Power, Ideology and the Domestic War on Terror

by Arun Kundnani, Tom Mills

The author of 'The Muslims are Coming!' discusses how the 'War on Terror' has shaped political and intellectual culture in the US and Britain.

First published: 11 August, 2014 | Category: Civil Liberties, Class, Foreign policy, Racism

Arun Kundnani teaches at New York University and is the author of The End of Tolerance: Racism in the 21st Century (2007).  His latest book The Muslims are Coming!, examines the ideologies and strategies of the domestic War on Terror in the US and UK, critiquing both the explicitly Islamophobic ‘clash of civilisations’ ideology and more sophisticated notions about Muslim ‘radicalisation’ which have impressed liberal commentators.  In an interview with Tom Mills he discusses imperialism, capitalism and the role of ideas in the reproduction of the US system of power.


The ‘War on Terror’ is a phrase most closely associated with George W. Bush.  How has this war been affected by the change in Presidential administration?

By and large the Obama administration has continued the policies and practices that were dominant at the end of the George W. Bush administration.  With respect to extra-judicial killings using remotely controlled drones he has substantially increased their use, particularly in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.  Whereas the Bush administration practiced extraordinary rendition and torture, the Obama administration has found ways to move prisoners between jurisdictions under legal cover, while torture has been outsourced or more effectively hidden from outside scrutiny.  Since 2004, the US public has been unwilling to support another full-scale war in the Middle East but the Obama administration was able to spin the attack on Libya as a small-scale intervention; the costs are now apparent as chaos takes hold in the country and some parts of the surrounding region.  

The most significant change has been in the rhetoric of the War on Terror.  Talk of a clash of civilisations had already been abandoned in Bush's second term, but Obama embraced liberal ideas of multiculturalism and a ‘dialogue of civilisations’ as the over-arching narrative of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of Muslims around the world – through propaganda, cultural campaigns, outreach – became as important as military ‘shock and awe’.  Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 exemplified this approach.  The hope was that this rebranding of the War on Terror – including dropping the phrase itself – would rescue it from the discrediting legacy of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the Iraq war.  But the rhetoric has not been matched by substantial change.  Continuing drone strikes, policies of total surveillance and the failure to restrain Israeli settler colonialism speak louder to global audiences than his elegant turns of phrase or multicultural background.  Nevertheless, by drawing the US liberal establishment into supporting his version of the War on Terror, Obama has been able to normalise it as a permanent element within the US system of power far more effectively than Bush was able to.

In The Muslims are Coming!, I write about how the neoconservatives invented the ideology of the War on Terror with their notion of a clash of civilisations.  But with the failure in Iraq, liberals became increasingly significant. Under Obama, the War on Terror was normalised and the implicit state of emergency made permanent.  For this to happen, there needed to be an underlying consensus among both establishment liberals and conservatives; at the root of that consensus is a shared commitment to defending the US empire and the belief that there is a ‘Muslim problem’ that threatens it.  Obama largely continued the national security policies of the Bush years but gave them a new liberal ideological underpinning.  The tradition of liberal anti-totalitarianism from the Cold War was one influence here, which can be seen in figures like Samantha Power.  Another strand is counter-insurgency theory, embodied in the figure of General Petraeus, who enjoyed a cult-like following among liberal elite journalists, until his personal life broke the spell.

In the early period of the War on Terror there was a lot of critical focus on the neoconservatives.  But their influence seemed to decline significantly after 2003.  How significant do you think the neoconservatives were and are?

There were a number of respects in which the neoconservatives were important in the early years of the Bush administration.  One aspect that I write about in the book and which, even now, has received limited attention is the extent to which their analysis of the Middle East had as its central idea a belief in war as a means to erase the underlying values of a society, creating a blank canvas upon which, it was hoped, a new set of neoliberal cultural values could be imposed.  The war on Iraq is best understood as a cruel experiment in just such a project.  The British orientalist and advisor to Bush and Blair, Bernard Lewis, had long argued that Islam was culturally prone to anti-western fanaticism.  Until 9/11, pro-western authoritarian regimes in the Middle East were believed by US planners to be the best means of suppressing that tendency.  But 9/11 was interpreted as a sign that a more drastic solution was called for – what Blair called ‘values change’ (not ‘regime change’).  Destroying Iraqi society through war was therefore not a ‘failure to plan’ but the intended outcome of US policy under the influence of the neoconservatives. What the neoconservatives did not anticipate is the extent of Iraqi resistance, which ultimately led to declining support for the war within the US itself.  Thereafter, neoconservatives tended to reinvent themselves or disappear into obscurity.  However, many of their basic assumptions about Islam and US foreign policy remain embedded in the US establishment and wider popular culture, and they will likely be a dominant force in shaping the foreign policy of any future Republican administration.

You give a lot of attention to the intellectuals and ideologues of the War on Terror and are very critical of their tendency to depoliticise the ideas and ideology of ‘terrorists’.  I’m interested to know how important you think these people are to those waging the War on Terror.  Should we understand them simply as apologists or are they more significant?

I think we need to take the ideologues of the War on Terror somewhat seriously, not primarily because of the credibility of their ideas, but for what they reveal about the thinking within national security and foreign policy circles on how to ensure the survival of the US system of power.  If we simply see them as apologists we will tend to take an overly mechanical view of how US foreign policy is developed and not fully take into account the role of ideology.  It is not enough to simply point to the arms industry and its need for profits, say that foreign policy planners have been bought off by these special interests, and then interpret all foreign policy discourse as a way to camouflage that hidden truth.  There is also something else going on which is the need for planners to work out how the interests they represent (empire, global capitalism, US capitalism, specific sectors, etc.) can best be served.  That isn’t something they simply ‘read off’, but is open to competing interpretations.  The ideologues I focus on in the book are significant because they represent an attempt to develop a version of the War on Terror that fits within the broader ideology of the liberal wing of the establishment.  Without the ideological work they have done, the War on Terror could not have embedded itself across the various factions that make up the US establishment and become a permanent feature of the system.

One of the major themes of the book is the complicity of liberals; to the point that you argue that liberalism became 'an ideology of total war'.  Why do you think liberalism is apparently so weak as a bulwark against injustices and abuses of power?

What becomes clear in reviewing how liberals have engaged in the War on Terror is a tendency to follow a logic with the following steps: (i) Western societies have successfully implemented liberal political orders. (ii) Terrorism is an existential threat to the continuation of such liberal orders. (ii) Under such emergency circumstances, some watering down of liberal principles is necessary.  This tendency has a significant history in Cold War liberal thinking (with ‘totalitarianism’ as the key term) that is revived in the War on Terror (where ‘extremism’ is for non-state actors what ‘totalitarianism’ was for states).

The existence of a degree of liberal freedom in a society like the US or the UK should not be too casually dismissed. But such liberal freedoms always go hand in hand with various forms of exploitation and oppression – either domestically along the axes of class, race, gender, etc., or globally through the violence of empire.  This is not just a matter of progressive reforms that might gradually appear in coming years – rather it is structural.  Liberalism as a political ideology is inseparable from the capitalist political economy that produces the liberal subject.  The marginalisation that capitalism generates is a permanent source of challenges to the liberal order that liberalism itself disavows with terms like ‘fanatic’ and ‘extremist’.  In order to unite an inevitably fractured society, liberals then declare that certain groups are enemies of liberal values.

Ultimately, liberalism is vulnerable to becoming an ideology of war because its individualism prevents it from generating social bonds, so it always has to dip into other ideological baskets to produce social cohesion.  In the heyday of social democracy, liberals often borrowed from the Left and adopted notions of social security.  But in the War on Terror, liberalism borrows from the Right and adopts notions of national security with their associated construction of enemies.

What role has the far right played in the War on Terror and how has it been influenced by it?

The usual assumption is that when the far right does well in elections, it drags the political mainstream over to the right.  But the far right borrows from the mainstream as much as the other way around.  During the War on Terror, we have seen elements of the far right appropriate mainstream national security narratives to rework and re-energise their own movements.  The English Defence League, for example, is a movement that appropriated the official discourse of the War on Terror and gave it organisational form on the streets.  It took literally the government’s proposition that there is a war on ‘Islamic extremism’.  From the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme, it absorbed the notion that the enemy in this war is not a few individuals engaged in violence but an ideology embedded in Muslim communities.  Likewise, the notion that Muslims can be categorised as extremist or moderate, according to their allegiance to Western values, was taken from statements of government policy.  And from ministerial speeches attacking an imagined multiculturalist orthodoxy (for example, David Cameron’s February 2011 speech in Munich) the EDL took its belief that state multiculturalism is holding back the fight against Muslim extremism.  All it adds of its own is the thought that the politicians running the war are too soft and cowardly, still too caught up in multicultural platitudes, to fight it properly, particularly on the home front – the streets of England – where the EDL fills the gap with its own form of militancy. In its criticism of the state, the EDL uses the state’s own discourse against it.  We see something similar with Anders Behring Breivik, who carried out the massacre in Norway in 2011.  The major theme of Breivik’s manifesto is the argument that political correctness and multiculturalism have weakened national identity and encouraged ‘Islamic extremism’, bringing European nations to a crisis point.  As Breivik himself correctly notes in the first week of his trial, this view was held by ‘the three most powerful politicians in Europe’ – Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and David Cameron.  The uncomfortable truth is that a central plank of a terrorist’s narrative was shared by heads of Western governments.

What part has popular culture played in the War on Terror and how has this impacted on public opinion?

In the book I argue that US popular culture has remained slavishly faithful to the official narratives of the War on Terror.  If the television series 24 symbolised the ideology of the early War on Terror, especially with its legitimisation of torture and exaggerated fears of weapons of mass destruction, Homeland represents the Obama era with its fears of conversion, infiltration, and especially ‘radicalisation’.  Public opinion in the US is complex. The majority oppose new wars in the Middle East but a level of Islamophobic prejudices has been normalised, in part through the media.  It has been easier to assume terrorism is a result of ‘Islamic culture’ than to think about how US foreign policy has created contexts in which political violence becomes more likely.

There are a lot of interesting examples in your book of state officials and their supporters learning from history – the Cold War in particular.  What historical lessons do you think those who oppose war and racism can learn from that same period?

The lesson we can take from the Cold War is that racism is always imbricated with imperialism and capitalism.  Hence, the fights against racism, against empire, and against capitalism cannot be isolated from each other.  When struggles against racism have reduced themselves to efforts at a minimal level of cultural and civil inclusion within the existing system they have allowed the deeper structures of racial oppression to remain intact.  At the same time, we need to recognise that we are now in a significantly different conjuncture from any that pertained in the Cold War: capitalism has globalised and there is no longer an actually existing alternative system of social organisation such as the Soviet Union, which, at least, had the effect of pressuring capitalism to present social democratic credentials.

Tom Mills is a researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Bath and a co-editor of New Left Project.

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