Monday, April 03, 2006

The Coetzee Principle

The release of journalist Jill Carroll has understandably sent a wave of relief through all concerned observers of Iraq. Though her return to safety is a cause for celebration, some of the circumstances surrounding her release should give US policymakers pause to contemplate. The statements that she made on tape just prior to and just after her release about the “lies” of the US government and the “good treatment” afforded her by her captors were, according to Ms. Carroll herself, coerced, and should by no means be held against her. Such statements give some aid to the propaganda efforts of the insurgency, but it would be unreasoningly cruel to expect Carroll to lay down her life rather than make them.

Her captors reportedly told Carroll that they had infiltrated the Green Zone and would be watching her closely after her release. If she “cooperated” with the US embassy she would be killed. This would explain why even after her release, when she was already in the office of the “moderate” Sunni political party to whose custody she had been given, she continued to make recorded statements about being “well treated.” Her colleague at the Christian Science Monitor ultimately had to persuade her to come into the Green Zone, the place where (had she been thinking reasonably) she would have realized she would be safest. After witnessing the murder of her interpreter and having been in the life-and-death power of her captors for almost 3 months Carroll cannot be blamed for having taken their threats at face value.

Indeed, the deliberate nature of her captors’ threats and the specificity of the comments they elicited from Carroll were transparent attempts to mitigate the damage from what was ultimately a political victory for the Coalition. What is difficult to explain, however, is the tacit assistance Carroll’s captors received toward their propaganda efforts from the “moderate” political party that managed the actual exchange. Why, immediately upon arrival to “safety” was Carroll placed in front of a camera and interviewed about the treatment she had received from her captors? Though Carroll may clarify what her state of mind was after she has recovered from her ordeal, it seems likely that she was still in the very impressionable state of terror induced by her captors’ threats, and nothing had yet been done to reassure her that she was, in fact, safe. Why would her “liberators” record an interview with her before she had been securely passed into the hands of the US embassy (or at least the Iraqi security forces)? The intent may be murky (to a degree), but the effect is quite clear. The fact that Carroll repeated her statements about being “well treated” once she was already “safe” provided corroboration for the video recorded by her captors prior to her release.

Reading about these circumstances brought to mind the novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. In that book set in post-apartheid South Africa, the white protagonist, David Lurie, and his daughter are assaulted by a group of black men. Lurie is later shocked to discover one of the assailants at a party being hosted by his employee, a black farmer named Petrus. It turns out that the men are kin by marriage. Though shocked and angry, Lurie does not believe that a conspiracy has transpired. Rather, he deduces that he and his daughter have fallen victim to something far more “anthropological.”

The hasty interview by Jill Carroll’s “moderate” Sunni liberators may well be an example of the sort of “anthropological” occurrence Coetzee describes, and it is only one instance of many in which such “anthropological” forces have worked and are working to subvert the Coalition mission in Iraq. Sunnis who have entered the political process are almost certain to retain cultural and social ties to kin and associates fighting as part of the insurgency. Attempts to end sectarian or ethnic violence will be sabotaged by tribal allegiances, persistent blood feuds, or patterns of religious authority.

In a recent OpEd piece Thomas Friedman coined a new epithet for the Iraqi insurgency: “Islamonihilists (a term which I will confess brought The Big Lebowski immediately to my adolescent mind).” The US could not have anticipated, says Friedman, the emergence of such a foe- one that is committed only to destruction without any positive plan for what to build amid the ruins. This portrait is clearly wrong. Any serious student of Iraqi history, society, and culture should have been able to anticipate the insurgency currently faced by the emergent Iraqi government and the Coalition. There is no denying that the insurgency is tragically nihilistic in its effect, but this is because of the disparity of its constituents’ goals and the asymmetry between the insurgency’s power and that of its opponents. The insurgents do not “believe in nothing,” they believe in a whole bevy of goals, ideas, and motives. Some of these are reducible to simple self-interest as understood in a particular social and cultural context. Some of these are fantastic dreams whose impracticality is matched only by their potential destructiveness. Some of these are crypto-fascist ideologies that are truly repugnant. If the insurgents were truly “nihilists” their defeat would be a much less complicated affair. In fact, as the circumstances surrounding Jill Carroll’s release demonstrate, the insurgency draws fuel from a whole complex of historical, ideological, and “anthropological” forces that make its defeat by the US extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.


Kate Marie said...

Very interesting, Madman.

When you say "anthropological," do mean, roughly, "tribal"?

My one quibble with your idea of the importance of tribal and kinship ties, though -- and with your description of the incident from Coetzee's book, which I haven't read -- is that it fails to recognize that there's a moral dimension to the "anthropological principle" that's not necessarily inherent in the "anthropological principle" itself.

That really is a quibble, though, since I realize your post is not meant as an apology for certain manifestations of the "anthropological principle," but as a reminder that the coalition needs to understand that principle when it strategizes about Iraq.

So in other words, I'm just rambling, but I don't care that I'm rambling, because [stroking my pet ferret] I'm a nihilist. I believe in nothing.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

Coetzee was (I sense) using "anthropological" in a tongue-in-cheek fashion to denote a complex of actions that, though not premeditated or the product of outright collusion, spontaneously express the interests and interrelations of a group of social agents. I evoked Coetzee because his figurative reworking of the term seemed to best express what was going on in the Carroll case (and in many other cases in Iraq). I don't think we need to suppose that the Sunni politicians who first took custody of Carroll on her release conspired ahead of time with her captors, but nevertheless their choices and actions fit hand-in-glove with the "remedial" political strategy of the group that abducted her and murdered her interpreter. There are a whole set of relationships and contingencies- tribal, clan, ethnic, regional, sectarian, political, etc.- that might lead the Sunni politicians to spontaneously act in such a way.

As to the "moral dimension" of Coetzee's principle, that's very hazy ("Disgrace" is nothing if not a description of a moral morrass). I find Carroll's captors abominable and disapprove of anyone who abets their purposes, but if what the Sunni politicians did was genuinely not conspiratorial what is the appropriate response? For me the equally salient dimension of Coetzee's principle in the case of Iraq is the strategic one. With what tactics can even a superpower hope to confront or contest such subtle and intangible social mechanisms?

Kate Marie said...

Regarding the moral dimension, I worded my comments clumsily. I was simply referring to the fact that -- in my opinion, at least -- an act that can be defined or analyzed according to "the anthropological principle" can also be judged according to some other, separate principle, for instance according to its morality. So the anthropological principle may explain the black farmer's (or the moderate Sunnis') "collaboration" with the enemy, but the rightness or wrongness of that "collaboration" is separate from its being in accord with the anthropological principle.

A kind of banal point, really, but as I said, I was rambling.

As to the difficulty of confronting or contesting such "subtle and intangible social mechanisms," I would only argue that the difficulty of such confrontations should not be the determining factor in our decisions to engage/confront other countries and cultures, though it should be an *important* factor.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

I think the moral status of actors in both cases are much more difficult to assess than you make out. A definitive moral judgment requires a clear read on intentions and responsibility, and the type of "anthropological" process Coetzee describes precludes either. In that vein, I'm not sure that what the Sunni politicians did can outright be called "collaboration."

I agree that the difficulties posed by "the Coetzee principle" should not necessarily dictate *whether* the US engages/confronts other societies, but it should be be a strongly determinative factor in deciding *how* we engage other societies. In general, I would suggest that any mission requiring the reorientation of "anthropological" forces like those Coetzee describes is probably not achievable through the application of military force (for reasons that would include, but not be exclusive to, those that preclude clearly assessing the moral status of the agents of such forces).

Though our troops are already in Iraq the question of when and how they should be deployed in response to particular circumstances remains a live issue in which "the Coetzee principle" continues to figure. Friedman's OpEd piece asserts that US forces should patrol the streets of Baghdad in force to quell the accelerating sectarian violence that (according to him) threatens to turn that city into Beirut circa 1983. Such an order would certainly lead to a new spike in US casualties, but that might still make it a regrettable necessity if one could be sure that it would have the effect Friedman desires. I'm not certain that such a deployment could end the sectarian strife, however. "The Coetzee Principle" might produce a popular response in Baghdad akin to what US forces encountered in Mogadishu in the 1990's, causing our soldiers to be sacrificed in maneuvers that did more harm than good in the long run.

Kate Marie said...

Dear Madman,

I didn't mean to suggest that the moral status of the actors in each case was *easy* to assess -- just that a moral assessment, while it may be informed by the "anthropological principle," is not wholly constituted/determined by that principle.

Surely you can imagine some operation of the "anthropological principle" in our own culture which would also be subject to a moral assessment that was separate from (though informed by) the anthropological assessment. If I have my cousin the KKK Grand Wizard over to a party at my house (entirely hypothetical, of course :)), the anthropological principle that explains my actions should be separate from the moral assessment of my actions.

I hate to keep clarifing my point, because I don't think it's really a "point," nor is it, as I said, relevant to your post.