From World War II to the ‘war on terror’

Comparisons between the ‘war on terror and the Cold war as common but Kenan Malik makes the argument well:

in the absence of the ideological struggle against communism, the war on terror increasingly became the anchor of Western foreign policy. During the Cold War, right and wrong, good and evil, were expressed in ideological terms. Foreign interventions, the overthrow of democratic governments, the support for reactionary regimes – all were justified by the necessity to prevent the spread of communism. With the demise of the Soviet Union, what has come to be called ‘the war against terror’ took centre stage in such justifications. ‘Terrorism’ has come to be presented as self-evident, the use of unconscionable violence to undermine basic freedoms and liberties. But, as the response to the Iranian assassinations reveals, ‘terrorism’ remains a deeply politicized concept. Iran is a terrorist state. Saudi Arabia, despite probably sponsoring more terrorist groups, and despite being equally undemocratic and brutal, is a valued Western ally. The murder of an Iranian citizen is a justified act. Plotting to kill a Saudi official is international terrorism.

The resemblance to the war against Communism is obvious; I would add the example of Cambodia where after the Vietnamese invasion of 1979 western powers backed rebel forces. There was a slight, but not infinitesimal chance that this backing could have led to a return to power of the Khmer Rouge. I would also however look back to World War II, this is a generally regarded as a ‘good war’ and I think it was. Contemporary defenders of the ‘war on terror’ have often evoked the memory of World War II. This was a war against the Axis powers, but it was described as a war against ‘fascism’. Yet the ‘good’ side In World War II included Stalin’s Soviet Union, it included the British Empire which presided over the Bengal famine. The Allies accepted ethnic cleansing in eastern Europe, the mass rape of German women by Soviet forces, and the bombing of German cities (I actually think there was more of a military case for the atomic bombing of Japan). An anarchist might claim that the only good fascist is a dead fascist, but bombing Dresden killed a lot of fascists.  We should be skeptical of ideological wars, point made by Carl Schmitt of all people. Wars only make sense as wars against entities that exercise power in a Weberian sense: such as states. The ‘war on terror’ has often been justified as a defense of Enlightenment values. We should remember that the Soviet Union sometimes wrapped itself in the banner of the Enlightenment, at the very time that Lysenko was imposing a reign of terror over Soviet science Communists in western Europe were trumpeting their defense of the Enlightenment. Intellectual enthusiasm for the ‘war on terror’ reminds me more and more of that for the Soviet Union in the 1930s a tale of good intentions and political nativity.

Another lesson that can be drawn from World War II is that military victory doesn’t depend on rhetoric. Churchill was a great rhetorician and an inspirational leader but a bad military and political strategist. Menzies had to work hard on persuading him not to invade Ireland, which if it had been done would have had a dramatic impact on American public opinion. Wars W. K. Hancock noted are often the occasion for grim and joyless intellectual holidays.

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