Black Hawk Afghanistan

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The world of Black Hawk Down is not one created by military dominance, but rather by massive political uncertainties and unresolved human suffering.

Joe Lockard

Thursday, February 7 2002, 9:09 PM


Black Hawk Down premiered at an opportune techno-political moment. As in the film, military technology has proven that it can prevail in Afghanistan but political conundrums nonetheless overwhelm military options. Only months after the September 11 attacks, the theo-fascist Taliban mullahs have been replaced by a puppet government and the al-Qaeda movement has been driven entirely underground. US military technology has prevailed to the extent that President Bush gives condolences to individual American casualties, while unknown thousands lie dead in Afghanistan.

The world of Black Hawk Down is not one created by military dominance, but rather by massive political uncertainties and unresolved human suffering. Now in control of the machinery of this world, the Bush administration faces a classic imperial question: after the machine guns have mowed down the natives, what next? The Empire has triumphed, even if its citizens now take off their shoes in airports, but the fundamental causes of conflict persist.

As the US government settles in for a new Hundred Years War and robs the social budget to pay for its crusade, these opening battles in Afghanistan have illuminated the ebb and weakness of the US left. No persuasive critique of US foreign policy emerged from the left after September 11. Noam Chomsky and his cultists could do no more than rummage through the closets of American historical guilt, as if Afghanistan served as synecdoche for Vietnam and Colombia. Chomsky's arguments have relied on changing the conversation into a recital of US misdeeds, either avoiding the immediate questions or indulging in ridiculous false equivalencies between the Bush government and the Taliban. There is a certain pity that arises from watching Chomsky employ logic to avoid clear and forthright answers. 'What should be done?' is not the same question as 'What might have been done?', and Chomsky has a too-evident preference for the latter.

Z Magazine, often seen to emblematize even if not embody a serious US left, has remained generally devoid of any credible argument. Quite often its articles fail to distinguish the rise of al-Qaeda's and the Taliban's Islamic theo-fascism from regional dislike of US foreign policy in the Middle East, a distaste that requires no particular religious sentiment. In other fora, left commentators Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn simply used the war as another excuse to continue their public food fight. Cockburn's Counterpunch magazine won the Zany Prize with Yusuf Agha's article "Osama Gump", which indulges nonsensical conspiracism with suggestions that Bin Laden video is manufactured material, presumably by US intelligence agencies. This is the sort of detritus that gets removed from editorial wastebaskets only when desperation sets in.

And yet it is the prevalence of such feeble stuff, advanced with such earnest, that serves notice of an empty agenda. The political targets here remain entirely domestic, and fail to make substantive response to a bloody-minded religious movement that functions by dividing the world between the faithful and infidels. Islamic jihadists who believe that the only good infidel is a dead infidel worry us card-carrying infidels, and it is reasonable to want an opposition politics that responds with more than barely-interrupted continuation of pre-September 11 debates. Political progressivism forfeits its credibility when it fails to confront theocrats forcefully and relentlessly.

The ineffectiveness runs deep. Too often voices of the US left have employed a double standard in the Middle East and further east, willfully refusing to critique anti-American authoritarian states with the same vehemence as pro-American authoritarian states. Saddam Hussein and a murderously oppressive Ba'ath dictatorship become transient and barely-mentioned phenomena, while the oil-greedy US policy that supports conservative Arab governments becomes the sole -- and merited -- target of condemnation. Some left critics who condemn Christian fundamentalist erosion of church-state separation in the United States seem consistently unable to apply the same political principles to condemn mosque-state fusion in the Middle East. Consequently political analysts like the UK's Fred Halliday, who cheered Khomeini's anti-Shah revolt in the '70s and later condemned the Islamic Republic's predictable suppression of democracy, spend years decrying what they once endorsed.

In dealing with Afghanistan, the US left has much the same problem as the US administration: it grasps the paradigm of transglobal techno-dominance, but has no coherent address to Empire Realized. One of a handful of commentators who dealt well with Afghanistan as a manifestation of Empire has been Britain's always-admirable Tony Benn. His recent brief essay "A New Age of Empire" locates current US political choices in relation to British imperial history. Benn suggests a corrective to US global dominance via Britain's withdrawal into a non-nuclear and non-aligned position together with "a radical departure from post-war dependence on and subservience to US policy", a goal that he admits will not be easy. When one super-government can send a fleet of global bombers scudding around the world to quickly remove another government from power with demonstrative dispatch, irrespective of merits or their lack, then a new form of global empire has emerged, one that demands challenge and control.

This is a neo-imperialism that relies on alliances throughout the Middle East with despots and tyrannical systems. It is here that some left writers have worked to develop a perceptive vein of critique. Writing in New Politics, Thomas Harrison argues that one of the best outcomes of this war might lie in the democratization of foreign policy. Since effective security is to be found in a democratic and egalitarian world, US foreign policy could begin to bring this world into being by "withdrawal of all support from dictators, kings and emirs." A strong advocacy of democracy, whether in confronting Egypt's one-party-always-wins regime or Israel's failure to accommodate Palestinian self-determination, has been noticeably absent from US foreign policy. That absence can and must become a central point of critique against US arms-for-oil policy in the Middle East, for the militarization and diversion of development resources in this region bid fair to one day rival the Triangle Trade as an epochal wrong.

Black Hawk Down's ideological work lies in normalizing the unwanted tasks of empire, in formulating an ethics of global interventionism by the US. To argue against such normalization is not to argue that intervention is never justifiable. The genocidal ethnic massacres in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, entirely deserving preventive intervention, instance the contrary. Too often the US left, however, has remained trapped within arguments that non-intervention and rhetorical invocations of international law constitute an adequate response where they are patently inadequate. These are transparent invitations to do nothing, which is no more than bankrupt policy parading as humane ethics.

By highlighting frustration and marginality, Afghanistan has become the US left's Black Hawk Down, the moment at which political failure becomes manifest in the face of larger realities.

Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 2002 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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