American Iago: On Washington’s Character Assassins

Othello and Iago – Public Domain

Slander. Libel. Calumny. Defamation. Vituperation. Degradation. Vilification. Smears and trolling and backstabbing. Whatever you call it, reputation destruction is a tried-and-true foreign-policy tactic of Washington. Whether aimed at individuals or nations, the goal is regime change. It is character assassination writ large. When Washington does it, they don’t just take down an individual, they take down whole administrations, entire governments, nationwide ideologies, and entire economies.

You might be forgiven for assuming that the military-intelligence complex has plucked its regime-change plan from the pages of Shakespeare. If you’ve ever read Othello, you’ve read a plan for character assassination that neatly resembles Washington’s templated version. When in doubt, consult the Bard.

Iago is an unexampled Shakespearean villain. From the outset of the play, he is after both his general Othello and lieutenant Michael Cassio. He resents Othello for promoting the younger Cassio above him; he says he suspects both of sleeping with his wife. He seeks revenge and self-empowerment. His acquaintance Roderigo is a suitor of Desdamona, a beauty whom he learns has married Othello. Iago convinces the distraught and dissolute paramour he can win Desdamona through an elaborate scheme that begins by Roderigo’s baiting of Cassio, causing his downfall and Iago’s elevation.

At a feast on the isle of Cypress, Iago tells dinner guests on the sly that although Cassio is great soldier, drink is his unappeasable vice. Iago helps get Cassio drunk. Roderigo baits him. A brawl ensues. Cassio injures Roderigo and a young soldier. Othello appears in a fury and ends the fighting. The general demands an explanation from his ensign. Iago acts stunned and distraught by the chaos he secretly engineered, and feigns concern that the disturbance might frighten the townsfolk (they are defending Cypress from the Turks). After Iago’s explanation, Othello fires Cassio. Once everyone else has gone, Iago affects concern for Cassio, who is disconsolate. He cries out to Iago,

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.–My reputation, Iago, my reputation! (2.3.216-19)

Leaving the play there, we can immediately see the parallels with American foreign policy. Iago’s tactics are familiar to us: find a false premise by which to demonize an obstacle to power; spreads rumors that the undeclared enemy is deeply flawed, while at the same time attesting to want what’s best for them; engineer a scenario where the target will be provoked to either violence or corruption; ensure others hear of it; act surprised and discouraged by the target’s behavior, and sadly agree that the target must be disciplined; all while voicing humility, piety, and goodwill.

Nearly as much as any of its other chronic behaviors, the imperial state is in the business of reputation destruction. From South America to China, independent nations that sit in the crosshairs of empire find their reputations relentlessly sullied by the sitting administration, its intelligence community, and the power-worshipping corporate media that unquestioningly amplify its libel.

Southern Exposure

In South America, the imperium has pursued an interesting approach to the shuttering of the pink tide of socialist uplift. The death of Hugo Chavez delivered a kneecapping blow to the movement. Regardless of what people claim about leaderless movements, Chavez was the charismatic figurehead that encapsulated the Bolivarian Revolution like no one else. He was indispensable. For every ideology there exists a need to distill the multifarious threads of thought and action into something immediately comprehensible: a symbol on a flag, a phrase on the tongue, a figure at a podium. An instantly recognizable representation of all of it. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the distilled essence of black uplift. The beret of the Black Panthers perhaps the fierce emblem of militant black advancement and resistance. Chavez had somehow stepped into the breach of a floundering Venezuealan neoliberal world and won through the ballot box. Sidestepping bloody civil war, Chavez had leveraged massive support from Venezuelan provinces to usher the Bolivarians into power, inspiring regional lefitist movements all around him.

What Washington has done is use transnational legal regimes and reputation destruction to gain access to South American natural resources for American multinationals. Several years ago, the US Department of Justice and the SEC partnered with a variety of public prosecutors in southern Brazil as well as the Brazilian Federal Police to investigate supposed corruption in Brazilian politics. The investigation began under John Kerry was Secretary of State and continued when Hillary Clinton assumed the mantle, and continues today. Under the Foreign Affairs Corruption Act, the U.S. believes it has the authority to investigate corruption wherever such acts involve transactions in U.S. dollars–an absurdly hubristic claim of nearly global jurisdiction. The DOJ has raked in $2.5B in fines from Brazilian companies. Likewise, a raft of deeply corrupt patrician congressmen in Brasília implicated the Partido de Trabalhadores, or PT, in the scandal. No surprise, since it was PT that was preventing the privatization of the country’s massive oil find.

This effort is widely supported among the professional classes in Brazil, which appears to loathe the PT, as somehow worse than the disastrously corrupt neoliberal governments that preceded it. This largely thanks to media that framed the PT in such a manner. But Glen Greenwald’s reportage at The Intercept has now demonstrated what many on the left thought all along, that the entire Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva crime scandal was a judicial farce, much like the Dilma Rousseff impeachment. The latter was a constitutional coup that removed a sitting president while the former was an illegal frame-up designed to bar Lula from running for president again. The post-coup government repealed important socialist democratic measures implemented by the PT and opened its oil fields to foreign direct investment. Some 12 million Brazilians have slid back into poverty thanks to the deeply unpopular regime of Michel Temer. Now a fascist thug has been elected and rules with a volatile confection of racist tropes, laissez faire concessions, and military jingoism.

Lula remains wildly popular among Brazilians. But the ex-president sits in solitary confinement. Rousseff is free but out of the government. But the tarnish of fraud and malfeasance hang from their necks like an imaginary noose. Their global and local reputations have been eviscerated for millions. Even if charges against neither leader stuck, and even if grassroots support weathered the onslaught, damage has been done. Talking points are now easily penned by imperial hacks across the West.

Red Scare Redux

Russiagate is well-traveled territory, so we needn’t unpack it entirely. But we ought to note that it was deployed principally by the DNC and the intelligence community to accomplish one goal with two targets. The goal was to stabilize the status quo. The targets were twofold: first, to reign in the wayward impulses of Donald Trump, who rather vainly saw himself befriending Russia and saving billions by ending stupid Middle East wars (‘entanglements’ for our Times readers). Both would have overturned decades of consensus foreign policy; neither was therefore acceptable. Trump was seen by half the populace as a racist fool, and as a patriotic outsider by something less than half the rest of the country. But the intelligence community and the Democrats tarred him with a much more damning title: traitor. This appellation was slung around the country with feverish glee by journalists brandishing pages of supposition, speculation, and falsehood, and little else. But what did it matter? When all was said and done, the inveterate narcissist had been cowed in his foreign policy, and limps toward 2020 ever more alienated from the reality of his abominable presidency (even though he might yet win re-election). Second, at the other end of the political spectrum, the Russian accusations were used to destroy the reputations of progressive voices across the media landscape, including this publication, which was said in the nation’s second most important newspaper, The Washington Post, to be a purveyor of Russian propaganda. Exerting immense pressure on Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, Congress effectively forced private companies to conduct their censorship for them. This ensured that rising voices on the left were shuttered by a clever raft of repressive tactics: demonetization, algorithmic tweaks and deranking, delisting, unsubscribing, silent bans, and page removal, to name a few.

Provoking the Giant

In Hong Kong, the current violent protest movements are said to have demanded a withdrawal of an extradition bill that sparked the chaos; removal of Beijing’s imprimatur for the approval of Hong Kong’s chief executive, leaving the decision fully to the local population; and demands that police quit labeling protesters as “rioters” alongside an inquiry into supposed police brutality. There is something deeper at work here, although there is plenty to protest in Hong Kong: the economy of the once-hegemonic gateway to Chinese business has slid dramatically since the handover to China in the late 1990s.

Yet all of this has a larger objective: it is designed to shape a picture of Beijing as a myopic, inflexible ogre that is swift to lay a heavy hand on a pious populace. Think of W.H. Auden’s portrait of the Soviet Union when it lumbered into Czechoslovakia in “August 1968”:

The Ogre does what ogre’s can

Deeds quite impossible for Man,

But one prize is beyond his reach,

The Ogre cannot master speech:

About a subjugated plain,

Among its desperate and slain,

The Ogre stands with hands on hips,

With drivel gushing from his lips.

Wild estimates of support for the Hong Kong protests are floated in the mainstream. The use of bricks and bats and petrol bombs and destruction of public property by the protesters are underemphasized in the press. The demand of the protestors for the rescindment of the “rioter” label is both disingenuous and typical; these people know they are rioting, and making an unmeetable demand is common among American-backed negotiations of every kind. (Witness demands on Slobodon Milosovic to effectively abdicate sovereignty by permitting unfettered NATO occupation of Serbia; see UN demands of Iraq under Saddam Hussein to examine the presidential palace for fissile materials; against Iran for national access far exceeding what the U.S. has ever agreed to.) But connections with institutions behind American color revolutions are numerous. The city is still rife with foreign NGOs. NED funding is considerable. American diplomats have met with leading protesters. American media has delivered considerable coverage, framing the entire affair as another desperate cry for human rights from beneath the grizzly paw of an authoritarian communist country.

Revolution in Black

Nobody does reputation destruction better than Washington and its amplifiers in the press. It is a tradecraft long practiced by beltway PR savants. As Iago limned while soliloquizing his duplicity, “When devils will the blackest sins put on / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows” (2.3.371-72).

This is the case with countless color revolutions spawned by American taxpayer largesse funneled to comprador proletariat in the target country, all of it swept up in a whirlwind morality tale narrated by corporate media. That it happens so frequently, and so convincingly for so many Americans, is testament to our historical naivete and media illiteracy. Both need remedying before radical consciousness arises between our far-flung shores. That consciousness, though, seems to be rising swiftly in target nations: China, Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, among others,have all countered brimming color revolutions with various means, from NGO bans and restrictions to police inquiries and media counterattacks.

Prolific writer and filmmaker Andre Vltchek makes an impassioned argument that color revolutions are failing to persuade. Like a magician whose threadbare feints and sleights have lost their hypnotic appeal, the pious facades of Washington’s character assassinations are ever more transparent. Only the political ingenue still falls for the ruse. With more alternative media to choose from, that brittle visage of saintly insurrection will crack wide to reveal its rank mechanism. Then we might see our government’s contempt for democracy and fealty to elitism. Time to train the beam of reputation destruction on our own venal imperium.

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