Ayub Nuri, a Kurdish man from Halabja, was a fixer for the Western media in Iraq (he is now based in New York City, having received a scholarship from Columbia).1 A fixer, in the words of Nuri, is “a journalist’s interpreter, guide, source finder and occasional lifesaver.”2 Local fixers, more or less, shape what foreign journalists, most of whom cannot speak any of the local languages well and are not familiar with local politics and culture, see and hear. Without them the Western media are unable to do their work.
Who become fixers for the Western media? Those who speak a language of the West, especially English, in the literal sense, of course, but also the language of the West in the figurative sense, the language of political liberalism3 and humanitarian imperialism.4
It is no surprise that the point of view of a Kurdish man from Halabja largely overlapped with that of the liberal, humanitarian empire. Many Kurds must have felt about America precisely the way many Albanians in Kosovo felt about it: their best shot at independence from the country of which they have never felt themselves to be an integral part.5 And they felt this feeling more deeply than Albanians, as Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party government was incomparably more brutal toward Kurds than the Yugoslav government ever was toward Albanians.
But it is not just a Kurdish fixer who thought that way in Iraq. Nuri says, “I supported the war, as did many of my countrymen and pretty much all the fixers” (emphasis added).6 That is the power of hegemony.7 Nearly all countries have ethnic and regional disparities and grievances, some of them very severe, which the empire can exploit, but even without them the empire can still find a faction who support its doings, especially among the better off or better educated than the average, in just about any country it wants to conquer. And it is through the eyes of that faction, the faction of fixers, that we in the West see their country, for they are the ones who speak our language.8 We look into their eyes and see what we want to see, the image of ourselves as “saviors.”9
Those fixers who are not mere mercenaries wishing to fix their country for a foreign power for their mutual profit, i.e., the fixers who genuinely wish to fix real problems of their people, eventually come to learn “a painful lesson,” as Nuri did: “sometimes when you try to fix something, you break it even more. . . . Some of us paid with our lives. Now we are no longer sure we will ever be able to fix anything.”10
Some have learned this lesson — that the empire is no friend of the oppressed, the motto of the United States Army Special Forces, De Oppresso Liber, notwithstanding — the hard way. Must we all?
3 Political liberalism speaks the language of equal rights, an ideological reflection of equal exchange in the market, the dominant ideology today. It is through free exercise of equal rights, much more than through their violations, that capital expands itself as it widens inequality.
4 What is the method of humanitarian imperialism? A method that has adapted an ancient tactic of divide and conquer to the age of modern mass media and human rights organizations. Its essence, however, was already well summed up by Machiavelli in The Prince (Chapter III):
Again, the prince . . . ought to make himself the head and defender of his powerful neighbours, and to weaken the more powerful amongst them, taking care that no foreigner as powerful as himself shall, by any accident, get a footing there; for it will always happen that such a one will be introduced by those who are discontented, either through excess of ambition or through fear, as one has seen already. The Romans were brought into Greece by the Aetolians; and in every other country where they obtained a footing they were brought in by the inhabitants.
Iran’s power elite ought to study The Prince closely.
5 Will the Kurds in Iran feel the same way? While Iran’s treatment of Kurds has been more liberal than Iraq’s and Turkey’s, the empire, nevertheless, is betting that they would. See Conn Hallinan, “Northern Iraq’s Tangled Web,” Foreign Policy In Focus, 15 June 2007; and Juan Cole, “Are We Already at War? Have US-enabled Kurds Killed 200 Iranian Troops?” Informed Comment, 15 July 2007.
6 Nuri, op. cit.
7 Force alone can never build an empire, let alone expand it. A critical mass of subjects, prepared by intellectuals, must “spontaneously” consent to the rule that subordinates them, or else the ruler cannot control the rest. That is so not only in national politics, as Antonio Gramsci explained in his Prison Notebooks, but also in international relations.
8 It is in part the class and educational backgrounds of the faction of fixers, especially their view of the West, that led many a revolutionary in the past to make culture a battleground. Some of the consequences of “cultural revolution” were salutary, others disastrous.
0 Nuri, op. cit.