Book Review

August 29, 2006 9:33 | by Steve McGiffen

David Keen Endless War: Hidden Functions of the War on Terror (London and Ann Arbor, Pluto Press, 2006), £18.99/$25.95/€24.00

David Keen works at the London School of Economics Development Studies Institute, specialising in the study of 'complex emergencies'. In this book he argues that the mesh of such 'emergencies' constituting, and generated by, the 'War on Terror' is the result of tactics for prosecuting war which are not only counterproductive but, under the current leadership of the United States and its allies, deliberately and inevitably so.

This argument seems incontestable. Since 9/11 the behaviour of the Bush administration and the military machine under its control has led to chaos and disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan and contributed to escalation from armed conflict to full-scale war elsewhere in the Middle East. It has threatened to bring to an end six decades of a carefully constructed and, if deeply flawed, nevertheless sometimes effective rule of international law governing human rights, civil liberties and the conduct of international relations. And this is not merely a self-serving judgement from the left. Keen is able to back up his argument by noting that "a detailed investigation in 2004 by James Fallows found that nearly all US national security professionals saw the Bush administration's response to 9/11 as a catastrophe."

Keen lists the 'flaws' in what was to become the central pillar of the strategy, the invasion of Iraq. There were no links between the people who perpetrated 9/11 and Saddam's regime. Al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein were, on the contrary, sworn enemies. No Weapons of Mass Destruction could be found in Iraq, discrediting the entire enterprise even in the eyes of many of those who supported the attack. The invasion actually promoted terrorism, not only by generating massive resentment of the United States, its allies, and what they were seen to represent, but in an even more direct way: events such as the looting of high explosives from a factory near Baghdad helped arm not only groups intent on resistance in Iraq itself, but those who wanted to carry the fight beyond the country's borders, not to mention anyone at all who could find the money to buy the looted weaponry. In the short term this was catastrophe enough, but the longer term effect is likely to come from the boost which US aggression gave to al-Qaida in terms of propaganda, fund-raising and recruitment. US tactics in Iraq and elsewhere have included acts which, without undue rhetoric, can themselves fairly be described as 'terror'. Under Saddam Hussein Iraqis lived with a capricious and sadistic regime. No doubt this was profoundly disturbing, but it is hard to see how what has happened since March 2003 has improved matters. US terror has had its direct victims, including thousands of civilians, while the invasion itself and the tactics employed since have led to a situation in which no inhabitant of or visitor to Iraq, national or foreign, civilian or soldier, can possibly feel safe, at least outside the Green Zone. And, as Keen says "far from limiting the spread of nuclear weapons" the attack "appears likely to encourage nuclear proliferation," given that the US talks openly about using such weapons against terrorist targets and that "It seems only those who do not pose an immediate threat that the US/UK coalition has been prepared to attack," providing "a perverse incentive to arm yourself rapidly (and covertly) so that you can climb out of this category." Thus has the invasion made the world a more dangerous, rather than a safer place, helping to "undermine the whole idea of collective security" and the institutions, notably the UN, responsible for ensuring it. Finally, it should be remembered that the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to be about more than rooting out terrorists harboured by those countries. Its ideological justification was concerned with the spreading of democracy. Well, we have all seen what happened to that idea.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands have died from the direct effects of US aggression, many more from the various consequences of that aggression. Tens of thousands have suffered serious, mutilating injury while hundreds of thousands have been rendered homeless. The Americans, or the 'West', are almost universally held responsible for this. Boys and girls growing up without fathers, mothers, older brothers and sisters; those whose homes or villages or schools have been destroyed; those who are spending their childhoods in a world where savagery is the norm, where death rains from the sky, where wounds cannot be treated because hospitals have been destroyed - are they likely to forgive and forget, let alone be grateful to Uncle Sam for bringing them the benefits of democracy and freedom? People in poor countries, those whose lives are a daily struggle to survive and who see no prospect of their ever becoming more than that, may blame many things for their plight: governments, political parties, foreigners, the rich, people whose skin is a different colour or who speak a different language or worship another god, the god itself, destiny, fate, or pure dumb luck. US foreign policy has always - since at least the invasion of Mexico in 1846 - been aggressive, militaristic, and designed to serve the interests of powerful domestic forces. Since the beginning of the 20th century, that has meant serving the interests of big capital. Since the beginning of our own century, however, this aggression has both intensified and been accompanied by a rhetoric so arrogant, so uncaring of anything but domestic public opinion, as to beggar belief. As Keen notes, this has had the effect of sidelining all those other possible culprits, all those who might be blamed for the plight of an individual or his or her world. "In fact," he writes, "the 'war on terror' has played a key role in knitting diverse grievances together into an anti-American agenda." This is, moreover, clearly an agenda with mass, in some countries virtually universal, public support. It has been further fuelled by the heavy-handed way in which repressive regimes, such as those of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have used the War on Terror as simply the latest excuse to round up their opponents. In addition, violent Islamicist groups have seen support and sympathy among the broader public greatly increase as their view of the West is daily confirmed by global events.

Such facts are worth rehearsing, but they are increasingly accepted by all but the dwindling band of hard-liners who support the Bush regime and its puppet in Downing Street. Points such as these are now routinely made, and not only in liberal publications such as the New York Review or the Guardian, but in the mainstream right-wing press. Keen's book becomes more interesting when, having covered this ground in his first fifty pages of his book, he cranks his arguments up a notch by asking how "if the idea of a war on terror is so counterproductive... how are we to explain the persistence and appeal of such counterproductive tactics?"

His answer might be summarised as follows: At least some wars may be better understood as 'systems' than as contests. The assumption that a war is something which two sides are attempting to win may be misleading when applied to many actual instances of war. The aims of each participant may be numerous, and many may be more interested in manipulating, perhaps even prolonging, a war than in winning it. This can be clearly seen in the case of many contemporary civil wars, most obviously in Africa. It also characterises the global war on terror, which incorporates civil wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, the Philippines, Chechnya and elsewhere. Insurgent groups fighting national civil wars, and international terror networks, tend increasingly to share a number of characteristics: decentralisation, factionalism, and weak chains of command may pose problems for the insurgents or terrorists, but they also make life difficult for their enemies. There is no head to remove which will leave behind a lifeless body, no "fixed and finite group of rebels or terrorists whose elimination will 'solve the problem', not least because any such elimination would likely be followed by the emergence of more armed rebels or terrorists." They also share "a try to take advantage of a wide range of grievances, many of them only tangentially related to the expressed goals of the various movements."Within international networks such as al-Qaida," Keen comments, we see combined "an anti-American agenda...and a very wide variety of local grievances that do not necessarily have much to do with anti-American feelings."

Both local insurgents and global terror networks seem fuelled by emotion as much as by any ideological or even theological imperative. And principal amongst the emotions which drive them in anger, particularly, Keen argues, the anger of young men responding to "a sense of exclusion that is linked to globalisation: human rights have been proclaimed and desirable lifestyles publicised, whilst the harsh reality is that economic, social and political rights have fallen short..."

Both groups also show a lively awareness of the power of the media, including taking responsibility for atrocities, even when they had no hand in committing them, and thus succeeding in creating an "exaggerated image of coherence and power". Though Keen does not here make the point, he would surely agree that this image is equally created by White House and Downing Street propaganda, as a coherent, organised enemy is more frightening than a collection of desperate, isolated people. This also helps to perpetuate the ludicrous idea that what we are witnessing is a 'clash of civilisations', an idea convenient to both sides, in reality led by the rival barbarities whose titular heads are George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden.

Actions which tend to widen or prolong conflicts may bring benefits to the parties controlling them. This applies to the terrorists or insurgents but also to their opponents. Thus the apparently counter-productive tactics - killing civilians, letting the enemy escape, trading with the enemy - may be seen as highly productive if looked at from a perspective other than that which assumes that the goal is victory, or the creation of a more peaceful world. As Keen says, "Vested interests have subtly undermined and corrupted the drive against terrorism itself." Beneficiaries include weapons dealers, firms involved in 'reconstruction' in Iraq and to a lesser extent elsewhere, oil corporations, media giants, repressive regimes, and politicians obliged by parliamentary democracy to find ways of manipulating people into voting against what appear to be their own clear interests.

Keen gives examples in each of these categories, the last of which is in many ways both the most interesting and, from the point of view of those of us who live in developed countries where the institutions and paraphernalia of parliamentary democracy constitute the norm, the most dangerous. Concluding his chapter on the way in which the terrorist has fulfilled the need for an enemy to replace those of the Cold War, and the ways in which this serves a repressive domestic agenda, Keen states that the war on terror "provides a sense of certainty and safety in a world where security threats do not conform to old models based on deterrence and on states, a world where economic insecurity has been exacerbated by market liberalisation and the erosion of social welfare" feeding "not only into Bush-style fundamentalism, but also into fundamentalism within the Islamic world." Both sides deal in unquestionable religious and political dogmas.

The predictable consequence, and certainly a major goal of all of this is that in the United States in particular, but by no means just there, there has been a return to the witch-hunting atmosphere which prevailed in the late 1940s and 1950s. As with McCarthyism, the witch-hunt seems unlimited in its reach and power, and can be extended from particular ethnic or religious groups - the choice here being obvious - to anyone who criticises or expresses concern. Not only the rule of law but the rule of reason, the need for evidence and due process, have all been called into question. If the American Revolution had at its outset a unifying ideological tenet, it was its rejection not of monarchy but of the unrestrained power of monarchs, a principle which the Founding Fathers believed to have been defeated in practice by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and, in the world of ideas, by the dominant political philosophers of their century. To see such a basic political principle effectively called into question by the Bush Administration's openly stated view that the President is, at least in his role as Commander-in-Chief, above the law, is shocking indeed. I have always argued that the hypocrisy of political leaders should not trouble us. It is when the hypocrisy stops, when it is no longer seen as necessary to cover up the most appalling crimes, that a society is really in trouble. Keen's examination of the various ways in which the United States and United Kingdom are indeed deep in such trouble, the growing irrationalism, the acceptance of arrogant power and implausible belief is what distinguishes his book from the run-of-the-mill treatise on why the war on terror is a bad idea, or why Iraq shouldn't have been attacked, some of it written by Johnny-come-latelies who, having given credence to Bush and Blair's lies, should really now have the decency to crawl away and hide. Chapter 9, on "Shame, Purity and Violence" and 10 on "Culture and Magic" not only point the way to a through understanding of what has gone on since 9/11 and why, but are in a wider sense amongst the most cogent social and cultural analyses I have read in recent years.

In his conclusion, David Keen is even brave enough to try to suggest not only how the Bush-Blair axis might be defeated, but, given the fact that terrorism and the need to combat it do after all exist, to suggest some alternative approaches to the problems posed by it. He notes the role that the linking of development policy into issues of security might play, but also offers what he calls a "realistic alternative approach (which) would be based essentially on treating terrorists as criminals and upholding the law, both nationally and internationally." He wants to see the label 'war on terror' dropped, arguing that it both "feeds into the terrorists' propaganda, self-image and self-delusions" and "legitimises violence by the United States and its allies." We need, Keen says, to take some practical steps, such as improving inspection of shipping, building up a network of informers (a tactic which has had great success in the fight against organised crime), dealing with money-laundering in tax havens (which the White House has actively opposed), global monitoring of chemical and biological weapons (ditto), and ceasing to inflict policies on developing countries which are designed to guide their development in ways which benefit multinational corporations. Within the West itself, the treatment of ethnic minorities clearly contributes to the resentment which enables al-Qaida to recruit.

Solutions to the problems with which David Keen's fine book deals will not be found overnight. We should, however, be quite clear that they will not be found anywhere within the current agenda of the War on Terror. Bush and Blair are as much part of the problem as is bin Laden, and the point is not to correct their inadvertent errors but, as in the case of bin Laden and al-Qaida, to render them powerless to continue to commit the crimes of which they are guilty. That can be done only by identifying the real problems, pointing out how obviously the policies they favour lead to no kind of solution, and then explaining the more difficult truth: that they are in no way intended to do so.

The reviewer, Steve McGiffen, when he is not editing spectrezine, teaches international relations in Paris.