It’s not over. What isn’t? Neither that which we’d like to be over, nor the things we want to see flourish. The conjunction of the the U. S. reconfiguration of counterinsurgency, with the Palestinian regrouping in the face of the popular revolts, and the denouement of the Birther fiasco made for a remarkable global media day on Thursday 27 April.
Recalling Gen. Petraeus to DC and sending Leon “Drone” Panetta to the Pentagon amounts to an official statement that the “surge” mode of counterinsurgency, with massive costs and troops on the ground, is giving way to the UAV model of remote-controlled robot assassination, in order to keep the lid on insurgencies and budgets alike. Even the war in Libya was turned over to Predator drones this week, which launched yet another unsuccessful attack on Gaddafi’s compound.
Counterinsurgency has completed its turn away from the spectacular “image wars” of Shock-and-Awe vintage to the “invisible” war of UAVs, no-fly zones, satellite monitoring and so-called “Black” ops. The Wikileaks Guantanamo files made it clear what this means: those named by desperate people in detention under extreme duress become targets for elimination. We are so far from the Panopticon that not only is there no intent to reform anyone, there is no legal possibility to even put them on trial. U.S. prosecutors could imagine only 20 cases being brought. So the remaining detainees linger in colonial limbo.
This is not, however, to say that counterinsurgency is simply in the ascendant. With the revolutionary ferment spreading to Syria and with Yemen on the brink of regime change, the Palestinian factions reconciled rather than face revolt from below. It was Egyptian diplomacy that made this change possible, making it clear that, while there is a great deal to be done, the fall of Mubarak was not simply cosmetic. The jailing of the Mubarak clan has resonated around the region–ironically, the Panopticon is, however briefly and instrumentally, the tool of the “people.”
In the U. S., events seem curiously isolated from global change. The fiasco in which the President had to produce his long-form birth certificate was eloquently condemned by the comedian Baratunde Thurston on YouTube, a post that quickly went viral.
Thurston described his sense of being “humiliated” by this moment, evoking as it did past poll taxes, literacy tests and other demarcations that African Americans were not considered citizens as of right. My (mostly white) students echoed the sentiment, finding it “embarrassing” and “ridiculous.” Trump has gone on a national celebration tour because depressing our side is what this is all about. In this country, it seems that the image war is still on.
So it’s not over: not the revolution, but also not counterinsurgency, and not yet even the image wars. I think we should find this hopeful: if it’s not over, then intervening can make a difference. Hope was sold in 2008 as easy, an immaterial commodity that could be obtained by pressing a lever or clicking a link. We’re finding out how hard it is, but how critical it can be.