We have gone back and forth on the issue of American intervention in developing countries and I wish to return to the topic to broaden the terms of the discussion.
Reader Tahir had raised the issue in defense of Imran Khan’s position that was the subject of three earlier posts (here, here, and here). Let us see if a wider perspective improves our understanding and helps us think of better responses, both intellectual and practical.
The evidence of American interventions is not in dispute. In his Cairo address, President Obama conceded American involvement in the 1953 coup in Iran that toppled a democratic government. And this is only one of many, many instances well known to all except, perhaps, a majority of American voters. Imran Khan is part of the multitude that sees through the American rhetoric of high morality.
The question is how do we understand the nature of this phenomenon? Is Imran Khan right to turn it into an issue of the moral superiority of the East over the West or to transform it into a clash of Islam versus Christianity? Do these interpretations help or do they detract from our understanding? Do they enable positive responses or do they sidetrack us into blind alleys?
It should be obvious to the objective analyst that abuse of power is not a uniquely American or Western practice. Many countries of the East, including Pakistan, have been guilty of similar abuses. The difference is not one of intent but of scale. Based on evidence, it is difficult to believe that Pakistan’s actions would have been any different if it had the same kind of resources and power as the US.
It should also be obvious from a study of history that American interventions are not motivated by considerations of religion. The 1953 coup in Muslim Iran was matched by the 1973 coup in Christian Chile and the war in Buddhist Vietnam. Going through the list of other covert actions in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, it is hard to decipher a pattern related to religion. It seems more logical to attribute these actions to a belief that there are no moral boundaries when it comes to the promotion or protection of American interests as defined by its ruling elite. In most cases the definition of these interests is driven by the need to control vital natural resources distributed throughout the world.
Given the evidence cited above, it would not help much to attribute the problem to an evil Christian American empire. Even if by some miracle the evil empire is subdued, chances are another evil empire would rise to takes its place just as British colonialism was replaced by American neo-colonialism. (Let’s keep an eye on China as it begins to compete for scarce global resources.)
A more useful approach might be to consider how the power of states to promote their narrow interests at the cost of the welfare of others might be restrained. Note that the American government can no longer do within its own borders the kinds of things it does outside those borders. American public sentiment today would not tolerate an attempt at regime-change in Alaska or a coup in California or the appropriation of natural resources in Texas. At one time it could – as when it appropriated the lands of Native Americans or subjugated Blacks in the South – but public sentiment does not deem such actions allowable any more.
By contrast, South Asian governments face few restrictions on the abuse of state power within their own territories – the treatment of Balochistan is a particularly egregious example. When a population does not protest against the abuse of power within its own country, its protestations against the same practice by another country lose all moral strength and are reduced to the machinations of power politics.
This points to a two-step process. First, civil society in developing countries has to take a principled stand and energize public sentiment against the abuse of state power within their own borders. Second, the campaign then needs to be taken to the global level. This is not a hopelessly idealistic dream as the international reaction to the recent coup in Honduras demonstrates. At the very least, it has forestalled the kind of external intervention by the US that was very common in the recent past. It is possible to build coalitions towards such responses that take effective stands against abuses of power.
The world is still at a stage where the politics of countries is national while their economic interests are global. The majority of American voters, for example, do not hold their representatives to the same standard of behavior outside US borders as they do inside them. Global public sentiment needs to come together to empower global institutions to curb the abuse of power by countries outside their borders.
This brings us back to the devious ways in which ideology and religion get intertwined into these naked abuses of state power. How does the American government get away with such interventions without bringing on itself the censure of its citizens? Essentially by lying to them and by scaring them into believing that their way of life is threatened by evil forces. In earlier times it was the Red scare; now the Green scare has come in very handy.
In this, the American government takes advantage of the fact crucial information is disseminated by non-transparent intelligence sources that are not accessible to the public. Thus blatant misinformation about the number of nuclear warheads possessed by the USSR of old or weapons of mass destruction possessed by Iraq can be disseminated. Complete untruths about the links of the Iraqi government with Al-Qaeda can be spread by controlled feeds to media outlets.
Sustained hysteria about the Red menace or Muslim fundamentalists prepares the voters to accept these lies and support abuses of power that are sold as actions necessary to protect them. But note again that this a given in the politics of our times – Pakistani governments have created exactly the same kind of hysteria about Islam being in danger and has repeatedly lied to its population to rationalize covert interventions inside and outside its borders.
The bottom line is that there is no difference between East and West or Muslim and Christian when it comes to the abuse of state power. By falling into the trap of interpreting it along these lines, we reinforce the paranoia of Western citizens that Islam is truly a threat to their way of life. This is precisely the impression that the powerful governments of today wish to perpetuate.
What the world is really enmeshed in is a struggle between the global haves and the global have-nots to maintain a very lopsided distribution of the world’s resources as long as possible. Making it appear as a clash of the West against Islam successfully divides the have-nots and prevents a united global sentiment from coalescing against the abuses of power.
However, we cannot fight the global fight until we have fought the local one. The struggle between the global haves and the have-nots is replicated locally within the boundaries of virtually all developing countries – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or non-religious. Our struggle must begin at home.
When Pakistanis failed to stand up for East Pakistan they abdicated this struggle. If Pakistanis do not stand up for Balochistan, it means they have still not understood what abuse of state power is about. They continue to be fooled by the rhetoric about the enemies of the nation and of Islam just as Americans continue to be fooled by the rhetoric of the evil axis threatening their lives. It might be comforting to vent passion against the evil ‘Other’ but a little bit of reflection would reveal that one is being strung along on a string whose end is in the hands of those with very narrow interests at heart.
Imran Khan, we need you on our side.