The case of a Manchurian candidate: political and operational indications.

By Alessandro PolitiPolitical and strategic analyst

The case of a Manchurian candidate: political and operational indications

The reflection and imaginary of hard politics is unfortunately dominated by Hollywood, where nuance, complexity, ambiguity are generally shunned, believing that the public is somehow inherently stupid: it is a completely wrong assumption at least for half of it, who is exposed very early by psychological frameworks and by the practice of love to deception, weak signals and betrayal.

The use itself of the metaphor of the Manchurian candidate is just for easy understanding, but the film plot has nothing to do with real life, no more than the film Gladiator with real Roman imperial politics.

The case we are trying to sketch is part of the craft of political warfare and its most understandable tools are: political infiltration and subversion, supported by a robust propaganda campaign. That sort of candidate is not the puppet of a regime installed by occupation or by hard/soft coup d’état, it can be rightfully described as a top level influencer that is capable to serve his/her own interests, part of the national interests identified by the groups and the electorate supporting that politician and international/transnational interests flexibly compatible with the country that is the real political reference for that decision-maker. The computer science description of a Trojan horse is particularly telling in this circumstance and this sort of virus operates through confusion by design.

Specialists should resist the temptation of using the category of agent of influence, because this type of person is clearly directed, handled or exploited by a foreign intelligence service. Here one should concentrate on politics and on their fifty shades of grey. Evidently effective political action can dictate to keep contact and reach deals with governments and figures that have more than dubious political values, ethical behaviour and employ very questionable means, but the problem is keep clarity on one’s own loyalties and on the consequences of those contacts/agreements reached.

Taking stock of the Italian experience means that the first instance of dangerous candidate coming in mind is a mafia-colluding politician. In other European countries there is the tendency to underestimate the problem describing it as “a rotten apple”: it is not, it is just the visible part of a rotten basket that can make its way up to very sensitive positions like the Interior ministry or the intelligence and security services. In a lot of advanced and rich democracies there is still the illusion that organised crime is a sort of underworld that has no real and high-level contact with national politics: serious investigations and time will tell unfortunately that this is a wrong assumption. For the pleasure of tickling the reader, one can of course imagine a politician bedfellow of some Middle Eastern country (not necessarily Arab), some malign Asiatic or East European country or some apparently reviled monotheistic religion, but this does not change the substance of the matter.

It is simple to understand that such a situation has devastating effects on the state, the government and the country where this political infiltration and subversion, supported by a robust propaganda campaign, have been successful. It hollows out the state (i.e. that political entity and construct that is beyond personal, lobby and even governmental interests, guaranteeing some balance and political impartiality in the raison d’état, or imperfectly in English language, national interest), opening it to manipulation and infiltration by foreign and private interests. It makes dysfunctional the government in its normal and exceptional operations because it obscures the clarity of state, national and collective interests, distorting the functioning and meaning of democratic political interaction and skewing the political effects on social dynamics. It plunges the country into a virtual reality where the public loses quickly the grasp of essentials and is mass distracted by continuous media stunts without beneficial consequences for real people, with the exception of the happy few in the magic circle of the ruler. In short, it is state capture from outside at the highest level.

Chinese political literature gives a simplified account of the problem when the marquis of Qi wanted to undermine the positive reforms of the duchy of Lu, under the auspices of Confucius: he sent 100 good horses and 80 beautiful dancing girls to the duke of Lu. The duke forgot to follow the affairs of his country. The interesting indication is that Confucius did not resign openly for this misconduct, avoiding a loss of prestige for the country, but waited for a lesser issue to quit his post and go into self-imposed exile.

The consequences for any state structure can be quickly resumed: the nature and purpose of the body is deeply and continuously hijacked.

Once one has defined what this political Trojan Horse is, one should offer some practical advice on what to do. The easiest and safest choice for the individual is to quit any responsibility and either retire or work in a less compromised business sector. It is not necessarily a heroic choice, but one has to acknowledge that, against a tsunami of subversion and bottomless compromise, a single person apparently cannot do much.

The second choice is to stay. This is a very dangerous choice that should not be entered lightly, even if sometimes quitting is simply impossible for personal or general context reasons; one should be clear that, more often than not, one has to face extreme loneliness because mistrust is very diffused. The wait-and-see tactic is often the best available, but it exposes the person sooner or later to moral hazard due to the ongoing collaboration with a corrupt regime.

It is important instead to have a very clear political awareness because this can guide persons and groups to resist and be resilient in adversity for a much longer time and in a much more focussed way. The first enemy to fight is internal, i.e. the idea that there are no more ideologies except pragmatism. Pragmatism is a weak and corrosive ideology because it has no overarching value beyond immediate convenience and money.

Once freed from this obnubilation, one is relatively free to choose among a rather vast gamut of beliefs, knowing that not all of them are really useful against a Manchurian candidate: quietist approaches are good for the individual, but not for the general interest of the country, witness the ambiguities and limited effects of the “innere Emigration” (intimate emigration) during the National-Socialist regime.

A particularly tricky ideological obstacle is nationalism. This is the real driving force of all oppressive regimes, no matter their external trappings, and is the real pillar also of authoritarian democracies, be they “Western” or “People’s” ones, because it creates and entertains a bond of faith to the symbols of the nation: if you are against them, you are a traitor of the nation. This is of course a manipulation because the regime has highjacked national symbols for purposes that have nothing to do either with the general interest or with constitutional values, that often are bent in the name of political expediency that is practical for the ruling group.

Political awareness is not a given because it will be often tested by concrete dilemmas, but each time it is possible to find a solution that keeps integrity and allows to protect the general interest of citizens and country against the subversion operated at top level.

Films are full of daring and romantic plots to overthrow illegitimate governments; the reality is already extremely harsh and difficult with openly totalitarian or dictatorial regimes; risks in manipulated democracies are even higher because the fog of communication by complacent media tries precisely to hamper clear political distinctions between friends or foes and the danger of neutralisation by captive bureaucracies, character assassination or outright elimination are no less concrete.

Therefore, the first, and sometimes the only task that should be set is to avoid the spreading of political pollution and operational confusion throughout institutions and organisations. It is practically a quiet work of counter-information with a very low profile. Sometimes it is good to keep accurate record of what is happening in one’s own organisation, sometimes this can be a risk. Blatant propaganda lies may have to be repeated, but there is a lot of room for spreading facts without comments or for not repeating widespread nonsense. Facts will do their job in minds that offer a modicum of common sense, while they will be ignored by people who want to live in the “privileged bubble”. Again, nothing terribly glitzy, but a patient work of prevention and mental hygiene. If better times arrive, the seeds will blossom; if bad times persist, not a small number of people will be saved from folly and disorientation: losing one’s own bearings in a foggy desert is a recipe for death.

The second step is building a network. This is often a necessary but inevitably dangerous step. Since there are no more reliable institutional loyalties, because corrupted or compromised in their reputation by the mentioned Trojan horse, each outreach is fraught with risks. To make a very long story short, one is not allowed to make mistakes in judging people: as in motorcycling, one error and you are down, and with you the whole network. In these situations, old friends are not necessarily a guarantee of reliability, since the best traitors (and agents provocateurs) are the persons we believe to know well since long time. Electronic communications must be handled with extreme care, because one must assume to be already put under surveillance, simply because modern systems make it possible to carry out massive intercepts. What the uniformed police will not do (and one would best not assume that it would not), internal security will do and, if not for some reason, mercenary private intelligence will to it anyhow.

Reaching out to foreign organisations, be they public or private, magnifies the risk both in being discovered and manipulated. Sometimes it is lifeline, but shaking off from that dependence is a long, costly and painful process. Sometimes you are exposed by errors or hostile persons in the country from which you expect support.

Why then going through all this fuss? Because one needs a networks to beat a network. Otherwise, better alone than in bad company.

Changing the correlation of political forces in order to neutralise the mentioned Manchurian candidate is the main road to close the business, because shortcuts through judicial indictment, soft or hard coups or assassination, have not only a high rate of failure, but leave loose strands that be a serious problem in the recovery of full democracy. Exposing “the candidate” for what he or she is maybe good in films and novels, but in reality this is not a silver bullet; it is just a component, and not the most important, to convince the supporters to switch side. What makes them changing opinion about his/her genius (a Trojan horse is always a person with a special superior aura, better if divine), is the realisation of his/her failure in keeping promises that touch not the values, not the society or fatherland/family, it is banally, since the times of Machiavelli and before, the wallet.

Organising the discontent in an effective way does not really need a leader, it needs a sound structure (as every successful revolutionary and subversive will tell you) then capable to express an adequate leader. It was the French Revolution that give birth to Robespierre and Napoleon, not the other way round. It takes time, patience, perseverance and … a lot of silence behind a communication screen.

Once the virus is neutralised, begins the long and difficult task to repair the society’s and state’s operational system from the inevitable damage suffered in the process: restoring values, side-lining cronies, changing laws and habits, cleaning the media and information process, purging security structures, regulating the economy, etc. In other words, institutions have to be restored through the values that were carefully nurtured in bad times.

As we have seen, counter-interference is a business much more complex than counterintelligence, as anti-terrorism is much more easier that fighting organised crime. One of the things they have in common is persistence in time and will. Freedom has always needed this sort of determination, against all odds and long grey years; servitude requires just one yes, like narcotics.


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