|Pix Credit here (Tony Blair and George Bush after a White House press conference in November 2004)|
|Pix Credit HERE; Final Scene as the heroes leave |
Anyone who claims to be someone has been polishing up their opinions about the tragedy in the form of a farce that is the botched up U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. What started out as a "made for internal consumption" episode of a mediocre parody of the once popular myth making television show "The West Wing
," has devolved into an even more horrific parody of the last scene of Mozart's Singspiel, "The Abduction frm the Seraglio.
" The action around the withdrawal was scripted by Hollywood writers for domestic ratings. It featured a carefully curated cast (none of them members of the despicables or deplorables) to play come-to-life caring bureaucrats leading a heroic charge under a compassionate and thoughtful leader through the drama and dirt of a world full of less than angelic enemies at home what remains of the Trump camp for example) and abroad (those autocrats who for some reason cannot understand why their ideological systems should not be immediately abandoned in favor of that of the US; and those religious theocrats who did not get the memo on the new kinder and gentler forms of religion and religious practice as political expression).
Oozing compassion cradled in an I-told-you-so-for-more-than-a-decade self righteousness, this dream team would, as if by magic, make bad things go away, by pulling up stakes. Of course this course of action had been attempted by other dream teams who also believed that that magic of their status and position in the United States could make even miracles happen--for example by instantly converting an ancient Iraqi culture into pre-modern English peasants with an acute sense of common law based democratic values, spiced with the odd phrase from the local holy books. Those people are still around--that was season 3 of this show--part of the same caste that now brings us this version. They will all meet up again as they switch roles and move back to elite academic, think tank, consulting, and institutional roles until the revolving door revolves again--bringing us yet another pre-scripted version of the same mediocre and self promoting action.
All this will pass of course; that cast(e) and crew of leadership, alas, will not. Or better put, the basic premises of the way that the world works, will remain, continuing to produce yet another generation of the American nomenklatura trained to believe (and insist) on the deference owed by others to them because of their status, education, wealth, position, or induction into an elite, small and closed group of self perpetuating administrator-leader bureaucrats. And thus both the way that these people, generation after generation, see themselves--
|Pix Credit: HERE|
. . . and the way they appear to the rest of the world:
Thus, the focus here is not so much about what went right or wrong, but rather it is on the characteristics (and underlying premises) of the structural drivers that in this case and over the last two generations or so inevitably drive the elites in charge of the largest post modern empires on earth into farce. Related, of course, is the question of the buffoonery that appears to be built into the arrogance of position in those hermetically sealed chambers of influence and world seeing that then practically scripts the last week or so in the offices of political and bureaucratic Washington, within the editorial offices of the semi-official press and its video media cousins (the hangers on and complicit partners of the "official" set), and the intelligentsia who wear their collars. It is worth emphasizing that this is not a uniquely American "thing" (though everyone loves to talk, for good or ill, of American exceptionalism as it it were some sort of divine source of power-meaning that explains all). Theocratic bureaucracies--the priest-warrior cliques of the Taliban are little better (though in this case more patient, less risk averse, and better funded). And variations of this great organizational malaise of the first third of the 21st century are on offer elsewhere, marked by the missteps of sealed off core-collective binaries whose structural coupling is badly managed and most effective in the face of societal explosion (local protests, race riots, poisoning of political and murders figures or irritants, etc.).
It is only with this in mind that one ought to read the Tony Blair's "Why We Must Not Abandon the People of Afghanistan – For Their Sakes and Ours
" that appeared on his blog, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change on 21 August 2021. That marvelous intervention in the midst of the current Afghan crisis (well, anyway, a crisis for the West, an episodic triumph for the Taliban, and an opportunity for those seeking a way out of the shadows of what had once presumed to be the global empire of liberal democratic ideals) is worth reading carefully. It evidences all of the highs and lows of a transnational leadership culture, whose self consciousness is shared, even as the driving values differ. And it offers a useful commentary on the times and the way that framing an issue makes all the difference in the world. Lastly, its engagement with religion suggests the way that religion has become the Achilles Heel of Western political theory.
Tellingly, it remains a leadership class that, as it has for the last several centuries, more and more strongly embraced the idea that the masses could be managed to believe and act in certain ways but, critically, that could come as a sort of act of free will grounded in a rational understanding of the realities of what is good and what is bad, or rather what is in one's own interest and what is not (valued, of course, on the basis of the presumptions of the rationalized system that permits this act of free will. Nietzsche long ago stressed the great error of "free will" unmoored from the deep normative structures from which such acts made by made but only within that space permitted by those structures (and thus no exercise of will only an affirmation of the power of norms to make those choices inevitable).
But the process of substituting one set of norms for another is not a matter of a few years of capacity building, lectures, good deeds and the like. The past suggests that cultures that smother others take a long time, create substantial and discriminating systems of rewards based on compliance (and thus the very intriguing potential of Chinese Social Credit systems), or are accompanied by substantial violence. It takes a long time, deep immersion, and the development of substantial "subterranean" social structures along with mercilessly imposed taboos to bring these changes about. Afghanistan is a case in point--not now of course, but during that period when it was transformed from a Buddhist and Zoroastrian collection of peoples into an Islamic collection of peoples.
The essay is reposted below; but it is worth examining the entire website. I leave it to its readers to decide for themselves whether Mr. Blair has anything worth considering, whatever one thinks about its conclusions, or whatever one's personal opinion is of Mr. Blair, his time in leadership, etc. I believe the essay contains a wealth of insight--intentional and unintentional--that makes this a profound read. I make only the following small additional points:
1. "The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous,
unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours. In the aftermath of
the decision to return Afghanistan to the same group from which the
carnage of 9/11 arose, and in a manner that seems almost designed to
parade our humiliation."
This is a rich opening and there are many ways in which one could take the many many discursive signals packed into so few words. I will focus only on this here: The initial theme of abandonment of Afghanistan is worth careful consideration. The word abandonment cannot be understood in isolation. It derives is meaning--and power--as a relational signal. It suggests an active and a passive partner; it suggests a normative structure that defines responsibility and exacts a toll for its breach. But the precise nature of the abandonment is most murky--the Afghan people, certainly--though it appears that not all of its people (unless the retraining of the Taliban was the missed responsibility. This is abandonment with deep cultural implications--for those doing the abandoning. If it is the abandonment of the state apparatus the Americans and is leaders badly patched up, propped up, , and then undermined without any thinking about succession, then abandonment becomes something more political. Yet it is worth thinking about the extent to which a loyalty between one one nomenklatura and another made in its own image might well have been the basis for the sad state of things today. The juxtaposition between the humiliation of the elite nomenklatura in the United States and UK, against the human tragedy for the peoples of all three states is quite striking.
2. "There is no doubt that in the years that followed we made mistakes, some
serious. But the reaction to our mistakes has been, unfortunately,
further mistakes. Today we are in a mood that seems to regard the
bringing of democracy as a utopian delusion and intervention, virtually
of any sort, as a fool’s errand."
Again, an interesting juxtaposition. It is true enough that mistakes were made--and some of them were of the sort that were then replicated in even worse ways in the Iraqi adventurism that happened with academics and theorists think they can play soldier and great prophets of political, social, and cultural truth. The response, that merely because these people did things badly (they couldn't help themselves--prisoners of the logic of their own orienting action spaces) doesn't mean that the object is unattainable. It is just that this bizarre alignment between an administrative overlordship of self perpetuating ruling caste members with the attainability of an ideal ((representative democracy) itself serves as parody and as the reason the ideal appears utopian. It is not the problem of attainment but rather that of the cultural closed loop of the ideologies of core-collectives with bad communication that produces (and will continue to produce) these sorts of sad conflations of leadership with mass cultural change. That conflation works in some ideological systems (Leninism and American corporate cultures, for example). But but in this case. And yet culturally sensitive moment toward that ideal would not have been impossible in theory, just given the nature of the people on the ground and the ideological binders they necessarily wore.
3. "We didn't need to do it. We chose to do it. We did it in obedience to an
imbecilic political slogan about ending “the forever wars”, as if our
engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even
ten years ago, and in circumstances in which troop numbers had declined
to a minimum and no allied soldier had lost their life in combat for 18
It is now increasingly rare to get me to laugh when I read. This was an exception. Ooooooohhh so naughty but in an insider kind of way. It must have been interesting indeed to have been in at 10 Downing Street in the glory days. And yet here is precisely the point: reality hardly ever gets in the way of sloganeering nowadays among elites. And sloganeering is merely a way of condensing quite complex (sometimes) normative premises that constrain and guide action-choices. Yet when the complexity is dropped and the only thing that is left is the slogan itself, then all manner of tragic buffoonery follows. The difference is important and perhaps best understood in the context of icons and other ritual objects. One does not worship or invoke those ritual objects, vessels, slogans, etc., one understands them as a condensed representation or gateway to meaning. Here one encounters signification through the ritual objects that convey but are not meaning. Honoring a taboo against "forever wars" is important in American society. This Republic is not built for old fashioned empire (though it is perfectly crafted for empires of the mind and of production).
And yet the invocation of slogan can be as disastrous as the incantation of a spell without understanding its implications or the context and principles that guide its use. Here a mad assemblage of shifting meanings (about war, about forever, about ending, etc.) all contribute to what Mr. Blair judges imbecilic. Here it pays to understand just why Mr. Blair might have invoked THAT word (imbecile) rather than another. Imbecile derives from the Latin imbecillus
"weak, feeble," a word of uncertain origin (here
). One line of thinking suggests that the "Latin word traditionally is said to mean "unsupported" or "without a walking stick" (Juvenal: imbecillis: quasi sine baculo
)" (Ibid.). These notions, of wekness, of the state of being feeble, and of a failure to provide for appropriate support, all serve to mock not the project but those who adventure abroad without appropriate support.
That sense becomes critical later on in the essay when Mr. Blair, looking over his shoulder at the approaching Russians and Chinese, see in them, rather than in the Taliban, the great threat that withdrawal poses. The Taliban can be dealt with like any other second or third order group of irritants to greater empire: "We need to draw up a list of incentives, sanctions and actions we can
take, including to protect the civilian population so the Taliban
understand their actions will have consequences." But it is the Russians in Syria rather then the Americans in Afghanistan that provides the guiding star against which withdrawal decisions ought to be judged.
4. "Islamism is a long-term structural challenge because it is an
ideology utterly inconsistent with modern societies based on tolerance
and secular government. Yet Western policymakers can't even agree to call it “Radical Islam”.
We prefer to identify it as a set of disconnected challenges, each to
be dealt with separately. If we did define it as a strategic challenge, and saw it in whole and
not as parts, we would never have taken the decision to pull out of
Afghanistan. We are in the wrong rhythm of thinking in relation to Radical Islam.
With Revolutionary Communism, we recognised it as a threat of a
strategic nature, which required us to confront it both ideologically
and with security measures. It lasted more than 70 years. Throughout
that time, we would never have dreamt of saying, “well, we have been at
this for a long time, we should just give up.”
Among the most interesting analogies put forward is the alignment between Russian Communist political internationalism and the political internationalism of what Mr. Blair calls Radical Islam (which in this sense is treated as a Leninist vanguard party but with a very different political-societal ideology). Here the idea is simple: what he calls Radical Islam is a political movement grounded in religion in the way that Communism was a political movement grounded in Marxism. Both are understood to be vanguard parties (the leading societal force within their normative communities), each pulling their respective communities (and ultimately the world) toward the realization of a particular vision of the ordering of collectives and its governance. In that respect, it is necessary to treat vanguards in the same way. And it that is the case the entire logic of the forever war caution falls apart. But then so does much of the foundation of what has been a very careful effort by (mostly non-Muslim) liberal democratic societies, to re-imagine Islam in ways suitable to it. That is disrespectful, but the trajectories of respect get turned around in the West when it comes to matters of religion.
It is here that the analogy offers promise. For it suggests a reminder that religion, like politics, is neither unitary, nor necessarily subject to easy rationalization. Religion is a belief system, but so are many other systems that are organized around a different core cluster of beliefs and practices. The engagement with religion as an object, as the grammar of seeing the world, as a manifestation of organization, and as its institutions continues to confound a global community that continues to be bedeviled by their own respective histories (see my "Religion As Object And The Grammar Of Law," Marq. L. Rev. 81:229 (1998). Religion can neither be taken for granted, nor treated with the delicacy reserved for one's aged grandparents--feeble and cute but no longer of any real consequence except as historical curiosity. It is built into the bones of all systems and its discursive forms have morphed into the basis for societal organization within the major global powers, whatever their outward forms of belief systems that are not bound by or to a particular profession of faith. Faith itself has its own devils in its own nomenklatura's and institutional and bureaucratic sinning. Respect is important, delicacy is fatal. That is likely Mr. Blair's point. and it adds irony to his closing: "
It requires us to learn lessons from the 20 years since 9/11 in a spirit of humility – and the respectful exchange of different points of view – but also with a sense of rediscovery that we in the West represent values and interests worth being proud of and defending. And that commitment to those values and interests needs to define our politics and not our politics define our commitment.