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The Concept of the Political Solution

April 22, 2010

Over at the excellent Kings of War blog, there is a post up about foreign minister David Miliband’s plan for ending the war in Afghanistan. The premise of Miliband’s argument is the opposition of “violence” and “politics,” the former being the war’s cause and the latter being a means to its conclusion. The KoW response demolishes the false dichotomy of these two terms, starting with the liberal notion of how a political system works:

Liberals would have us believe that there is some teleological arc to politics, though: even if these questions do underpin politics, we have mature and sophisticated means of determining the answers.  Who gets? Why, the majority, of course, plus whatever minorities are defined and enshrined by convention or law.  Who decides?  Why, the majority of course.

Keep in mind that we are talking about liberals in the context of political philosophy, not the domestic politics. KoW then introduces Carl Schmitt(1), the German political philosopher and jurist, who, despite his blatant collaboration (if not outright support) of the Nazis, nevertheless provides one of the most insightful explanations for how and why liberalism can fail. The essence of his theory is the friend/enemy(2):

The idea that ‘one more Jirga’ or ‘a better election’ can get us there is, to Schmitt, inherently flawed because liberal politics “can never resolve the claims of equality inherent in democracy.”  There will always be—there always needs to be—friends and enemies in politics.

Schmitt has a point.  How can the Taliban and women’s rights groups come to a lasting political compromise?  How can we reconcile their (to put it mildly) competing claims?  It is just not going to happen.  Not without a shedload of violence behind one side or the other.  And that would not be reconciliation, but rather domination, or even annihilation.

Schmitt argued that liberalism reduced the decision-making power of government to issues of ethics and economics, or at least as far as domestic life was concerned. Questions of power between citizens are basically absent from the United States or any other effective liberal regime – we have all chosen to submit to the sovereign with its monopoly on force. The questions which fuel the insurgency are beyond ethic and economic disputes, however, it is a struggle for power and ideological control. Much as Hobbes used the ‘war of all against all’ to allude to the enduring potential for conflict, Schmitt’s friend/enemy division implies the potential for violence and war, not its permanent existence. It is apparent in states such as Sudan and Thailand – war could break out in South Sudan and violence could escalate between the military and the Redshirts. Some regimes can conduct affairs in a relatively liberal, orderly manner while the government attempts to suppress differences in their populations that could reach the level of the “political,” where they draw friend/enemy distinctions against their citizens.

Those distinctions are already drawn over Afghanistan in a plethora of ways. Some insurgents and even leaders will exit the conflict with the proper incentives, but the war will remain and for these deserters the friend/enemy distinction will have merely reversed. Neither conversion to liberalism or pure economic motives will primarily inform this decision – the power that NATO and Afghanistan can use against them will. Why switch sides for a vote or a seat in the legislature when the government cannot hold onto power? Why take a job from the hated occupation government when you think the Taliban can retake a province and kill collaborators? Making the decision to trade the Kalashnikov for a vote or job can only come with a feeling of security.

Another point from Miliband’s article which seems interesting is his insistence on an international political solution, which involves Afghanistan’s neighbors pledging not to use the country as a strategic asset or attempting to dominate it. I am not sure how the UK or US will convince other countries not to pursue their interests in Afghanistan when NATO has hundreds of thousands of troops in the region, but beyond that, this seems naive. Miliband goes on to talk about a new “silk road,” which in addition to being unoriginal, is a clear signal that there will be power politics in Afghanistan – how much of the “New Great Game” narrative and the policies it justifies follows from efforts to create just such conduits through Afghanistan?

(1) Yes, shame on KoW (or me) for referencing or quoting Carl Schmitt. But to pretend we have nothing to learn from him is to be willfully ignorant of history. It is always foolish to ignore critiques of a social system from the people who then go on to overthrow and subvert them. However much we disagree with their aims or ideals, we have to at least acknowledge they got something right if they can effectively exploit its faults.

(2) The translator for the most current English edition of The Concept of the Political said he wanted to draw a distinction in Schmitt’s writings between the concept of ‘enemy’ and ‘foe’ – enemy being a potentially mortal adversary, but one who did not have to destroy and could respect, the foe being the ultimate public enemy, requiring total defeat. I would think a foe/enemy distinction would be about as important in Afghanistan as a friend/enemy one – in Afghanistan, depending on your optimism about negotiations, foe/enemy would translate to hardcore Taliban/localized insurgents or perhaps al Qaeda/Taliban.

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