14 December 2015

Rhetorical blowback: a good theory taken to extremes

The editors of The Nation didn't know what was coming when they put their December 21/28 print issue to bed sometime before the 2nd and the San Bernardino terror shootings. Unlike a publication like Time, which can include news within two days of the publication date, The Nation presumably won't have anything to say in print about San Bernardino until next year. But Paris was still fresh enough in their minds that their commentaries on the war on terror would have been little different had the magazine been more up to date. Their advice is twofold. When dealing with the self-styled Islamic State, publisher Katrina vanden Heuval and husband Stephen F. Cohen write in the lead editorial, be sure to play nice with Syria and Russia. Whether we should deal harshly with the IS at all is questioned in Gary Younge's column. Younge's main argument is that we shouldn't bomb IS territory because a) it hasn't worked yet so it's unlikely ever to work; and b)it will "inevitably produce blowback in the form of terrorist reprisals." On the first point, he may have a point, and he's probably right that the most concerned countries outside the region "don't have the stomach" for a possibly more effective ground war. He's also right in principle when he argues that "any military intervention that does take place needs to be truly global -- as opposed to western -- in its authorization and execution," though by his own blowback logic this will only give the Daesh and its sympathizers more targets around the world. By now, however, the concept of "blowback" has grown beyond its original conceptual bounds. Back when the term was first popular at the turn of the millennium, after the 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. blowback meant more than alienating foreign people. As I understood it, it meant arming or otherwise empowering, for short-term strategic reasons, unreliable or unstable forces who would turn against you eventually. Islamic terrorism against the U.S. was blowback not just, or perhaps not even primarily, because we offended Islam, but because we subsidized Islamist dissidents against secular (but pro-Soviet or anti-Israel) Arab governments; because we armed the Afghan mujaheddin to resist the Soviet occupation of their country; because we supported Saddam Hussein's war against Iran. I don't know whether the original theorists of blowback believed that offending Islam was the necessary or sufficient cause of terrorism or other radical threats, but some people seem to think so now.

If Younge believes that violence against terrorist enclaves, where civilians inevitably will take collateral damage, inevitably generates more terrorism, then he's inviting blowback himself when he writes that "some kind of military intervention might be necessary" against the IS, unless he thinks it can all be done with ninjas. But he probably doesn't think of himself as as simplistic (or bigoted?) a thinker as the "apologists for Western foreign policy" he opposes. Is he right to think so?

These apologists, he argues, wrongly "insist these jihadis are part of a murderous death cult determined to sow fear and terror in the West. This, it seems, recasts the enemy as simply psychologically deficient." What he means, clearly, is that the apologists are not taking into account their responsiblity, as apologists for Western foreign policy, for jihadi hostility. But isn't it just as simplistic, if not more so, to portray jihad as purely reactionary, as entirely a reaction to oppression by the west? Isn't Younge portraying them as "psychologically deficient" if he won't give them credit for imagination and creativity, if he can't imagine a point at which they are mentally on the offensive in a way that's no longer entirely the responsibility of the sometime oppressor? The truth of the matter is somewhere between the extreme view Younge describes and the extreme view he holds. The west hasn't behaved well toward others in the Middle East, if not in the Muslim world generally, but after a certain point the reaction, resistance or "blowback" develops a mind and logic of its own against which its opponents need not have their hands tied by a record of past offenses. Yonge, a black Briton, no doubt thinks of himself as staunchly anti-racist as well as anti-imperialist. But it seems as if he's condescending more than a little toward Muslims when he assumes that their only reaction to extreme warfare can be more extreme terrorism. After all, the west today isn't fighting Nazi hordes in Europe, nor are fanatic Emperor worshippers attacking American interests in Asia, and even Vietnam can be imagined taking the American sometimes in disputes in China, and we bombed the bejeezus out of all of them. Are Muslims that different, somehow? I can see a lot of Americans, a lot of Christians and a lot of right-wingers thinking so, but Gary Younge is a man of the cosmopolitan left, so if he thinks so he has a lot of explaining to do.

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