An Imagined Insurgency: A Conversation with Bernard E. Harcourt

WITH THE RISE of the Trump administration, it has become increasingly apparent that many Americans view certain minority groups and protest movements as internal enemies. At the highest levels of our government, the message is clear: Muslim Americans, Black Lives Matter activists, and Latin American immigrants are a danger to society. 

Although this belief in a dangerous domestic insurgency is more visible now, it is not an invention of the Trump era. In The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens (Basic Books, 2018), Bernard E. Harcourt describes the stunning rise of counterinsurgency over the last two decades. Harcourt, a critical theorist and a dual-appointed professor of Law and Political Science at Columbia University, argues that the counterinsurgency model began as an approach to military intervention in the Iraq War. From there, this viewpoint gradually seeped into our foreign diplomacy, our policing of domestic dissent, and our political culture writ large. 

The spread of counterinsurgency practices across military and civilian contexts, Harcourt writes, has generated a “counterrevolution against imaginary enemies” both at home and abroad.


LUCA PROVENZANO: In the past two decades, the notion that our government is operating on the logic of a “state of exception” ­— a state of suspended legality — has been very popular among American left intellectuals, who have drawn on theorists like Carl Schmitt or Giorgio Agamben. In The Counterrevolution, you argue that the concept of the state of exception is inadequate. Why?

BERNARD E. HARCOURT: This was indeed one of the motivating pieces of this book. I wanted to come to grips with all the writings on the state exception. At the time, this seemed to me to be an appropriate way to think about the immediate period after 9/11, in part because there was actually a state of exception and certain derogations enacted by George W. Bush in the period immediately after 9/11. We saw the same happen in France after November 2015.

There’s is no doubt that the concept of the state of exception, and particularly Agamben’s notion that we’re potentially in a permanent state of exception, has some traction. But the closer I looked, the more I felt that, actually, it misses the heart of the matter: the effort on the part of the Bush and Obama administrations to normalize and legalize these measures, rendering them fully consistent with the ordinary rule of law.

The book was published before this happened, but if you look at what happened in France, in particular, it’s telling, because the state of emergency was called and lasted over two years. But ultimately those measures, originally in the emergency degree, became normalized as a matter of law. It’s on a three-year track, but they will undoubtedly be reauthorized permanently.

That movement suggests that the state of exception is just another technique or modality of governance among many, rather than a framework to understanding the type of governance we’re in. It’s helpful at times to create a certain exception to the rules that we use to legally regulate practice. But the aim is ultimately to legalize that shift. When you look at the torture memos — the equivalent of judicial decisions and legal briefs — it’s a whole formalized legal apparatus that the White House created in order to legalize all of these counterinsurgency methods.

The fact is that it is too easy for the rule of law to incorporate these techniques for us to say that we live in a state of legal exception. The rule of law is infinitely malleable, and in the end, it makes more sense for us to understand our political practices today through the rubric of a counterinsurgency paradigm than through the rubric of a “deviation” from the rule of law. 

The Counterrevolution was written before the election of Donald Trump, which dramatically shifted the composition of our government. Did this lead you to revise elements of the book?

So, the book was largely conceptualized and written with the expectation that Hillary Clinton would be the president of the United States. And in that sense, the book had a certain arc about the different versions of counterinsurgency and described a swing from the Bush era to the Obama era. It emphasized the different variations on counterinsurgency, focusing on different techniques, like torture or indefinite detention versus drone killings. I expected that a Clinton administration would remain within the same fold as the Obama administration. I would have expected continuity.

After the election of Donald Trump, I had to reconsider the arc of the book. Trump’s election doesn’t fundamentally alter the historical trajectory of the rise of counterinsurgency since 9/11: it confirms it. The fact that, during his campaign, Trump made so many different statements that fit perfectly within the counterinsurgency paradigm — the fact that he said he would go back to waterboarding, that he would do worse than waterboarding and torture the families of suspects, the fact that he wanted to return to the NYPD surveillance of mosques and proposed a registry for Muslims, all of the language he was using was about creating internal enemies. His campaign promised a much more brutal version of counterinsurgency. And in this sense, his election placed the seal of approval of the American population on that approach. To be sure he was not popularly elected; but he won sufficient votes to gain the Electoral College.

The result is that a sufficient minority that ended up an electoral majority embraced fully these theories of counterinsurgency governance. And immediately upon taking office Trump then implemented those visions.

Since the publication of the book, we’ve seen confirmation of a reinforced model of counterinsurgency governance across a range of areas — immigration, policing. For example, the selection of Gina Haspel as the next director of the CIA; the promotion of Mike Pompeo to the State Department. Haspel was in charge of the black site in Thailand, she was there for the oversight of the “enhanced interrogation” of al-Nashiri. She is a representative of that dark episode, someone integral to the torture program, and now soon-to-be head of the CIA. Mike Pompeo voiced support for waterboarding, among other things; his placement at the head of State represents an extension of the counterinsurgency paradigm to foreign affairs more broadly.

Donald Trump had also previously appointed a number of counterinsurgency warriors to key positions: Jim Mattis at Defense — he was a theoretician of counterinsurgency; [H. R.] McMaster, who has now stepped down, was also a theoretician and practitioner of counterinsurgency. Among all three dimensions — the military and CIA, foreign affairs, and domestically — we see a robust (re)turn toward counterinsurgency.

And Trump himself has been doing most of the domestication of counterinsurgency via his proposed “Muslim ban” and his border wall. Recently, the administration added a citizenship question to the census for 2020 … this is a dramatic move that plays on the counterinsurgency theme of “internal enemies” in order to target, isolate, and exclude non-citizens in a way that will have profound implications. This is a perfect illustration of creating through discourse and practice an internal enemy of undocumented residents in this country as a mode of governing. It will have huge implications for redistricting and for the future of American politics.

You argue in the book that the counterinsurgency approach has unique staying power because liberal attempts at reform can be adopted without actually shifting away from the paradigm of counterinsurgency. For example, Obama’s extensive use of drones can be envisioned as a way of absorbing liberal critiques: drones minimize the more ostentatious displays of violence without meaningfully shifting American foreign policy. The result is a counterinsurgency with a friendlier face — less offensive, but more insidious. Is there a space for a more radical critique, one that doesn’t reinforce the terms of counterinsurgency logic?

I agree entirely that this sort of reformist critique typically feeds back into the counterinsurgency paradigm, pushing the pendulum toward “softer” forms of counterinsurgency. It’s fascinating to see the way in which that occurred over time in our own practices of counterinsurgency abroad. And in part [the reformist critique] explains why torture and indefinite detention were replaced by other forms of counterinsurgency of a more tolerable nature, including a lot more work on hearts and minds. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency manual is heavily tilted toward bringing the population on board, working on and with the population — and that’s the softer side of counterinsurgency. Reformist critique has also, in part, led to more anesthetized ways of eliminating the targeted minority, through drone killing for instance.

So how do we avoid critiques that simply make the entire form of governing through counterinsurgency more palatable?

The answer has to be a more fundamental criticism of the underlying assumptions of counterinsurgency theory, [including] questioning the vision of society that is at the basis of counterinsurgency practice. That is tough to do because we have so internalized counterinsurgency thought and mentalities. But a full robust critique would have to eliminate that way of thinking in order to avoid creating internal enemies or project coherent insurgencies where there are none.

Speaking of “internal enemies,” there were disclosures about some of the private security companies handling the Standing Rock movement, in which the security companies depicted the water carriers as a “Jihadist insurgency” …

That’s precisely the problem. We have to get rid of the underlying mental map of a society constructed in this way, with internal enemies and insurgents. Now, it’s particularly challenging to do so because we’ve entirely absorbed that mental map in our everyday thinking. Even in contemporary theories about repeat offenders in the criminology context we assume that there is a small number of “pathological” individuals who commit all the crimes. This prevails across a broad range of social theory and contemporary social scientific thought. But that’s precisely what we need to resist: the underlying assumptions, the underlying worldview.

The most direct way to resist is to fight against the construction of internal enemies. That is one of the key ways in which counterinsurgency operates, and we’re doing a lot of that constructing in this country right now. Muslims have been turned into the internal enemy, African-American protestors have been turned into the internal enemy with, for example, the designation by the FBI of the new category of the “Black Identity Extremist.” This is a transformation of ordinary citizens who may be protesting into a “dangerous” category. If I had to propose a push in any one direction, it would be toward resisting the portrayal of citizens as dangerous active minorities.

Is the problem that this notion of the internal enemy ends up legitimating prejudicial practices that may in fact produce an insurgency? We imagine and then persecute an “internal enemy” such that it actually comes forth into being?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it necessarily produces an internal enemy. It’s not so much that it pushes individuals to become “insurgents,” although it is clear that some extreme forms of repression can push people in any number of directions. Instead, counterinsurgency thought creates a specter of an insurrection that we then use to project violent acts onto, and that then confirms that the suspicion of an insurrection is valid. It’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy insofar as it creates insurgents, but it’s a self-fulfilling framework that, once in place (“there is an insurgency out there”), allows particular violent acts that would not have been thought of through an insurgency lens to become “proof” of the validity of the framework itself.

It bestows a false coherence …

Yes, so if we are going to try to avoid falling into the trap of this counterinsurgency governmentality, we need to avoid creating coherent “insurrections” on all sides.

Your book traces out some of the ways that counterinsurgency — as a theory and a set of practices — has infiltrated domestic governance. But it also seems like there are certain thresholds that domestic security apparatuses are touchier about, or don’t yet dare to cross. What are some of the obstacles that prevent the unmediated domestication of counterinsurgency?

Well, there are both domestic norms and domestic institutions that place some brakes on the domestication of counterinsurgency. The norms revolve around a certain distinction between the military and civilian contexts. They provide less of a constraint at the international level, but on domestic soil they do have some effects. It becomes much more jarring to the ordinary citizen when military techniques are brought to bear on citizens at home. Norms about the difference between civilian and military policing have infiltrated the public imagination over time. Of course, they also then trigger resistance, particularly when divergences from the norm are rendered visible by the press and legal institutions.

To be concrete, the robot bomb used in Dallas [to eliminate a criminal suspect, Micah Johnson] is the perfect illustration of the domestication of both a technology and a mentality — drone technology and the mentality of eliminating an insurgent rather than trying to arrest and immobilize a suspect — that drew a lot of attention precisely because it came into friction with those norms, it pushed that border.

Or the militarized police presence in Ferguson …

Exactly. Those are cases where particular images, photographs, violent police behaviors, and a lot of reporting then begin to make us feel uncomfortable. Why? Because we have conventionally tried to draw lines between military and police intervention.

The trouble is that norms evolve and we can become reaccustomed. We have become far more accustomed already to militarized police than we ever were before, particularly in the context of protest controls and SWAT teams that have proliferated around the country. We’ve seen an erosion of those norms that make us even less sensitive to the domestication of counterinsurgency.


Luca Provenzano is a PhD candidate in History at Columbia University.