The Economic War That Truly Is Forever

When it comes to preventing the wrong governments from having access to their cash, the US plays it cool.
Afghanistan, US news, Taliban, freezing Afghanistan assets, Taliban sanctions, Iran sanctions, Iranian sanction, US sanctions on Iran, US foreign policy, Peter Isackson

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For more than a century the United States of America’s consumer society has been heating up the Earth with impunity. To keep the temperature down, the Biden administration, like other administrations of the past, has decided to freeze money. That’s what it is doing now to the new Afghan government after its victory in a 20-year war against the invader. It’s what the US did to Iran in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah, who had been placed at the helm of the state by the combined efforts of the CIA and MI6 after overthrowing the democratically elected progressive government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953.


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Business Insider warns the Taliban about what to expect as it recounts the drama experienced by Iran for more than 35 years: “The frozen money was a thorn in the side of the US-Iran relationship for decades until it was returned to Iran in 2016 under the Obama Administration in a dead-of-the-night transportation from Geneva.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Frozen money:

A form of legal theft that is the privilege of a powerful nation whose money has become the de facto reserve currency and who uses its control of the global banking system to punish any nations that don’t declare allegiance to its economic and political ideology

Contextual Note

Business Insider quotes Cornell University legal scholar Robert Hockett, who explained last week that the process for the Taliban “could also go on for decades, if the Taliban itself goes on for decades.” His insight reveals what the game is really about and how it is played. For the US, the endgame is to make sure the Taliban cannot exist for decades. Starving a nation will alienate its people, encourage opposing forces and provoke regime change.

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That was the strategy with Iran, but it ultimately failed. The regime the US sought to overthrow is still in place. The net result of freezing the nation’s assets and applying crippling sanctions has been to strengthen the grip of its leadership that must appear forceful in the face of the oppressor.

Hockett explains why one nation can unilaterally refuse to honor the core principle of America’s capitalist ideology: the inalienability of property. “The United States has the legal authority to freeze assets that were held by a government when that government is replaced by a nongovernment,” he says. The key then is simply to refuse to recognize a new government, which thus redefines even a fully functioning new government as a non-government. Admitting that the US has the “legal authority” under the vague set of principles called “the rule of law,” many may be wondering whether it has the moral authority.

The contention on both sides concerning Iran’s assets might appear as a classic short-term negotiating situation. But the case of Iran demonstrates that the haggling can last for decades or even longer. From the Associated Press, we learn that “Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that any legitimacy or international support for the Taliban ‘will have to be earned.’” That constitutes a reasonable warning that if the Taliban wishes to have formal recognition, they will have to take into account the international community’s expectations about minimum standards of policy on questions such as modes of government and human rights.

This raises two problems: defining those minimum standards and agreeing on a reasonable time frame. In normal circumstances, contending nations seek to define minimum thresholds and then work to reach some kind of compromise. Things may be a bit different when negotiating with the US. According to Hockett, the “only way that the Taliban could see the billions of dollars in reserves is ‘if it ceases to be the Taliban.’” That is a fair description of US negotiating tactics. Translated into the American popular language, it reads: My way or the highway.

As for time frames, the Iranians waited more than three decades for the opportunity to deal with a president whose middle name was Hussein. Over all that time, the Iranian people suffered. To this day, the Americans believe that with a bit more suffering, regime change will occur. Instead, over time, the Iranian government became increasingly rigid. The perceived sadism of the US had the effect of reinforcing the national pride even of Iranians who had little sympathy for the hardline regime. Americans have a hard time understanding that the prospect of succumbing to a dominating imperial power can be off-putting, especially for populations with a rich cultural heritage.

Today’s dramatic showdown demonstrates two basic features of human cultures that American politicians apparently have a hard time taking on board, even those educated at Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. Americans raised in the consumer society are taught to believe that all humans seek fulfillment in the great principle the US offered to the world: conspicuous consumption. Faced with the choice of material deprivation or consumer nirvana, people will always choose the latter. 

The second concerns time. In the US, time is money. In a negotiation situation where losses may accumulate, people lose patience and tend to capitulate when they see no visible end date. Other cultures, especially in Asia and the Middle East, experience time on a much broader scale. They cannot so easily be made to hurry into an agreement that offends their sensibilities just because it will appear to ease their material suffering.

Historical Note

The failure of US political culture to appreciate these cultural variables has led to immense suffering for multiple populations across the globe for the better part of the past century. The US neo-imperial system provides an interesting contrast to other systems of domination, such as the British Empire.

People who accept to live in a colonized nation tend to see their own history as pointing in two possible directions. One group passively accepts the colonial system as a new model destined to replace the old system. Many of these passive participants spontaneously adhere to the implicit values of the new colonial regime. They may not see it as a form of progress, but they tend to accept it as a fatality of their history that need not be celebrated but cannot and should not be resisted.

A second group of passive participants simply decides to yield to the force of current events. But because they share a vision not limited to the short term, they view the colonial regime as ephemeral. They expect that time will eventually banish the invader and restore the culture they perceive as their own.

Then there are the activists, who will always represent a minority. They see the new order as a repression of something fundamental to their culture and more permanent in time. They may lurk in the background or emerge as the revolutionaries or transformers, looking for the first sign of weakness on the part of the colonial power. Some are patient and play the long game. Others seek to precipitate the action at the first opportunity. Both groups may be disappointed, either because the long game appears to last forever or because precipitation provokes an effective repression. But their spirit endures.

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The history of India and many other of what were once “possessions” of the British Empire illustrate all these tendencies, which admit of various other subtle variations. Even without a precise knowledge of history, everyone understands that empires ultimately fail. The British Empire was remarkably durable but couldn’t rival the Roman Empire, which lasted for at least four or five complete centuries. The key to keeping any empire in place as long as possible lies in building a wide base of passive participants and creating the illusion that the new colonial order is a natural extension of the nation’s history.

Thomas Babington Macaulay abysmally failed to understand the reality of India, but he very successfully grasped the strategies that could create the cultural illusion that would make British India stable over time. His work, undertaken in the first half of the 19th century, was largely responsible for keeping the illusion going for a full century.

Americans in the 21st century on the other hand may have the money and the military might, but they simply don’t have the time to spend on such ventures. Their ideas tend to be as frozen as the Taliban’s assets.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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