The Left

Hobsbawm and the comic strip neo-cons

I presume Eric Hobsbawm needs no introducing to most readers of this blog – if you aren’t familiar with him here is his Wikipedia page, although that doesn’t really do justice to his status as a historian in the UK.

Today he has a column in the Guardian which has the comic-strip title of America’s neo-conservative world supremacists will fail.

It starts off with some analysis of American power in the world to which I could more or less subscribe. The problem, as you might suspect, comes when Hobsbawm turns his attention to the neo-conservatives and to the post 9-11 US foreign policy.

The most effective way of finessing this conflict between isolationism and globalism was to be systematically exploited in the 20th century and still serves Washington well in the 21st. It was to discover an alien enemy outside who posed an immediate, mortal threat to the American way of life and the lives of its citizens. The end of the USSR removed the obvious candidate, but by the early 90s another had been detected in a “clash” between the west and other cultures reluctant to accept it, notably Islam. Hence the enormous political potential of the al-Qaida outrages of September 11 was immediately recognised and exploited by the Washington world-dominators.

This raises several issues. First of all did the United States ‘discover an alien enemy’, with the barely disguised implication that it invented such a threat, when it was faced with the USSR? Here was a major power, ruled by a dictatorship, with a record of invading other countries, which considered the United States as an enemy and which targetted nuclear weapons at its major cities. Such an ‘alien enemy’ did not need to be discovered – it was indeed ‘the obvious candidate’ as its methods were staring the US and the rest of the democratic world in the face.

The same goes for al-Qaida and Islamist terrorism in general – which the US was actually very late to discover was a real threat, too late in fact to save 3,000 of its civilians from a horrific death at its hands. There was no real recognition of this threat “from the early 1990’s” at all.

In fact Hobsbawm’s suggestion, echoing the thesis of the ‘Power of Nightmares’ documentary (and others who have suggested that the US elite constantly needs an external enemy in order to justify its alleged goal of global domination ) is weakened somewhat by a brief look at the period 1991-2001, the period after the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship and before the attacks on New York and Washington.

During this period the US was, rather belatedly and somewhat reluctantly, involved in limited military action in the Balkans. It eventually took the leading role in saving Bosnian and Kosovan Muslims from Serbian fascism but against opposition from a large section of the traditional right-wing in the Republican Party who scorned ‘liberal interventionism’. Clinton acted in alliance with NATO partners and the United Nations. The post-war state of Bosnia and Kosovo is open to much criticism but it would be a novel view that saw those interventions as in anyway an attempt at ‘world domination’. If anything those two countries suffer from too little American intervention as they have been left in the near limbo status of de facto UN protected areas.

More complex is Hobsbawm’s comment on “the enormous political potential of the al-Qaida outrages of September 11 (which) was immediately recognised and exploited by the Washington world-dominators. “

There is some truth in this – although the language implies something that goes beyond that basic truth. It is true (on the record and openly and explicitly stated) that many in the US elite realised that the attacks on them on September 11, 2001, required a change in their foreign policy approach. There are any number of Bush, Wolfowitz or Rice speeches where one could find a clearly stated opinion that the US needed to end its cold-war practice of propping up ‘friendly dictators’. Was that ‘exploiting’ 9-11 for ‘world domination’? You could say that the neo-conservatives took advantage of the atrocity to push their foreign policy alternative – but in fact all they did was argue for a change in policy as a response to an attack on their country. It is was a political response to a new situation, no more ‘exploiting’ of the situation than any other response would have been.

Hobsbawm then attempts to look at what that response was:

[T]he evident megalomania of US policy since a group of Washington insiders decided that September 11 gave them the ideal opportunity for declaring its single-handed domination of the world. For one thing, it lacked the support of the traditional pillars of the post-1945 US empire, the state department, armed services and intelligence establishment, and of the statesmen and ideologists of cold war supremacy – men like Kissinger and Brzezinski. These were people who were as ruthless as the Rumsfelds and Wolfowitzes. (It was in their time that a genocide of Mayas took place in Guatemala in the 1980s.) They had devised and managed a policy of imperial hegemony over the greater part of the globe for two generations, and were perfectly ready to extend it to the entire globe. They were and are critical of the Pentagon planners and neo-conservative world supremacists because these patently have had no concrete ideas at all, except imposing their supremacy single-handed by military force, incidentally jettisoning all the accumulated experience of US diplomacy and military planning. No doubt the debacle of Iraq will confirm them in their scepticism.

My emphasis because here Hobsbawm gives the game away. There are criticisms that could be made of the neo-conservatives but the suggestion that “they have had no concrete ideas at all, except imposing their supremacy, single-handed by military force” is hardly worth of being taken seriously because it is merely a statement of ignorance. Has Hobsbawm actually read the arguments and debates among the US foreign policy experts, including neo-conservatives, about the best ways to approach the issue of spreading democracy? I’d venture that he hasn’t because someone of his undoubted intellect could not possibly have done so and then reach this cartoonish conclusion about neo-conservative thinking.

Even those who do not share the views of the old generals and proconsuls of the US world empire (which were those of Democratic as well as Republican administrations) will agree that there can be no rational justification of current Washington policy in terms of the interests of America’s imperial ambitions or, for that matter, the global interests of US capitalism.

A more clear reflection of the inability to understand that the US elite has changed course and rejected the old methods of influence spreading and interest defending would be hard to find. There clearly is, as Hobsbawm acknowledges in his reference to the Kissinger School, a division between the old cold war establishment and the radical policies of the neo-conservatives. Both believe that they have the policies that would best serve “the global interests of US capitalism”. One would have the US still supporting client regimes and ‘our sons of bitches’ and another is making the case for (and in some cases carrying out) a policy of democratic revolution. That Hobsbawm feels the latter are dangerous opponents and the former are, while a bunch of ruling class cold war reactionaries, at least experts and solid and reliable reactionaries, is yet another indication of the essential conservatism of a part of the left that trys to cling to cold war certainties that no longer exist.

As he searches for something to explain his misunderstanding that the US ruling class is now, for some unexplained reason, acting against its own interests he comes up with this:

It may be that it makes sense only in terms of the calculations, electoral or otherwise, of American domestic policy. It may be a symptom of a more profound crisis within US society. It may be that it represents the – one hopes short-lived – colonisation of Washington power by a group of quasi-revolutionary doctrinaires. (At least one passionate ex-Marxist supporter of Bush has told me, only half in jest: “After all, this is the only chance of supporting world revolution that looks like coming my way.”) Such questions cannot yet be answered.

Indeed, Hobsbawm cannot answer them. I would venture his desperate listing of various fanciful reasons “may be” because he has completely failed to understand the ‘Bush doctrine’ or the approach of the neo-conservatives.

If the neo-conservatives are as powerful as Hobsbawm suggests then would it not be worthwhile, for those who seek to explain our world, to actually listen, read and understand what the real (as opposed to cartoon strip) neo-cons are actually saying?

Perhaps he could start by reading (Hat Tip Norm) this article from one of the leading neo-con figures William Kristol:

NO ONE EVER THOUGHT IT would be easy to conquer the outposts of tyranny or to destroy the sponsors of terror. But it shouldn’t be that hard, most of the time, to hold American foreign policy to some minimum standards: no rewards for gross acts of dictatorial oppression; no blind eye to facilitation of terrorism; no benign neglect for nuclear proliferation; no free passes for aiders and abettors of tyrants. Are we meeting those standards?

Not as much as we should be, and not as much as we could be.

Or he could revisit Condoleezza Rice’s speech in Paris, which itself references Bush’s speech in London:

And so the freedom deficit, the absence of freedom, has had very dramatic, negative effects in this part of the world. And unfortunately, we in the West, for too long, turned a blind eye to that freedom deficit.

When the President spoke at Whitehall in London, he talked about 60 years of trying to buy stability at the expense of freedom, and getting neither. And what we have gotten instead, is a level of hopelessness that has produced an ideology of hatred so virulent, so thorough, that people flew airplanes into American buildings on a fine September morning; blew up a train station in Madrid; people in another part of the world from another tradition, but the same ideology of hatred, that took helpless children hostage in Russia. This can’t be the future of the Middle East.

And so both our security and our moral conscience tell us that this is a part of the world that can no longer be isolated from the prosperity and human dignity that freedom brings. And so it is not what President Bush defends; and certainly, I want to be very clear.

As I said earlier, this is not an issue of military power. This is an issue of the power of ideas, of the power of being able to support people in those societies who are just tired of being denied their freedom.

Hobsbawm concludes:

It is reasonably certain that the project will fail. However, while it continues, it will go on making the world an intolerable place for those directly exposed to US armed occupation and an unsafer place for the rest of us.