Unite and Lose?

I’m on record as being a bit skeptical towards the argument that the territorial spread of mid to late 19th Century British and French imperialism was partly the consequence of a canny and deliberate application of a strategic doctrine to “divide and conquer”. It’s true that this eventually became part of the self-perception of imperial planners as well as the basis of an enduring accusation. It’s also true that this is a reasonable short-hand description of the course of events in many imperial theatres of action, and an explanation for why many non-Western peoples were not able to mount a military resistance to imperial intrusion that matched their theoretical capabilities–not just in the “new imperialism” of the 19th Century but in the first wave of early modern European expansion as well. Cortes could hardly have conquered Mexico if the Aztecs, their rivals, and the Maya had all mounted a coordinated and unified resistance to his invasion.

I just think that seeing the concept as a conscious strategic belief emanating from the center of imperial administrative and military power, preceding and directing a singular plan for imperial conquest, is simply not how it all happened. The European core almost passively or inevitably pressing into non-Western peripheries in the 19th Century was a source of energy and power, a massive dumping of new energy into an existing thermodynamics of history. It’s not surprising that this should have been a resource for new forms of political power and a goad to new kinds of rivalries and struggles within existing states, chiefdoms and societies in the non-Western world, which subsequently produced the impression that European imperial agents were pitting different colonial subjects against one another. At some point in the construction of colonial authority, that even began to be a more deliberate and instrumental outcome of conscious planning–as officials named and elaborated “tribes” and gave them different levels of hierarchical privilege, for example.

Whatever the cause, however, it’s true that “divide and conquer” was an important part of the ability of European powers to dominate non-Western societies with extremely minimal administrative and military costs relative to the expanse of territories they brought under imperial control. The formal European empires created in the mid to late 19th Century did not last very long in the grand scheme of things, either: the most enduring lasted barely more than a century, some of them considerably less than that. In part, that is because of the spread of nationalism on one hand and trade unionism on the other: institutions and identities that helped colonial subjects to coordinate mass resistance to imperial control.

It’s also because the demands of liberalism were such that actively illiberal imperial policy was increasingly difficult to sustain by the 1930s, and “liberal empire”, if there could ever be such a thing, would have to be a very expensive proposition, where the imperial power undertook to provide most of the standard public infrastructure of modern nation-states, schools and roads and communications and power, etcetera, that were designed with the general welfare of the citizenry in mind. You can have “liberal empire” on a few small islands or in a few nearly uninhabited hinterlands, but not whole continents or in densely populated territories.

Plus, there was a force asymmetry between the Western core and the non-Western periphery in 1890 that was nearly unique in world history, whose time came and went with great rapidity. “We have the Maxim gun and they have not” gave way to “Everybody’s got automatic rifles and access to explosives”. All the night-vision goggles, Kevlar body armor and Predator drones in the world are not going to translate into the kind of generically lopsided balance of military capability that characterized the world system of 1890.

Concede for the moment that whatever the character of American power in the world before September 11th, 2001, it has since then been at least quasi-imperial in its nature, at least in Iraq and Afghanistan. How odd it is, then, that the conscious doctrine of the people making policy appears to be not “divide and conquer” but “unify all possible foes into a single unitary body”. Particularly at a time when even the most starry-eyed defender of current policy would concede that American military power is being tested to its limits in terms of manpower and resources by two occupations and the maintenance of at least notional capacity to undertake additional incursions in the same cause.

So rather than trying to accentuate differences of overall interests, long-term outlook, local allegiances, internal structure, and historical derivation between Iran, al-Qaeda, Hizbollah, Hamas, and various Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or the new dominant power in Mogadishu, increasingly the planners of the “war on terror” are insisting, stridently, that these groups are utterly identical in every meaningful respect. At the least, from a purely amoral and tactical perspective, that potentially misses an opportunity to respond to these groups within the local contexts of their operations, to tie them up within the political and military theater that they operate within.

At the worst, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The feedback loop of British and French administrative policy in their empires led to the elaboration and ossification of colonial subjects into separate “tribes” and related forms of legalistic and political identity, which has been a lasting source of suffering and difficulty in the world. The feedback loop of the current American policy could lead to a quite different result: incentives for the reinforced creation of a united “Islamofascism” from many smaller, more heterogenous groups and political regimes which at the outset of the process had quite distinct interests and objectives. Even more minimally, our announced policy now provides considerable incentive to those groups to improve their sharing of intelligence and resources and to coordinate their actions.

I don’t mean to be naive about this. There have long been very serious and sustained structural ties between Hizbollah and Iran, for example. But equally there are profound differences and divergences between various actors and groups in the present moment that might call themselves “Islamist”, and even more in terms of the sources of their support. Hamas won in Gaza as much because they were perceived to be the answer to official corruption as because of any policy stance they have towards Israel or the United States.

There is a loose intellectual and political history that weaves “Wahhabi” movements together over time. But the relationship between Islamic revivalism in the 19th Century Sokoto Caliphate and al-Qaeda’s brand of Islamic revivalism is roughly the same as the relationship between the Whisky Rebellion and Howard Jarvis’ tax-reform campaign for Proposition 13. The later movement may draw on the history for symbolic support, and both may loosely come from some root idea of nation or community that is shared across time. That’s it.

If the kind of power we exert against many perceived enemies (whom we may be quite right to see as posing various dangers to shared interests) is continually insistent that they are all the same enemy, then I really think in time we will be facing exactly that which some now say we face. Then I think we’ll discover that we really weren’t seeking or hoping for that outcome, that it was one thing to talk that way as a bit of cheap political theater, an attempt to strike a Churchillian pose against an imaginary Munich, and another thing entirely to fight a Crusade against a large segment of the world’s population.

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2 Responses to Unite and Lose?

  1. bbenzon says:

    Concede for the moment that whatever the character of American power in the world before September 11th, 2001, it has since then been at least quasi-imperial in its nature, at least in Iraq and Afghanistan. How odd it is, then, that the conscious doctrine of the people making policy appears to be not “divide and conquer” but “unify all possible foes into a single unitary body”.

    This is most interesting indeed. Yes, you’re right about this. And it indicates to me that, for all that talk about Iraqi oil, this war is not primarily economic. Sure, economic advantage is being secured, but its through the ordinary corruption and cronyism that pervades this administration. They didn’t need to wage a war to create opportunities of this sort.

    No, I believe this war is quite different in character. It’s driven by a need to oppose. In effect, when the Evil Soviet Empire collapsed, the convenient target of lots of animus also collapsed. So where to focus that animus? It took THEM ten years to find an external target — after ramping up the war on drugs, and then going after Clinton — but they found one, “terrorism.”

    I’ve got a longish piece over at The Valve that’s relevant here. It’s about identity formation and, in particular, about how some identities exist in opposition to other identities. In the middle of that piece I quote a statement made by Mario Cuomo, ex-governor of New York, in The New York Times Magazine (March 19, 1995):

    The Second World War as the last time that this country believed in anything profoundly, any great single cause. What was it? They were evil; we were good. That was Tojo, that was that S.O.B. Hitler, that was Mussolini, that bum. They struck at us in the middle of the night, those sneaks. We are good, they are bad. Let’s all get together, we said, and we creamed them. We started from way behind. We found strength in this common commitment, this commonality, community, family, the idea of coming together was best served in my lifetime in the Second World War.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree, I think this is important. There is a branch of American conservatism that has been defined by being against an amorphous enemy, and some others who have expediently gone along with that once they saw how successful a strategy it was. Reagan’s ascendancy after the 1976 convention was a major part of that, a kind of reengineering of Goldwaterism away from the small-government ideal and more towards this kind of stark dualism.

    The question of why it has populist resonance is also interesting, and here Thomas Frank’s diagnosis is pretty sound even if his solution is off. That kind of dualism resonates well in lower middle-class and working-class households in the US who feel consistently as if they’ve been abused by history in the last thirty years–not necessarily hurt by a specific government action or a specific social class that they can locate in their own small communities but by people “out there” somewhere, by forces “out there”. For folks in that situation, saying that history is driving by a struggle between the elect and the forces of evil is very appealing–it both explains why they have found their economic and social existence squeezed from all sides, and promises them a reversal of fortune if only they will endorse a struggle carried out on their behalf but far away from their own communities.

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