Trump’s new empire: Thoughts on American imperialism in the age of Trump. A sneak peek from Israel/Palestine

A guest post by Hagar Kotef and Merav Amir. Hagar Kotef is a Senior Lecturer of Political Theory and Comparative Political Thought at the Department of Politics and International Relations, SOAS, The University of London. She is the author of Movement and the Ordering of Freedom (Duke University Press, 2015). Dr Merav Amir is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) of Human Geography at the School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University Belfast. Her recent publication is titled “Revisiting Politicide: State Annihilation in Israel/Palestine”, and is due to be published in Territory, Politics, Governance.

In trying to understand the horror that unfolds post Trump election, two main threads seem to dominate left discourse and blogosphere. The first rightly focuses on the horror itself, on the unprecedented coup-d′état unfolding before our eyes, on the attacks on the constitution, on fascism or other forms of totalitarianism or authoritarianism, and on brute institutionalized racism of a regime that does not even seek to pretend it adheres to the rule of law and good governance.

Credit: GPO

Credit: GPO

All this is true, and yet this narration often fails to account for three main facts. (i) Such brutal constitutional changes and violent re-demarcations of the contours of the polity are hardly unheard-of, both historically, and at this very political moment in many places across the globe. Portraying this horror as unprecedented and unique, indeed as an unbelievable horror, is a form of American exceptionalism that plays into the normalization of violence in regions that are not considered part of the ‘West’. (ii) Many of these violent regime-changes across the globe have been occurring with at least the passive, if not the very active, involvement of consecutive US administrations. Finally, (iii) such modes of foreign “interventions” (we might want to call them wars or imperialism—“neo” or just that, “imperialism”) are often what allowed the Western metropoles of the American empire to remain largely peaceful and relatively prosperous. That is, it is by externalizing its violence that the US could be “exceptional” in the meaning suggested in (i). We should therefore be careful in reproducing a pattern in which “the real crime”, as Arendt put it in regard to a previous age of totalitarianism, was when totalitarian violence moved out of Africa (at first to Asia and then to Europe) “since here [unlike in the case of “African savages who had frightened Europeans literally out of their wit”] everyone ought to have known what they were doing.”[1]

The second thread that dominates left reactions to the measures taken by this new Administration focuses on continuities. It claims that the language and mannerisms of this Administration may seem blunter and crude, but that for all intents and purposes, previous administrations, including Obama’s, implemented policies that are very similar, if not totally equivalent. Obama’s modes of imperial domination and his extensive use of drone warfare were as violent and dismissive of non-Western life as Trump’s imperialism might get, and his treatment of racialized police violence was less than satisfactory. Furthermore, it was the Obama administration that laid the foundation for the Muslim ban, and it was the policies of that administration that would also provide the infrastructure for the Muslim registry
(though see also). Others remind us of the long and forgotten histories of anti-Islam in the US. All this is true, and yet it underplays the actual effects of the new implemented measures, and fails to recognize that there is more at stake than a simple difference in the style of delivery of American imperial policies or even in their “degrees”. It is true that one needs to look beyond discursive styles and rhetorical justifications to analyze policies for their effects and what they actually stand for, but we should remember that this distinction between the discursive and the practical is insufficient at best, and in fact misses essential facets of how politics “works.” The modes of articulation of policies and their avenues of justification are integral to their operation, to the technologies carrying them or facilitating them, and to their ability to endure over time. Crucially, these modes delineate the boundaries between the acceptable and the unthinkable.

How can we therefore account for this horror, recognizing it as qualitatively new, without falling into the trap of seeing some lives as matter more than others? How can we account for it—not as American citizens, or residents, or those en-route who are undoubtedly  affected directly, but as citizens of the world—without placing the life of Americans above those of, say, Syrians, or Yemenis? As citizens of the Glob we are unfortunately affected by American politics more than we are by any other state outside our own. Being the hub of contemporary empire, America rules so many of us, even if in very different ways. Thus, what is urgent to understand in this gap between the exception and mere continuum, is the new logic of American empire and its avenues of self-justifications.

Wendy Brown identified a melancholic tendency of the left to always long for the political orders against which we have struggled in the past. In this context, it is important not to develop an attachment to liberal imperialism, and to remember its brutalities, but it may be as important to recognize that this melancholy tendency eventually means one thing on the map of political ontologies: things are getting worse, and the political struggles we are facing seem to be ever greater than before.

There are some hints already to what this new logic is going to look like. First, strangely enough, its racism is going to be less discriminatory on the basis of legal status. That is to say: The Obama-Clinton administration largely adhered, even if flexibly at times, to distinctions between citizens and non-citizens in its deployment of imperial violence. Two things are important to emphasize in this regard. First, we refer here to one scheme of state violence among several. In the realm of police violence, to take what is perhaps the most important example, distinctions in the deployment of violence has been consistently found within citizenship, that is between citizens (in contrast, again, to a form of imperial violence, that tends to see citizens as more or less equal due to their almost exclusive focus on the category of citizenship). We have no reason to think such racist distinctions between citizens in the context of police violence and its derivatives (above all incarceration) will erode under Trump – and all the reasons to assume it is likely to get worse. But this field of violence merits a separate analysis. Our point here concerns the violence of border-controls, security apparatuses, and the war on terror. Second, whereas during the Clinton-W. Bush-Obama order, such field of violence largely relied on a distinction between citizens and non-citizens, this was often trumped by its anti-Muslim tendencies that rendered some citizens legitimate targets of the “war on terror.” However, even if some citizens were intentionally  assassinated, and several became the “collateral damage” of its military operations, often (though not always) the Administration seemed to be held accountable for the killing of American citizens by drones, whereas the thousands of citizens of other countries – afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, Libyans, Yemenis, Somalians could be killed without even being counted, or accounted for. Whereas this can be dismissed as no more than a form of lip-service, our claim here is that lip services do play a part in the shaping of policies. However for Trump, these distinctions seem to matter less. Perhaps this is why there was no problem to include the citizens-to-be green-card holders within the Muslim Ban, and the Muslim registry would, by definition, trump that distinction. In this regard it is important to note that so many reactions to the Muslim ban were about re-institutionalizing these distinctions: talking about “citizens” or “green card holders” or those “good members of society” whose visas make them not merely “legal” (a problematic distinction in and of itself), but also “contributing” members of the community: students, professors, professionals and skilled workers (as if people need to be protected based on these criteria rather than their mere humanity), and above all – people with families (that is “respected” and “(hetero)normative” members of society). Trump’s policies, by contrast, seem to be oblivious to these differences, and even deliberately undermining them. In this sense his violence is more egalitarian – but, it might be needless to say – that does not make it any less horrific.

Another hint includes the cut of funds to any international organizations offering abortions, abortion advocacy, or information concerning abortions. Whereas the previous administration, and even more explicitly the one before it, established its imperial rule on the well-known paradigm of “saving” or “protecting” (usually Muslim) women and sexual minorities from (usually Muslim) local men, Trump seems to abandon this mechanism of imperial justification in favour of a blanket policy that is aim at appeasing his support among the religious right. There is much to say about both frameworks and the modes of resistance they both foreclose and allow, but yet again, this merits a separate analysis.

Here we want to point to some possible implications of other patches—such as the “America first” principle (i.e. the overt subjugation of global intervention to American interest—a point to which we shall return later) or his anti-Muslim agenda, we want to turn to our small corner of the world: Israel Palestine. In a recent interview given in the weeks leading to Trump’s inauguration, the Israeli deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely lucidly illustrated these implications. Hotovely was asked about the new plan that together with other members of government she is promoting, aimed at annexing the vast majority of the occupied West Bank to Israel. The questions revolved around the implications this would have on the Israeli constituency: as this annexation would necessarily involve incorporating the 2.5 million Palestinians currently living in the West Bank into the Israeli political body. Hotovely insisted that annexing the land will not entail annexing the Palestinians living on it and will not lead to a bi-national state. “Would you annex the Palestinians without giving them the right to vote?” Asked one of the hosts, hinting to the pending institutionalization of (the currently provisional) apartheid this would entail. Hotovely seemingly remained enigmatic and it could have seen as if she is avoiding the question. The hosts kept asking “How do you intend to annex the territory without annexing the population?” Her response, which may seem at first as evading the question, becomes clearer when examined more carefully: “we are not talking about a plan in which we wake up one morning to a reality where 2.5 million Palestinians are citizens of Israel” she insisted. She then claimed that there are “many other possibilities” that she never fully specified. Whereas this lack of concreteness might be interpreted as the absent of an executable plan (indeed, this is how it was understood by the interviewers), there is a temporal framework insinuated in her answer that should be seen as the key to understanding her plan: it is not going to happen “in a single day” (or, if we take her accurate words more seriously: “over night”). This temporal framework was more explicit in a previous interview she gave in the same show (from 21.11.15): “we are a very patient people”, she said. History reveals that many opportunities arise if one is willing to be patient […] We will continue holding the territory for the time being, and with time, we hope that we will have better opportunities.” But what is it that can happen if we allow time to pass? What can time do to disconnect people and land?

Zionism’s flirt with time gaps is not a recent affair. Let us look at Herzl as a brief detour. In his novel Altneuland Herzl tells the story of two imagined journeys to Palestine, separated by twenty years. In this time-gap between the protagonist’s two excursions, the land changes its face, if not its geographical orientation. From “a most disagreeable” place, it is transformed by Zionist presence into Europe in the Mediterranean. The protagonists of the novel do not see this transformation in the making. As Raef Zreik notes, this 20 year gap “is the condition of possibility for the Jewish state to emerge.” Within this time frame “the dirty demographic job that still allows Herzl to maintain his surface liberalism” took place. In this time-gap an ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population can occur. Quite amazingly, and probably without any conscious awareness, Hotovely appealed to the same idea of journey within a slightly shorter time frame: “I’m telling you,” she laughed, as if jokingly, “we should all go on holiday to Rhodes, and given the current state of killing in the Middle East, when we return after two years there will be no one here.” (to clarify—if any clarifications are still needed: the collective imagined vacation would be for the Jews in the state; the “no one” who will be deported or killed in this two-years timeframe would be the Palestinians.) And what Hotovely, as a member of government can only insinuate by this temporal gap, Betzalel Smotrich, a parliament member from the coalition party “The Jewish Home,” said quite explicitly.

Hotovely’s interviewers seemed to have missed the necessity of time and its implications, and therefore asked, as if to tease: “so what are you waiting for? Why are you not executing your plan?” Hotovely replied calmly: “we are waiting.” “What for?” they insisted. “For Trump” she replied.

It is undoubtedly true that the Obama administration did effectively very little to promote any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and despite the beautiful rhetoric (some of it came way too late) actually gave Israel the most generous military aid deal in history. And yet the liberal rhetoric and symbolism (if you’d like: the liberal mask, but “masks” might go a long way here) of American imperialism, did change the technique, technologies, scope, and internal limits of the imperial project. Despite the brutal attacks in Gaza, the ongoing land confiscations, the expansion of the settlements and the refusal to any substantial negotiations, there were still things that the Netanyahu government could not get away with. The global implications of losing these even very loose restraints on other, less structurally contained, violent regimes (Assad, Putin, Erdoğan) is even less imaginable. The discursive unthinkable did play a role, even if not as strong of a role as one might have hoped for, or demanded.

It will make very limited sense to predict here the future policies of this Administration. As with everything else this Administration has done so far, contradictory messages, backtracking and incoherencies seem to be prevalent, and as Corey Robin suggests, probably the administration itself does not know what is coming. Thus, mixed messages are the rule of the game also in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But at the very least we can now say that the limits of the unthinkable have radically changed.

[1] The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harvest Book, 1976, 206.


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