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imperialism & war

Imperialism and the siege mentality

Imperialism thrives on promoting a siege mentality among the citizens of the metropole (the occupying center) towards the subjects of the empire (occupied peoples). This meme is repeated over and over again in the history of modern imperialism, and has reached its contemporary apogee in the cases of the US and Israel.
Imperialism is the use of armed force to achieve the objectives of a nation state, subjugating peoples of foreign lands for the economic enrichment and/or nationalist, religious, or other ambitions of the elites of the imperialist power. It often requires mobilizing massive resources from the pockets of the majority of citizens in the imperialist power in order to wage protracted warfare against insurgents who don't accept imperial rule. But the rewards from subjugating these insurgents flow very unevenly if at all to the general population of the metropole, who nonetheless must bear most of the cost and risk involved. So how then do these elites convince the majority to go along?

Elites achieve their objectives mainly by promoting fear. Thus, we see that US government used fears of "weapons of mass destruction," despite the lack of any credible evidence, to herd the US population into supporting a war of aggression against Iraq. It now turns out that all the credible intelligence about Iraq was ignored in order to manufacture a phantom threat. Richard Perle, one of the principal strategists behind this war crime, openly admitted this strategy.

In a much less well known but remarkably similar way, Israel has witnessed an equivalent intelligence scandal. Amos Gilad, chief of Israeli Army Intelligence Research (equivalent to the US Director of Central Intelligence), was responsible for presenting official intelligence briefings to the Israeli cabinet. As such, he was principal promoter of the view that "there is no peace partner," ie, that Arafat was directly orchestrating the intifada and had no interest in peace with Israel. After attempting recently to claim a generous disability pension on highly suspicious grounds (he claimed "irreversible mental damage" due to "job stress"), he was finally denounced by his colleagues and subordinates as a fraud. Apparently, according to Israeli intelligence experts on the ground, his assessments for the cabinet have repeatedly contradicted "the intelligence materials assembled by his own people...but fulfilled his own prophecies." (See Uri Avnery, "Irreversible Mental Damage,"  http://www.counterpunch.org/avnery06212004.html) The scandal has led some wags to ask whether this "mental damage" occurred before or after his dubious cabinet reports.

Gilad provided, like George Tenet, intelligence reports that reflected not reality but convenient distortions and fabrications of reality that dovetailed with the political goals of his civilian superiors. These became self-fulfilling prophecies by justifying the aggressive military policies of successive Israeli governments, especially Sharon's, stoking the terrorist threat and alienating even the most moderate Palestinian elements, just as Bush's policies have alienated even the most hitherto US-friendly voices in the Arab world, and greatly increased the prestige and popularity of extremists like Bin Laden.

Thus, imperialists need external threats, or the perception of external threats among their own citizens, to lay the basis for their own agenda, which is conquest by brute force. An exaggerated sense of victimhood and vulnerability is also important towards this goal. Thus the obsessive hysteria around Muslim fundamentalism in the US. Also, by building up a mythology of shining American virtue, any criticism of the American government can be cast as "anti-Americanism." Similarly, by proclaiming "antisemitism" at the slightest sign of criticism of Israeli or Zionist positions, Zionists in both Israel and the US can stifle any discussion.

It is also convenient to project guilt onto an entire group of people for an amorphous concept of "antisemitism" or "anti-Americanism," ("they hate our freedoms," etc). By obsessively promoting one's own sense of victimhood and vulnerability, one can excuse one's own aggressions. Authors like Norm Finkelstein ("The Holocaust Industry") have documented the perverse use of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, a truly horrific event, for sordid self-interest. Similarly, the rise of this "Holocaust industry," as Finkelstein has dubbed it, not-so-coincidentally coincided with the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians have had the guilt for "antisemitism" projected onto them every time they responded to Israeli aggression, with the Holocaust looming as an ever-present reminder of Jewish vulnerability and victimhood. The sordid and perverse exploitation of Jewish suffering for nationalist and chauvinist purposes has, predictably, stoked its own mirror image: Holocaust denial and antisemitism among Palestinians and others. A "positive feedback" cycle is thus created.

The same phenomena have very close analogues throughout the history of modern imperialism. American settlers in their own Declaration of Independence denounced the king of England for leaving them defenseless against the "merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." Change the wording around a little and you have a precise description of the hysterical denunciations of "terrorists" by American and Israeli leaders today. Occupied and dispossessed peoples are always referred to by the people imposing the occupation as "savages," "brutes," "terrorists," etc. Along with this language come racist theories of the psychology of the "savage." We have General Westmoreland explaining the Vietnamese: "Well, the Oriental does not put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important." We have Raphael Patai's book, "The Arab Mind," currently all the rage at US military and officer training schools (the title alone is enough to form an idea of this work, a racist screed of amateurish "pseudo-scholarship," to quote a salon.com review).

All these theories promote a mythology of "the Other" that attributes strange qualities to him, irrational and inscrutable motivations for outlandish and "subhuman" behavior. Thus, it is common to hear among Zionists that the Palestinians must be "crazed," that they "hate the Jews more than they love their children," etc. This sort of mythologizing is crucial, because without it one would have to suppose that there were "scrutable" reasons for their behaviors, reasons having something to do with the observable reality of their power relations to their oppressors.

As with the US "war on terrorism," the Israeli war on Palestinians has scant benefits for most Israelis. Only 3% of the Israeli population is living in the Occupied Territories and Gaza. Even if Israel completely acceded to Palestinian demands, something which it has never offered or proposed to do, at worst it would mean resettling this 3% within Israel's 1967 borders (the so-called "Green Line"). And even if Palestinians did not honor such a compromise, and continued their attacks on Israel within the Green Line, at worst the Israelis could simply reoccupy the West Bank, effortlessly. The fact that the Israelis have never even offered to dismantle the biggest of the settlements, such as Maale Adumim, tells us all we need to know about the seriousness of their commitment to the peace process. But the official Israeli propaganda is that the Palestinians rejected a "generous offer," and proceeded to unleash a second intifada "without provocation."
Meanwhile, all along, long before the second Intifada (uprising) ever began, the Israeli occupiers continued to expand these settlements, destroying Palestinian vineyards and olive groves, and forbidding Palestinians from constructing anything on their own lands.

This is typical of imperialist propaganda. Citizens of the metropole under imperialism never know the details of peace plans with "the savages." They never know the locations of lines drawn on maps, or the precise terms of the proposals their leaders make. They only know the glittering generalities these leaders repeat about "freedom," "democracy," "God and country," etc. But they always know precisely the location and number of those killed in attacks by "the savages."

Thus, the creation of a "siege mentality" among citizens of the imperialist power has the desired effect of gaining their acceptance of any atrocities required by imperialist elites against subject peoples in order to ensure elite objectives. Israelis are always "victims of terrorism," the American settler was also beset by "merciless Indian savages," American soldiers are forever being attacked by "terrorist fanatics" who commit unspeakable atrocities, motivated by bizarre religious superstitions about "virgins in heaven," etc. When sufficient atrocities are not available, they are made to order in made-for-tv spectacles by the military itself, as in the Jessica Lynch case. American atrocities, on the other hand, are always "isolated incidents," even when memos are leaked that expressly condone systematic torture and disregard for the Geneva Conventions at the highest civilian levels.

Fortunately, this perverse cycle of violence can be stopped. It is in the hands of precisely the citizens of the metropole who currently accept these atrocities to break the cycle. The citizens of imperialist powers have the luxury of detachment and reasoned thought. They live under only a psychologtical state of siege, as compared to the actual state of siege suffered by the occupied subjects. Thus, it becomes imperative for those of us who see the reality of this perverse dynamic to mercilessly attack imperialist propaganda, and to reject any notion of the occupier as "victim" of the occupied. The imperialist side is NOT faced with existential threats. It is the occupied who face existential threats, and little room for maneuver. Israeli citizens may fear the random violence of a suicide bomber, but they don't wake up to blackouts of electricity and water, road blockades, indefinite detentions. and tank and helicopter gunship attacks, totally disrupting and endangering the lives of whole cities of people. The imperialist war machine can strike at will, with impunity, any time and any place. Imperialists don't commit suicide attacks, because they can kill from the air, at no risk to their own personal safety. Imperialist atrocities are ALWAYS elective, and we must always categorically denounce them.