Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Plus ça change...

Unsurprisingly (for me at least, and for others I'm sure), there has been a trickle of stuff in the news noting that Obama may not be quite glorious defender of 'international legality' that we thought he would be. So we've got news that Obama will continue with the extraordinary renditions policy of the Bush administration (sans the 'torture'; also people need to get their terminology straight: 'rendition' or 'ordinary rendition' is taken to refer to transfers regulated by law - e.g. extradition; extraordinary rendition is any extra-judicial transfer and so as such doesn't necessarily involve torture). In a similar vein, we have the news that the Obama adminstration is going to maintain Bush's 'state secrets' policy.

Now, I'll reiterate, this does not surprise me. Firstly, extraordinary rendition was a process that was authorised and used by (at the very least) the Clinton administration, there's a continuity that runs all through from Clinton, to Bush and I suspect to Obama, not to say that there aren't differences but simply that much of the basic 'shape' of the policy is dictated by particular imperial concerns. This links into my second point, I've been quite keen to argue that the legal policies of the Bush administration are very similar to the basic orientation of the Clinton regime (as was spectacularly displayed in Kosovo) basically, I think that - as a response to an obvious decline in hegemonic power for the US - there has been a drive to legally entrench the US' ability the intervene anywhere, at any time 'in the interests of the international community'. The idea that the election of Obama would be able to alter this was always - for me - a bit silly, because I believe that this policy is the reponse to deep-rooted structural problems.

That being said, what initially surprised me was the degree to which Obama has remained within the war on terror paradigm. I was thinking that perhaps we would see a move back towards the old 'humanitarian/liberal interventionism' model because - as Richard Seymour notes - he's got to sell it to his constituency. But on further reflection, I think that Obama's continuation of the 'war on terror' model (which Norm of normblog has gleefully and constantly noted) makes sense in international terms and internal to the US (particularly internal to the US).

So firstly, there is Obama's whole 'post-partisan' thing. The war on terror has significant cross-party appeal in the US. This is linked to the fact that ultimately it strikes me as much easier to defend the war on terror to the American electorate than a policy of liberal interventionism. This is because it is really quite difficult to pitch liberal interventionism as being in people's immediate self-interest (I mean, part of the whole strategy is to defend the idea that such interventions are not self-interested). The trick is to be able to make self-interest coincide - nationally and internationally - with the putatitve interests of the international community. The war on terror is a much easier way of doing this, and earns politicians 'realist' street cred. Internationally, although the war on terror may look like a self-interested power-grab by the US, I still think it holds up as more convincing than a programme of explicit liberal interventionism, especially as it doesn't have so many historical resonances with colonialism. Furthermore, a lot of Obama's base seem to be sold on the idea that post-partisanship requires sacrifice, meaning they are willing to give him an easy ride, telling in this respect is the muted (or non-existent) opposition (and indeed support) of various human rights groups to the retention of extraordinary rendition policy .

Secondly, I've always emphasised that - in terms of form - liberal interventionism and the war on terror are very similar - insofar as both attempt to articulate a legally entrenched hegemonic power. But increasingly, the two are intertwined in terms of substance too, this is particualrly evident with the claim - made a while back by Bush - that liberal, democratic polities are less likely to give rise to terrorism; and the mirror claim of liberal interventionists that liberal interventions stop terrorism (or refugee flows etc.). This being the case, I really do think that much of the difference between the two is really one of emphasis, which is why liberal bombers were able to come on board so quickly (another obvious point is that in the clash of civilisations rhetoric that forms the bedrock of the war on terror, the enemy is seen as illiberal, fundamentalist barbarians).

But, onto my third point, this difference in inflection can be crucial. A few years ago Ryan Goodman wrote an very American political-sciency (but nonetheless good) article on Humanitarian Intervention and Pre-texts for War, in it Goodman suggests that humanitarian intervention is actually a fairly terrible pre-text to go to war, insofar as it creates 'blowback'. Basically, by phrasing the intervention as humanitarian it sets up a certain series of expectations on the part of the population of the intervening states. These are to do with the methods of warfare (hard to say carpet bombing is humanitarian), other justifications (hard to act explicitly in your self-interest) and how you negotiate (you should be aiming as quickly as possible for peace). Goodman argues - fairly convincingly - that humanitarian intervention tends to limit the publically acceptable scope, extent and methods of warfare as compared to - say - war over territory. But such considerations are much more difficult in the case of a war that is addressed against terrorists - indeed precisely because terrorists are non-state actors who live amongst the civilian population the opposite considerations may come into effect - of course schools, hospitals etc. will be blown up but that's the terrorists' fault. So, here, the utility of the war on terror argument is that it maintains the scope of humanitarian intervention, maintains also its transformative aims - liberal deomcracies/western protectorates don't produce terrorists, but totally manages to avoid the restraints that humanitarian intervention might bring into play.

So, I suspect Obama is going to stick with the war on terror. Obviously, it will not be exactly the same, notwithstanding the retention of extraordinary rendition, I expect some of the more overt abuses will be significantly toned down. There's also going to be less posturing on the issue of international law and legal nihilism. I also think that there was something of a civilising influence that humanitarian intervention invoked (however tiny) and the scope of the war on terror is at least as wide as humanitarian intervention (and we need to avoid the idea that the war on terror was ever just about deploying military force).

We really should have seen this coming, since Obama only ever seemed to campaign as being a more sensible manager of the war on terror.

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