alien & sedition.
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
  John McCain and the "Transcendent" War

John McCain, during the recent Republican debate, says:
I also firmly believe that the challenge of the 21st century is the struggle against radical Islamic extremism. It is a transcendent issue. It is hydra-headed. It will be with us for the rest of the century.
Josh Marshall, who is skilled at doing this sort of thing, lucidly analyzes the absurdity of the remark:
Now, think about that. That's ninety-three years. My old graduate school advisor Gordon Wood used to say that humans have a very hard time seeing more than fifty years into the future. Of course, even a year into the future is difficult. But more than a few decades and we haven't the slightest idea what the world is going to look like ...

But John McCain states it as a matter of fact that the war against militant Islam will still be the defining national security threat for this country in 2099 and for years after.

I know we customarily give a rather wide berth to rhetorical excess in the theater of politics. But what on earth is McCain talking about? Not long ago it was enough to sate the historical vanity of the War on Terror mongers to dub it a 'long war' or 'generational struggle', which it may well be. But apparently even that is now insufficient. Only an entire century will do. It is almost as if as the concept in the real-world present looks more and more ill-judged and foolhardy its credentials must be buffed up by giving it more and more ridiculous lifespans ranging off into the unknowable future.
The Carpetbagger Report expands on this:
We’re engaged in an undefined, open-ended war against an undetermined enemy that spans several continents and is unaffiliated with any specific nation-state. I’m rather surprised McCain was willing to limit his vision to just the 21st century.

Indeed, as long as we’re looking at this in a big-picture kind of way, a McCain-like vision of a “war on terror” can’t end until we’ve “won.” I’m curious how those who share McCain’s ideology would define “victory” in this context.

When the Middle East is dominated by democracies? That won’t do it; people can vote for terrorists. When al Qaeda is destroyed? There are other networks that can and would take its place. When religious extremists are no longer motivated by their faith to commit acts of violence? That might, um, take a while.
The two writers note other aspects of the "transcendence" of this struggle: for one thing, as Marshall points out, it puts McCain, Bush, and their ideological fellow-travellers beyond the realm of mere evidence -- and ultimately beyond judgment and consequences altogether: "the future is the only territory where empirical evidence or -- more plainly put -- reality can't be brought up to contradict you." I've suggested before that "victory" in Iraq, as it is postponed ad infinitum into the future by its neoconservative devotees -- always just around a corner or two -- is a similarly unassailable concept. Lest we forget, our travails in Iraq are, in the minds of the neocons, bound up conceptually into the general "long war" McCain was describing during the debate; indeed, there's no particular reason to believe that, given the unity and "transcendence" of the war as described by McCain, we should expect "victory" in Iraq to arrive at any point during the front end of that 93-year struggle. If Iraq is the front line in the war on terror, and the war on terror is expected to last a century, well...

Of course, the front line may shift. To where? It hardly matters. That's the fun of transcendent war -- it has little to do with actual circumstances or actual decisions or actual people with actual lives to be lived and lost.

From what has this war transcended? And to where? It has transcended, I think, from being a collection of actual issues, often only tangentally related to one another, and subject to management by competent people using empirically-tested methods, to being a holy cause, given rhetorical unity and subject first and foremost to the demands of faith (and political advantage). The claims to competence of the actual experts are degraded, and the experts themselves frequently become convenient and amusing subjects of abuse at the hands of the initiate. And for the nonbelievers, there's a lake of political fire.

Why does it seem so important for American conservatives to have a transcendent war to wage?

Perhaps because American conservatism -- that peculiar strain of hyper-aggressive, bowdlerized right-liberalism punctuated by bouts of Burke-inspired self-loathing -- has accomplished some things, but as a whole and on its own, it lacks a convincing internal logic (even though it believes strongly in the importance of such a logic) and is uninspired by the duties and challenges of actually governing. It seems to me that Democrats -- right back to the days of Andrew Jackson -- have generally been the party of the incoherent, non-ideological, pragmatic majority. Seekers of transcendence, on the other hand, have tended to be much more attracted to the Republican party. This has given us abolition, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and progressivism, but it has also given us Prohibition, "the Evil Empire," and the Moral Majority. It's difficult for the right to get by, politically speaking, without a transcendent cause to which it can attach. If the details of the cause -- the actual people, the actual circumstances, the fact that it can't really be described as a "cause" at all -- get in the way, said details should be rubbished and ignored. This is the mindset of the faithful.

What's the cash value of these ruminations? I don't know. But Prohibition and the Moral Majority went away sooner than many people thought they would. I imagine that neo-Reaganism will, as well. Transcendence feels great when you first inhale it, but the high never lasts as long as it should, and the real world comes rushing back hard.

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Beautifully put....
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