Religious Nuts and the Nuts and Bolts of American Imperialism

May 19, 2009

There’s a certain amount of controversy swirling today regarding the activities of one Major General Glen Shaffer, who served in the Bush administration as a Director of Intelligence to both the president and the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

According to the magazine GQ, Shaffer was wont to include extensive biblical quotations into his briefings for his bosses, quotes like “Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, The nation that keeps the faith” (from the Book of Isaiah, as Stars and Stripes reports).

Another briefing carried the quote “Their arrows are sharp, all their bows are strung; their horses’ hoofs seem like flint, their chariot wheels are like a whirlwind” underneath a picture of U.S. soldiers praying beside their tanks in Iraq.

One also carried a picture of Saddam Hussein, asserting that “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.”

The “gentleman’s” magazine has  also reported that “When some Pentagon employees expressed concern about the repercussions should the covers be leaked in the midst of a war in a Muslim nation, Shaffer was unmoved,” saying that he “would continue to use the quotations because “[his] seniors” appreciated them.”

This is no doubt true. The administration promoted many men within the military hierarchy owing to their religious fervour. General William Boykin, for example, rose to become Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, despite displaying a distinct lack of it.

Boykin was caught on camera telling church congregations that he “knew that my god was bigger than his” (referring to a confrontation with a Somali warlord in the 1990s) and that “the enemy is a guy called Satan” who has sent his minions to fight America “because we’re a Christian nation.”

The administration, whose upper echelons were by no means staffed by Christian fanatics, was happy to use such figures in their efforts to roll back prohibitions on torture. Boykin, for instance, briefed his boss Stephen Cambone on torture techniques to be used against detainees in the War on/of Terror.

As Jeffrey St Clair reported in 2006, “these included humiliation, sleep deprivation, restraint, water torture, religious taunting, light deprivation, and other techniques of torture” and led to another General being sent on a mission to Iraq to put them into practice.

“According to Lt. General Antonio Taguba, who investigated the abuses at Abu Ghraib, [General] Miller then instructed the Military Police to become “actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of internees.” Under Cambone, Miller and Boykin, detention facilities in occupied Iraq passed under the control of military intelligence, with horrendous results.

Men like Boykin had the fervour, and hence the single-mindedness, to break through established barriers of behaviour and ethical thought – providing their bosses with cover to pursue what would have been controversial courses of action.

So it’s no surprise to see that such men fed intensely religious – crusading – material to their superiors, who would have been delighted to see their tools behaving in such a fanatical and, yes, insane fashion.

That’s not to say that the Bush administration simply used christian fanatics, although that is certainly the case. The manipulation of the christian right is a staple of GOP domestic politics, or at least it was until the party imploded during the 2008 election season. When Bush portrayed the War on/of Terror as a “crusade,” he was surely playing to one of his bases, trying to generate a wave of support for his militarism within the heartland, and to whip up hatred against muslims in the process.

Yet there is also a deep current within American history which weaves christianity tightly into the nation’s foreign policy and domestic politics. U.S. hegemony over Latin America (and elsewhere) in the nineteenth century was justified via an appeal to “manifest destiny” – a destiny that was in its publicly expressed sense, often tied to the whim of the creator.

That “destiny,” which was a central trope of American politics, and many would argue still is, is thought to have originated in the writings of John L. Sullivan, a journalist. Sullivan wrote of the proposed annexation of Texas that it “is our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

Sullivan’s notion of manifest destiny was from the start inextricable from the spread of America’s political institutions and its free market economy. As he later wrote, “the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

This expansionist doctrine held the possibility of endless war, if extended across the globe (and why not? Why stop at the American continent?). Or at least, it held the possibility of justifying an endless war that was really pursued in the interests of commerce – property rights, market access, pliable local governments and secure elites.

This is a point made by Richard Seymour in his book “the Liberal Defense of Murder.” Seymour writes (drawing on the work of Ellen Meiskins Wood) that “The American Empire is not a colonial one, instead seeking to sustain relations of domination through market transactions, guaranteed by an orderly global system of disciplined nation states. It therefore seeks an ideology that legitimizes constant, open-ended interventions, requiring an unprecedented level of intervention and military build-up.”

Yet this disclipine and domination is also complemented by the ever-present dominion of god – but we should not be too surprised at this. After all, liberal capitalism – underpinned by an intractable belief in the merits of the free market – is little more than a secularisation of protestant theology.

The invisible hand regurgitated the hand of Providence. Wheras protestant theologians would have seen, and have seen, human behavior as expressing the divine will of God, neo-classical economists have tended to see it as expressing the power of self-organized “free” markets.

In both senses there is an irrational depositing of “faith” in a supernatural power to produce order. But in both cases there is also – and this is more important – an extremely powerful means of justifying inequality and the use of force. The neoclassical vision of heaven-on-earth and the protestant vision of heave beyond it are barely separable. After all, the institutions which buttressed the rise of capitalism in England in the seventeenth century (such as the Bank of England) were engineered by fervent protestants not to produce heaven on earth, but to produce the conditions under which they could gain access to heaven beyond.

The free market was in part a product of men deciding to produce a society where the “elect” – the economically successful – could retain and augment their wealth. In theory, this would be self-organized. Protestants, guided by their inner light, would behave virtuously and harmoniously (with each other, if not others).

As Alastair Crooke writes in his recent work on political Islam, “Resistance”  “This has remained the enduring western vision of utopia, despite it failing, over and over, to reflect the reality of the tragedies to which it has given birth.” And it produced manifest destiny, neoconservatism – and William Boykin too.

So the insertion of biblical motivational slogans into Bush’s breakfast reading is not a surprise. It’s a staple of American (and “western”) politics taken to a certain degree of extremity.

But don’t believe that the Obama administration is a great departure from centuries of religiously informed free market expansionism.

Hilary Clinton, Obama’s Secretary of State, might not be your garden variety religious nut, but she peppered her recent address to the Council of the Americas with religious language – describing “a hemisphere filled with some of the most competent, incredibly successful people ever on God’s earth.”

Clinton also told delegates from countries across the continent that “We need to provide people with the tools they need to fulfill their own God-given potential and empower citizens of every background to help build and participate in more equitable and just societies.”

And she also subscribes to an ideology of progress which reflects both neo-classical economic doctrine and protestant destiny. As she said, “the United States will do its part to ensure that the benefits of economic growth and trade are broadly shared,” before introducing the “Pathways to Prosperity” scheme, which is “a strategic platform for expanding economic opportunity, promoting social justice, and generating healthy competition in order to advance real progress.”

“Healthy competition to advance real progress” – an American slogan if ever there was one, and a reiteration of the myth of individualism that has been the bedrock of Protestant-American ideology for centuries.

When chuckling at the idiosyncracies of the Major General Shaffer’s of this world, don’t forget that his ideas and beliefs are far closer to the mainstream of American politics than are ideas and beliefs that would begin to form a world of “more equitable and just societies.” The modus operandi of those in power remains commerce and profit, underpinned by a myth of individualism and freedom.

As Clinton told assembled delegates from Latin America, “We know of the threats of extremist ideologies, of pandemic disease. There’s so much that gives us pause. But this is a challenge we can meet. I have no doubt about that. I am optimistic, and I am absolutely convinced. But it won’t happen by our hoping it does. It won’t happen by our planning. It will happen because we act together.”

Amen to that.


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