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Civilisational Chauvinism

With talk of a ‘long war’, the US has committed itself to a high-intensity, asymmetrical war against civilian populations, writes Guy Rundle

Historians of the future — who may well be writing their chronicles by candlelight — may come to record that the Third World War began last month, when President George W. Bush announced a nuclear sharing deal with India — a country that has built up its weapons capability by a repeated flouting of non-proliferation treaties and that has rattled the nuclear sabre at Pakistan more than once. The deal — based in part on the proposition that India and the US, as parliamentary democracies, have a natural affinity — has been presented as the First World reaching out to the global South, a continuation of the process of globalisation. In fact it is the reverse. With an eye to the future, the US is attaching itself to one of the two powers that will eventually dominate the world. With the knowledge that China’s economic and military development is running ahead of everyone else’s, India has as much interest in a larger alliance as does America — with the added realisation that the latter will eventually be the junior partner.

When that switch will take place remains to be seen. Despite being a quarter the size by population of its rivals, the US has a GDP of $11 trillion — China is currently running at over $2 trillion, having recently passed the UK, and is closing in on Japan (at $4.3 trillion). Until recently, it could be presumed that the process would take until the mid-century or beyond. It is to the anti-credit of the George W. Bush government that they may have almost single-handedly knocked down this process by decades. The Iraq war has been a supreme economic disaster — economist Jeremy Steiglitz estimates that it may eventually cost $2 trillion — and it has coincided with a range of tax cuts that have raised the US deficit to 8 per cent of GDP. With much of the debt being held by China, any shudder in the global economic system may well have amplified knock-on effects.

Of course Iraq has also been a supreme strategic disaster (quite aside from the catastrophe the occupation has been for the Iraqi people). It has created a university for urban guerrillas/terrorists at the heart of the Arab world, prompted the Iranian people to choose the most hardline leader the mullahs offered them, and exposed the dithering and mediocre nature of the American leadership — an impression underscored by the tragical–farcical indifference with which it responded to the destruction of one of its own cities by Hurricane Katrina.

There is simply no good result now possible for the US in Iraq — it will either stay and bleed, or exit quickly in ignominy. The militaristic themes and obsessions of its mass culture have misled it to believe that it is a martial society. In fact, it is a media society, with war as a spectator sport — hence the military cannot even begin to meet its recruitment targets. Never mind opening a second front in Darfur or elsewhere — it lacks the human resources to maintain a single mid-size occupation.

Yet American’s inability to wage conventional war is no cause for rejoicing, since it has now prompted its military–political complex to move forward a strategy it always knew it would get to — the rebranding of the ‘war on terror’ as the ‘long war’. What differentiates the two is that the former was predicated, both in reality and for PR purposes, as a low-intensity smart war waged against political despots on behalf of grateful populations, while the latter is an uncompromising commitment to high-intensity asymmetrical war waged against civilian populations. As Donald Rumsfeld intimated prior to the Iraq war, the US will not rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons in battlefield situations. The most likely first use of such weapons will be Iran — if the US and Israel decide to blow out of the ground that country’s nuclear facilities. Such an attack could result in killings in the hundreds of thousands. In the heightened temperature — contributed to by the Iranian president’s urging to wipe Israel off the map (with the intimation that its Jewish population might like to go to Alaska or otherwise take their chances) — the Israeli defence minister has threatened to ‘end Iranian civilisation’, and it is certainly capable of such a genocidal act.

What has always held the US back from the ‘long war’ has been the public reaction. Only the anti-war movement stood between Nixon and the use of nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War — yet the degree to which a mass movement could be mobilised against a distant ‘long war’ is unknowable. Just in case it would present a threat, however, the ideological champions of the ‘long war’ have undertaken a massive project of what one might call ‘civilisational chauvinism’. This is an attempt to go beyond arguments about ‘clashes of civilisations’ — which has a trace of relativism about it — and champion a notion that Christianity represents a superior form of human civilisation and the unique precursor of enlightenment values. From Niall Ferguson to Keith Windschuttle, Pope Benedict XVI to the leader writers of the Murdoch press, some of the champions of this attitude seem to actually believe it, while for others it is simply a way of branding the global extension of the market and corporate power. On Melbourne’s Jon Faine radio program, Alan Howe, the new executive editor of News Ltd, called the US policy a war against ‘misogynistic goatherders’ that inevitably resulted in ‘collateral damage’ (he was speaking after the killing of ten civilians in a missile strike in Pakistan aimed at taking out yet another of al-Qaeda’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of seconds-in-command). One could not hope for a clearer statement that the targets in this war are millions of ordinary Muslims (however one chooses to characterise their beliefs and ways of life) rather than the modernised terrorist leaders who deploy Western-originated strategies and rhetoric. They have dared to fail to modernise in an approved fashion — that is, to provide new areas for the global market to expand into.

But civilisational chauvinism looks both ways. As the nihilism of that market becomes more visible, and as its anomic effect on Western life is shown up by the levels of solidarity and meaning visible in cultures — Islamic, Hindu and others — that retain a religious dimension (whatever else they may lack) there is an ever-shriller attempt to impose a Christian god on a culture that is economic-ally dependent on the unbounded manufacture and pursuit of desire — however violent, pornographic and exploitative that desire may be. Hence the increasingly divided nature of Western societies, between an essentially pagan celebration not only of sex and the body but of violence, cruelty and amoralism, and a prim and life-denying form of Christianity that increasingly deploys irrationalism — creationism, climate change denial — in a desperate attempt to shore up a closed system of Christian belief.

This will move from the ideological — the late stage of the ‘culture wars’ — to the nakedly repressive, with a struggle over curriculums and the ever-narrowing limits of free speech. It will fail — as Mussolini found, creating a martial culture out of a louche and modernised one is like putting the toothpaste back in the tube — but not before it has made a march through the institutions.

The movement against the ‘long war’ has already begun — it began with the movement against the Iraq war, when millions of people rejected the notion of military humanitarianism and imperial emancipation to oppose the war, even with the knowledge of the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It may well be the largest civil movement in history — but it will only succeed if it is grounded not in the calculus of foreign policy or history with a capital ‘H’, but in a position that is unashamedly ethical — not pacifist in the commonly accepted sense, but recognising the fact that the very existence of the apparatuses that make the ‘long war’ possible are inherently evil.

Guy Rundle is an Arena Publications Editor.