A Diffuse and Ever-Variable Enemy (It’s the War, Intellectuals #2)

In a post arguing that “[t]he War on Terror is the problem, not drones,” ((has a familiar ring to it)) Ned Resnikoff concludes with the following sentence:

Hundreds ((typo corrected)), perhaps thousands, of non-combatants have now lost their lives in the name of the “War on Terror”: an ideological construct which now exists solely to grant the American government sweeping war powers on a permanent basis, so that it might fight a diffuse and ever-variable enemy.

The focus here and in the title of the post suggests a peculiar Bush Era inflection, as the Obama Administration conspicuously dropped the phrase “War on Terror” little more than two months after taking office. Since then, the Administration has striven to portray itself as operating strictly under the statutory instruction of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF): “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Resnikoff seems to have adopted the “War on Terror” as his own preferred ideological construct while attributing it to others, the Obama Administration in particular or perhaps the entire military-political superstructure. In short, it is not entirely clear what he means, even and especially after his offer of a definition, and the unclarity on this central question is typical and indicative: Like many other observers more or less on his side of this not very well defined ongoing political argument, Resnikoff seems to want to have his critique in three or so different ways at once.

Read one way, Resnikoff’s conclusion makes a very strong if not the strongest conceivable political accusation. It implies that, in addition to being operative despite what the Obama Administration says, the ideological construct exists “solely to grant… sweeping war powers,” in other words that it is being exploited as some kind of subterfuge in self-aggrandizement of the powerful, at a minimum in an act of bad faith, at the highest levels, with life and death stakes: a form of treason, in a democratic republic. Yet the immediately succeeding phrases seem to confirm a legitimate or at least external purpose of the sort indicated in the AUMF. Resnikoff seems to acknowledge that a real “fight” against a real “enemy” is ongoing. His further qualifying statements return, however, at least part of the way to the former, treasonous implication, since this enemy is “diffuse and ever-variable,” in other words is a somehow false or inadequate enemy. If we assume that a uniquely diffuse and ever-variable enemy could still pose an authentic threat despite its diffusion and ever-variability, then Resnikoff’s description, read non-prejudicially, would justify a unique response, but Resnikoff seems to mean just the opposite. An entity that is diffuse and ever-variable is indistinguishable from a phantom, is not defined at all. To the extent it is neither coherent nor definable, then it is unreal or, the same thing, un-combatable, and so we are back to the non-existence of a real enemy or real fight and a mere ideological construct, or lie, serving the aims of the powerful – unless Resnikoff is making a diagnosis of psychosis, or perhaps of some combination of insanity and evil.

Such a view would be defined in common political parlance as “radical.” It would imply that the “real enemy” is not “the terrorists,” who for all intents and purposes no longer exist as an enemy, if they ever did at all, but the Obama Administration itself or the state that it represents. It may be that Resnikoff holds such genuinely radical views, but is unable to state them clearly on an MSNBC web site. It may be that he was just rushing up a space-limited blog post. Or it may be that his un-clarity is typical of a not yet fully formed or coherent position, a common if not definitional situation for politics: That a position has not been fully thought through does not prevent people from putting it forward, arguing for it strenuously, and even denouncing those who disagree.

Rather than review other, similarly undeveloped statements on or reactions to current counterterror policy, or repeat past efforts at this blog to think about the limitations of a mass liberal-democratic system in relation to war, I will just observe that the Obama Administration, in contrast with many others discussing these issues on the eve of the Brennan confirmation hearings, seems to know quite well where it stands on the most relevant questions: It believes that there was and is a real enemy, adequately identified by the AUMF; that that enemy was and remains the right enemy; and that operations of the sort that Resnikoff and allies oppose have been critically helpful in protecting the American homeland, the first aim, even if the entire effort including those operations has not been completely effective in the sense of fully eradicating the justification for those same operations, and even if a more regularized and reviewable policy process needs to be put in place with the cooperation of Congress.

Furthermore, for the Administration and for many others who claim either classified or expert knowledge, this enemy’s present relatively high “diffusion,” that fact that adds to Resnikoff’s fears of unending war, is an intended result of military operations, including especially the more controversial ones. The Obama Administration’s underlying presumption seems to be that an indefinite low level, more or less remote-operated military campaign is greatly preferable to alternatives, especially any that require intermittent proofs, in the form of new successful major attacks, that the enemy still deserves to be treated as an enemy. The Administration may be on politically very firm ground on this last point, even if it causes some observers to feel like Winston Smith in need of re-education. Dystopian resonances notwithstanding, the claims as a whole make for the moderate pro-militarization position: that a military response to unconventional or terroristic warfare or the mere threat of it is both inevitable and desirable, and that specifically the reinforcement of the president’s Article 2 powers by the 2001 authorization ought to remain in place, if perhaps under elaborated safeguards against misuse.

Those dissatisfied for whatever reasons with this approach do not seem to have consolidated their own principled unity position. When, for instance, Chris Hayes of MSNBC (also Resnikoff’s employer, as it happens) tweets that he has “become increasingly convinced that it should be a top progressive priority to repeal the AUMF,” he is not clearly taking a position on whether or not the AUMF was ever justified, or whether anyone ever deserved designation as a military enemy requiring a response with “all necessary and appropriate force” under presidential discretion. When Hayes says that he is becoming “increasingly convinced,” he seems to mean that he may not yet in fact be fully convinced, either about the political wisdom of repeal as a top priority, or perhaps about the desirability of a full repeal apart from progressive political interests. It is not in fact clear whether he and allies like Resnikoff actually believe that the emergency is definitively over. Perhaps they do believe that the emergency is over, but are not ready to sound the “all clear.”

Hayes (who, after all, was just a tweeting a tweet) also leaves unstated whether the “top progressive priority” is simply to be a full repeal of the AUMF and a return to the status quo ante in law, or a repeal and replacement of the AUMF by a modified, but still “exceptional” or warmaking regime. If progressives and allies believe, or know that they believe, that exceptional measures were justifiable, but went wrong, then an entirely different replacement regime and set of reforms might make sense for them than if they mean to uphold common idealistic rhetoric about “rule of law” mattering more than all other concerns, whatever the costs or risks. If, however, they believe the (former) War on Terror was in fact a self-obviating success, then they might wish to replace the AUMF with a new legal and administrative regime that acknowledges and draws from authentic successes – successful warmaking against a real and legitimate, not simply ideologically constructed enemy – as well as errors.

It seems possible, however, that progressives and would-be allies on these matters do not really know what they think, at least not yet. Such uncertainty may explain why such progressives and allies seem to amount, at present, to a diffuse and variable, at most marginally influential, in fact not very real political force.

16 comments on “A Diffuse and Ever-Variable Enemy (It’s the War, Intellectuals #2)

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  1. I heard a particularly damning report today on how many Americans living abroad have been killed by order of the White House. I didn’t even know the President could just have someone killed. The main story was about this young sixteen year living in Yemin. He was an American citizen and Obama had him killed. No trial. They reporters said that in 2011 Obama had three Americans living abroad killed without a trial. The young sixteen year-old was sitting at a dinner table, eating, when FBI agents (I think it was) burst into the house and shot him dead. Of course, all these targeted people are “suspected terrorists.” But they don’t get a trial. I knew that was the case with OBL, of course, but I thought the President had gotten some specially worked out legal dispensation for that one. Call me naive, but I had no idea that this was just generally legal. Apparently, it’s questionably legal, but no one tries to nail down the legal specifics. That was what the reporters were questioning. Why don’t people question it? They said Obama has killed far more “terrorists” like this than anyone else, including Bush.

    • What’s damning about it, from someone with a generally radical point of view like yourself? Why should formal American citizenship make someone any more or less important than anyone else? Why should al-Awlaki, the evident enemy of America who happens to be a citizen, be spared, or be afforded special protections, that a non-American combatant, or suspected combatant, or accidental participant or innocent, isn’t? This is one set of questions that is occasionally brought up as we look at the possible infirmities of left-liberal positioning politically and morally.

      The declaration of war/emergency/state of exception is a declaration that the very system that makes a trial possible is under attack or in danger, and that therefore it and its premises – in a word, civil peace – have in effect already been suspended. So what are we going to do? Pure legal idealism says, in effect, go on as though nothing happened, and prepare a criminal case: No one “punished” without a trial. Calling for pure legal idealism is a position that can hardly even be spoken in public on September 12th. It hardly even occurs to people. They are generally already living in the state of exception, and it does not even occur to them that calling for militarization of the response means stepping beyond the “normal” law, even if the law happens to include procedures for legalizing its own suspension.

      • Well, as I’ve pointed out before, my pov is only “radical” compared to what one hears on TV. I know lots of people with a similar pov. They’re professors, librarians, lawyers, and doctors. They hold regular jobs, etc. But I do understand why it makes little sense to question why a country engaged in immoral acts would feel compelled to treat anyone in a just manner. Right, then, there is no reasonable reason to expect a murderous country not to murder anyone without a trial. But maybe I was unconsciously expecting them to have some sort of reverse “we have to kill cop killers first because cop killers are the biggest threat to society” kind of idea. “We have to give American citizens a fair trial because if we don’t then we’re lost in a world where no one gets a trial.” Nope. The government, especially not the President, has no such idea.

        • Well, they clearly accept that it’s “different,” but they don’t think someone who takes up arms gets a free pass, anymore than a gunman in a conventional “imminent threat” situation has to be read his Miranda rights before being fired upon.

          A terrorist abroad who happens to be “one of ours” doesn’t just endanger us, he also endangers everyday civilians of that other country. Arguably it’s even more our responsibility to handle the problem we’ve exported to them first.

        • Plus I think you should own being “radical”: Anyone who’s a pacifist and would have, I assume, been against the Authorization for Use of Military Force is certainly outside the “American mainstream,” and I think you take this position on the basis of principled and fundamental critique of that mainstream. It’s as you say not “what one hears on TV.” I’ve run across some pretty radical professors, librarians, lawyers, and doctors, too.

  2. Yesterday Brennan made a point of saying the drones killed those who were a future threat rather than punshing them for past actions. In the case of US citizens, I think this is a crucial point.

    By extending the battle feild both spatially and temporally the way it has, the US avoids any discussion of treason, ie levying war, about US citizens. Technology is both an important cause and the response here.

    I do tink though that the Constitution is simply not up to this state of afffairs, especially the more one agrees wth Scalia that it is a dead, dead document. I think this is a signficant factor in the diffuse and ever variable nature of both the policiy makng and the left’s response.

    • Except it was always a gray area in the Constitution, and in that way the Constitution had always already caught up with its own limitations. We managed to conquer the best continent on Earth, mostly eradicate or exploit the eradication of the native population, fight one war after another killing large numbers of people not all of whom deserved it, very many of them actually formally American citizens esp. during the Civil War, but all around the world, for centuries. Technology and the targeted killing program have narrowed the scope, brought things materially much closer to the constitutional ideal. Was just tweeting this morning with some folks and Cambodia came up. Turns out that, even before Nixon order invasion of Cambodia, we were bombing for years. Yet a single covert bombing campaign, Operation Menu, lasting one year, is said to have killed some 40,000 to 150,000 people – it’s unclear how many were “bad guys.” I believe that would be around 20 to 75 times as many casualties as in the targeted killing program since its inception. So are we getting better or worse, or does it not make any difference how much real damage we do?

  3. In the main I agree.

    The Civil War was constitutional as “suppressing Insurrection”. The traitors recieved amnesty after the war.

    But the Indian wars, the Monroe Doctrine and all the rest are extra-Constitutional. I don’t think the Constitution has caught up, but rather this extra Constitutonal aspect now seems something like common law.

    Technology reveals it all more clearly and I think, increases the perceved need for a legal framework. This may end up reducng the body count, although my jaundiced view is that it may redistribute it in novel, unanticipated and unintended ways. I hope not. At any rate, you’re very right, carpet bombing (and use of nuclear weapons) is not visible on the horizon.

    • Maybe another way to put it is that the Americans didn’t have a problem with British foreign policy – their arguement was with the ways they were treated as if they were not fully English, which they characterized as tyranny. Nothing in the Constituton suggests the Americans were adverse to British aggressive foreign policy, or empire bulding as such. They objected to being the object of those policies.

      So the Constitution basically doesn’t address the kinds of questions we are considerng here, and early behavior by the US suggests expediency was a positive quality for making and conducting foreign policy.

      Just War theory seems more applicable. So perhaps then another unexpected intersection with Aquinas.

      • Even setting aside the changing and divided opinion in the Colonies and then the early years of the republic, it’s still difficult to get a handle on this phenomenon, because America was already, in ways only dimly understood by the Americans or anyone else, overthrowing the European order of international law, which was itself an evolving tradition. The Americans wanted to form a state that would be recognized both by the Europeans and by themselves as a legitimate state. As I understand it, for Europe at the time, and following in the tradition of Aquinas but under long-developing modifications, “Just War” was something that occurred or could occur between such legitimated states only, which meant it was subject to a range of limitations: how civilians were to be treated, how property and other laws were to be administered by occupying powers, how peace treaties could be finalized, and so on. Where legitimate states didn’t exist, different and generally much looser rules applied. That structure made sense to the Americans up to the point that America itself began to make it senseless.

  4. Well the target was Ibrahim Al Banna, an Egyptian born AQAP propagandist, the expectation was that he had been struck, but at least as of last March, he was still kicking, rarely do we go after a child soldier, unless it’s the likes of that fellow Kadr, who killed an Army medic,

  5. young master Awlaki was not a primary target, they were after bigger game,(this Al Banna fellow, hey that name rings a bell don’t tell me) are we really a murderous country, Scott, or on one of your multiverse

    • Oh no… Scott’s already riffed on how murderous he finds this country many times. We’ve had long discussions on it – one where I ended up trying to persuade him that convergence of factors beyond anyone’s foresight or particular intentions, like the pathogens that did most of the killing of Native Americans, that explained why we ended up how we ended up doing what we’ve done…

  6. It’s interesting that the Whigs were skeptical about the British operations in North America, specially the Fox faction, and rather naive about the French Revolution’s ultimate devolution, hence they ultimately were replaced by the Liberal Party.

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