Occupy Wall Street versus American military might

The United States’ standing as “mediator” of international protests is a major obstacle for OWS to have to overcome.

Occupy Seattle protesters and union workers gather in a chanting circle at the University Bridge in Seattle
OWS protesters have started a long-term movement that has the potential to change the entire system [Reuters]

Cambridge, United Kingdom – Where a state stands on the international scale impacts the fate of that state’s social movements. The United States’ position as a global military power puts the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement at a particular disadvantage.

In The Green Movement’s Regret and OWS’ Red Ink Problem, I illustrated some of the domestic political dynamics influencing the OWS as it moves to reassemble anew. While domestic and international formations influence one another, it’s worth focussing on the interplay between international configurations and locally grounded social movements. Social movements have a better chance of achieving their political objectives in states that depend on patrons for protection. In other words, the chances of success multiply for social movements operating in states that are unable to dominate their global security networks.

Security networks are some of the most enduring international networks. Saudi Arabia, for instance, started its integration within Washington’s security apparatus in the early 1930s; a process facilitated by ARAMCO, the State Department and Al Saud clan. The Saudis are not alone. After the Soviets refused to rescue Egypt’s Third Army during the Yom Kippur War, Cairo too switched protectors and joined Washington’s security network in the late 1970s.

This dependence on foreign protection had significant domestic drawbacks for Egypt. Unlike the military in Saudi Arabia, which the Saudis keep intentionally dysfunctional, Egypt’s military was semi-capable, and more importantly, semi-independent from the head of state. The US, as a result, was able to make a deal with the military by rolling over Mubarak.

In short, once the political cost of the Tahrir Square protests induced on Mubarak – and by extension, on the US – passed a certain threshold, the White House arrived at an understanding with the Egyptian military (which had grown weary of both Mubarak and his parallel security apparatus). The leadership reshuffled and protestors achieved some of their political objectives.

Top-down decision making

Patron states’ exertion of this sort of influence is similar to top-down corporate decision-making, where middle management is sacrificed to quell public opinion. Protest movements in today’s informational society are mediated globally. As a result, leaders susceptible to their patron’s vertical decision making are particularly wary of both domestic social movements and, especially, their mediation. By the same token, social movements that assemble in states that do not dominate their security network, have a higher chance of achieving their political objectives.  

This is precisely what took place in Iran during the 1979 revolution, whereby various social movements greatly benefited from the Shah’s total dependence on the American security network. US generals quickly concluded that the Iranian military had neither the will nor a workable plan to push back against the revolutionaries. Consequently, Carter relayed a message to the Shah, “Maybe you ought to take a vacation”.

Carter’s goal was to make vertical adjustments by placing Bakhtiar in power to prevent “radical” forces from taking power. The Shah had no choice but to act on Carter’s “suggestion”. It was a fatal mistake. More “radical” forces did take the country, and Washington lost its direct vertical line to headquarters in Tehran. The revolutionaries’ success in Iran was in part rooted in Tehran’s inability to dominate its security network, as a result of the Shah’s total dependence on American might.  

Thirty years later, another uprising took place in Iran with contrasting results. Iran’s transformed position on the international scale contributed to the Green Movement’s failure in achieving most of its political objectives in 2009, despite its millions of protesters rallying in the streets for months. Since 1979, and irrespective of its many internal problems, Iran has come to dominate its own security network that includes Iraq, Syria, parts of Lebanon and parts of the Palestinian territories.

In the absence of vertical instruments of pressure during times of mass protests, what remains for external powers is horizontal pressure which the West, to some extent, deployed during the 2009 street demonstrations in Iran. Horizontal pressure is characterised by intervening in a state’s media space (BBC Persian, VOA et cetera), sanctions and ultimately, war. We must acknowledge then, where a state stands within its security network impacts the global dimension of, and influence on, the internal power struggle and chances of success for mass political mobilisation.

Coming back to the US, it must be noted that OWS’ challenges are not strictly domestic in nature. Domestic and international formations are woven in ways that ignoring either sphere is like stepping into the ring with one eye shut. The United States’ global standing is a major obstacle for OWS to have to overcome.

I hope that I do not leave Occupiers with the impression that they are totally impotent in confronting their challenges. While there is very little chance for the OWS to achieve its political objectives now, what has started promises to transform into a movement that will contest, in a serious way, the totality of the United States’ political/economic configuration.

Yet, Occupiers need to be clear-eyed about where they stand now, and how far down this path actually runs. 

Kusha Sefat is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Cambridge, Queens’ College.