Immunitary Paradigm and its Destructive Logic in US Foreign Policy

It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that for the past few years Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af-Pak is the standard neologism for this) have become the new frontier of US foreign policy.

In most public and academic discussions of this area of the globe, US involvement in the region is presented in a reductive binary structure of US versus the Taliban and its Al-Qaida supporters. The US self-presentation—both public and private—relies heavily on the threat of a destabilized Afghanistan that could become a future haven for Al-Qaida and other anti-American elements. The war in Afghanistan is, therefore, offered as a war of necessasity waged as a reaction to September eleven but sustained now in the name of potential dangers yet to come.

The deep logic behind this reasoning is stated as a preemptive strategy to defend American lives that could be harmed in the future. Thus, on both poles of American political spectrum, one finds a sort of consensus on the principle of the war and the differences occur only in the conduct of it or in the tactics involved.

I suggest that underlying these US anxieties about the so-called Af-Pak region is the immunitary paradigm that underwrites it, according to which the death of the other is the only mode of success. The purpose of this essay is to discuss broad lineaments of this immunitary paradigm as the genealogical core of US foreign policy in the region.

I am relying quite heavily on Roberto Esposito’s theorization and discussion of the term immunitas in his recent book Bios: Biopolitcs and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008). In his re-reading of biopolitics, especially in explaining the tensions between the two polarities of the term biopolitics, Bios and Politics, Esposito redirects our attention to the concept of immunitas, which, to him, is the missing link in Foucault’s discussion and theorization of biopolitics. In his brilliant re-reading of the concept of immunitas and the attendant immunity paradigm, Esposito centers immunity as a lexical trace in the construction of three most important concepts of modernity: sovereignty, property, and liberty.

Through a discussion of Hobbes, Esposito establishes that the rise of a sovereign will is inextricably connected to a discourse of immunity, for “in order to save itself, life needs to step out from itself and constitute a transcendental point from which it receives orders and shelter” (58). Rise of the sovereign power, granted by the consent of the people, is thus connected to the sovereign’s responsibility to save the life of those who have consented to be governed.  In this “once the centrality of life is established, it is . . . politics that is awarded the responsibility for saving life” (59). Esposito also argues that this right to preserve life also grants the sovereign the right to take life, especially if it is in the interest of preserving life. Thus, the concept of sovereign, biopolitcal power, even though seen as a transformation of power to a life-giving force, still finds itself, in Esposito’s readings, as defined by the power to dispense death to save life.

The discourse of immunization has always run through the course of US biopolitcal regime in varied connotations. During the cold war, the state resources were mobilized to forestall all forms of ideological contagion as well as any possibilities of physical harm. The US foreign policy was, thus, based in defense preparedness to save life from a military invasion, while ideologically Communism itself was posited as a degenerative contagion—as a total inverse of American sense of individual and national identity—against which the school system and the larger culture were instrumentalized to defend. Until the mid seventies this could be accomplished through a paradigm of immunization that focused on the military build up on the outside and an immunization regime that assured, to some extent, that the state would be invested in maintaining certain safety nets so that the citizens do not fall below a certain acceptable economic threshold, while also creating the illusion of choice and upward mobility. One could say that during the cold war the immunitary regime was stabilized through a promise of security from outside threats and a promise of care at home to the right kind of citizen-subjects.

Post 1970s liberalization of American economy, of course, has made it impossible for the state to legitimate sovereign power through good works as most of the redemptive functions of the state have been privatized. It is in this scenario, within the material conditions of neoliberal economics, that the paradigm of immunity is reconfigured in the shape of a security state. The US policies in Af-Pak are a direct result and a living example of the rise and resurgence of the current immunitary paradigm.

For most people, September 11 becomes a single event that alters US politics immediately, hence the rise of this new paradigm in such a reading of the tragedy is seen as immediate and originary. In fact, September 11 should not be read as the originary moment in the unfolding of the current immunitary paradigm, but rather as the legitimating landmark for the reassertion of the immunitary paradigm that preexisted it and was absolutely necessary to sustain the semblance of a sovereign state in the era of neoliberal economics.

One could briefly sum up the US self-presentation as regards to war on terror in Af-Pak as follows: The Taliban regime provided a safe haven to Al-Qaida. The latter used its base in Afghanistan to attack the United States. The Afghan political landscape must now be reshaped in a way that neither the Taliban can rise to power nor can Afghanistan become a safe haven for Al-Qaida.

We cannot read this self-presentation deeply without engaging with the immunitary paradigm that girdles it. In an immunitary lexicon, one could say that Al-Qaida is the degenerate and diffuse virus that can thrive only in the incubatory space made available by Taliban. In order to save American lives, so the logic goes, the very breeding grounds must be reshaped and preventive care must be provided in shape of reliable intelligence and precise, or surgical strikes. This logic presupposes the deployment of US forces as a source of prevention against the harm that would ultimately come to the US life. In order to sanitize the incubatory regions, the local players must also become a part of this military preventive hygiene process, for the disease and its contagion is also their problem. Any solutions that might not be driven by the dictates of a US immunitary regime must be suspect and must be challenged. Thus, if the Pakistanis tend to negotiate with the Taliban in order to, rightfully, blunt their impact on the immediate Pakistani lives by encouraging the Taliban to redirect their energies against the US forces in the region, it is seen as a sign of betrayal as the Pakistani remedy does not correspond to that of the US. We have, it seems, entered an immunitary paradigm in which the local solutions are only valid if they correspond to the global immunitary interests of the United States. The Af-Pak situation then is a good example of the extension of the US immunitary regime to a global scale without recourse to an alternative or local solution. This, precisely, is the destructive logic of US Af-Pak policy.

Since immunity for the US citizens underwrites the reason for this war, it follows that death of the other (or total suppression of the contagion) becomes the only logical tactical option. Thus, death of the other and denial of the so-called other’s “breeding grounds” becomes the only logical solution possible. Resultantly, the war becomes uncontainable, as the adjacent areas and, to some extent, the entire world can be posited as a possible breeding ground. And since the organism to be controlled is viral and almost indestructible, the state of war also becomes a perpetual state of being in the world.

In terms of tactics, it would be clearly suitable for Pakistan to just deny entry to the Taliban by forcing them back into the existing theater of war. This strategy would help contain the war and reduce the possibilities of expanding the war zone into Pakistani territories, but the US insistence on carrying the war across the borders has now resulted in expanding the very war that the US was meant to manage and control in Afghanistan. This expansion of war would have not been possible if death to the other had not become the central content of the semantic and genealogical core of the US immunitary paradigm.

Esposito also argues that at some point during the unfolding of the immunitary paradigm—a paradigm that runs through the bios and politics of the term biopolitics—a community is also forced to “introject the negative modality of its opposite, even if the opposite remains precisely a lacking and contrastive mode of being of the community” (52). This is an extremely brilliant insight that should guide our reading of the US immunitary paradigm. When it comes to dealing with the Taliban and Al-Qaida, the United States has not only changed its laws of engagement but also altered the nature of its laws to accommodate, extra-legally, the kind of brutality that the “enemy” itself displays. Hence, torture has been proffered as fairly justified if it would save American lives and collateral deaths are seen as a necessary outcome of engaging with an enemy who defies a conventional definition. Not only has war become a kind of war in which the normal rules of conduct can be held in abeyance, it has also become a war in which the “killable” other can reshape the very ethics of war for the United States.

Needless to say, this logic of positing the other as “killable” and as something to be controlled has also now permeated the fabric of American politics at home. Thus, no matter how successful the war is, the ideological grounds of US politics are already being shaped by the same infectious, viral “other” that the war would have stopped from reaching the US soil.

In the last elections, the state of Oklahoma passed a ballot measure that is meant to forestall against the infection of US law by the Shariah law. And though there is no such threat in existence in the state of Oklahoma or in the United States, the supporters of the law offered it as a preventive measure against any such attempts in the future: the immunitary paradigm here exceeds its present connotations and becomes preventive in nature by literally attempting to exclude an other who has not yet arrived and who may never yet arrive.  Thus, not only war has been reconfigured as a preemptive and preventive, the process of legislation has also become acutely embedded in an immunitary paradigm of a future yet to come.

Thus, to sum up, the problem of US policy in the Af-Pak region or in the rest of the Muslim world can no longer just be discussed under the usual registers of US national interest the politics of extremism. I believe a strong focus on the nature and logic of immunitas and its attendant ramifications would render a richer engagement with the questions of US policy and its international and domestic unfolding.