Cynicism and Legitimacy
Oct 3, 2008 at 14:28
Craig Hayden in Issues, Defending Hamdan, Guantanamo Bay, legitimacy, Craig Hayden, public discourse

I think it's important to clarify that my previous post on the possibilities of the Hamdan trial for U.S. public diplomacy does not suggest it as an exercise in legitimation for the U.S. The Bush Administration's public argument typically attempts to legitimize decisions and actions in such a way as to reaffirm the commonsensical – the U.S. system works, and this was a product of the values represented in the institution and leadership. The froth of emotive U.S. policy rhetoric, from the prosecutors' case to the invocation of crisis from the Bush Administration since 9/11, is not a public argument strategy for the rest of the world. The Hamdan trial is not an example to be mined for global media-based advocacy, it's a starting point for sober reflection and transparent disclosure.

Put another way, the U.S. can't talk about Hamdan in the way its leaders speak to domestic audiences about the successes and failures of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy rhetoric over the past 7 years has been a steady diet of epideictic masked as deliberative discourse: honoring victims, exhorting and respecting the decisions of the stewards of U.S. policy, and proclaiming the strengths of the American system to confront an existential threat. This kind of discourse does little to invite actual public interrogation of claims. That's fine for the politicized realm of contemporary U.S. foreign policy speech – but probably oddly out of synch with a global audience searching for answers.

Global audiences, ambivalent, hostile, or otherwise, expect something less cynical – which does not have to elevate the actions of violent non-state actors in the process. But getting past its obviously hypocritical aspects, the case must appear curious. Why would the U.S., which vaunts its legal system and values, allow for such an episode? Hamdan is hardly a "diplomacy of deeds," no matter what the outcome. In some sense, I think the prosecution strategy is suggestive of the larger discursive impact of the Bush Administration's public argument strategy, but I won't belabor that point here. Suffice to say that the Hamdan case is not a venue for demonstrating the legitimacy of the tribunal system as concocted for this war. But does the trial itself constitute some kind of symbolic reconstruction of the enemy actors?

Turning to what Innes and Tyrell have said about legitimacy. I wonder if the trial, or indeed the outcome of the trial, represents some sort of legitimacy move that encompasses these violent non-state actors? Certainly, the Guantanamo "system" has been an ever-burning fuel for the extremist narratives to reach new audiences – but that is useful for propaganda machine to sustain the actor's identity project. The distinction revealed in the trail of the "Ansars" and Hamdan's material support for a "regular" army also starts to reveal aspects of the extremist movement has having "legitimate" contours. But does any accrual of legitimacy defuse the ambitions of these violent non-state actors?

I know I'm restating Innes's question in some sense. But I see no significant evidence to believe that the trial, which recognizes some arguably non-terrorist aspects of the Al-Qaida organization in Afghanistan, constitutes some sort of transition to a more legitimate political process. The way the trial has played out in American media is a drama of competing political interests vested in differing outcomes. Not much of a forensic dissection of the trial, or of the people that make up Al-Qaida itself. On the other side, I don't see how this trial could signal some sense of integration or legitimacy amongst the group's leaders or media planners. To be fair, I'm not an expert on non-violent state actors, so I don't know how the episode may have affected the movement's self –perception. Given the short news attention cycle within the United States, I'm not sure it impacted perception of the group's legitimacy in the U.S., and I'm suspicious of any transformative affect on the social imagination behind Al-Qaida.

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