By Steven Tran-Creque
Whenever someone mentions sovereignty, it’s pretty easy to come away with the impression that all that’s at stake is the law: questions of territory, jurisdiction, violations of airspace, and so on. Consider, for example:
Two months ago, Pakistan accused the United States of violating its sovereignty with drone strikes, demanding that their own government be granted control over strikes within their borders.
Addressing recent drone strikes in Yemen, Glenn Greenwald noted that “killing a person without trial is not only extrajudicial, it also violates the sovereignty and dignity of the entire tribe to which the slain person belonged.”
Most recently, writing for Foreign Affairs in the emerging genre of drone sinomania, Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange voiced concern about how China is following the United States’ example in disregarding the sovereignty of other nations as the Chinese drone fleet has rapidly caught up to American military and surveillance capabilities.
And so on. In both popular discourse and the policy press, pundits and commentators have overwhelmingly adopted the same familiar blueprint: a legalistic invocation of sovereignty that emphasizes borders and governmental authority to the exclusion much else.
There is a dangerous intellectual poverty in this. We are not, as Trevor Paglen recently observed, “moving toward a surveillance state: we live in the heart of one.” This is the era of total surveillance and extrajudicial killing, of public austerity and mass incarceration, of permanent unemployment and global warming: what Jakob Augstein recognized last week in Der Spiegel as nothing short of totalitarianism. The extraordinary measures of rendition, black sites, secret laws, black budgets and retroactive legalizations that have accompanied the vicious internal targeting of Muslims, protesters and whistleblowers—all of this has become the new normal, and coming decades will reap the whirlwind. This is what Paglen has dubbed the “terror state”: not merely the possibility of “turnkey tyranny” one step away, but its virtual inevitability.
As the War on Terror now transforms into the forever war, I think we must begin by asking how exactly we ever got here.
Of course, at first glance, the connection between all of this and the question of whose legal jurisdiction prevails in Waziristan seems faint at best. Certainly, no matter how broadly one reads the term “war,” one struggles to find in this anything like the strangely resilient imagery of nation states battling each other with state of the art weaponry, no matter how much this continues to dominate the way we think of war. In none of the usual accounts can one find something like Jean Bodin’s definition of sovereignty as “the absolute and perpetual power of the republic,” one of the principal influences from which Carl Schmitt famously drew his definition of the sovereign as “he who decides on the exception” to the law. But I would insist: these are not esoteric historical or theoretical concerns.
I want to offer a very different approach here to the question of what sovereignty means. Sovereignty has never been an anodyne policy question of whose jurisdiction applies, of who controls drones, or of how visible such clandestine military programs will be. Rather, following Eyal Weizman, one should begin by asking how sovereignty came to be exercised as the economistic management of death.
In the strangest of places, David Graeber’s historical critique of an old anthropological debate over the divine kingship of the Shilluk of Southern Sudan offers what I find to be the most compelling explanation for the forever war. That is, that the War on Terror is better understood as an unusually visible example of the constitutive principle of sovereignty: a permanent war between the sovereign and everyone else—the only kind of war there is.
This is why, as Teju Cole once remarked, the forever war is always hungry.
The Raw Material of Sovereignty
Weizman’s question is simple. “How, after the evacuation of the ground surface of Gaza, did bodies, rather than territories, or death, rather than space, turn into the raw material of Israeli sovereignty?”
In Weizman’s Thanato-tactics, sovereignty is simply the management of death. The Israeli General Security Service’s assassination program, which began in 2000—before 9/11—produced the sprawling surveillance and counterinsurgency apparatus of the occupation. But it also provided the template and testing grounds for the United States’ own assassination program.
What Weizman is really interested in is the logic of the lesser evil, by which economizing language produces this environment of managed death. From this perspective, collateral damage calculations are not a humanitarian triumph limiting the scope of violence. Rather, they are a crucial part of the ideological apparatus by which acts of state violence are rendered legal and legitimate, encompassed within the permissible logic of forestalling greater violence. Weizman quotes Israeli Air Force commander Eliezer Shkedi saying, before the 2006 invasion of Gaza, that “the only alternative to aerial attacks is a ground operation and the reoccupation.” Assassination, he added, “is the most precise tool we have.”
So too with proportionality, balancing, efficiency, pragmatism, the injunction to “be realistic,” and the entire pantheon of reasonable constraints. All of the oppositional forces of military interests and intelligence agencies, human rights groups and journalists, can be incorporated within the same project: the maintenance of humanitarian violence, albeit one that bills itself as a lesser form of violence compared to the alternatives. As Will Saletan put it in Slate earlier this year with memorable enthusiasm:
Drones kill fewer civilians, as a percentage of total fatalities, than any other military weapon. They’re the worst form of warfare in the history of the world, except for all the others. … civilian casualties? That’s not an argument against drones. It’s the best thing about them.
The choice presented is always between assassination and invasion, between Hellfire missiles and imprecise bombs—between fewer dead and more dead. It is not a choice between war and peace. Well-trained commentators cannot even imagine a world in which such things simply do not happen. And one never questions the legitimacy of the system in which, as Hannah Arendt emphasized, one must choose evil.
Periodic eruptions of unchecked violence—as in the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008 and the bombardment in 2012—are neither accidents nor failures. The normal practice of violence through checkpoints, annexation, resource extraction, and assassination is maintained against the the ever present threat of greater violence, regularly demonstrated. The greater evil kept at bay by the lesser evil, in an endless state of war.
This permanent threat of arbitrary violence is precisely what we call sovereignty.
The Only War there Is
Beginning with his observation that states are “at the same time forms of institutionalized raiding or extortion, and utopian projects,” David Graeber’s definition of sovereignty is simple enough: “the right to exercise violence with impunity.”
Graeber offers the example of the Ganda kingship to the south of the Shilluk. In the late 19th century, European visitors to the court of King Mutesa offered a gift of firearms. Mutesa responded by firing the rifle in the street and killing his subjects at random. When David Livingstone asked why the Ganda king killed so many people, he was told that “if [the king] didn’t, everyone would assume that he was dead.” However, the notoriety of the Ganda kings for arbitrary, random violence towards their own people did not prevent Mutesa from also being accepted as supreme judge and guardian of the state’s system of justice. Indeed, it was the very foundation for it.
Specifically, Graeber is interested in the transcendent quality of violence: the violence and transgression of the king makes him “a creature beyond morality.” Paradoxically, the sovereign may be arbitrarily violent—the etymology here is telling—and nevertheless seen as the supreme source of justice and law.
Graeber calls this transcendent aspect of violence “divine.” It isn’t just that kings act like gods; it’s that they do so and get away with it. This remains the case in the modern state. Walter Benjamin’s famous distinction between “law-making” and “law-maintaining” violence refers to the same phenomenon. We often say that no one is above the law, but if this were true, there would be no one to bring the legal order into being in the first place: the signers of the Declaration of Independence or the American Constitution were all traitors by the legal order under which they were born.
There really is no resolution to this paradox. The solution of the left is that the people may rise up periodically and overthrow the existing legal regime in a revolution. The solution of the right is Carl Schmitt’s exception: that sovereignty is exercised by the head of state in putting aside the legal order. But whichever solution one prefers, this really just defers the dilemma: all sovereignty is built on a foundation of illegal acts of violence, and it always carries the immanent potential for arbitrary violence.
In 19th-century accounts of rainmakers in Southern Sudan, the function of violence is even clearer. With rainmakers, as with Shilluk kings, the health of the land is tied to the health of the king. If the rains fail to fall, first people will bring petitions, then gifts. But after a certain point, if the rains still don’t come, the rainmaker must either flee or face a community united to kill him. It isn’t hard to see why rainmakers would want something like the state’s monopoly on violence or a retinue of loyal, armed followers. But the crucial point is that insofar as “the people” could be said to exist, they were essentially seen as the collective enemy of the king. European explorers in the region often found kings raiding enemy villages only to find that the villages contained the king’s own subjects. They were delivering arbitrary violence to the people they were supposed to protect.
So Graeber reminds us, “predatory violence was and would always remain the essence of sovereignty.” Such is the hidden logic of sovereignty. Above all, it depends on the transcendent quality of violence that allows the sovereign to become, as Hobbes put it, a “mortal god.” But this is also means that arbitrary violence is the constitutive principle of sovereignty, defining the relationship between the sovereign and everything else:
What we call ‘the social peace’ is really just a truce in a constitutive war between sovereign power and ‘the people,’ or ‘nation’—both of whom come into existence, as political entities, in their struggle against each other.
There is no inside or outside here. Contra Schmitt and his friend-enemy distinction, this constitutive war precedes wars between nations and peoples. From the perspective of sovereign power, “there is no fundamental difference in the relation between a sovereign and his people, and a sovereign and his enemies,” explains Graeber. This constitutive war is a war the sovereign can never win—a forever war that can never end.
No War but the Forever War
What exactly is one supposed to make of John Brennan’s admission that the war against Al Qaeda will continue for another decade? How did the AUMF and the Patriot Act together come to constitute something like America’s Article 48, creating a permanent state of exception in which something like the NSA’s “giant automated Stasi” is simply accepted as the new normal? How did drones become an inevitable part of the near future in New York City?
After all, the War on Terror really isn’t anything like a war at all— at least, not in the conventional imaginary of nation states commanding disciplined military forces on established fields of battle. The United States commands a degree of military power and comparative dominance simply unprecedented in human history—what is elegantly referred to, in the anodyne language of military planners, as “asymmetry.” There are no strictly defined battlefields, and the formal enemies in the War on Terror have rarely amounted to more than the insurgent army of a deposed dictator (funded and armed by the U.S., albeit long ago) and a few hundred religious students in the mountains of Central Asia.
It is in fact genuinely strange how resiliently this conventional image seems to persist in both popular and intellectual imagination. Even scholarly responses to the War on Terror begin from the assumption that something new and strange is happening when battlefields and opponents alike are no longer delimited but rather always and everywhere. If one limits oneself to legal documents, this is pretty much the only possible conclusion.
The conventional imagery really seems to be most useful in obscuring the more fundamental realities of what war really is. In part, war consists of the far more common practice of civil wars, guerrilla wars, genocide and internal repression—but also, in a larger sense, the fundamental state of war between the sovereign and his people that is the originary, constitutive state for sovereign power itself.
The forever war, then, has effectively allowed the United States to claim sovereignty to farthest reaches of the earth. Certainly, this is not a question purely of drones: the apparatus also consists of a deep surveillance state, total international digital surveillance, a military larger than the combined militaries of the rest of the world, and extralegal rendition and detention programs. But at the edges of this arrangement, one finds Agamben’s homo sacer, Fiskesjö’s barbarians: those excluded from the legal order, stripped of rights, subject to death at any time—the point at which an empire converts those beyond its reach into obedient subjects or corpses. This is the logic of sovereign violence taken to its most extreme—and not insignificantly, this has been accomplished in part by euphemizing that violence, whether in the sanitized parlance of the military—“focused obstruction,” “targeted killing,” “kinetic action”—or the more artful, ideological euphemization by which assassination programs become complex and debatable moral issues in the liberal press.
It should come as no surprise that this has been accompanied by the infinite expansion of an apparatus of domestic surveillance and control unprecedented in human history. One should never forget that the instruments of sovereignty—drones, militarized police, mass surveillance apparatus—were always directed inwards as much as outwards, because the security state secures one thing: the safety of the sovereign above all. From the perspective of sovereign power, there is no inside and there is no outside.
There is only the violence to which we are all subject.
“One simple imperative: Know your enemy”
The legalistic definition of sovereignty, the preoccupation with policy making, even the basic assumption that the debates we have really matter—all of this starts to look ideological in the worst sense.
Following the Prism revelations last week, Christian Caryl wrote a retrospective in Foreign Policy comparing the NSA and the East German Stasi:
So which is worse, the Stasi or the NSA? Definitely the Stasi. East German citizens had no defense whatsoever against its intrusions. American citizens can still exercise control over our own intelligence organizations, which are still bound (or so we are told) by the rule of law. But do we really have the will to restrain them?
There is admittedly some faint courage in being willing to even make the comparison, but there is something utterly more remarkable in the ideological refrain of asking if “American citizens can still exercise control over our own intelligence organization”—as if the state’s intelligence apparatus had ever been democratic—“or so we are told.”
But this is hardly uncommon. Dan Gettinger’s recent piece for the Center here frames the question in terms of legislative oversight in the application of the AUMF:
Understanding this legal debate and the evolving strategic situation determines how this country deploys it’s forces abroad, the kinds of military technologies that we invest in, and the degree of oversight that Congress has over the use of force by the Executive Branch. While the outcome of this debate will likely result in some form forever war against terrorism, the question remains as to whether it will be conducted in the shadows of ambiguity or limited by some degree of Congressional observation.
And here we are back at the lesser evil. It is significant, I think, that it is fundamentally impossible it is to reconcile any of this with anything like actual democracy. These are questions for policy elites—and perhaps for those who imagine themselves among their ranks. But the question is always between more killing and less killing, between more secrecy and less secrecy, more oversight and less oversight—always witheringly loyal to the same order of violence that produced these choices in the first place—and which never bore any of us any loyalty.
As the American liberal left has foundered for years, attempting to articulate a challenge to the logic of permanent war and the terror state, it has failed to recognize that the War on Terror does not represent an aberration or a failure of policy. It is not an imperial venture run rampant. Neither is it the military-carceral response of an empire incapable of delivering prosperity for anyone beyond its increasingly rapacious aristocracy. Nor is it even the immanent danger of building weapons that will always one day be turned inwards. Of course, it is all these things—but at its heart, the forever war is only an unusually visible moment in the only war there’s ever been.