Global Policy Forum

The West has Lost its Grip on War


The author of this article argues that most Western citizens lack a coherent account of war. On one hand, many on the political left devote their efforts to financing NGOs that advocate for military intervention on behalf of child soldiers. On the other, those on the political right encourage policing through armed force throughout the world. Both sides are guilty for perpetuating war in Afghanistan under the pretext of nation-building and anti-terrorism. The failure of such interventions represent a new era in which Western powers must reexamine their historical roles in the world.

By Tarak Barkawi

May 29, 2012

Whether they are against it or for it, few in the West seem to have a coherent account of war, in Afghanistan or anywhere else.

Last week, Occupy Chicago demonstrated against "NATO/G8" in the name of the "Planet over profits and war". They were particularly incensed that "NATO/G8 member Canada" had "declared war on the Alberta Tar Sands and on the planet".

Apparently, Stephen Harper's government has declared war on Mother Earth, unwittingly involving his NATO allies.

At the demonstrations of the NATO summit, anti-war veterans threw away their medals in protest. One demanded that he enjoy his "right to heal". Another ex-volunteer soldier referred to his medals as "instruments of control". "No NATO, no war!" was about all the veterans could muster as a chant.

A Guardian columnist termed the medal tossing a "heroic act".

Meanwhile, elected officials imagine they can manage wars on electoral calendars, as Obama did when he disastrously announced the timing of his withdrawal from Afghanistan even before his surge began. The new president of France has unilaterally announced he will pull out his forces a year earlier than planned to make good on an election promise, his alliance partners be damned. Sarkozy had been looking to do the same thing to win the election he lost. In combat terms, the French comprise the third-largest NATO force in Afghanistan.

This is the same NATO - which can see off neither pirates nor insurgents - that the General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament refers to as a seemingly unstoppable agent of US "global interests" on this opinion page. Such an agent it may be, although recent evidence suggests that only ramshackle desert kingdoms need beware.

For much of the Democratic Party in the US, it is time to stop "nation-building" abroad and start doing so at home. Whatever else one can say, invading and destroying countries, and making war upon their populations, does not constitute "nation-building".

One wonders what Afghans make of all this.

Soon, only a weak and corrupt government will stand between them and militant networks with the advantages of nearby sanctuaries and sponsors. Afghans will be left to the fates.

Many of the reasons Westerners have for opposing the war have to do with their own interests narrowly conceived rather than any higher values. There are concerns about social welfare at home and over budget deficits. Of course, abandoning Afghanistan and other countries facing Islamic insurgency and terrorism is arguably more helpful than continuing the "war on terror" and the militarisation it entails.

Yet, is there no more positive vision? Westerners fought and protested the Cold War in the name of freedom and democracy. In either case, it was a half truth opposed to a lie, but it was something. Now we offer nothing but drone strikes and concern about our own finances.

The Western left would seem to lack a genuinely internationalist response to the situation in Afghanistan, or to places like Yemen and Somalia, where the West also makes war against the networks of militant Islam.

Other than loony environmentalists, there is apparently little love left for the natives among Western liberals. Many Westerners seem to want to wash their hands of the hot places they have been messing around in for centuries.

These are the same liberals who in the imperial era used to demand that the souls of the natives be saved, their minds educated, and their societies developed. In the Cold War, they would "bear any burden", and strafe or napalm any peasant, to save non-European countries from communism. Lately, they will give to any NGO, while expressing especial concern for child soldiers and endangered animals.

If the left of the political spectrum largely wants to return home to nest with their families, live environmentally sustainable lives and advocate for social justice in their own countries, much of the right wing wants to "stay the course" in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This means more bombing, more drone strikes, more special forces missions, and not much else.

Above all, the purpose is to demonstrate "resolve" and "determination" by striking with impunity from on high. Like the fantastical neocon vision of the world that got us here, it is entirely unclear how this global war on terror amounts to a realistic policy that leads anywhere but more war.

With the absence of effective state control in much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, there are endless spaces for militants to proliferate, while the social conditions that produce militancy worsen. Is the idea that more and more of the world becomes a special forces playground, open to drone strikes?

Is that all the once world-bestriding West has to offer humanity? It wishes to make war and take life in the name of the perpetual policing of large tracts of desert?

That Westerners can no longer muster a coherent account of wars they either oppose or favour is only the latest sign of the political bankruptcy of the West. Many mistake the crisis for an economic one only, or see the problem as one of "experts" - financial, military - who know what to do versus "politicians" who don't.

The problem runs much deeper and is fundamentally political. Increasingly, Westerners cannot articulate meaningful, attractive visions of the world and of their role in it. They play the same records - about saving the whales, fiscal responsibility, staying the course, or what not - but the songs no longer speak to the situation we are all in.

Ultimately, the loss of coherence of the West is a sign of the new times which have arrived, in which the old categories of West and East, North and South no longer provide a grip on events. Even so, we will continue to act as if they do for some time to come, for as yet we know no other script.


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