The outside enemy as a political tool

Observation #3: Identifying an outside enemy gives leaders the ability to control inside events.

A war is never about what they say it’s about: often it’s about something entirely different. In Sri Lanka, the 24-year war with the LTTE has less to do with ethnic Tamils and more to do with controlling the Sinhalese. That’s because the Sinhalese population is divided by class, caste, and regional differences in language, culture, and economic conditions. By nature it is fragmented and inconsistent. But by identifying an outside enemy (first Tamils as a whole, and more recently the LTTE), leaders have been able to artificially unify the Sinhalese into three major political blocks. The primary struggle in the war is between those blocks for control over the Sinhala “nation.”

Declaring an outside enemy gives a leader leverage to control events inside his/her constituency. At its basic level, such a declaration calls on all members of the constituency to set aside their “petty” differences and unite behind a common vision— which is coincidentally the vision of the leader. But that’s just the beginning. The national dialog can be influenced to eliminate all those other “unimportant” issues. Freedoms can be reduced. Opponents can be silenced by political, police, or extra-judicial action. All of this becomes justifiable because of the need to fight the outside enemy. And, if the populace sufficiently feels the urgent danger of the enemy, they will go along without protest. After all, the nation is at war and “our boys” are risking all on the battlefield.

This dynamic creates an environment in which leaders have a vested interest in creating and maintaining such an enemy, since this gives them more power than they would otherwise be entitled to. Because they benefit directly from the continuation of the conflict, they resist ending the war. Given that the enemy has its own reason to continue the fight, that puts leaders on both sides of the conflict in a position of vested interest against peace. It can be useful to envision a war not as two groups fighting each other, but as the leaders of those two groups in conflict with the people of both groups.

Ironically, an opposition candidate who steps into the position of leadership with the promise of change will often find the conflict-enhanced power too seductive to resist— and the new leader will maintain the outside enemy, too. In Sri Lanka, each successive government has won its election on the promise to end the war, while the incumbent campaigned on the need to keep fighting. Once in power, the new government found it necessary to keep fighting and the old government– now the new opposition– agitated for peace. Similarly, in the U.S., the Democrats seem much less anxious to end the war now that they control Congress.

The use of an outside enemy affects the politics of a society, with each new leader seduced into continuing the war rather than relinquishing his/her power. But it affects the consciousness of the nation as well, since peace is often derided as “not a practical option,” and eventually becomes beyond consideration. Thus the use of the outside enemy is self-perpetuating: a leader can’t make the decision to stop, and even if he/she did, would be seen as weak by the electorate. The process cannot be stopped while the outside enemy remains a threat, yet peace cannot be made as long as the process continues.

This is one reason that post-modern conflicts seem to defy solution: in the absence of a major change in consciousness, they are self-perpetuating.


  1. Fourteen Identifying Characteristics of Fascism

    3.. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause – The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe; racial, ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists; terrorists, etc.

  2. While that may be a characteristic of fascism, the phenomenon is not limited to fascists only (except as the term broadly applies to any quasi-totalitarian government). It’s been used from time to time by fascists, communists, socialists, capitalists, and monarchists– as well as by both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.

    I also note that, while many of the fourteen characteristics may indeed be held in common by fascist regimes, only a handful are unique to fascism. The rest are common not only to fascism but to other types of totalitarianism– and even abusive democracies.

    This is one of the problems in trying to make peace: much like the Buddhist-Marxist JVP in Sri Lanka (which is neither Buddhist nor Marxist), it is necessary to step beyond easy categorizations (whether made by themselves or others) and understand what drives them.

Comments are closed.