Barbarians at the Gate

One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.

― J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians

Nobody quite knows how it started. The etymology is traceable to the Ancient Greeks, but it probably began earlier, with spats between combative cave-dwellers or disgruntled nomads. The Greeks, who spawned such lofty rhetors as Socrates and Plato, distinguished between “barbaros” and “polites”. The former, if not wholly pejorative, essentially meant non-Greek and more often than not “candidates for conquest and enslavement”, as one scholar of antiquity put it. The other term—polites—indicated a Greek citizen and by definition someone properly urbane. We often deploy the term barbarian in jest now, sardonically, with implied mockery of the rather embarrassing condescension of our ancient forbears. As though we dispensed with such faulty mental filters long ago. But still they endure.

Just this month we were subjected to another round of fulminations against the temporary deal between the Western powers—the vaunted P5 + 1—and Iran. According to mainstream media pundits, the Obama administration was making a dangerously naïve foray into diplomacy with an untrustworthy partner. As the tempest over the Iranian temporary deal subsided, we aimed the arrows of our antipathy at Afghanistan, as Hamid Karzai toyed with rejecting the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreed to by a loya jirga.

From the New York Times to Charlie Rose, the jets of propaganda were opened full bore in the service of patriotic fearmongering. The American public was slimed in the amniotic afterbirth of whole-born mendacity. And as much as left-wing analysts credit the American government with creating the most sophisticated propaganda apparatus of all time, the thrust of the message bears us back to that original prejudice—the haunting notion of the barbarian.

Barbarians with Bombs—From Flights of Fancy to Full-Blown Fantasy

Take the terrorists, for example. We have variously been admonished by voices across the spectrum that the terrorist mind is incomprehensible. No enlightened Westerners can fathom the gothic savagery of the bootless and bomb-strapped Arab who would drive a car into a compound or a café. It is “apocalyptic nihilism.” For years, we relied on Jack Bauer to rescue us from the deranged Arab bomb confectioner, their larval plots ever afoot in our flour-pure American cities.

Don’t scoff—the mindset of a show like 24 minutely reflects that of the American public, no less steeped in fantasy and folly. How we fear the madman and his chemistry set. At the micro-level, the lone wolf with a grudge against freedom. At the macro, the menace of a trigger-happy mullah at the helm of a nuclear state. To that latter end, not a single mainstream outlet, to my knowledge, can stand to countenance the image of a nuclear Iran. The question is never permitted as to whether a nuclear weapon would provide a much-needed check on Israel and even American action in the region. In other words, would an Iranian nuclear deterrent help stabilize the Middle East? The notion is, quite figuratively, too much to bear. Yet this country we have demonized across the decades hasn’t attacked anyone unprovoked in centuries, and has been subject to ceaseless American provocations, whether coups or clandestine assassinations or cruel sanctions that put basic foodstuffs at the far end of a Tehranian’s budget. It is simply a regional Shia hegemon perched atop lakes of crude oil—the stuff imperialist dreams are made of.

Yet while men like Republican Representative Mike Rogers, Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, rave—in dulcet tones—on Charlie Rose and other such weapons of mass distraction, buried beneath the avalanche of insincerity is a report that claims to reveal that Israel has 80 nuclear warheads with the capacity to “sprint” to hundreds more. This is lost on dignified and decorous men like Rogers and Rose, who gravely debate Iran’s (factitious) capacity to weaponize uranium for even one bomb. The absurdity of this circumstance, castigating Iran’s potential future capacity while ignoring the stockpile of the region’s most hostile presence, belies the deeply insincere or xenophobic impetus of Western policies—and the ignorance and indifference of the public that support them.

As a quick aside, it would be remiss not to mention the piece de resistance of modern barbarian myths—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a common trope reiterated by pro-Israeli media that Israel simply doesn’t have a partner to negotiate with in the pursuit of peace (such is the Palestinian’s moral bankruptcy and incapacity to organize). On the RT Network’s “Worlds Apart” program, anchor Oksana Boyko repeatedly pressed a Palestinian activist to admit that Hamas bore significant responsibility for the breakdown of peace negotiations. The stupefied activist might have hastily tabulated the actual death toll on each side since 2000, on the order of a six-to-one disparity. Also note Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark on Saturday that Palestinian citizens of Israel represented a “demographic time bomb” to the integrity of the Jewish state.

Now, you might argue the root of American policy is self-interest—control or possession of fossil fuels—and that a prejudicial ideology has been crafted to cloak and justify naked aggression. Or, you might posit an authentic xenophobic prejudice—hatred of the strange—as the core of policy. Either is plausible, but neither is possible without invoking the barbarian myth.

We Don’t Do Body Counts—Or Check IDs

Hamid Karzai is regularly savaged in the media as an insufficiently obsequious puppet, daring to speak up for the nameless dead in the Afghani killing fields, where drones circulate with impunity. Recently an interesting article appeared in the Los Angeles Times, penned by Sarah Chayes, former advisor to member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. Chayes wrote that, “…U.S. decision-makers should have expected such antics.” Her description has to do with the unnecessary step of convening a loya jirga to provide a non-binding approval of the security agreement, rather than going to the National Assembly for binding ratification, as the constitution calls for. There is certainly some credence to this critique. Yet no column width is given to assessing Karzai’s stated reasons for refusing to sign the agreement, which pivot on an errant war on terror, seeding corruption through bribes, and adopting a “colonial” attitude toward Afghanis. Defending your own is thus little more than “antics” in America’s geopolitical worldview. Chayes then reproves U.S. leadership for being unwilling to flex its considerable muscle to mute Karzai’s counterproductive “stunts”. Such stunts, Chayes relates, are harmful to the Afghanis we are trying to help. The trope is obvious: we are on a noble mission to help those who can’t help themselves. (Interestingly, in this country, the government reverses the rhetoric, claiming that every American can help himself, which is why they need no government assistance.)

While you might question Karzai’s motives for his refusal to sign the accord—he is likely as self-interested a politician as any other—one can hardly dismiss the additional demands he has appended to the security agreement: the ending of house raids, the release of Afghanis illegally held in Guantanamo, and help jump-starting peace talks with Afghani Taliban. He has also been a vocal critic of civilian casualties of U.S. operations. Instead of vowing to address these grievances and demands, national security advisor Susan Rice told Karzai that the U.S. would have “no choice” but to execute a complete withdrawal of troops at the end of 2014. Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Rice’s myopic response by suggesting that perhaps the Afghani defense secretary might sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) instead.

Jacob Hornberger recently noted that the names of innocents slaughtered by drone attacks in Afghanistan are rarely mentioned in the Western press, even as the numbers mount. Despite high costs, low popular support, and having to field plenty of bitter obloquies from Afghani leadership, the U.S. is pushing Afghanistan for a deal to extend its presence across nine military bases in the country, keeping thousands of troops in-country, and—crucially—insisting upon both total legal immunity for its forces and for the obviously unrelated right to enter Afghani households at will. This is terrific arrogance, especially as it comes amid a barrage of criticism for its slaughter of innocents in the pursuit of so-called terrorists—whose guilt has not been proven, whose arrests might be made through simple police work, and whose worth as terror suspects have never been weighted against the worth of the lives claimed in their assassination.

In death by drone, Afghanis lose their identity, blown to bits in a savage strike from the sky. But not just Afghanis. Pakistanis, Yemenis, and others in countries that sit close to coveted hydrocarbon fields. It is a kind of sad inversion of a spontaneous ritual in the film Fight Club. When a member of “Project Mayhem” died, he received a name. While living, he had no name. The death was thus sanctified as a worthy martyrdom. In the Middle East, the sacrifices are worthless, and the names buried in the memories of families, themselves under relentless predatory threat from above. And as if adding an irony of cliché to their work, drones function best in tribal regions where, as President Obama says, terrorists “hide in caves” and “train in empty deserts.” Quite the fitting coda to this recent chapter in American perfidy, where the cliché of American nobility and the inadequacies of foreigners so nicely aligns with the polite/barbarian dichotomy.

Overtures of Peace, Promises of Peril

Although the U.S. military issues an occasional apology for civilian deaths, the victims vanish in nameless obscurity as the policies that precipitated their demise are amplified. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently stood on the deck of the USS Ponce, just 120 miles off the coast of Iran. There, on the sun-blown deck of this amphibious transport dock full of aerial and underwater drones, Hagel was perhaps feeling jaunty and confident, poised at the helm of the most powerful military known to man. He was quick to remind the admiring crew of soldiers that although America had risked diplomacy with Iran, it would not alter its “force posture” in the region. The primitive image of the posturing warrior is ever at the ready, is it not? This was, of course, a message for Tehran, a reminder of the naval menace floating just beyond its nation’s shores. Although Iran hasn’t started a war in centuries, Hegel’s tone, and that of official stenographers CBS News, was frightful. (Remember that, when engaged in negotiation, Iran is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” according to Israel.)

Hegel assured the assembled patriots that he “understand very clearly the dangers that Iran represents and has represented.” Shivers down the collective starboard spine. Hegel usefully forgets to name any of the dangers Iran represents, particularly since it has been under perpetual assault from either the British Empire, the American empire, or occasionally its neighbors for the last century. Iran’s future hardly looks brighter. In the last seven years, America has sold more than $80 billion in weapons to allies in the region. Not least among the intended targets of those guns is Iran. Rest assured, the Defense Secretary continued, “this is not an exercise based on folly.” CBS News added to the collective hysteria by noting that the “military standoff continues alongside diplomacy.” How exactly Iran is engaged in a military standoff is left unexplained.

In any case, the intended impression might be summarized as such: The people of the Middle East are clearly not to be trusted, their complaints are needless jeremiads to be ignored, and their warmongering natures require ceaseless vigilance from our military—a task within our never-ending noble mission to “make the world safe for democracy.”

A Literature of Devaluation

At home, our postures of aggression are rarely recognized. Indeed, we take great care to craft artificial distinctions between our behavior and that of our enemies. If we suffer ceaseless political infighting, it is “partisan politics,” always ready for some sensible patriot to “reach across the aisle” in good faith. If Syrians suffer the same, it is “sectarian strife,” vulnerable to ineradicable blood enmities. Were the CIA an element of the Colombian or Lebanese government, American media wouldn’t hesitate to label it a “paramilitary group.” But as an American organization, it is simply a benign intelligence agency.

This use of vocabulary as an alembic that purifies our own actions, and as a virus that infects the behavior of the other, is not new. The sordid history of demonizing enemies is instructive in understanding our present propaganda. The religious notion of the sect and the related ethnic construct of the tribe are frequent historical allusions. Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart, once wrote that he no longer referred to his Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria not as a “tribe,” but as a “nation.” Achebe defended his choice by consulting his Pocket Oxford Dictionary, where he found that “tribes” are “(esp. primitive) families or communities linked by social, religious or blood ties and usually having a common culture and dialect and a recognized leader.” Achebe denied that the Igbo were primitive, linked by blood, tied to a single dialect, or organized under a common leader. Rather, he noted, they were closer to the dictionary definition of a nation: “a community of people of mainly common descent, history or language, etc., forming a state or inhabiting a territory.”

Isn’t there a kind of implied condescension in the language of Western media or leadership when it refers to tribal conflict? When it denies the political legitimacy of Hamas or Hezbollah? When we, in the unforgettable phrasing of assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, remind ourselves that the peoples of the East haven’t been through, “the Laundromat of the Enlightenment.” Achebe referred to what Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow called, “a literature of devaluation” in their aptly named book, The Africa That Never Was. The authors studied British writing over a 400-year period covering the slave trade, exploration, and colonization in the African continent, documenting the invention of a barbarian other to mollify the creeping conscience of slavers and invaders and colonizers. What would a comparable study from 1776 to the present look like?

In his controversial work Orientalism, Edward Said forcefully argues that the Middle East has for hundreds of years been characterized in a way that allows it to fit neatly into the existing cosmology, as it were, of the West. One of the first major studies of Mohammed, in 17th century Britain, was called The True Nature of Imposture, by Humphrey Prideaux. The founder of Islam was defined against our truth—that Jesus was the Son of God—and fitted nicely into Western mental landscape. Said refers to a piece of state propaganda that typifies the technique: In the Seventies, a former member of the U.S. State Department, Harold Glidden, penned an essay in in the American Journal of Psychiatry called, “The Arab World.” Glidden contrasted our peace-loving values (“Westerners consider peace to be high on the scale of values”) with the warmongering cultures of the East. “In Arab tribal society, strife, not peace, was the normal state of affairs because raiding was one of the two main supports of the economy.” The position of the P5 +1 Western powers, notably the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany, might be said to carry the same bias into its fatuous negotiations with Iran and Afghanistan: Iran is a volatile commodity in need of policing, and the West is there to do the job; Afghanistan needs the presence of an occupying power lest its society, left to its own devices, descend into chaos.

Said wrote that the “author imposes a disciplinary order upon the material he has worked,” in order to accommodate it to Western ideology. This is very nearly exactly what CBS News accomplished in its article on Hegel’s Persian Gulf speech: a raft of assumptions—that Iran is a grave threat “not to just the region, but the world,” and that it is actively seeking a bomb, etc.—are used as guardrails to discipline the discussion. Any notions that venture beyond these bounds are elided from print.

But if the historical record of aggression is of any importance, then we have to face a much different conclusion. If anyone is behaving barbarically, or threatening to, it isn’t the Afghanis or the Iranians or the Venezuelans. It is us, and we stand at their gates, not they at ours. Hagel rattled the saber in the Persian Gulf, the homeland of Arab petro wealth. There are no Iranian subs or transport ships floating in Long Island Sound. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan isn’t perched on the deck of a frigate fulminating about “force posture.” We have projected onto others the very image of ourselves we fear to see. It’s time for America to gaze at its own reflection, and quit painting pictures of some ghastly ‘other’ drawn from the fevers of a dream or, perhaps more accurately, the heat of material greed.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, political commentator, and veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He is the recent author of Imperial Fictions, a collection of essays from between 2015-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at Read other articles by Jason.