This week’s stories focus on fallout from the media’s reporting on the events in Afghanistan, with a glance at the great Ben & Jerry’s controversy in Israel.
Kabul, Afghanistan on 8/18/2021 © John Smith 2021 / Shutterstock
The Daily Devil’s Dictionary appears today in its final August weekly edition containing multiple items taken from a variety of contexts. The daily format returns next Monday.
The Fading Horizon of US Middle East Politics
US foreign policy has always sought effective metaphors intended to express the nation’s exceptional virtues, often framed in terms of vision, resolution, industriousness or simply noble intentions. The Afghan war was baptized, “Operation Enduring Freedom.” The war in Iraq gave us “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Operation New Dawn.”
Ever since Woodrow Wilson’s promise to “make the world safe for democracy” expressed America’s aptitude for entering wars, securing privileged access to resources, engaging in economic colonialism and intimidating uncooperative nations, slogans have served to clarify the direction of US policy. In recent years, the public has periodically learned about a “reset,” a “rebalance” or a “pivot” that announces a creative shift of perspective or intent.
Faced with the quandary of military withdrawal from the “forever wars” inherited from the three previous administrations, the Biden team has crafted a new metaphor intended to reassure a concerned public. Following the definitive overthrow of the US-supported Afghan government and the definitive withdrawal of foreign troops, President Joe Biden made the solemn promise “to retain an over-the-horizon capacity” as the appropriate response to any attempts by the Taliban government to threaten US interests. Biden defines this as the capacity “to take them out, surgically.”
Over the horizon:
Belonging to an imaginary domain where everything is perfectly coordinated and clearly efficient, an update of the “over the rainbow” capacity of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz
As Oliver Knox pointed out in The Washington Post, that “phrase has been a staple of Biden’s rhetoric on the troop withdrawal.” If all human efforts fail, whether with soldiers or diplomats, Americans tend to believe that their superior technology will respond to every need. The same reasoning has been consistently applied to the climate crisis, which, in the interest of economic growth, will continue to worsen because at the end of the day a technology fix will miraculously ride into the frame of the movie from over the horizon to save the enterprising pioneers in the wagon train.
What if the Taliban Were to Keep Their Promises?
With the sudden collapse of the Afghan government, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem declared that the war that began 20 years ago was now “over.” In its initial reaction, The New York Times agreed, summing up the event with the headline: “Kabul’s Sudden Fall to Taliban Ends U.S. Era in Afghanistan.” This calm description more appropriate to a report on a thrilling chess match made it sound as if a noble chapter of history has now been closed.
The drama that ensued led even The Times to change its tone. For the Afghans or at least the Taliban, the invader has finally been defeated. For the US, a dolorous reckoning is taking place. And while, among the confusion, the level of fear and anguish has never been higher, especially for those Afghans who cooperated with the US and the fallen government, coldly reasoning Americans (if such creatures exist) should take comfort from the promises the Taliban have made to “allow Afghans to resume daily activities and do nothing to scare civilians.”
Naeem sought to reassure the US about Taliban 2.0. Even members of the 2001 Bush administration should be impressed, those who justified the war against Afghanistan on the grounds that the country was “harboring terrorists.” “We will not allow anyone,” Naeem insisted, “to use our lands to target anyone, and we do not want to harm others.”
In the domain of foreign relations, a polite synonym of kill, torture, injure and oppress with a sense of total impunity
What more could Americans ask for? Mission finally accomplished. If the Afghans no longer allow anyone to use their lands to target anyone else (for example, tall buildings in New York), all will be well with the world. Lower Manhattan’s traders can carry on their business in total tranquility. The Taliban leaders have even promised to improve the lives of Afghan women, as well as hinting they will tone down at least some of their traditional fanaticism. So, why is everyone so upset?
Could it be that Americans feel destabilized by the realization, nearly half a century after the fall of Saigon, of the utter futility of building such a powerful military machine that, no matter where it is deployed, will accomplish nothing other than intimidate its own allies while producing monumental profits for the defense industry? Who doesn’t remember George W. Bush boasting about the most powerful military in the history of mankind that was “supported by the collective will of the world?”
Now, it is the Taliban who have seized the pen that writes the rules in Afghanistan. Despite the official promise to go easy on collaborators, US media have expressed “growing doubts about that pledge.” It leaves the impression that critics of the US withdrawal would be disappointed if no spectacular reprisals were to occur. Americans need their enemies to live up to the image they have created of them. The Times predicts that the “Taliban may indeed engage in reprisal killings, as they did when they took over in Afghanistan more than 20 years ago.” If the US defined the rules of the game through its own violence, ineptness and prevarication over two decades, the Taliban could at least demonstrate their own ability to play by those rules. Stick to the script, guys! We need your cooperation.
There are legitimate reasons to fear the worst from a group defined by its religious fundamentalism seeking control of a chaotically divided nation of warlords and competing ethnic groups in which the idea of getting revenge on the invader and occupier motivates a lot of people. But the message today, as expressed by Abdul Qahar Balkhi from the Taliban’s Cultural Commission, is clearly different from the Taliban’s historical past.
In another article, The Times mocks the very idea of the Taliban’s effort to “make nice.” This too reads like a case of futuristic schadenfreude sending the implicit message: Let’s hope they don’t succeed in making nice because our nation and its people need to remain convinced that the Taliban are evil enough to make our 20-year war on them appear justified.
The State Department’s Philosophy of Trickle-down Sharing
In February, Biden made a point of reassuring the nation’s European allies, who during the four years of Donald Trump’s tragicomic reign had begun to have doubts about the solidity of promises made by an American president. “Let me erase any lingering doubt,” Biden insisted, “the United States will work closely with our European Union partners and capitals across the continent, from Rome to Riga, to meet the shared challenges we face.”
It didn’t take long for the first of such challenges to appear.
A crisis created by a powerful nation such as the United States, who generously offers other friendly nations the opportunity to accompany it in the experience of responding to the crisis, which will last as long as it serves the initiator’s interests, while at the same time avoiding bothering the partners with the annoyance of trying to work out collegially an appropriate and honorable solution
Since the end of World War II, the United States has assumed the noble responsibility of managing the foreign affairs of its largely docile allies, while at the same time finding multiple ways of disrupting the foreign affairs of rogue nations that irresponsibly refuse to have their affairs managed from Washington. In the intervening decades, this has worked quite well. It has enabled an enduring system called a “rules-based order,” whose efficiency depended on one nation having the exclusive right not just to define the rules, but also to enforce them.
With the chaos surrounding the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the first signs are appearing that the vaunted efficiency of the rules-based order has become counterproductive. Yahoo cites Dave Keating, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, who explains that Europeans are angry “that they weren’t consulted about the withdrawal plan and were treated as an afterthought even though this was supposed to be a NATO joint endeavor.” Everyone — Americans and Europeans alike — has suddenly become aware of “the tremendous loss of money and lives spent on the NATO mission in Afghanistan over the past two decades that now seems very difficult to justify.”
Some observers pointed out in late 2001 that waging an open and easily extendible war to counter a specific crime by a small group of people might be “difficult to justify.” But in the rule-based order, at a time of exaggerated emotions, a firm and resolute decision by the drafter of the rules was as good as formal law and much better than moral law in redefining the rules and having everyone abide by them.
Credibility Ratings Are the Diplomatic Equivalent of Credit Ratings
The Washington Post understands the imperatives associated with the task of maintaining the image of an imperial power and the sacrifices it requires. Last week, following the debacle of Kabul, The Post’s editorial board explained how feasible it would have been for the US not to shamelessly abandon Afghanistan: “A small U.S. and allied military presence — capable of working with Afghan forces to deny power to the Taliban and its al-Qaeda terrorist allies, while diplomats and nongovernmental organizations nurtured a fledgling civil society — not only would have been affordable but also could have paid for itself in U.S. security and global credibility.”
The impression retained by other nations and peoples that a superpower is ready, willing and able to subjugate any other group of people through the use of military might, technology, economic sanctions and any other appropriate means it possesses that sets it apart from the rest of humanity
The Post routinely supports establishment Democrats such as Biden, especially in opposition to dangerous progressives within the same party. But in this case, Jeff Bezos’ paper dared not only to criticize its hero, but even to accuse him of relying on clichés to support his reasoning. “Contrary to his and others’ cliches about ‘endless war,’ though, U.S. troops had not been in major ground operations, and had endured very modest casualties, since 2014,” The Post reports.
The Trojan War left traumatic traces on ancient Greek civilization because it lasted what felt to its contemporaries like an eternity: 10 years. To expiate the guilt associated with that enduring drama, Odysseus was condemned to another 10 years of wandering. At least, that’s how the editorial board that produced the Iliad and Odyssey seemed to see things. For the Greeks, 20 years of testing their manliness in war and Odysseus’ forced peregrination provided the matter that would define who they were as a civilization. A few centuries later, they offered the world the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the drama of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and the Aphrodite of Praxiteles, as well as the radically unarmed Venus de Milo.
The key to the liberating Greek civilization from what Homer consistently described as a permanent manipulation of human heroes by capricious, undisciplined gods was the fact that a seemingly endless war did end. Once Odysseus, after a decade of wandering, had cleared his home of the crowd of suitors that had assembled coveting his neglected wife, the nation as a whole could settle down to producing a civilization in which art and intellect flourished (punctuated by an occasional war against Persians or even civil war between rival cities, just to keep everyone alert).
The Greeks understood that some seemingly endless things actually do need to end. The Washington Post — but more fundamentally, the deeply militarized economy of the US that The Post is wont to defend and promote — haven’t yet learned that lesson.
With Global Warming Confirmed, Israeli Settlers Need Their Ice Cream More Than Ever
Like Lebron James and the late Kobe Bryant, two basketball legends, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are so famous that only their first names are needed to identify them. This is true, in any case, so long as the two names are paired together, since the first names Ben and Jerry lack the uniqueness of Lebron and Kobe. The two men from Merrick, New York, launched what became the most famous ice cream brand in the United States more than 30 years ago. They became celebrities thanks to the quality of their products but even more so to their marketing skills, which included a dose of sincere social concern and political awareness, something most successful businesses usually seek to avoid. Unlike the many brands that suddenly discovered their love for Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, their commitment to causes never reflected pure marketing opportunism.
The two Jewish boys no longer run the business, but they have imprinted on it its dimension of social awareness. Consistently with the company’s moral conscience, the company Ben & Jerry’s decided to stop sales in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories. Consistently with a certain style of propaganda designed to legitimate policies and actions even more openly racist and oppressive than police brutality in the United States against blacks, the state of Israel itself and numerous organizations have accused Ben and Jerry’s of anti-Semitism.
The Times of Israel reports on demonstrations in front of a Ben & Jerry’s in New York by militant Zionists who “led chants of ‘Shame on you, Ben & Jerry’s,’ ‘Everyone deserves ice cream’ and ‘From the river to the sea, Israel will always be.’”
Enjoy one of the rights essential to one’s well-being within a human community, a category that includes abstract notions such as the right to vote in a democracy and, more recently, following the logic of the consumer society, the right to purchase any commercial commodity
In the latest news, according to The Hill, Florida Senator Rick Scott is “calling for a federal investigation into Ben & Jerry’s over its decision to stop selling ice cream in occupied Palestinian territory.” This moment may appear as the most telling sign of the irreversible decline of a great democracy that once at least pretended to set standards for the rest of the world.
In its famous 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court pushed the idea of freedom of speech to the point of authorizing corporations to undermine democratic processes by calling their use of money to influence elections “free speech.” Now, the idea that American citizens and corporations might use the feeble force of their refusal to consume products originating in a foreign country deemed virulently anti-democratic for its treatment of the populations living within its borders has already been condemned as unpatriotic and anti-Semitic. Florida and many other states have passed anti-BDS laws punishing efforts to boycott Israel, a country that practices policies similar to South Africa’s notorious apartheid system.
Ben & Jerry’s isn’t even proposing a boycott, which is the refusal to buy goods from a particular source. Ben & Jerry’s sell; they don’t buy. They aren’t even aiming at Israel as a nation, but will only refuse to sell in those parts that have been identified by the United Nations as illegally colonized. Scott, a Republican senator, wants the company investigated, condemned and presumably sanctioned for failing to blindly endorse an apartheid-style occupation conducted by a foreign country. He appears to think that the US Constitution’s First Amendment protects the right of Americans to speak out against the policies of one’s own country but not those of Israel.
The key word is of course anti-Semitism, now considered to be identical with any form of criticism of Israel and a shortcut for letting original forms of white supremacy off the hook. The word has become a magic wand of the right in many Western countries. A conservative or even a liberal establishment politician can wave it in the air with appropriate gestures to shame anyone who dares to spout progressive themes about oppressed peoples and expect the media to respond.
It’s curious that so few people who follow the media will stop to think about how paradoxical it may appear that a company founded by two Jewish guys, who remain the source of the firm’s social conscience, are labeled anti-Semitic by a US senator defending the right of another nation to practice an aggressive form of apartheid, one of the most extreme historical examples of white supremacy.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]