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• 05/21/04 - What Rumsfeld Doesn't Know About Abu Ghraib
• 01/10/04 - Iraq's False Promises
• 11/04/03 - The Iraqi MacGuffin
• 09/25/03 - Homo Sacer as the Object of the Discourse of the University
• 09/25/03 - Heiner Mueller Out Of Joint
• 04/14/03 - Columbia University - Too Much Democracy?
• 03/13/03 - The Iraq War

The Iraqi Borrowed Kettle

By Slavoj Zizek

We all remember the old joke about the borrowed kettle which Freud quotes in order to render the strange logic of dreams, namely the enumeration of mutually exclusive answers to a reproach (that I returned to a friend a broken kettle): (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. For Freud, such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments of course confirms per negationem what it endeavors to deny - that I returned you a broken kettle... Now, in June 2003, when, after hundreds of investigators were looking after the WMD, none were found, the answer to the critics who ask the elementary question "If there are no WMD, why then did we attack Iraq? Did you lie to us?", is structured precisely like the argument about the borrowed kettle: (1) We DID find them (the two mobile labs...); (2) OK, these two labs do not really prove anything, but give us more time, and we will find them, there HAVE to be some WMD in Iraq; (3) even if there are no WMD in Iraq, this was not the only reason we went to war, there are also other good reasons to topple a brutal dictator and aggressor like Saddam.

Before the war, the same inconsistency characterized the general justification of the attack on Iraq: (1) there is a link between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda, so Saddam should be punished as part of the revenge for 9/11: Saddam's regime is a really bad one, a threat to its neighbors, and we should liberate the Iraqi people; (2) of course there are many bad regimes, but what makes Saddam special is the possession of the Weapons of Mass Destruction which Saddam is ready to use; (3) and what is so bad in going to war for oil? The US has a legitimate strategic interest in the Middle East oil reserves... The problem, again, was that there were TOO MANY reasons for the attack. And one is tempted to claim that there were also three REAL reasons for the attack: (1) the "sincere" ideological belief that the US are bringing to other nations democracy and prosperity; (2) the urge to brutally assert and signal the unconditional US hegemony; (3) the control of the Iraqi oil reserves. And it seems as if these three "real" reasons are the "truth" of the three official reasons (the need to destroy Iraq's WMD is evoked to justify the brutal need to assert the US hegemony), with the last term in each of the two series being the same - oil (in each of the two series, this term is given a different ideologico-political twist: first the "normal" need to maintain international trade, then the ruthless determination to control other countries' resources).

And, incidentally, opponents of the war seemed to repeat the same inconsistent logic: (1) it is all really about the control of oil and American hegemony - the true rogue state which terrorizes others are the US themselves; (2) even if it is not only about oil and hegemony and the attack is justified, since Saddam is a murderer and torturer, and his regime a criminal catastrophe, it will be counterproductive - it will give a big boost to a new wave of the anti-American terrorism; (3) even iof successful, the attack on Iraq destined to overthrow Saddam will cost too much, and the money could be better spend elsewhere...

The problem with the basic refrain ("Iraq is a big country, Saddam had lots of time to hide the WMD, so give us more time and we will definitely find them!") is that its structure is the same as that of a judge who first punishes the accused and then, when forced to admit that he has no proof the crime has effectively been committed, he says: "Give me more time and I promised you that I will find material proofs that will justify my punishment!" So first you punish, and then you look for proofs of the crime... Not to mention the fact that this, precisely, was what before the war the UN weapons inspectors were asking for - more time - and were scathingly dismissed by the US.

Here, then, we have the first practical demonstration of what does the Bush doctrine of preventive strikes means, a doctrine now publicly declared as the official American "philosophy" of international politics (in the thirty-one page paper entitled "The National Security Strategy," issued by the White House on September 20, 2002)? Its main points are: American military might should remain "beyond challenge" in the foreseeable future; since the main enemy today is an "irrational" fundamentalist who, in contrast to Communists, lacks even the elementary sense of survival and respect of his own people, America has the right to preemptive strikes (i.e., to attack countries which do not already pose a clear threat to the U.S., but MIGHT pose such a threat in the foreseeable future); while the U.S. should seek ad hoc international coalitions for such attacks, it should reserve the right to act independently if it does not get sufficient international support. So, while the U.S. presents its domination over other sovereign states as grounded in a benevolent paternalism which takes into account the interests of other nations and their people, it reserves for itself the ultimate right to DEFINE its allies' "true" interests. The logic is thus clearly formulated: even the pretense of a neutral international law is abandoned, since, when the U.S. perceives a potential threat, they formally ask their allies to support them, but the allies' agreement is optional. The underlying message is always "we will do it with or without you" (i.e., you are free to agree with us, but not free to disagree). The old paradox of the forced choice is reproduced here: the freedom to make a choice on condition that one makes the right choice. The "Bush doctrine" relies on the violent assertion of the paranoiac logic of total control over FUTURE threats, justifying preemptive strikes against these supposed threats. The ineptness of such an approach for today's universe, in which knowledge circulates freely, is patent. The loop between the present and the future is closed: the prospect of a breathtaking terrorist act is evoked in order to justify incessant preemptive strikes now. This closed loop was perfectly formulated in a TV debate in February 2002, when the actor and ex-Congressman Fred Thompson said, in defense of President Bush's Iraq politics: "When anti-war protesters say 'But what did Iraq effectively DO to the US? It did not attack us!', one should answer it with the question 'And what did the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers effectively DO to the U.S. before September 11? They also did nothing!'" So, in short: in the same way that, if we had known of the plans for 9/11, we would have been fully justified in attacking the terrorists before the act, we now have the right to attack Iraq... The problem with this logic is that it presupposes that we can treat the future as something that, in a way, already took place.

The ultimate paradox is that the very strategy of preemptive strikes will contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. When US attacked Iraq and not North Korea, the underlying logic was clear: once a "rogue" state crosses the critical limit and already acquires substantial nuclear weapons, one cannot simply attack it because one risks a nuclear backlash killing millions on our side. This, precisely, was the lesson North Korea drew from the attack on Iraq: the regime sees nuclear weapons as the only guarantee of its survival; in their view, the mistake of Iraq was to accept in the first place the collaboration with the UN and the presence of international inspectors.

This, then, is what the Bush doctrine effectively means: first you attack, then you look for reasons to justify it. The problem with today's US is not that it is a new global Empire, but that it is NOT, i.e., that, while pretending to be, it continues to act as a Nation-State, ruthlessly pursuing its interests. And this fact also provides the background that the above-mentioned inconsistent argumentation conceals and, simultaneously, cannot but point towards. What were the actual ideological and political stakes of the attack on Iraq? Here, one is tempted to propose the hypothesis that the US-Iraq war was, as to its actual socio-political content, "the first war between the US and Europe." Today, the united Europe is the main obstacle to the New World Order the Us want to impose, and the reasons that move the US are again triple: (1) naive ideology (the sincere believe that the US are ready to act, to fight for democracy and human rights, while Europe is caught in the old Munich 38 syndrome of indefinite postponement); (2) the need to brutally impose the US hegemony; (3) economic interests (the safe access to oil supply is the condition for the US to win in the forthcoming competition with the united Europe).