrorism that is, because of "the epic battle" between Sunnis and Shias, actually entirely independent of the US good intentions, and squarely laid at the feet of mediaeval ("epic") hostilities between two factions of Muslims. President Bush was offering Muslims peace and prosperity on behalf of the Americans, however, the Muslims' own tribal barbarism prevents them from deserving such a splendid gift.
SUSTAINING A SOURCE OF MENACE: The catastrophe that faces the whole world -- Americans included -- is not limited to this level of psyop chicanery. Something far more serious is the matter with the world. For five years now, every one to two years, George W Bush has perceived a new source of menace in the world, and launched a massive new war against Arabs and Muslims while telling them that he is really shooting at them, in order to save them from their own evil. The normative vacuity of these identical terms of fear and warmongering has reached incomprehensible proportions, to the point that except for the lives of yet another few hundred thousand waiting to be annihilated in the region, if the US/Israel attack Iran, it no longer makes any difference if they will or will not actually do so. What matters, and what remains a corrosive force in the soul of an entire nation, is the state of war in which the US/Israeli ideologues are determined to keep themselves. and the world which they systematically endanger.
More than being at war, what works best for the US/Israeli warlords is being in "a state of war" -- for the fear of war is the best condition in which they want to keep the world. Come March, April, May or whenever, US/Israel may or may not, invade Iran. If the war indeed happens, no one will count the Iranian dead, for counting them will amount to no moral outrage loud enough to match what is happening to the world. CNN will count the US soldiers' casualties, but even this, too, will dissipate into a vacuous pomposity that could not care less about the poor and disenfranchised Americans who are grabbed by the throat of their poverty, and catapulted half way around the globe to maim, murder, torture, and rape their own brothers and sisters. For every one US casualty (which is one too many) there will be anywhere between one to two hundred Iranian casualties, if we were to take the Iraqi case as our measure. No one will hold anyone responsible. The Iranian neo-con contingency will have made their career and lucrative contracts, and still appear on television. Just like Fouad Ajami, they will tell Americans that these Iranians, just like Iraqis, did not deserve the gift of freedom and democracy that the Americans were offering them (as he proposes in his new book The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq ). The rest of the world will have gotten even more used to the state of war that US/Israel is imposing on the globe. The invasion of Iran will add yet another front to the US/Israeli global flexing of its military prowess. And if they -- the US government and Jewish state (the two most violent states on planet Earth) -- don't invade Iran, it still makes no difference. All it takes is a comment here by President Bush, or a suggestion there by Vice President Cheney, or yet another confession that Israel makes that it indeed has massive nuclear capacities -- or else planting of a news story that Israel may attack Iran. The actual context of these news, that the US/Israel may or may not attack Iran, is entirely irrelevant to the reality of positing these threats. It is this that keeps the world on the edge of its seat, making fear and warmongering the paramount condition of our lives.
In his groundbreaking work on the "state of exception", the distinguished Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has begun the uncanny task of theorising what has hitherto been delegated to the realm of necessities legem non habet ("necessity has no law"). Defying this dictum, Agamben has taken Karl Schmitt's famous pronouncement in his Political Theology (that the sovereign is "he who decides on the state of exception") quite seriously and sought to theorise that state of exception. In Agamben's own project, what he calls the "no- man's land between public law and political fact, and between the juridical order and life" remains paramount. But adjacent to that effectively juridical project, there remains a widespread culture of catastrophe that must systematically generate and sustain that state of exception, which here and now in the United States, and the world it ruthlessly rules, amounts to a perpetual state of war. It is to that state, and not merely its potential and actual evidence, that we must learn how to respond.
Hamid Dabashi's most recent book, Iran: A People Interrupted , has just been published by the New Press in New York.