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Masks of Empire: Ideas Have Consequences

Ideas Have Consequences M V Ramana On October 1 of this year, speaking at the council on foreign relations, New York, Indian external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee said,

Ideas Have Consequences

M V Ramana

“the biggest danger that confronts us today and tomorrow is not non-state terrorism, but the scale and frequency with which states carry out terrorist acts and campaigns”. And “today its most danger

ous dimension is the shield that GWOT n October 1 of this year, speaking book review provides for US actions”. He goes on to

at the council on foreign rela-elaborating how GWOT offers many ad

tions, New York, Indian external vantages as a framing device, allowing

Masks of Empire edited by Achin Vanaik; Tulika affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee said, Books, 2007; pp XII + 294, Rs 595. “the United States to justify thinking and

“When I look at the issues of the future, namely, energy security, the environment, food security, and the possible spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it is clear to me that each issue will require all states, and particularly countries like India and the US, to work together.” Now, working together is very good in the abstract. But the US is today the pre-eminent global superpower and there is little question that it will set the agenda for working together. Before one thinks about cooperating with the US, therefore, one should understand what its aims are and what its modus operandi is.

The book under review, Masks of Empire, edited by Achin Vanaik, is a valuable contribution to helping understand one of the primary aims of the US today – namely, furthering its empire – and the methods used by it in achieving this aim. The book’s primary foci are the discourses that are used to legitimise the imperial agenda of the US. These include “six ideological banners, which, to greater or lesser extent, serve the interests of US empire-building…

  • (i) global war on terror (GWOT); (ii) weapons of mass destruction in the ‘wrong hands’; (iii) failed states; (iv) the necessity and justice of external and forcible humanitarian intervention; (v) regime change in the name of democracy; and
  • (vi) the war on narcotics.” These banners are used to elicit consent to US imperialism in three domains: “the domestic population of the United States itself…the elites, governments and general public of the target areas of US imperial activities… [and] the rest of the world…whose governments and publics also need to be persuaded of the righteousness of US policies.” Note that two of the issues flagged by Pranab Mukherjee for joint action – spread of WMD and terrorism – are among these
  • banners. In addition to chapters that delineate these banners, there are also chapters by Walden Bello, Susan George, and Mike Marqusee.

    Why Is the US Hated?

    Walden Bello’s description of the economics of empire is related to Karl Marx’s identification of the propensity of capitalism to continuously expand, and the resultant crisis of overaccumulation. In Bello’s view, US post-cold war belligerence is a consequence of economic weakness, not strength. Susan George offers an analysis of the right wing’s methods to “sell” its ideology through think tanks, select university departments, policy institutes, and key individuals in the media. The underlying philosophy is encapsulated by the title of a book by a member of the conservative Chicago circle, Richard Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences, and George delineates how neoliberals and neoconservatives have won major victories in the war of ideas, especially in the US. Mike Marqusee elaborates on how the US is seen as “unique among nations and societies; a country with a special mission and therefore enjoying special duties and prerogatives.” He details how through history the population of the US has been raised on the idea that their country was not imperialistic and did not seek anything from other countries. It is because of this history that George W Bush could pose the question “Why do they hate us?” with a straight face after the September 11 attacks.

    Achin Vanaik’s chapter lays out the differences between state sponsored or directed or executed terrorism and the terrorism carried out by non-state individuals or combat groups. He points out that behaviour aimed at establishing its informal global empire”. A geographical area that is “crucial to the US imperial project” is “central and (especially) west Asia”, which comprises mostly of Muslim majority states. Thus, the false and misleading terminology “Islamic terrorism” helps justify US actions in this region.

    West Asia is also the main focus of another ideological banner: WMD in the “wrong hands”. Zia Mian’s chapter looks at “how the fear of weapons of mass destruction was used by the Bush administration to organise public support for its war on Iraq in 2003” and traces the role “played by key figures…who belonged to a hard-line conservative group calling itself ‘The Project for a New American Century’.” Mian also elaborates on the importance of fear, especially nuclear fear, as a mobilising emotion, and offers a condensed history of how the US has dealt with nuclear weapons and their potential use. He points out how the “elimination of nuclear weapons” – a widely shared goal

    – “cannot succeed as long as the United States insists on retaining and improving its nuclear arsenal, supports the nuclear ambitions of its friends and allies, and tries to deny these weapons to those it sees as enemies.”

    Mariano Aguirre starts by noting how humanitarian concerns are sometimes in conflict with national sovereignty in situations like those that occurred in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Balkans. The complex issue becomes more complicated because of the way in which “the United States, and its main partner, the British government, have manipulated the concept of humanitarian intervention” by trying to “equate it with and to bring it closer to the notion of interventionism, implying war operations and possible regime changes”. Aguirre

    december 1, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


    ends with a call to “not abandon the moral imperative to protect victims, nor the principles of democracy and international law” because manipulation “of these concepts should not lead them to be dismissed altogether”.

    ‘Be Nice to America or Else…’

    The chapter by Phyllis Bennis explores how “democracy, in one guise or another, has been a central player throughout the overarching history of US empire. It has provided justifications for campaigns during the first and second world wars, through the Korean war, Vietnam, the cold war’s ‘proxy wars’ in places like Nicaragua and Angola, and the first US war against Iraq”, not to mention the more recent wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. As the bumper sticker that is sometimes seen on US roads proclaims: be nice to America or we’ll bring democracy to your country.

    The next ideological banner – failed states – is the latest of the spectres that the American defence establishment has conjured up (e g, the White House’s 2002 National Security Strategy document’s declaration “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones”) to justify imperial intervention. In his chapter, David Sogge points out that at “the heart of this talk about state failure is the definition of what the states should all be about, in whose interest should they function, and thus for whom they might fail or succeed…For the western geo-strategists, non-western states have the role and duty, before all else, to protect the west and its interests”. Sogge elaborates on how the idea of a threat from failed states start capturing media attention in the 1990s as well as the problems with the way “the problem” is framed. He points out how the “solutions” imposed “lead to the very things that weaken states and public order – inequality, exclusion, an impoverished public sector and illegitimate governance”.

    A different geographical location, Latin America, has faced the brunt of yet another ideological banner for intervention: the war on drugs. David Bewley-Taylor and Martin Jelsma’s chapter begins by deconstructing the US “influenced international treaty system” dealing with drug prohibition and

    Economic & Political Weekly december 1, 2007

    the tensions between European nations and the US on this issue. They also detail how the militarised war on drugs began in the 1980s and its subsequent evolution, including the attempts to connect the issues of drugs and terror “in order to legitimise continued military operations and presence in Latin America and Asia, particularly in oil rich areas”. Rounding off all of these are introductory and concluding chapters by Achin Vanaik that go well beyond just restating what is in the rest of the book.

    I have only good words for the book. It deals with a subject of great importance, indeed one of life and death in the case of the many regions of the world that have borne the brunt of American imperialism. And it does so in a rich and nuanced fashion. Each of the articles is uniformly of high quality: well documented, cogently argued, and together form a coherent whole. This is activist scholarship at its best. Another great feature of the book is its extensive use of direct quotes from US documents and speeches by important figures, the book deriving its authentication from the proverbial horse’s mouth, as it were.

    Lessons for India

    While the book doesn’t really deal with other countries, there are lessons here for India. Just as many in the US think of their country as a benign one, there is a selfimage of India that is largely benign. The former president Abdul Kalam has on many occasions stated, “We have not invaded anyone. We have not conquered anyone.” That not one of the listeners at meetings where this statement was made has recalled, for example, the invasions of several south-east Asian kingdoms by Rajendra Chola in the 11th century points to how prevalent this self-image has become. It is this self-image of India that has allowed so many to square a circle and reconcile India’s former espousal of nuclear disarmament with the desire for a “nuclear weapons power” status. The same self-image has allowed widespread belief in statements by the bomb lobby that India’s nuclear weapons are for peace, somehow different from those of other countries.

    The Indian elite is also prone to assumptions about the dangers of “Islamic terrorism”, paying lip service to democracy while supporting dictatorships (e g, Myanmar), indulge in talk about how countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan are “failed states”, and disregard the geostrategic motives in favour of “humanitarian intervention” when discussing events like the 1971 Bangladesh war. Hopefully reading how the US has indulged in such discourse would prompt some critical reflection on the discourse in India as well.

    Like many analyses of American imperialism, there is more about the problem than about how to defeat Washington’s hegemonic project. But this cannot be easy. If the book were to suggest courses of action, they would have to follow from the analysis offered. Since the latter is not simplistic, there can be no straightforward prescriptions.

    Among those that are on offer, to me the most important is the one by Susan George, whose chapter ends with a call to progressives “to learn the lessons from the right’s ideological successes, and to set off resolutely on their own ‘long march through the institutions’, as Gramsci described the building of cultural hegemony”. Unfortunately, this demands much patience and is likely to result in one’s work being derided as irrelevant. (How often one is asked the question: “And how are you going to impact policy?”) Such patient work will be needed to bring to fruition the concluding aspiration of the book: that the opponents of the US empire project manage to capture “the moral imagination of enough people” so as to cause its collapse. The book edited by Vanaik is certainly a contribution to that goal.


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