Signifying Nothing, and Missing the Point

Pointy-headed intellectual concepts too often become excuses to float above practical reality. Consider:

There is a technical term for this phenomenon. The GWOT acted as what, in the language of semiotics, is called a “floating signifier,” able to be attached at will to a wide range of actions and policies. The Bush administration organized the al-Qaida 9/11 perpetrators and Saddam Hussein into seamless chapters in the same account. The GWOT narrative led directly to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to justifying torture and to disregard treaty obligations under the laws of war. …
… what is needed is an attack on the central fallacy at the heart of the current narrative, namely that a fantastically complex world can be reduced to a single storyline. The war in Iraq was justified on the basis of a baleful conflation of al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Today, a similar mistake threatens in Afghanistan, where – – contrary to the underlying facts — a tacit conflation of the Taliban and al-Qaida justifies the expansion of the U.S. civil and military presence in the country. Seen through the GWOT lens, this makes sense. By any other measure, it is a gross distortion. Although General Petraeus recently acknowledged that al-Qaida no longer has a presence in Afghanistan, a shadowy presumption that it does, or might, continues to cast the indigenous Afghan insurgent movement as an existential threat to the United States — thus turning what is in essence a local problem into a global challenge.

While excesses such as torture (or, to widen the historical lens, internment) are a continual danger requiring of vigilance and correction, the fact that an overarching idea has been applied to the global “narrative” does not mean that all conclusions within its fold are manufactured. What Amy Zalman and Jonathan Clarke, who penned the above quotation, have done is to lash the War on Terror with a too-specific target (al-Qaeda) and thereby exclude the setting in which al-Qaeda came to exist and to operate.
The Taliban is the perfect example: Given the structure of terrorist groups, if we are to avoid stomping on the source of motivation (i.e., Islam), we must modify the environment that permits its radicalization. The Taliban and al-Qaeda needn’t be conflated in order to acknowledge that the former facilitated the latter. Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda needn’t have been partners with a binding contract in order for the former’s behavior to be intolerable.
Given fronts in the campaign to prevent terrorist attacks that could kill Americans by the millions may be justifiable or not, on their merits, but it would be a grave mistake to follow the lead of those who prefer to attack abstract principles. The unique problem of Islamofascism and terrorism on a massive scale is that the orderly rules by which we’ve striven to interact as nation-states do not apply. What we are dealing with — if a mere blogger might coin a technical term — is an army of “floating zealots” whose activities signify death on a horrifying scale.

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Mark Eichenlaub
14 years ago

Saddam actually did have some links to al Qaeda though there were people inside BOTH groups who opposed it…the story the media has decided should be the dominant narrative.
I am working on a project to get out the word on who was who.

Robert Balliot
14 years ago

I wonder what the etymology for ‘pointy-headed’ would reveal. Might the head shape disparagement originate from low-brow or accordian-headed folks? <:)

14 years ago

I’m pretty sure that the phrase ‘technical term’ and the study of semiotics belong nowhere near each other. Right up there with the dissonant ‘political science’.
‘… what is needed is an attack on the central fallacy at the heart of the current narrative, namely that a fantastically complex world can be reduced to a single storyline.’ For a moment there, I thought they had switched to a critique of AGW – anthropogenic global warming – as opposed to the GWOT. But no, to do that would require actual critical faculties.

14 years ago

I don’t care about the shape of one’s head or the size of the cranium. Human’s expression through ideas, music, art, and dance has meaning. Justin there is something to the idea expressed here by Amy Zalman and Jonathan Clarke that local or national problems are just that. The Taliban emerged after a decade of civil war after the eviction of the Russian military. Some of the early roots of what became al-Qaida were Islamic fighters against the occupation of Afganistan. The fact that was cooperation after the Taliban gained control of much of their country and offered or were paid to allow the former freedom fighters safe haven is not surprising. Most observers believe al-Qaida solely responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It appears now that the Bush Administration used the anger and fear generated by the attacks to reject the policy of seeking to bring members of the group responsible for the terrorist attacks to justice but instead to seek to control a region. Remember the talk out of Washington at the time about “draining the swamp”. Most swamps that I’m familiar with are in fixed geographic areas. What I am saying is that the Bush Administration fought this GWOT in many ways that were wrong. A police action against al-Qaida was justified. (Iran at the time agreed) Action against the Taliban was also justified if they resisted US efforts or fought against US forces. Nation building should have never been attempted in either Afganistan or Iraq. Nation building in Iraq was meant to establish a long time presence in that region, a region that has a huge potential for oil production in the future. Which other countries other than the US would want to gain control of that region? Why did Russia occupy Afganistan? Is… Read more »

14 years ago

Al Qaida was holed up in the northeast territories of Pakistan and adjacent regions of Afghanistan. Whether any national authority actually controlled these regions is highly debatable. Pakistan was muscled into supporting us; the Talib, as nasty a bunch of characters as there are, weren’t going along. We needed feet on the ground and we put them there – as W said, you’re either with us or against us. Had he waited for the UN or tried to woo the Talib, we’d still be waiting today.
Why did the SovComs occupy Afghanistan? Because they wanted to destabilize and invade Pakistan, specifically to obtain a warm water port more useful than Vladivostok.

14 years ago

“what is needed is an attack on the central fallacy at the heart of the current narrative, namely that a fantastically complex world can be reduced to a single storyline.’ For a moment there, I thought they had switched to a critique of AGW.”
Ha! Very good, ChuckR.

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