Tunisia and the zombification of war

uprising_tunisiaAt the recent joint meeting between Australian and British foreign and defense secretaries, Britain’s Liam Fox made an astonishing confession. ‘In terms of having adequate manning, in terms of having adequate equipment,’ he said, ‘we’ve really only been in Afghanistan for the last year.’

Get that? The previous nine years (nine years!) had been, according to Fox, so thoroughly mismanaged that they may as well have not happened at all.

And what was the reaction to this remarkable admission? Here was the defense secretary of the second most important nation of the Afghan coalition casually announcing that the billions of dollars and thousands of lives expended in that time had been squandered, so much so that the invasion might be said to be now only just beginning – and yet where was the outrage? Where were the demands for accountability?

Yep, crickets.

It was a striking example of what we might call the zombification of the War on Terror. Intellectually, the original project might be dead, its theoretical basis entirely discredited, but somehow it still shuffles and shambles on – and consumes more human flesh than ever.

Certainly, no-one now talks about the supposed domino effect of the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions. Yet for the original neocon theorists, that ‘Freedom Agenda’ was a central plank of the whole Bush doctrine.

‘Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,’ Bush explained. ‘As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.’

Iraq, in particular, was, we were told, going to light a spark throughout the world (and the middle east in particular), igniting pro-freedom revolutions that would burn out corrupt dictatorships and hence reshape global politics.

As Bush put it in 2003, ‘Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation.’

Some of the Bushites sounded positively insane on the topic. For instance, Michael A. Ledeen, from American Enterprise Institute, explained matters like this.

We are an awesome revolutionary force. Creative destruction is our middle name. We tear down the old order every day… Seeing America undo old conventions, they [our enemies] fear us, for they do not wish to be undone… We wage total war because we fight in the name of an idea… Stability is for those older, burnt-out countries, not for the American dynamo.

Well, whatev.

But a version of the theory appealed, in particular, to disappointed ex-leftists (Christopher Hitchens comes to mind), who could transfer the hopes they once invested in popular democracy to the liberatory bayonets of the US army.

These days, of course, there’s not too many people who look at the situation in Baghdad or in Kabul and think, ‘Gosh, I wish that could happen to my country.’

Nonetheless, it’s worth thinking through what went wrong and why – especially in light of recent events in Tunisia.

After all, Bush and his supporters always declared freedom a universal aspiration. Against those so-called ‘realists’ who suggested that Arabs and other colonial peoples needed – and perhaps secretly craved – a strong ruler, the neocons insisted on liberty as a universal virtue, so that the fall of a dictator in one oppressive state would inevitably generate enthusiasm in others.

On the face of it, the dictator Ben Ali’s ignominious flight from Tunisia has vindicated them. In Egypt, protesters have been chanting ‘Mubarak next!’; in Algeria demonstrations have been spreading; in Libya, the old tyrant Quadaffi clearly fears a Tunisian-style uprising in his country.

Quite evidently, there’s widespread popular dissatisfaction with the corrupt and brutal regimes in the regime. Quite evidently, democracy is contagious. Why, then, did the Bush-Cheney plan so comprehensively fail?

Interestingly, Tunisia never really featured on the list of nations that the neocons sought to liberate. If the old Project for a New American Century (the thinktank that spawned most of the Bushite cadre) focused initially on Iraq, the broader target of the neocon agenda was always Iran.

‘Anyone can go to Baghdad,’ infamously explained a senior Bush official in 2003. ‘Real men go to Tehran.’

But no-one even mentioned Tunisia.

Indeed, it’s notable that, when Hitchens, a pretty reliable barometer of neocon prejudice, wrote about that country in 2007, he didn’t push his usual barrow about military intervention against totalitarianism. Instead, he found much to praise in Ben Ali and his dictatorship:

Why pick on mild Tunisia, where the coup in 1987 had been bloodless, where religious parties are forbidden, where the population grows evenly because of the availability of contraception, where you can see male and female students holding hands and wearing blue jeans, and where thousands of Americans and more than four million Europeans take their vacations every year?

When it’s put like that, who wouldn’t want the alternative of an African Titoism, or perhaps an African Gaullism, where presidential rule keeps a guiding but not tyrannical hand? A country where people discuss micro-credits for small business instead of “macro” schemes such as holy war? Mr. Ben Ali does not make lengthy speeches on TV every night, or appear in gorgeously barbaric uniforms, or live in a different palace for every day of the week. Tunisia has no grandiose armed forces, the curse of the rest of the continent, feeding parasitically off the national income and rewarding their own restlessness with the occasional coup. And the country is lucky in other ways as well. Its population is a smooth blend of black and Berber and Arab, and though it proudly defends its small minorities of Shiites, Christians (Saint Augustine spent time here), Baha’is, and Jews (there is a Jewish member of the Senate), it is otherwise uniformly Sunni. It has been spared the awful toxicity of ethnic and religious rivalry, which makes it very unusual in Africa.

That, of course, would be the same ‘mild Tunisia’ where, the next year, the US state department noted:

that security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees and arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals. Security forces acted with impunity sanctioned by high-ranking officials. There were also reports of lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention. The government infringed on citizens’ privacy rights and continued to impose severe restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. The government remained intolerant of public criticism, and there were widespread reports that it used intimidation, criminal investigations, the judicial system, arbitrary arrests, residential restrictions, and travel controls to discourage criticism by human rights and opposition activists.

Why, then, was Hitchens, who usually puffed himself as a principled ‘anti-fascist’, so keen on Ben Ali, a pretty old school tyrant?

Well, look back at the quoted passage. In among all the hand-holding and the vacationing, we discover that, for Hitchens, one of the attractions of African Gaullism is that ‘religious parties are forbidden’.

And what does that mean? Basically, in the 1990s, as Michael Koplow explains, the regime put ‘hundreds of members of the al-Nahda party, Tunisia’s main Islamist movement, on trial amid widespread allegations of torture and sentencing party leaders to life imprisonment or exile’.

Not surprisingly, given such a record, Ben Ali proved a staunch US ally during the war on terror. Indeed, in the wake of 9/11, Tunisia, like so many countries, passed its own draconian ‘anti-terror’ laws, which it used to crack down on dissidents of all sorts. But it still found time to collaborate with American repression, playing, for instance, a key role in the ‘extraordinary rendition’ atrocities.

Basically, Ben Ali might have been a son-of-a-bitch but he was our son-of-a-bitch, as the old imperialist mantra had it.

In that sense, the ‘Freedom Agenda’ did not represent as much of a break from traditional real-politik as people like Hitchens pretended. The policy was entirely predicated upon the (quite bizarre) notion that, if anti-American tyrants were toppled, the people would necessarily vote for Western-oriented governments.

When it became apparent that, in many cases, they would do precisely the opposite, the White House very quickly lost its enthusiasm for democracy – as, for instance, in the Palestinian Authority, where Palestinians overwhelmingly opted for Hamas, rather than corrupt and pro-American Fatah.

That was why Hilary Clinton was initially reluctant to support the Tunisian demonstrations (which were, after all, targeting a loyal ally); it’s why the Israelis were openly despondent about the fall of Ben Ali , with Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom telling an interviewer that if nearby regimes were replaced by democracies, Israeli national security might be threatened because ‘a democratic system would be governed by a public generally opposed to Israel’.

But there’s another, and perhaps more important, point. Neoconservative foreign policy usually walked hand-in-hand with neoliberal economics, a point that the ‘Left’ enthusiasts for Bushism almost never acknowledged. President Bush famously scribbled ‘Let freedom reign’ when Condy Rice brought him the news of the first Iraqi election. Yet right from the start, the plans to reconstruct that country were predicated on extreme marketisation. In 2004, Naomi Klein described the US economic program, in paragraphs worth quoting in full:

L. Paul Bremer, who led the U.S. occupation of Iraq from May 2, 2003, until he caught an early flight out of Baghdad on June 28, admits that when he arrived, “Baghdad was on fire, literally, as I drove in from the airport.” But before the fires from the “shock and awe” military onslaught were even extinguished, Bremer unleashed his shock therapy, pushing through more wrenching changes in one sweltering summer than the International Monetary Fund has managed to enact over three decades in Latin America. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and former chief economist at the World Bank, describes Bremer’s reforms as “an even more radical form of shock therapy than pursued in the former Soviet world.”

The tone of Bremer’s tenure was set with his first major act on the job: he fired 500,000 state workers, most of them soldiers, but also doctors, nurses, teachers, publishers, and printers. Next, he flung open the country’s borders to absolutely unrestricted imports: no tariffs, no duties, no inspections, no taxes. Iraq, Bremer declared two weeks after he arrived, was “open for business.”

One month later, Bremer unveiled the centerpiece of his reforms. Before the invasion, Iraq’s non-oil-related economy had been dominated by 200 state-owned companies, which produced everything from cement to paper to washing machines. In June, Bremer flew to an economic summit in Jordan and announced that these firms would be privatized immediately. “Getting inefficient state enterprises into private hands,” he said, “is essential for Iraq’s economic recovery.” It would be the largest state liquidation sale since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Bremer’s economic engineering had only just begun. In September, to entice foreign investors to come to Iraq, he enacted a radical set of laws unprecedented in their generosity to multinational corporations. There was Order 37, which lowered Iraq’s corporate tax rate from roughly 40 percent to a flat 15 percent. There was Order 39, which allowed foreign companies to own 100 percent of Iraqi assets outside of the natural-resource sector. Even better, investors could take 100 percent of the profits they made in Iraq out of the country; they would not be required to reinvest and they would not be taxed. Under Order 39, they could sign leases and contracts that would last for forty years. Order 40 welcomed foreign banks to Iraq under the same favorable terms. All that remained of Saddam Hussein’s economic policies was a law restricting trade unions and collective bargaining.

As Klein argues in her excellent Shock Doctrine, these kind of neoliberal reforms have nowhere received a democratic mandate, precisely because they involve the immiseration of the bulk of the citizenry. Indeed, that’s her key thesis – that, from Chile to Iraq, the free market fantasies of the so-called Chicago Boys have always depended upon a population stunned into submission by war, natural disaster or some other calamity.

In Tunisa, the calamity was called Ben Ali.

As Richard Seymour explains:

Globally, the dictatorship aligned itself with neoliberal institutions, acceding to GATT, then joining the WTO. Throughout the 2000s, it forged a closer relationship with the EU, under an agreement removing all tariffs and restrictions on goods between the two. France and Italy have been its main export and import partners in this period. Given his zeal in prosecuting the war against ‘terrorism’ throughout the 1990s, which mission he took to the UN and the EU, Ben Ali was an obvious candidate to be a regional ally in the Bush administration’s programme for reconfiguring the Middle East in America’s (further) interests in the context of the war on terror. Ben Ali thus joined Team America, alongside other lifelong democrats such as Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah.

The Ben Ali family – described in the Wikileaks cables as basically a mafia gang – grew insanely wealthy. The rest of the nation, not so much, with unemployment at something like 15 per cent. Yet the security apparatus perfected during the suppression of the Islamists also proved very effective in preventing strikes, demonstrations or other protests.

Until now, that is.

What’s interesting about the Tunisian rebellion is that, much more than many of the so-called ‘Color Revolutions’, it has manifested a social aspect, with trade unions leading the struggle, and putting demands about wages and economic conditions on the agenda.

This, of course, was never what the neocons meant by ‘Freedom’.

‘Liberty,’ said Bush, ‘is both the plan of Heaven for humanity, and the best hope for progress here on Earth.’

But that model of freedom never involved a freedom to choose economic policies – rather, the free market was itself implied in the very definition of liberty. In the neocon model, the downfall of a dictator necessarily entailed the privatisation of everything in sight.

Which is why the Tunisian events matter so much. It’s far from clear yet how the rebellion will play out. But we’ve seen, like so many times in the past, that real freedom – freedom from below – is contagious, and that the struggle against political oppression cannot be separated from the struggle against economic oppression.

In other words, there is a Freedom Agenda. It’s just not quite what George Bush had in mind.

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  1. Agreed on most of this. But Liam Fox is a member of a government that has only been in power since May 2010, so he’s well within his rights to say that the war in Afghanistan wasn’t managed well for the nine years preceding.

  2. Thanks Jeff. That image of the zombification is a strong one – and applies as much to the pillage of the planet’s so-called natural resources. Your post makes me feel almost … hopeful.

    In the heartbreak and horror at the extremes to which people have been pushed, there seems something fragile and extraordinary about the spirit of these young, apparently leaderless (but certainly not disorganised) revolutionaries. And the absence of the mighty West. When I think of the forces ready to crush them, warp them and pollute them with corruption, my soul fills with tears (that sometimes fall from my eyes).

  3. Thanks Jeff, excellent article. I wonder also, given the continual reign of the CCP alongside the emergence of increasing marketisation of the Chinese economy, whether the neoliberals might finally admit that there is no necessary link between a neoliberal economy and political democracy?

  4. Thanks Jeff for shedding some more light on this. Have only picked up bits and pieces of the Tunsian protests as i travel around Laos learning of America’s murky 9 year bombing and secret war there.

    Just wondering if the media has labelled it a revolution yet. It seems in the last few years every mass prolonged street protest has been labelled a colour revolution. Considering that most of them did not succeed in overthrowing the Government in those countries its hard for me to see them as revolutions. Just wondering whether its a Western Media thing to add more drama to them.

    I don’t know maybe I’ve got a to idealistic definition of revolution. Anyway your piece brought those ideas to mind.

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