TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 171 (Summer 2015): Politics and Values: The Middle East and China

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Standard accounts of American politics invoke an oscillation between idealist and realist inclinations. The idealists appeal to principles, which they identify as fundamental to the American polity, especially those enshrined in the founding documents: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, transformed into a broad democratization agenda. Of course, revisionist critics have no difficulty in pointing out the failure of that agenda, i.e., the extent to which the empirical history of the country fell far short of realizing its ideals. Yet even that critique, smugly put forward to debunk naïve idealism, in some basic ways is itself indebted to the same idealism, insofar as the complaint of insufficient democratization also implies a call for more democracy, the very core of the idealist program. This is why neo-conservatives and their left-liberal adversaries always had more in common than met the eye (as was abundantly clear to traditional conservatives).

The antipode to the idealism is the realism that purports to argue with greater sobriety, unencumbered by lofty aspirations, which it replaces with a down-to-earth realpolitik. In lieu of transformative norms and principles, realists insist on the priority of national interest, raison d’état, in a line of thinking that stretches from Machiavelli at the beginning of the modern era to Morgenthau at the apex of the American century. At stake is power, not ideals, at least in the starkest of accounts. Yet, as with the idealists, the story is more complicated, precisely because power and ideals are inextricably bound up with each other, especially in any political community that depends on democratic participation: pure power-politics, without substantive values, cannot in the long run maintain the support of the electorate, despite the enormously persuasive power of the mass media, government by public relations, and the culture industry.

These are not idealist times for American foreign policy, despite the élan and excitement that brought Obama to power in the 2008 election. These have not been times in which values have been pursued. On the contrary, in the 2009 Cairo speech and elsewhere, Obama explicitly renounced the democratization agenda, a policy cornerstone from the Democratic Wilson to the Republican Bush, and instead initiated a retreat from the Middle East. What followed: the shameful apathy in the face of the brutal attacks on the Iranian protest movement; the rush to exit Iraq, leaving it prey to Iranian ambitions; the confused reversals that have kept Assad in power in Damascus—still using chemical weapons—while the United States has effectively acceded to the Russian annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine. In all of this there is no obvious ideal or value for which the United States stands, except a consistent refusal of values, along with the need to manage retreat. In the meantime the narrative that the U.S. inattention in the Middle East or Eastern Europe reflected a strategic redeployment elsewhere turns out to have been a distraction: no sign yet of any substantive “pivot to Asia.”

The dialectic of idealism and realism, values and power, is not however a Washington monopoly, so this issue of Telos turns both to the Middle East and to China—our pivot to Asia—to explore some permutations of politics and the pursuit of principles that inform them. The issue begins with two discussions of Kurdistan, this free nation emerging from the fog of the Iraq War. Had Saddam not been toppled and had the sanctions regime, including the no-fly zone, been lifted (as the Europeans were pushing for in 2002), Kurdistan would be a wasteland today. Instead, as Sabah Salih describes, it flourishes, a flagrant counterexample to the received opinion and established dogmas in conventional Near East Studies departments. That is the Kurdistan that is emerging from Iraq. Pekka Sulkunen leads us into the other part of Kurdistan, the part in Turkey, and the prospects for democratization there in the context of the legacy of Kemalist republican nationalism and Erdoğan’s Islamist politics. Beau Mullen examines the 2013 Egyptian coup that deposed the Morsi regime through the lens of Schmitt and Agamben and their distinctive approaches to the “state of exception.” Arno Tausch provides extensive empirical data to frame the challenge of the Islamic State, the extent to which its values are shared elsewhere in the region, and its overall ideological profile. He concludes with a disturbing estimation of the quantitative scope of the terrorist threat to Europe through a comparison with data from the era of IRA violence. The section concludes with Mohammed Wattad‘s tightly argued critique of the activist campaign to boycott Israeli universities, highlighting the contradiction between the appeal to stifle academic exchange and a justification in terms of rights. Neither the constitution nor the First Amendment is a “suicide pact,” as Wattad reminds us, pointing out the importance of the notion of “defensive democracy.”

From the Middle East to East Asia: David Pan provides an introduction to a forum of five scholars who address a values debate in contemporary China. In recent years, the PRC has tried to exercise increasingly tighter control over the public sphere and especially open debate in the universities. In January 2015, Minister of Education Yuan Guiren banned textbooks that promote Western values; some critics of this move have asked, appropriately enough, whether the banned values would also include the ideas of the Western philosopher Karl Marx. Yet the complexities are many, and as the contributors to the special section point out with considerable nuance, the question of values as such and their designation as “Western” or “Chinese,” or even as “universal,” are no simple matters. The collection includes a range of viewpoints from Flora Sapio, John Lagerwey, Stephen Angle, Huimin Jin, and Min Zhou.

After these investigations of politics and values today, the issue is rounded out with some historical and theoretical reflections. Edward Mussawir (taking a cue from Schmitt) turns to Johann Bachofen and his study of tombs as a source for a science of law. Matteo Calla looks at Walter Benjamin and the status of the subject between his materialist (Marxist) and theological writings. Finally, Daniel Innerarity sheds light on the impossibility of complete order and therefore the constant creative potential inherent in disorder, a “poetic epistemology of exception,” the values, ideals, or even the poetry and dreams that embody the aspirations that no political order can ever fully crush.

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