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Review: US Ideology and the War in Iraq

Reviewed Work(s): Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle by Slavoj Žižek

Review by: François Debrix
Source: International Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Mar., 2005), pp. 90-92
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The International Studies Association
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International Studies Review (2005) 7, 90-92

US Ideology and the War in Iraq

Department of International Relations, Florida International University

Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. By Slavoj Zi'ek. London: Verso, 2004. 188 pp., $26.00 cloth
(ISBN: 1-84467-001-5).

Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek has always been concerned
with the meaning of ideology and its role in the constitution of political subjects
(2ifek 1989, 1994). Yet, apart from a few incursions in matters of national identity,
postcommunism, and postdemocratic transition (hizek 1993), 2izek's philosophical
reflections were never directly about international relations. To say that ZiZek re-
verses this trend in Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle would be an overstatement given that
this book starts with current geopolitical issues (the war in Iraq and US imperialism
since September 11), but it quickly moves on to more traditional Zizekian prob-
lematiques-such as the conceptualization of the subject in Lacan's psychoanalysis
and the place of ideology in twentieth-century political practice. Still, in this col-
lection of discontinuous but often spontaneous thoughts prompted by the US
invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (p. 7), Ziiek covers many issues of central impor-
tance to contemporary international relations-from the making of US foreign
policy after September 11 and the reconstruction of security discourses to the place
of Europe in twenty-first century geopolitics and worldwide reactions to economic
The book has no overall narrative scheme or central conceptual framework. Iraq:
The Borrowed Kettle reads as a long train of thought, interrupted by illustrations
drawn from contemporary situations. What appears to guide Zizek's thinking is the
desire to uncover the inner workings of US ideology since George W. Bush took
charge and neoconservatives started to shape the United States' global ambitions.
Although 2ifek asks, "what, then, is the correct response to the American ideol-
ogy?" (p. 63), it is clear that no correct response exists, and that coming up with a
definite answer would be problematic as well. Understanding how ideology oper-
ates means that definite answers need to be postponed. Accepting a response
is already adhering to an ideological position. Ziiek wants to retain a critical per-
spective vis-a-vis ideology, which means that no ideological position can be beyond
questioning. Even if US ideology after September 11 needs to be deciphered and
resisted, so too must any rival ideologies--actual or potential.
For 2iZek, no doubt exists that the United States, its foreign policymaking, and its
global designs are about ideology. But to realize the power of this ideology, a
fashionable current myth must be dispelled: that contemporary politics is all about
facts and concreteness (p. 8). Talking about facts, empirical realities, and concrete
situations is the lure of contemporary US ideologues--and of many of their critics
from the right and the left as well. These ideologues hope to deflect the terms of the
debate away from the construction of fantasies and imaginary scenarios. Yet ide-
ology, Zilek believes, is about fantasy making, and the current neoconservative,
war-driven US ideology is extremely powerful precisely because it works at the level
of imaginary ideas that shroud political events in a haze of inevitable utopia. (For a
recent example of this kind of ideology making in relation to Iraq, see Kristol and
? 2005 International Studies Review.
Publishedby Blackwell Publishing, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.

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Kaplan 2003.) Thus, the first act of resistance to US

Iraq ... the temptation of false concreteness" (p. 8, emp
Given that the challenge to US imperialism has t
terrain, facts and their appearance are of little imp
and unconscious thoughts revealed through languag
suggests. Thus, the statements made by Muham
Hussein's Minister of Information) in the first day
interesting than all of US Defense Secretary Donal
about the unfolding of the conflict with its so-call
weapons of mass destruction to Saddam's eventu
most revealing statements was the claim that
of anything-they don't even control themselves!" H
as US artillery fire could be heard in the distance a
US forces storming into Baghdad (p. 9). What al-Sa
Zi'ek is that, in ideological struggles, what matters is t
control over the fantasy. In this case, the fantasy imp
displayed for all of the world to see) was that the US v
free trading, and human rights recognizing Iraq af
lenged. Unfortunately, ideologues of all stripes
themselves," and so the rest of ZiZek's book is about
the current US administration to control its own id
designs (p. 10).
Without a central conceptual or methodological org
Kettle leaves it to the reader to pick and choose th
thoughts that best strike his or her fancy. It is lik
relations scholars will find the first part of the bo
with matters prompted by the Iraq war. In these se
tions are at once critically biting, cynical, and und
jumps from the absence of weapons of mass destru
Doctrine" and its impact on Western unity (pp. 14
United States as a new empire (pp. 19-23), to the re
the United States since the war in Iraq (pp. 24-
Palestinian conflict (pp. 37-44), to the issue of Isla
finally to the debate over the efficiency of democracy
is, non-Western) states (pp. 57-60). What is most co
Zifek's ability to provide astute, provocative, and so
commentaries on very serious topics. These reflecti
aware of the sheer viciousness and ultimately self-d
eologues' ways of operating. Among the topics that
fashion is the issue of the United States and tortu
ironically implies that the United States may be in
torture" by having some of its "less squeamish alli
work (p. 22). Another interesting issue concerns "o
Zizek convincingly demonstrates that, from an ideo
France and Germany's desire to resist the United Sta
European nations' own fears of not being able to "
fear that they conveniently displace onto the idea o
The second part of Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle is fa
appears more interested in exposing the question of
psychoanalytic analyses. At this point, much of the
ideology is lost. 2ifek reverts back to arguments th
choanalytic premises, such as the idea that the subje
fundamental haunting lack or absence. The Lacanian
scribes is that an original sense of self-loss is the
subjectivity. This self-loss or lack is first felt in the mo

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92 US Ideology and the War in Iraq

from the mother. Thus, it "has to do with the impossibility of being ph

both male and female" (Silverman 1983:152). This assumption abou
and traumatic lack or self-loss gives rise to a human psychology t
around the concept of desire, principally the desire to recover
wholeness. Lacanian arguments can be found, often in a better form
Zi'ek's previous works (%izek 1991). This kind of analysis is typica
readers will either admire or despise it depending on how they fee
psychoanalysis. But the strength of 2izek's perspective on contempor
undermined when he overuses Lacanian concepts to provide a blata
ical reading of events, historical processes, ideas, and identities. Th
ical foundations for such an analysis are often only to be found i
theory, whose premises are never questioned. This lack of self-refle
leads to a circular, self-referential, and uncritical mode of investig
virtually no concern for any historical or genealogical consideration
events, processes, ideas, or identities developed in either theory or
weak form of politically theoretical analysis can be found in this t
example, 2izek tries to explain the link between Judaism and human
bothering to base his conclusions on any particular text or any spe
reference. For example, 2izek affirms without explanation or qualificati
modern topic of human rights is ultimately grounded in this Jewish
Neighbour as the abyss of Otherness" (p. 128). Scholars interested i
yses of the relationship between Judaism and the idea of human rights
served by looking at the writings of Martin Buber (1971) or Emm
The turn to Lacan and other related psychological explanations in t
of the book can be distracting at best and self-defeating at worst.
ogizing, after all, often ends up essentializing a given subject matter (he
giving it a foundational meaning or a sacred destiny it may not hav
Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, particularly in its early sections, remains a u
the way in which the ideological fantasies of certain imperial powe
temporary international relations. Although many international re
are presently concerned with the so-called facts of war, terror, fore
security, they would do well, as 2izek intimates, to pay close attention
which the beliefs of some are being turned into global imaginarie
even their creators cannot control.


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KRISTOL, WILLIAM, AND LAWRENCE KAPLAN. (2003) The War over Iraq: Saddam's Tyranny and Americ
Mission. New York: Encounter Books.
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SILVERMAN, KAJA. (1983) The Subject of Semiotics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
ZIZEK, SLAVOJ. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso.
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ZIiEK, SLAVOJ. (1993) Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. D
Duke University Press.
ZIiEK, SLAVOJ, ED. (1994) Mapping Ideology. New York: Verso.

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