John Feffer: “The United States has constructed external enemies for much of its history”

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john Feffer1

John Feffer. DR.

Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You wrote the masterful book Crusade 2.0. How do you explain the need for the United States to have an enemy? Have not the consequences of the neocons theory, namely the clash of civilizations, been disastrous for the MENA region, with the destruction of Iraq and the destabilization of Libya, etc.?

John Feffer: Alas, the United States has constructed external enemies for much of its history. John Quincy Adams, in 1821, warned America not to go in « search of monsters » overseas. He had seen how Jefferson had used the Barbary pirates as a justification for the creation of a sizable American military and he was fearful that the young United States would waste its energies on foreign entanglements. But U.S. foreign policy has been largely structured around just such missions, particularly with the inception of America’s imperial project at the end of the 19th century. This established the United States as a hegemonic power. But it wasn’t until after World War II that America became a superpower. External enemies — the Barbary pirates, Spain, the Soviet Union — served as the proximate threats that the United States needed to develop the military and geopolitical power to control outcomes, expand trade, and maintain access to key natural resources.

The neocons have continued in this tradition. Their additional twist — the requirement of the United States to promote democracy and initiate regime change to achieve that end — has brought the United States into a much more pointed confrontation with Islam and a much more sustained military engagement in the Middle East.  This has indeed brought terrible consequences to the MENA region — political destabilization, economic ruin, and a step backward for most of the countries in terms of democracy.

What do you think of the recent escalation between the United States and Iran when Iran shot down the American drone? How do you explain Trump’s attitude when he gave up the strikes against Iran at the last minute?

The United States and Iran have had a contentious relationship since the 1979 revolution. The Obama administration, however, decided to try a different approach and, with the help of the EU, Russia, and China, negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. That deal immediately came under attack by the far right in the United States as well as by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States. Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of that deal last year is the proximate cause of the resurgence of tensions in the relationship. Iran, until recently, observed the agreement to the letter. But it has gotten nothing from the Trump administration in return, except increased economic sanctions and an uptick in hostile threats. More conservative elements within Iran, including the Revolutionary Guard, never particularly trusted the United States and were skeptical of negotiating an agreement with the country in the first place. The Trump administration’s behavior has only confirmed their opinion. It’s no surprise that the Revolutionary Guard shot down the U.S. drone. It wants to demonstrate that Iran won’t be pushed around.

As for Trump’s last-minute decision not to strike Iran, I think he ultimately doesn’t want a war with the country. The U.S. military has told Trump that Iran is not a push-over, that a war would have serious repercussions for U.S. forces in the region, the forces of U.S. allies, the U.S. economy, and ultimately Trump’s re-election efforts.

In your opinion, is not there a risk of the Trump administration going to a direct war with Iran?

Trump is also impulsive. So, he might similarly decide at the last minute to attack Iran regardless of the consequences.

Also, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have long favored regime change in Iran. They are both trying to influence the president. They don’t care about Trump’s reelection. They care only about removing what Israel perceives as an existential threat and Saudi Arabia perceives as a geopolitical threat.

What is your opinion on the war led by Saudi Arabia, the strategic ally of the US, against the people of Yemen and how do you explain the political and media silence about this criminal war of Saudi Arabia and its allies?

The war in Yemen is indeed a humanitarian disaster, as the UN has labeled it. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has used this war as a method of gaining power within his country. It is also his attempt to reorganize the region to Iran’s disadvantage. Here in the United States, the political silence has largely been on the part of the Republican Party. This spring, the Democrats passed, with the assistance of a few Republicans, a measure to end U.S. support for the war (which Trump vetoed). Certainly the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi played a role in changing congressional sentiment toward Saudi Arabia. Even Trump ally Lindsey Graham (R-SC) criticized Riyadh. The mainstream media, meanwhile, has published some important stories on the impact of the war. But in general, Yemen is a small, poor country where the United States does not have a lot of strategic interests. So, it doesn’t receive as much coverage as other parts of the world.

What do you think of the Trump administration’s rapprochement with North Korea?

I don’t approve of the Trump administration. But I do support its rapprochement with North Korea. With North Korea, Trump was effectively dealing with a clean diplomatic slate. The Obama administration had failed to negotiate any lasting agreement with Pyongyang. So, Trump has been able to position himself as a pathbreaker, as a president who not only outperforms his predecessor on this issue but all previous modern administrations as well. Trump even believes that his initiatives on North Korea will ultimately get him a Nobel Peace Prize.

But to achieve a real deal with Pyongyang, Trump will have to abandon his previous all-or-nothing negotiating stance. We’ll see if he has sufficient diplomatic competence in his administration to negotiate a difficult treaty in the time left in his term. I rather doubt it.

Despite Trump’s gesticulations, isn’t there a risk of escalation between the USA and North Korea?

With Donald Trump, there is always risk of escalation. He is a volatile leader who is quick to anger. He changes his opinion of other people – Ted Cruz, Michael Cohen, Emmanuel Macron – very quickly. So, he could change his mind about Kim Jong Un as well. Also, North Korea could get frustrated with the lack of progress in negotiations and decide to resume testing. Or John Bolton could succeed in changing the president’s mind about North Korea’s “clear and present danger.”

Is not the changing and versatile personality of Trump a danger to the stability of the world? How do you explain John Bolton’s influence on Trump?

In general, the U.S. establishment, including the Pentagon, prefers predictability. It wants to minimize risk and maintain the stability necessary for the United States to maintain military and economic hegemony. Occasionally, as with the ascendancy of the neo-cons in the aftermath of 9-11, the U.S. establishment tilts in a different direction. And this has been the case with the Trump presidency as well. His volatility is indeed a threat to the stability of the world.

John Bolton is influential because he is smart, he knows how to engage in internal politicking, and he has streamlined the policymaking apparatus to increase his own influence with the president. Bolton also has the same kind of desire to destroy the international elite – the so-called globalists – that Trump has. They share a disgust for the UN, for international financial institutions, for liberal world leaders.

Trump is running for a second term. How would you rate his results?

The overall indicators of the U.S. economy are strong – growth is reasonable, inflation and unemployment low, the stock market bullish. Yes, many people are suffering in the country because of low wages or high healthcare costs. But if the overall indicators remain strong through 2020, Trump has a very good chance of being reelected. Moreover, the Trump administration has engaged in the same practice of “state capture” that right-wing populists have done across the world. He is using the apparatus of the state to enrich himself, his wealthy supporters, and his base in critical swing states. For instance, he has directed the U.S. government to purchase huge amounts of soybeans from farmers who haven’t been able to sell them to China, which will persuade some key voting blocs in swing states to continue to support the president.

Of course, Trump could say something or do something outrageous between now and the election that could cut into his support among some Republicans and independents.

You talked about the Deep Fakes and the AI in an article. In your opinion, aren’t the technological tools we have at our disposal both useful and dangerous? Are not social networks a means of controlling the masses?

Most technologies can go both ways – they can liberate and they can enslave. Social media can be an extraordinary tool for social movements to undermine authoritarian states. But as we saw in the 2016 U.S. elections, it can also be a method to spread fake news and undermine confidence in democratic process. Most of the time, of course, social media is just a way for people to share pictures of their cats.

The deeper problem is the lack of sufficient regulation of social media – just as both TV and radio are regulated. Another problem is the lack of sufficient political literacy, which ensures that citizens can’t distinguish between authentic and manufactured news content.

You wrote the premonitory book Splinterlands. In reading your book, it seems that you are describing the future. Is the chaos you announce in your book a fatality for humanity or can the future be changed?

The future can always be changed! We have ended slavery in most parts of the world. Women almost everywhere have the vote. We stopped destroying the ozone layer.

I wrote Splinterlands as a warning. I wanted to describe the logical conclusion of Brexit and the election of nationalists like Trump. We can absolutely prevent the splintering of the international community, the collapse of international institutions, the triumph of narrow-winded nationalism and sectarianism. But we can’t wait for some individual savior. We achieved the above victories over racism, sexism, and pollution through collective action. Together, we can certainly change the future.

Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen


Who is John Feffer ?

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. In 2012-13, he was also an Open Society Fellow looking at the transformations that have taken place in Eastern Europe since 1989.

He is the author of several books and numerous articles. His latest non-fiction book is Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams. He is also the author of the dystopian novel, Frostlands, the stand-alone sequel to Splinterlands. He has also produced ten plays, including four one-man shows, and published a novel.

He is a senior associate at the Asia Institute in Seoul and has been both a Writing Fellow at Provisions Library in Washington, DC and a PanTech fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University. He is a former associate editor of World Policy Journal. He has worked as an international affairs representative in Eastern Europe and East Asia for the American Friends Service Committee. He has also worked for the AFSC on such issues as the global economy, gun control, women and workplace, and domestic politics. He has served as a consultant for Foreign Policy in Focus, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, among other organizations.

He has studied in England and Russia, lived in Poland and Japan, and traveled widely throughout Europe and Asia.

He has taught a graduate level course on international conflict at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul in July 2001 and delivered lectures at a variety of academic institutions including New York University, Hofstra, Union College, Cornell University, and Sofia University (Tokyo). He’s been widely interviewed in print and on radio.

He is a recipient of the Herbert W. Scoville fellowship and has been a writer in residence at Blue Mountain Center and the Wurlitzer Foundation.

His official website

Published in American Herald Tribune August 14, 2019:

In French in Palestine Solidarité:

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