Raw, naked power

Simon Jenkins asks a good question, but I think misunderstands the purpose of war.

Jenkins wants to know why the U.S. and Britain are still engaged in fruitless, unwinnable wars in the Middle East. These wars, he writes, are unpopular among the general public and even among soldiers, with the latter preferring wars that can be won.[1] And while a counterfactual is unprovable, it is, at best, unclear that the wars have accomplished a thing.

One can certainly claim that the 9/11 attacks have not been repeated. But their only conceivable precedent is Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor—an attack on military, not civilian, assets, in Hawaii, not New York, launched by a foreign power, not an insurgent group. Meanwhile, Europe is manifestly no safer. And our own interventions may well have contributed to those attacks: In an interview translated by CNN that I can no longer locate, Osama bin Laden cited the one-sided U.S. policy favoring Israel, its presence in Saudi Arabia, and U.N. sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that had dramatically increased child mortality rates.[2] Indeed, Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, may well have done so in response to Lyndon Johnson’s adoption of a strongly pro-Israel policy.[3]

So why these wars? Why any wars?

Because wars—like foreign policy generally—are rarely about stated or moral purposes but rather, under realpolitik, about leaders’ perceptions of so-called “national” interest.[4] Here, Donald Trump merely makes the discreet explicit: He identifies self-interest with the national interest[5] and that self-interest, as it is for all functionalist conservatives, whether they be political or economic elites, is the preservation and enhancement of their positions and privileges relative to the rest of the population.[6] Wars are part of a pattern, a competition between elites over who will control which people, which territories, and which resources.[7] And even to preserve one’s own position, one must be aggressive even to defend against one’s competitors’ acquisitiveness.

If it were otherwise, Scotland could have another vote on independence. Instead, both Boris Johnson[8] and Jeremy Corbyn[9] promise that there will be no second referendum.

It it were otherwise, Catalonia could have its independence. If it were otherwise, Hong Kong could have greater confidence in its autonomy.

But it is not otherwise and there are no satisfactory explanations for why it is not otherwise other than that all this is about control. Sheer, unbridled control.

To allow Scotland or Catalonia or Hong Kong complete control over their own affairs would require central government politicians to do something like cutting off their own hands. Just as slaves were alleged to love their masters, subjects must be presumed to love their rulers. Rulers cannot even conceive that people, or at least a “silent majority,” might actually reject their rule. The very question is impertinent and must not even be asked.

Because all this, whether we are talking about secession movements, war, or international relations generally, is about raw, naked power.

  1. [1]Simon Jenkins, “The US and Britain face no existential threat. So why do their wars go on?” Guardian, November 15, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/15/britain-and-us-wars-conflicts-middle-east
  2. [2]Mohamed M. Ali and Iqbal H. Shah, “Sanctions and childhood mortality in Iraq,” Lancet 355, no. 9218 (May 27, 2000), doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(00)02289-3
  3. [3]Thaddeus Russell, “Does U.S. Support for Israel Threaten American Safety?” Daily Beast, July 14, 2017, https://www.thedailybeast.com/thaddeus-russell-does-us-support-for-israel-threaten-american-safety
  4. [4]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).
  5. [5]Peter Nicholas, “Trump’s Dark Assumption About America,” Atlantic, October 30, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/10/trump-impeachment-2020/601048/
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  7. [7]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2012, https://disunitedstates.org/2012/03/19/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/
  8. [8]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Boris Johnson rules out independence referendum deal,” November 3, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-50280817
  9. [9]Herald, “Jeremy Corbyn rules out Scottish independence vote before 2021 amid SNP warning,” November 17, 2019, https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/18042143.jeremy-corbyn-rules-scottish-independence-vote-2021-amid-snp-warning/

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