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• 09/12/04 - The Iraqi Borrowed Kettle
• 05/21/04 - What Rumsfeld Doesn't Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib
• 11/04/03 - The Iraqi MacGuffin
• 04/14/03 - Columbia University - TOO MUCH DEMOCRACY?
• 03/13/03 - THE IRAQ WAR

foreign policy gif


by Slavoj Zizek

Foreign Policy
January/February 2004

If you want to understand why the Bush administration invaded Iraq, read Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, not the National Security Strategy of the United States. Only the twisted logic of dreams can explain why the United States thinks that the aggressive pursuit of contradictory goals-promoting democracy, affirming U.S. hegemony, and ensuring stable energy supplies-will produce success.
To illustrate the weird logic of dreams, Sigmund Freud used to evoke a story about a borrowed kettle: When a friend accuses you of returning a borrowed kettle broken, your reply is, first, that you never borrowed the kettle; second, that you returned it unbroken; and third, that the kettle was already broken when you borrowed it. Such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments, of course, confirms precisely what it endeavors to deny: that you, in fact, did borrow and break the kettle.
A similar string of inconsistencies characterized the Bush administration's public justifications for the U.S. attack on Iraq in early 2003. First, the administration claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which posed a "real and present danger" to his neighbors, to Israel, and to all democratic Western states. So far, no such weapons have been found (after more than 1,000 U.S. specialists have spent months looking for them). Then, the administration argued that even if Saddam does not have any WMD, he was involved with al Qaeda in the September 11 attacks and therefore should be punished and prevented from launching future assaults. But even U.S. President George W. Bush had to concede in September 2003 that the United States "had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th." Finally, there was the third level of justification, that even if there was no proof of a link with al Qaeda, Saddam's ruthless dictatorship was a threat to its neighbors and a catastrophe to its own people, and these facts were reason enough to topple it. True, but why topple Iraq and not other evil regimes, starting with Iran and North Korea, the two other members of Bush's infamous "axis of evil"?
So, if these reasons don't hold up to serious scrutiny and merely seem to suggest that the administration was misguided to do what it did, what, then, were the real underlying reasons for the attack? Effectively, there were three: first, a sincere ideological belief that the destiny of the United States is to bring democracy and prosperity to other nations; second, the urge to brutally assert and signal unconditional U.S. hegemony; and third, the need to control Iraqi oil reserves.
Each of the three levels works on its own and deserves to be taken seriously; none of them, including the spread of democracy, should be dismissed as a simple manipulation and lie. Each has its own contradictions and consequences, for good and ill. But taken together, they are dangerously inconsistent and incompatible and all but predestine the U.S. effort in Iraq to failure.
Americans have historically seen their role in the world in altruistic terms. "We just try to be good," they say, "to help others, to bring peace and prosperity, and look what we get in return." In fact, movies such as John Ford's The Searchers and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver or books like Graham Greene's The Quiet American, which provide fundamental insight into the naive benevolence of Americans, have never been more relevant than with today's global U.S. ideological offensive. As Greene said about his American protagonist, who sincerely wants to bring democracy and Western freedom to the Vietnamese, only to see his intentions totally misfire: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."
The supposition underlying these good intentions is that underneath our skins, we are all Americans. If that is humanity's true desire, then all that Americans need to do is to give people a chance, liberate them from their imposed constraints, and they will embrace America's ideological dream. No wonder the United States has moved from "containing" the enemy to promoting a "capitalist revolution," as Stephen Schwartz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies put it in February 2003. The United States is now, as the defunct Soviet Union was decades ago, the subversive agent of a world revolution.
But when Bush said in his January 2003 State of the Union message, "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity," this apparent burst of humility, in fact, concealed its totalitarian opposite. Every totalitarian leader claims that, in himself, he is nothing at all: His strength is only the strength of the people who stand behind him, whose deepest strivings only he expresses. The catch is, those who oppose the leader by definition not only oppose him, but they also oppose the deepest and noblest strivings of the people. And does the same not hold for Bush's claim? It would have been easier if freedom effectively were to be just the United States' gift to other nations; that way, those who oppose U.S. policies would merely be against the policies of a single nation-state. But if freedom is God's gift to humanity, and the U.S. government sees itself as the chosen instrument for showering this gift on all the nations of the world, then those who oppose U.S. policies are rejecting the noblest gift of God to humanity.
As for the second reason, the urge to demonstrate unconditional U.S. hegemony, the Bush administration's National Security Strategy calls for translating America's "position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence" into "decades of peace, prosperity, and liberty." But neoconservative thinkers speak in balder terms what their brethren in the White House cannot. In their recent book, The War over Iraq, neoconservatives William Kristol and Lawrence F. Kaplan write, "The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there.... We stand at the cusp of a new historical era.... This is a decisive moment.... It is so clearly about more than Iraq. It is about more even than the future of the Middle East and the war on terror. It is about what sort of role the United States intends to play in the twenty-first century." One cannot but agree with that statement: The U.S. attack on Iraq has effectively put the future of the international community at stake, raising fundamental questions about the "new world order" and what rules will regulate it.
Regarding the third reason for launching an attack, it would be simplistic to assume that the United States intended to take over Iraq's oil industry lock, stock, and barrel. But in a country that, as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it, "floats on a sea of oil," the installation of a U.S.-blessed government that is committed to permitting foreign (read: U.S.) investment in its oil industry and that enjoys an influential perch at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was surely an important consideration for U.S. policymakers. Indeed, to ignore that consideration would have been a case of strategic malpractice on a grand scale.
Of these three reasons, the key factor is the second one: using Iraq as a pretext or exemplary case to establish the parameters of the new world order, to assert the right of the United States to launch preventive strikes and thus to cement its status as the sole global policing power. The message behind the U.S. attack was not primarily addressed to the Iraqi people but to all of us witnessing the war-we were the true ideological and political targets.
At this point, one should ask the naive question: the United States as global policeman-why not? After all, the post-Cold-War world effectively begged for some global power to fill in the void. Ah, but there's the rub: The problem with today's United States is not that it is a new global empire, but that it is not, i.e., that, while pretending to be an empire, it continues to act as a nation-state, ruthlessly pursuing its interests. Indeed, in a perverse reversal of the old ecological slogan, the bumper sticker for the Bush administration's foreign policy could well be "act globally, think locally." Look, for example, at the U.S. decision to impose steel tariffs, ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization and certainly in violation of its own sacrosanct advice to developing countries to open themselves to the global market.
Another stunning example of U.S. double-think was the two-sided pressure it exerted on Serbia in the summer of 2003. U.S. officials demanded that Serbia deliver suspected war criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague (in accordance with the logic of the global empire, which demands transnational judicial institutions); but they also simultaneously pressured Serbia to sign a bilateral treaty obliging it not to deliver to the new International Criminal Court (also in The Hague) any U.S. citizens suspected of war crimes or other crimes against humanity (in accordance with the logic of the nation-state). No wonder the Serb reaction was one of perplexed fury.
And does the same inconsistency not hold for how the United States is waging the "war on terror"? The exemplary economic strategy of today's capitalism is outsourcing-handing over the "dirty" process of material production (but also publicity, design, accounting, etc.) to another company. Production takes place in, say, Indonesia, where environmental and labor standards are much lower than in the West, and the Western company that owns the logo can claim that it is not responsible for violations by its contractors.
Now, something homologous is taking place with the interrogation of terror suspects, with torture "outsourced" to Third World allies (those same countries criticized in the U.S. State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices) who can coerce confessions without worrying about legal problems or public protest. "We can't legalize torture; it's contrary to American values," sniffed columnist Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, while nonetheless concluding that "we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty." And so it goes with First World democracies, which outsource more and more of their dirty undersides, whether telemarketing or torture, to other countries. The opportunity to bring the war on terror within the scope of an international legal order has been squandered. Why? To borrow the words of Muhammad Said al-Sahaf, the colorful Iraqi information minister who, in one of his last press conferences during the war, reportedly denied that Americans controlled parts of Baghdad: "[The Americans] are not in control of anything-they don't even control themselves!" Simply put, U.S. policymakers lack the self-awareness to recognize, let alone reconcile, the contradictions between and among their intentions and their actions.
In February 2002, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns-the ones we don't know we don't know." For Rumsfeld, these "unknown unknowns" represent the greatest threats facing the United States. But Rumsfeld forgot to add the crucial fourth term: the unknown knowns, things we don't know that we know-which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the "knowledge which doesn't know itself," as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to say. In many ways, these unknown knowns, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to, may pose an even greater threat. That is indeed the case with the reasons for this war. What is "unknown" (disavowed, ignored) is not primarily the problematic nature of those reasons as such (say, the fact that in spreading democracy, the United States is imposing its own version of democracy), but, rather, the inconsistency among those reasons. The United States is pursuing a series of goals (spreading democracy, asserting its hegemony, securing oil supplies) that are ultimately incompatible. Consider countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, conservative monarchies, but economic allies, deeply integrated into Western capitalism. Here, the United States has a very precise interest: For these nations to provide dependable oil reserves for the United States, they must remain undemocratic, since it is a safe bet that democratic elections in Saudi Arabia or Iraq would produce an Islamist, nationalist regime riding on anti-American attitudes. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," declared Bush in November 2003. But it did give Western countries relatively stable energy supplies, something that the United States is unlikely to sacrifice overnight on the altar of freedom.
Moreover, despite Bush's talk of a "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," we know now what bringing democracy means: The United States and its "willing partners" ultimately decide if a country is ripe for democracy and what form that democracy should take. Witness Rumsfeld's comment in April 2003 that Iraq should not become a theocracy, but a tolerant secular country in which all religions and ethnic groups enjoyed the same rights. U.S. officials have reacted with barely muted discomfort to the possibility that a new Iraqi constitution might give Islam a privileged position. The irony here is twofold: Not only would it be nice if the United States were to demand the same from Israel with regard to Judaism, but while Saddam's Iraq already was a secular state, the likely result of democratic elections would be the privileging of Islam! One unnamed senior U.S. figure even stated, according to the British newspaper The Independent, "the first foreign policy gesture of a democratic Iraq would be to recognize Israel."
Instead, what is likely to emerge as a result of the U.S. occupation in Iraq is precisely a fundamentalist Muslim anti-American movement, directly linked to such movements in other Arab countries or countries with a Muslim presence. It is as if, in a contemporary display of the "cunning of reason," some invisible hand of destiny repeatedly ensures that the U.S. intervention only makes more likely the outcomes the United States sought most to avoid.

Excerpts from U.S. President George W. Bush's speech on freedom in Iraq and the Middle East at the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy on Nov. 6, 2003.

The sacrifices of Americans have not always been recognized or appreciated, yet they have been worthwhile....
As changes come to the Middle Eastern region, those with power should ask themselves: Will they be remembered for resisting reform, or for leading it? In Iran, the demand for democracy is strong and broad, as we saw last month when thousands gathered to welcome home Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The regime in Teheran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people, or lose its last claim to legitimacy....
There are, however, essential principles common to every successful society, in every culture. Successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military-so that governments respond to the will of the people, and not the will of an elite. Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law, instead of selectively applying the law to punish political opponents....
[Securing democracy in Iraq] is a massive and difficult undertaking-it is worth our effort, it is worth our sacrifice, because we know the stakes. The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, and increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region. Iraqi democracy will succeed-and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran-that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution....
...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. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.
Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.
The advance of freedom is the calling of our time. It is the calling of our country...And we believe that freedom-the freedom we prize-is not for us alone. It is the right and the capacity of all mankind.
Working for the spread of freedom can be hard. Yet, America has accomplished hard tasks before. Our nation is strong; we're strong of heart.


Comment On This Article





comments gif
I recommend the lecture of Jean-Claude Milner's book: "Les penchants criminels de l'Europe democratique". It is a good reading as a "companion" of this article--it is my opinion.
I would like to ask Slavoj Zizek how does he place this new-old type of problem--solution, as Jean Claude Milner puts it. The jew is a problem, "The jewish problem". Now there is "the Israel problem".
Jean-Claude Milner's thesis is that "Israel" is the new name for "jew" in the new type of anti-semitism we are facing.
Jean-Claude Milner bases his thesis on Lacan's formulae of sexuation. We were glad to be able to discuss his book with him here in Israel, together with the problem of evaluation.

Marco Mauas

Marco Mauas <mauas@netvision.net.il>
Israel, - Thursday, April 01, 2004 at 18:20:32 (EST)