On U.S. “Adversaries”

The United States more or less officially regards a handful of countries as “adversaries”: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. There is not an official list approved by Congress, but the term is applied by politicians and journalists routinely to these countries. The reasons for their enmity are rarely specified; it is enough to note that they “work to challenge our national interests around the world.”

What are these “national interests”? And how does Russia, for example, challenge them? How did Russia, a friend under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s (a friend so valued that Bill Clinton saved him from near-certain electoral defeat in 1996), come to oppose U.S. national interests? Well, it opposes the expansion of NATO, an anti-Russian military alliance that has been expanding relentlessly following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1991. In discouraging the entry of Georgia and Ukraine, countries sharing long borders with Russia, it challenges the U.S. “national interest” in stationing troops in those countries. In re-annexing the Crimean Peninsula (following the pro-NATO, U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in 2014) to prevent the historical Russian naval base falling into NATO hands, it challenged the U.S. national interest to turn the Black Sea into a NATO lake.

Similarly, in selling natural gas to the Germans Russia deprives U.S. suppliers of a vast market, undermining “our” interests. Is it not clear? And in Syria, Russia works against our national interests! “We” want to topple the Assad regime. Why? Because in 2011 during the Arab Spring warmonger Hillary Clinton declared that Assad had lost his legitimacy by firing on his own people. She thought it would be possible to topple him by recruiting a rebel army. In the end the U.S. was obliged to work with a motley array of groups aligned with al-Qaeda, while ISIL took over large swathes of the country, as the forces of the secular regime struggled to prevent a victory by Islamists who would surely have smashed every historic church in Damascus. Russia, militarily aligned with Syria since the 1970s, intervened in Sept. 2015 to assist state forces in repressing some of the most grotesque fiends on the planet. In the process Russia has strengthened its position in the region, increased its cooperation with Iran and Hizbollah, and stabilized a regime the U.S. had tried to destroy. You see how Russia is opposing U.S. national interests?

China is also an adversary (and “main competitor”) that opposes U.S. national interests. By emerging as the world’s second largest economy, it has acquired unprecedented international clout through aggressive diplomacy, generous aid packages, the Belt & Road Initiative, technological innovation, and military expansion. It challenges “our” interests by this very success! Specifically, China steals “our” intellectual property and forces “our” companies to transfer technology. Thus its success as an economic superpower is based on “our” loss, does it not make sense? (Recall the “trade friction” with Japan in the 1980s, and the accusations of unfairness hurled at Tokyo.)

China has the audacity to claim dozens of islands in a region to the south of China, thus called the South China Sea. Many of these islands, shoals and reefs have been visited, named and charted by Chinese fishermen for centuries. Current PRC claims (endorsed by the regime on Taiwan) were indicated on a map produced by the Chinese government in the 1930s that was not challenged by the U.S. government until recently. Other countries (notably Vietnam and the Philippines) claim some of these islands too although I think their historical documentation is weaker. Anyway Chinese are building runways on islands they claim, and building up semi-exposed reefs into “artificial” islands hosting runways, buildings and harbors. This allows them greater ability to control their claimed territorial waters. And this is not in the U.S. national interests.

China is threatening “our” national interests in the South China Sea, don’t you see? Because it’s potentially threatening freedom of navigation. Has there been any harassment of maritime shipping? No. But just in case, the U.S. sends aircraft carriers through the South China Sea (three times in 2020) to intimidate the Chinese and make it clear the U.S. rejects their sovereignty claims.

Iran. What country has been more vilified since its people rose up in 1979 to overthrow the Shah imposed by the CIA coup in 1953? Iran is an adversary because its people chant “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” It’s an adversary because it supports forces the U.S. (following Israel) labels “terrorists” including the secular Syrian government, the Lebanese Hizbollah Shiite political movement, the Houthi movement in Yemen, etc. It’s an adversary because it disagrees with the U.S. list of terrorists and the right of Washington to pontificate about terrorism.

Iran is an adversary because it is the center of Shiite Islam in a region dominated by Sunni Islam, a multi-party republic in a region of autocratic monarchies. It is an adversary of the U.S. because it is an adversary of Israel and its Zionist premises, and an adversary of Saudi Arabia because the kingdom dominated by Wahhabi clerics positively hates Shiites as heretics and the example of the Islamic Republic that toppled a king terrifies them. Iran has helped keep the Syrian government in power, versus the child-crucifying savages of ISIL, thereby attacking U.S. national interests (in toppling Assad). Iran has helped Hizbollah, a large political institution in Lebanon with cabinet posts and parliamentary bloc, maintain its militia, charitable institutions and media. Hizbollah clerics tend to train at madrassas in Qom, Iran. Iran thus opposes U.S. national interests by providing religious education.

Iran had the audacity, when the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, a neighboring country with which it shares a 994-mile border, the only Arab country (other than Bahrain) with a Shiite plurality, to aid Shiite militias that formed to resist the invasion. How adversarial was that? And after ISIL, a spin-off of al-Qaeda originating in occupied Iraq, morphed into the terrifying Islamic Caliphate and gained control of major Iraqi cities, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard played a key role in their defeat. But the U.S. State Department feeling no sense of irony condemns Iran for its “interference” in its neighboring country of co-religionists assisting the Iraqis against terrorist thugs. It also condemns Iraqi Shiite militias receiving Iranian support as “bad actors” and demands they stand down. Iran is an adversary because it stands in the way of the U.S. plans for the next door country it destroyed.

North Korea was established after Soviet forces invaded the Japanese colony of Korea in the closing weeks of World War II. The U.S. invaded from the south and, refusing proposals to reunite the peninsula, proclaimed the Republic of Korea in 1948. The DPRK in the north was declared a month later. In 1950 the north invaded the south, making rapid progress, enjoying mass support. The U.S. (using the UN as cover) invaded, pushed back the northern army, provoked Chinese intervention, and eventually killed about 4 million people to preserve control over the south. The north lost about a third of its population. Ever since it’s been an adversary.

Pyongyang works against U.S. interests all over the world, as when it maintains ties with Syria and Iran. Worst of all its nuclear program, and its missile development. It is not, you see, in the U.S. interest NOT to be able to bomb the hell out of North Korea, and having nukes forces U.S. leaders to hesitate. It’s very unfriendly for a country to develop nuclear weapons just because it’s concerned about its own annihilation by U.S. nukes.

Syria, led by the Baath Party (based on pan-Arabism, secularism including Shiite-Sunni-Christian-Druze unity, anti-imperialism and “Arab socialism”) has been one of the few Middle Eastern states to consistently oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine as well as Syrian land seized in 1967. It has supported Hizbollah’s resistance to Israeli aggression in Lebanon, and Hamas in its administration of Gaza. All this challenges U.S. interests in destroying these organizations because they oppose Israel. (Why do U.S. interests = Israeli interests? Because Israel’s the only democracy in the Middle East, you see, and we share its Judeo-Christian values. So when Syria opposes Israel it opposes us. Is this clear?)

Assad has shown his adversarial nature by not obeying Obama’s command to step down in 2011; for accepting aid from adversaries Russia and Iran, and perhaps China and North Korea; for simply remaining in power.

Venezuela? The country is in South America, which is supposed to be “pro-American” (as in pro-U.S.A.). Yet its people had the audacity to elect, in 1998, the leftwing former military officer Hugo Chavez who pursued a path of “Bolivarian socialism” in alliance with Cuba. This along was adversarial, a challenge to U.S. national interests. Chavez criticized the U.S. war on Iraq in 2003 and bombing of Libya in 2011. His successor Nicolas Maduro, having refused to concede to a U.S.-backed coup attempt involving its puppet Juan Guaido, has shown himself unfriendly.

So you see how these countries threaten our interests, your interests in your daily life. What if Russians, Syrians and Iranians get their way and Syria becomes fully stabilized and reunited, the terrorists destroyed or contained? Would that not damage our national interests? What if Russia succeeds in persuading Europe to stop the expansion of NATO? Would that not affect my security and my interests here in Boston?

No. The dissolution of NATO—were it to occur tomorrow, thirty years after the Warsaw Pact dissolved itself—would be thirty years overdue. It would relieve tensions, free up wasted tax monies, reduce the U.S. imperialist footprint on the continent. All of this would be in my interest.

There is no such thing as “national interest.” Yes I know many political science courses begin with this very proposition. Marxism begins with a different proposition, that “the workingmen have no country.” People live in countries ruled by ruling classes, whose interests have to do with markets, investments, energy, trade, alliances, war, bases, strategic minerals, weapons sales, profit opportunities in private prisons and mercenary forces, etc. Their interests are not those of the working masses, not my interests nor yours.

But they have to maintain this notion that the U.S. is the Exceptional Country, appointed by God to police the world (on the basis of its sacred Constitution, its unique history of “freedom,” and its unmatched military power); that the U.S. leads something called the “Free World” (that somehow encompasses Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, etc.); and that the U.S. has adversaries. Those “bad actors” on the world stage just there to do mischief by challenging America’s “interests.”

The masses have to be brainwashed to make the connections. To realize that when the U.S. goes to war, it does it not for the military-industrial complex, not for capitalist imperialism. No, no. It does it for you, us, the national interest.

Always ask, ‘Wait, where are they attacking us, really?” And if you hear that the Russians and Chinese are paying bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, realize it’s almost certainly disinformation.

Rogers and Hammerstein explain, in a fine number from the Broadway musical South Pacific (1949):

You’ve got to be taught
To hate
And fear
You’ve got to be taught
From year
To year
Its got to
Be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to
Be carefully

In the past year millions of white people in this country have come to unlearn what they were taught—about equality in this country, about democracy, about the police. They have come to learn through iPhone videos and mass demonstrations the reality of “structural racism.” Cabal TV anchors now use the term matter-of-factly, as they frankly describe Confederate generals whose statues are falling as “racists” and “traitors.”

Now we need to be untaught—during the Biden era, which will be all about restoring normalcy to foreign policy—of the doctrine that “we” have “adversaries”—other than those that they (in the ruling class) have chosen to make for themselves.

Final note: the vile, disgraced, idiotic Donald Trump was during his term attacked much more for his failure to condemn adversary Russia, his innocent suggestion that we should “get along with Russia,” his skepticism about NATO’s “relevance,” his failure to expedite weapons shipments to Ukraine for use against “Russian” forces, and his silence on Putin’s alleged crimes, than for his racism, cruelty, incompetence, or criminal neglect. The fact that Trump’s failure to accept and emphasize Russia as U.S. adversary was the MAIN charge against him up to the end of the first impeachment process shows how teaching about fear has remained mainstream.

Expect Biden’s foreign policy team to repeat all the Cold War adversarial rhetoric, even though the Cold War is over, none of the foes are threatening to attack the U.S., all in fact want normal cordial relations with the U.S., The U.S. military budget is larger than the combined military budgets of China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the UK and Japan. The U.S. has over 800 foreign bases. All this demonstrates an adversarial relationship to the whole planet. But it is taught in our schools as “leadership of the Free World.”

Now Biden is the Leader of the Free World, rescuing it from the divisiveness, darkness and doubt of the Trump era, restoring to it unity of purpose, under Exceptional leadership, against the adversaries. But the Trump era has drawn all the adversaries closer. China and Russia have signed major gas and other trade deals and are expanding military cooperation. Both countries are cooperating with Iran on defense. Kim Jung-Un met Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in 2019 and has invited Assad to visit. A multilateral world is in fact emerging, inevitably; the us-versus-them theme seems more and more lame. We may be entering a world of no eternal friends nor adversaries, which is as it should be.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu