Friday, January 16, 2009

The Non-War on Terror?

So, one story in this week is David Miliband’s repudiation of the ‘war on terror’. Now, notwithstanding the obvious cynical timings of the remarks (viz. just before Bush goes and Obama comes in) I can imagine that there are a good number of liberals (although not those of the cruise missile type) who draw hope from these words. The same can evidently be said (with less caveats) for the incoming Obama administration, especially in light of the noises Hillary Clinton has been making.

Personally, I’m not so sure. This is not to say that I think these people are lying (although they could be) but rather that this change in policy is much more likely to be a change in emphasis, with the same systemic, structural and conjunctural forces shaping this policy as before. However, I do think that Miliband’s piece illustrates – quite usefully – a certain liberal take on the war on terror.

Importantly, Miliband argues that:
The phrase had some merit: it captured the gravity of the threats, the need for solidarity, and the need to respond urgently - where necessary, with force.
These ‘merits’ should be borne in mind, because I think they tell us more than you might think initially. Having identified these merits Miliband goes on to identify some of the problems that he associates with the ‘war on terror’. Firstly, it ‘gave the impression of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in the figure of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida’ whereas in reality ‘the motivations and identities of terrorist groups are disparate’. Secondly, (and I think this is especially important to Miliband) it ‘implied that the correct response [to terrorism] was primarily military’.

I think that this misses a good deal of the real importance of the war on terror. The idea that the war on terror merely implied that the ‘correct response was military’ whilst obviously being correct (as the alternative could have been criminalising terror) misses the way that it also shapes the way in which military force can be used. In other words, Miliband’s analysis of the ‘military’ aspect of the war on terror misses its legal aspect. In this respect it’s worth revisiting an old post I made on a great article by Fredric Megret. Essentially, Megret points out that the logic of declaring a ‘war’ on terror didn’t just mean that ‘the correct response was primarily military’ but also that (owing to the continuous threat of terrorism and presence of terrorists all over the world) this military force was temporally and spatially unlimited – in other words it was a right to intervene anywhere, at any time.

This unlimited right to intervention comes with a second point, which again shows us that Miliband misses some of the (legal) import of the war on terror. For Miliband the logic of the war on terror treats terrorists as one unified bloc, again I think this is a shallow analysis that misses the real function. Because of course if – as above – the war on terror rhetoric lets you intervene against terrorists anywhere and at any time then we have a problem. Unless this ability is limited then certain rogue states etc. might take it upon themselves to use military force against their enemies. Thus, the designation of terrorists as the ‘enemy’ and (further) of certain states as ‘terror states’ or ‘terror supporting states’ is absolutely crucial. These states become disallowed from using force. The converse of this (and again this is crucial) is that certain non-terrorist, good states gain the right to act in the above special way.

Linked to this is that making terror ‘central’ in the way that the war on terror does means that terrorism is posited as threatening the integrity of the international system. In practice then, the move to war, created a legal situation in which a few – western states – are able to use violence, anywhere and at any time so as to secure the interests of the international system. In other words, the war on terror was a way for a certain section of imperialism to legally entrench its capacity for intervention against its enemies (because terrorists always reside somewhere an attack on terrorists is always an attack on a state).

Even in this piece Miliband doesn’t do this. Let’s return to the merits that Miliband identified with the war approach – clearly the sum total of these remains the same, terrorism is a massive threat (that must sometimes be met by force) and ‘solidarity’ has to be invoked against it. Indeed according to Miliband a community of ‘values’ is what needs to respond to terrorists.

So, in practice, what I have identified as the most salient features of the war on terror seem to go unchallenged by Miliband. This should not surprise us. Miliband has always been an advocate of humanitarian intervention. Indeed in November of 2008 he wrote an article defending ‘liberal interventionism’ (and this phrasing is important - liberal interventionism is - theoretically - much broader than mere humanitarian intervention). As I have previously noted, those salient features of the war on terror are – in some sense – a continuation of humanitarian intervention, whereby certain ‘liberal’ states gain the special right to intervene in other states, in the name of protecting the universal values of the system – e.g. human rights. Again, as I have noted before, these attempts at entrenching imperial power strike me as stemming from a structural weakness of Anglo-American power, which is seriously challenged on all fronts by a resurgent Russia, by China, by certain states in the Middle East, by Latin America and by domestic movements. This can only be exacerbated by the current economic problems.

So rather than address these key features, what is it that Miliband wants? Well it strikes me that his key manoeuvre is an attempt to move away from the perceived military focus of the war on terror. So what does Miliband want instead?:
Terrorist groups need to be tackled at root, interdicting flows of weapons and finance, exposing the shallowness of their claims, channelling their followers into democratic politics.
And from the liberal interventionism article:
Intervention should not always be military and only rarely be forcible. We must focus on intervening early, before a country descends into full-scale conflict – much as the international community did in Kenya following last year's election.

Where troops are needed, we must plan rigorously for the immediate aftermath. The first months after a military intervention are critical to maintaining local support and legitimacy. We must recognise that military solutions alone will not stop conflict. We need a civilian force – police, judges, engineers and others – with the professionalism and responsiveness of the armed forces. There needs to be clarity about who is in charge of the international presence, rather than fragmentation between countries and between military and civilian operations.
So, basically, Miliband wants to keep the scope of the war on terror in place, but wants to make a – quite Foucauldian move – from the ‘sovereign violence’ of war to the power of discipline. So he is basically proposing that certain imperial states have a monopoly on intervening in any number of seemingly domestic fields in countries on the periphery. Now, the first point to note is that this clearly isn’t something we should celebrate, there is at least something honest about invading a country and using military force. But also we need to realise that this is nothing new. Imperialist states have been claiming this right – or actualising such a ‘right’ in practice – since imperialist states first came into being. More importantly, the war on terror always involved this stuff too. It may be true that the Bush regime foregrounded military violence as being particularly important – but it also skilfully used the UN (with the Counter Terrorism Committee, 1267 Committee etc.), sanctions, aid etc. to achieve its aims. Now it may be true that the Bush regime was slightly less flexible than Miliband’s proposal, but I really don’t think there’s a fundamental break.

So then, why the rhetoric? Well, a big part of it has got to be ideological (in the crude sense). Knowing how unpopular the old war on terror is it becomes necessary to differentiate oneself from it. Shrewdly then, Miliband (and by extension Obama et al) is able to differentiate himself from ‘Bush’ without actually changing very much at all.

This is very clear in relation to international law. The Miliband-type liberal claim is that the Bush regime simply ignored international law and what has to be done is to ‘move back’ to the rule of law. But – and I think China Miéville puts it best – the problem with this is that:
[I]t allows right and left to agree on an agenda which actually obscures many truths of power. So for example, much of the mainstream left will stress how there has been a neo-conservative revolution manifested by an upsurge of violently aggressive unilateralism, a complete denigration of international law, the complete ignoring of its European partners and so on. What I would say is that in fact the American ruling elite are, and have always been, much more split and nuanced and variegated on these questions, as have the European elite, than that would suggest; and that this discourse of the European liberal left creates a kind of simplistic bogeyman. For every Richard Perle, saying that international law is dead, yay-hay, there is for example a John Yoo, very eruditely defending American imperial interests in international legal terms … So this discourse of revolution—from the right it can legitimate certain things, such as Guantánamo, which I’m not prepared to legitimate; and from the left, it lets European social democracy and some apparatchiks of American power equally off the hook.
(China has written a fantastic article on Haiti that deals with these issues which will eventually be available in the Finnish Yearbook of International Law – everyone must read it as soon as it comes out). I think the point here is totally right. The particular ignorance of the war on terror’s intimate connection with international legal argument was something I think both left and right wanted to promote in public. The right got to pose as big strong men. The left was able to ‘let law off the hook’. What was really important about this was that the liberal-legal-left could totally deny any complicity in the war on terror, brilliantly, when it was their turn to promote imperial interest they could simply claim to be restoring the ‘rule of law’ without really changing very much (and indeed changing very little fundamentally) [note - Phil has a good post that (as ever) disagrees with me, I need to address this properly].

Such are the politics of imperial law.

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