HOW CAN THE U.S. BE AN EMPIRE AND A DEMOCRACY AT THE SAME TIME?
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 20 Oct 2009
An interview with Mark Danner, whose new book, Stripping Bare the Body, explores the strange notion of a democratic empire and the wars it wages. Broadcast on PBS’s Bill Moyers Journal.
Bill Moyers: President Obama has been holding one meeting after another trying to decide whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan. He would do well to hold off another discussion until he has sent everyone home for the weekend to read this new book with the provocative title, Stripping Bare the Body, and a cover that holds the eye like a magnet.
The subject is politics, violence, and war, and running through it is an old truth often forgot: you start a war knowing what you are fighting, but in the end you find yourself fighting for things you had never thought of.
In the meantime, you make decisions that inflict on people in far-off places suffering you never imagined.
That’s but one stark truth you will find in these pages. The wars we fight, and the violence that feeds them, reveal like nothing else the hidden structures of power in Washington: the personal rivalries, the in-fighting and deal-making, the ambitions that decide our policies and often our fate. Stripping Bare the Body, you will discover, is a moral history of American power over the past quarter century.
Its author is Mark Danner, who throughout those 25 years reported from more mean places in the world than any journalist I know — Iraq, the Balkans, Haiti, and Washington, among them. Despite more than one close brush with death, he keeps going back. He writes for some of our leading magazines and has produced a series of acclaimed books, winning awards left and right as well as receiving the MacArthur Fellowship. All the while Mark Danner has been teaching journalism and foreign affairs at both the University of California, Berkeley, and Bard College in upstate New York. He’s been at this table before, and it’s good to welcome you back. … First, the title. Very provocative. Where did it come from?
Mark Danner: Well, it comes from a former Haitian president, who survived in office for about four months before being overthrown in a coup d’etat, and he said he told me and said in speeches subsequently that political violence is like Stripping Bare the Body, the better to place the stethoscope and hear what’s going on beneath the skin. He meant that times of revolution, coup d’etat, war, any kind of social violence going on tends to form anyone moment of nudity, as he put it. In which you can actually see the forces at work within the society stripped bare.
It’s like one of those models in biology class, where you see the body, you see all the organs beneath it, and suddenly you see who’s oppressing whom, who has the money, who has the power, how that power is exerted. And that that is the time to seize a society and look at it, to X-ray it, try to understand what exactly is going on in its intimate recesses.
Moyers: That’s what one finds in the book, that when you do these moments of nudity or nakedness reveal power structures that you don’t see without that violence.
Danner: Exactly. Exactly. Whether it’s in the Balkans or Haiti or certainly Iraq the struggle between the Shia and the Sunni, for example, which was complex, multifarious, sectarian, and intrasectarian. Haiti itself struggles over poverty and power. Places a place where we thought a democracy could take root immediately after the Duvalier dictatorship.
But where any democratic vote in which everyone you know, one man, one person has one vote was deeply threatening to the power structure that had existed there for 200 years. Same thing in the Balkans. You know, complex social interaction, complex ethnic makeup which, as so often the case with when it comes to American power, the assumptions of our leaders are that we can apply discrete specific power in a given spot and alter the social landscape. And solve political problems. And in all of these places, I mean, Haiti’s a very good example. 7 million people. Very poor country that the United States has occupied twice in the last century. And was essentially unable to change things. Given all its great power, you know, a country of 300 million, the most powerful military power in the world, and trying to alter the dynamics of a country of 7 million. And we failed miserably. Not least because when you apply American power, and certainly when you send American troops, you start the forces of nationalism in reaction. And we’ve seen that in every place Americans have intervened, including Afghanistan.
Moyers: But in Iraq, some things have changed, have they not? I mean Saddam Hussein is gone.
Danner: There’s no question Saddam Hussein is gone. There now is a Shia government in power, which represents the majority of the people of Iraq.
Danner: Saddam, of course, was a Sunni. And he represented a minority in power. Now, it’s a Shia power, sympathetic to Iran. It’s unclear whether this invasion at the end of the day really helped American interests at all. We do know that it left 100 thousand or more Iraqis dead. It destroyed politically the Bush administration. And it left the American public and I think this is very significant, skeptical indeed about further U.S. military deployments. And this is what Obama has been left with, when he has to try to cope with Afghanistan. A public exhausted and skeptical.
I call this in the book the Athenian problem. Which is how do you have–
Moyers: Athenian meaning Athens of Greece, right?
Danner: Exactly. How do you have a democratic empire, how do you have an imperial foreign policy built on a democracy polity. It’s like some sort of strange mythical beast that’s part lion, part dragon. You know at the bottom is a democracy, and then it’s an imperial power around the world.
Danner: And the problem is that the things demanded by an empire, which is staying power, ruthlessness, the ability and the willingness to use its power around the world, it’s something that democracies tend to be quite skeptical about. And this is a political factor that looms obviously very large in his calculations.
Moyers: When you strip bare the body politic of our own country, after all of these years of war–Vietnam, two wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, of other places–what do you hear with that stethoscope you apply to us?
Danner: I think that the United States we’re now living still in the backwash of the War on Terror. We’re living still in what I’ve called Bush’s state of exception. Which is to say a state of soft martial law, a state of emergency, state of siege that was imposed after 9/11. Whereby warrantless surveillance was allowed without the supervision of the courts.
Whereby widespread detention was allowed. Not only of illegal aliens but American citizens. And whereby especially torture. Extreme interrogation techniques as some call them was developed, allowed, and legally certified within the Department of Justice. And all of these things represent the legal shadow and the political shadow of the "war on terror."
Which Obama–a phrase that Obama no longer uses, but that indeed has changed the country I think quite dramatically. And this is something else he has tried to cope with. How do you perhaps change some of these decisions made by the Bush Administration without leaving yourself politically vulnerable in the case of another attack? And we see this struggle going on when the former Vice President, Dick Cheney, comes out advocating not only torture but condemning the Obama administration for renouncing its use. We see the political stakes here, which is that if indeed President Obama is seen to leave the country vulnerable in the wake of another attack on American soil especially he will be politically destroyed.
Moyers: You say that the decisions being discussed, and about to be made in Afghanistan right now have very little to do with the war in Afghanistan and more to do with the politics in America. Explain that.
Danner: I think the political background here is extremely important. We have a new president, who made his case on foreign policy during the campaign on his opposition to the war in Iraq. And that opposition, to quote his speech in Springfield in 2002, was built on the perception that he is not against all wars, just dumb wars. So in this construction, the smart– the dumb war was Iraq. The smart war, the right war was Afghanistan. Afghanistan allowed his dovishness on Iraq. So he has come into office having vowed to prosecute that war and fight it, because it was in American interest.
And now he has found, especially in the wake of the failed elections in Afghanistan, that he is getting into he’s taking on a hornet’s nest, putting his hand into a hornet’s nest in a way I think he didn’t anticipate.
Moyers: You make the point that we’re more likely to be the target of attack because Obama is trying to win over the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.
Danner: I think that’s true. I think that he is a political threat. And I think you have to look at the character of this war. You know, we’re accustomed to calling it the "war on terror," even though Obama’s no longer using the word. But it isn’t a war where you try to seize territory. It’s not a war where you’re going to kill every jihadist. It’s a war about politics. Think of a target. What you want to do in this war is prevent people from moving toward the center. That is, you want the people getting the money to not become more active supports. You want the more active supporters to not become active jihadists, to actually go into the fight. So, you’re trying to do something political. You want to stop young Muslims from supporting this movement and taking part of it. That’s the only way that this war will eventually be "won," quote unquote. And for the– you know, when you look at it in these terms, George W. Bush was an enormous gift to the jihadists. An enormous gift.
Danner: Because he embodied the caricature of the United States that Osama Bin Laden had put forth. An imperial power using its power blunderingly around the world, suppressing Muslims, repressing Muslim countries, occupying Saudi Arabia. You know, think of that image of Lindy England the young military woman standing in her fatigues, smiling at the camera, holding a leash. A leash that goes down to the neck of a naked Muslim man lying on the ground, grimacing in pain.
Osama Bin Laden, if he had hired the most expensive advertising agency on Madison Avenue, could not have embodied more brilliantly his ideology, which is that the United States is suppressing, humiliating, shaming, undermining the Muslim world, and especially Muslim men.
Obama, on the other hand, stands for– you know, he has an African name, he’s black, he has a Muslim middle name, he speaks about inclusion. I mean, look at his Cairo speech. Ideologically, he’s an enormous threat to Osama Bin Laden. Because he does the opposite of what Americans are supposed to do.
Moyers: As you speak, I think of something that Obama said during one of the debates last year. I believe it was early in January, just as the campaign for the nomination was starting. And he said, and I’m paraphrasing, I’m running for President because I want to change the mindset from waging war to peace. Now, was that naive?
Danner: I don’t think it was naive. And I think he has begun to do that. I think one of the aspects, you know, one of the reasons behind the Nobel Prize, for example, was a recognition that the rest of the world is so grateful he’s in place. And that he is speaking eloquently about a world of inclusion, of cooperation, and not of unilateralism.
Because the Bush administration was really the nightmare that the world had always feared, which is an America unbounded by anything but its own power. Unbounded by international law, judicial processes, anything. And Obama has changed that impression of the United States, which is extremely important.
And ideologically, it’s important when it comes to the "war on terror," when it comes to, you know, with relations with Europe. European countries, European leaders can cooperate more easily with the United States when the American President is popular among their publics.
It stands to reason. These are democratic countries. So, this has had real consequences. The question is: can he make institutional changes? Can he go to the next step? Can he represent inclusion when it comes to multilateral institutions? Can he expand our security council?
Moyers: NATO, U.N.
Moyers: IMF, World Bank.
Danner: G-20, for example, which where he has indeed taken, you know, what was formally the Group of Eight countries industrialized countries, which made the big decisions on economic, world economic decisions, they met together. He now has shifted that decision-making power — to be fair, carrying on a change that was going on under Bush — to the Group of 20, which actually does include Brazil. It does include India. We have a much broader spreading of decision-making power that I think is extremely important. And that indicates a way to put these beautiful words of Obama into real action.
Moyers: So, for a moment, I mean, you’ve got a marvelous chapter here on the imagination, as it applies to politics and war. Use your own imagination for the moment, and try to get in the mindset of that group of nice Norwegians, peace-loving people, who are giving their shiny prize for peace to a man who’s only been in office nine months. Who has no real accomplishments to his credit yet. And that’s understandable, only nine months. What were they — what message were they sending? Why did they do it?
Danner: I think they’re thinking his eloquence, the vision he sets forth is so beautiful, and its beauty now is especially striking because of the darkness that it follows. And the great risk is that those aspirations will remain only aspirations. And we must do what we can do to ensure that they’re not only set forth, but in some way, that they’re embodied by true action. And our way of doing that is to confer this honor on him.
I think they perhaps didn’t anticipate that it might have a controversial reaction within the United States. But I do think it’s a clear expression of this enormous crevasse between the way he is viewed domestically in the United States and the way he’s viewed internationally.
Moyers: That beautiful vision you talk about, which they seem to be acknowledging, encouraging, and supporting, how does that balance off against the realities of what he faces in Afghanistan?
Danner: Oh, I think I would not like to be in President Obama’s position in making choices on Afghanistan. I think he’s in a terrible place, where this war is already deeply unpopular among the American public, and deeply unpopular within his own political party.
If he expands it dramatically, as his general, his hand-picked general has suggested he should by sending 40 thousand or more new troops, fresh troops, he will lose much of his Democratic support at home, and be reliant on Republican support. If, on the other hand, he rejects this recommendation, the Republicans will attack him, and it will be part of the bill of particulars that will be cited against him in the event of another attack, along with the renunciation of torture.
Moyers: I began the show with the reminder that, as you say in here, that we go to war for one thing, and usually wind up fighting for different things we could not have anticipated. What’s our aim now in Afghanistan? What are our basic interests there and what are we fighting for?
Danner: Well, part of what we’re seeing now is the sorting out on the part of the administration and particularly I think in the mind of the President. In answer to precisely that question, what are our interests?
We’ve been told that our interests are to prevent the regathering of Al Qaeda and Afghanistan as a jihadist base of operations, from which more attacks like 9/11 can be launched. But the fact is that these people have a very light footprint. The idea that you can simply keep them out of a place by occupying it with, in effect, a handful of troops, I think is quite mistaken. There are other places they can go. Somalia, Sudan, various other countries.
So, I think, you know, what happens very frequently, our goals change during a war. The one goal which, George Kennan I quote saying in the book. The reason that we go in is often forgotten, and suddenly the goals become something like maintaining our dignity. Keeping up our international authority. Preventing a loss and the damage such a loss will do to our international profile. In other words, they all become I think what rhetoricians call heuristic. They’re about the mission itself, not achieving anything else.
Moyers: So, are our troops there dying for primarily political reasons? For prestige, which the diplomats say is essential to maintaining our position in the world?
Danner: I think that’s a very large part of it. I think the other irony here, and I think it’s important to say this. One is the goals of 9/11 itself, of that attack was to draw the United States into Afghanistan to fight a counterinsurgency as the Soviets had done before them. And like the Soviets, to destroy the remaining superpower. That was actually what they were thinking.
It’s one of the reasons why a major northern alliance leader was assassinated, was blown up a couple of days before 9/11. The anticipation was this would draw the United States in, and the United States would be defeated on Afghan soil.
The fascinating thing is that the Pentagon, of course, at the time in 2001 avoided this. They didn’t want a major ground involvement. They used air bombardment and Afghan allies on the ground. They’ve been much criticized for this. But, in fact, they were trying to avoid what is exactly happening right now, which is a major land involvement, which will become, in David Halberstam’s famous words, a quagmire.
Moyers: Well, you say our boys, our soldiers there are bait.
Danner: They are indeed. I mean, it’s fascinating when you look at what the procedures are. You have at the moment anyway a lot of quite small bases. You know, where you have 20, 40 soldiers. And they go out each day on patrol. It’s very difficult territory. Very often, these bases are at the bottom of valleys.
They go out on patrol, essentially trying to elicit or encourage what soldiers call contact, engagement. That is, people shooting at them. It’s the only way they can find the Taliban. So, they use themselves as bait. And then, hope to be able to respond. And they have an enemy who, you know, it’s their territory. They can blend into the population.
Danner: Yes. And they’re extremely experienced. It’s a thankless, thankless job, I think for the soldiers.
Moyers: You don’t answer it in Stripping Bare the Body, but you leave me perplexed with the unresolved question of what accounts for this boundless capacity for evil that expresses itself all over the world and from deep in human nature. You have any thoughts about that?
Danner: I wish I could — you know, there’s this sense, and I say this in the book, that the wonderful voluptuous thing about reporting, the great voluptuous pleasure of it, is that you will look at a place from afar and it will seem– will think you understand it. You will look at Iraq and you’ll say, "My God, look at what’s going on. I understand it. Well, I can say to you this and this and this?"
And as you get closer, as you set foot on the ground, as you talk to people, tens of people, you know, scores of people, as you travel around, as you see what’s going on the ground, bit by bit, your certainty is stripped away, and you know less and less. Until you reach a moment, a couple weeks in, usually in my case, where you’ve been bombarded with sense impressions.
You’ve been bombarded with opinions. You’ve been bombarded with descriptions. And you suddenly think, I know nothing. I know nothing about this place. And that is a wonderful place to reach because you’ve achieved a kind of tabula rasa. You know, now I can try to understand it on my own terms. It’s a wonderful thing about reporting, but unfortunately, it’s not necessarily very good at understanding the ultimate ontological questions that you push– that you just put to me.
What is evil? What is– where does the evil come from that lies behind someone like Saddam Hussein, or Radovan Karadzic, or General Claude Raymond in Haiti. As I say, I’ve tended to find these people– I mean, Saddam, I’ve never met or interviewed– but these other people to be rather disappointing. Their political goals were mundane. What they had working for them was opportunism, was very often cleverness and was ruthlessness.
Moyers: So evil becomes a tool.
Danner: I think it– I think it does. It’s a tool and it’s an advertisement.
Moyers: An advertise–
Danner: It’s a means of persuasion. If you can– you know, in the Balkan Wars, the ruthlessness of the Serbs allowed them to kill only 100,000 people rather than 500,000 people. They were able, through their own use of rape and mass murder, they were able to send five times that many people fleeing Serb territory. So they used it, in essence to cleanse the land.
Ethnic cleansing, as we called it, quite inaccurately, because the ethnic groups were actually the same. But I wish I could find for you, you know, the ontological source of evil. But I think the more reporting I do, the more I see violence used in an instrumental way. And also, I should say, our own tendency, when we use violence, because the United States does use it extensively– to ignore what we think of as the hygienic use of force.
You know, the Iraq war, in the first couple of weeks– the so-called combat stage, as the George W. Bush administration called it– the best estimate made by the Associated Press of civilian casualties, civilian deaths, which is certainly an understatement, It’s a hospital count so it’s only people who were brought to hospital morgues, was 3400 people. Now this is in two weeks.
This is more than the number in the United States who died in 9/11. And of course, Iraq is a tenth or an eleventh the size of the United States. So the equivalent, on the US side, would be 35,000 people died, civilians, in that war. They were never on camera. You never saw those bodies. You saw very few bodies. It was as if the American army simply marched up the road to Baghdad. And in fact– you know, the military before the war, estimated collateral damage at 10,000, 15,000, something like that.
And you know, when you make a decision like that and say 10,000 to 15,000, or 7000, or whatever the number was, will probably be killed as a result of this intervention, people who have no– you know, are not military and so on– that it strikes me as an extremely serious thing. It’s not like trying to kill civilians in a terrorist attack, needless to say. It’s not, because that’s your intention. But it’s not entirely different. I mean, you are setting out, and knowingly, on an operation that’s going to kill large numbers of civilians. And we tend not to look at it, and then we tend to forget it.
Moyers: As we–
Danner: –American amnesia.
Moyers: As we speak, Congress is about to pass a law forbidding the Pentagon from releasing any more of the photographs of American troops torturing–
Moyers: –Muslims. What does that say?
Danner: Well, I think it’s– I think it’s a mistaken decision. I think President Obama and the new administration should have gotten this stuff off, out of the way immediately. I think these photographs should have simply been released. And–
Moyers: Is torture the purest expression of evil that you’ve seen?
Danner: I think if you’re looking for a pure expression of evil, torture is pretty– is a pretty good candidate.
Danner: Well, because you are taking– I mean, it’s also the most illiberal policy, the sort of most diametrically opposed to what we are as a polity. A liberal state has as its heart the notion that government is limited. That there is an area of privacy of our daily lives in which governmental power, state power, cannot intervene.
And torture takes over someone’s nervous system. Torture takes over what they feel. Torture takes over and penetrates into their mind and into their body. It’s not only illegal, it’s immoral. And it’s against– it’s against the heart of what the American political tradition stands for, which is an enlightenment tradition. And in which the abolition of torture, by the way, in the 18th and 17th century, was extremely important. So it’s going back into darkness, I think, in a very dramatic way.
Moyers: Last question, and an unfair question. You write stories and report. You don’t make policy. But what would you do about Afghanistan at this point, if you were the President?
Danner: I think that the first point to be made is there is no "solution" in Afghanistan. Solution I put in quotes. We live in an op-ed culture, which is to say, you always need to have a solution. The last third of that op-ed piece needs to say, "Do this, this, this and this." There is no this, this, this, and this, that will make Afghanistan right.
I think the first thing we need to do is be clear about our interests there, which I think are very, very limited. I think we need to be clear about the fact that our presence on the ground is going far toward undermining the very raison d’etre for our presence, which is to say, we do not want to encourage future terrorist attacks on this country. We don’t want to allow large scale jihadist organizing, if we can prevent it. But our presence in Afghanistan is a major rallying cry for those groups precisely. I would gradually disengage from Afghanistan.
But I think the war is going badly there. And frankly, it’s going badly here. And I’m glad the Obama administration, I think the President himself, has, in the wake of the Afghan elections– because that really was the turning point, the realization that the partner on the ground there was corrupt and illegitimate. And in the wake of those elections– all of the early perceptions about the war that Obama had set out on are being reconsidered.
And I think sometimes we should admire that in a president. Which is to say, it seems to me he’s thinking, "You know what? My original ideas about this place, things I said in the campaign and so on should not bind me and keep me from making the right decision." And I’m encouraged by that. I’m encouraged by his willingness to reconsider and actually look at the facts on the ground. I don’t know what decision he’ll come to. As I say, there’s no right decision here, as in so many other instances.
Moyers: This is a remarkable book of reportage and writing, Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence and War. And Mark, I appreciate your being with me to talk about it.
Danner: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.
Moyers: President Obama was in Texas today with the first George Bush urging Americans to volunteer for more community service, a good thing to do.
Barack Obama actually began his political career as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. Since his run for the presidency, special attention has been paid to this unglamorous and tough line of work.
Community organizers go toe-to-toe with the powers that be, and so they are often feared and ridiculed by those who believe America should be run from the top down. Remember last year’s Republican National Convention?
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