The politics of rhetorical analogy


The world today is ruled by a hegemonic and paranoid superpower, and this is scary.

From New York to Bogotá or Ramallah the simplistic idea of “war against terror” has had, so far, devastating consequences (with deep apologies to “poor Afghani women” who may be better off now, or so we are told.).

Policy-making nowadays is the art of making the most appropriate analogy. As the U.S. was forced to face prematurely the new era of stateless, sub-national, asymmetric enemies, policy-makers resorted to two familiar precedents: the war on drugs and the Israeli experience in fighting Palestinian “terror.” The two contexts operate as templates that provide the mental framework for conceptualizing the relative strategic position of each one of the actors. In this mental template, the strategic position of the U.S. relative to Al Qaeda becomes equivalent to the strategic position of the Colombian government relative to the guerrilla and the drug lords, and equivalent to the strategic position of the Israeli Government relative to Arafat and other Palestinian factions.

This chain of equivalences allows us to trace the genealogy of the combination of military and civilian law enforcement measures taken by the Bush Administ-ration in response to the attacks on September 11th. Resorting to analogy does not necessarily taint the Bush policies with plagiarism; after all, a despotic world power ought not to worry about originality. In addition, the American government is already so deeply implicated in the two contexts that there should not be any anxiety of influence.

But the wisdom of these analogies becomes questionable when one remembers that neither the war on drugs, particularly “Plan Colombia” as one of its main components, nor Israeli policies against the Palestinians have been successful. In fact it seems that in both precedents the costs, for the U.S. as well as for all the parties involved, far exceeded any benefits.

One of the interesting aspects of the madness that is becoming our world these days lies in the reversible nature of the move from template to policy. In other words, as the policy and rhetoric of the U.S. war on terror becomes clearer, many countries around the world try to add one more unit to the chain of equivalences. The chain of equivalences then plays a legitimating role for endless little wars and “petty” peripheral conflicts. And so Russia starts conceptualizing its policies in Chechnya as equivalent to the American war on terrorism. India starts equating its position vis-à-vis separatists in Kashmir to the U.S. position’s vis-à-vis Al Qaeda. The chain comes full circle when Israel on the one hand, or the Colombian government on the other, free rides on the American war on terrorism, claiming free hands to do as they please. But this time there are no limits to the devastation that may result, because a paranoid superpower is incapable of imposing breaks. Therefore, it is not surprising that within six months of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the peace process in Colombia has collapsed and the situation deteriorated quickly to a full war. It is also not surprising that Sharon’s violent policies against the Palestinians have reached levels that evoke his “glorious” and criminal history in Lebanon 1982, and promised the Palestinian civilian populations another tragedy similar in its scale to 1948.

In light of these circumstances, the world seems today in a state of strategic flux. Alongside other global threats, we risk having a superpower going out of control and becoming unable to intervene meaningfully in problem areas. Given the failure of the European Union to play any leadership role to balance the paranoia of the world’s only-superpower, the burden of such a task falls on the voices of dissent (center-left and left intelligentsia) inside the American political spectrum. Their historic mission is to introduce some humility, responsibility and informed judgment to the fringes of policy-making circles.

But their mission seems almost impossible. In the American political context after September 11th “patriotism” and global governance are in direct tension. One can no longer be patriotic (at least as the word is understood after 9/11) and, at the same time, make decisions that will re-organize the world. Sometimes, decisions about global stability are unpatriotic. At the same time, embracing the collective hysteria that is called patriotism often leads to blindness, even pure denial of the implications of a patriotic policy on global governance. One of these two postures (the patriotic vs. the ruler) has to be dropped. Here lies the choice. It is enough to follow the debates among various serious and influential professors and public intellectuals (from the liberals identified with the Democratic Party to left independents or Green party enthusiasts) to feel the tremendous existential, ideological and professional stakes for such choice. This partly explains why, after September 11, the margins of dissent are so narrow, that there are practically no major differences between left and right within the mainstream of American political culture.

Of course, the paralysis of the voices of dissent creates the space for many lightweight, irresponsible, wanna-be public intellectuals with demagogic and simplistic proposals. The paradigmatic example, not far from Harvard Law School, is its own dear Professor Dershowitz. His recent proposal published in Israeli daily newspaper the Jerusalem Post on Monday, March 11, in which he recommended the destruction of a Palestinian village as Israel’s response to each new suicide bomber, was met with a lot of protest by left and pro-Palestinians students, and by a number of faculty. Such an irresponsible intervention, published on the six-month anniversary of September 11, amounted to adding oil on fire. At the end of the day, one is relieved that Prof. Dershowitz’s taste for spectacles (probably more appropriate to the O’Reilly Factor) is too marginal, too unimportant to be taken seriously by either side of the political spectrum. His intervention certainly represents an example for what to avoid.