The Tempest of American Power

In Shakespeare’s late masterpiece, The Tempest, Antonio proposes murdering Alonso, the King of Naples, and seizing the throne. He remarks that he and his co-conspirator, Alonso’s son Sebastian, had been,

…cast again

(And by that destiny) to perform an act

Wherof what’s past is prologue; what’s to come,

In yours and my discharge.

(The Tempest 2.1.251-54)

That what is past is prologue is akin to saying that preceding events have set the stage or created the context for what is about to happen. The same idea aired by Antonio among his fellow conspirators in The Tempest is a surprisingly apt analogue for the imperial state, where the electoral options on offer are either imperialism or imperialism. Thus a Democratic administration is followed by a Republican administration and little changes in the deep, abiding imperial mission of the American empire. We discover that what Bush did was prologue for Obama’s presidency, and Obama’s for Trump’s. Despite the theatricality of the last year, and the disputed election of a risible carnival barker to the highest seat in the land, the march of the imperial corporate state moves ahead relatively unimpeded, building on the legacies of past leaders.

Yes, President Trump has occasionally delivered stirring glimpses of sanity during his turbulent tenure. He canceled the regime-change goal of the Syrian strategy. He canceled the CIA program to arm and train terrorists in Syria. He negotiated ceasefires with Vladimir Putin in Syria. These are positive steps and reflect the kind of anti-conflict mentality some people supported him for. And yet, he appears to have instructed or permitted the military to shift its focus to Iran and North Korea and Venezuela, and dangerously escalate the hostile overtures toward these nations. Sanctions are levied. Lindsay Graham has tabled the destruction of North Korea. John McCain has called for further arming Ukrainian fascists. Steve Mnuchin appeared waving a sheaf of sanctions aimed at “dictator” Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela. Congress is conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism with a new anti-BDS bill. Israel is removing one illegal settlement housing 40 settler-occupier families and replacing it with a 2000-unit settlement. The UN condemns it with its customary edgeless complaints. The UNSC falls silent. In other words, most everything on the foreign policy front is business as usual.

Business As Usual: Syria

Look at what is happening in Syria. An all-new Kurdistan will be carved out of northern Syria. It will be led by a puppet regime that permits American military bases, indeed some eight bases have already been established in north Syria. This has been the plan all along. It was even recommended in the Yinon Plan from 1982, a Zionist blueprint for controlling the Middle East, and which has either informed or confirmed Washington’s divide-destroy-and-rule strategy ever since. Obama sent special forces into northern Syria to ensure the Kurdish YPG and so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) would capture Raqqa before the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) did. John Kerry begged Moscow not to bomb al-Qaeda for similar reasons. The overarching objective: a not-so-Salafist principality on the edge of Syria and Iraq capable of a) weakening the secular Syrian state, b) running interference between Hezbollah and Iran, and c) launching destabilization activities and ultimately color revolutions in Iran and perhaps Russia beyond it.

The Kurds, of course, have been steadily romanticized as the perennially persecuted minority in the crucible of Middle East conflict. And now Washington has co-opted their desire for a state to insert itself into the vortex of Sunni-Shia confrontation. The YPG are supposedly the armed version of the PKK, the Kurdish organization in Turkey that is relentlessly at odds with Ankara. But the State Department considers the PKK a terrorist organization, and the YPG have been behaving like terrorists in northern Syria, to put it mildly, terrorizing Christians and seizing Arab territory to include in their blessed vision of holy Kurdistan. Not unlike the Zionist takeover of Palestine.

This was all predicated on the fine work of Barack Obama, who green lighted CIA and Pentagon plans to arm terrorists (euphemistically called ‘moderate rebels’), called for regime change in Damascus, injected special forces into the Syrian fire to guide the Islamist mercenaries, dropped tens of thousands of bombs across Syria and Iraq, and backed Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Britain, and other allies in various coordinated forms of destabilization.

Business As Usual: Venezuela

Look what’s happening in Venezuela. The economic chaos and street violence in Venezuela hasn’t been caused by President Nicolas Maduro. Washington has dumped millions of dollars into the cesspool coffers of so-called opposition groups which, frustrated at the ballot box for most of this century, and being hostile to democracy in the first place (their 2002 and 2015 coup attempts both failed), have turned to violent insurgency to topple the popular Maduro government. The opposition have burned down one government building, bombed another. They have twice bombed federal police units. They have murdered Chavistas and lit them on fire. They have done everything in their power to provoke an authoritarian response from the government–anything that will further delegitimize the government, and generate a pretext for intervention. Both Mexico and Colombia have been recruited to help undermine Caracas, adding their own deeply dysfunctional signatures to a gruesome imperial intervention. Despite this, Donald Trump’s brooding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, formerly Driller-in-Chief for Exxon, added some blathering nonsense to the fire, mumbling gravely about Maduro either leaving or “returning to the constitution.” An aide declared the OAS was a “coalition partner,” even though that organization’s charter prohibits interference of the kind the West is anxious to enact. Not to be outdone, CIA Chief Mike Pompeu contributed some seething drivel about being “hopeful there can be a transition in Venezuela” and his efforts in Mexico City and Bogota to co-opt those nations to back regime change.

Prevaricating think tanks like the Brookings Institute publish delusive arguments for using the Organization of American States to pressure Maduro out, then sweep in with a neoliberal loan package, which would doubtless contain all of the economic conditionalities desired by imperial finance, including increased foreign direct investment, heightened ownership caps for foreign capital, privatization of national assets at distressed prices with no consultation of the population. This last being a form of “accumulation by dispossession” that David Harvey calls a signal feature of neoliberal capitalism. All of the chaos, Brookings says, has been caused by Maduro and “his blind obsession for unlimited power.”

Is there support Washington’s argument that Maduro is a power-mad tyrant? It largely depends on what you think of the following actions: After the opposition took control of the National Assembly (NA) in 2015, a Maduro-leaning Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) removed three lawmakers on charges of voting irregularities, crucially preventing the opposition from assuming a supermajority. In 2016, the National Electoral Council (CNE) canceled a recall referendum against Nicolas Maduro after hundreds of thousands of signatures calling for the referendum were declared invalid by the CNE. In 2017, the TSJ later took over legislative powers from the NA (later restored) after NA refused to remove three assemblymen from Amazonas said the TSJ to have been fraudulently elected (vote-buying). Yet these representatives had been confirmed by the CNE, supposedly giving them parliamentary immunity. Maduro then called a Constituent Assembly vote by decree, rather than by referendum, as his predecessor Hugo Chavez had. The opposition boycotted the Constituent Assembly vote, ensuring those elected were mostly government supporters. The first act of the Constituent Assembly was to banish the Attorney General, who openly challenged Maduro.

In fact, whether Maduro hews to the constitution or not is little more than a sideshow for Washington. His actions must either be hysterically decried beneath the label of dictatorship, or obfuscated to justify the label of dictatorship. He’s a dictator no matter what he does. The West wants to unseat Maduro before the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly codifies social gains into the constitution. Maduro is the inheritor of a Bolivarian revolution that transformed the nation under Hugo Chavez. Doubled economic growth. Doubled the caloric intake. Dramatically lowered severe poverty. Lowered unemployment. Reduced child malnutrition. Erased illiteracy. Drove grade school and higher education enrollment and graduation. Lifted incomes. And on and on. Even the World Bank concedes it. This frightens the crusty beltway puppet-masters because they forever fear the dread domino effect, when a successful social model spreads throughout the region. Thus Maduro must go.

The hostility toward Venezuela is also predicated on Barack Obama’s absurd declaration in 2015 that Venezuela is a grave threat to America’s national security. Obama’s view was built on George W. Bush’s efforts to overthrow Hugo Chavez in the early part of the century. Both men lavishly funded the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) established by Ronald Reagan as a Trojan Horse by which to covertly interfere in other countries.

Colonization and Causes

These are essentially class wars. Elite pit their pliant minions against the masses and their fledgling representative governments. And these class wars amount to little more than colonization by other means. We’re aren’t in a post-colonial era; colonization has just changed. The U.S. learned from British imperialism and has evolved its own arsenal of lighter-footprint templates for conquering the lands, leaders, and resources of target nations. There is tremendous continuity here, a kind of accretionary dynamic. Although straightforward wars of aggression are always ‘on the table,’ Washington sees the use of debt leverage, sanctions, NGO infiltration, opposition funding and electoral interference, drone assassinations, arming, training, and guiding proxy armies, and considerable air support as its preferred tactical suite for conquest and control. This keeps the ostensible footprint small and the plausible deniability large.

Colonization continues for two central reasons: the first reason is that there is bipartisan consensus for it–because both parties represent elite wealth, not ecumenical majorities. Popular opinion is not represented in Washington. George W. Bush perverted the political capital accrued from 9/11 to destroy half the Middle East, and it was Barack Obama who ensured we remained immersed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama who got the United States into Syria as well as Libya. One country is now a swamp of terrorist factionalism, the other a fractured state about to be partitioned. Likewise, the aggressive Republican action against Venezuela has received bipartisan support all along. Democrats and Republicans share objectives. They merely differ on tactics. Republicans still prefer boots on the ground and planting American flags in foreign soil. Very dramatic, old school, film-reel kind of imperialism. Democrats prefer covert action, the kind of shifty schemes engineered by Zbigniew Brzezinski that tend to destabilize through proxies, have the advantage of plausible deniability, and yet produce both chaos and blowback. Not that chaos is an unwanted result; it could be argued that it is our preference. Each administration builds on the work of the previous administration, regardless of the insignia on its lapel. For all in power, it is empire at all costs. That’s the bipartisan consensus.

The second reason colonization continues is because corporate media obscures it. The continued colonization of the planet is enabled by the colonization of the American mind. This is the ‘war before the war’ referenced by George Creel when he explained how he helped the Wilson administration turn Americans into a frothing mass hell-bent on sundering Hun conquests. The public must be conditioned to support the imperial project. The MSM functions as a rationalizing front organization for imperialism.

To this end, Democrat and Republican are relentlessly held up as examples of the wide spectrum of popular opinion we enjoy, rather than the narrow ideology a single war party. Their differences are proclaimed. We are led to believe that not only are we daily witness to a throaty, demotic debate on the issues of the day, but that the perspectives aired reflect the opinions of the average American. But they don’t (page 570 in particular). There’s nothing mainstream about the ‘mainstream’ media. The so-called mainstream expresses a fringe viewpoint. It relentlessly repeats the marginal POV of the one percent, the corporate profiteers for whom war is a boon and a blessing. This is how all propaganda functions–an obscure perspective is popularized through the capture of media channels. Not only are the views obscure, but they are consistently extreme. Only by co-opting massive communications firepower to make the case, as it were, can the ruling class convince the masses of a viewpoint that would never gain traction on its own merits.

The ‘mainstream’ stenographers write in calm, bloodless prose, the better to assure their readers that they are levelheaded, not fantasists who back one imperial usurpation after another. Their columns are tranquilizers that normalize the extremism of both the elite worldview and the imperial behavior of its foot soldiers. Then, when the true popular voice springs into the square to denounce the lies, he or she appears to onlookers as the real extremist, merely by virtue of his anger. And this is why Orwellian constructs blossom like an unkempt jungle in the mediascape. Democracy is tyranny. Voting is oppression. Marginal is mainstream.

And past is prologue, since what we have done before merely sets the stage for what we will do. The templates established by Carter and Brzezinski are taken up by Obama and Rice. Soros-funded schemes applied in Eastern Europe migrate to the tip of South America. There may be nothing new under the sun, but what’s new is the sun under which old things are given new life. Yesterday, Afghanistan. Today, Syria. Yesterday, Poland. Today, Venezuela. The final irony is perhaps that for those in the dystopian worlds of capital exploitation that lay beyond our borders, the opposite is often true–their future will not resemble their past. For many in Syria and Venezuela and Iraq and Libya, they may find themselves repeating an epigram scribbled on a wall in the war-torn Syrian town of Homs, “We were dreaming of the future, we’re now dreaming of the past.”

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at