'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, May 02, 2011

A Note on the Death of Osama Bin Laden 

UPDATE 2: From Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist:

The radical-theological option that Bin Laden represented as a solution to the state of the Arab world has long been discredited. It was discredited before it even began, in that it was a result of the failure of the violent Islamist movements of the 1970s-1990s era. Also discredited, or at least on the ropes, are the pro-US reformist option of the moderate Arab regimes. Moderate, in the way Saudi Arabia or Mubarak's Egypt was, and reformist, because they are interested in changing to survive, not making a radical break. But the people spoke and they don't want reform, they want rupture.

UPDATE 1: From the Angry Arab, As'ad Abukhalil:

But what is not yet acknowledged here in the US is that Bin Laden is a product of horrific US policies in the Cold War: of their alliance with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The people in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be relieved today: not because they hated Bin Laden (many do sympathize with him only to spite the US), but because scores of Afghans and Pakistanis have been killed over the years during the campaign to get and kill Bin Laden. Remember that time in late 2001 when the US incinerated a convoy there because a tall dark man was seen getting into one of the cars. The US intelligence analyst on the scene assumed that there were no tall people other Bin Laden. But the factors that produced Bin Laden and Al-Qa`idah are still there: the US is still very tempted to arm and fund fanatical groups if they think it is politically convenient for US national security interests. Look at that lousy Libyan Transitional Council: there are fanatics in the ranks and I assume that we will hear from some of them, especially once they declare the victory of their holy cause.

INITIAL POST: Osama Bin Laden is dead, and I am not particularly interested in whether it happened yesterday or was merely announced yesterday. After all, there are many who believe that he has been dead for years. Instead, I am more interested in how the public announcement of his death reveals, yet again, an inability by Americans to seize upon opportunities to reflect upon the interrelationship between violence and US policy.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I expressed the hope, however misguided, that Americans, having experienced such traumatic acts of violence, would now empathize with many others around the world who have suffered similarly. For example, the 9/11 attacks took place on the same day in 1973 that the Chilean military, with the support of the US, forcibly removed President Salvador Allende from power and subsequently killed thousands of Chileans. Shortly thereafter, Chile, along with other US backed dictatorships in the region, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Peru, launched Operation Condor, a covert intelligence operation with the express purpose of exterminating the left in the southern cone of South America. With the support of the CIA, these countries killed, at minimum, 40,000 people and incarcerated 200,000 others. In other words, the destabilization of Chile by Nixon and Kissinger and subsequent military coup by Pinochet were preconditions for a more ambitious effort to erase the left in much of South America. The coincidence that both 9/11 and the Chilean coup occurred on the same date could have served to provoke Americans to reflect upon the horrible consequences of the infliction of such violence for political purposes. Beyond South America, we could have understood the horrible suffering that resulted from US military and covert operations all over the world.

We could have taken responsibility for our actions even as we grieved over those who died on 9/11, and strove to induce other countries to resolve political disputes non-violently. But this would have required Americans to relate to 9/11 as an act of violence, as opposed to an act of nihilistic resistance to American hegemony, and identify with others who have experienced such violence as well, regardless of their nationality, religion and political ideology. Unfortunately, most Americans responded vengefully, villifying those around the world who objected to the militaristic response to the attacks and the exploitation of them to extend the reach of US imperial influence. Invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq followed, and, to this day, despite the lack of any significant al-Qaeda presence in either country, US troops remain, as Bush and Obama have discovered new enemies to justify their presence. Needless to say, the death and destruction associated with these occupations far exceeds that related to 9/11. Sadly, in Iraq, the US has relied upon the same kind of death squad activity that was such a prominent feature of Operation Condor, as well as covert operations in Vietnam, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. And, under Obama, the US has expanded its military and covert operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Libya.

In this, Bin Laden succeeded in his one of his primary objectives, to reduce much of the relationship between the US and the countries of the Middle East and Central Asia to one of military violence or the threat of it. But, as Baudrillard predicted, this effort to overcome the vulnerability revealed by the 9/11 attacks merely increased the perception of US weakness. US troops are mired in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan without any prospects for success by any recognizable standard, other than the perpetuation of conflict indefinitely. To the extent that people are euphoric over Bin Laden's death, this is a measure of the permanence of his achievement. Paradoxically, though, one of the consequences has been an eruption of more secular, more inclusive activism throughout North Africa and the Middle East, an eruption in which al-Qaeda has been conspicuously absent. Hence, Americans are celebrating success in a struggle that has already been rendered largely irrelevant.

Bin Laden often expressed his belief that this objective would lead to the attainment of another, more serious one, the economic decline of the US, a decline so pronounced that it would no longer be capable of imposing its will upon other countries. Here, the record is mixed. Admittedly, countries in Asia and South America have a freedom of maneuver that they did not possess prior to 9/11. About seven months later, in April 2002, Hugo Chavez survived a coup supported by the US, signalling to the rest of South America that the door was now open to the emergence of center-left governments. It is still uncertain, however, as to whether US economic influence is been impaired globally. The US, with the assistance of Germany and the United Kingdom, has successfully imposed a program of extreme austerity upon Europe, marked by the evisceration of historic social welfare programs, as a means of addressing the severe global recession of 2008 and 2009.

Meanwhile, within the US, the ongoing war on terror serves to ring fence spending on the military and the intelligence services, despite substantial budget deficits, thus empowering those who aspire to eliminate the remaining vestiges of social protection initiated during the New Deal and the Great Society. At this time, it would be more accurate to say that Bin Laden indirectly participated in the creation of circumstances that have made it possible to reconfigure the global economy in ways even more amenable to finance capital. It is tempting to say that Bin Laden lacked a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the US and global capital, but this is doubtful. Rather, it is more likely that he considered the aggressive neoliberalism of recent years as compatible with his social philosophy and beneficial to the future of al-Qaeda. In this, there is a perverse, unacknowledged alliance between al-Qaeda, neoliberals and neoconsevatives, as all three groups are in agreement about the urgency associated with the need to marginalize and impoverish workers even if it is in the service of strikingly different visions of the future.

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