Manufacturing Fear: America’s Growth Industry

ISIS is a real threat; I do not suggest otherwise. Its baseness is irreducible, no mitigating factors. Yet, America has been instrumental in its formation, whether as contextual incubator through an international posture of global imperialism or COMPLICIT through the selfsame geopolitical framework in which the US, from its long-standing commitment to “anticommunism” as the generic alarm on behalf of shaping domestic mechanisms of social control and policies of counterrevolution abroad, has aligned itself in a self-constructed power struggle against Russia and China, with similarly reactionary forces, notably, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in order to check the historical process. Terrorism is an enabling factor in the maintenance and perpetuation of American hegemony. To seek its eradication on the world scene is counterintuitive to the US’s mid-life (I’m being charitable) crisis in which it finds itself a declining superpower, less because of an absence of will than because, no longer within its power to control or arrest, the world structure is itself changing and becoming decentralized (no longer susceptible to US unilateral declarations of ORDER) as rival power centers come into being. The US is an anachronism, as the vanguard of retardation of political-economic modernization in the Third World, believing still that military force and negotiated alliances sugared with a lavish dispersal of arms, funds, and bases to all takers will ensure continued ascendancy in the years to come.

To be a vanguard, however, supposes followers—euphemistically, friends and allies, partners—which are precisely beginning to drop away. Obama’s great hope in Asia is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, militarily, to contain and isolate China, commercially, to provide absolute political- legal security to American-sponsored multinationals in their quest for markets and cheap labor, protection for patents and intellectual property, etc., which nevertheless is now about to face stiff competition from China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank: a sure sign of what is to come as the changing paradigm of global economic development. Like Britain and France at the close of World War II, America is witnessing the decline of Empire, and all the president’s horses and all the president’s men cannot put humpty dumpty together again. The analogy is valid, the Open Door (i.e., the Imperialism of Free Trade, as Gallagher and Robinson phrased it) the American equivalent of European colonialism, without the expenses of administration, and both manifestations of political-economic dominance no longer structurally tenable. The US is running scared, more military input wherever possible, as in continued intervention and regime change efforts, more intensified doses of thought control, as in the shrinking boundaries of the political process and general intellectual discourse, more reliance on external explanations to hide internal shortcomings—voila, terrorism, not to be met (although now it may be too late, possibly from the invasion of Iraq, or still earlier, US support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, against the Soviets) with a fundamental reversal of course, away from intervention and regime change, or, the very least, combined de-demonization of the Muslim/Arab world and specific ground policies of total engagement against ISIS no matter who else’s ox is gored, i.e., Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and assorted “moderate forces” of opposition to Assad. Indeed, Assad is the present poster boy designated for annihilation, a convenient scapegoat for sweeping under the rug all manner of hidden agendas, such as the role of OIL in the world economy, which are part and parcel of the larger geopolitical/geostrategic conflict to (a) preserve American power, and (b) militarize still further America’s confrontation with China and Russia.

Taking the measure of Obama (and, as in Hollywood extravaganzas, a cast of hundreds if not thousands, drawn from the military, think tanks, financial and business groups, opinion makers in the MSM, and the cacophonous voices of proto-fascism of the so-called political class, for he is not alone in making decisions, and is rather a sounding board for ruling groups which make up the American power structure) as in his Oval Office apologia for maintaining the current counterterrorism schema, one finds suspicious activities in dealing with, or not dealing with, ISIS, as e.g., the failure of the US to bomb oil tankers until now (and under Russian pressure), laden with oil from ISIS-controlled refineries and critical to financing its advances, the demand for closing the Turkish border to Syria until now (ditto Russian pressure) which was an open sesame for jihadists, and the entire role of the Saudis, as part of the wider Sunni offensive both to overthrow Assad’s secular government and neutralize Iran’s influence in the Middle East. This scratches the surface of US involvement in the region (as numerous writers have observed, ISIS appears to have shown no interest in Israel, perhaps part of the quid pro quo until now—Russia’s entrance into the regional conflict aimed specifically at terrorism being seminal to the changing picture—and its heretofore tepid response to ISIS. But Obama cannot have it both ways, conjuring a threat and, by all reports, inducing fear if not paralysis among Americans, at the same time that he skirts around the margins of conflict (air power alone hardly the magic bullet).

I have never been one for conspiracy theory, and, hopefully denying its presence here, I would suggest that the contrived atmosphere of FEAR that has taken hold in America, contrived, in that the stock-in-trade of political life from Washington to the Iowa hamlets, speaks to ulterior motives wholly beyond the measures needed to curb terrorism as a definable force. Of course, from day one the decision was made to by-pass the UN in favor of a US-led organized alliance system which mirrored the realpolitik of American aims on the world scene, utilizing terrorist groups—and its own Special Ops-CIA mode of terrorism to topple what were designated as the adversary from Vietnam to Africa to Latin America—for regime change and/or keeping in power local dictators, all outside the UN framework which the US, like Israel, viewed as poisonous and flaunted at every turn. Yes, my broad-stroke analysis is circumstantial; it would be horrendous to think the US was complicit in the rise and activities of ISIS. We have seen the genesis of the Contras, death squads, armed insurrections, the daily business of the American government in times past; we have seen from McCarthyism through the Patriot Act a hostile environment to progressive ideas and dissent; we have seen a government more invisible in its workings than ever, itself stirring up fears of unrestrained power and having the desired ambiguous effect of seeking its protection (displayed through ardent patriotism) and feeling intimidated by and in its presence. In light of the foregoing, is it completely wrong to be suspicious that the US has been using ISIS to its own advantage, from a military and capitalistic position, until this moment when ISIS appears like the genii escaping from the bottle, its usefulness at an end, thus forcing America—in part because of Russian intervention—to take a stand opposing it? The world at large, outside of the US-EU-NATO orbit, is becoming increasingly less gullible about the nature of counterterrorism as an end in itself, instead looking warily at the American footprint in the stabilization of a global architecture keeping alive US power and influence.

I turn briefly to Gardiner Harris and Michael Shear’s New York Times article, “Obama Says of Terrorist Threat: ‘We Will Overcome It,’” (Dec.7), for the immediate background, his address to the nation on terrorism. In the aftermath of San Bernardino, he stated of the couple staging the attack: “’It is clear that the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalization. So this was an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people.’” The speech was relatively mild in tone: “’We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.’” Yet Harris and Shear point out that the use of the Oval Office (only for the third time in his presidency) was “a setting meant to highlight the gravity of a subject,” which led to the announcement of screening airline passengers coming to the US without visas, a ban on the purchase of guns by those on the no-fly-list, and unspecified limits on automatic weapons, once again, reasonableness, nevertheless contradicted by continued intervention to unseat Assad, freeze Russia from a prominent role in reaching a settlement, and holding fast to a world view which, rather than halting the efforts of ISIS’s enablers, persists along the main lines of US foreign policy with respect to Russia and China—ISIS at best a distraction from renewing the spirit of a new Cold War.

Actually the reporters’ account fails to capture the proportions of the threat as expressed in the speech, as, consulting the text, we find Obama placing terrorism front and center via his single-minded obsession to keep America safe: “For seven years, I’ve confronted this evolving threat each morning in my intelligence briefing. And since the day I took this office, I’ve authorized U.S. forces to take out terrorists abroad precisely because I know how real the danger is. As commander in chief, I have no greater responsibility than the security of the American people.” Then the personal touch (cruel of me to say, hearts and flowers, playing to his audience?): “As a father of two young daughters who are the most precious part of my life, I know that we see ourselves with friends and co-workers at a holiday party like the one in San Bernardino. I know we see our kids in the faces of the young people killed in Paris. And I know that after so much war [brought on by himself and his predecessor], many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure.” A superb draft drawn up by a committee of the whole, the speech has all the earmarks of issuing a warning of imminent danger backed up by a show of humility and family—to which I remain unmoved, as I consider the “collateral damage” of his program of drone assassination, the young daughters of others murdered in the process.

“No immediate cure”? Here Obama in Churchillian mode, more daily prominent, as in his self-reference above to being commander in chief—a tinny rhetoric where the White Cliffs of Dover give way to the shores of Chesapeake Bay (and all points north and south), “Well, here’s what I want you to know: The threat of terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That’s what groups like ISIL are hoping for. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.” This last, if one listens closely, is most chilling. Not more so than his peroration however, which pulls out all the stops of patriotic cant: “My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history. We were founded upon a belief in human dignity—that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law.”

My New York Times Comment on the Harris-Shear article, same date, follows:

Obama appears statesmanlike when compared with the Republican opposition, salivating to press forward with total war; yet his own remarks are fraudulent and contrived, invoking the spirit of Dr. King’s “We Shall Overcome” and praising America as exceptionalist and possessing unsullied democratic values. In truth he deep-down reflects the same contempt for democracy as his Republican opposition. Would ISIS have had the same recruiting success, indeed genesis, absent the US record of war, intervention, covert action, regime change, drone, assassination, embargoes, etc. etc, a long shadow of disgraceful imperialism and global military hegemony?

In a profound sense, America created ISIS by its pattern of military-financial-commercial globalization, playing up to, if not creating, dictatorial regimes to smoothe the way to market penetration and related activities. As for the US’s previous record on attacking ISIS, Obama’s critics have a point that America has been slow and desultory, but they don’t ask WHY. Perhaps Obama and the US found (until the situation, as now, got out of hand) ISIS was useful to have around, justifying the full dimensions of counterterrorism policy, e.g., massive surveillance within the country itself, and of course legitimating ever-expanding military budgets at the expense of both infrastructure and the social safety net.

America is declining not because of terrorism but its moral collapse in furthering the agenda of an advanced stage of capitalism.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at