Imaging a War on Terror

Two days after Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, President Barack Obama announced that he would not to release photos of the Al Qaeda leader’s body. He said the releasing gruesome images could incite anger against American troops abroad and create unnecessary risks to national security. He also said that displaying bin Laden’s dead body runs counter to American ideals:  “That’s not who we are,” Obama told 60 Minutes. “You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”

But America’s use of images has not always been so high-minded. W. J. T. Mitchell’s Cloning Terror takes on the issue of how images have been used in the so-called “war on terror,” which he describes as a “metaphor run amuck.”  Footage of the Twin Towers falling on 9/11, the televised “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad, a statue of Saddam Hussein being destroyed, and the much-criticized 2003 photo of Bush on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner that read “Mission Accomplished”– these images resonated during the Iraq War and, for many Americans, solidified the misguided notion that terror could be an actual enemy in a war.  Launching a conventional war against a concept was a fool’s errand, Mitchell writes, “a misbegotten fantasy from the first.”

Temptations of Power

Reading about Wikileaks’ release of American diplomatic cables makes me think about our vocabulary around foreign policy. How do we talk about foreign policy and who exactly should have access to information that U.S. representatives abroad collect? This summer, Peter Beinart told me that the public rarely drives foreign policy. In The Icarus Syndrome he called for Americans to engage and push back against abuse of power. He recently wrote in The Daily Beast that Wikileaks’ actions are little more than voyeuristic fodder and add little to public debate, but my conversation with him makes me wonder if the Wikileaks project could, at least, be a springboard for greater conversation about American foreign policy.

I wrote a review of The Icarus Syndrome and short Q&A with Beinart for the Abu Dhabi-based Afaq Al Mustaqbal Magazine, which translated the piece into Arabic and edited for length. It ran in Issue No. 7, Sept/Oct 2010 (PDF with Arabic text). Below is the text as I submitted it.

Temptations of Power

The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris
By Peter Beinart

By Angilee Shah

If the power of Fox News is a conundrum to Americans on the political left now, what Peter Beinart chronicles in the history of American politics shows that it is not a new dilemma. The tendency of the political elite to push ideologies to its extremes is cyclical and disastrous, or so goes the lessons of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris.

Beinart’s last book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals–and Only Liberals–Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, chronicled the history of liberals’ foreign policies and called for liberals in 2006 to take a strong position in the war on terror while remembering that power is not always a force for good. The Icarus Syndrome takes a broader view on the same theme. Writing across political parties, Beinart retells stories of political power at the outsets of World War I, Vietnam and Iraq, and sections them into ideological cycles, to remind us that power and success should not make us disregard the limits of our ideologies.

some recent Sri Lanka reports

When the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) published a report a co-author and I did on the conflict in Sri Lanka, I did not get much of a response. But when they put that report online, the emails and comments began. If new journalism is meant to create community conversation, I hope that this article has done new journalism proud.

The comments on FEER really get to the heart of the debate over Sri Lanka’s current conflict, and indeed anti-terror campaigns around the world. Prasad writes, “Extreme situations require extreme measures and you need extreme personality who will not flinch to carry out what is needed. Gotahabaya [Rajapaksa, the Defense Secretary] is one of these rare men.” John Holmes comments, “Every war has collateral damage. There is no denying that innnocent people get caught in the “cross fire”. Unfortunately this is part of war. However this article is biased, anyone could see. There is no mention of the atrocities committed by the tigers.”

And so the question is, if Sri Lanka’s war is a “war on terror,” what are acceptible casualties? Emily Wax of the Washington Post has done some powerful reporting from Sri Lanka that illuminates both the top-down and bottom-up effects of the war and government counterinsurgency tactics. In a Feb. 22 article, she writes:

But as an end appears to be drawing near, the Tigers continue to practice their brazen, often innovative warfare, including an air raid on the capital Friday night — a flashy show of power that left at least three people dead and 48 wounded. The Tigers invented the suicide jacket, a bomb-laden vest, and the ongoing suicide and guerrilla attacks will persist in Sri Lanka until the Tamil minority is fully participating in society, analysts and diplomats said.

Still, the Sri Lankan government is winning the conventional war, according to military and political analysts, who note that officials took several hard-line steps: They marshaled public opinion to their cause by painting the conflict as a war against terrorism; courted China for weapons without restrictions on their use; and skirted dissent by journalists, aid workers and civil society groups whose public scrutiny of the government and its war efforts was denounced as treasonous, human rights groups have charged.

“In a post-9/11 scenario, ‘terrorist’ became a very dirty word. The government suddenly had an advantage in the international arena in fighting the Tamil Tigers, an organization that the FBI called ‘the most ruthless and efficient terror organization in the world,’ ” said Kusal Perera, head of an independent news Web site, “The world scenario changed in favor of the government.”

Wax’s report, Privacy Goes Public in Sri Lanka, explains profiling and harrassment at security checkpoints, which gives insight into how daily life has changed as detention and questioning by the government become more and more common. The Defense Secretary has given a few interviews about his plans for counterinsurgency; one of the earliest was with the BBC. More recently, SBS of Australia did a lengthy report on the conflict, which ended up being about, well, how difficult it is to report on the conflict. Simon Montlake of the Christian Science Monitor wrote about how Mr. Rajapaksa was influenced by U.S. tactics in its war on terror. For a strong, and larger portrait of the conflict see the Al Jazeera program, Dining with Terrorists.

For recent updates, particularly about the United States’ reactions to claims of human rights violations, I gave a very short interview for the Asia Society podcast, The Weekly Fix. Anil Kalhan gives a good roundup of recent international interventions on the SAJAforum of the South Asian Journalists Association.