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    Middle East
     Oct 24, 2007
Page 1 of 4
A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED
Intellectual fallacies of the 'war on terror'
By Chalmers Johnson

(This essay reviewsThe Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror by Stephen Holmes.)

There are many books entitled A Guide for the Perplexed, including Moses Maimonides' 12th century treatise on Jewish law and E F Schumacher's 1977 book on how to think about science. Book titles cannot be copyrighted. A Guide for the Perplexed might therefore be a better title for Stephen Holmes' new book



than the one he chose, The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror. In his perhaps overly clever conception, the matador is the terrorist leadership of al-Qaeda, taunting a maddened United States into an ultimately fatal reaction. But do not let the title stop you from reading the book. Holmes has written a powerful and philosophically erudite survey of what we t hink we understand about the 9/11 attacks - and how and why the United States has magnified many times over the initial damage caused by the terrorists.

Stephen Holmes is a law professor at New York University. In The Matador's Cape, he sets out to forge an understanding - in an intellectual and historical sense, not as a matter of journalism or of partisan politics - of the Iraq war, which he calls "one of the worst (and least comprehensible) blunders in the history of American foreign policy" (p 230). His modus operandi is to survey in depth approximately a dozen influential books on post-Cold War international politics to see what light they shed on America's missteps. I will touch briefly on the books he chooses for dissection, highlighting his essential thoughts on each of them.

Holmes' choice of books is interesting. Many of the authors he focuses on are American conservatives or neoconservatives, which is reasonable since they are the ones who caused the debacle. He avoids progressive or left-wing writers, and none of his choices are from Metropolitan Books' American Empire Project. (Disclosure: This review was written before I read Holmes' review of my own book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, in the October 29 issue of The Nation.)

He concludes: "Despite a slew of carefully researched and insightful books on the subject, the reason why the United States responded to the al-Qaeda attack by invading Iraq remains to some extent an enigma" (p 3). Nonetheless, his critiques of the books he has chosen are so well done and fair that they constitute one of the best introductions to the subject. They also have the advantage in several cases of making it unnecessary to read the original.

Holmes interrogates his subjects cleverly. His main questions and the key books he dissects for each of them are:

  • Did Islamic religious extremism cause 9/11? Here he supplies his own independent analysis and conclusion (to which I turn below).

  • Why did American military preeminence breed delusions of omnipotence, as exemplified in Robert Kagan's Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (Knopf, 2003)? While not persuaded by Kagan's portrayal of the United States as "Mars" and Europe as "Venus", Holmes takes Kagan's book as illustrative of neoconservative thought on the use of force in international politics: "Far from guaranteeing an unbiased and clear-eyed view of the terrorist threat, as Kagan contends, American military superiority has irredeemably skewed the country's view of the enemy on the horizon, drawing the United States, with appalling consequences, into a gratuitous, cruel, and unwinnable conflict in the Middle East." (p 72)

  • How was the war lost, as analyzed in Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor (Pantheon, 2006)? Holmes regards this book by Gordon, the military correspondent of the New York Times, and Trainor, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, as the best treatment of the military aspects of the disaster, down to and including US envoy L Paul Bremer's disbanding of the Iraqi military. I would argue that Fiasco (Penguin 2006) by the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks is more comprehensive, clearer-eyed, and more critical.

  • How did a tiny group of individuals, with eccentric theories and reflexes, recklessly compound the country's post-9/11 security nightmare? Here Holmes considers James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (Viking, 2004). One of Mann's more original insights is that the neocons in the Bush administration were so bewitched by Cold War thinking that they were simply incapable of grasping the new realities of the post-Cold War world. "In Iraq, alas, the lack of a major military rival excited some aging hardliners into toppling a regime that they did not have the slightest clue how to replace ... We have only begun to witness the long-term consequences of their ghastly misuse of unaccountable power". (p 106).

  • What roles did Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld play in the Bush administration, as captured in Michael Mann's Incoherent Empire (Verso, 2003)? According to Holmes, Mann's work "repays close study, even by readers who will not find its perspective altogether congenial or convincing". He argues that perhaps Mann's most important contribution, even if somewhat mechanically put, is to stress the element of bureaucratic politics in Cheney's and Rumsfeld's manipulation of the neophyte Bush: "The outcome of inter- and intra-agency battles in Washington, DC, allotted disproportionate influence to the fatally blurred understanding of the terrorist threat shared by a few highly placed and shrewd bureaucratic infighters. Rumsfeld and Cheney controlled the military; and when they were given the opportunity to rank the country's priorities in the war on terror, they assigned paramount importance to those specific threats that could be countered effectively only by the government agency over which they happened to preside" (p 107).

  • Why did the US decide to search for a new enemy after the Cold War, as argued by an old cold warrior, Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon and Schuster, 1996)? It is not clear why Holmes included Huntington's 11-year-old treatise on "Allah made them do it" in his collection of books on post-Cold War international politics except as an act of obeisance to establishmentarian - and especially Council-on-Foreign-Relations - thinking. Holmes regards Huntington's work as a "false template" and calls it misleading. Well before 9/11, many critics of Huntington's concept of "civilization" had pointed out that there is insufficient homogeneity in Christianity, Islam, or the other great religions for any of them to replace the position vacated by the Soviet Union. As Holmes remarks, Huntington "finds homogeneity because he is looking for homogeneity" (p 136).

  • What role did left-wing ideology play in legitimizing the war on terror, as seen by Samantha Power in A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic, 2002). As Holmes acknowledges, "The humanitarian interventionists rose to a superficial prominence in the 1990s largely because of a vacuum in US foreign-policy thinking after the end of the Cold War ... Their influence was small, however, and after 9/11, that influence vanished altogether." He nonetheless takes up the anti-genocide activists because he suspects that, by making a rhetorically powerful case for casting aside existing decision-making rules and protocols, they may have emboldened the Bush administration to follow suit and fight the "evil" of terrorism outside the constitution and the law. The idea that Power was an influence on Cheney and Rumsfeld may seem a stretch - they were, after all, doing what they had always wanted to do - but Holmes' argument that "a savvy pro-war party may successfully employ humanitarian talk both to gull the wider public and to silence potential critics on the liberal side" (p 157) is worth considering.

  • How did pro-war liberals help stifle national debate on the wisdom of the Iraq war, as illustrated by Paul Berman in Power 

    Continued 1 2 3 4 

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