American Narcissus

Photo Credit: Flickr/BixentroRELEASED by the Pentagon following the recent events in Abbotabad, an already “iconic” image showing a frail Osama bin Laden watching footage of himself on an antiquated television set inadvertently reveals some truths about the War on Terror. For one thing it is difficult to imagine this setting as part of a command centre for global terrorism. And for another the international reaction to Bin Laden’s assassination casts doubt on the US narrative of war and victory on a global scale. Crucial about this reaction, after all, has been the fact that people around the world seem interested in the event primarily because of the extraordinary response it has generated in the US, and not for any reason of their own. Thus even in countries like Britain and Spain, which not so long ago had themselves been the victims of Al Qaeda’s militancy, there was little if any public demonstration of satisfaction at Bin Laden’s death, though it continues to be the subject of massive media coverage precisely as an element in American politics. 

In the Muslim world, too, those who mourned the “Sheikh’s” death did so for a variety of reasons, many of which had more to do with local politics than anything so grand as a global war against the West. Indeed there was something curious about the endlessly replayed shots, in the American and European press, that attempted to demonstrate Osama bin Laden’s popularity among Muslims by showing his photograph being sold in Pakistani shops. For these images often had as their context pictures of other celebrities, such as unveiled and heavily made up starlets from “Lollywood”, as the Punjabi film industry based in Lahore is known. Sold as a commodity alongside posters of film stars and boxes of Barbie dolls, the popularity of Bin Laden’s photograph surely says nothing about that of the jihad he advocated. His celebrity status, I imagine, has more to do with the fact that Osama bin Laden was dignified by America as her greatest enemy and thus had gained a degree of infamy with little connection to Pakistani concerns. 

Of course Al Qaeda’s spectacular attacks, notably that of 9/11, were impressive enough to win it a certain admiration, sometimes for aesthetic as much as religious or political reasons. But it is not clear how much of this translated into material support. Even anti-American sentiment among Muslims today appears to have abandoned global terrorism as its model and moved in other directions. It is only the US public that continues to be mesmerised by Osama and his gang, which is appropriate enough given that they had always been a factor of America’s domestic politics. So the political use to which President Obama is putting Bin Laden’s killing is nothing more than a fulfilment of his predecessor’s strategy. I am not, however, making the extravagant claim that the United States simply used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to remake the world in its own image. On the contrary, I think that the US was and continues to be unable to engage in a global politics after the Cold War.

If US administrations during the Cold War were naturally interested in securing America’s economic and political dominance, they were also fighting for a vision of the world that was greater than their self-interest. But the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that US geopolitics suddenly shrank to become merely an aspect of its domestic concerns. Her global victory, in other words, domesticated America’s politics, so the nation’s greatest enemies could now only be internal ones. Surely the escalating tension between liberals and conservatives, whose mutual hatreds had their origin in the culture wars of the 1980s, demonstrates the truth of this situation. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis was the first important statement about America’s inability to engage in a global politics, now seen merely as an extension of her domestic conflicts and interests, while Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” argument sought to redefine geopolitics in cultural and non-statist terms.  

An admirer of Huntington, Osama bin Laden put into action his idea of a geopolitics determined by non-state actors unable to engage in the traditional power games of nation states. Yet the politics of speculation and spectacle that resulted posed no existential threat to the United States or any other country, including Afghanistan, despite the great violence associated with it. Indeed Al-Qaeda’s most important consequence may well be nonviolent, shaking up the Muslim world’s hierarchies and inculcating highly individual forms of sacrifice as the basic element of a new politics there. Isn’t this the lesson that so many of the current “revolutions” in the Middle East have learnt from Al Qaeda, lacking as it did any coherent leadership, ideology or political form? It is perhaps because this lesson has been learnt so well that Al Qaeda has slipped from view in much of the Muslim world, its historical task accomplished as the result of an internal dynamic rather than because of any victory in the War on Terror.

By launching the Global War on Terror, the US was, among other things, trying to reclaim geopolitics for itself. But given that Al Qaeda was unable to present it any kind of military challenge, becoming instead a factor of America’s domestic politics in the aftermath of 9/11, this was an effort doomed to failure. Despite the exotic appearance and terminology of its militants, moreover, Al Qaeda operated not as an external enemy but rather internally, by turning the logic and instruments of the West against itself. This viral form of attack was in full evidence with 9/11, whose lack of externality was only augmented by the exaltation of martyrdom, which did nothing more than rob Al Qaeda of its very ontology - as a foe whom death might defeat. And so the great transformation that the War on Terror wrought the world over had as much to do with electoral machinations and security concerns in the US as it did with a global politics that was suddenly inaccessible to the planet’s remaining superpower. 

America’s great power, in other words, has robbed it of geopolitics as a distinct field of action, confining its practices to the kind of self-interest that is incapable of distinguishing domestic from international arenas. As a consequence the United States can only operate internationally by reproducing itself everywhere in an impossible gesture of narcissism. And this means that the more it acts in the world the more America actually withdraws from the latter’s reality. Osama bin Laden’s assassination is a good example of this, representing as it does a squandered opportunity for the procedures of international justice. But the risk of such behaviour is very high indeed, since more than a loss of reality, what it entails is the turning inward of all conflict. Quite apart from the mutual recriminations of Republicans and Democrats, it is indicative that Muslims today are seen by many Americans as an internal threat, with their coreligionists outside still free to become clients and allies. And like these domestic concerns, Bin Laden’s killing and the reaction it has elicited offers us the clearest possible example of America’s loss of geopolitics and its withdrawal from the world.