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Iraq, the Anti-War Movement, and Anti-Romanticism

There will be a winning side in Iraq, the one fueled and driven by a hatred of American conquerors in Humvees. The US invasion has all but guaranteed this result, whether in a few years or many years on. Romanticizing that bloody process is nauseating.

Joe Lockard

In ‘Vichy on the Tigris,’ a much-noted essay that appeared this past summer in The New Left Review, Susan Watkins concluded:

“Washington’s military-imperialist thrust into Central Eurasia, at first deplored by right-minded pillars of the status quo as an over-reaching adventure, has become the basis of a new world consensus: the hegemon must not be allowed to fail. The first, elementary step against such acquiescence is solidarity with the cause of national liberation in Iraq. The US-led forces have no business there. The Iraqi maquis deserves full support in fighting to drive them out.”

There are mistaken assumptions encapsulated within this conclusion, errors that speak to where Euro-american oppositional politics stand today vis-à-vis the Iraq War. This is an opposition that will grow, likely exponentially, within the forthcoming year as further terrible casualties arrive and civil devastation continues unchecked in Iraq.

The language that Watkins and many others like her employ, however, emerges from a mixture of political manicheanism and oppositional romanticism. Another ‘evil empire’ and its minions must be brought to their knees by any means necessary: Iraq is an opportunity to bring the fight to the Yankee devils.

But it is by no means clear that the devil-child US public supports this war in its original form, or is willing to write a blank check in blood and money for its continuation. According to recent opinion polls, a bare majority of the American public believes that the situation in Iraq will not improve in the near future. US public support for the declared purposes of the Iraq War reached an early peak and has continued to decline. Even a pro-war political scientist like Duke University’s Peter Feaver has charted this decline.

At the same time, the public supports President Bush at even higher levels than previous. It is within this divergence – the difference between manifest political reality and persistent public reluctance to recognize its manipulation by the Bush administration that created this reality – that anti-war politics in the United States now functions.

Political support in the United States for the Iraq War now proceeds through rhetoric that denies realities across a spectrum of political dimensions, from the claimed causes of the war, to its alleged ‘humane’ execution according to laws of war, to the degree of control exerted throughout Iraq. The Bush administration employs the same classic language of civilizational idealism and deceit, of bringing violent order out of moral chaos, and of cultural demonization, as did European colonialism from its earliest days.

Echoing demonization with counter-demonization as anti-war language, inherent in a comparison of the Bush administration with the Nazi regime, is just as obscurantist and false as the militaristic politics that rendered Iraq into an iconic equation with Islamic terrorism. The violations of international law that began with the invasion of Iraq stand as war crimes in their own right, without need of untenable historical analogies.

Contrary to any suggestion that European or global political support is propping up the US in a hegemonic exercise, it needs to be recognized that the hegemon already has failed. Any critique that posits that the US has succeeded is in error. The questions that Europe and the global community will be facing concern a world where the limits of imperial ‘muscular politics’ have been demonstrated in Iraq. Despite the unquestionable technological abilities of US military forces and their capacity to win any battlefield confrontation, the continued daily bleedings of those forces, together with US inability to stabilize the Allawi government, underscore an obvious US incapacity to translate technological superiority into political dominance.

No amount of investment of military personnel, budget resources, or US policy determination will surmount the fact that US control will remain tenuous at best. When US military forces depart, as they will inevitably with time and domestic public pressure, Iraqi resistants will either fill the wake of their departure or attack any Western-associated collaborator forces remaining in power.

While the British were able to achieve direct and indirect control of Iraq for forty years following World War I, much of the country was in an economically pre-modern state during that period. This enabling condition no longer attains, and Iraqi society incorporates the same strains of national modernization that has enabled Arab societies to resist and reject hegemonic Westernism. Unlike the Great Iraqi Revolution of 1920 against the British colonial government, a revolt that consolidated Iraqi nationalism between its different regions, the anti-imperial consolidation here is pan-regional and pan-Islamic. Resistance to the US military occupation of Iraq ultimately emerges from a broader and more fundamental regional antagonism than the simplified ethno-tribal geography that appears in USA Today and similar models of misinformation.

The United States will likely leave with fewer casualties than from the Vietnam War, but no less domestic impact and damage to its international standing. The US, quite simply, is facing within several years an historic defeat in Iraq, one that appears set to re-shape the Middle East for generations. Middle Eastern governments that relied on the United States as a guarantor of their stability and continued existence will be forced to re-consider their positions and policies.

In regional terms, that defeat to US interests will arrive because the Bush administration has guaranteed much greater and persistent strength to a populist Islamic worldview that sees itself as the vanguard of a global struggle against the dominions of evil located in a corrupt, valueless American empire. This is a worldview that while opposing US hegemony does so from the position of Islamic hegemony violated, of consecrated domains infiltrated and invaded by infidels. As voiced through Islamic organizations such as Hamas, this is a theo-politics that criticizes poverty and acts against it through social charities, but has no critique of capitalism – or masculinist gender hierarchy -- as a poverty-producing system.

It is one politics to demand an end to US violence in and neo-colonial occupation of Iraq; it is another matter entirely to call for solidarity with some of the most retrograde theocratic forces allied with equally retrograde ultra-nationalists and remaindered Ba’athists. They have nothing in common with any progressive politics; indeed, when in power in Iraq the latter forces were responsible for suppressing left-wing political movements and torturing their members. A secular call for solidarity with Shiite theocrats in Iraq is reminiscent of when members of the Western left trailed behind pro-Khomeini demonstrations during the 1970s, but were appalled when Iranian progressives followed immediately after the Shah’s supporters on post-revolution arrest and execution lists.

Euro-american left politics frequently have proved themselves just as capable as right-wing analyses of transposing incongruent cultural references and frameworks to provide explanations. To categorize the socialist-communist alliance that originated the French maquis together with the Islamicist-nationalist alliance that constitutes the Iraqi mutjahid, as do Watkins and Tariq Ali who employs the same phrase, is to misconstrue both past and present inside one political analogy. There is a romantic Gallic presence to the phrase, as if one could imagine Abu Mus’ab al-Zarkawi as Jean Moulin with a beret, dangling Gaulloise and Sten gun, rather than an al-Qaeda captain giving orders to videotape prisoner butcherings. As Michael Bérbubé observes pungently, “’Iraqi maquis’ has a nice ring to it, certainly much nicer than ‘Iraqi theocrats and thugs.’”

There will be a winning side in Iraq, the one fueled and driven by a hatred of American conquerors in Humvees. The US invasion has all but guaranteed this result, whether in a few years or many years on. Romanticizing that bloody process is nauseating.

Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 2004 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.