Slavoj Zizek helps us keep perspective on the situation with Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle

Introduction: They Control Iraq, But Do They Control Themselves

Of course the people don't want war....But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along....All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
(Herman Goering, speaking at the Nuremberg trials in 1946)

The title of this book does not refer to the ancient kettles which disappeared from the museums and archaeological sites in the days after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime (in all probability, to reappear after the appropriate time first on the black, then on the legitimate, art market): these kettles were mostly stolen, not borrowed, and the worry about the looting of museums and archaeological sites in Iraq again displayed the hypocrisy and pretence of the liberal attitude of 'respect for other cultures'. The title refers to another kettle --the one in the joke evoked by Freud to illustrate the strange logic of dreams: (1) I never borrowed the kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I igot it from you. Such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments, of course, confirms per negationem what it endeavours to deny -- that I returned a broken kettle to you.

Did not the same inconsistency characterize the justification of the war on Iraq in early 2003? (1) Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction which pose a 'clear and present danger' not only to his neighbors and Israel, but to all democratic Western states. (2) So what were we to do when, in September 2003, David Kay, the CIA official in charge of the search for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, had to concede that no such weapons had been found so far (after more than a thousand US specialists had spent months looking for them)? We move on to the next level: even if Saddam does not have any WMDs, he was involved with al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attack, so he should be punished as part of the justified revenge for 9/11 and in order to prevent such attacks in the future. (3) However, again, in September 2003, even President George Bush had to concede: ' We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11 attacks.' So what do we do after this painful concession, given the fact that a recent opinion poll found that nearly 70 percent of Americans believed the Iraqi leader was personally involved in those attacks? We move on to the next level: even if there is no proof of the link with al-Qaeda, Saddam's regime is a ruthless dictatorial regime, a threat to its neighbors and a catastrophe to its own people, and this fact alone provides reason enough to topple it....^1 The problem, again, was that there were too many reasons for the war.

What conferred a semblance of consistency on this multitude of reasons was, of course, ideology. The images of Saddam endlessly repeated on our screens before the war (Saddam firing a rifle into the air) made him into some kind of Iraqi Charlton Heston -- the president not only of Iraq, but also of the Iraqi Rifle Association. ... The true interest of these images, however, is that they remind us how the ideological struggle is fought out not only at the level of arguments but also at the level of images: which image will hegemonize a field, and function as the paradigmatic embodiment of an idea, a regime, a problem. Recall (the now half-forgotten) Jessica Lynch, 'the face of the war' : in an ideological gesture par excellence, she was elevated into the paradigm of the US soldier. Her story is to be read at three levels, which again correspond to the Lacanian triad Imaginary-Symbolic-Real (ISR). First there was the imaginary spectacle: the ordinary all-American girl-next-door, tender and fragile, the very opposite of the brutish soldier of our imagination. ... Then, of course, there was, the underlying ideological background, the symbolic level of media manipulation. And, last but not least, we should not forget the very 'vulgar' economic aspect: Jessica enlisted in the US Army in order to be able to pursue her studies afterwards, that is to escape the small-town lower-class life of rural community in crisis, so that when she 'triumphantly' returned home, this looked more like being brought back to a prison from which she had tried to break out -- no wonder she looked uneasy, and the spectacle of her homecoming did not really catch on.^2

In contrast to the Gulf War of 1991, epitomized by the camera shot of a computer-guided projectile hitting its target, thereby depicting war as an abstract computer game (there were no battlefield reports during that war; the blackout was complete), the Iraqi war of 2003 was well characterized by the 'embedded reporters' -- reporters staying with the troops, providing live coverage of their day-to-day life and the battles themselves, thus contributing the 'human touch' and generating an instant identification of the spectator's perspective with that of the soldier. With regard to this shift, it is crucial to not how both approaches are 'abstract' in the strict Hegelian-Marxian sense -- if anything, there is more truth about the actual nature of the war in the abstract-technological video-game approach. The 'concrete' depiction of the experience of combatants is abstract in the sense that it obfuscates the concrete totality which provides the true global meaning of the war. What, then, would have been the correct approach? Apropos of this war reporting, I am tempted to repeat the old Adornian critical comment: the truth is the very split between the two modes, the abstract-digital level and the 'human-touch' level of individual experience -- in other words, the truth is that this split is irreducible, that there is no common denominator between the two.^3

What, then, was the real reason for going to war? Strangely, there were, in effect, three: (1) a sincere ideological belief that the USA was bringing democracy and prosperity to another nation; (2) the urge brutally to assert and demonstrate unconditional US hegemony; (3) control of Iraq's oil reserves. Each of the three levels has a relative autonomy of its own, and should not be dismissed as a mere deceptive semblance. Recall the basic American reaction (at least) since the Vietnam War: we just try to do good, to help others, to bring peace and prosperity, and look what we get in return. ... The fundamental insight of movies like John Ford's Searchers and Michael Scorsese's Taxi Driver is today, with the global American ideological offensive, more relevant than ever -- we witness the resurgence of the figure of the 'quiet American', a naive benevolent agent who sincerely wants to bring democracy and Western freedom to the Vietnamese; it is just that his intentions totally misfire, or, as Graham Greene put it: 'I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.'

As for the second reason, in their recent The War Over Iraq, Willam Kristol and Lawrence F. Kaplan wrote:

The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there. ... We stand at the cusp of a new historical era. ... This is a decisive moment. ... It is so clearly about more than Iraq. It is about more even than the future of the Middle East and the war on terror. It is about what sort of role the United States intends to play in the twenty-first century.

I can only agree with this: it truly is the future of the international community that is at stake now -- the new rules that will regulate it; the character of the New World Order.

As far as oil is concerned, as reported in the media in June 2003, Paul Wolfowitz not only dismissed the WMD issue as a 'bureaucratic' excuse for war, but openly admitted that oil was the true motive: 'Let's look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil.'^4 And it seems obvious that the key factor was the middle one: using Iraq as a pretext or an exemplary case to stake out the coordinates of the New World Order, to assert the USA's right to pre-emptive strikes, and thus to elevate its status into that of the only global policeman. The message was addressed not to the Iraqi people, but primarily to all of us, the witnesses to the war -- we were its true ideological and political targets.

A new vision of the New World order is thus emerging as the de facto guiding light of recent US politics: after September 11, the USA basically wrote off the rest of the world as a reliable partner; the ultimate goal is therefore no longer the Fukayama utopia of expanding universal liberal democracy, but the transformation of the USA into 'Fortress America', a lone superpower isolated from the rest of the world, protecting its vital economic interests and securing its safety through its new military power, which includes not only forces for rapid deployment anywhere around the globe, but also the development of space weapons by means of which the USA will control the surface of the globe from above. The existence of this strategy throws a new light on to the recent conflicts between the USA and Europe: it is not Europe which is 'betraying' the USA; the USA itself no longer needs or has to rely on its exclusive partnership with Europe. While this vision, of course, is an ideological fiction (today, the idea that any country can be a secluded 'fortress' is quite simply unworkable), it is non the less a fiction with immense material power, a fiction materialized in gigantic state apparatuses, and economic and military activity.

The above is the first six pages of Slavoj Zizek's new book called, >>Iraq, the Borrowed Kettle<<. Interestingly enough, there was this forum on compuserve about 'the kettle' a day or two ago that I happened across.

Enjoy, and I recommend buying the book.



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