Jim Kunstler’s Despair

July 27, 2005

A reading of Kunstler’s new book The Long Emergency, as well as various posts at his blog Clusterf**k Nation, convinces me that Kunstler actually buys into the basic neo-con world view, but that, unlike them, he has no faith in the possibility that the actions the neo-cons take in pursuit of those beliefs can, in fact, succeed. To make this point, I’ll focus on a recent essay Kunstler posted at his blog, entitled “Iraqi Freedom.” This brief essay is, in my view, an excellent representation of the geostrategic attitudes and beliefs that underlie The Long Emergency and other Kunstler writing.

Kunstler’s work is permeated by a blanket faith in the good intentions of the U.S. in its actions in the world. The U.S., taken as a whole, could, in his view, never engage in criminal, rapacious conduct as a matter of policy. The gulf between “us” (perhaps including our brethren in Western Europe, and, maybe even those in, say, Japan) and all of the various rogues of this world is total. THEY can and do act in a criminal and rapacious fashion. WE never do; we can’t, in fact. It’s against our nature.

The worst that WE can do, in Kunstler’s worldview, is to be naive, which is to say stupid. This stupidity consists of believing that we have the power to impose our (by definition) good intentions on THEM – – people who, through their criminality, depravity or backwardness – – or that of their leaders – – are manifestly unwilling or unable to conform to “civilized” norms.

Thus, Kunstler’s narrative of the Iraq war is as follows: The oil we need to fuel our (admittedly wasteful and frivolous) lifestyle just happens, in nearly all cases, to be under the ground of countries led by barbaric criminal rogues who, in addition to being criminal rogues, are for some reason united in their vehement dislike of us. The reason for this unanimity cannot possibly be the fact that U.S. elites sit at the summit of a world political/economic structure characterized by a drive to extract every last drop of every “resource” (that is to say, every bit of wealth) from everywhere in the entire world. No, for Kunstler, that would be a “conspiracy theory”, to which he is “allergic,” as he seemingly never tires of reminding us.

So, the oil we need is under their ground. We’d never just go in and take it (that would be roguish and criminal, and that’s impossible for us). All we want to do is to insure that a nice, rational, orderly market for oil is maintained, to which we have access like everybody else. (Oh, and, for some reason, we’re also pretty insistent that this market had better price oil exclusively in U.S. Dollars, or else.) THAT’S the reason for our setting up more than a dozen military bases in Iraq. (I’m assuming that this is what Kunstler means by his statements to the effect that – – I paraphrase here – – “We’re trying to put up a Fort Apache in a really tough neighborhood.”)

This U.S. desire to intervene is justified, in Kunstler’s mind, by the fact that all of these guys (Saddam, Hugo Chavez, the mullahs, the Taliban, etc., etc.) just happen to be really bad, barbaric characters, who seek to place an irrational chokehold on our access to oil, as well as, in some cases, to attack and terrorize us.

So, the U.S. is just trying to bring enlightenment, justice and rationality – – in short, reasonableness – – to a crazy, violent, unjust – – unreasonable – – world. So far so neo-con.

Indeed, the extent of his commitment to the basic neo-con worldview is indicated by the following bit of discussion from Kunstler’s “Iraqi Freedom” blog posting, on the nature of the dilemma faced by ordinary Iraqis, before and after the U.S. invasion:

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis didn’t dare voice opinions lest a gang of Baathist goons appeared at their doors in the dark of night to take them away for torture and execution. Under the current system, Iraqis don’t dare cooperate with the government (or worse, their U.S. military sponsors) lest a gang of Jihadi (or Sunni or former Baathist) goons show up at their door and drag them off to execution.

So, for Kunstler, the reason Iraqis didn’t voice their (presumably overwhelmingly pro-American) opinions before was their fear of their criminal, violent leader. The reason they don’t act in a manner that is supportive of the U.S. project in Iraq now, is because of the criminal, violent, extremist element that stands against the new (by definition) reasonable and rational leadership ushered in by our invasion. Without even running this by him, I am willing to bet the farm that Richard Perle agrees with Kunstler’s assessment here one hundred percent.

Where Kunstler breaks with the neo-cons is not at the level of underlying beliefs about the U.S. role in the world. No, his beef with them is on the question of what, if anything, ought to be done in defense of these beliefs. On this level, Kunstler says to them, in effect: “Look, your motives are reasonably pure and your effort is certainly well intentioned. However what you’re doing is both stupid and bound to fail.”

It is stupid (in his view) primarily BECAUSE it’s bound to fail, but also, because it fails to confront the appalling costs of what he calls the “cheap oil fiesta” that is, ironically, about to end anyway. This fiesta – – the “American way of life,” really – – is, itself, envisioned by Kunstler as primarily (but, in fairness, not completely) a reflection of a lack of culture, of dignity even, on the part of the great mass of American “consumers.” It is most certainly not seen as in the nature of a foundational strategy, refined over decades, intended to pacify (or, “strike a bargain with,” if one prefers) the “great unwashed” so that the REAL fiesta – – the extraction of wealth from the entire world to mostly benefit U.S. and allied elites – – can continue unhindered. Nope. For Kunstler, this would be BOTH a conspiracy theory AND an ascription of criminality and rapaciousness to U.S. leaders. Doubly forbidden.

This is what allows (perhaps even requires) Kunstler to say in his blog posting, of the fictional Iraqi WMD, “We had to look.” For Kunstler, it is impossible that Bush and company actually KNEW from the start that Iraq had no remaining WMD, and that they simply used this issue (and their compliant mainstream media bullhorn), to create an endlessly repeated pretext for doing what they wanted to do, which was to invade Iraq. To acknowledge this (indeed, to even hint that he might suspect it), would require him to confront the possibility that our leaders intentionally invaded a sovereign country under false pretenses, shielded by a tissue of lies. Even putting aside their reason for taking this course of action, the mere fact of doing it would mean that the Bush regime acted in this instance in a criminal and rapacious fashion. But, for Kunstler, that simply can’t be.

The neo-con course of action is bound to fail, in Kunstler’s view, because it is naive to believe that we can impose our civilized norms on the benighted masses of the world and, especially, on their evil leaders. In this regard, I was struck by the following in his blog essay:

Why would we suppose that our notions of a civil society, based on Greco-Roman and Anglo-American tradition, would comport with one based on an even older and different Mesopotamian-Semitic culture with Mongol-Turkic-Persian overlays? After all, Iraq is the birthplace of the Code of Hamurabi, which includes such statutes as the following:

“If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.”

The quote from Hamurabi’s Code (actually the accepted English spelling of the name is Hammurabi), is a nice rhetorical touch, but let’s get real here: If modern-day Iraqis are responsible for Hammurabi (died 1750 BC), are Kunstler and his fishing buddies responsible for, say, the Anglo-Saxon “trial by ordeal”? According to a Wikipedia article, this often involved such activities as the requirement that an accused walk nine paces with a red hot iron bar held in both hands. The Wiki article further states that variants of trial by ordeal continued to be employed in Western Europe right up to the Enlightenment (ca. 1750 AD). Somehow, I suspect that Kunstler’s view on this would boil down to the belief that such past unpleasantness says nothing whatever about “us”, because we are rational – – we EVOLVE. “They”, on the other hand, were, are and will always be vicious, primitive, revenge-seeking barbarians.

The neo-con project will also fail, in Kunstler’s view, because, even if global imposition of U.S. dictates WERE possible in a cheap oil world, it most certainly won’t be possible post-Peak Oil, when all hell will break loose, all complex globalized systems will break down, and all hope of global projection of U.S. (or anybody else’s) power will be dashed. The possibility that the neo-cons (let alone U.S. elites in general) are well aware of impending Peak Oil, and that they are acting in all sorts of ways, great and sundry, to try to secure their power and privilege in a post-Peak world, would, of course, likely be rejected out-of-hand by Kunstler as (you guessed it) a conspiracy theory.

The bottom line of all this is the following: Kunstler’s worldview is based on the false supposition that WE (here, meaning U.S. and other Western movers and shakers) are the GROWNUPS in the world, and that WE (same definition) have a right to seek to impose our will on everyone else. This imposition is seen as by nature benign, as previously discussed.

The unfortunate result of Kunstler’s determination to hold to this supposition, and to his broader worldview, come hell or high water, is that Kunstler, who sees himself as the ultimate savvy realist, is, in fact, in denial. He is in denial about the role of the U.S. in the world, about the aims of U.S. power projection; indeed, about the nature of American society itself. The consequence of this for Kunstler is that his analysis, which is so brilliant in so many areas, often seems as dim as a neo-con blog when it comes to geopolitics.

Denial, in my view, is the best explanation for Kunstler’s conspiracy theory allergy. In truth, it’s not really “conspiracy theories” per se, that bug him. For example, if Kunstler were told that the mullahs in Iran are engaging in a sophisticated conspiracy to fool the world as to their intentions and activity with respect to WMD, I seriously doubt that he’d have a sneezing fit. No, this would be no problem, because, in his worldview, “they” DO engage in conspiracies.

The fact is, it’s only ascriptions of premeditated criminality (or even just malign motives), to U.S. (or other Western) leaders that falls within Kunstler’s definition of “conspiracy theories.” And, professing an allergy thereto is his way of waving away ANY discussion of the possibility of such criminality or bad motives, whenever any evidence of same presents itself, and, hence, the prospect of such discussion emerges.

An earlier version of this essay was posted as a letter to Kunstler at his blog.

Tags: Geopolitics & Military