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Analysis Last Updated: Mar 16th, 2007 - 00:24:31

Divide and . . . divide: Is this colonialism in its final throes?
By Nicolas J S Davies
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 16, 2007, 01:17

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In 1524, Don Pedro de Alvarado marched into Guatemala with an army of 420 Spanish soldiers. Within a few months he had conquered all the Mayan tribes in the country with their tens of thousands of warriors. The conquest embodied the utmost ruthlessness and a savage disdain for the lives of the natives, but most of all it was a classic application of colonial �divide and conquer� strategy.

The Quiche and Cakchiquel tribes had already been at war for some time, so Alvarado allied his forces with the Cakchiquel and soon defeated the Quiche. He burned alive their four chiefs for treason against Spain, a country whose existence they knew of only briefly before their deaths. The smaller Tzutujil tribe around Lake Atitlan also fell quickly to the combined Spanish and Cakchiquel forces. Alvarado then followed the same strategy in southern Guatemala, backing the Pipil against their Panatacatl neighbors.

However, the brutality of Spanish rule quickly became apparent to Alvarado�s Cakchiquel allies. On August 26, 1524, they began a mass evacuation of their capital city and fled into the mountains. All that was left to Alvarado to complete his conquest was to lead a Quiche, Tzutujil and Pipil army into the mountains to massacre and subdue the Cakchiquels, which he accomplished in short order.

This is not a unique story. �Divide and conquer� has been a commonly used and successful strategy of colonial conquest and occupation. So, when another Don by the name of Rumsfeld (along with a Dick by the name of Cheney) planned to conquer and occupy Iraq, a country of 25 million souls, with an army of only 200,000, this was not a new or unprecedented strategy. The grievances of the Shiite majority and the Kurdish minority against the Iraqi government were the most evident weakness in the unity of Iraqi society, and the formation of political parties comprised mainly of U.S.-backed exiles along these fault lines was an obvious if simplistic strategy for the Americans to adopt.

The sectarian difference between the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq has been mythologized by American and British propaganda since well before the invasion, and many impressionable Americans now believe sincerely that their forces have become embroiled in a sectarian war that has been going on for centuries.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The last major conflict between Sunnis and Shiites took place at about the same time as Don Pedro de Alvarado�s conquest of Guatemala. It was more of a massacre than a war, as the Shiite rulers of Persia moved to impose their religion on Sunnis and Sufis within their empire, following the capture of Tabriz in 1501. A map of the modern Middle East, based on religious affiliation, illustrates a fairly stable status quo since that time. The division between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shiite Persian Empire still defines the sectarian map of the region, along with considerable tolerance of religious minorities in many areas.

Widespread Western acceptance of the myth of bloodthirsty Sunnis and Shiites warring through the centuries has been disturbing. In spite of the apparent sophistication of modern Western society, many Americans have been just as predisposed as 16th century Spaniards to believe that the victims of our colonialism are no better than savages. Thus the brutal war being waged by our government and our armed forces is interpreted as a well-meaning, if misguided, effort to bring civilization or democracy to a benighted people at great cost to ourselves. The merits of the mission can thus be debated on the topsy-turvy question of whether this lofty goal is achievable or whether the supposedly revenge-obsessed Iraqis are simply beyond redemption. One shudders to think of the violence that could be unleashed in the United States by an occupying power willing to exploit ethnic differences among Americans as their government has done in Iraq.

The prevalence of �divide and conquer� as a strategy of colonization throughout history rests on some very practical considerations. The challenge of finding sufficient troops to do the dirty work of colonial conquest and long-term occupation in a hostile foreign country has been a perennial problem for all colonial powers. Colonialism is usually doomed to failure if the colonial power cannot recruit native forces to serve its interests. The combination of ethnic and sectarian political manipulation and mass unemployment in Iraq were calculated to facilitate recruitment of the local forces that were essential to the American plan.

The 120,000 foreign mercenaries and �security contractors� in Iraq are nothing new either. Privatization has been a common traditional solution to the problems of colonial occupation. The British East India Company had its own private army, as did the Congo Free State in the late 19th century. King Leopold�s security contractors were the dregs of Europe, with such meager pay and provisions that they used the bullets they were issued to shoot Africans to shoot animals for food instead. The ingenious solution of their employers to this waste of precious resources was to demand a severed African hand to account for each bullet issued and not returned. The even more inventive response of the contractors was to keep shooting animals with the bullets, while cutting off the hands of live Africans to account for them.

Eventually, the world recoiled at the extreme form of colonialism practiced in the Congo Free State, and King Leopold gave this huge territory, formerly his own personal property, to his country as the Belgian Congo. In similar fashion, the world is recoiling at this latest colonial venture in Iraq. American propaganda has been sophisticated and effective up to a point, but the reality just keeps seeping through, like a pool of blood under the rug.

However, the myth of endless war between Sunnis and Shiites and the very real, and indeed successful effort to foster sectarian hatred in Iraq have provided a template for what U.S. officials now refer to as the transformation of the Middle East. Seymour Hersh has revealed that the United States government has already supported Saudi-backed Sunni terrorist groups in Lebanon to promote conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in that country, and the U.S. is also stoking tension between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors to create favorable conditions for regional warfare.

Their success in unleashing Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq encouraged American leaders to roll the dice again in Lebanon and throughout the region, with the tantalizing prospect that they could �divide and conquer� the entire Middle East along the fault line between Sunnis and Shiites, backing whichever sect they believed they could manipulate to serve their interests in each instance.

The present generation of American strategists combines an extraordinary pretension to a Machiavellian approach to the world with an even more extraordinary naivete regarding predictable reactions to their behavior, surely the antithesis of a truly Machiavellian grasp of power politics. Their narcissism surrounding their military technology defies reality at every turn, even as it proves completely irrelevant to the challenges they face, and renders their overreliance upon it predictably destructive and counterproductive.

In Iraq, the United States has divided, but it has not conquered. By extending this failed approach to the rest of the Middle East, it is destabilizing its allies as surely as its enemies, whose numbers are only increasing. Many former U.S. allies around the world and indeed most Americans have made it clear that they want no part of any of this. If cooler heads in the United States and the international community are unsuccessful in reversing the American drive toward regional war in the Middle East, the only short-term hope for the people of the region, if they wish to avoid the fate of the divided and devastated Iraqis, is to peacefully resist both America�s carrots and its sticks and assert their independence from Washington. The most effective response to �divide and conquer� is noncooperation based on recognition of the overarching threat.

Bush, Cheney and their cronies consistently project the mirror image of their own ambitions onto their enemies. They, therefore, claim that they are waging a global war against people who would otherwise destroy the United States. Their opponents can ill afford such grand delusions. Their diverse goals are more limited and better thought out than those of the Americans, and are, therefore, more achievable, with the liberation of their own lands from foreign political, economic and cultural domination as the common thread. They have generally been quite explicit about these goals, but the Western media have been subservient in devoting more space to the projections of fearmongers.

The era of European and Western colonialism lasted about 500 years. India has now been independent for almost 60 years, Ghana for 50, Vietnam for 32, the countries of Eastern Europe for 17. It is hardly surprising that this transition has been difficult, or that the colonial powers have developed new ways to buy off local elites, using nominally liberal and democratic structures to continue to impose their interests on emerging independent nations. The contradictions of corporate globalization and American delusions of military omnipotence have led a deadly serious effort to put the genie of self-determination back in the bottle of colonialism, making the current crisis inevitable. Historians will have to decide whether to interpret the American war in the Middle East as the final throes of Western colonialism, or just as a brutal postscript to an era that already ended some time ago.

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