Sunday, September 11, 2011
US Intervention & the Myth of American Benevolence
The aim of this talk is to show that there are no “good wars” when talking about US intervention under capitalism, and that we should take the principled position that the US military in incapable of doing good around the world. US intervention always means imperialism. This has renewed importance given the confusion on the Left regarding the invasion of Lybia.
Framework for understanding imperialism
Whether or not politicians have hearts, regardless of what they say a particular war is about, we have to understand that this is not what actually motivates US intervention. Even the most moral of politicians are forced to operate within and adapt to this global economic and political system—capitalism.
At its most basic level, capitalism is a system of competition between corporations for profits. And it is not enough for a corporation to maximize profits. It must make sure that it stays on top of its competition. It must continue relentlessly to maximize profit, and do so at the expense of others.
In this race, corporations chase profits into every nook and cranny of the globe aiming to secure cheap production costs: labor, land, resources...etc. Capitalist competition drives corporations to pry open markets for products to be sold around the world. And when the markets are opened up, they must be secured and protected from the competition.
How do corporations get a hold of all of this? And when they do, how do they protect it from the competition? US corporations need an organized force—the state. When we think of the state, we usually think of the military. But corporations working hand-in-hand with the government have many different tools at its disposal. In addition to the military, the US uses financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. It uses International Law, the UN...etc
There is a logic that drives US intervention and it has many tools to enforce it. But there is also a class nature to this logic. That is, some people benefit from the global race for profits, while others suffer from it. The US corporate elite who interchange as politicians—the US ruling class gain the profits while workers are the ones that fight and die in the military. Programs that benefit workers—health care, public education...etc—are slashed while military budgets increase.
The myth of American benevolence then is a cynical attempt by the people in power—the ruling class—to try and justify this inequality. No government sends troops off to war with the declared aim of profits, plunder, and conquest.
If you could sum up my talk in a sentence, it would be this: The story of how the US ruling class uses rhetoric to mask its aim to control the globe for empire and profit.
A myth, from the start
The myth of American benevolence is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it has been woven into the history of the US right from the start.
One of the first history lessons we get in school is the story of Thanksgiving—the peaceful feast between the Native Americans and the pilgrims. But we never learn that the settlers needed investors in order to travel to this “New World”, and these investors expected a return on their investment.
Plymouth was both a profit-making venture and an outpost of English imperialism in competition with Spain, France and Holland. Like its competitors, England claimed the “New World” and its riches by any means necessary, including the extermination of entire peoples. (D'Amato)
And that's exactly what the settlers did.
As Sidney Lens puts it in his book Forging the American Empire:
There is no escaping the conclusion that the US repeatedly attacked the natives and divested them of their lands simply because they had the misfortune to stand across the path of empire. (42)
...The basic pattern of relations with the Indian were not set by moral rectitude, but by economic determinism. The American people...flooded Indian territory in a great tidal wave and then, through war and treaty, forced the aborigines to cede their lands. (43-4)
United States origins of imperialism
The very foundation of the US then was based on conquering of land from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the enslavement of whole peoples. This expansion was driven by the needed to fuel its main industry at the time—agriculture.
But after the Civil War, big industry came to dominate. This meant that the need for raw materials from abroad also skyrocketed. Furthermore, factories needed new markets to sell the mountains of goods now being produced on mass scale. The changing economic needs with the development of capitalism necessitated US intervention around the globe.
Here's how the Bankers Trust Company of New York put it at the time:
The tremendous development of our manufacturers in recent years totally changes the aspect of our trade...to seek the best methods of stimulating the demand for American products in the markets. Our prosperity will be permanent only when a market can be found for all the goods we produce. (152)
So what are the best methods for a fast growing country that got into the empire-building game late as compared to its European competitors? Start small by colonizing weaker countries close to home. And that's what the US did.
So the first US efforts to build empire focused on wresting Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spanish control in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
But there's was a problem trying to sell war for conquest to population with a memory of their own fight in the US to not be conquered by England. And after all, wasn't the US supposedly built upon on the ideology of “freedom” and “democracy”?
Sidney Lens shows that the ruling class was completely aware of this dilemma. He points out that Roosevelt suggested at the time that the US send “two battleships and a coaling ship to Hawaii, hoist the US flag over the island, and leave all the details for after actions”.
But Roosevelt's strategist at the time, Alfred Mahan warned that “the great benefits of imperialism might be frustrated by those who cling to the maxims framed in the infancy of the republic”—in other words by those who still believed in the principles of non-intervention, self-rule, and self-determination.
So the story would go that the US needed to free people from Spanish tyranny—a story that we still hear today—whether the tyrant is Saddam Hussein or the Taliban or Qaddafi.
Sidney Lens describes how the US press used “some of the wildest and most dishonest reporting ever known...fairy tales intermixed with true facts” to build support or the war. They identified their bogeyman: General Valeriano (“Butcher”) Weyler. (171)
When it was clear that the US was ramping up an invasion of the Philippines, Spain offered to come to a diplomatic solution that would have addressed all of the stated humanitarian demands of the US—sensationalized in the press.
But this wouldn't quench the thirst of US imperialism. The US saw the Philippines as a doorway for expansion into China. (176)
In the end, the US colonization of the Philippines was at least as brutal as Spain and the “Butcher”. Aside from outright massacre, war correspondents noted the widespread use of a “water cure” to elicit information from prisoners. I'll spare you the gruesome details of the New York Evening Post's account written in 1902, but this was essentially the torture called “water boarding” that the US continues to defend today.
Other “highlights” of this “humanitarian” intervention include the “rope treatment”, and the use of the term “nigger” in reference to Philippinos—a clear link between racism used in war abroad and racism used to oppress at home.
So there you have it. The foundations of US intervention around the globe: massacre, torture, and racism for profit dressed in humanitarian clothing. By 1920, some 135 US corporations owned $433 million in property on the islands. (192) Between 1900 and 1937, the US attacked Cuba six times, Panama six times, Honduras seven times, Nicaragua twice, Guatemala once, and ruled by propping up puppet regimes.
This history shows that the humanitarian myth was consciously stoked by the ruling class from the beginning days of US imperialism to win support for what can only be called empire-building.
From here, I'd like to spend some time looking at, what seems to me, the most prominent example used today to prop up the myth: World War II.
World War II, the “good” war? (Ashley Smith, ISR 10)
Like the Spanish American War, World War II was about Empire Building. The years between them saw a changing of relative economic and military strength between superpowers. The US had steadily been gaining strength relative to the traditional imperial superpowers, and the Great Depression catalyzed a new fight between them for a re-division of the globe.
Ashley Smith put it in the ISR magazine this way:
Britain and France, victors of the First World War but economically weaker than before, sought desperately to cling to their empires. They were therefore able to pass themselves off as “reasonable” countries that sought to avoid war. Germany and Japan were struggling against the greater powers' stranglehold. And the US and Stalin's Russia were angling to take advantage of the conflicts to build their own empires.
FDR seemed to agree at the time. The President argued:
Foreign markets must be regained if America's producers are to rebuild a full and enduring domestic prosperity for our people.
So from the beginning, in the eyes of the ruling class, the plan was to break into the other imperialists' colonial markets, smash protectionist barriers and establish their control of the world capitalist system.
But again, this wouldn't sell to a working class that was still recovering from the horrors of the First World War. The Council on Foreign Relations worked closely with the State Department to issue a series of studies to help define the US war aims publicly.
Roosevelt as a result, announced that the US was joining the “arsenal of democracy”—to stop the Nazis and the spread of fascism, to stop the holocaust, to save the Jews, and combat racism. Because each one of these myths is so prominent today, I'd like to break it down and debunk each one.
First, the US joining the Allies in the “quest for democracy” should be almost laughable to us today.
England's power rested on its own bloody past, especially the jailing and brutal repression of the Indian independence movement.
Stalin's Russia was a police state.
The US ruling class record at home wasn't any better. They denied basic political rights to Blacks by enforcing Jim Crow segregation. The US passed the Smith Act which made it illegal to protest or speak out against the war. And we can't forget the most outrageous violation of the ruling class' rhetoric—the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during the war.
All of this is pretty widely known, but what is surprising perhaps is that the US cared as much about democracy as it did about combating fascism.
In fact, the ruling class initially welcomed Hitler and Mussolini as strong leaders who could defeat the powerful workers' movements in Germany and Italy.
Roosevelt actually called Mussolini “that admirable Italian gentleman” and wrote that he was “deeply impressed by what Mussolini has accomplished” and by his “evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy and seeking to prevent general European trouble.”
And even after the Nazi atrocities became common knowledge, US corporations sought out contracts with Germany.
From 1933 on, the New York Times carried stories detailing the Nazi attacks on the Jews, yet Roosevelt blocked every attempt to let in Jewish refugees. They refused to open US borders to desperate Jews who lined up in the tens of thousands at American embassies throughout Europe.
Reports as early as 1941 were documenting the mass extermination of Jews on the eastern front, yet any response was delayed until 1944. Even then, the US hardly did anything to stop the genocide. For example, the US refused to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz even though bombers flew over Auschwitz to bomb its factories.
And then there's the dropping of the atom bomb which is painted as a necessary lesser evil. In reality, this atrocity wasn't necessary at all.
Japan was on the verge of collapse. An economic blockade had choked off its supplies and the country had already been bombed to bits.
Before the bomb was dropped, the Japanese had actually offered terms of surrender. The Naval Admiral William Leahy admitted as much in 1946 when he wrote:
Use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. (Atomic Diplomacy, Alperovitz, 14)
The US dropped the atomic bomb instantly incinerating two Japanese cities to make a statement to the rest of the world. Truman, a Democrat, wanted to ensure that no other power would encroach on US domination. The US dropped it to establish itself as the dominate power in Asia and to back Russia off.
Truman's Secretary of State Designate James Byrne explained that “the atomic bomb might well put us in a position to dictate our terms at the end of the war” and in his phrase, make Russia “more manageable”.
And that's what happened. World War II propelled the US to the top of the empire game along with Russia as the sole superpowers. They were to battle it out for control of the globe for the next 50 years into what we know as the Cold War.
Humanitarian Intervention: surgery for a wounded beast
Hopefully at this point, we can see that the US has actively created the mythology of American benevolence to obscure its true aims. And this is why there are seemingly no limits to the hypocrisy of the US military intervention. But there is another function of the mythology. It has historically played an important role in rehabilitating imperialism when wounded.
The biggest defeat for US imperialism, of course, was the Vietnam War—when the Vietnamese national liberation struggle combined with a soldier's resistance within the US military and a massive anti-war movement in the US brought US imperialism to its knees.
With this resistance, the horrors of US imperialism were brought into plain sight for everyone to see and the motives of the US ruling class became clear as day.
Along with US imperialism, the myth of American benevolence took a serious blow as well. Known as the “Vietnam Syndrome”, politicians became reluctant to commit US forces to military adventures around the world. They needed to recover from domestic disillusionment and international disdain.
To slowly rebuild the right of the US military to openly intervene around the world again, the military establishment launched a decades-long drive of front-loading the myth of American benevolence.
During the Cold War, the rationale was fighting “communism” and “promoting democracy”.
As the Cold War ended, the ruling class shifted to its most successful rhetoric in rehabilitating US imperialism—the “humanitarian” intervention. And what better person to lead this charge for the ruling class than the “I feel your pain” president Bill Clinton.
If there was hesitancy to use the US military for direct intervention, US imperialism could lean more on other—more behind the scenes methods to secure its interests and dominate the globe.
The US trained, funded, and funneled weapons to paramilitary death squads like the contras to put down popular movements in Latin America. They used the CIA to orchestrate behind the scenes regime changes to make sure that US-friendly dictators ruled. They propped up proxy states such as Israel to protect interests abroad. And they forced economic restructuring programs through the World Bank and IMF into already-poor and developing countries that left them further in debt and in economic servitude to the US.
One of the favorite strategies of the US during this time was to invade under the guise of international institutions such as the UN. In fact, there were nearly 40 UN “peacekeeping” missions in the 1990's alone. (ISR 23)
But despite the humanitarian rhetoric, the United Nations was created in the first place to do the bidding of the world superpowers after World War II. Since then, it has been used to give the US the facade of international peacekeeping while furthering the US imperial project. The fact that major powers—especially the US—ignores the UN when it won't do its bidding shows that it exists to serve imperialism, and not the other way around.
A look at the actual record of US intervention through the UN shows that it is anything but humanitarian. In fact, the UN has played a destructive role in the hands of US imperialism.
One of the most telling examples is Somalia.
In 1993, President Clinton continued George Bush's Operation “Restore Hope” in Somalia. Under the pretext of feeding the hungry, the US-led UN deployment arrived months after those most-threatened by hunger had already died of starvation. An estimated 10,000 Somalis were left dead at the hands of US and UN forces (NYT). After 18 US soldiers died in the now-famous Black Hawk Down incident, US troops fled, leaving the East African nation worse off than when they arrived.
It's important to note that the dire circumstances in Somalia to begin with came about not because of tribalism and natural disaster. In previous years the US had actually been backing Siad Barre's regime with “hundreds of millions of dollars” (Time magazine). It didn't matter to them that the regime maintained power through a campaign of terror—that his regime destroyed water reserves, blew up food storage facilities, massacred civilians, and stoked tribal divisions that set the stage for civil war.
Along with US support for the Somali dictator, the IMF imposed a series of stringent free-market regulations that severely weakened the local economy and opened them up to international corporations which funneled wealth out of Somalia and into the West.
So humanitarian crisis in Somalia was not the result of a natural disaster. It was the product of US imperial policy. And the same can be said for other countries in and around the Horn of Africa.
The Horn of Africa is strategically located on the eastern edge of the continent—adjacent to the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and key commercial waterways. Somalia and neighbor Sudan have been targeted for oil exploration by US companies in competition with China, India and other countries that have gotten their foot in the door with development contracts.
When it all comes together, the period of US “humanitarian” intervention looks something like this:
The US creates humanitarian crises while trying to secure its interests in the region through 1) support for proxy armies while 2) prying open economies with the IMF and World Bank. Then, when these policies tear the country apart, the US can try to make itself look like the good “humanitarian” while intervening with direct force to strengthen its hold on the region and try to further edge out the competition.
This was close to the exact strategy with Darfur.
The US stoked divisions within the country using Sudan as a battle ground for the Cold War, and to control of oil reserves in the South. At first, the US backed the government in the north in a war to expel people from the local oil fields in the south. Then, when the Government refused to back the first Gulf War, the US retaliated by switching support to the Southern rebels. And they continued support even as two million people died and four million became refugees as a result.
Then, in laying the groundwork for the “War on Terror”, President Clinton proclaimed Sudan a “state sponsor of terror”. He ordered the bombing of the pharmaceutical plant which produced half of Sudan's medicines alleging that it had connections with al-Qaeda, and issued a ban on US corporate connections with the country. (ISR 50)
As the US left Sudan and shifted its focus to Afghanistan and Iraq, China lost no time in edging its way in to secure the African oil reserves. Around 2005, the US State Department began negotiating a peace treaty that would allow US corporations back into the country to play catch-up with China. But US plans were upset by the rebellion in Darfur.
So despite the fact that some may have been attracted to the “save Darfur” campaign out of the best genuine intentions, the calls for US-led intervention were wildly misplaced. It is clear from the real record of the US in Sudan and in Africa, that its intention was seizing control of strategic land and resources from its competitors.
But the humanitarian rhetoric also had another aim. It aimed to again help rebuild the wounded image of the US military. Although not as serious a blow as Vietnam, the brutality of the US occupation in Iraq, the Iraqi resistance and the Anti-war movement had taken important steps in exposing President Bush's war-aims.
Obama: Liberal makeover for cowboy imperialism
The US propaganda campaign to invade Darfur indicates that the ruling class was looking to give US imperialism a face-lift. It needed to shift gears with a new strategy and a new image. This was recognition that the Bush/Neo-Con-style cowboy imperialism was not the best strategy to advance US corporate interests. By cowboy imperialism, I mean:
1) Unilateralism, 2) Incredible arrogance, and a 3) A "clash of civilizations" framework, including: a) Virulent Islamophobic rhetoric, and the idea that, b) Muslim-majority nations were backward and incapable of democracy.
Further, the world began to define US intervention with the Iraq War. And Iraq means Abu Graib and the US torture prisons, indefinite detention of Arabs and Muslims, the world's largest refugee crisis and an unending occupation that had become popularly described as “worse to live under than under Saddam Hussein”.
It had really become clear to a section of the ruling class that there needed to be a new approach to bolster America's image—not to change US goals, but to accomplish them more effectively. And in the midst of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the US ruling class could not afford not to.
An expression of this ruling class conscious was represented in January of 2007 when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and others published a document titled, "Changing Course: A New Direction for US Relations with the Muslim World". It states in its opening pages that distrust of the US in Muslim-majority countries is a product of "policies and actions—not a clash of civilizations." It goes on to argue that to defeat "violent extremists", military force is necessary but not sufficient, and that the US needs to forge "diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural initiatives". (SW, 06/12/09)
President Obama was elected by the vast majority of workers in the hope that he would radically change the course of US imperialism. But for the ruling class, he represents this new strategy to rehabilitate US imperialism. After Obama was elected, he nearly repeated verbatim the talking points of the "Changing Course" document at his widely-praised foreign policy speech in Cairo. And in a further bolstering of the humanitarian, peace-keeping, do-gooder image for US intervention, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama has given us awards and rhetoric, but not much else to celebrate for those of us that want to see a better, more peaceful, humanitarian world.
Afghanistan: Another “good war”?
First, Obama has shifted focus as promised from the “distraction” of Iraq to Afghanistan—a war that is widely seen as justified as a “good war” to defend the world from terrorism.
But this justification is empty.
Remember, the US funded the fundamentalist resistance in Afghanistan against Russia in the Cold War which spawned both bin Laden's al-Qaeda as well as the Taliban. Also, its important to note that after 911, when the US was planning its invasion, there were offers made by the Taliban to hand over bin Laden, but they were ignored by the US so justification for invasion was not removed.
The war is not making us safer. The US occupation is fueling more recruits for the Taliban. Interviews conducted by the Toronto Globe reveal that a high proportion of new recruits to the Taliban joined because they personally knew civilians who had been killed or wounded in the US war. Others have been driven by the desperation of poverty and unemployment which has increased under US occupation. And a report in the Nation showed that Afghans also turn against the US occupation when troops whisk away family or acquaintances to be interrogated and tortured in secret prisons.
And Obama is not winding the occupation of Afghanistan down. He massively increased the number of troops with a surge similar to the one in Iraq under Bush. He has just called for another $33 billion as the Wall Street Journal reported last week (June 10, 2010) that casualties among the US and NATO troops are mounting in Marjah—where the insurgents continue to “hold sway over much of the populace”. And Obama has expanded the war with drone attacks in Pakistan which are resulting in mounting civilian casualties.
There is nothing “good” about this situation. This may be why the New York Times released a telling report documenting that Afghanistan has an estimated $1 trillion in minerals near the AfPak border.
Undoubtedly, this will be twisted by the US. We will see reports that we need to stay to help the people of Afghanistan keep these resources out of the hands of the Taliban. But what they won't say is that the US also wants to keep them out of the hands of the Afghani people, and China and Iran and Pakistan.
Haiti: Another neo-colonial project
The second case study in benevolent myth versus imperial reality under Obama is the earthquake in Haiti.
We all watched in horror as the quake killed more than 250,000 people, injured 250,000 and left the country in apocalyptic conditions. And we watched the corporate media explaining that the devastation was so bad because of the extreme poverty and weak infrastructure of Haiti.
But no one ever discussed how Haiti became so impoverished in the first place. As Ashley Smith put it on the socialistworker.org website, there were two fault lines in Haiti. One was the earthquake and the other was the history of US imperialism.
The story will sound familiar. The US backed dictatorship during the Cold War. They used dictatorship to impose IMF economic policies—policies which Haitians came to call the “plan of death”. And when popular resistance to these policies mounted, coups were orchestrated and backed by the US (and the UN) killing thousands. Essentially, the US government and the UN have aided the Haitian elite in subjecting the country to neoliberal economic plans that have impoverish the masses, deforested the land, wrecked the infrastructure and incapacitated the government in the face of natural disaster.
Although cloaked in the humanitarian rhetoric, the US created a virtual blockade between Haiti and the US refusing refugees the ability to escape the starvation conditions of the quake.
Although cloaked in the humanitarian rhetoric, the relief effort headed up by Obama was delivered in the form of a military occupation with soldiers carrying guns. The military occupation was a necessary part of the US imperial strategy to make sure Haiti's economy remains pried open to the free-market, to further create a low-wage workforce for US business, and to use Haiti as an outpost to keep countries that resist US imperialism (such as Chavez's Venezuela) in check.
The world's largest outdoor prison
I know I don't have much time left, but I wanted to say something about Israel's attack on the Flotilla. Obama continues—after Israel's brutal attack to stop the delivery of basic necessities—to support the blockade of Gaza which has accurately been called the world's largest open-air prison, that everyone—everyone (except the US and Israel) acknowledges is a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. How could a humanitarian president not speak out decisively against this?
Conclusion: Principled, knee-jerk anti-imperialist resistance
Posted by Kyle Brown at 4:56 PM