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Banal Geopolitics Resumed

James D Sidaway
Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, Singapore 117570;

Jazira. Arabic for island and peninsula. The conventional word for the Arabian Peninsula, or what in English, but not in Arabic, is termed Arabia. Used as a name for the pan-Arab satellite TV station based in Qatar since 1996. Also used by Osama bin Laden for Saudi Arabia, a name he rejects, jazirat Muhammad, the peninsula of [the Prophet] Muhammad. The use of this inclusive term by the al-Qaida leader would seem to imply, (i) that all of the Arabian Peninsula is one territory, with no distinction between Saudi Arabia, which is four-fifths of the territory, and the other six states, Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, the Emirates; and (ii) that the whole of this territory, not just the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and their environs are sacred territory (see Mecca). The former assumption is seen by non-Saudis as an expression of expansionism, the latter has no legal or scriptural foundation. (Halliday 2002:15) Usual: accustomed traditional; in character, natural, household, familiar banal, commonplace, common, ordinary (Rogets Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases 1984:258)

Hallidays shrewd book (in which the first quote above appears amongst a section of key words in the style of Raymond Williams) is one of many to have appeared in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Here in Singapore, bookshops seem now to have evolved whole new sections of shelf-space for books about terrorism. I have seen such books stacked in piles. Butlike many other geographers, I suspectI have been unsure on how best to add to the millions of words about 9/11, at least outside classroom discussions. Moreover, I had the rather uncanny experience of publishing a short Antipode intervention entitled Banal Geopolitics that appeared in September 2001 (written, like this one, some months before it appeared in print). Amongst its main points was an argument that the allied (US and British) air attacks on Iraq had become so frequent and unremarkable that they should be designated as a kind of banal geopolitics. The 1999 war with Serbia had also reinforced the (re)normalisation or banalisation1 of a new phase of high-tech Western armed warfare:
Of course, war and conflict were ongoing during the postwar (ie post-1945) era. Think of the global divisions of the Cold War and of so many violent struggles: Korea, India/Pakistan, Indochina, Ireland, Colombia, Sudan, Algeria, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Guatemala, Palestine/Israel or of the war in Angola. Today, however, there is
2003 Editorial Board of Antipode. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA



something else. A new mode of techno-war and intervention by the Atlantic powers [chiefly the UK and US] has been normalized. This geopolitics has become banal, in the sense that it is more or less unexceptional. (Sidaway 2001:606607)

It is now clearer that those frequent allied air raids on Iraqi targets were, in many ways, a continuation of the earlier Gulf war (that of 19901991). In a significant way, the latter remained unfinished. It was not so much that the Gulf war had not taken placeas Baudrillard (1991) mischievously arguedas that it had never ended. Perhaps even its beginning had already become quite hard to discern. For accounting for its beginning would have to consider its longer-term conditions of possibility. These include the imperial-boundary-drawing in the 1920s that established Iraq, with its compliant monarchy and straight-line boundaries. Then there were many years of superpower indulgence (and arming) of the Baathist dictatorship in Iraq that had displaced that monarchy in the 1950s. Added to this was a longer-term American anxiety about the security of the Gulf (which, in practice, amounted to securing the flow of oil from the region and ensuring the security of its patriarchal ruling sultanates), which, whilst rooted in the 1940s and 1950s (see Vitalis 2002), had accelerated in the resurgent Cold War context of the 1970s and early 1980s (see Sidaway 1998). All this has now also been enfolded, woven or wired into the war on terrorism, which the US administration has declared will be without end. Some have suggested that September 11, 2001, which inaugurated that war, also has a certain kind of banality. Tuesday September 11, 2001 became an event that none who witnessed itat whatever distancewill forget, not least the families and friends of the thousands who lost their lives. Yet, in its screened unfolding and iz repetition, Z ek (2002:17) suggests, the question we should have asked ourselves as we stared at the TV screens on September 11 is simply: Where have we already seen the same thing over and over again? Of course, there are other notable and many ordinary September 11ths. Thus, the 11 Septiembre 1973 golpe del estado in Chile that bought General Pinochet and his right-wing dictatorship to power is remembered annually by millions of Chileans. And there are happier September 11thsthousands of births, anniversaries and so on. Moreover, what might be notable about September 11, 2001or rather, the events known as 9/11is not simply the terrible realization of fantasy iz (all those American disaster and action movies coming true, as Z ek [2002] reminds us). What is also notable is that the events in Washington, DC, Pennsylvania, and New York that day embodied the collapse of a geopolitics of the inside/outside binarya homecoming of the violent world that the West might seek to keep at a distance (or ignore), but in the violence of which it is complicit. In his immediate reaction,

Banal Geopolitics Resumed


published the morning after September 11, veteran journalist of Middle East conflicts Robert Fisk (2001:1) summed up something of this:
So it has come to this. The entire modern history of the Middle East: the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the Balfour declaration, Lawrence of Arabias lies, the Arab revolt, the foundation of the state of Israel, four Arab-Israeli wars and the 34 years of Israels brutal occupation of Arab land all erased within hours, as those who claim to represent a crushed, humiliated population struck back with the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a doomed people.

It is almost as if Fisk had the story written in advance, ready in draft, to dash off to the newspaper, or waiting on file, like the obituary of an elderly star or politician. And that is the point. Whilst almost no one could predict the unfolding of events on September 11, 2001 (despite the recriminations, conspiracy stories and debates about intelligence failures, which will surely go on for years) there is a ready and evident connection across space and time to Western imperial and superpower policy in the Middle East. Fisk thus gives that day a geopolitical frameone that the mainstream American media2 frequently tend to set aside or make invisible. With all this in mind, perhaps we might also return to the concept of space-time compression, about which we geographers have had much to say in recent years. The reproduction of the Dream of Liberty that appeared on the front of David Harveys (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change provides an entre. Reconsider the image, in which, by Harveys reading, [Q]uite disparate worlds collide and intermingle, in which time and space collapse in on each other to produce a flat landscape (cited in Gregory 1994:327328). This vision of collisions has now acquired a sharpened effect. The front cover (Figure 1) of Harveys enquiry juxtaposes a broken skyscraper with the proximity of symbols of the Middle East amidst a storm. Yet from this scene, Americas iconic version of Liberty strides onwards. To our appreciation of this canvas, we might perhaps add some more of the geopolitical details in which September 11, 2001 should be framed: the Soviet invasion to support the flagging and faction-ridden Afghan revolution in 1979; Western arming of Afghanistans fundamentalist Mujahidin (scripted as freedom fighters alongside such other dubious causes as UNITA in Angola and the contras in Nicaragua) from the secure reactionary base of Zias Pakistan, and the ensuing two decades of war and more than one million dead; Americas geostrategic and geoeconomic alliance with the despotic regime of Saudi Arabia; Washingtons complicity in the endless Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. We might add some other dimensions: the Statue of Liberty who holds aloft her



Figure 1: Dream of Liberty (Madelon Vriesendorp 1974). Reproduced with permission

flame and strides forward in the image was originally entitled Egypt bringing light to Asia and was to be placed at the entrance to the Suez Canal, intended to assert (as its construction was intended to confirm) the historical mission of the Westwith a colonized Egypt acting as a handmaidento bring enlightenment to the East (Gregory 1994:329). Instead, that colonialist vision of liberty ended up as a gift to New York and therefore as Americas Liberty Enlightening the World. Liberty may have since acquired the status of a universal

Banal Geopolitics Resumed


figure, but such universality has been (and continues to be) produced through a Western tradition of Empire. Let us also notesomewhere in the margins, perhapsthat when they have taken place elsewhere, when others are on the receiving end, where and when they are more drawn out or less spectacular (but arguably at least as destructive in terms of suffering and lives lost), then violence and acts of terror have long possessed a taken-forgranted banality. And this continues.

Since the above words were written, the Gulf War resumed under the Anglo-American banners of Operation Iraqi Freedom and is now we are toldmoving to a close. In its midst, as its forces approached Baghdad, the US simultaneously staged an attack in Afghanistan, on Taliban holdouts. Just as allied bombing of Iraq was relegated to the inside pages of the newspapers and the snippets of other news on the television networks during the more intense fighting in Afghanistan months before, this appeared as a mere routine (banal) matter. I was able to discern later from the inside pages of the UK-based Guardian newspaper (Guardian Unlimited 2003) that on 3 April, near Khandahar, the US had dropped or fired more than 35,000 pounds of ordnance from five types of aircraftHarrier jets, B-1 bombers, A-10 Thunderbolts, and helicopter gunships. I later read that a family had been accidentally killed in this or a related US operation in Afghanistan. All of this is in the routine course of a banal geopolitics. Amidst all this, I have also just read Scott Kirschs (2003) short but sharp account of Empire and the Bush Doctrine. Kirsch draws upon the widely read book Empire by Hardt and Negri (2000). Amongst other things, he (2003:3) notes how the empire demarcated by Hardt and Negri rearticulates the historical ideology of just war:
Today the enemy, just like the war itself, comes to be at once banalized (reduced to an object of routine police repression) and absolutized (as the Enemy, an absolute threat to the ethical order). The Gulf War [of 19901991] gave us perhaps the first fully articulated example of this new epistemology of the concept [of just war] (Hardt and Negri, 2000, page 13). In this sense, it could be argued that the war on terrorism provides the opportunity for a new kind of permanent just war.

I am struck, too, by other historical comparisons. As those US troops approached Baghdad, it will have reminded most Arabs and many of the rest of usregardless of whether we welcomed the invasionof history lessons about the 1258 CE sack of Baghdad by the Mongols and the fall of the Abbasid caliphate. For all its immediate rhetorical force, this comparison may be a rather difficult one to sustain, for Saddam



was no al-Mutasim (the last Abbasid caliph), and the modern-day oil and arms moguls who staff the Bush administration have greater resources at their command and wider profits in mind than did Mongol leader Timur (Tamerlane). Moreover, the Mongols later converted to Islam and provided some of the stock and inspiration to the Mughal empire that held out against British Imperialism in India until the 18th century. We can probably expect that todays conquers will also be staying in the region for some time. As to the prospect of them adopting something of the message of solidarity, hospitality and responsibility that might be learnt from therenow that would be a real occasion for shock and awe.

Thanks to the editors for offering me space for this intervention and to Andrew Crampton, Prem Kumar, Derek Gregory, Peter Mayell, Robina Mohammad and Matthew Sparke, who all offered encouraging and helpful comments on an earlier draft. The usual disclaimers apply.


My thesaurus takes banal in two directions: usual and routine. There are other significations, associated with Arendts (1963) report on the banality of evil, in which she notes how evil is associated with the generalizedand therefore banaldestruction of thinking that prefigures the annihilation of life endowed with meaning. See, too, Harvey (2000) on Cosmopolitanism and the Banality of Geographical Evils. 2 The UK-based Guardian newspaper thus described how a network of right-wing research institutes whose views and TV appearances are supplanting all other experts on Middle Eastern issues have come to dominate American television news (Whitaker 2002).

Arendt H (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Faber Baudrillard J (1991) La Guerre du Golfe na pas eu Lieu. Paris: ditions Galile. English translation 1995 by P Patton, Sydney: Power Publications Fisk R (2001) The wickedness and awesome cruelty of a crushed and humiliated people. The Independent 12 September:1 Gregory D (1994) Geographical Imaginations. Oxford: Blackwell Guardian Unlimited (2003) US bomb kills 11 Afghan civilians. 9 April. http:www.,1284,932898,00.html (last accessed 7 June 2003) Halliday F (2002) Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001: Causes and Consequences. London: Saqi Books Hardt M and Negri A (2000) Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Harvey D (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell Harvey D (2000) Cosmopolitanism and the banality of geographical evils. Public Culture 12(2):529564 Kirsch S (2003) Guest editorial: Empire and the Bush doctrine. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21:16 Roget P M (1984) Rogets Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. Edited by S M Lloyd. Harmondsworth: Penguin

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Sidaway J D (1998) What is in a Gulf? In G Tuathail and S Dalby (eds) Rethinking Geopolitics (pp 224239). London: Routledge Sidaway J D (2001) Iraq/Yugoslavia: Banal geopolitics. Antipode 33:601609 Vitalis R (2002) Black gold, white crude: An essay on American exceptionalism, hierarchy, and hegemony in the Gulf. Diplomatic History 26:185213 Whitaker B (2002) US thinktanks give lessons in foreign policy. The Guardian 19 August,7792,777100,00. html (last accessed 7 June 2003) iz Z ek S (2002) Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso