The concept of divide and conquer has been used successfully by colonial power for centuries, perhaps even millennia. The British Empire would pick a minority tribe in one of their colonies. The Crown officials would shower the minority with favors. It would train and educate them to rule over their countrymen and women. It purposely chose a non-majority tribe because they were smaller and weaker. By setting the minority and majority tribe against each other, they would be too busy fighting each other to unite to fight against their British overlords. Though this tactic might’ve preserved colonial rule, it left a long trail of blood and tears in its wake after the colonial era ended. Then the majority, so long disenfranchised and oppressed, turned on the former favorites of the colonial regime and took their revenge. This is part of the cause of the tribal-based genocide that has swept states in Africa in recent decades. It also happened in 1948 after Britain freed Indian and Pakistan. Independence resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands and mass expulsion of Hindus from Pakistan and Muslims from India. These ethnic and religious tensions beset both countries to this day.
How Putin’s Divide and Conquer Machinations Brought America to Its Knees
On tonight’s Fresh Air, the New Yorker’s David Remnick noted that Vladimir Putin’s Russia too has employed this tactic both in Europe and the U.S. His goal is to sow discord in the liberal west, to threaten the conventions, consensus, and elites in countries which have offered him the greatest resistance. By supporting right-wing populist nationalists like Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban and Donald Trump, he creates deep divisions within these states. These insurgent candidates, even if they don’t win, turn politics in their countries farther to the right. It turns them away from the world and deeper into themselves. It makes them isolationist. Urges rejection of regional enterprises like the European Union. Finally, it weakens Europe.
This is important to Putin because a weaker Europe will not have the will or capacity to stand in the way of his own initiatives, which have included the annexation of Crimea and may eventually lead to similar adventurism in the Baltics, once a Soviet dominated enclave. Putin also views the west as the font of discord and insurrection against those former Soviet Republics which turned from strongman to democratic rule. He sees the handwriting on the wall, and realizes that if he does not block this burgeoning call for popular democratic rule, it will eventually sweep him away as well.
Russia’s intervention in the U.S. election is yet another example of divide and conquer working magnificently on Putin’s behalf. He saw the mainstream of both Democratic and Republican parties as being deeply hostile to Russia. In particular, Bill Clinton presided over the expansion of NATO right up to Russia’s doorstep. Hillary Clinton, in Putin’s eyes, was an updated version of her husband: an interventionist hawk who could lead the U.S. to military adventurism in any number of places. And even if she didn’t explicitly advocate for regime change in Russia, her fingerprints would be found in the populist movements which threatened Putin’s hold on power.
The Russian leader craves more than anything a U.S. that is divided, confused, and demoralized. A weak America will not have the fortitude to advocate for our allies in Europe. It will not have the will to stand up against Russia’s aggressive behavior. And that’s just what he’s found in Donald Trump. A president so divisive that he has set entire segments of the population against each other as few previous presidents have. A president with no command of foreign policy, no awareness of U.S. interests as traditionally defined. A president who vacillates about major policy matters. Adopts one position one day and its exact opposite the next. Who essentially does nothing because he’s either too confused or too embattled domestically to act. This is the perfect adversary for Putin.
Thus, it made perfect sense for Putin to conspire to weaken Clinton. I doubt he dreamed of toppling her candidacy altogether. He probably didn’t understand U.S. politics well enough to know how weak a candidate she was (Bernie Sanders success should’ve alerted him to this). But the Russia hacks, the torrent of embarrassing e-mails, and the vacillations of a malign or craven FBI director all contributed to significantly suppress enthusiasm among Democrats for their candidate. That, and major missteps by the candidate herself and her campaign combined to seal her fate.
If Putin had wanted to, he could’ve done all this on his own and quietly. He could’ve acted independently of the Trump campaign and not coördinated his activities with it. But his desire for revenge was so strong that he appears to have wanted it known that he was explicitly favoring Trump. That’s why there were so many contacts between Trump campaign staff and surrogates and Russian government and likely intelligence officials.
If Trump had been smarter, he would’ve told his staff he wanted nothing to do with the Russians. He would’ve said: let them do what they want to Hillary. But we will not be part of it. That way, he would’ve had plausible deniability. But Trump too is a bit like Putin. He likes to preen in front of the camera and at the expense of his opponent. So he basked in the Russian machinations, telling the world that he welcomed their hacking and the release of Hillary’s e mails. As a result, he destroyed any chance of having credibility around this issue once he became president.
That is why Michael Flynn was sacked. It’s why Jeff Sessions now stands accused of lying to a Senate committee about his own contacts with Russian officials. It’s why his own attorney general can no longer be trusted to run an independent investigation of the entire Russian affair and the Trump campaign’s involvement in it. It’s why it appears (as of today) there could be an independent prosecutor appointed. And once this happens, Trump no longer controls it. That’s when things become incredibly dangerous politically for him.
Israel: Divide and Conquer Arab-Style
Israel too has employed divide and conquer to weaken its enemies almost since its founding. When it found Arab minorities like the Druze or Bedouin whom it could co-opt, it offered them benefits and superior status. It recruited them to serve in the army, where they fought against their fellow Arabs. But when he couldn’t co-opt, Ben Gurion simply bared the claws of the state and expelled hundreds of thousands of indigenous inhabitants in the Nakba (a word Bernie Sanders almost used in his J Street speech!!).
Later, in dealing with the external Arab foe, Israel was forced to act in a less explicit manner. During the 1982 Lebanon invasion, it could not simply slaughter its Lebanese enemies (the PLO), so it recruited the Christian Phalangists to do the job for them. That led to the Sabra and Chatilla massacre. So too, it recruited the Phalangists to form the South Lebanon Army and act as a buffer to protect from attacks on northern Israel. Israel treated the Phalangists as a quasi-state when they were little more than Israeli vassals. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, the SLA disappeared and was replaced by Hezbollah, a staunch Israeli enemy.
But before 1982, when Israel’s primary enemy in Lebanon was the PLO, it sought a counter-balance. That’s what led the infamous Mossad spy, Rafael Eitan, to travel to Beirut to help with the founding of Hezbollah. He wanted to set it against the PLO so that they would spend their time fighting each other rather than uniting against a common enemy, Israel. That’s not how it worked out eventually, alas (for Israel).
In the West Bank, Israel also sought a way to temper the dominance of the PLO over the Palestinian population. At first, they turned to a quiescent set of tribal sheiks and called them the Village Leagues. When this failed, they latched onto the new Islamist awakening led by what eventually became Hamas. Israeli agents, at least in the beginning, offered both tacit and explicit support for Hamas in its fight with Fatah.
What’s common to both these stories is that Israel tried to build up a buffer to its chief enemy, only to see the insurgent turn into a greater foe than its original enemy. Now, Fatah is a bunch of decrepit corrupt octogenarians, while Hamas offers Palestinians the strongest message of resistance, solidarity, and political coherence.
In Remnick’s interview, he says that the Arab Spring scared the daylights out of Putin. He saw in it and the various Color Revolutions which had shaken Georgia and Ukraine, and toppled their strongmen governments, a direct threat to both Russian stability, and his continued rule. Curiously, Bibi Netanyahu’s response to the Arab Spring was quite similar. He knew that Israel’s best hope for continued hegemony in the region lay with corrupt autocrats like Mubarak and the Hashemites who could be trusted to rein in popular unrest and deliver stability on Israel’s borders. What scares the bejesus out of Israeli leaders are popular uprisings which will question why their Arab potentates haven’t done anything to resist Israel or help their Palestinian brothers and sisters to regain their lands.
During the Arab Spring, Netanyahu was frightened to death that Obama would endorse the democracy movement and push it toward toppling oppressive regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. If that happened, it might only be a matter of time before popularly elected democratic leaders might unite and turn the full force of their solidarity toward Israel-Palestine and demand a solution to the conflict. The full force of a united democratic Arab world and a “hostile” U.S. president might be more than enough to overcome the resistance of any Israeli government, no matter how united.
That’s why Israel has breathed a sigh of relief in the aftermath of the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the crushing of the popular revolt in Bahrain. It’s also why Bibi has embraced the Egyptian junta and the Saudi monarchy. Israel needs a corrupt, autocratic Arab leadership to continue to divide and conquer its enemies, and continue its subjugation of Palestine.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that divide and conquer is a temporary tactic. It may offer momentary advantage, but strategically it almost always ends in disaster. If the long arc of history bends toward justice, as I’d like to believe it will, the Arab masses will eventually throw off their chains and come to confront their real enemies, both internal and external. It won’t be a welcome reckoning for Israel. And it will have only itself to blame for the bankrupt policies it pursued, which brought it to that point.
Social Media: If you don’t already, I encourage you to subscribe to my Twitter or Facebook feeds. I devote a great deal of time to reading and curating news from the Middle East. In my social media accounts you will find not only my brief comments on these stories, but you can find articles you might never see yourself. They are an important resource. I hope you will make best use of them. Tell others as well!
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.