Sunday, November 22, 2015

Can the Broken Thing Fix Itself? Terrorism in the World of Neoliberalism

Americans are given, from time to time, an inside look at what kind of thinking dominates the inner circles of our foreign policy establishment. The locus of this esteemed discourse can often be found at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank whose policy positions are often conflated by corporate media with those of the US State Department. Anyone who has followed the COFR will realize that the conflation is not necessarily inaccurate. Richard Haas, the Council's president for more than a decade; a former State Department official and advisor to Colin Powell, can be seen on Sunday TV talk shows where Washington insiders give their thoughtful views on the foreign policy crises of the day. While modest criticism of official US policy may be found in these exchanges, Haas will never deviate very far from the positions taken by the State Department. 

Haas's thinking has been consistent for years and is underpinned by the policy theory of neoliberalism as articulated by Joseph Nye, political scientist, distinguished professor and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics and several other works, which articulate what Nye understands to be the necessities of American leadership in the world. Nye has also served as a board member of the COFR.  

At the heart of Nye's thinking is the notion that the expansion and liberalization of world markets will bring democratization to underdeveloped areas of the world, thereby spreading normative behaviors that comport with the rules of a colossal US-centered economic and political system, provided that such participation is seen as attractive to potential new comers. At the center of this system is the US dollar as reserve currency, with Wall Street and the City of London acting as financial recycling mechanisms and the IMF serving as the enforcer of doctrinal standards for new entrants and financially struggling mendicant countries who have entered the club but for various reasons struggle to stay in, often at the cost of their own sovereignty (Greece is a recent example).  

Part and parcel to the continued expansion of this world order is the control and regulation of oil and gas markets with both economic and military power. The necessity of this last formulation has been largely unwritten but has been clearly embedded in absolute terms within US foreign policy for decades. The Iraq war, which Haas supported, has been its magnum opus.

To his great credit, Nye in 2004 offered a clear picture of the limitations of US power with regard to abating the tide of Wahhabi terrorism through military means. In Soft Power he makes a comparison of Britain's failure to extend it's political and moral influence to US supporters of the IRA during The Troubles: funds continued to flow to the IRA from the US and Britain failed in its war against it. He offered a prescient view of this problem in the Middle East:

"This is similar to the problem the U.S. now faces with Saudi support and financing of Wahhabi clerics who preach intolerance and hatred for the West and for other Muslim sects, and who now evangelize their noxious creed throughout the Muslim world. The War on Terror is to a significant extent a war against this Wahhabi creed - although it increasingly involves many Muslims who are not of that sect. It is a war that the U.S. can powerfully influence, but it is a civil war within the Muslim world. Moderate Muslims are the only ones who can defeat this Wahhabi creed and the various other Muslim militants." (Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, 2004).

What is missing from Nye's cogent analysis is a frame of reference that allows us to look critically at US state-directed economic policy toward energy extraction that places access to oil above human rights and actual democratization. The US is not alone in managing the dangerous contradictions embedded in such an imperative: China has learned to master the art well and Russia, through state control, has helped drive the trend forward by aggressively attempting to co opt a larger portion of the supply side of the equation in emerging markets.  

One might be forgiven for failing to address the contradiction that the "free market" requires massive state interventions in order to maintain energy supplies without regard to human rights and democratic development, when ideology is based on the foundation of neoliberalism. But we must look beyond these inadequate formulations. The implementation of neoliberal economic policies as determined by the IMF has been met with resistance in many parts of the world and most recently in the United States with the leaking of chapters from the secretly negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. The TPP is emblematic of the "normative behavior" that is required to spread neoliberal policies: avoiding plebiscite while developing extralegal contracts between trade representatives (countries) and multi-national corporations without parliamentary procedure, congressional input or debate. In short, normative behavior means acting on major policy decisions that affect civil society at large, but without its involvement and without transparency. This is nowhere more clear than in US policy toward oil extraction in the middle east. 

It is not a simple matter of the US needing oil for its domestic economy: domestic oil drilling and gas extraction has changed this equation, with the US becoming significantly less reliant on Saudi oil.  Rather, it is that the continued flow of oil from the Middle East is necessary for Europe and other parts of the world, where major world economies purchase oil in petrodollars. These dollars need to be invested in secure instruments and at scale, for several reasons. Wall Street, with the City of London as surrogate, keeps its dollar funnel open to the world, creating a financial dynamo that has driven financial market expansion to dizzying heights.  

While some see the US Empire in decline, the fact is that the US maintains the reserve currency of the world and the Fed and US Treasury are adept at maintaining this financial hegemony through monetary policy.  Panitch and Gindin, in The Making of Global Capitalism, (Verso Books, 2012) have superbly documented this long and successful history. 

A problem with such purportedly liberalizing policies is that they not only disregard popular will and democratic process, but also undermine national sovereignty.  Who managed the 2008 financial crisis? It was not the president and it was not the US Congress: it was unelected officials at the Fed and the Treasury. Who manages trade policy?  TPP makes it clear: Multinational corporations and trade representatives determine national economic and trade policy that directly affects the lives of millions of unsuspecting and unrepresented people. This is quite the opposite of democracy and in practice represents the kind of soft fascism that Ralph Nader has described in his more recent work. Nye and Haas are not the creators of this extralegal superstructure, which has existed in some form since the establishment of Bretton Woods in 1944, but they are its current intellectual water boys.

It is in this context that we should understand the recent communiqu├ęs coming from the COFR, which is now publicly weighing in on the current crisis that is on most people's minds: Paris and the recent terrorist attacks carried out by members or affiliates of ISIS, the composite terror organization that was given birth by the extended and disastrous Iraq war.  

In her November 20th column in Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks, the distinguished law professor at Georgetown University, offers her input to the prestigious journal in an article that uses the internet pop-up ad format of "10 things you didn't know about..." to give the public a dose of reality on the limits of US power with regard to ending international terrorism. To uncover the narrowness within which current policy thinking is apparently being made, it is necessary to follow and deconstruct the answer-by-number bullets that Ms. Brooks offers in Reader's Digest format: 

1. No one can keep the bad guys out. This statement has little value and seems to serve as a way to obscure questioning of the underlying causes of conflict, as if to say "get used to it, there is nothing we can do to stop it."  Tactically speaking, the US, in fact, has very strong border screening processes: but what about the massive increase in numbers of very young, uneducated "bad guys" that are swelling the ranks of ISIS?

2. The threat is already inside. True for the EU.  France has its own problematic legacy with the Maghreb and dispossession and lack of assimilation of Muslim peoples. The screening processes are also not as good as we have in the US. Ironically, in the US, the "inside" threat has come mostly from white, right-winger "Christians" and though this has been statistically born out, it is ignored by corporate media and apparently by Ms. Brooks.
3. More surveillance won't rid us of terrorism. It would be odd for this writer to defend the Surveillance State, but even the most rogue operators of it, like James Clapper, have never suggested it would end terrorism.  To the extent that it is used to support drone warfare with its insufferable collateral damage, we can even see how the Surveillance State contributes to terrorist recruitment.

4. Defeating ISIS won't make terrorism go away. This is a veritable straw man. A germane question regarding the rise of ISIS and its related variants pertains to how the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq has spread Sunni-Shia civil war to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. That ISIS exists now and what to do about it is another topic that involves the hard work of multilateral and sustained negotiations, not simply US-led military force. If the Sunnis of Iraq were not disenfranchised, perhaps the Iraqi people could defeat the ISIS insurgency within their own borders.  Current policy gives no indication that the US is seriously trying to bring power sharing and democratization about.  
5. Terrorism still remains a minor threat, statistically speaking. Well, not if you consider the bombing and killing of civilians in Gaza, Yemen, Southern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, South Sudan and many other places where the thing categorized as "war" has created dispossession, suffering and death on a massive scale. Earlier this year, Boko Haram murdered 2,000 civilians in Baga, northern Nigeria, but no alarm or coloring of Facebook profiles with the Nigerian flag was forthcoming. "Terror" is seen from the eyes of the victim and its asymmetrical form is over determined by these ongoing conflicts. One version of terror is the bombing and killing of unsuspecting civilians by drone attack. "A minor threat, statistically speaking."
6.  Meanwhile poorly planned Western action could make things worse. Well, this is redundant, isn't it?

7. Terrorism is a problem to be managed. Here we see a vision proffered from within the most opaque and narrow blinders.  This also seems to be the view of the COFR at large, whose frame of reference is calibrated by the assumed necessity of promoting and extending neoliberal capitalism and IMF policy to every corner of the earth while making the assumption that its negative effects - terrorism among them - simply need to be "managed." This is statism at its most arrogant. This viewpoint precludes its advocates from stepping outside of the neoliberalismo worldview and offering a critical analysis of the whole paradigm. To wit: since changing US-centered economic and concomitant military policy is impossible, lets not even discuss alternative means for bringing an end to the causal forces that underlie terrorist movements.

9. To do this, however, we need to move beyond the political posturing that characterizes most public debates about counterterrorism, and instead speak honestly about the costs and benefits of different approaches.  And of course, this is elaborated with "we need to be hardheaded." The focus is then put on investing more in counterterrorism research, while avoiding deeper questions regarding the effects of American foreign policy in the name of "freedom." This is of course, similar to the Netanyahu world view: we are morally right and we need to manage the discontent and strife that arises from our policies by any means necessary, twisting international law to conform to those means, because our aims are just. This allows no room for deeper reflection on the underlying contradictions of state-sponsored neoliberal economic policy and its manifestation in globalization, inequality and terrorism. This kind of selective exceptionalism is exactly what needs to be challenged and reconsidered.

The law of unintended consequences has been at work as a countervailing factor in US foreign policy for decades as was seen in the US-sponsored rise of the Shah and the subsequent Iranian Revolution; in the Viet Nam War that was followed by the Khmer Rouge and in the Iraq War, which has unleashed the worst strife in the Middle East in modern times.

Do the American people really need a list of "get used to it" points from our leading foreign policy think tank?

We can do much better.

See Rosa Brooks's full column in Foreign Policy, here.