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United4Iran: Financial and Corporate Interests Mobilize the Left

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By Stephen Gowans

 United4Iran, which describes itself as “a non-partisan collaborative of individuals and human rights organizations” whose “aim is to support the Iranian people’s human rights,” has organized a Global Day of Action for July 25.

People are invited to “join this unprecedented wave of global citizen activism in solidarity with the people of Iran,” to be held in more than 105 cities around the world.” 

United4Iran is sponsored by a number of organizations that receive funding from philanthropic foundations dominated by corporate interests and by the US National Endowment for Democracy, an organization established by the US government to do overtly what the CIA used to do covertly (i.e., funnel money to groups and organization working, often unknowingly, toward US foreign policy goals.) 

A global day of action in 105 cities requires organizing and publicity that depends critically on generous funding — funding which corporations, wealthy individuals and the governments they dominate are all too happy to provide if it serves their interests. 

While there will be a global day of action on behalf of the people of Iran, it’s a pretty good bet that none of the following are in the works: large-scale, global actions to show solidarity with the people of Honduras, or of Kyrgyzstan, where the incumbent president, who has been accused of political repression, was re-elected amid charges of fraud, or of Saudi Arabia, despite Amnesty International, one of the sponsors of this week-end’s action, accusing the Saudi authorities of using torture to extract confessions and of using their powerful international clout to get away with it.

The Honduras coup is tacitly supported by Washington; Kyrgyzstan is home to an important US military base; and Saudi Arabia is an oil rich country that works cooperatively with US oil companies and military interests.

There are dozens of countries whose people we ought to be showing solidarity with, but predictably, it is only countries that are on Uncle Sam’s regime change hit list that merit generously funded actions.

Indeed, the only global day of action sponsored by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, and any other organization which receives funding from Western governments and corporate philanthropic foundations, will be those aimed at countries that are charting an independent course and offer too few investment and export opportunities to Wall Street and corporate America.

If and when these same countries are brought under US domination, all funding for demonstrations of solidarity with the people of these countries will dry up, along with concern for their plight. Indeed, no one will have the slightest clue as to the welfare of the people they once showed such keen solidarity with.

No matter; the attention of those who zealously show their solidarity with the people of Iran (which people? the peasants and working class who supported Ahmadinejad, or the affluent, who were educated in tony universities in the West, who supported Mousavi?) will soon enough focus their attention on the people of another US State Department target country, and new global days of actions will be held, to pave the way for the overthrow, through destabilization, color revolution or military intervention, of that country’s government.

And so it goes. The media, dominated by corporate and financial interests, and the corporate philanthropists who fund left and human rights groups, set the agenda which the left, with no sophisticated understanding of who wields power and how and to what end, blindly follows. Imperialism is so much easier when the one sector that ought to be against it, can so readily be manipulated into acting on its behalf.

Written by what's left

July 24, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Posted in Imperialism, Iran

A Handsome Investment Opportunity: Washington’s Plan for a Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe

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By Stephen Gowans

Washington’s plan for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe has been sketched out by Michelle D. Gavin, White House advisor and Senior Director for African Affairs at the National Security Council [1], while she was a research fellow at the influential Council on Foreign Relations. In Planning for Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe [2], a paper which spells out “a vision for (Zimbabwe’s) future and a plan for how to get there,” Gavin explains how the “existing roster of (Zimbabwe’s) civil society leaders…lends itself to the U.S. desire” to put Zimbabwe’s valuable natural resources, including its farmland, up for sale to U.S. investors. Gavin cautions that a populist and nationalist reaction against the U.S. plan could arise, and recommends three counter measures: a job creation program; co-opting the corps of Zimbabwe’s middle-level military officers with training programs, exchanges and pay increases; and entrepreneurship programs to divert the energies and attention of politicized youth.

 What is the Council on Foreign Relations? 

The Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) is the largest U.S. ruling class policy organization. Founded in 1921 by bankers, lawyers and scholars interested in carving out a larger role for the United States in world affairs, the organization’s membership is today dominated by finance bankers, corporate executives, and lawyers, supplemented by journalists, scholars and government and military officials.

The CFR is funded by corporations, wealthy individuals and sales of its journal, Foreign Affairs. Its most important function is to bring together small discussion groups, of 15 to 25 corporate executives, State Department and Pentagon officials, and academics, to explore specific issues in foreign affairs and identify policy alternatives. Discussion groups often lead to study groups, led by a research fellow, Gavin’s role at the CFR. As sociologist William Domhoff explains,

“The goal of such study groups is a detailed statement of the problem by the scholar leading the discussion. Any book that eventuates from the group is understood to express the views of its academic author, not of the council or the members of the study group, but the books are nonetheless published with the sponsorship of the CFR.” [3]

The books and papers are sent to the State Department, where their recommendations are often adopted, either as a result of the prestige of the CFR or because members of the CFR circulate freely between the organization and the State Department and National Security Council. Gavin herself is emblematic of this career path.

Gavin’s Analysis

It is quite astonishing that the United States can deny that it is imperialist, when scholars, government and military officials and CEOs, meet under the auspices of the CFR to plan the future of other countries.  In an affront to democracy and geography, Gavin, a U.S. citizen, articulates the CFR’s “vision for (Zimbabwe’s) future and a plan for how to get there.” 

Gavin attributes Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties to “gross mismanagement,” rather than U.S. efforts to undermine Zimbabwe’s economy, a commonly practiced deception by U.S. officials.  While “President Mugabe and his cronies frequently claim that Western sanctions are sabotaging the Zimbabwean economy,” she writes, this cannot be true because “there are no trade sanctions on Zimbabwe.”  True, there are no formal trade sanctions, but there are plenty of financial sanctions, a point of which Gavin must surely be aware. She was a long-serving foreign policy advisor to U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, a co-sponsor of the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery of Act of 2001 (ZDERA), along with Hillary Clinton (now U.S. Secretary of State), Joseph Biden (now U.S. Vice-President) and the arch racist Jesse Helms. Gavin, herself, describes ZDERA as “a law prohibiting U.S. support for both debt relief and any new assistance for Zimbabwe from the international financial institutions.” This means that Zimbabwe has been barred from accessing development assistance and balance of payment support since 2001, a virtual economic death sentence for a Third World country.  Gavin’s deception extends to claiming that while “it is true that major donors oppose extending any additional support to Zimbabwe at international financial institutions, Zimbabwe’s own deep arrears and the ZANU-PF government’s unwillingness to pursue sustainable economic policies prevent this support from being extended anyway.” If this is true, why did the U.S. government go to the trouble of creating ZDERA?  And why is Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Finance, now under the control of the U.S.-backed Movement for Democratic Change, complaining that ZDERA is undermining its efforts to bring about an economic recovery? In May, Finance Minister Tendai Biti pointed out that,

“The World Bank has right now billions and billions of dollars that we have access to but we can’t access those dollars unless we have dealt with and normalized our relations with the IMF. We cannot normalize our relations with the IMF because of the voting power, it’s a blocking voting power of America and people who represent America on that board cannot vote differently because of ZDERA.” [4]

As bad as ZDERA is, it’s not the only financial sanctions regime the United States has used to sabotage Zimbabwe’s economy. Addressing the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee, Jendaya Frazer, who was George W. Bush’s top diplomat in Africa, noted that the United States had imposed financial restrictions on 135 individuals and 30 businesses. U.S. citizens and corporations who violate the sanctions face penalties ranging from $250,000 to $500,000. “We are looking to expand the category of Zimbabweans who are covered. We are also looking at sanctions on government entities as well, not just individuals.” She added that the U.S. Treasury Department was looking into ways to target sectors of Zimbabwe’s critical mining industry. [5]

On July 25, 2008 Bush announced that sanctions on Zimbabwe would be stepped up. He outlawed U.S. financial transactions with a number of key Zimbabwe companies and froze their U.S. assets. The enterprises included: the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (which controls all mineral exports); the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company; Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe; Osleg, or Operation Sovereign Legitimacy, the commercial arm of Zimbabwe’s army; Industrial Development Corporation; the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe; ZB Financial Holdings; and the Agriculture Development Bank of Zimbabwe. [6]

Two other aspects of Gavin’s comments on Zimbabwe’s economy must be addressed.

First, her reference to senior Zimbabwe officials as “cronies” of Robert Mugabe: This is a transparent effort to discredit Zimbabwe’s government through name-calling, a hoary practice that, during the Cold War, led U.S. officials and mass media to adopt differential terminology depending on whether they were referring to capitalist or socialist countries.  The Soviet Union had a “regime”, “secret police”, “satellites” and an “empire” while the United States had a “government,” “security organizations,” “allies,” and “strategic interests.” The propaganda function of the term “cronies” becomes evident when used against the United States. Were we to talk of Obama and his cronies (his top advisors and cabinet officials) we would be dismissed as crude propagandists. “Cronies” not only serves a clear propaganda function, it also reflects Washington’s frustration with Mugabe’s having built up a loyal circle of advisors and political lieutenants, whose members the United States has been unable to co-opt. 

Second, Gavin’s attributing “Zimbabwe’s own deep arrears” to international lending institutions to the former “ZANU-PF government’s unwillingness to pursue sustainable economic policies,” requires some explanation of what sustainable economic policies are.  Sustainable economic policies, from the point of view of the World Bank, IMF and the North Atlantic financial elite that dominates these organizations, are policies which benefit the lenders. Credit does not come without strings attached, and the strings are often deeply inimical to local populations. The economic policies the Mugabe government pursued, under the guidance of the World Bank and IMF, hardly sustained the people of Zimbabwe.

“In January 1991, Zimbabwe adopted its Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP), designed primarily by the World Bank. The program called for the usual prescription of actions advocated by Western financial institutions, including privatization, deregulation, a reduction of government expenditures on social needs, and deficit cutting. User fees were instituted for health and education, and food subsidies were eliminated. Measures protecting local industry from foreign competition were also withdrawn.

“The impact was immediate. While pleasing for Western investors, the result was a disaster for the people of Zimbabwe. According to one study, the poorest households in Harare saw their income drop over 12 percent in the year from 1991 to 1992 alone, while real wages in the country plunged by a third over the life of the program. Falling income levels forced people to spend a greater percentage of their income on food, and second-hand clothes were imported to compensate for the inability of most of Zimbabwe’s citizens to purchase new clothing. A 1994 survey in Harare found that 90 percent of those interviewed felt that ESAP had adversely affected their lives. The rise in food prices was seen as a major problem by 64 percent of respondents, while many indicated that they were forced to reduce their food intake. ESAP resulted in mass layoffs and crippled the job market so that many were unable to find any employment at all. In the communal areas, the rise in fertilizer prices meant that subsistence farmers were no longer able to fertilize their land, resulting in lower yields. ESAP also mandated the elimination of price controls, allowing those shop owners in communal area who were free of competition to mark prices up dramatically…By 1995, over one third of Zimbabwe’s citizens could not afford a basic food basket, shelter and clothing. From 1991 to 1995, Zimbabwe experienced a sharp deindustrialization, as manufacturing output fell 40 percent.

“The government of Zimbabwe felt it could no longer endure this debacle, and by the end of the 1990’s, started moving away from the neoliberal program. Finally, in October 2001, the abandonment of ESAP was officially announced. ‘Enough is enough,’ declared President Mugabe.” [7]

Zimbabwe: A handsome investment opportunity

Gavin estimates that the overall costs of undoing the damage of U.S. economic sabotage “fall between $3 billion and $4.5 billion over five years,” representing a substantial investment for the U.S. government. But “such a substantial investment makes sense,” Gavin concludes, because “private investors have expressed strong enthusiasm for Zimbabwe’s long-term potential.”

However, taking advantage of Zimbabwe’s long-term investment potential may not be easy, she cautions, for the suspicions of populist and nationalist Zimbabweans must be overcome. “The United States and others should be aware of nationalist and populist sensitivities,” she warns.  The creation of “a reform agenda” and “a more favorable investment climate” could lead Zimbabweans to believe that U.S. involvement ”is leading to a selling off of valuable natural resources in deals that are lucrative for foreign investors but do little for the Zimbabwean people.”

Zimbabweans’ experiences with World Bank and IMF economic structural adjustment programs of the 1990s, and the experiences of Serbia – in which the United States created a reform agenda and more favorable investment climate after the socialist-inclined Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup – serve as warnings.  In Serbia, U.S. involvement led to a selling off of publicly and socially-owned assets in deals that were lucrative for foreign investors but did little for the Serb people.

“In Serbia dollars have accomplished what bombs could not. After U.S.-led international sanctions were lifted with Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, the United States emerged as the largest single source of foreign direct investment. According to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, U.S. companies have made $1 billion worth of ‘committed investments’ represented in no small part by the $580 million privatization of Nis Tobacco Factory (Phillip Morris) and a $250 million buyout of the national steel producer by U.S. Steel. Coca-Cola bought a Serbian bottled water producer in 2005 for $21 million. The list goes on.” [8]

Meanwhile, in the former Serb province of Kosovo, the

“coal mines and electrical facilities, the postal service, the Pristina airport, the railways, landfills, and waste management systems have all been privatized. As is the case across the Balkans, ‘publicly-owned enterprises’ are auctioned for a fraction of their value on the private market with little or no compensation for taxpayers.” [9]

Prior to the U.S. corporate takeover, the Yugoslav economy consisted largely of state- and socially-owned enterprises, leaving little room for U.S. profit-making opportunities, not the kind of place U.S. banks, corporations and investors are keen on. That the toppling of Milosevic had everything to do with opening space for U.S. investors and corporations was evident in chapter four of the U.S.-authored Rambouillet ultimatum, an ultimatum Milosevic rejected, triggering weeks of NATO bombing. The first article called for a free-market economy and the second for privatization of all government-owned assets. NATO bombs seemed to have had an unerring ability to hit Yugoslavia’s socially-owned factories and to miss foreign-owned ones. This was an economic take-over project.

To lull Zimbabweans into accepting the selling off of their valuable natural resources, Gavin recommends that U.S. investors establish “a corporate code of conduct that takes into account these sensitivities” and that they “be sensitive to Zimbabwe’s urgent need for job creation when considering how they might protect and nurture long-term investments.”

This says that U.S. investors should tread carefully when gobbling up Zimbabwe’s valuable natural resources, and that creating jobs may be a way to stifle nationalist and populist sentiment.

The outcome of “the more open investment climate,” of course, would be to deliver ownership of Zimbabwe’s natural resources and economy to the corporations, investment banks and wealthy investors represented among CFR members, while Zimbabweans are relegated to the subordinate role of employees. U.S. investors would create jobs to reduce nationalist opposition, but this would be a sop. The Zanu-PF program of making Zimbabweans masters in their own house would be reversed, and Zimbabweans would return to the role of creating wealth for foreign owners, mired in poverty and condemned to perpetual underdevelopment.

Restoring private property rights

Zimbabwe’s long-term potential for U.S. investors can’t be realized unless investments are protected from expropriation. “The core conditions for a resumption of assistance” therefore “must include…repeal of the legislation passed in recent years” that “gutted private property rights,” Gavin writes.

Restoring private property rights is also critical to Washington’s plan for Zimbabwe’s farmland.  The essence of the plan is to clear “away obstacles to private investment,” by according ownership rights to families on redistributed land. They would be able to sell their land, transferring ownership to the highest bidder.  At the same time, expropriated white farmers would be fully compensated, thereby acquiring the means and the legal structure to reclaim their farms. Foreign investors could also buy large tracts of lands, helping to “facilitate the consolidation of small parcels into more economically viable entities.” This is a vision of a commercial agricultural sector based on ownership of vast tracts of land by foreign corporations and white farmers restored to their former dominant positions, in which black Zimbabweans are relegated to the role of farm workers, or, once again, to the least favorable land.  

Gavin worries about politicized youth, especially those who participated in “farm invasions and youth militia activities,” presumably because they represent an activist nationalist sector likely to oppose the selling off of Zimbabwean’s natural resources, including its farmland. In order to divert their energies, Gavin recommends “programming for youth through credit schemes, technology-focused skill building, programs to foster entrepreneurship and empowerment initiatives designed to give young people an ongoing, institutionalized voice in government.” This borrows from the successful strategy of ruling class organizations in the United States to move the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements off the streets and to bog them down in legalistic and bureaucratic activities. This was done, in part, by funding voter registration drives and lowering the voting age to 18 from 21 – anything to remove militants from the streets and to bring them into formal institutional structures the ruling class dominates.

“By 1963, the civil rights movement was becoming more militant, and the ‘black power’ slogan, first used by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, made elites nervous. The Ford and Rockefeller foundations responded by creating the National Urban Coalition to transform ‘black power’…into ‘black capitalism’.” [10] This was done by providing funding for the same kinds of activities Gavin wants to promote in a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe: micro-credit loans, entrepreneurship programs, and engagement of youth in electoral and parliamentary processes.

The culmination of this program in the United States was the election of Barack Obama, who, in a recent speech to mark the centennial of the NAACP, described his election, blacks in political office, and black CEOs running Fortune 500 corporations, as the final goal of the civil rights movement. Because a militant black power movement was hijacked and turned into a movement for black capitalism, the United States remains profoundly unequal in employment, income, opportunity and education, with blacks on the bottom rung of the ladder. By Obama’s own admission, “African Americans are out of work more than just about anybody else…are more likely to suffer from a host of diseases but less likely to own health insurance than just about anybody else…” and “an African American child is roughly five times as likely as a white child to see the inside of a prison.” [11] To illustrate how effectively the co-opting of the black power movement has emasculated efforts to end oppression of blacks in the United States, the best Obama can offer to redress the appalling level for racial inequality is to urge black U.S. citizens to do what he urged Africans in his Ghana speech to do: stop blaming others and try harder.

“We’ve got to say to our children, yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crimes and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to get bad grades—that’s not a reason to cut class—that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands—you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses. You get that education, all those hardships will just make you stronger, better able to compete. Yes we can.” [12]

There’s nothing wrong with a determined approach to overcoming obstacles, but there’s an ambiguity in Obama’s message that borders on racism. It’s clear that he acknowledges that blacks face obstacles, and it’s also clear that he does not foresee the obstacles being removed, otherwise why would he urge blacks to overcome them, rather than act collectively to eliminate them? The ambiguity arises because Obama urges blacks not to attribute their condition to the obstacles they face. Why not? If the obstacles are real, why not acknowledge them, and organize politically to remove them? The alternative interpretation is that Obama means the obstacles are not formidable, and that blacks are using them as an excuse to cover up for personal failings. If this is indeed what Obama means, his analysis is deeply racist. By contrast, Zanu-PF has worked to remove obstacles to black Zimbabweans left in place by the country’s colonial heritage and hasn’t adopted the Obama approach of leaving racist structures in place while bidding the victims to pick themselves up by the bootstraps. 

To consolidate its control over Zimbabwe, Washington plans to energetically engage “middle-level officers” of Zimbabwe’s military, purged of “clearly political actors,” in “a dialogue about security sector reform.” Middle-level officers would be targeted for pay increases, to be underwritten by “donors other than the United States,” who Gavin believes would “be best equipped to assist with this.” It is standard operating procedure in the imperialist playbook to engage the officer corps of countries to be subordinated to outside control. As Szymanski and Goertzel explain, imperialist military power can be

“exerted through the support of local military institutions and the resultant gratitude of the officer corps. The local military establishment frequently are willing to support the imperialists against their own people. Metropolitan countries train the officers of Third World armies, either in the metropolitan countries (the top officers), or in Third World countries (low-level officers.) They provide military advisers at all levels of the chain of command, and they provide the modern weapons of war—airplanes, tanks, artillery, etc.—on which Third World armies are totally dependent.” [13]

This is the CFR’s vision for Zimbabwe. True to imperialist practice, Gavin recommends that the United States secure the loyalty of Zimbabwe’s middle-level officers with training programs, exchanges and technical assistance. She expresses frustration that Zimbabwe’s senior officer corps, many of whose members are ideologically committed to national independence, remain loyal to Mugabe and his nationalist goals. Middle-level officers would be promised promotions to replace loyal senior officers, who would be purged.   

Conclusion

While working as a research fellow at the CFR, Michelle Gavin set forth the vision of the United States’ top executives, investment bankers and corporate lawyers for Zimbabwe’s future and a plan for how to get there. Not surprisingly, the future the CFR envisions is one of a more open investment climate in which U.S. corporations, banks and investors can buy Zimbabwe’s valuable natural resources and purchase vast tracts of farmland to establish profitable commercial agribusinesses. Having moved to the U.S. National Security Council as Senior Director for African Affairs, Gavin is ideally situated to see the CFR plan and vision she articulated converted into action.  

To guard against the United States realizing its plan to plunder their wealth, Zimbabweans should recognize that:

  • The United States is working through civil society actors to achieve its goal of reversing the gains of land reform and selling off Zimbabwe’s valuable natural resources.
  • Washington has followed a two-step approach to Zimbabwe’s economy. First, sabotage it, and then attribute the country’s economic difficulties to “mismanagement.” In this way, Washington creates the conditions to bleed support for Zanu-PF, if it can control Zimbabweans’ understanding of why their economy is in crisis. Washington created the economic hardships Zimbabweans face, through the Economic Structural Adjustment Programs of the 1990s and financial sanctions since 2001. It’s important for Washington to avoid blame for Zimbabwe’s crippled economy, and to attribute blame wholly to Zanu-PF. Accordingly, Washington will continue to minimize, if not hide altogether, the role of its financial sanctions in undermining Zimbabwe’s economy, citing mismanagement as the cause. The North Atlantic mass media, which tends to uncritically reflect the pronouncements of U.S. officials on foreign affairs, will echo Washington’s fabrications.
  • If Washington manages to sideline Zanu-PF, and the U.S.-backed MDC secures a decisive grip on power, Washington will pressure the MDC to create a reform agenda that emphasizes the creation of an investment climate favorable to the sale of Zimbabwe’s natural resources, and its state-owned assets, including arable farmland, to foreign investors.
  • Programs to promote entrepreneurship, training and skills development will be used to depoliticize Zimbabwe’s youth so that their patrimony can be stolen from under their feet. Job creation will be used as a sop to mollify nationalist sentiment. In this, Zimbabweans should recognize that the economic sabotage policies of the United States and its North Atlantic partners are implicated in the problem of mass unemployment, and that foreign investors, while promoting job creation as a necessary political maneuver to guard against a populist reaction to the sell-off of Zimbabwe’s assets, will allow unemployment to rise again once Zimbabwe has been parceled out to foreign investors.
  • The United States will seek to safeguard the investment of its banks, corporations and wealthy individuals, by co-opting the middle-level officer corps, and using Zimbabwe’s military as an extension of U.S. military power, to suppress populist revolts.

1. http://myafrica.allafrica.com/view/people/main/id/07UF2C6ymSBPq5-O.html. Accessed July 20, 2009. “Opinion: Obama’s Africa Policy,” Maternal Health, Medical News Today, July 13, 2009, describes Gavin as a White House advisor. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/157217.php
2. Michelle D. Gavin, Planning for Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, CSR No. 31, October, 2007. Council on Foreign Relations, http://www.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/Zimbabwe_CSR31.pdf
3. G. William Domhoff, “Who Rules America? Power and Politics, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Fourth Edition, 2002.
4. The Herald (Zimbabwe) May 5, 2009.
5. TalkZimbabwe.com, July 16, 2008.
6. The New York Times, July 26, 2008; The Washington Post, July 26, 2008; The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), July 27, 2008.
7. Gregory Elich, Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem, and the Pursuit of Profit, Llumina Press, 2006.
8. Elise Hugus, “Eight Years After NATO’s ‘Humanitarian War’: Serbia’s new ‘third way’”, Z Magazine, April 2007, Volume 20, Number 4.
9. Ibid.
10. Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, State University of New York Press, 2003.
11. Remarks by the President to the NAACP Centennial Convention, New York, July 17, 2009.
12. Ibid.
13. Albert J. Szymanski and Ted George Goertzel, Sociology: Class, Consciousness, and Contradictions, D. Van Nostrand Company, 1979.

Written by what's left

July 21, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Posted in Imperialism, Zimbabwe

Obama’s Africa Speech: Lies, Hypocrisy, and a Prescription for Continued African Dependence

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Q. Is Obama better than Bush?

A. It depends how you like your imperialism – with a white face or a black one.

By Stephen Gowans

US president Barack Obama’s speech at Accra, Ghana on July 11, 2009 was equal parts jaw dropping hypocrisy, outright fiction, sound advice for Africans if taken literally, and advocacy for institutions ideally suited to capital accumulation in Africa by Western investors. Africans should heed the US president’s call to embrace the idea that Africa’s future is up to Africans (and Africans alone) and to build their own nations, but the path Obama proposes, if followed, would condemn Africa to continued underdevelopment and perpetual dependence on the West.

It should come as a surprise to no one but the weakly naïve and politically untutored that the role of the US president in Africa is to promote and defend the interests of the United States, not Africans. This is so, even if the US president shares the skin color of Africa’s majority. What may not be so apparent, but which is true nevertheless, is that Obama represents the interests of his country’s hereditary capitalist families, banks, corporations and wealthy investors whose resources and backing have brought him to power, and in whose interests the logic of imperialism compels him to act. It is Obama’s goal as representative of US capital to open, and keep open, Africa’s vast resources to exploitation by Western, and particularly US, capital without impediments of corruption, war and pan-African, nationalist or socialist projects of independent development getting in the way. His color and African heritage give Obama a leg up on a white president, allowing him to immediately connect with an African audience. But his message is no less racist, imperialist and informed by the interests of Wall Street than that of his white predecessors.
Fooled_by_Obama_by_Latuff2
Outright fiction

Obama used his speech to sell two fictions: (1) that Africa’s underdevelopment has nothing to do with colonialism and neo-colonialism, but is rooted in corruption, tribalism and Africans’ blaming others for their poverty; and (2) that Africa’s development depends on adopting institutions that allow foreign capital unfettered access to African markets and resources.

“It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for (Africa’s) problems on others,” said Obama, explaining that,

“Countries like Kenya, which had a per capita economy larger than South Korea’s when I was born, have been badly outpaced. Disease and conflict have ravaged parts of the African continent. In many places, the hope of my (Kenyan) father’s generation gave way to cynicism, even despair.”

During the years of its rapid economic growth, south Korea did not follow the development path Obama prescribes for Africa today. Instead, it built five-year industrial plans that singled out industries the government would nurture through tariff protection, subsidies and government support. Foreign currencies necessary for importing machinery and industrial inputs were accumulated through foreign exchange controls, whose violation was punishable by death. [1]

The government completely regulated foreign investment, welcoming it in some areas but banning it in others. Attitudes toward intellectual property were lax, with south Korean businesses encouraged to reverse engineer Western technology and pirate the West’s patented products.

This approach to development was the rule, not the exception. Virtually every developed country has followed the same path, using tariffs, subsidies and discrimination against foreign investors, to industrialize.

The first countries to adopt free trade, apart from Britain, where weak countries on whom free trade was imposed by colonial masters. The free trade was typically one-way. Countries in Asia and Africa barely grew economically during the period of colonial rule, while Western Europe – the beneficiary of one-way free trade — grew rapidly. Latin America also grew strongly, but at the time, followed an import-substitution model, not the open markets model industrial powerhouses favored because it favored them.

Under the rule of Britain, the United States was treated much as African countries are today. It was denied the use of tariffs to protect its fledgling industry. It was barred from exporting products that competed with British products. And it was encouraged, through subsides, to concentrate on agriculture. Manufacturing industry was to be left to the British.

Alexander Hamilton rejected this model, creating an infant industry program that allowed the United States to industrialize rapidly. Hamilton’s program — which remained the basis of US economic policy up to World War II — created the highest tariff barriers in the world. US federal mining laws restricted ownership of mines to US citizens and businesses incorporated in the United States. (When Zimbabwe’s government developed legislation to require majority Zimbabwean ownership of the country’s resources, along the lines of earlier US policy, it was denounced for grossly mismanaging the economy.)

Other developed countries also used foreign ownership restrictions to help them industrialize. Prior to 1962, Japan restricted foreign ownership to 49 percent and banned it altogether in certain industries.

In his speech, Obama created the impression that south Korea developed rapidly because it followed policies the World Bank endorses, while at the same time Africa stagnated, because it didn’t. This is doubly false. Not only did south Korea not follow World Bank policies – in fact, it did the very opposite – Africa has been practically run by the IMF and World Bank since the 1980s. Under their guidance, African living standards have worsened, not improved. Over the same period, the Western world’s financial elite – which exercises enormous influence over the World Bank and IMF – saw its wealth expand greatly.

Corruption, Obama argues, and not the legacy of colonialism, has also held Africa back. There must, he insists, be “concrete solutions to corruption like forensic accounting, automating services, strengthening hot lines and protecting whistle-blowers to advance transparency and accountability.”

These measures are desirable. But spectacular corruption in Indonesia, Italy, Japan, south Korea, Taiwan and China didn’t hold these countries back. The critical issue in development isn’t whether corruption happens, but whether the dirty money stays in the country. Mobutu took stolen money out of Zaire, wrecking the Zairian economy. But massive corruption and economic growth can co-exist, if the dirty money is invested in the expansion of the country’s productive assets.

Moreover, corruption is more a consequence, and less a cause, of underdevelopment. Poor countries, because they’re poor, pay meager salaries to government officials. This increases the likelihood officials will stoop to corruption to pad their paltry incomes. And limited government budgets mean there are few resources to prevent graft.

But Obama’s concern about corruption has little to do with its role in hindering development, and everything to do with safeguarding the investments of US banks, corporations and wealthy US citizens. US investors don’t want to invest their capital in countries where the returns can be stolen by corrupt government officials, any more than they want to invest in countries in which there is a high risk of expropriation by nationalist or socialist governments following paths of independent development. A major foreign policy function of the US president is to create safe and stable overseas environments in which US businesses and investment can thrive. Corruption is inimical to that goal.

On top of corruption, conflict based on religious, ethnic and tribal differences is also keeping Africa poor, according to Obama.

“We all have many identities, of tribe and ethnicity, of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century.”

It has long been a practice of imperialist countries to foment ethnic and religious tension as a means of keeping oppressed people fighting each other rather than their oppressor. The ancient Romans called it divide and conquer. The British elevated it to an art form, and used it to undergird their empire. It has always served to: (1) disrupt and disorganize a united front of the oppressed against the oppressor; and (2) to provide a humanitarian justification for imperialist countries to continue their domination of subordinate countries.

The imperialist country must maintain a guiding hand, it’s said, otherwise the ethnic and religious tensions that roil beneath the surface will spill over into open warfare. The massacres in Rwanda have served the useful purpose for the West of reinforcing the imperialist idea that Africans are ready on the flimsiest pretext to go on bloody rampages out of atavistic tribal bloodlust. Exploitation, oppression, unequal access to critical resources, and foreign meddling: none of these causes of conflicts in Africa figure in Western accounts. Instead, the causes of war are to be understood to originate in irrational hatred. And irrational hatred, the narrative goes, is best held in check by Western powers.

While Obama attributed Africa’s poverty to corruption and tribalism, he also, indirectly, and unintentionally, pointed to one of the true reasons for Africa’s underdevelopment: one-way free trade. “Wealthy nations,” he said “must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way,” which says the doors of wealthy nations are not open in a meaningful way today. And they’re not, and never have been. Despite African doors being pried open, usually by force, threat or economic coercion by wealthy nations, the doors of Western countries have only ever been open to Africa on terms that benefit the West. And that’s because there has never really been anything Africa could do about the unfair bargain the West has forced upon it, except to unite and pursue a path of self-reliant development, drawing upon its own immense resources and seeking out critical machine and industrial inputs from sympathetic countries. It didn’t have the military power to force the doors of Western Europe and North America open, as the West forced its doors open. Nor could it use the tools of economic coercion to exact concessions from wealthy countries, for African economies, having been adapted to the requirements of their colonial masters in the period of colonial rule, and never having escaped this legacy, have typically been based on agricultural monoculture. What could African countries do — stop all exports of groundnuts, tobacco or bananas to force the West to open its doors? Doing so would hardly hurt the West, but would deprive Africa of the foreign exchange it uses to import a multitude of goods it depends on the West to provide. To put it succinctly: the West has always had Africa over a barrel.

There are two other egregious misconceptions that Obama articulated in his Accra speech: (1) That “the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade…” and (2) that “African-Americans…have thrived in every sector of (US) society.”

The decline in Zimbabwe’s economy since 2000 is attributed by US officials to Robert Mugabe’s mismanagement, an explanation amplified by the Western media and treated by both the media and Western publics as indisputable. The year 2000 marked the beginning of Zimbabwe’s fast track land redistribution program. The goal of the program was to reclaim prized agricultural land stolen by force by European settlers. The land was to be redistributed to indigenous farmers. And it has been. Zimbabwe has democratized land ownership patterns, distributing land previously owned by 4,000 farmers, mostly of British origin, to 300,000 previously landless families, of African origin.

In more sophisticated analyses, the root cause of Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties is understood to lie in the disruption of agriculture caused by land reform. According to this analysis, had the Mugabe government not pressed ahead with its aggressive land reform program and settled for the sedate, glacial affair that characterized land redistribution prior to 2000 — and which has marked agrarian reform elsewhere on the continent — Zimbabwe would not be in the straitened circumstances it finds itself today.

Until 2000, land reform moved at a snail’s pace. As part of a negotiated settlement with Britain, the independence movement agreed to a willing buyer-willing seller arrangement, whereby land could only be acquired for redistribution if the owner wanted to sell. This restriction was to remain in effect for the first 10 years of independence. Since most farmers of European origin were unwilling to sell, little land was available to redistribute.

Eventually Harare was free to expropriate land from farmers who didn’t want to sell. Britain had agreed to help compensate expropriated farmers but renounced the agreement, denying it was ever under any obligation to fund land reform. Since Harare didn’t have the funds to pay for the land it needed for redistribution, it had two choices: Carry on as is, with land redistribution proceeding at a glacial pace, or expropriate the land and demand that expropriated farmers seek compensation from London, which after all, was ultimately responsible for the theft of the land and had promised to underwrite the land reform program. The Mugabe government chose the latter course, setting off alarm bells in Western capitals. Mugabe couldn’t be allowed to get away with uncompensated expropriation of productive property.

Analyses that attributed Zimbabwe’s economic disaster to mismanagement overlooked the reaction of Washington to the Mugabe government’s lese majesty against private property. For not only did the turn of the century mark the beginning of fast-track land reform, it also marked the passage of the US Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA.)

ZDERA is not a regime of targeted sanctions against individuals, as many believe. Sanctions against individuals do exist, but ZDERA is something altogether different. ZDERA has two aspects. First, it authorizes the US president to “support an independent and free press and electronic media in Zimbabwe” and “provide for democracy and governance programs in Zimbabwe.” This is code for doing openly what the CIA used to do covertly: destabilize foreign governments. Second, it instructs the United States executive director to each international financial institution (the World Bank and IMF, for example) to oppose and vote against:

(1) any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit, or guarantee to the government of Zimbabwe; or

(2) any cancellation or reduction of indebtedness owed by the government of Zimbabwe to the United States or any international financial institution.

Since ZDERA was passed in 2001, Washington has blocked all lines of credit, development assistance and balance of payment support from international lending institutions to Zimbabwe.

When the act was passed, then US president George W. Bush declared his hope that “the provisions of this important legislation will support the people of Zimbabwe in their struggle to effect peaceful democratic change, achieve economic growth, and restore the rule of law.” [2]

Since effecting peaceful democratic change meant ousting the Zanu-PF government and restoring the rule of law meant forbidding the uncompensated expropriation of white farm land, what Bush was really saying was that he hoped the legislation would help overthrow the government and put an end to fast-track land reform.

ZDERA was co-drafted by one of the opposition MDC’s white parliamentarians, and introduced as a bill in the US Congress in March of 2001 by the Republican senator, William Frist. The legislation was co-sponsored by the Republican rightwing senator, Jesse Helms, and the Democratic senators Hilary Clinton (now Secretary of State), Joseph Biden (now Vice-President) and Russell Feingold.

Helms died in early July, 2008. He denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was a spokesman for the tobacco industry and was a slum landlord. He opposed school bussing, fought against compensation for Japanese Americans, and hated Communists. He complained that public schools were being used “to teach our children that cannibalism, wife-swapping, and the murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior.” [3] Helms was also fond of sanctions. He co-authored the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which tightened the blockade on Cuba.

The MDC had always been reluctant to admit that sanctions had crippled Zimbabwe’s economy, and more reluctant still to call for their removal. This is to be expected. In opposition, the MDC’s goal was to blame the government for the country’s economic difficulties. If it could do so convincingly, and at the same time persuade voters it could do a better job, it chances of prevailing at the polls would increase accordingly. Likewise, if it refused to add to the pressure on Western governments to lift sanctions, and even encouraged Western governments to maintain or escalate them, the government would remain burdened with the political liability of an ailing economy. But times have changed. The MDC has formed a coalition government with Zanu-PF, and the MDC controls the finance ministry. Sanctions are no longer in the party’s interest, and the MDC has, as a consequence, changed its tune. Not only does it now acknowledge ZDERA, the finance minister, Tendai Biti, complains about it bitterly.

“The World Bank has right now billions and billions of dollars that we have access to but we can’t access those dollars unless we have dealt with and normalized our relations with the IMF. We cannot normalize our relations with the IMF because of the voting power, it’s a blocking voting power of America and people who represent America on that board cannot vote differently because of ZDERA.” [4]

As bad as ZDERA is, it’s not the only sanctions regime the United States has used to sabotage Zimbabwe’s economy. Addressing the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee, Jendaya Frazer, who was George W. Bush’s top diplomat in Africa, noted that the United States had imposed financial and travel restrictions on 135 individuals and 30 businesses. US citizens and corporations who violate the sanctions face penalties ranging from $250,000 to $500,000. “We are looking to expand the category of Zimbabweans who are covered. We are also looking at sanctions on government entities as well, not just individuals.” She added that the US Treasury Department was looking into ways to target sectors of Zimbabwe’s critical mining industry. [5]

On July 25, 2008 Bush announced that sanctions on Zimbabwe would be stepped up. He outlawed US financial transactions with a number of key Zimbabwe companies and froze their US assets. The enterprises included: the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (which controls all mineral exports); the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company; Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe; Osleg, or Operation Sovereign Legitimacy, the commercial arm of Zimbabwe’s army; Industrial Development Corporation; the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe; ZB Financial Holdings; and the Agriculture Development Bank of Zimbabwe. [6]

In early March 2009, Obama extended sanctions for another year, announcing that,

“The crisis constituted by the actions and policies of certain members of the government of Zimbabwe and other persons to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes or institutions has not been resolved. These actions and policies pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States.” [7]

It would be more accurate to say that US sanctions pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the economy of Zimbabwe.

Topping off the falsehoods in Obama’s speech was his assurance to Africans that “African-Americans…have thrived in every sector of (US) society.” This is nonsense. Income, employment, education and opportunity are profoundly unequal in the United States, and inequality is bound up with race. The per capita income of blacks in the United States is 40 percent lower than that of whites. One in four blacks live in poverty, compared to eight percent of whites. The proportion of blacks without health insurance is twice that of whites. [8] And the official seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for blacks in June 2009 was almost twice as high as the jobless rate for whites. [9]

The degree to which blacks haven’t thrived is evident in who languishes in the country’s jails. While the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, it has one-quarter of the world’s prisoner population, and US prisoners are disproportionately black. One-third of black males born in 2001 are expected to be imprisoned at some point in their lifetime, compared to six percent of white males. [10] Poor, unemployed, without health insurance and in prison. That’s hardly thriving.

Jaw dropping hypocrisy

As leader of a country currently engaged in three wars of aggression (Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) and which threatens to escalate its aggressions against Iran and north Korea, one might think Obama would be ashamed to lecture anyone on the importance of resolving conflicts peacefully. But US presidents know no shame. Boldly, Obama told Africans that “for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun. There are wars over land and wars over resources.” Africans, he continued, must learn the “peaceful resolution of conflict.”

Indeed, there are wars over land and wars over resources, and this, the United States knows well, for over the course of its history it has initiated many of them, and most of the wars over land and resources over the past 60 years have been planned at the Pentagon. The United States’ vast military, which Washington methodically nurtures through the misappropriated tax dollars of ordinary US citizens, allows the country to dominate and plunder much of the world, while at the same time piling up profits for US corporations engaged in “defense” industry work.

Particularly galling is the reality that the United States had a hand in the bloodiest and deadliest war on the continent.

“In early May 1997, when it became apparent to western observers that the broad coalition of rebel forces in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) headed by veteran freedom fighter, Laurent Kabila, would eventually topple the Mobutu kleptocracy and establish ‘a popular government, linking all sectors of our society,’ the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and others in the corporate media slowly began to criticize the ‘excesses’ of the CIA-installed Mobutu regime, in power since 1965. But at the same time they began a relentless campaign against Kabila and the rebel coalition.

“The Wall Street Journal spoke of Kabila as an ‘ideological throwback’ to the politics of the 1960s. It decried his relationship with Che Guevara, who had gone to the Congo in the early l960s to work with a progressive coalition (including Kabila) to support the Patrice Lumumba forces and to oust another CIA-installed regime, which had been installed in the diamond-rich region of Katanga. The Journal warned that ‘western interests’ would now be in jeopardy under Kabila.

“For thirteen months, Kabila sought to consolidate a broad coalition to democratize and develop the Congo. But by August 1998, two neighboring states, Rwanda and Uganda, aligned with ethnic forces inside the Congo, (and backed by Washington) invaded several towns and cities. Both invading countries charged Kabila with ‘corruption’ and human rights violations, and with being ‘undemocratic.’

“Both Rwanda and Uganda are governed by de facto military regimes. Both governments are hosts to U.S. military training facilities and U.S. military personnel. The Congo has been regarded by leading scientists and economists as one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world. It contains roughly 70 percent of the world’s cobalt. More than half of the U.S. military’s cobalt comes from the Congo. It is the second largest producer of diamonds in the world and is known for large deposits of gold, manganese, and copper. The Congo’s peculiar type of high-grade uranium was used by the U.S. to make the atom bombs that were dropped on Japan in WWII. And the U.S. dominates mining in that area even today.” [11]

An estimated five million died in the war from 1998 to 2003. The conflict continues, with 45,000 people dying each month from war-related causes, primarily hunger and disease. [12] And yet war in the DRCongo is barely mentioned in the Western media. Instead, attention is focused on Darfur, home to vast oil reserves the United States does not control, but would like to lay its hands on. Raising public alarm over Darfur is a way of manufacturing consent for Western intervention in Sudan. The outcome – and unstated goal – of such an intervention would be to bring another oil-rich country under Washington’s domination.

“The United Nations has estimated some 300,000 may have died in total as a result of the years of conflict in Darfur; the same number die from the Congo conflict every six and a half months. And yet, in the New York Times, which covers the Congo more than most U.S. outlets, Darfur has consistently received more coverage since it emerged as a media story in 2004. The Times gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, while Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly 10 times the rate of those in Darfur. “[13]

Washington also orchestrated a recent war in Somalia. In 2006, the US-backed, UN-recognized government of Somalia was limited to the inland town of Baidoa. Mogadishu, the capital, had fallen to Islamic militias, who had formed a de facto government in June of that year. The militias’ power wasn’t based on their military strength, which consisted only of a few hundred armed pickup trucks and a few thousand fighters, but in their popular support. In the capital Mogadishu, the Islamists organized neighborhood cleanups, delivered food to the needy and brought dormant national institutions like the Supreme Court back to life.

According to Ted Dagne, the African analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, the de facto government provided “a sense of stability in Somalia, education and other services, while the warlords maimed and killed innocent civilians.” What’s more, “instead of acting like the Taliban and ruthlessly imposing a harsh religious orthodoxy” the Islamists delivered social services and pushed for democratic elections.

That’s when General John P. Abizaid of the United States Central Command, or Centcom, flew to neighboring Ethiopia to meet Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who told the US proconsul that he could cripple the Islamist forces in one to two weeks. Abizaid gave the Ethiopian prime minister the go ahead, and soon Ethiopian soldiers — trained by US military advisors — were flooding over the border into Somalia. [14] The United States supplied battlefield intelligence, the US Fifth Fleet enforced a naval blockade, US Marines deployed along Somalia’s border with Kenya, and US AC-130 gunships, operating out of Djibouti, struck targets within Somalia. [15]

The invasion was a brazen affront to the United Nations Charter. Somalia hadn’t threatened Ethiopia, and indeed, couldn’t. With a few hundred armed pickup trucks, Somali forces posed no danger to surrounding countries. And yet there wasn’t a peep a protest from the “international community”.

The war created what has been called Africa’s largest and most ignored catastrophe. One million Somalis were displaced. Some 10,000 were killed. [16] And the United States, whose president counsels Africans to learn to resolve conflicts peacefully, started it.

To discourage what Obama views as Africa’s addiction to war, the US president pledged to “stand behind efforts to hold war criminals accountable.” What he didn’t say was that he meant African war criminals, and only the ones who aren’t puppets of the West. Obama has no intention of holding accountable either Meles Zenawi or Western war criminals (including his predecessor; former British prime minister Tony Blair; or himself) or CIA operatives who used torture and those who authorized their crimes. Instead, he says, he would rather look forward, not backward. White war criminals are to be forgiven; black war criminals, who fail to toe the imperialist line, are to be held accountable.

The body through which most African war criminals are to be held accountable is the International Criminal Court (ICC), a court the United States itself refuses to join, on grounds its soldiers and officials would face frivolous prosecutions. If the United States would face frivolous prosecutions, why not other countries? The ICC has received

“2,889 communications about alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in at least 139 countries, and yet by March 2009, the prosecutor had opened investigations into just four cases: Uganda, DRCongo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan/Darfur. All of them in Africa. Thirteen public warrants of arrest have been issued, all against Africans.” [17]

Conspicuously absent from the list of opened investigations are the perpetrators of the world’s most blatant recent war crimes: the US, Britain and Israel.

Yes, but “there cannot be an African exception to (the Nuremberg) principles,” argues David Crane, who was chief prosecutor for the special court on Sierra Leone (which is trying former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, for doing what practically every US president since World War II has done: support rebel troops in another country.) Crane’s “no African exceptions” cry is taken up by the Western media. Referring to Taylor’s trial, Guardian columnist Phil Clark, wrote that “for many, the trial represents another victory for international justice and another signal for the end of impunity for the likes of Taylor, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Alberto Fujimori.” [18] He might have added, but not for George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, P.W. Botha, and Ian Smith. The Western media and state officials don’t seem to be concerned about the impunity of these war criminals. The reality that there have been many African exceptions to humanitarian law – where whites are concerned – seems to have escaped the notice of Crane, a white US citizen, who indicted Taylor, a black African.

Martin Kargbo wonders why the West insists that black Africans be held accountable, while celebrating the truth and reconciliation commissions which have granted impunity to white war criminals.

“Impunity has not been an issue in DRCongo where the wars waged by Rwanda and Uganda between 1996 and 2003 on behalf of America and Western interests have led to an estimated five million deaths in Congo…

“Impunity, again, was not an issue when South Africa decided in 1994, in the interest of national peace and stability to forgive the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity – people who had terrorized and killed black Africans for 50 long years during the apartheid era. And no human rights group said it was wrong to forgive P.W. Botha & Co.

“Impunity was also not an issue when Zimbabwe decided in 1980 in the interest of national peace and stability to forgive the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity – people who had terrorized and killed black Africans for decades before independence. And no human rights group said it was wrong to forgive Ian Smith and Co.

“Impunity was again not an issue when Namibia did the same thing in 1990 — to forgive the atrocities committed against black people during the pre-independence era. And no human rights group spoke against Namibia’s act of forgiveness.” [19]

Obama also promised to “support strong and sustainable democratic governments” while supporting the strong, but hardly democratic, Egyptian government, with $1 billion per year in military aid. Washington has also been instrumental in undermining the popularly elected Hamas government. These two examples – and only two of many – show that Washington has no commitment to democracy abroad. It’s all rhetoric. Washington supports governments which enlarge the interests of the US ruling class, whether democratic or not, and opposes foreign governments which don’t, whether democratic or not. US democracy promotion, a multi-million dollar per year industry that does what the CIA used to do covertly, is simply a cover for regime change carried out by non-military means in countries that are open enough to allow US agents and fifth columns sufficient room to maneuver. Obama’s administration will continue to run “democracy promotion” programs, working to ensure that foreign governments that pursue independent paths of development, including those in Africa, are overthrown.

Promoting the profit interests of US capital

Washington wants Africa to be a profitable place in which US corporations, banks and investors can do business. Africans want foreign investment to help Africa develop. It seems like a win-win situation. If Africa does what’s necessary to help foreign investors reap handsome profits, corporate America gets profits and Africans get investment.

But the history of Africa’s engagement with the world economy hasn’t been the win-win situation US politicians and the West’s mass media promise. Instead, foreign capital has profited and Africans have remained deeply mired in poverty.

That’s because foreign capital can win bigger if it doesn’t have to share the economic surplus it expropriates with the people who produce it. So, it goes for the big prize.

And why wouldn’t it? Foreign capital, like all capital, wants to maximize profits. So it demands a low wage environment, unburdened by corporate taxes or stringent environmental regulations, in which profits can be taken out of the country, and in which governments abjure efforts to meet social goals by making demands on corporations and investors. Those with capital to invest don’t want to pay high taxes (or any taxes at all if they can get away with it), comply with expensive environmental regulations, pay high wages, or be forced to take on local partners. They don’t want to have to invest any of their profits in the host country if a higher return on investment can be obtained elsewhere. Neither do foreign corporations and investors want local governments to give local businesses a hand up by offering subsidies and tariff protections. And they don’t want profitable areas of investment – like energy, telecommunication and banking – placed off limits. In short, all of the measures a local government might implement to satisfy local development needs – mandated re-investment of profits, state-controlled enterprises, foreign investment restrictions, price controls and meaningful minimum wage laws, a heavily graduated tax, and so on — are anathema to foreign capital.

In addition, foreign corporations, banks and investors want a business environment that is free from the threat of disruption by war, strikes and insurrections, and in which private productive property is protected from corruption and expropriation. Delivering what businesses want is called good governance.

As Obama explained,

“No country is going to create wealth (Obama means: for investors) if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt.”

In Washington’s view, good governance is created when societies are sufficiently open to domination by those who own the most wealth – that is, by those who own and control the world economy. For example, multi-party electoral democracy is lauded because it allows those who assume a leadership role in representing the interests of capital, to have the best chance of being elected. They’re able to attract the funding that allows them to run effective campaigns. And what, as a consequence, ends up being a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, has enormous apparent legitimacy because it is based on an electoral exercise.

Likewise, a “free” society in which “anyone” can open a newspaper can seem to legitimately have independent journalists, even though the only people in a position to open their own newspaper and command a mass audience are members of the class that owns the society’s productive property. An open society with a vibrant civil society which participates in the society’s governance is also one in which the wealthy can pursue their interests by furnishing the funding on which civil society depends. This allows capital to influence the agenda of civil society through its funding decisions. In short, any government trying to achieve authentically democratic goals can be more readily opposed if it provides sufficient space for foreign capital to operate through strong parliaments, independent journalists and a vibrant civil society.

Accordingly, Obama speaks glowingly of institutions that open up space for foreign money to operate.

“In the 21st century, capable, reliable and transparent institutions are the key to success – strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in peoples’ lives.”

In point of fact, what matters in peoples’ lives — that is, in the lives of ordinary people, and not the bankers, corporate lawyers and CEOs that Obama cares about — is having enough to eat, a job, shelter, clothing, health care, recreation, time with friends and family, dignity and social justice. Strong parliaments, journalists employed by the capitalist press, and a strong private sector, create environments adapted to capital accumulation; they have little to do with restoring stolen land to its rightful owners; investing the economic surplus created at home in local development; and using state-owned enterprises and fiscal and monetary policy to satisfy social welfare goals.

Sound advice, if taken literally

“Just as it is important to emerge from the control of another nation,” observed Obama, “it is even more important to build one’s own.” And yet most African countries remain economic colonies of the West, their independence limited to political forms (their own flag, parliaments and political leaders) but whose economies are dominated by Western banks, foreign corporations, and the descendants of European settlers; whose militaries are trained and funded by the United States, Britain and France; and who rely on aid from Western governments, and receive it, in return for political and economic concessions. African countries that have followed Obama’s advice to build their own countries have been harassed, undermined, destabilized, sanctioned and in many cases have seen their governments overthrown by the US and former colonial masters who pay lip service to independent development, but are deeply hostile to it. US presidents don’t want Africans to build their own countries. They want them to turn their countries over to the US business elite, and to continue to do so indefinitely.

Under the leadership of Zanu-PF, Zimbabweans have tried to build their own country according to their own needs, expropriating land confiscated by European settlers when the former colonial master, Britain, reneged on its promise to fund land reform. Zanu-PF has also led efforts to bring Zimbabwe’s resources and economy under the control of indigenous Zimbabweans, following methods reminiscent of the ones south Korea used to industrialize. But while south Korea’s subsidies, tariff protections and foreign ownership restrictions were tolerated by Washington as a necessary evil of the Cold War –- south Korea needed to be given space to develop into a capitalist showpiece on the Cold War’s frontlines – Washington has been unwilling to tolerate Zimbabwe’s efforts to follow the same path.

Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana, the first African country to achieve independence, argued that the less developed world would not become developed through the goodwill and generosity of the developed world. Instead, it would only become developed by struggle against the external forces – foreign corporations, banks and investors — that had a vested interest in keeping it underdeveloped. [20] Nkrumah would have agreed with Obama that “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” He would surely have disagreed with Obama’s prescription for how Africa ought to arrive at its future.

1. Discussion of south Korea’s development strategy, free trade, and corruption based on Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008.
2. “President Signs Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, December 21, 2001. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/12/200111221-15.html
3. The Guardian (UK), July 4, 2008.
4. The Herald (Zimbabwe) May 5, 2009.
5. TalkZimbabwe.com, July 16, 2008.
6. The New York Times, July 26, 2008; The Washington Post, July 26, 2008; The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), July 27, 2008.
7. “Obama extends Zimbabwe sanctions,” TalkZimbabwe.com, March 8, 2009.
8. US Census Bureau Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007, August 2008.
9. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.
10. US Bureau of Justice Statistics, cited in Hannah Holleman, Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster and R. Jamil Jonna, “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis,” Monthly Review, Vol. 61, No. 2, June, 2009.
11. Elombe Brath and Samori Marksman, “Conflict in the Congo: An Interview with President Laurent Kabila,” Covert Action Quarterly, Winter, 1999, Issue 66.
12. Julie Hollar, “Congo Ignored, Not Forgotten,”
Extra, Magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, May 2009.
13. Ibid.
14. Stephen Gowans, “US fomenting war in Somalia,” What’s Left, December 15, 2006, http://gowans.blogspot.com/2006/12/us-fomenting-war-in-somalia.html
15. Stephen Gowans, “Another US military intervention,” What’s Left, January 11, 2007, http://gowans.blogspot.com/2007/01/another-us-military-intervention.html
16. Stephanie McCrummen, “With Ethiopian pullout, Islamists rise again in Somalia,” The Washington Post, January 22, 2009; Stephen Gowans, “Spielberg: Chauvinist in humanitarian drag,” What’s Left, February 13, 2008. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/02/13/spielberg-chauvinist-in-humanitarian-drag/
17. “Selective Justice,” The New African, No. 484, May 2009.
18. Phil Clark, “Can Africa trust international justice?” The Guardian (UK) July 16, 2009.
19. Martin Kargbo, “The case against the ICC,” New African, July, 2009.
20. Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., London, 1965. http://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/nkrumah/neo-colonialism/index.htm

Written by what's left

July 17, 2009 at 9:55 pm

Zimbabwe, Africa and Neo-Colonialism

with 4 comments

Following are excerpts from a press conference given by Robert Mugabe at the African Union General Assembly in early July 2009. The interview was published in Zimbabwe’s The Herald, July 6, 2009.

Q: Your Excellency, what is happening in Africa seems to be a realisation of the Pan-Africanism ideology. Would you say that, that idealism about bringing Africa together is still alive or it’s something that is being pushed by what is happening somewhere else?

A: I think over the recent few years gone by there has been a development, a development I think which was more determined by the economic situations of our countries and a situation that greater reliance on Western funding would assist our economies in transforming, and because of that naturally if you are a beggar, you cannot at the same time prescribe, you see, the rules of how you should be given whether it’s food or any items at all.

So we were subjected to certain conditionalities as a basis on which whatever was paid, be it food, be it humanitarian aid in other directions, was sent to us.

And in some countries, you see, they did not have even the necessary economic capacity, which could enable them to sustain their civil service, their security arms — the army, airforce and the police force — without outside help.

And once you are inadequate in terms of funding yourselves monetarily and you have got to look outside for someone to assist you, and that someone outside naturally dictates conditions on you, and the moment that happens you have lost a bit of your own sovereign right to determine how you run your affairs.

Those who give you money will naturally determine how you should run your country, and through that we tended to subject ourselves to the will of outsiders, to the will, even, of our erstwhile colonisers. It was neo-colonialism back again, what Nkrumah called neo-colonialism.

There it was, it was crammed into our system, they were deciding how we should run our elections; who should be in government, who should not, regime changes, that nonsense.

So our Pan-Africanism was lost because Pan-Africanism was based on the right of Africa determining its own future, the right of Africa standing on its own, and being the master of its own destiny, master of its own resources that had been lost.

But I think it is coming back because many countries have now realised that the West does not give money to enable us to build the capacity we require to be independent.

They will give you little funds, you know. ‘Yes, you are afflicted by this epidemic, we will give you a bit of help here and there.’

‘You are suffering from the effects of drought, yes, a bit of food here and there et cetera, et cetera’, but with conditions that you run your system in a given way.

That now is our realisation. The funds we have been getting are, by and large, little humanitarian bits and pieces of funds. This has not helped Africa to industrialise. Just look around and tell me which country in Africa has industrialised?

Yes, you have South Africa, which has inherited that system of development, but the rest of Africa; we are still where we were.

There is no funding with an investment capacity from the West that will enable us to move from primary agriculture to secondary stages of development. They do not want us, the West, to be that.

They do not want us to be their equals, they enjoy being masters over us and this is what Zimbabwe rejects.

…look at the little funds (Western governments) were giving (in response to a request from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai), and giving mainly for humanitarian purposes.

And how given?

Through NGOs and what do NGOs mean in our own situation where Government is running a country, running a country with definite demands, you see, in various sectors?

What they think of first is their own NGOs so that the money is absorbed by their own agents in the first place. Or it comes in a crooked way to serve their own political objectives in our country.

The Chinese fund does not come in that way. It has been targeted rightly, it’s a fund coming to Government not NGOs, to Government, an inclusive Government, towards development and will assist us in turning around the economy, and that is the kind of help we would want to get, and not the Western dictates.

Q: Do you think there has been a realisation within the parties in the GPA that the West is only there to dictate the pace at which Africa develops, especially when you consider that the Prime Minister had gone for two weeks in Europe and America and got back with virtually nothing?

A: The lesson is there for everyone with a bit of brains to learn, and those who have not learnt the lesson that the West is always up to mischief, if they have not learnt that lesson, then they won’t have any lesson to learn or they are hand-in-glove with the enemy.

Written by what's left

July 6, 2009 at 2:42 pm

The Role and Aims of US Democracy Promotion in the Attempted Color Revolution in Iran

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By Stephen Gowans

As the head of Freedom House, a CIA-interlocked think-tank [1] that promotes free markets, free enterprise and free trade, Peter Ackerman has been at the forefront of efforts to topple foreign governments that place more emphasis on promoting the welfare of their citizens (and often their own bourgeoisie) than providing export and investment opportunities to US corporations, banks, and investors.

An ex-Wall Street investment banker who was once junk bond trader Michael Milken’s right-hand man, Ackerman’s speciality these days is regime change civil disobedience – training activists in the use of civil disobedience destabilization techniques to bring down foreign governments.

A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-Wall Street insiders’ group that brings together corporate CEOs and lawyers, scholars, and government and military officials to recommend foreign policy positions to the US State Department, Ackerman also heads the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC). Working in parallel with billionaire financier George Soros’ Open Society Institute and The Albert Einstein Institution, the ICNC deploys civil disobedience specialists to teach “activists how to agitate for change against” governments on Washington’s regime change hit list, “going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians.” [2]

Ackerman and other civil disobedience imperialists, like Stephen Zunes, a self-styled progressive who acts as chief apologist for Ackerman among leftists who have romantic illusions about “popular” uprisings [3] give their efforts to topple foreign governments the deceptively reassuring name “democracy promotion.” Democracy promotion, a Bush administration official once said, is a rubric to get people to support regime change that cannot be accomplished through military means. [4] Zunes has also sprung to the defense of Gene Sharp, the head of the Albert Einstein Institution, who advised right-wing Venezuelans on how to use civil disobedience to overthrow Hugo Chavez. More than two years ago, in a March, 2007 interview in The Progressive, Sharp, who says he has been working since 2004 with Iranian dissidents on how to bring down the government in Tehran, predicted that “if somebody doesn’t decide to use military means, it is very likely that there will be a peaceful national struggle there.” [5] In the same interview, Sharp set out his view on how the US should topple governments on its regime change hit list: by using overthrow movements trained in nonviolent direct action, rather than military intervention. This is a view supported by his chief defender, Zunes, who thinks imperialism through non-violence is somehow not imperialism.

Three years ago, and not long after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ackerman, along with Ramin Ahmadi, co-founder of the US State Department-funded Iran Human Rights Document Center [6], sketched out a scenario of Iranians using civil disobedience to topple the Iranian government.

In a January 6, 2006 International Herald Tribune article, prophetically titled “Iran’s future? Watch the streets,” the pair complained that Ahmadinejad promised “to redistribute wealth to the poor and curb capitalists,” and described the new president’s electoral victory as plunging Iranian “society into a mood of despair.”

Iranian society hadn’t plunged into despair, at least the large majority that elected Ahmadinejad hadn’t. Instead, it was the losers, “Iran’s parliamentary reformists” and the wealthy, Western-educated Iranians they represented, who were in despair. In Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s view, this stratum, a budding comprador class, was equal to Iranian society as a whole, rather than a minority whose interests were about to be curbed by the newly elected president.

Looking ahead, Ahmadi and his Freedom House co-author, pointed to “a grass-roots movement…waiting to be roused in Iran,” that would “demand real economic reform,” so long as “its cadres” were provided “a clear strategic vision and leadership.” “Grass-roots” by Ackerman’s and Ahamdi’s restrictive definition, was anyone targeted by Ahmadinejad’s redistribution and capitalist-curbing program. “Economic reform” was giving capital free rein.

The model for overthrowing the income-redistributing, capitalist-curbing Ahmadinejad, they wrote, would be the Polish trade union Solidarity, which worked to destabilize another set of capitalist-unfriendly income-redistributors, the communist government of Poland. Solidarity – the only trade union Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the CIA and the Wall Street Journal ever liked — was instrumental in the collapse of Polish communism, and more widely, in the demise of socialism in Eastern Europe. Western corporations and investors seeking export and investment opportunities in Eastern Europe – people represented by Ackerman and Soros — profited handsomely, but for ordinary people, communism’s demise has been a disaster. Poverty, unemployment, economic insecurity and inequality have soared. [7]

To help Iran’s disgruntled budding comprador class, the pair urged “nongovernmental organizations around the world” to “expand their efforts to assist Iranian civil society, women’s groups, unions and journalists. And the global news media,” they wrote, should “cover the steady stream of strikes, protests, and other acts of opposition.” In other words, the media should play a role by depicting the Iranian government as deeply unpopular to justify its overthrow.

Significantly, organizations like Freedom House, ICNC, and the Soros Open Society Institute, operating on grants from Western governments, parliaments and corporate foundations – all of which were opposed to Ahmadinejad for his asserting Iran’s right to a self-reliant civilian nuclear power industry and refusal to accelerate the sale of Iran’s state-owned economy to private investors — would provide the strategic vision, leadership, as well as the money and training, for Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s slumbering grass-roots movement.

In May of 2005, R. Nicholas Burns, then U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the U.S. was ready to hike funding to groups within Iran seeking regime change. The United States had already spent $1.5 million in 2004 and $3 million in 2005 on exile groups with contacts inside Iran. [8]

Burns equated the ramped up spending to “taking a page from the playbook” on Ukraine and Georgia, where, as the New York Times explained,” in those countries the United States gave money to the opposition and pro-democracy groups, some of which later supported the peaceful overthrow of the governments in power.” [9]

But it would take longer to spark a color revolution in Iran, Burns warned. “We don’t have a platform to do it. The country isn’t free enough to do it. It’s a much more oppressive environment than Ukraine was…during the Orange Revolution” where the U.S. was able to take advantage of the country’s openness to overturn the election of a pro-Russian government to install a pro-Washington one. [10]

On February 15, 2005, then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added $75 million to the $10 million already earmarked for U.S. government programs to “support networks for Iranian reformers, political dissidents and human rights activists.” Two-thirds of the additional funding was to be used to “increase television broadcasting to 24 hours a day all week in Farsi into Iran.” [11] The purpose of the broadcasting was to sour the population on the Ahmadinejad government.

The country was soon awash in regime change funding, a cornucopia that led some opponents of the government to beseech the United States to tighten its pursue strings. The funding, they said, made all opponents, especially those with Western contacts, appear to be potential conspirators. The group added that “no credible civil society member would want to be associated with such a fund.” [12] But there were many non-credible ones that did.

Meanwhile, Ackerman’s ICNC was inviting Iranians to workshops to teach them how peaceful revolts in Georgia, the Philippines and elsewhere were set off. Training sessions were held “every month or so, hoping to foment a non-violent conflict in Iran.” [13]

Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s comparison of Iran’s aspiring color revolutionaries to Solidarity is only partly correct. Unlike the former, who tend to be well-heeled, well-educated, and to have spent time abroad, Solidarity was born of a genuinely working class grass-roots movement, which had legitimate grievances against Poland’s Communist government. [14] The grievances of the aspiring color revolutionaries, however, are rooted in a contested election which the balance of evidence suggests was fair. A Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored poll, carried out three weeks before the election, found that Ahmadinejad led his nearest rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, by a margin of more than two to one, similar to the outcome of the vote. [15] The head of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, hardly an Ahmadinejad supporter, found no greater irregularities in Iran’s presidential election than in those of Western countries. [16] On the other hand, claiming that an election is stolen, and using the alleged fraud as a pretext to launch a campaign of civil disobedience, is a hallmark of the regime change programs Ackerman has been at the center of. [17]

Where the color revolutionaries and Solidarity are similar is in serving as the vehicles of the same class. Solidarity was quickly hijacked by anti-communist intellectuals who provided the strategic vision and leadership, with the help of financing from Eastern European émigrés assisted by the CIA. They had no interest in helping the Polish working class, which remained solidly committed to socialism. [18] They sought, instead, to destabilize the Polish government.

Likewise, Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s slumbering “grassroots” movement has been roused by civil disobedience regime change promoters from outside and wealthy locals who have soaked up pro-imperialist values while studying abroad. They’ve taken a leaf from Western-backed color revolutions carried out in other countries, ones Ackerman and company have been instrumental in promoting. Their interest lies not in the social welfare of the majority of Iranians, who appear to have voted for Ahmadinejad, but in destabilizing the Iranian government to serve their own narrow class interests.

Many leftists have turned a blind eye to the class character of Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s “grassroots movement,” as well as to the source of its strategic vision and leadership. They have done so out of infatuation with the romance of a seemingly popular uprising, dislike of Ahmadinejad’s social conservatism, and the mistaken belief that the uprising is about democracy and human rights. The “grassroots” movement is hardly grassroots, and its goals are hardly the lofty ones leftists have attributed to it. They are, instead, the goals a wealthy former Wall Street investment banker turned regime change promoter and Washington-insider and wealthy Iranians who have studied at expensive universities in the imperial center, are able to share in common – toppling a government that stands in the way of their mutual enrichment.

Postscript

According to a March 14, 2006 New York Sun article by staff reporter Eli Lake (“Iran launches a crackdown on democracy activists”), Ackerman and Ahmadi set up workshops in April 2005 to train Iranian dissidents in human rights documentation and nonviolent resistance, activities Ackerman has termed elsewhere as destabilization aimed at “taking power.”

Ahmadi was involved in setting up a workshop in Dubai, sponsored by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. The center was granted $1 million in 2004 by a U.S. “government aid program intended for Iran’s opposition inside the country.”

 “Dubai,” notes Lake, “is emerging as a nexus for the West’s efforts to aid Iran’s opposition” where the U.S. State Department sent “10 special diplomats to monitor activities of (the Iranian government) and assist the opposition.”  

Ackerman’s ICNC also held at least one session with opponents of the Ahmadinejad government, using members of Otpor, the Serb destabilization group trained, funded and equipped by the US government in techniques developed by Gene Sharp, as trainers.

 Sharp, notes Lake, “is generally credited with being the first person to study rigorously the techniques of mass civil disobedience and place them in the context of traditional military strategy.”

1. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988, p. 28.
2. The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
3. Stephen Gowans, “Stephen Zunes and the Struggle for Overseas Profit,” gowans.wordpress.com, February 18, 2008. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/stephen-zunes-and-the-struggle-for-overseas-profits/
4. Guy Dinmore, “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran,” Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
5. Stephen Zunes, George Cicariello-Maher & Eva Golinger, “Debate on the Albert Einstein Institution and its involvement in Venezuela,” August 5, 2008. http://www.venezuelanlysis.com, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3690; Amitabh Pal, “Gene Sharp Interview,” The Progressive, March, 2007. http://www.progressive.org/mag/intv0307
6. Steve Weissman, “Iran: Nonviolence 101,” http://www.truthout.org, June 21, 2009. http://www.truthout.org/062109Y
7. Stephen Gowans, “Hail the Reds,” MLToday.com, October 23, 2004. http://mltoday.com/index2.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=186
8. The New York Times, May 29, 2005.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. The New York Times, February 16, 2006.
12. Carah Ong, “Iranians Speak Out on Regime Change Slush Fund,” MRZine, July 15, 2008. http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/ong150708.html
13. Reuters, April 30, 2003.
14. Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland, Praeger, New York, 1984.
15. Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009; Stephen Gowans, “Iranian electoral fraud: A skeptic’s view,” gowans.wordpress.com, June 16, 2009. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/iranian-electoral-fraud-a-sceptic%e2%80%99s-view/
16. George Galloway, “I’m not a traitor…or a hypocrite,” DailyRecord.co.uk, June 29, 2009.
17. Stephen Gowans, “Learning for color revolutions,” gowans.wordpress.com, March 16, 2009. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/learning-from-color-revolutions/
18. Szymanski

Written by what's left

July 4, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Posted in Color Revolutions, Iran

Tagged with ,

A sober view of Iran

with 3 comments

By Stephen Gowans

The view of many parts of the Western left on the disputed presidential election in Iran and subsequent upheavals seems to have been influenced by an understandable distaste for the obscurantist and misogynistic elements of Islam and a dislike of theocracy. Romantic illusions about popular uprisings have also figured in the positions Western leftists have taken. But romantic illusions and distaste for Islam have no place in a sober analysis of what has transpired in Iran.

First, we should be clear that there is not a whit of evidence that the main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, won the election or that the outcome was fraudulently manipulated. On the contrary, an opinion poll carried out three weeks before the election, and paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation (hardly an organization inclined to back the president, Mohammed Ahmadinejad), predicted a clear victory for the incumbent. (1)

Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, who conducted the poll, wrote that their survey “showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin – greater than his actual apparent margin of victory.” The pair’s “scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran’s provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.” (2)

Proponents of the idea that the vote was stolen point to Ahmadinejad outpolling Mousavi, an Azeri, in areas where Azeris are in the majority. They contend that in a fair vote Mousavi would have won the Azeri-dominated areas. This rests on an implicit assumption that Iranians vote along ethnic lines. But the Rockefeller-sponsored poll found that “Azeris favoured Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.” (3)

While Western media coverage, which focussed on Iran’s economic troubles and Iranians’ concerns about tensions with the West, may have led Western audiences to believe the Iranian president was headed for defeat, Ballen and Doherty argue that Iranians favored Ahmadinejad because they saw him “as their toughest negotiator, the person best positioned to bring home a favourable deal – rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.” (4) It didn’t help either in offering a balanced view of Ahmadinejad’s level of support that Western reporters are based in Tehran, where support for Mousavi is strong. This led to Western news reports painting a distorted picture of Mousavi’s popularity.

Some leftists claim the question of whether the election was stolen is irrelevant. (5) This is an implicit admission that there is no cogent evidence the election was fraudulent and an attempt to side-step a critical weakness in support for pro-Mousavi forces. Far from being irrelevant, the validity of the election is highly pertinent. If a majority of Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad – and the balance of evidence says it did – a movement that aims to overturn the electoral choice of a clear majority cannot be considered either legitimate or electorally democratic.

Second, we should be clear on what policies Mousavi favors, and how they differ from those advocated by Ahmadinejad. Mousavi, like the US State Department, Wall Street, and right-wing groups in the West, leans strongly toward free trade, free markets, and free enterprise. He is aligned with Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who won the approval of Western politicians and the Wall Street Journal for taking the first tentative steps toward dismantling Iran’s largely state-controlled economy. Rafsanjani is among the richest people in Iran.

While hardly a socialist, Ahmadinejad, who is opposed by the US State Department, Wall Street and right-wing groups in the West, has promoted economic policies that clash with the free market, pro-privatization and pro-foreign investment stances taken by the business elite, both in Iran and in the United States.

The commanding heights of Iran’s economy – the oil, gas, transportation, banking and telecommunications sectors – are state controlled. Private sector activity is limited “to small-scale workshops, farming, and services.” (6) This denies US banks and investors — and Iran’s business elite — major investment opportunities. Mousavi wants to dismantle Iran’s state-controlled economy, and the subsidies, tariffs and price controls that go along with it. Ahmadinejad tends to favour their retention, or at least, is in less of a hurry to get rid of them.

US capital despises Ahmadinejad for multiple reasons. He is opposed politically because he asserts Iran’s right to a self-reliant civilian nuclear power industry. The United States and Europe are willing to allow Iran to have nuclear energy for civilian use, so long as they control Iran’s access to the enriched uranium needed to power it. This would put the West in the position of being able to extract concessions from Iran by threatening to turn off the tap, and provide Western capital with a lucrative investment opportunity. From Iran’s perspective, the offer is unacceptable, because it would place Iran in a dependent position, and because Iran has its own rich sources of uranium it can exploit to its own advantage.

Ahmadinejad is also opposed politically because he backs Hamas and Hezbollah, opponents of Washington’s attack dog in the Middle East, Israel. Both organizations are portrayed as terrorist groups that threaten Israel’s existence, but neither are anywhere near large or strong enough or have sufficient backing to pose an existential military threat to Israel. They do, however, pose the threat of self-defense, which is to say they are capable of inflicting some retaliatory harm on Israel and are therefore seen as impediments to Israel’s free movement in asserting US interests on Washington’s behalf.

Economically, Ahmadinejad earns Wall Street’s disapproval for maintaining Iran’s “high tariff rates and non-tariff barriers,” failing to dismantle “import bans” and leaving “restrictive sanitary and phytosanitary regulations” in place. Neither does his “weak enforcement of intellectual property rights,” “resistance to privatization,” and insistence on keeping the oil sector entirely within state hands, earn him friends among Wall Street investors and bankers. [7]

In Wall Street’s view, Ahmadinejad’s sins against the profit-making interests of foreign banks and corporations are legion. He “halted tentative efforts to reform the state-dominated economy” — begun by Rafsanjani and favored by Mousavi — “and has greatly expanded government spending.” He maintains an income tax rate that, in Wall Street’s opinion, is too high, and controls “the prices of petroleum products, electricity, water and wheat for the production of bread,” provides “economic subsidies,” and influences “prices through regulation of Iran’s many state-owned enterprises.” [8]

Equally troubling to Wall Street is that on Ahmadinejad’s watch, foreign investment has faced “considerable hostility.” “The state remains the dominant factor in the economy.” That means US capital is denied profitable investment opportunities. “Foreign investment is restricted or banned in many activities, including banking, telecommunications, transport, oil and gas.” And when foreign investors are allowed in, ceilings are placed on their share of market. [9]

Banking is another sore spot for Wall Street’s deal-makers. The government keeps banks under tight rein and the insurance sector is dominated by five state-owned companies. Plus, under Ahmadinejad’s administration, Iranian workers have enjoyed considerable rights within their jobs. The state imposes strict limits on the number of hours an employee can work in a single week, and firing a worker isn’t left to the discretion of capital, to meet its profit-making needs. It “requires approval of the Islamic Labor Council.” [10]

With people like Ahmadinejad in power, how is US capital to roam the globe, fattening its bottom line?

The irony is that state-control of the commanding heights of the economy, price controls, strong workers’ rights, and industrial planning, are distant dreams for the US left. And yet parts of it are sympathetic to the Mousavi campaign, even though its aim is to dismantle the economic structures and policies the US left aspires to create for itself.

Zimbabwe provides a parallel case. The economic program of Zanu-PF, which has governed Zimbabwe since its founding, either alone, or in a coalition, is one that has aimed at advancing the welfare of the indigenous majority at the expense of European settlers and their descendants and foreign investors. The means of accomplishing this goal have been the reclaiming of land expropriated by European settlers and affirmative action measures to favour the development of domestic industry and investors. It is not a socialist program, but it has, except for a brief period in the 1990s, rejected the neo-liberal approach of indulging foreign investors at the expense of social welfare and economic independence. Zimbabwe falls very close to the bottom of the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal’s Index of Economic Freedom, along with Iran, and for the same reasons.

The Movement for Democratic Change, Zanu-PF’s main opposition, has, since its inception, embraced the same free trade, free market, free enterprise policies Mousavi favors in Iran. The MDC stands for private property, privatizing state-owned enterprises and throwing Zimbabwe’s doors open to foreign trade and investment, on terms favourable to foreign banks and corporations. It is, quite unambiguously, a party of compradors. And yet because it bills itself as the party of democracy, freedom and human rights, large parts of the Western left embrace its cause as their own.

Third, we should be clear on the role Washington has tried to play in fomenting a color revolution in Iran. It hasn’t been a secret. Consider the headlines. “Bush plans huge propaganda campaign in Iran. Congress asked for $75m to fund program.” [11] “US plotting Velvet Revolution in Iran?” [12] “A bid to foment democracy in Iran. The Bush team unveils a plan to push for Iranian-led reform. Can it really yield a ‘regime change’?” [13] “US to sharpen focus on Iran. The US State Department is creating a special office to…promote a democratic transition in the Islamic republic.” [14] “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran.” [15] “Iranians Speak Out on Regime Change Slush Fund”. [16]

Washington’s regime change funding has been used to broadcast US propaganda into Iran; build dissident networks; [17] and to train non-violent, pro-democracy activists to lead street demonstrations in the wake of contested elections. [18]

No one can deny Washington has tried to spark the movement that has rocked Iran. But that hasn’t stopped left supporters of Mousavi from arguing that Washington’s democracy promotion (what a Bush administration official once called “a rubric to get the Europeans behind a more robust policy without calling it ‘regime change’” [19]) hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans. And of course, in principle, this may be true. Just because Washington has spent tens, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars trying to orchestrate a mass overthrow movement to dump Ahmadinejad and Iran’s theocratic rulers, doesn’t mean it worked. The movement may have arisen organically.

However, the question of whether the uprising has been caused by Washington’s interference in Iran’s internal affairs or has nothing whatever to do with it, is largely meaningless, and if it weren’t meaningless, would be irrelevant.

The question is meaningless because it is impossible to disentangle the internal and external factors that have interacted to produce the street protests that have followed Iran’s contested election. It is absurd to suggest that a phenomenon as complex as prolonged street demonstrations could either be unrelated to internal factors, on the one hand, or external factors, on the other. What’s almost certainly true is that the events surrounding the contested election are the product of internal and external forces and of historical circumstance, intermixed, interacting and incapable of being disentangled. Claiming the uprising is wholly due to internal factors and that external factors played no significant role (or vice-a-versa) is tantamount to saying that what makes an automobile run is its engine and that its wheels, frame, gas tank, and so on, don’t matter.

Second, even if you could show the uprising was caused by Washington’s attempts to orchestrate it, or arose solely from internal factors, what difference would it make? The fact remains that Washington did try to meddle in the internal affairs of Iran, to overthrow the government for reasons related to its politics and economic policies, and that it did, is intolerable.

The parts of the US left that place great weight on “movement building” and non-violent pro-democracy activism, steer clear of examining the outcome of color revolution insurrections. Their focus remains sharply circumscribed, fixed on means, and avoiding the question: to what end? To these leftists, it is process, not outcome, which matters. Indeed, outcome, except insofar as it is process itself, is never questioned. It is enough, for them, that large numbers of people assemble to challenge the state. But we should ask of any movement: what does it aim to accomplish? And importantly, what is it likely to accomplish?

One goal of the popular uprising in Iran is to overturn the outcome of the election, on grounds that it is fraudulent. But what if the election wasn’t fraudulent, as the balance of evidence suggests? A movement that seeks to replace Ahmadinejad with Mousavi, even though the majority of Iranians favour Ahmadinejad, can hardly be considered democratic. This is an important point, for many leftists who rally to the cause of non-violent, pro-democracy, movement building, are professedly motivated by pro-democratic sentiments. After all, they call themselves “pro-democracy” activists. But supporting a movement that seeks to overturn the electoral choice of a majority of Iranians isn’t democratic.

We should be clear, too, that tens of thousands of people do not necessarily represent “the people.” The throngs of Iranians that have massed in the streets of Tehran appear to represent a stratum of “university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians,” [20] many of whom have studied in the West, picking up pro-imperialist values along the way. They are no more “the people” than the throng of Roman Catholics that mass in front of St. Peter’s Basilica every Easter are “the people,” for being a throng.

Even so, some will say that insofar as the movement seeks to overthrow a theocratic regime (and yet it’s not clear that it wants to do anything more that challenge the state over what is believed to be an electoral fraud) it is progressive in its orientation. But supporting the uprising owing to its progressive content is on the same plane as supporting the regime owing to the progressive content of its economic policies and structures. Which side one supports seems to depend on where one comes down on the question of the state vs. opposition to the state. Because they are philosophically against the state, any state, anarchists predictably come down on the side of the protestors. Hating all states linked to revolutions not aimed at fomenting world socialist revolution (or having departed from such aims), Trotskyites naturally oppose champions of the Iranian revolution and back those who might bring it down. Social democrats and liberals, being incorrigible suckers for any movement that claims fealty to liberal democratic principles, side with the protestors, because the protestors are seen as champions of the best in Western values. They also don’t particularly like Ahmadinejad and are looking for any progressive pretext to vent their spleen over the Iranian president, Iran’s theocratic leadership, and Islam generally. In this, they are great hypocrites, for while they castigate anti-imperialists for negative anti-imperialism (that is, supporting any leader, movement or party opposed by the United States, simply because it is opposed by the United States) they are forever on the look out for seemingly progressive reasons to hook up with State Department crusades against foreign targets. The comforts of being firmly ensconced in the mainstream of public opinion while still getting progressive credits for it is a temptation liberals and social democrats have never been able to resist. That might explain why they’ve been so eager to back the uprising against the Iranian state (action that is well within the mainstream of popular opinion) while failing even to acknowledge the non-violent pro-democracy movement that challenged the Lebanese state (outside the mainstream because the movement was backed by Hezbollah.)

Now, since failing to denounce the Iranian government in unambiguous terms leaves me open to charges of supporting Ahmadinejad, his brand of social democracy, and political Islam generally, I should make a few things plain. I am no supporter of half in-half out economic arrangements. An economy with few restrictions on private capital accumulation and few concessions to social welfare, may, under certain circumstances, be more conducive to economic growth than half in-half out arrangements (of the type Ahmadinejad leans toward), that seek the benefits of socialism without giving up markets and profits. Neither, however, is as responsive to the needs of ordinary people as one based totally on public ownership rather than free enterprise, central planning rather than markets, and rational production for use rather than production for profit. It is this form of society I favour.

As for political Islam, I regard it as a reality, not an ideal. It is, at the moment, the chief anti-imperialist force throughout West and South Asia, having superseded secular, leftist and Marxist movements, which were weakened by political Islam itself. My preference leans to anti-imperialist movements and parties with Marxist orientations, but my preference does not interfere with a sober recognition of reality.

And no, I am not sympathetic to Islam. I am an atheist, and am as much offended by Islam’s misogyny, superstitions and absurd rituals as I am by the equal backwardness of Islam’s siblings, Judaism and Christianity. But at the same time, opposition to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Revolution by Western governments and by supporters of the uprising has nothing whatever to do with Islam and everything to do with politics, economics and class interest. Islam has become in West and South Asia a rallying point, in the absence of strong Marxist movements, for anti-imperialism. Roman Catholicism, as a religious overlay on the anti-imperialism of the Irish Republican movement, never got in the way of support by Western leftists. Strange that Islam interferes with support for the legitimate anti-imperialist struggles of Muslims.

What would the popular uprising achieve, were it successful? It would probably achieve what all other color revolutions have achieved: the replacement of a government that presides over a largely state-owned economy, imposes restrictions on foreign investment, and makes considerable concessions to social welfare, with one oriented toward privatization, removing restrictions on imports and foreign investment, and which makes few concessions to social welfare. The program of parties and movements backed by Western regime change efforts have, in the former Yugoslavia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and now Iran, featured obeisance to free enterprise, free trade, free market and pro-foreign investment principles. Since Western banks, corporations and investors stand to benefit the most from these policies, it’s not surprising that Western governments have funnelled money to parties and their civil society satellites that champion these causes. Nor is it surprising that in the interests of garnering public support, these parties have portrayed themselves, not as the champions of capitalist and imperialist interests they are, but as beacons for democracy and human rights locked in struggle with backward, incompetent, corrupt, dictatorial regimes.

The besieged governments may not, through reasons of history, culture and the necessities of political survival, embrace the liberal ideals Westerners celebrate. None of them are Marxist in orientation, are dominated by the working class or peasantry, or are working toward socialism. But they have taken stands to resist domination by capitalist imperialism, and their only hope to develop internally in a way that isn’t distorted by the profit-making needs of foreign capital, rather than being responsive to the social welfare needs of their own people, is to continue to resist. If they could be brought down by Marxist oriented movements with socialism on their agendas, the overthrow movement would be well worth supporting. But the reality is that the overthrow movement that has arisen in Iran is neither Marxist nor socialist in aspirations, and its success would likely lead to a government willing to collaborate with foreign capital in ways that would see a regression in the position of the ordinary people of Iran.

For the reasons stated above, support for the uprising in Iran by leftist is mistaken. The uprising is not based in legitimate opposition to a genuinely stolen election, for there is no evidence the election was stolen; it can hardly be called democratic, for it seeks to reverse the decision of a clear majority of Iranians; and it is not in the interests of Iran’s ordinary people, for it seeks to bring to power a government that would collaborate with foreign capital against the interests of ordinary Iranians. The beneficiaries of a successful uprising would be Western banks and investors, which is why Western governments have tried to spark the uprising. High-income Iranians educated in tony Western universities would also benefit. They would secure lucrative positions facilitating the plunder of Iran by Western banks and corporations. Small wonder, then, that they have provided the energy (and Western governments the money, training and propaganda) for the uprising.

1. Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. See for example The Freedom Road Socialist Party June 28, 2009 Statement on Iran. http://freedomroad.org/content/view/656/1/lang,en/
6. 2009 Index of Economic Freedom. http://www.heritage.org/Index/Country/Iran
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. The Guardian (UK), February 16, 2006.
12. Press TV (Iran), November 18, 2008.
13. The Christian Science Monitor, February 17, 2006.
14. CNN, March 2, 2006.
15. Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
16. MRZine, July 15, 2008.
17. The Guardian (UK), February 16, 2006.
18. The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
19. Guy Dinmore, “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran,” Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
20. Mousavi’s greatest support, according to pollsters Ballen and Doherty, comes from this stratum.

Written by what's left

July 1, 2009 at 10:49 pm

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