The Terrorist, the Tyrant and the Thug

The following is a series of extracts from John Manicom’s chapter, “The Terrorist, the Tyrant and the Thug: ‘Anti-Anti-Imperialism’ in American Media and Policy,” published in Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (Montreal: Alert Press, 2014), pp. 149-166:

Overview: John Manicom’s chapter is a powerful examination of the discursive and narrative practices of US politicians and media with regard to non-US opponents of US power. These US actors generate catastrophizing discourse classifying phenomena in politically advantageous ways and seeking to arouse certain reactions to events. The types of evaluations and reactions that occur in this discourse, Manicom observes, are relatively predictable and based on the subject’s level of cooperation with US power. The most negative evaluations are assigned to states and sub-state groups which actively oppose US power. Mainstream western media operate from similar ideological perspectives to governments and benefit from a privileged discursive position in society allowing them to produce knowledge seen as generally legitimate, as Manicom demonstrates throughout. Their practices thus help to enable and sustain the narratives of politicians in demonizing and dehumanizing opponents and thus legitimating the often brutal practice of US interventionism.

Modern imperialism can be seen as the militarization of neoliberal ideology seeking to maximize the area of the market available for capitalist penetration (Hanieh, 2006, p. 171). In order to maintain support for the near-permanent war entailed by this logic, manufacturers of public opinion in core capitalist states must produce and propagate moral and ideological justifications for the invasions, airstrikes, and interventions constituting the more overt forms of imperial aggression (Wood, 2006, p. 16). Proponents of imperialism have selectively applied liberal conceptions of humanitarianism to legitimize interventions (Fassin, 2010, p. 270) and opponents of imperialism are discredited by being painted as opponents of the moral imperatives of humanitarianism, or worse. Recently the narrative surrounding the war on terrorism has been an integral part of US efforts to discursively construct catastrophes to which interventionist strategies can be administered, as another set of justifications for war.

Mainstream Western media routinely participate in the perpetuation of such narratives. Along with US politicians, the media habitually treat governments and non-state actors inimical to the interests of multinational corporations and NATO member-states in excoriating terms while reserving more nuanced language for those favourable to Western and business interests. Catastrophizing rhetoric emanating from Washington is repeated, often with little critical discussion. Dynamics of discursive authority privileging the statements of government officials and mainstream media analysts allow these discourses a public legitimacy often not enjoyed by more critical analyses….

Imperial Realism is Real Imperialism:
Good Guys, Bad Guys, Our Guys, Dead Guys

American rhetoric concerning the terrorism, tyranny, and thuggery of other states is rooted in an imperial realpolitik and reflects specific foreign policy goals. Thus states can be divided into four hierarchically ranked categories according to their discursive treatment by American power. Liberal, industrialized NATO and allied states with US-aligned interests making up the imperial core constitute the first category (good guys), followed by non-core states friendly to American interests (our guys). Non-core states more or less hostile to American interests make up the third (bad guys), and states targeted for intervention the fourth (dead guys). Membership in these categories can shift over time and can sometimes be ambiguous, as with Iraq under Saddam Hussein which at one point found itself partially aligned with US interests in its conflict with Iran, but soon found itself excluded again from the benefits of being on the right side of American realpolitik.

Good guys almost never find themselves at the pointed end of US catastrophizing rhetoric. One does not hear about the tyranny of France as it intervenes in former colonial possessions like Mali, nor do we hear US officials alleging that British intelligence may have provided support to terrorist organizations (Meacher, 2005/9/10); mass arrests and illegal searches in Toronto during 2010’s G20 summit (Morrow, 2011/6/23) were not condemned as unacceptable thuggery blocking the legitimate aspirations of the Canadian people. These states are euphemistically termed the international community (Ching, 2012/9/12) and are effectively immune from humanitarian criticism. Their systems of government and economics are held to be self-evidently superior.

Official doctrines of liberal states emphasizing democratic and egalitarian principles might preclude some authoritarian states’ entry into the good guys category, but friendly dictatorships with abysmal human rights records like Saudi Arabia or Turkmenistan need not fear hegemonic discourse from the White House proclaiming them to be the terror-states of ruthless tyrants. Instead we hear of US appreciation for “Saudi Arabia’s leadership in working toward a peaceful and prosperous future,” presumably being worked towards with the weapons and armour it has been sold by the US (Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, 2013a), while pundits and “experts” agree that the absolute monarchy is the best option available (Hancock, 2004/4/20), or, in the case of the Central Asian dictatorships, mostly keep silent. Qatar, another absolute monarchy with no political parties (The Economist, 2013/6/8), recently sentenced a poet to life in prison (later reduced to 15 years) for insulting the leadership (BBC, 2013/10/21), but remains “a valuable partner to the United States” and NATO (Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, 2013b).

States which defy US power or threaten US international hegemony, however, are treated discursively as agents of catastrophe. Attacks on humanitarian grounds are common as are criticisms of the lack of government transparency, the insufficient openness of markets and the supposedly questionable fairness of elections. Even democratically elected governments are accused of “undermining democracy” as with Venezuela (Bush, 2006, p. 15). A new-found appreciation for anarcha-feminist punk rock was apparently enlisted to express “serious concern” at Russia’s sentencing of Pussy Riot members (Earnest, 2012). Iran, an Islamic state which nevertheless incorporates democratic elements such as elections (Parsi, 2013/6/13), and is “probably the most stable [state] in the Middle East outside of Israel, with the greatest degree of popular representation” (The Economist, 2013/9/23) remains the target of threats of war (Miryousefi, 2014/2/3) and accusations of human rights abuses (Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, 2013c). These states openly espouse anti-US government positions, particularly criticizing US foreign policy, and the rhetoric leveled against them reflects a mutual animosity. Wieseltier writes in The New Republic of the leader of Iran, who is not a monarch,

“This same mullah-king supports the murderer in Damascus and the murderers in Lebanon and Gaza, and remorselessly pursues a foreign policy animated by anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism and intra-Muslim hatred. We may have extended our hand, but the Supreme Leader—the title itself is repugnant to decent modern ears—has not unclenched his fist”. (Wieseltier, 2014/1/25)

Unsurprisingly, no mention is made of American support for murderers in Riyadh or Jerusalem, nor of the repugnancy of the terms Supreme Court or Commander-in-Chief, nor that the term Supreme Leader is an English translation of a Farsi term of respect and does not appear in the Iranian constitution which simply refers to a Leader “equal with the rest of the people of the country in the eyes of law” (Islamic Republic of Iran, 1979)….


BBC. (2013/10/21). Qatar Court Upholds Poet Mohammed al-Ajami’s Sentence. BBC.

Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. (2013a). US Relations with Saudi Arabia. Washington, DC: US Department of State.

───── . (2013b). US Relations with Qatar. Washington, DC: US Department of State.

───── . (2013c). US Relations with Iran. Washington, DC: US Department of State.

Bush, G. W. (2006). National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington, DC: White House.

Ching, F. (2012/9/12). Who Defines the “International Community”? The Diplomat.

Earnest, J. (2012). Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, August 17. Washington, DC: Office of the Press Secretary.

The Economist. (2013/6/8). Democracy? That’s For Other Arabs. The Economist.

───── . (2013/9/23). Rebels and Tyrants. The Economist.

Fassin, D. (2010). The Heart of Humaneness: The Moral Economy of Humanitarian Intervention. In D. Fassin & M. Pandolfi (Eds.), Contemporary States of Emergency (pp. 269–294). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Hancock, D. (2004/4/20). The Tangled Web of US-Saudi Ties. CBS News.

Hanieh, A. (2006). Praising Empire: Neoliberalism Under Pax Americana. In C. Mooers (Ed.), The New Imperialism: Ideologies of Empire (pp. 167–198). Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.

Islamic Republic of Iran. (1979). Iranian Constitution. Article 107, Section 2.

Meacher, M. (2005/9/10). Britain Now Faces its Own Blowback. The Guardian.

Miryousefi, A. (2014/2/3). Iran: Kerry, Obama Rhetoric Threatens to Derail Diplomacy. The Christian Science Monitor.

Morrow, A. (2011/6/23). Toronto Police Were Overwhelmed at G20, Review Reveals. The Globe and Mail.

Parsi, T. (2013/6/13). Iran’s Election is Neither Free Nor Fair–But Its Outcome Matters. The Globe and Mail.

Wieseltier, L. (2014/1/25). Iran Is Not Our Friend. The New Republic.

Wood, E. M. (2006). Democracy as Ideology of Empire. In C. Mooers (Ed.), The New Imperialism: Ideologies of Empire (pp. 9–24). Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.


Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism

Edited by Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2014

Hard Cover ISBN 978-0-9868021-5-7
Paperback ISBN 978-0-9868021-4-0