Mourning for a morally compromised US

The following review appears in today’s Sun Herald:

My Holy War
Jonathan Rabin
(Picador, $32.95)
Reviewed by Antony Loewenstein

In the days and weeks after September 11, 2001, there was widespread global sympathy and support for the United States. Nearly five years on, that goodwill has diminished.

A recent Harris and Financial Times poll found that 36 per cent of Europeans identified the US as the greatest threat to global stability. US war crimes in Iraq have heightened mistrust to the point where President George W. Bush is openly ridiculed the world over. Furthermore, the Iraq debacle has increased the likelihood that the age of the American Empire is coming to a close.

Such thoughts occupy the mind of British-born, US based writer Jonathan Rabin. He aims to get past the cosy, mainstream sound bites about “spreading freedom, democracy and the American way.” Instead, he fears the religiously based crusade initiated by the Bush administration and concludes that our understanding of the Arab world is deliberately limited.

How can we expect to invade and occupy a country, Rabin asks, when Bush himself barely understands the cultural, religious and tribal divides that rack Iraq? The view of many in the Arab world towards the US is correctly explained thus: “America is on an Orientalist rampage in which Arabs are systemically denatured, dehumanised, stripped of all human complexity, reduced to naked babyhood.”

Rabin is damning of patriotic media in the wake of September 11, so keen to endorse the wild-west retribution meted out by the Bush administration. In his home-town of Seattle, – a traditionally liberal heartland…  – the Post-Intelligencer newspaper editorialised that, “we lose the moral high ground if our pursuit of justice is conducted unjustly.”

We now know that the regular state-sanctioned use of torture, “extraordinary rendition”, death squads and Abu Ghraib has ended any illusions about the “moral high ground.” The paper seemed happy to trust the government to “win” the “war on terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan was “one salvo in a war that may take years to win, if it can be won at all.” Rabin’s quoting of these words highlights the uncritical acceptance often adopted by the Fourth Estate towards government authority.

One of the strengths of these various essays – on subjects as diverse as Islamism, Bush and travel writing – is how Rabin reminds one of the wayward travellers who bring insights foreign to the native inhabitants. He paints a picture of a lumbering superpower, unsure of its own power and seemingly determined to impose its will.

While there are no startling revelations in My Holy War – and the author attributes a moral framework to British Prime Minister Tony Blair that are not borne out by the facts – Rabin’s discussion of the work of Stephen Flynn, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is worth recalling.

“The administration, addicted to secrecy, alternates between treating its citizens as children who must be shielded from knowledge of the danger they are in, and as likely suspects who must be continually surveilled”, Rabin explains. It is these “self-inflicted” wounds that are causing the gradual collapse of American society.

“Terror warriors” should not be listened to, but rather shunned. Perpetual war against a supposed enemy is counterproductive and immoral. Rabin fears such advice is being ignored.

US exceptionalism receives a thorough debunking in Rabin’s analysis. He doesn’t believe the US is destined to deliver freedom and liberty to the huddling masses around the world. But he does expect it’ll provide fairness and justice, little of which has been on display in recent years.

He reflects on a nation that hasn’t really grown up, a country that believes it has the right to act as it wishes. Rabin is not against the country, merely many actions of its government. He loves the US, but fears for its future. Such contemplative writers are welcome.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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