Tuesday, 27 October 2015

How US power factions shape the world

I experienced acute pareidolia in a recent visit to Washington DC. That’s the scientific theory describing how human brains recognise patterns in inanimate objects, the Virgin Mary and toast is the most well-known.

It happened because from a distance the US looks like a coherent country, a shining example and custodian of the concept of the international community. Perhaps Washington DC is peculiar to the rest of the country, but something about the city made it easier to notice how factionalism, disparaged in other countries, is deeply woven into the US fabric too.

Take for instance the US Articles of Confederation. It is a ragged parchment, faded and unglamorous sitting in the National Archives building on Pennsylvania Ave. It was written after the nation’s first hundred years following the Civil War, after which the country was referred to as “these” United States, not “the” United States. And has remained that way ever since.

The usage of the plural pronoun is a deliberate recognition that while the Union was victorious in the conflict, the country will always involve at least two parallel realities. History is always written by the victors and we study history not to understand the present, but the past. The Union was victorious while the Confederate south was decisively beaten. Everything follows from this reality.

Underneath all this is a quiet understanding that the North’s victory isn’t permanent and requires constant maintenance. The victory is only part of the country’s assumptions, not a fact of nature. The glue holding the country together is a belief that “these” United States, under a Union-formed federal government, is the correct narrative without which the country cannot do.

Yet there is an entire counter-history written by the defeated South describing how it sees the Civil War. Suffice it to say, the US story is only the most dominant narrative written by people with their own agenda in a time of violent nation building. This same thing has happened countless times around the world, as it is today in Iraq and Syria. Military defeat is never enough, the ideology must also be eradicated. This didn’t happen in the US south, and so discontent bubbles away.

The entire game of the present structure of the US government is to maintain itself by suppressing alternate forms of government, such as the counter-history of the South. In other words, there is no magical law of the universe dictating that the status quo must persist forever. Without vigilance and a strong narrative, it could collapse at any time – as in Iraq and Syria. We can see this by asking whether the US government is truly “monolithic”.

Without delving into the history of the US political spectrum, a closer look reveals there are at least two competing power factions with their own agencies and departments. They represent the interests and historicity of the country as it was before the Civil War, and before the creation of “these” United States. Each faction wishes to mold the US, and the international community, in its own image.

On the one side of the battlefield, we have… Washington. Or more precisely, Foggy Bottom and the State Department. And on the other side of the battlefield, we have… Washington. Or more precisely Arlington and the Pentagon. The executive branch is filled by whichever faction benefits from the swings of the public pendulum. Note: this isn’t the Republican and Democrat split.

I can see how Foggy Bottom broadly represents the interests of the North and the progressive Left, while Arlington broadly represents the interests of the South and the conservative Right. I’m sure it’s more complicated than this, but the point is the US is not a monolithic entity with a single history at all. Far from it. Much more is going on under its skin.

Arlington controls its client states in the international community by moving masses of men and metal – hard power is its vehicle of influence. If a country or ethnic group diverges from the status quo and threatens the “national security” of the US, then missiles can bring it back into line. Arlington even has its own intelligence agencies and departments to get the job done.

Foggy Bottom
Meanwhile, Foggy Bottom creates fiscal and economic dependency in members of the international community and spreads American-style egalitarianism with education. Shutting off US dollars is often just as effective – if not more so – than missiles to spoil secessionist plans. Soft power, as Foggy Bottom’s vehicle of influence, is a bit harder to spot, so the Arab Spring is a good example.

In 2011 there was no shortage of educated, capable, intelligent and energetic Egyptians - in short, American Egyptians. There weren’t millions of them, let alone tens of millions. But there were certainly tens of thousands. All they lacked was the power to rule Egypt. Not that they were without power. Anything but! Thanks to their American friends at Foggy Bottom, CNN, Human Rights Watch and all their many Twitter followers, the Egyptian liberal was anything but powerless.

After all, if this group was powerless, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would still be in power. But Mr Mubarak, and before him Anwar Sadat, wore America’s jewellery, took its money and sold it his soul. And after 35 years of dependency, this meant the Egyptian regime was defenceless against Foggy Bottom when the time came for change.

The Assad regime in Syria was smarter - it decided to remain a Soviet client, and later transferred its allegiance to Iran and Russia. No "Arab Spring" for them! Peace with the US was the death of Nasser's Egypt, albeit with a somewhat delayed fuse. The lesson is: on an American planet, anti-Americanism is the only path to independence. An excluded, poor and perpetually unsafe independence – but independence nonetheless. Just ask Somaliland.

Mr Mubarak, while he ruled, was free. Those he ruled were not free, for to be free is to rule. Now the novelists, filmmakers and surgeons are freer and Mr Mubarak is not free - in fact, he is detained in military hospital. And so it goes. Someone always rules; everyone else is always ruled. This is the reality of the international community in three words: sovereignty is conserved.

Now the two US power factions are once more fighting over Egypt’s sovereignty. Warplanes are sold and university professors are delivered. Winning is unimportant for them, the point is to keep the game going because the real battlefield is back in the US. Yet the problem for both factions is the Islamists who don’t respond to either Foggy Bottom or Arlington. Hence the missiles. But will this game last forever? We’ll have to wait and see.

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