The words that may turn out over time to have many of the same ominous undertones as Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” was uttered this past week by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. That phrase was “willful ignorance.”
Flynn is simply one of a host of other pundits and analysts on both the left and right who have been piling on the Obama administration in recent days over what Foreign Policy magazine ungraciously blasted as the “strategic incoherence” of its blueprint for the Middle East, especially as it affects both friends and enemies. FP used the military slang “Charlie Foxtrot”, an acronym for the kind of obscenity a GI utters when you have clueless people making major, completely avoidable mistakes with complex consequences, to characterize Washington’s approach.
Such “disarray”, according to the publication Politico, has been the result of “blind ideology,” first by the Bush administration’s berserker-like charge with all manners of weapons blazing into the treacherous Middle Eastern religious and ethnic hedgerows, but even more dangerously and fatefully by the Obama administration’s own obsession with withdrawing American troops and refusing involvement at all costs.
The baleful consequences of America’s tragicomic effort at “stumbling through history” (in the words of Politico) is that we have not brought peace, but in fact the opposite. We make nice, like Ahaz when facing off with the Assyrians, to whomever it seems convenient and expedient for the time being to side with at the time, mainly because because we are still going through our own collective national trauma therapy because of 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
As a result we find ourselves on the threshold, as Christopher Dickey writes in The Daily Beast, of the “next great Middle East War”, a deadly and highly plausible triangulation of the armies of Iran and the Iranian-backed Shia, the now mobilized Sunni states, and of course Israel, all of whom see the others as “existential” threats respectively.
It amounts to what one columnist calls a “race to chaos” running alongside the “likelihood of a dystopian ‘Mad Max’ scenario” where apocalyptic Shia militias armed with nuclear weapons fight apocalyptic ISIS fighters armed with nuclear weapons, while Israel and Iran mull each other’s first-strike capabilities and plan their gambits accordingly.
Meanwhile, under the pretense of averting ethnic cleansing in Iraq we are aiding and abetting ethnic cleansing in Iraq by supporting the government there with bombing runs, according to FP. In order to stop ISIS from taking Baghdad, we are giving winks and nods to the very same Iranian general staff that has fortified the Assad regime in Syria, which we once threatened to bomb because of its ethnic cleansing.
The notion that that such a massive regional, if not global snafu (that now commonplace word, by the way, derives also from military slang qua acronym coined during World War II, which also employs the F-word) can be attributed to the policies of just one president (Bush, if you are a liberal, Obama if you are a conservative) is of course the grandest form of “willful ignorance.”
The real “snafu” – as in “situation normal, all f-ed up” – goes much further back than Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, or even the events of September 2001. Depending on your own not-so-nuanced historical perspective, it can be traced to Reagan’s assignment of the marines to Lebanon in 1982, or the CIA’s recommendation to arm Saddam Hussein as a firewall against the radical ayatollahs in the late 1970s, or Carter’s fiasco with the Shah of Iran, or American support for the partition of Palestine in 1947, or the Balfour Declaration, or the brains behind the British empire opting in the 1830s to follow Napoleon with a new Western “colonial” presence in the Middle East.
But, then again, we’re not really talking about stupid or evil political leaders so much as the law of unintended consequences. Or we are talking about an unavoidable factum of history that we in the West generally, and in America specifically, for which we have learned the art of studied avoidance bolstered by a certain subtle pride in our collective “willful ignorance.”
What is this grand and glorious snafu? It’s known as the Middle East! And it won’t go away, no matter what we do or think, or refuse to do or think, or pretend to do, or think or all of the above.
And the more we try to “fix” things with the ephemeral wisdom and coping mechanisms of our foggy-bottom-feeding “experts”, while of course blaming our preferred political bogeys for having caused this mess in the first place, the worse becomes the very fix we find ourselves in. Obama should have a little humility after his battering of Bush, but that isn’t the real issue.
The real issue is that we, especially in the intelligentsia, have nurtured a culture of willful ignorance about the meaning of what is happening from the Tigris to the Nile, or from the mountains of Persia to the sands of the Sahara. This willful ignorance, paradoxically, is at the same time a certain “learned ignorance” (apologies here to Nicholas of Cusa).
Such ignorance is founded on what might be termed the “Westphalian” mindset on which the vast majority of diplomatic calculations among the Western powers have been based for over 300 years. As most students of European social and political history know, the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 not only ended the bloody “wars of religion” that had torn Europe apart for more than a century, but also enshrined the seemingly unshakable strategic principle that novo ordo seclorum of the modern world would be built on the unit of the nation-state.
The Westphalian mindset, therefore, which also generated the notion of the “war of national liberation” as well as the concept of raison d’etat (“reason of state”), was the major driving force in the global expansion of the West, including the colonial era. It was responsible for the way in which the victorious allies at the end of World War I carved up the Middle East, laying the groundwork for a whole new pageantry of “wars of religion” which we are witnessing in the region today.
The Westphalian mindset has always treated religion as something functionally subordinate to the sovereignty of the secular regime. Even in Catholic France throughout the time of the ancien régime that rule for the most part held sway. But what if suddenly the political metaphysics of an immanent sovereignty invested in worldly rules is challenged by a more ancient norm of a “theo-politics” in which the divine – and the divine alone – is sovereign, whereas the primacy of the political gives way to the unqualified authority of the one who speaks for God.
That is the Middle East in a nutshell. Up until the Ottoman sultans elected in the late eighteenth century to ingest slowly the norms of secular sovereignty, largely because of they had been militarily on the downslide in relation to the West ever since their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the theo-political preference was the rule rather than the exception throughout the Middle East. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Sumerian god-kings of the third millennium BCE.
Even when they forged their vast Mediterranean and Northwestern European empire, the civic-minded Romans, whose legal institutions we have inherited, never understood the theo-political passions of their subject from the Levant eastward, which is why the Asian frontier was always a cauldron of intrigue, violence, repression, and rebellion. As a matter of fact, it still is.
In the contemporary context it was the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 that inaugurated the return of the theo-political when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a then unlikely leader who was at once a conservative religious cleric as well as a political radical, established what we would understood as the “anti-liberal” principle of the velayat e faqih, or the “rule of the [Islamic] jurists.” Since that time virtually all Middle Eastern politics has increasingly become a theo-politics, all the way from the founding of Hezbollah to the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood to the rise of militant organizations such as A-Qaeda and ISIS.
It is this willful ignorance of what makes the Middle East tick, and our own insane assumption that we don’t have to deal with it (even the Franks of the Dark Ages had to contend with invading Islamic armies) except on our own comfortable terms, that has already set the current flight path toward cataclysm. The President of the United States’ incoherent policies only mirror the confused and dissociated mass mentality of the peoples who make up the Western secular democracies when it comes to attending to, and dealing with, a new planetary order (or “disorder”, if you closely survey the terrain) in which myriad armies of the night ever clash with more and more sophisticated weapons and ever more fervent apocalyptic dreams backlit by uncompromising allegiances to whom they celebrate as the “One True God.”
If our so-called “political theology” is incapable of comprehending and confronting this new global theo-politics, it is both “political” and “theological” in name only.
If the Middle East is “on fire” these days, as many observers have opined, then maybe we need to understand why the fire is burning. Perhaps it has something to do with the “theo” in the theo-political itself. “For our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:29)