The Brutality of the Blame Game

By Carlos Martinez
August, 2011

Washington's Wars and Occupations:
Month in Review #76 (Español)

By Carlos Martinez

Scapegoats and monsters come in handy for the right wing and the powers-that-be. Real or imagined, they are very convenient for passing blame and justifying their own brutality, while diverting public attention from root causes and real threats.

The language and idioms of U.S. culture provide plenty of tools for passing blame and turning "the other" into an imaginary or exaggerated monster. The right-wing especially has become master of the art, targeting everyone from public school teachers and climate scientists to immigrants and Muslims.

So when London explodes in the face of massive austerity and police brutality, the problem is supposedly "black culture." When Palestinians promise to take their case to the United Nations, the evil-doers are the occupied and not the occupier. And when a Libyan dictator cracks down on Libyans opposing his regime, a ruler Washington was happy to arm just a short while ago becomes the latest devil incarnate and a great excuse for trying to bring back the discredited "Washington as hero" narrative throughout the Arab world. 

Yet we have also witnessed push back from progressive forces to elitist scapegoating and blame-shifting. Antiwar activists are exposing the anything-but-humanitarian motivations for NATO's war in Libya. The immigrant rights movement has mobilized a new round of resistance to the Obama administration’s so-called Secure Communities program, while across Latin America and beyond there is growing resistance to the militarism of the U.S. drug war.


On August 22, anti-Gaddafi forces entered Tripoli, Libya’s capital. It was over five months after passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.  That resolution’s stated intention was the protection of civilians, using a variety of military and non-military interventions, in particular a no-fly zone. But NATO quickly piloted a fleet of offensive weaponry through the resolution's “all necessary measures” wording and dismissed all calls for diplomacy, cease-fires and negotiations between the regime and the Libyan rebels. NATO leaders made it clear their actual goal was removing Gaddafi from power. 

In short, NATO decided to gamble the lives of ordinary Libyans to pursue its own agenda, inevitably leading to many civilian deaths and eventually forcing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to remark that he was “deeply concerned by reports of the unacceptably large number of civilian casualties.”

With the Gaddafi regime now all but collapsed, the Libyan rebels are moving to take control of the country through their Transitional National Council (TNC). But with diehard Gaddafi supporters still fighting, with divisions in the rebel ranks, and NATO clearly expecting to be rewarded for its "services,” the future of Libya is not at all clear.

To be sure, there is rejoicing in much of Libya and the Arab world at the overthrow of another despot. One consequence of Gaddafi’s removal from power may be a dose of new inspiration for the struggling democratic revolts throughout region. But the particular way Gaddafi was overthrown is also causing concern and anxiety. For one thing, the costs in lives and suffering is still to be reckoned from a rebellion that - in contrast to Egypt and Tunisia - became militarized very quickly and saw the rebels (or at least its TNC leadership) allied with Western military force. And whether it will be Libyans or the West who dominate, whatever arrangement comes next is not yet decided.   


And then there is the way Libya played out in Washington. In a performance worthy of Orwellian doublespeak, the Obama administration went to war without seeking congressional approval and simply stated that military intervention in Libya did not consist of "hostilities" because the lives of U.S. troops were not threatened. According to the “U.S. Activities in Libya” report from the White House, “U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof, or any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors.” So now fighting only counts as war when U.S. lives are at risk, no matter how many non-U.S. soldiers or civilians are killed by U.S. firepower? 

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Thanks to These Times We Live In for this image.

A dangerous precedent has been set for Washington's already "imperial presidency," which has long had too many unaccountable ways to start killing people. Especially in an era when modern military technology (from predator drones to special ops) can be used to attack foreign countries with minimal risk to the hi-tech attackers, this is one more step toward the institutionalization of permanent war.   

And whatever freedom and democracy rhetoric is used, the reasons Washington goes to war have to do with geopolitical interests.  In the Libyan intervention, the U.S. was above all seeking a different image than the one caused by its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its blank-check support of Israeli colonialism.  

After all, the US and Europe had no problem dealing with Gaddafi before the current uprisings.  Gaddafi was until recently praised for being a reformed enemy who came in from the proverbial cold to exchange his weapons of mass destruction for friendly ties with the West. The Obama administration felt comfortable enough with Gaddafi’s rule that it approved $15 million in weapons sales to the Libyan government in 2009.  Furthermore, according to a new batch of classified U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks on August 24, the U.S. sought to bring Libya into a stronger relationship with AFRICOM, Washington's Africa military command.   

But European and U.S. leaders saw a chance to gain privileged access to a new regime on the cheap when the Arab Spring arrived in Libya and it seemed like most Libyans were ready to emulate their brothers and sisters in Egypt and Tunisia and throw off dictatorial rule, if only Gaddafi's military could be "neutralized.” By returning Gaddafi to his 1970s/80s status as an evil radical, the West could present itself again as a champion of freedom in the world, while fortifying and justifying its military presence in Africa and the Middle East.


Washington's "we're the good guys, we're for democracy" image-making is likely to find more takers at home than in the Arab and Muslim world however. A U.S. public fed a steady diet of Islamophobic lies and distortions may be fooled, but most people in the region will not. They after all see that Washington's all-out backing for longstanding regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia is unchanged - and that both of these country's government's are bitter opponents of the democratic uprising that have come to be known as the Arab Spring.

Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Saudis have seen themselves as leaders, with U.S. support, of a united Sunni coalition against the alleged threat of Shiite Iran.  Meanwhile, Israel has long managed to build important (if often under-the-table) ties with autocratic Sunni regimes on the basis of hostility to Iran (and agreement that these regimes's support for Palestine would stay rhetorical only.)

But now Egyptian dictator Mubarak has been overthrown and whatever new government emerges in Egypt seems unlikely to stick as closely to that favored Saudi-Israel-U.S. arrangement. The democracy genii are out of the bottle elsewhere as well, and those with the biggest investment in autocratic rule are stepping up both their scapegoating/fear-mongering and their use of military force.

So when protests break out in Shia-majority Bahrain against the rule of the Saudi-backed royal Al Khalifa family, Saudi Arabia sent in troops and used violence and torture. And though Sunnis as well as Shia participated in the protests, the Saudis portrayed it all as a sectarian crusade sparked by Iranian meddling. And despite meager pronouncements from a White House spokesperson following the Saudi invasion, calling for “calm and restraint on all sides”, Washington stood by its Saudi allies. The double-standard when compared to Washington's stance toward repressive measures by the Syrian regime - or Gaddafi for that matter - may not register strongly yet with the U.S. public, but it certainly registers across the Middle East.


In the Israel-Palestine conflict, Washington's backward, double-standard role is even more apparent. The last few months have seen a spate of racist and repressive laws passed or in the pipeline in the Israeli parliament on top of continued settlement building on Palestinian land.  Top Israeli officials make it crystal clear that they regard the region's democratic upsurge as dangerous and negative, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying outright that the Arab Spring will inevitably end in an “Iranian Winter.”

But Washington still gives Israel every dollar of aid it wants and throws its weight behind Tel Aviv's positions at the U.N.

The situation on the ground, meanwhile, is extremely volatile, and Israel is not having everything its own way.

One top official after another has expressed fears of what may come of huge non-violent Palestinian demonstrations accompanying the Palestinian push for U.N. Statehood recognition next month. They fear that global public opinion - and even public opinion in their bastion of support, the U.S. - may shift further away from Israel than it already has. In that battle for hearts and minds, Israel's overwhelming military superiority does not do them much good.

So the Israeli establishment is much happier when faced with small-group violent resistance, which can more easily be portrayed as terrorism. But even when such things do happen, Israel does not now have the freedom of action it once enjoyed.

Witness the aftermath of the August 18 attack outside of the southern Israeli town of Eilat, near the Israeli-Egyptian border, which killed eight Israelis and injured several others. Claiming that militants from the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) were behind the attacks, Israel immediately responded as it traditionally does, by sending warplanes to launch air strikes in Gaza killing a number of civilians. And on August 21 Israeli Forces implemented their widest military operation since 2004, raiding dozens of homes and arresting over 50 Palestinian civilians, mostly members of Hamas, including a number of academics, a journalist, and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.  

Far right voices in Israel demanded even more aggressive action. But changes in Egypt especially checked Israel's options. During their pursuit of the suspected attackers, an Israeli aircraft killed three Egyptian security officials on the Egyptian side of the border. The incursion into Egyptian territory provoked an outpouring of thousands of angered protestors in Cairo. The Egyptian government responded too; though it did not carry out an early threat to recall its ambassador, Cairo demanded an apology and made it clear to Israel that the days of Mubarak covering up Israeli killings in Arab territory were over. Israel issued a rare apology for the killing of the Egyptian security officers. And though many in the Israeli leadership were itching to launch a full-scale attack on Gaza, Ha-aretz reported that at an Israeli Cabinet meeting:

"Netanyahu and Barak offered various arguments for why Israel must exercise restraint - its international isolation, the fact that the Iron Dome rocket interception system still offers only partial defense, and the fear of worsening the diplomatic crisis with Egypt. Under these circumstances, Netanyahu said, all-out war against Hamas-run Gaza would be inadvisable."

As the U.N. prepares to take up Palestinian statehood, Israel will go all-out in its campaign to blame every problem in the region on Palestinian terrorism and Iranian interference. But the Arab Spring is changing the equation; the opinions of the Arab masses, and of all advocates of equality, self-determination and human rights worldwide, can no longer be as easily swept under the rug by autocratic regimes.


Domestic politics in the U.S. is seeing plenty of blame-gaming too. Fantasy-land fear-mongering in Washington reached a new low this month with the Republican Party’s crusade to impose austerity measures, seemingly at any cost. 

Capitalizing on fears surrounding the U.S. economic crisis, congressional Republicans launched a deceitful campaign against a purported federal government spending spree, and refused to raise the debt ceiling without drastic spending cuts.  Putting his administration into the 'impose austerity' camp, Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 into law August 2, authorizing a severe slashing of government spending on much-needed programs. The deal will cut government spending by at least $2.4 trillion over the next decade; nearly $570 billion of that will come from what's called "non-defense discretionary spending,” referring to everything from education to investments in physical infrastructure. 

The whole debate ignored or underplayed central elements of the economic crisis: the costs of U.S wars abroad; the steady drop in tax rates on corporations and the rich over the last 30 years; the fact that the stimulus did not produce enough jobs because it was too small and that shoveling money to Wall Street, banks and wealthy individuals produces no jobs at all. The continuing occupation of Iraq has already cost the U.S. $47 billion in this year alone, while the interminable war in Afghanistan has cost $122 billion, also just in this year. 


The debt deal (among other administration decisions) sparked intense criticism from labor and a host of other popular movements. But action and collective protest has not yet caught up with the level of progressive discontent. Those movements that are mobilizing, however, have won some welcome if still small victories.

The immigrant rights movement, for instance, recently gained a tentative victory in confronting the administration’s demonizing of immigrant communities in the form of the ill-named Secure Communities (S-COMM) program. S-COMM is a deportation program established by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in 2008, whereby fingerprints submitted by local law enforcement agencies to the FBI for criminal background checks are automatically searched against immigration databases.  Although it was originally announced that the program was voluntary, after a number of states declared that they would not comply with the program, the administration labeled it mandatory. 

This revelation sparked outrage amongst immigrant rights advocates, culminating in national days of action on August 15-16. Tens of thousands of petition signatures were delivered to Obama’s re-election headquarters and other Democratic Party offices demanding an end to this aggressive deportation policy.  In response, Obama administration officials then announced they will give 300,000 people currently in deportation proceedings the right to a hearing before an immigration judge. Feeling they have leverage with a besieged administration hopeful of winning Latino votes, immigrant rights groups continue pushing forward and demand that Obama abolish the S-COMM program altogether. 

The international militarization created by the U.S. "war on drugs" has also been met with upped resistance recently, both in the U.S. and abroad. On July 26, the NAACP passed a resolution calling for an end to the failed war on drugs, highlighting that the U.S. spends over $40 billion annually to lock up low-level drug offenders mostly from communities of color. Mexico’s enormous “No Mas Sangre” (“No More Blood”) movement, consisting largely of people whose lives have been devastated by Mexico’s narco-war, has continued to mobilize thousands across the country, with a major march held in Mexico City on August 18. The Washington Post reports that pressure within Mexico has pushed President Felipe Calderon, an architect of Mexico's own militaristic approach, to utter some blunt words about U.S. policies and where blame really falls:

"Calderon blamed his northern neighbor for the devastating attack, arguing that assault-style weapons and billions of dollars in drug profits empower the criminal organizations that he said were probably behind Thursday’s firebombing of the Casino Royale. 'The economic power and firepower of the criminal organizations operating in Mexico and Latin America come from this endless demand for drugs in the U.S.,’’ Calderon said."

Through mass action in Mexico, the Arab world or the U.S. communities that are typically on the receiving end of the pointing finger can collectively begin to reveal the brutality of the blame game. Together we can show that those posing a real threat in the world are often the same ones pointing their finger. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Carlos Martinez is the coordinator at the Bay Area Center for Political Education, a movement-building organization providing activists and organizers a space for developing theory and strategy, He is co-author of Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots, a collection of interviews with members of Venezuela's grassroots social movements published by PM Press in January of this year.

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