By Stephen Gowans
The Friends of Syria—an 11 country coalition ranged against the Syrian government—favors what it calls a “democratic” transition in Damascus. There are multiple problems with this.
The coalition says that the current president, Bashar al-Assad, must have “no role in Syria.” How odd that an ostensibly democracy-promoting coalition should dictate to Syrians who it is who can’t be president of their country, rather than democratically leaving the question up to Syrians themselves.
Equally strange is that half of the coalition members do not support democracy in their own countries. Five of the 11—nearly one-half—are not, themselves, democracies, but are monarchies and emirates (Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) and one, Egypt, is a military dictatorship.
The formal democracies that make up the coalition’s other half—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Turkey—are not promoting democratic transitions within the territories of their coalition partners, limiting their intervention to Syria alone.
Yet, while Syria has hardly conformed to the Western model of a multi-party democracy, it is not at all the undemocratic dictatorship it has been made out to be. It is not, for example, a Saudi Arabia. It has a parliament. It is anti-colonial and anti-imperialist. And parts of the state, much to the annoyance of the US State Department, remain committed to socialist goals. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2014. Any Syrian, so long as he or she meets minimal basic criteria, is free to run. If Syrians don’t want Assad, they’ll be free to toss him out then.
On the other hand, coalition member Saudi Arabia is a family business. The Saud family calls the shots. There’s no chance they’ll be tossed out in elections, since they’ll never have any. If Washington were truly interested in cobbling together “Friends of” coalitions to promote democratic transitions in undemocratic countries, it would have long ago put together a Friends of the Saudi People group.
Not that the United States ought to be ranging the globe, foisting its brand of democracy on others. Rather, its selective commitment to democracy promotion (only in countries not under its thumb but not in satellite states), speaks volumes about what US foreign policy is really about—and just how far removed from a meaningful democracy the US version is.
Equally fatal to the idea that the Friends seek democracy in Syria is this: one of its number, Egypt, is ruled by a government installed by the military, after it ousted a democratically-elected government. The charge that Syria’s Assad has to go because he is killing his own people (insurgents) hasn’t stopped the Egyptian military from killing demonstrators who call for the restoration of their elected government. They deserve the appellation “pro-democracy protestors” more than do the Islamist insurgents who used turmoil in Arab countries to inspire a return to jihad against the secular Arab nationalists in Damascus.
And what of the coalition’s formal democracies? All are former colonial powers. They cared not one whit about democracy when they held the greater part of humanity in colonial thrall, including the people who lived in what is modern day Syria. By their actions and duplicity, they’ve revealed themselves to care as little about democracy in the Arab world as they did when four of them (the Turks, Italians, British and French) ruled Arabs by edict from afar.
Six former colonial powers in a coalition with five tyrannies, telling Syrians who they can’t have as president, supporting a group of exiles who wait in the wings for the signal to traipse onto the Syrian stage as Washington’s marionette, is hardly the picture of democracy-promoters. If you believe otherwise, then democracy is nothing but a euphemism for imperialism, an emotionally appealing word tossed around as a cover for the very negation of what the Friends of Syria profess to seek.
By Stephen Gowans
Canadians measure their country against the United States. And the US benchmark defines their aspirations. If only Canada had a military to bestride the globe, moan many Canadians, a foreign policy leadership involved in all significant matters of international affairs, a reputation as a global leader, and an informal empire of countries governed by marionettes answerable to Ottawa. While many Canadians would like to elevate Canada’s role on the world stage to that of an imperial power on par with the United States, some on the left have gone beyond other Canadians’ aspirations. These leftists define Canada as a country with an “imperialist project,” all the better, perhaps, to show that just like their US counterparts, they too have an honest to goodness imperialist beast to slay, right here at home.
Todd Gordon, author of Imperialist Canada, cites numerous examples of retrograde Canadian behaviour on the world stage. These include Canada supporting a coup in Honduras, taking a lead role in promoting market-oriented reforms in Haiti, and military participation in the occupation of Afghanistan. Gordon believes these actions show Canada to be an imperialist country, just like the United States.
But in Gordon’s world, dominating other countries politically, backed up by military might—in other words, having an empire, whether formal or undeclared—is not the essential feature of imperialism. And for a leftist aspiring to wrestle with an imperialist beast at home, it’s a damn good thing. Turns out, Canada doesn’t have one.
So, if Canada is empire-free, how is that it has come to be called imperialist? Gordon says because Ottawa’s foreign policy supports Canadian business interests abroad (it “drains the wealth” of other countries.) Implicit in this view is the idea that any country with foreign investment outflows, and a foreign policy aimed at protecting and promoting them, is imperialist. Which means that counting the countries that aren’t imperialist becomes a task a kindergarten student can handle. One…two…three…four….According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, even developing countries generate massive foreign direct investment outflows, $356.5B in 2011.
By Gordon’s definition, then, imperialism becomes a near universal, applicable to all countries but the poorest. That’s fine, so long as we acknowledge that if almost all countries are imperialist then imperialism doesn’t mean much of anything. When Lenin spoke of the advanced industrial countries carving up the world amongst themselves into mutually exclusive spheres of influence, we knew what he meant. A few rich countries dominated the rest of the world, and had hostile relationships with each other. Lenin’s definition wasn’t a near universal that would allow leftists in practically every capitalist country to claim that their country was also imperialist. If “imperialism” means much the same as “capitalism with foreign investment outflows” we no longer need the term imperialism. And exactly where is Canada’s unique sphere of influence anyway?
In a Briarpatch Magazine article titled “Canada’s imperialist project” Gordon says that Ottawa’s foreign policy is “increasingly aggressive” but offers no evidence that it’s any more aggressive nowadays than it was a hundred years ago. Canada’s long history of entanglment in other countries’ military aggressions makes Gordon’s examples of Canada’s supposedly new muscular foreign policy—supporting coups in Honduras and Haiti, and a largely symbolic military presence in Afghanistan—seem rather wimpy by comparison. Canada sent troops to Europe in 1914 to participate in a bloodletting that had nothing whatever to do with Canada, intervened militarily in the civil war in Russia to crush the nascent Bolshevik revolution, participated in the UN “police action” in Korea from 1950-53 to prevent the Koreans from uniting under Kim Il Sung, and joined NATO to roll back communism. However, Gordon appears to harbour the delusion that foreign policy in Canada used to be a rather benign affair until the country underwent “significant transformations…over the last 20 years of neo-liberal entrenchment.” This is the myth of the capitalist golden age, within which lurks the deception that it’s not capitalism, but its neo-liberal variety, that is the problem.
Canada has long had enterprises with investments overseas, governments that support them, and a foreign policy subordinate to that of countries that have normally been understood to be imperialist—Great Britain initially and the United States later on. But Canada has never had the clout to dominate other countries politically—not in a world in which the greater power has always been in the hands of truly imperialist countries.
But we don’t have to call Canada what it isn’t to recognize that it doesn’t wear a white hat on the world stage (contrary to what many Canadians believe). Nor do we have to stretch the definition of imperialism on a Procrustean bed to make it fit Canada. Like other capitalist countries, Canada uses what leverage it has to promote the interests of its corporations, bankers and wealthy investors abroad, and this involves the exploitation of people in other countries, some of them the world’s poorest.
Canada may have recognized the coups in Haiti and Honduras, but it didn’t engineer them. (The Marshall Islands recognized the coups, too. Does that make the Marshall Islands imperialist?) Canada participated in the occupation of Afghanistan, but it didn’t initiate it, and nor was its contribution large enough to make a significant difference. The United States led the NATO operations in Yugoslavia and Libya, in which Canada played bit roles. It is unimaginable that Canada would have—could have—led these campaigns. Participate vs. led. Canada participated in WWI, but no one thought its participation made the country imperialist—only part of an imperialist bloc led by Great Britain. Today, Canada is part of a much larger imperialist bloc led by the United States, in which exist separate semi-independent sub-imperialist blocs based on the vestiges of once formal European empires.
Which isn’t to say that Canada wouldn’t have engineered coups d’état, initiated invasions and fought wars for the re-division of the world had it the resources to do so and an empire, formal or otherwise, to defend and enlarge. Capitalist imperialism depends on two conditions. A compulsion to seek profits abroad. The means to dominate. Canada has the first, but not the second. If Gordon would like to call Canada an aspiring imperialist power, I’m happy to agree. But for the moment, the reality is that Ottawa contents itself with the being a second stringer on team USA, called in every once in a while to relieve the first string, and free to do its own thing, so long as it checks with Washington first. Hardly the picture of an imperialist.
Professing grave concern over Syria’s escalating violence, the United Nations General Assembly on Friday demanded that “all in Syria immediately and visibly commit to ending violence.”
This would be all to the good except that the General Assembly’s idea of what constitutes “all in Syria” and what it means by “ending violence” amounts to one side in the civil war (the Republic) laying down its arms unilaterally, while President Assad steps down and cedes his authority to an interim government approved by the “international community,” which is to say, the very same countries that are furnishing the rebels with arms, logistical support, diplomatic assistance, territory from which to launch attacks, salaries for fighters, lucre to induce government officials to defect, and propaganda.
The resolution is hardly a plea for peace. It’s a demand that the Republic capitulate. Significantly, the resolution’s sponsor, Saudi Arabia, is the rebels’ main arms supplier. No wonder the Bolivian representative to the UN was moved to declare that the aim of the text is not to assist the Syrian population, but to ‘defeat Damascus’.” “Anybody who doesn’t believe that needs only read it,” he said.
Indeed, the text is perfectly clear: peace means regime change and regime change means peace.
“Rapid progress on a political transition,” the General Assembly said is “the best opportunity” to resolve the conflict peacefully. That is: peace equals Assad stepping down. Or, peace, yes, but on the rebels’, which is to say, the United States’, terms. And UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon, echoing US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, has underscored the equating of peace with Assad’s departure, defining “political transition” as a necessary condition of peace.
Importantly, the United States—whose efforts to eliminate Syria’s Arab nationalist government antedate the Arab Spring—opposes Assad, not because he is a “dictator” or “kills his own people” as the propaganda has it, but because his government has long charted a course on foreign and economic policy independent of Washington. Assad’s crime, in the view of Washington, is to have tried to privilege the Syrian population over the interests, both immediate and distal, of US banks and corporations.
Significantly, the resolution ignores the political and constitutional concessions the Syrian government has already made in what has turned out to be a fruitless attempt to engineer a peaceful settlement with an opposition that is hostile to peace. With Libya as a model for how a opposition with the backing of only part of the population need not negotiate with the government it opposes if it can enlist the support of the United States and Europe, the Syrian rebels have never had an incentive to sit down with Damascus and work out a modus vivendi. On the contrary, all the incentives are on the side of an intransigent commitment to violent overthrow of the government. The overthrow comes about as a result of the support in arms and political and propaganda backing the United States and its allies provide, and therefore is effectively authored in Washington, but attributed, for political and propaganda purposes, to the rebels’ own efforts. Having the US State Department, CIA and Pentagon on your side can more than adequately make up for the deficiency of failing to win the support of significant parts of the population.
The General Assembly’s text demands that “the first step in ending the violence must be made by the Syrian authorities,” who are called upon to withdraw their troops. It is highly unlikely that a US ally would ever be called upon to withdraw its troops in the face of an armed insurrection. This is a standard reserved exclusively for communist, socialist, and economic nationalist governments—those whose commitment to self-directed, independent development runs counter to the unrestrained profit-making of US banks and corporations. No international body has ever seriously demanded that Saudi Arabia refrain from violence in putting down rebellions in its eastern provinces, or that Bahrain—home to the US Fifth Fleet—cease its use of violence to extinguish its own, local, eruption of the Arab Spring (a military action against civilians ably assisted by Saudi tanks.) Asking Damascus to unilaterally lay down its arms is a demand for capitulation, disguised as a desire for peace.
Parenthetically, the uprisings in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are regularly depicted in the Western media as “Shia” and backed by Shia Iran and therefore sectarian, not as popular democratic movements against tyrannical monarchies. By contrast, the Syrian uprising, though having a strong sectarian content and being principally Sunni and supported by the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the Sunni-dominated government of Turkey, is depicted as a democratic uprising against dictatorship, not sectarian.
The United States and Israel, in backing the General Assembly resolution, denounced Syria’s use of “heavy weapons, armour and the air forces against populated areas”—though Washington’s concern for using overwhelming military force against populated areas stops at Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Populated areas of Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon have felt the heavy hand of Israeli heavy weapons, armour and air force. And Turkey’s rulers—who allow their territory to be used by the rebels as a launching pad for attacks on Syria—continue to kill their own people in their longstanding war against Kurd nationalists.
Ban Ki-moon warned the Syrian government that its actions “might constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes, which must be investigated and the perpetrators held to account,” words he never uttered in connection with Nato’s assault on Libya nor Saudi Arabia’s and Bahrain’s use of violence to quell uprisings in their countries. Nor have his predecessors uttered similar words in connection with the United States’ and Israel’s frequent and undoubted crimes against humanity and war crimes. Moreover, Ban hasn’t warned Syria’s rebels that they too will be held to account for their crimes. (The Libyan rebels haven’t been.)
Thirteen countries opposed the resolution, almost all of them committed to independent self-directed development outside the domination of the United States. These include Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Against this axis of independence are the sponsors and chief backers of the resolution: the US-vassal Sunni petro-tyrannies—champions of a Sunni rebel movement that’s supposed to be (improbably) galvanized by democratic, not sectarian, ambitions—while the United States, its Nato allies, and Israel—authors of the gravest humanitarian tragedies of recent times, hypocritically profess concern over escalating violence in Syria. The resolution can hardly be seen as a genuine expression of humanitarian concern. It’s a demand for the Republic’s, which is to say, the non-sectarian Arab nationalists’, capitulation, disguised as a plea for peace, and a blatant taking of the imperialist side in a civil war.
“Sanctions,” New York Times’ reporter Rick Gladstone writes, have subjected “ordinary Iranians” to “increased deprivations” in order to “punish Iran for enriching uranium that the West suspects is a cover for developing the ability to make nuclear weapons.”  In other words, Iran is suspected of having a secret nuclear weapons program, and so must be sanctioned to force it to abandon it.
Contrary to Gladstone, the West doesn’t really believe that Tehran has a secret nuclear weapons program, yet even if we accept it does believe this, the position is indefensible. Why should Iranians be punished for developing a capability that the countries that have imposed sanctions already have?
The reason why, it will be said, is because Iranians are bent on developing nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. Didn’t Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten to “wipe Israel off the map”?
Regurgitated regularly by US hawks and Israeli politicians to mobilize support for the bombing of Iran, the claim is demagogic rubbish. Ahmadinejad predicted that Israel as a Zionist state would someday disappear much as South Africa as an apartheid state did. He didn’t threaten the physical destruction of Israel and expressed only the wish that historic Palestine would become a multinational democratic state of Arabs and the Jews whose ancestors arrived in Palestine before Zionist settlers. 
No less damaging to the argument that Iranians aspire to take Israel out in a hail of nuclear missiles is the reality that it would take decades for Iran to match Israel’s already formidable nuclear arsenal, if indeed it aspires to. For the foreseeable future, Israel is in a far better position to wipe Iran off the map. And given Israel’s penchant for flexing its US-built military muscle, is far more likely to be the wiper than wipee. Already it has almost wiped an entire people from the map of historic Palestine.
But this is irrelevant, for the premise that the West suspects Iran of developing a nuclear weapons capability is false. To be sure, the mass media endlessly recycle the fiction that the West suspects Iran’s uranium enrichment program is a cover for a nuclear weapons program, but who in the West suspects this? Not high officials of the US state, for they have repeatedly said that there’s no evidence that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program.
The consensus view of the United States’ 16 intelligence agencies is that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program years ago. Director of US intelligence James Clapper “said there was no evidence that (Iran) had made a decision on making a concerted push to build a weapon. David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director, concurred with that view…. Other senior United States officials, including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made similar statements.” 
Rather than weakening this conclusion, stepped up US espionage has buttressed it. Iran’s leaders “have opted for now against…designing a nuclear warhead,” said one former intelligence official briefed on US intelligence findings. “It isn’t the absence of evidence, it’s the evidence of an absence. Certain things are not being done”  that would indicate that Iran is working on nuclear weapons. Even Mossad, Israeli’s intelligence agency “does not disagree with the US on the weapons program,” according to a former senior US intelligence official. 
So, contrary to the claim that the West “suspects” Iran of concealing a nuclear weapons program, no one in a position of authority in the US state believes this to be true. Neither does Israeli intelligence. Why, then, is the United States and its allies subjecting ordinary Iranians to increased deprivations through sanctions?
The answer, according to Henry Kissinger, is because US policy in the Middle East for the last half century has been aimed at “preventing any power in the region from emerging as a hegemon.” This is another way of saying that the aim of US Middle East policy is to stop any Middle Eastern country from challenging its domination by the United States. Iran, Kissinger points out, has emerged as the principal challenger. 
Indeed, it did so as long ago as 1979, when the local extension of US power in Iran, the Shah, was overthrown, and the country set out on a path of independent economic and political development. For the revolutionaries’ boldness in asserting their sovereignty, Washington pressed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq into a war with Iran. This served the same purpose as today’s economic warfare, sabotage, threats of military intervention, and assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists: to weaken the country and stifle its development; to prevent it from thriving and thereby becoming an example to other countries of development possibilities outside US domination.
Uranium enrichment has emerged as point of conflict for two reasons.
First, a civilian nuclear power industry strengthens Iran economically and domestic uranium enrichment provides the country with an independent source of nuclear fuel. Were Iran to depend on the West for enriched uranium to power its reactors, it would be forever at the mercy of a hostile US state. Likewise, concern over energy security being in the hands of an outside power has led Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and South Korea to insist over US objections that they be allowed to produce nuclear fuel domestically, without sanction. With US nuclear reactor sales hanging in the balance, it appears that their wishes will be respected.  Iran will be uniquely denied.
Secondly, uranium enrichment provides Tehran with the capability of developing nuclear weapons quickly, if it should ever feel compelled to. Given Washington’s longstanding hostility to an independent Iran, there are good reasons why the country may want to strengthen its means of self-defense. The hypocrisy of the United States championing counter-proliferation—and only selectively since no one is asking Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, and the United States hasn’t the slightest intention of ever relinquishing its own—reveals the illegitimacy of the exercise.
The reason, then, for punishing Iranians with new and more debilitating privations is not because their government has a secret nuclear weapons program —which no one in the US state believes anyway—but because a developing Iran with independent energy, economic and foreign policies threatens Washington’s preferred world political order—one in which the United States has unchallenged primacy.
1. Rick Gladstone, “Iranian President Says Oil Embargo Won’t Hurt”, The New York Times, April 10, 2012.
2. Glenn Kessler, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?” The Washington Post, October 6, 2011.
3. James Risen and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. agencies see no move by Iran to build a bomb”, The New York Times, February 24, 2012.
4. Joby Warrick and Greg Miller, “U.S. intelligence gains in Iran seen as boost to confidence”, The Washington Post, April 7, 2012.
5. James Risen, “U.S. faces a tricky task in assessment of data on Iran”, The New York Times, March 17, 2012.
6. Henry A. Kissinger, “A new doctrine of intervention?” The Washington Post, March 30, 2012.
7. Carol E. Lee and Jay Solomon, “Obama to discuss North Korea, Iran”, The Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2012.
By Stephen Gowans
The New York Times ran an article today about Washington’s plans to strengthen its military presence in Australia. Australia is to be used by the US military “as a new center of operations in Asia” from which the United States will seek “to reassert itself in the region and grapple with China’s rise.”
The problem for policy planners in Washington is that “China has become the largest trading partner with most of the countries in the region, undercutting American economic influence.” And so the United States will beef up its presence in the Pacific to prove that “it intends to remain a crucial military and economic power” in Asia.
In simple language this means that China has secured export and investment opportunities in its own backyard and that US corporations, banks and investors want them for themselves. So Washington will use its military to take them away from the Chinese.
For obvious reasons, China thinks this smacks of old-fashioned gun-boat imperialism.
Not so curiously, the headline of the Ian Johnson and Jackie Calmes article announcing Washington’s plan to muscle China out of economic primacy in the region put a chauvinistic spin on the story: “As US looks to Asia, it sees China everywhere.”
Imagine China setting up military bases in Venezuela and sending aircraft carriers to the Gulf of Mexico in order to “assert itself in the region.” How strange would seem a newspaper headline that read: “As China looks to the Gulf of Mexico, it sees the United States everywhere,” as if this were an unexpected discovery.
The New York Times’ headline could have been more aptly written this way: As China looks around its neighborhood, it sees the US military everywhere. But then this would have made US imperialism uncomfortably obvious.
An article by Johnson and Calmes’ New York Times’ colleagues Nada Bakri and Rick Gladstone, also in today’s edition of the newspaper (“Syria faces new threats as opposition seeks allies”) is equally worthy of comment. Their article used “one human rights group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” as a source for the number of people killed in recent clashes with Syrian government forces.
One might get the impression that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is a neutral human rights monitor without a political agenda. After all, Bakri and Gladstone refer to it as “one human rights group”, and nothing more.
Were it an opposition group seeking to overthrow the Syrian government we might think twice about trusting it as a source of unbiased information.
Well, think twice.
A statement posted to the group’s website on November 15, 2011, makes clear that it is more than just “one human rights group.” In the statement, the group calls for a no-fly zone over Syria “in accordance with its duty and commitment to echo the voice of Syrian Popular Revolution.”
The Observatory makes no secret of the reason it wants “the international community” (which is to say, Nato) dropping bombs on Syrian military installations and Assad supporters: “the acceleration of overthrowing Syrian brutal regime.”
Meanwhile, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the group of US-allied oil autocracies that had been acting as arms and propaganda suppliers to Libyan rebels, played a key role in pushing through the recent Arab League suspension of Syria.
The Council has also become a key to Washington’s plans to continue to dominate the Persian Gulf, even as—or rather, precisely because–US troops are being withdrawn from Iraq.
Both US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have said that the United States will “maintain a large military presence in the region, in part as a counterweight to Iran.” The US military will rely on “the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. While the United States has close bilateral military relationships with each, the administration and the military are trying to foster a new ‘security architecture’ for the Persian Gulf that would integrate air and naval patrols and missile defense.”
It’s not only China that is hemmed in by the US military. As Iran looks around its neighborhood, it too sees the US everywhere.
Wars for Profits: A No-Nonsense Guide to Why the United States Seeks to Make Iran an International Pariah
By Stephen Gowans
Flipping idly through my morning newspaper, my eyes fell upon a headline, which, given its significance, should have appeared on the front page, but instead was tucked away at the back, on page A9.
“Israel won’t rule out attack on Iran”. (1)
Now, it’s true that Israel’s threatening to attack Iran is hardly news. Here was Ehud Barak, Israeli defense minister, over two years ago, talking about measures to dissuade Iran from continuing to process uranium: “We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table. This is our policy. We mean it.” (2) And here was Barak just the other day: “We strongly believe that…no option should be removed from the table.” (3) Same defense minister. Same words. Same threat.
Yet while the threat may be old, its significance remains undiminished. One country is threatening to commit the supreme international crime: to attack another even though it, itself, has not been attacked by the country it rattles its saber at. Were Iran to threaten Israel, the headline “Iran won’t rule out attack on the Jewish state” wouldn’t be tucked away inconspicuously in the back pages of my newspaper. Instead, it would be shouted in bold letters across the front page. “My God!”, NATO state officials and editorialists would cry. “Iran is threatening to attack the Jewish state. Something must be done!”
But in this case it is Israel that is issuing the threat against a country which has, since its escape from US domination in 1979, been limned as dark and menacing, and so while no one wants war, surely it’s all perfectly understandable that the plucky Israelis should be declaring their determination to stand against the Judeophobic menace of the Islamic Republic. After all, isn’t Iran building nuclear weapons to wipe Israel off the map? Well, if you listen to the Israelis and their US protector, the answer is yes.
The Strangelovian Israeli historian Benny Morris declares that Israel is “threatened almost daily with destruction by Iran’s leaders.” To eclipse this threat, Iran must be wiped off the map before Iran does any wiping of its own. “Israel has no option,” Morris chillingly says, “but to use its nuclear arsenal to destroy Iran, unless the US uses its formidable military to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities first.” (4)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns: “Iran is even arming itself with nuclear weapons to realize that goal (the obliteration of the Jewish state), and until now the world has not stopped it. The threat to our existence, is not theoretical. It cannot be swept under the carpet; it cannot be reduced. It faces us and all humanity, and it must be thwarted.” (5)
Ominous. But the idea that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons to obliterate Israel is pure flummery; a work of fiction, intended to create a frisson of fear.
So, why do I say this? First, we don’t know whether Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons, or only the capability of producing them, or even that. An International Atomic Energy Agency report, released yesterday, tables evidence that Iran is secretly working on a nuclear bomb. So let’s assume for the moment that Iran’s leaders do indeed intend to build nuclear weapons.
It’s widely agreed that it’s highly unlikely that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons while its nuclear energy program is still under the scrutiny of UN inspectors. A more likely scenario is that Tehran would develop the capability to produce a bomb from within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and once it had reached the point of being able to do so, would turn its capability into reality by withdrawing from the treaty, ejecting inspectors, and making a mad dash to develop a rudimentary arsenal. That’s what North Korea did, when, following the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States decided to re-target some its nuclear missiles from the USSR to the DPRK.
But would Iran ever get as far as being able to make a mad dash to status as the world’s newest nuclear-weapons state? The United States and Israel have made plenty of noise about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran’s nuclear scientists ever reach the point of having the capability of producing nuclear weapons. Indeed, the threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities has been trotted out anew because the steps the United States and Israel have taken to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program–from the Stuxnet computer virus to the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists to punitive sanctions–haven’t stopped the program’s development, although they have certainly slowed it.
But let’s make another assumption. Let’s assume that despite US and Israeli efforts to cripple Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons, that Iran, despite these impediments, brings this capability to fruition, and furthermore, manages against the concerted opposition of the United States and Israel to develop a few nuclear warheads. Does the possession of warheads mean that Iran will use them–either to wipe Israel off the map or attack the United States?
No, it does not.
The idea that Iran is an “existential” threat to Israel comes from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s alleged promise to wipe Israel off the map. US and Israeli political leaders have been invoking this chestnut for years to justify the assassinations, economic warfare, covert destabilization, and threats of military intervention used to undermine Iran’s nuclear energy program. The problem is, the allegation is groundless.
The firestorm started when Nazila Fathi, then the Tehran correspondent of The New York Times, reported a story almost six years ago that was headlined: “Wipe Israel ‘off the map’ Iranian says.” The article attributed newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks to a report by the ISNA press agency.
Specialists such as Juan Cole of the University of Michigan and Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project pointed out that the original statement in Persian did not say that Israel should be wiped from the map, but instead that it would collapse.
Khamenei stated, “Iran’s position, which was first expressed by the Imam [Khomeini] and stated several times by those responsible, is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region.” He went on to say in the same speech that “Palestinian refugees should return and Muslims, Christians and Jews could choose a government for themselves, excluding immigrant Jews.”
Khamenei has been consistent, stating repeatedly that the goal is not the military destruction of the Jewish state but “the defeat of Zionist ideology and the dissolution of Israel through a ‘popular referendum.’” (6)
To be sure, anyone who regards Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that “must be uprooted from the region” and replaced by a government freely chosen by the people who lived in Palestine prior to its conquest by Zionist settlers, is an existential threat to the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. But while the designation of Iran as an existential threat to the idea of Israel is literally true (in the sense that Iran doesn’t accept Zionism and therefore works against it by supporting such anti-Zionist groups as Hamas), the phrase “existential threat” is twisted to mean something more than intended: military destruction rather than collapse through a referendum.
Political leaders are in the habit of present non-threats into dire ones. A not particularly egregious example is provided by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who, needing to defend the Pentagon’s Brobdignagian budget against possible cuts, recently “cited North Korea and Iran as persistent threats, and said that the military had to maintain ‘the ability to deter and defeat them.’” (7) Yet North Korea and Iran are not threats to the physical safety and welfare of a single US civilian.
First, Iran’s military is built for self-defense. It doesn’t have aircraft carriers, a large fleet of warships, strategic bombers, foreign military bases or a naval presence near US waters. The United States, by contrast, bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, within shouting distance of Iran, directly across the Persian Gulf. Iranian warships won’t be found lingering menacingly in the Gulf of Mexico or patrolling the edges of US territorial waters.
Second, a graph nearby shows that Iran’s military spending, at $20B per annum, pales in comparison to the budgets of the United States ($700B) and even that of the United States’ regional allies ($102B). The US military budget is 35 times larger than Iran’s, and the sum of that of the United States, its invariable co-belligerent the United Kingdom, and Washington’s regional allies, is 43 times larger. The gulf in fighting ability supported by these expenditures is as yawning as the one between the New York City Police Department and a troop of Boy Scouts armed with BB guns.
As regards North Korea, the idea that it is a threat to the security of a single US civilian is even more absurd. Like Iran, North Korea’s military is built for defense, and it too has no foreign military bases, no aircraft carriers, no nuclear armed submarines and no strategic bombers, and it has never—unlike its compatriot neighbor to the south—sent troops abroad to fight in other country’s wars (as South Korean troops have fought in US wars.)
North Korean military expenditures are even more modest than Iran’s. Pyongyang spends an estimated $10B on its military (and that’s probably stretching it), many of whose members are engaged in agriculture and other civilian activities. (8) By comparison, South Korea (on whose soil are resident close to 30,000 US troops), spends $39B, while nearby Japan (home to 40,000 US troops) spends $34B. Together, these two US allies outspend Pyongyang on their militaries by a factor of 7 to 1. Add to this US defense expenditures and those of Britain—a country that can be counted on to docilely follow the United States into any war–and North Korea, surrounded by US troops and warships and whose air borders are incessantly menaced by the US Air Force, is outspent over 80 to 1. A threat? The claim is laughable.
And that understates the imbalance. What military budgets don’t reveal is the vastly superior destructive power of US military hardware (and that of many of its allies) compared to Iran’s and North Korea’s. The kill capacity of US strike aircraft, cruise missiles, and battleships is far in excess of the heavy artillery that figures so prominently in the North Korean armamentarium, for example.
And then there’s nuclear weapons. North Korea may (or may not) have an arsenal of a few warheads, and Iran may (or may not) be seeking one, but these rudimentary collections pale in comparison with the US, British, and Israeli arsenals arrayed against them. Would Iran attack Israel, or North Korea attack South Korea, with one or two nuclear missiles, knowing that to do so would invite a retaliatory tsunami of missiles from the target (in the case of an attack on Israel) or its hyper-armed patron, the United States, or both? The outcome of so foolhardy an attack would be game-over for either country.
“During the Democratic primaries, then candidate Hilary Clinton (now US Secretary of State) warned that if Iran attacked Israel, the United States would ‘totally obliterate’ Iran.” (9) Three years ago, Israeli “Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer went on record saying, ‘We must tell them: ‘If you so much as dream of attacking Israel, before you even finish dreaming there won’t be an Iran anymore.’” (10) It’s doubtful that the Iranians failed to get the message.
And then there’s the matter of Washington’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). If read superficially, the NPR would lead one to believe that US policy makers have finally figured out that the cardinal rule of nonproliferation is to abjure military aggression against non-nuclear states. Countries that aren’t threatened by nuclear powers have no need to develop nuclear weapons for self-defense. However, a closer reading of the review shows that nothing has changed. US president Barack Obama has stayed true to form, obscuring his pursuit of his predecessors’ policies beneath honeyed phrases that create the impression of change, where no change of substance exists.
The NPR declares “that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states”, even if they attack the United States, its vital interests or allies and partners with chemical or biological weapons. This differs, but only on the surface, from the policy of preceding administrations which refused to renounce the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. There are a number of reasons why the difference is apparent only.
While nuclear weapons are widely regarded as unparalleled in their destructive power, the United States is able to deliver overwhelming destructive force through its conventional military capabilities. A promise not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states is not the same as an assurance not to use or threaten to use devastating military force. Six decades ago it was possible to obliterate a city through conventional means, as the Western Allies demonstrated in the firebombing of Dresden. If a city could be destroyed by conventional means more than half a century ago, imagine what the Pentagon could do today through conventional forces alone. Indeed, the NPR makes clear that the United States is prepared to shrink its nuclear arsenal partly because “the growth of unrivalled U.S. conventional military capabilities” allows Washington to fulfill its geostrategic goals “with significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.”
The NPR also provides a number of escape hatches that allow Washington to continue to dangle a nuclear sword of Damocles over the heads of Iran and North Korea. One is that nuclear weapons can be used, or their use threatened, against a country that is not “party to the NPT” even if the country doesn’t yet have nuclear weapons, or it is unclear whether it does. This is the North Korea escape clause. It allows Washington to continue to threaten North Korea with nuclear obliteration, just as it has done since the early 1990s when the US Strategic Command announced it was re-targeting some of its strategic nuclear missiles on the DPRK (the reason why North Korea withdrew from the NPT.)
Another escape clause allows Washington to reach for the nuclear trigger whenever it deems a country to have fallen short of “compliance with [its] nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” even if the country doesn’t have nuclear weapons and is a party to the NPT. This is the Iran escape hatch, intended to allow Washington to maintain the threat of nuclear annihilation vis-à-vis Iran or any other country Washington unilaterally declares to be noncompliant with the treaty’s obligations.
As for the United States’ commitment to refrain from reaching for its nuclear arsenal in response to a chemical or biological attack on itself, its vital interests (a term that defies geography and democracy, for how is it that the United States’ vital interests extend to other people’s countries?) its allies and its partners, this too is verbal legerdemain. As a careful reading of the NPR makes clear, the truth of the matter is that the United States will attack any country with nuclear weapons if such an attack is deemed necessary by Washington to protect its interests. According to the NPR, “the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in [its commitment] that may be warranted…” Translation: We won’t attack non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons unless we decide it’s in our interests to do so.
Finally, we need to ask whether either Iran or North Korea have a motive to attack the United States, and whether Iran has a motive to attack Israel. Iran’s leaders may abhor the Zionist conquest of what they see as territory important to Islam, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to take on a suicide mission to deal a one- or two-nuclear missile blow to Israel—one which, by the way, probably wouldn’t destroy Israel, but would in all likelihood elicit a hail of retaliatory blows that would produce devastating damage to Iran. As for tangling with the United States, neither Iran nor North Korea want that. What they want is peaceful coexistence—to be left alone to develop in their own way.
The trouble is, the United States hasn’t the barest interest in peaceful coexistence, and the reason why is the key, not only to understanding US foreign policy, but to understanding why a US-led NATO spent months bombing Libya to drive Muamar Gaddafi from power.
But first, a digression. Critiques of US foreign policy often involve exposes of US hypocrisy. For example, critics might point out that the United States defends Israel, which has nuclear weapons and doesn’t belong to the NPT, while threatening to attack Iran, which belongs to the NPT, and doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Or that NATO bombed Libya to prevent the government there from using its military to put down an uprising but condoned Bahrain and Saudi Arabia using their militaries to put down an uprising in Bahrain. Some critics stop there, reasoning that if they’re going to muster opposition to US foreign policy, it’s enough to show that it’s built on hypocrisy. Or they show US behavior to be immoral, undemocratic or against international law and figure that showing this will rouse the indignation of people of good conscience. Other US foreign policy critics cogently show why US foreign policy couldn’t possibly be guided by the objectives US leaders say it is. But they stop there, leaving their audiences to scratch their heads, wondering, if not for the reasons stated, then why?
Liberals insist that US foreign policy makes no sense and that US leaders are confused, myopic, poorly motivated, or just plain dumb. An example of this point of view is offered by former US president Jimmy Carter, who contends that the conflict with North Korea can be resolved in half a day (11). Apparently US leaders have neither the political will nor smarts to do so.
The truth of the matter is that there is nothing to be gained for the corporations, investors and banks that dominate US foreign policy—the one percent who really matter in the United States–from peaceful coexistence with North Korea. Peaceful coexistence implies that each side poses a threat to the other, but North Korea, despite the rhetorical nonsense of political leaders seeking to justify Pentagon budgets, poses no threat to the United States. A $10B defense budget against a $700B one; aging aircraft whose pilots are grounded most of the time due to shortages of fuel; a puny arsenal of nuclear weapons; an army whose training time is partly displaced by engagement in farming; the most sanctioned country on earth, whose economy has been crippled by six decades of US economic warfare; a country of 24 million hemmed in to the south and east by the troops of a country of 300 million; no, North Korea is not a threat.
So how is it that peaceful coexistence would deliver anything in the way of improved security for Americans, which they already have in abundance anyway? It wouldn’t. The demand for peaceful coexistence is little more than a Quixotic plea from Pyongyang to be left alone to develop in a self-directed manner in exchange for giving up a few nuclear weapons that at best, are, to use an Edward Herman term, a “threat of self-defense.” The benefits of peaceful coexistence are all on the North Korean side.
What does the United States get for promising to leave North Korea to develop in its own way? An open door for exports and investments? North Korea’s integration into a US-dominated system of global capitalism? US troops on North Korean soil? North Korea’s incorporation into a US-led military alliance against China? No. What it gets is North Korea giving up a deterrent to attack in exchange for the United States promising not to attack. This is a one-sided deal. No wonder North Korea wants it, and Washington keeps turning it down. David Straub, director of the US State Department’s Korea desk from 2002 to 2004 sums up nicely why peaceful coexistence isn’t on Washington’s Korea agenda. “North Korea’s closed economic and social system means the country has virtually nothing of value to offer the United States.” (12) What the United States wants from North Korea (an open door to investment, exports, ownership and political influence) is the opposite of what North Korea offers (a closed door and a prickly sense of independence—both political and economic). Washington abandoned the policy of peaceful coexistence with the USSR, which was militarily strong enough to make the US a miserable place if the Pentagon ever decided to start a US-Soviet war. So why would it accept peaceful coexistence with a hated closed system that poses a minor threat at best?
Other critics of US foreign policy explain their subject in terms of power. US leaders want to preserve or expand US power (or primacy or hegemony) against such “peer competitors” as China or Russia or such regional powers as Iran. Of course, it’s never said what US leaders (or Chinese or Russian leaders) want power for. To believe these critics, power is what everyone wants, and the quest for it, as an end in itself, is what makes the world go around. But the trick here is to inquire into why power is sought. Washington doesn’t seek to enlarge its power so that it can strong-arm governments around the world into furnishing their citizens with public healthcare, guaranteed employment and free education. On the contrary, it seeks power to do the very opposite. Power serves some end, and in the case of US state power, it serves the end of protecting and enlarging the big business interests of the big business people who run the state of a big business country; it protects profits and establishes the conditions that allow them to grow—both at home and overseas.
It’s curious that the power-is-the-alpha-and-omega-of-world-politics view should hold such a strong sway among critics of US foreign policy, when in the internal affairs of capitalist countries the organizing principle is private business, and the alpha and omega of private business, is profits. Sure, it’s understood that business leaders want power, but not so they can lord it over others, and take pleasure in its trappings, but so they can enlarge their capital. Power is a means to an end.
So why should foreign policy be any different? The moment Gaddafi was toppled by NATO bombs, a stream of NATO foreign ministers traipsed to Benghazi, their countries’ corporate CEOs in tow, to line up new business deals. It was clear the National Transitional Council (NTC), whose key members—one, an exile who had been teaching economics in the United States for years; another, who earned his PhD in 1985 from the University of Pittsburgh under the late Richard Cottam, a former US intelligence official in Iran; and a third, who had been living within hailing distance of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, before being spirited back to Libya– would be a good deal more accommodating of US business interests than Gaddafi had ever been. For all his turning over a new leaf to befriend the West, Gaddafi had irked the US State Department by practicing “resource nationalism” and trying to “Libyanize” the economy, (13) which is to say, turn foreign investment to the advantage of Libyans. His threat in 2009 to re-nationalize Libya’s oil fields, stirred up old fears. (14) Now, the NTC—with its US-friendly principals–promises juicy plums to the countries whose bombs ousted Gaddafi.
The US ambassador to Libya, Gene A. Cretz, channeling the ghost of uber-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, acknowledged that Libyan oil was “the jewel in the crown” but that there would be broader profit-making opportunities to lay hold of, now that Gaddafi had been bombed from power. Even “in Qaddafi’s time,” he observed, the Libyans “were starting from A to Z in terms of building infrastructure and other things. If we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs.” (15) US Senator John McCain, for his part, noted that “American investors were watching Libya with keen interest and wanted to do business” in Libya as soon as the country was pacified. (16)
The New York Times’ Scott Shane summed up the excitement.
Western security, construction and infrastructure companies that see profit-making opportunities receding in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned their sights on Libya, now free of four decades of dictatorship. Entrepreneurs are abuzz about the business potential of a country with huge needs and the oil to pay for them, plus the competitive advantage of Libyan gratitude toward the United States and its NATO partners.
A week before Colonel Qaddafi’s death on Oct. 20, a delegation from 80 French companies arrived in Tripoli to meet officials of the Transitional National Council, the interim government. Last week, the new British defense minister, Philip Hammond, urged British companies to “pack their suitcases” and head to Tripoli. (17)
Shane’s summing up provides a pretty good account of what the NATO bombing campaign had been all about, with one exception. Western security, construction and infrastructure companies aren’t turning their sights on Libya because it is now free of four decades of dictatorship, but because it is now free of four decades of economic nationalism—an economic nationalism that once privileged Libyans over Western banks, investors and corporations. The country is now open for business…on the West’s terms.
The view that US foreign policy is shaped by considerations related to preserving and enlarging profit-making opportunities for investors, banks and corporations headquartered in the United States is based on two realities.
• The formulation of US foreign policy is dominated by the CEO’s, corporate lawyers and major investors who circulate between Wall Street and Washington.
• The countries that the United States has singled out for regime change, without exception, pursue self-directed economic policies aimed at fostering self-development and therefore deny or limit US investment and export opportunities.
Every rich country, with the exception of Britain, became rich through active state intervention in their economies to create industries, subsidize them and protect them from competition while they grew. The United States, as much as Germany, Japan, and other now rich industrialized countries, followed this path. (18) At one point, the United States had the world’s highest tariff barriers, which it used to shelter its nascent manufacturing industries against competition from established British firms. As protected industries matured under the guiding hand of a dirigiste state, they naturally sought to expand beyond their borders, as the possibilities offered by national markets were exhausted. Now, the policies that served their development so ably in the past, became fetters. Rather than protected markets at home, they needed open markets abroad. Poor countries couldn’t be allowed to emulate the policies that made the rich countries rich, because state-ownership, subsidies and trade barriers would eclipse the further development of the once protected industries of the rich countries. Poor countries would have to open themselves up as fields for exploitation by the banks, investors and corporations of the rich countries that had grown fat on the dirigiste policies some poor countries were now seeking to emulate.
A glance through the US Library of Congress’s country study on Iran reveals a truth that US officials never mention and that US foreign policy critics seem unaware of. Iran is not the kind of place an enterprising US business can hope to make money in. “The public sector dominates the economic scene, and the subordination of the private sector is observed in all industries and commerce.” (19) Worse, “Public-sector investments in transportation…utilities, telecommunications, and other infrastructure have grown over time.” (20) “The government plays a significant role in Iran’s economy, either directly through participation in the production and distribution of goods and services, or indirectly through policy intervention.” (21) Indeed, Iran’s constitution defines the public sector as primary, and “the private sector as the means of furnishing the government’s needs rather than responding to market requirements.” (22) Democratic socialists will be shocked to discover that this is the very same economic model that such New Left socialists as Ralph Miliband defined as emblematic of what a democratic socialism ought to be (which isn’t to say that Iran is a democratic socialist state, only that economically it is very close to what many socialist thinkers have envisaged for Western socialism.) In any event, it will be conceded that any economy that bears even a passing resemblance to that favored by radical democratic socialists is not likely to get a ringing endorsement from the kinds of people who formulate US foreign policy.
Other reasons why Iran’s economic policies are likely to have provoked the animosity of the US State Department: Despite its leaders making noises about going on a privatizing binge, Iran’s public sector has soberly grown rather than shrunk. (23) What’s more, large sectors of Iran’s economy remain off-limits to private ownership. ”Since the Revolution, the government has retained monopoly rights to the extraction, processing, and sales of minerals from large and strategic mines.” (24) Iran’s “agricultural policy is intended to support farmers and encourage production of strategically important crops” (25), not to open doors to US agribusiness. ”After the Revolution, many transportation companies, banks, and insurance companies were nationalized” (26) while price controls and subsidies have been used to make important consumer goods affordable (though many subsidies have been lifted recently.)
Wall Street and the US State Department dislike state-owned enterprises that serve the self-directed development goals of independent foreign countries, because they displace private investment by US capital. They abhor the practice of foreign governments subsidizing and protecting local business enterprises because it makes the task of US firms competing in overseas markets more difficult, and thereby limits the overseas profits of US firms. They revile regulations that protect local populations from pollution, desperation wages and deplorable working conditions, because they cut into profits. Some or all of these practices form significant parts of the economic policies of every country in the cross-hairs of US foreign policy, including Libya under Gaddafi and Iran today.
Washington doesn’t want to bring about a change of regime in Tehran to install a pliant government that will help expand US power. It wants to bring about a change of regime in Tehran that will cancel economic policies aimed at Iran’s self-development and replace them with policies that will open up the country’s resources, markets, labor and land to US banks, corporations and investors. It wants the holy trinity of free-trade, free-enterprise and free-markets at the center of poor countries’ economic policies, not protected trade, not state-owned and subsidized enterprises, and not trade barriers. (But while preaching the holy trinity abroad, the United States reserves the right to deploy subsidies, impede imports, and rely on state-intervention to support key industries at home. Consistency doesn’t matter. Profits do.)
To reach the goal of turning Iran into a country that can disgorge a bonanza of profits to US corporations and investors, Iran must first be denied the capability of mounting an effective defense against military intervention by the United States and its allies. It is for this reason that the United States and its Middle Eastern Doberman, Israel, have embarked upon a program of sabotage, assassinations and threats of aerial bombing aimed at crippling even the possibility of Iran acquiring a nuclear deterrent. The idea that Tehran is bent on lobbing a few nuclear-tipped missiles toward Israel, to complete what the Fuhrer had left undone, is demagogic nonsense, intended to provide a compelling justification for aggression against Iran. Evoking Hitler’s campaign of genocide against the Jews to invest contrived existential threats with gravitas has been a standard operating procedure of Zionist leaders dating to 1948. (27) Iran has no intention of attacking Israel, and would commit suicide if it did, a reality we can be certain has not escaped its leaders’ ken.
All of this to say that in order to understand US foreign policy it’s necessary to examine who rules in the United States, who formulates its foreign policy, and how the policy the rulers formulate intersects with their economic interests. (28) This is an inquiry into class. For if an economic elite dominates foreign policy, we should expect to find that the outcomes of foreign policy favor elite economic interests, and that foreign countries that pursue economic policies that are not agreeable to those interests will be harassed, sabotaged, sanctioned, destabilized, and possibly bombed or invaded, until the policies are changed.
It may be objected that the cost to the United States of military intervention in Iran would surely exceed any economic gain that would accrue to the country as a whole. For liberals, this would count as evidence that US foreign policy makers had once again made an error. For others, it would stand as a challenge to the idea that a war on Iran would be a war for profits.
But the costs of military intervention are what economists call externalities—costs created by a firm, an industry or a class, but borne by others. Hydraulic fracturing—the high-pressure injection of fluids into rock to release fossil fuels—creates costs in water pollution and wear and tear on roads used by trucks and heavy machinery. If these costs are internalized—borne by the oil companies whose activities have created them—then hydraulic fracturing makes no sense economically–its costs exceed its returns. But if the costs are externalized—left to society as a whole to absorb—hydraulic fracturing becomes an attractive way for oil companies to turn a profit. (29)
Here’s the parallel with military intervention. The giant engineering firm Bechtel would absorb virtually none of the costs of a successful war on Iran, but if one happens, Bechtel is likely to reap enormous profits in contracts to rebuild the infrastructure that the US Air Force would raze to the ground. For Bechtel, then, US military intervention in Iran would be highly profitable, even though it might not make sense economically when viewed from the perspective of the United States as a whole. Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon—the top five defense contractors–don’t foot the Pentagon’s massive $700B per annum bill, but large portions of that budget are transferred to them in the form of contracts for military hardware. While bloated military expenditures make no sense from the point of view of the country as a collectivity, major defense contractors reap enormous profits from them.
The problem, then, of arguing that military intervention in Iran would make no sense because the costs would exceed the economic gains that would accrue to the United States as a whole, is failure to recognize that the country is class-divided, and that the gains of war are internalized within the dominant class while the costs are externalized to the bottom 99 percent. Hence, war doesn’t make sense for the bulk of us, but the problem is that decisions about military expenditures, foreign policy and war are in the hands of the top one percent and their loyal servants, who privatize the benefits and socialize the costs. When liberals say US foreign policy makes no sense, they’re being misguided by a set of erroneous assumptions: that the United States has only one class, the middle-class, that it is not class-divided, that everyone within it has the same middle-class interests, and that the state rules in the interests of all.
Like all US wars, the war on Iran of sanctions, sabotage, assassinations and saber-rattling is a class war. It is a war of class in two respects. First, it is waged on behalf of a class of bankers, major investors, and corporate titans, to knock down walls in Iran that deny this elite access to markets and investment opportunities. Second, it is a war carried out on the back of a class of employees, pensioners, unemployed, and armed forces members—the bottom 99 percent–who bear the cost, through their taxes (and in the future possibly blood.)
The aim is to install local politicians, most of whom have been educated at US universities where they have been instilled with imperialist values, who can, assisted by US advisors, make over Iran into an agricultural, natural resources, low-wage appendage of the US economy in the service of Wall Street and the class of owners and high-level managers who occupy its commanding heights. In short, a war for profits.
1. Adam Blomfield, “Israel won’t rule out attack on Iran,” The Ottawa Citizen, November 7, 2011.
2. Associated Press, July 27, 2009.
4. Benny Morris, “Using Bombs to Stave Off War,” The New York Times, July 18, 2008.
5. Isabel Kershner, “Israeli strike on Iran would be ‘stupid,’ ex-spy chief says”, The New York Times, May 8, 2011.
6. Glenn Kessler, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?” The Washington Post, October 6, 2011.
7. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
8. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005.
9. Mark Landler, “Iran policy now more in sync with Clinton’s views,” The New York Times, February 17, 2010.
10. Mazda Majidi, “What lies behind US policy toward Iran?” Liberation, June 12, 2008.
11. Tim Beal. Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War. Pluto Press.2011. p. 71.
12. Kim Hyun, “US ‘Has No Intention to Build Close Ties with N Korea’: Ex-official,” Yonhap News, September 2, 2009.
13. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
14. Thomas Walkom, “What Harper and co. got from the Libyan war”, The Toronto Star, October 21, 2011.
15. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011.
16. Kareem Fahim and Rick Gladstone, “U.S. Senate delegation offers praise and caution to Libya’s new leaders”, The New York Times, September 29, 2011.
17. Scott Shane, “West sees opportunity in postwar Libya for businesses”, The New York Times, October 28, 2011.
18. Erik S. Reinert. How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor. Public Affairs. New York. 2007; Ha-Joon Chang. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. Bloomsbury Press. 2008.
19. The Library of Congress. Iran: A Country Study. 2008. p. 143. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/irtoc.html
20. Iran: A Country Study, p. 145.
21. Iran: A Country Study, p. 150.
22. Iran: A Country Study, p. 151.
23. Iran: A Country Study, p. 152.
24. Iran: A Country Study, p. 167.
25. Iran: A Country Study, p. 170.
26. Iran: A Country Study, p. 181.
27. Ilan Pappe. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications. 2006.
28. Albert Szymanski. The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class. Winthrop Publishers. 1978.
29. Paul Krugman, “Here comes the sun,” The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
I recognize that in my views and even use of certain phrases that I have been influenced by Michael Parenti, and that needs to be acknowledged here. Of particular influence is Parenti’s latest book, The Face of Imperialism, Paradigm Publishers, 2011 and his earlier Against Empire, City Light Books, 1995.
By Stephen Gowans
While the class character of regimes under siege by Western powers is often explored in analyses of imperialist interventions and is frequently invoked to justify them, it neither explains why capitalist imperialist powers intervene nor stands as a justification for their actions.
The relevant consideration in explaining why interventions occur is not the political orientation of the government under siege, nor its relations with its citizens, but whether it accommodates the profit-making interests of the dominant class in the intervening countries. Does it welcome foreign investment, allow repatriation of profits, demand little in the way of corporate income tax, open its markets, and offer abundant supplies of cheap labor and raw materials? Or does it impose high tariffs on imports, subsidize domestic production, operate state-owned enterprises (displacing opportunities for foreign-private-owned ones), force investors to take on local partners, and insist that workers be protected from desperation wages and intolerable working conditions?
Much as it might be supposed that imperialist interventions target worker and peasant-led governments alone, this is not the case. Regimes that promote national bourgeois interests by denying or limiting the profit-making interests in their own countries of the dominant class of other countries are routinely targeted for regime change, especially if they are militarily weak or have pluralist political systems that afford space for destabilization and political interference. Since the effects are the same in imperialist countries of a local regime, say, expropriating a foreign-privately-owned oil company, no matter whether the company is turned over to local business people, the state, or the company’s employees, it is a matter of supreme indifference to imperialist countries whether the expropriation is carried out by communists, socialists or radical nationalists. Whether you’re inspired by Marx and Lenin, 21st century socialism, or the actually-existing capitalist policies that the United States, Germany and Japan followed to challenge Britain’s industrial monopoly, if you’re going to mess with the profit-making opportunities of an imperialist country’s capital class, it will mess with you.
Gaddafi was faulted by the US State Department for his “increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector” and for trying to “Libyanize” the economy. (1) He “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” (2) And his pro-Libya trade and foreign investment policies were irritants to Western banks, corporations and major investors as they surveyed the globe for lucrative profit-making opportunities.
Equally likely to be targets of imperialist designs are capitalist rivals that compete for access to investment and trade opportunities in third countries. They too may become the objects of destabilization, economic warfare, and military encirclement.
This is evidenced in one of Nato’s roles: to contest spheres of exploitation. The organization’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, explaining why Nato countries need to spend more on their militaries, remarked that: “If you’re not able to deploy troops beyond your borders, then you can’t exert influence internationally, and then that gap will be filled by emerging powers that don’t necessarily share your values and thinking.” (3) You can interpret this to mean that when it comes to Africa and the Middle East—which are likely the regions Rasmussen alludes to–the alliance’s raison d’être is to keep North Americans and Western Europeans in, the Russians, Chinese and Brazilians out, and the natives down. But however you interpret it, it’s clear that the alliance’s secretary general doesn’t understand Nato to be an organization of mutual self-defense, but an instrument to be used by developed countries to compete with emerging ones.
Concerning the validity of interventions by Nato countries, here too reference to the class character of targeted governments misses the point. It is not a regime’s class character, nor how it treats its citizens, that explains the reasons for intervention against it, but the class character of the countries that intervene. This in turn illuminates whether the intervention is valid or not.
The principal Nato countries are all incontestably class societies in which major corporations, banks and ultra-wealthy investors wield out-sized influence over their societies. Their representatives and loyal servants hold key positions in the state, including and especially in the military and foreign affairs, and the corporate rich have access to resources that allow them to lobby governments far more vigorously than any other class or interest can. Accordingly, the foreign policy of these countries reflects the interests of the class that dominates them.
It would be exceedingly odd were this not so. Profit-making concerns don’t melt away when corporate CEOs, corporate lawyers and bankers are assigned to key foreign policy posts in the state; when they develop foreign policy recommendations for governments in elite-consensus-making organizations, like the Council on Foreign Relations; or when they lobby presidents, premiers, and cabinet secretaries and cabinet ministers.
For this reason, US and Nato interventions, while billed as humanitarian for obvious PR reasons, are at their heart, exercises in protecting and advancing the interests of the class that dominates foreign policy. This is clear enough in the business pages of major newspapers.
In recent days, the business section of The New York Times announced that “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins.” Eric Reguly, a business columnist with The Globe & Mail, the newspaper of Canada’s financial elite, echoed the point.
“The oil industry’s biggest players, meanwhile, are salivating to reclaim their old concessions and nab new ones, all the more so since their own oil production has been in decline. The vast Ghadames and Sirte basins, largely off limits to foreign oil companies since Col. Gadhafi swept to power 42 years ago, are especially attractive. So is Libya’s offshore area.
“Who will get the prizes? The (National Transitional Council) has already said it will reward the countries that bombed Col. Gadhafi’s forces. ‘We don’t have a problem with Western countries like Italians, French and U.K. companies,’ Abdeljalil Mayouf, a spokesman for the rebel oil company Agogco, was quoted by Reuters as saying. ‘But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.’”
Reguly’s column ran under the headline, “They bombed and therefore they shall reap.” They shall reap, too, in another way. “The head of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, explicitly promised to reward those nations that backed Libya’s revolt with contracts in the state’s postwar reconstruction.” (4) This is the charmed circle of aggressive imperialism.
Billions of dollars are sucked out of taxpayers and into the pockets of arms manufacturers to build a war machine. The war machine is pressed into service against countries whose governments have denied or limited the profit-making opportunities of the imperialist country’s corporations, banks and major investors (many of whom have interests in arms manufacturing), causing significant damage to the victim countries’ infrastructure. Comprador regimes are installed, which throw their country’s doors wide open to the intervening country’s exports and investments and invite the intervening country to set up military bases on their territories. At the same time, the new regimes funnel reconstruction contracts to the intervening country to rebuild what its war machine has destroyed. So it is that the capitalist class of the intervening country profits in three ways: From defense contracts; new investment and export opportunities; and post-war rebuilding. A peaceful resolution of Libya’s civil war would have disrupted this charmed circle. Is it any wonder, then, that Washington, Paris, and London ignored all proposals for a negotiated settlement?
An alternative explanation might be offered. While the major oil and engineering companies of the leading Nato countries will profit from Gaddafi’s downfall, the motivation to intervene was nevertheless independent of crass commercial concerns, and was humanitarian at its core.
But if this were so you would have to explain how it was that Nato’s humanitarian concern was uniquely invested in a country in which there are still Western oil-industry-profit-making opportunities to be had, while Nato remained unmoved by humanitarian concern over the plight of Shiite Bahrainis whose peaceful protests were violently suppressed by an absolute monarchy — with the help of the tanks and troops of three other absolute monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
A third contributor to the violent suppression of the Bahraini revolt, Qatar, deserves special mention. It is celebrated in the Western press for its contribution to the Libyan rebels in arms, warplanes, training, diplomatic recognition, and (in the Qatar-state-owned Al Jazeera) propaganda–a real friend of democracy in its struggle against dictatorship and repression. The New York Times referred to Al Jazeera as an “independent news channel” (5) though it is not clear what Al Jazeera is independent of. The Times has never, to my knowledge, referred to the state-owned media of countries under imperialist siege as “independent,” this laudatory and impossible adjective (all media are dependent—whether on the state or private investors) is reserved for media that have adopted a perspective that is pleasing to the interests of The New York Times’ board of directors and major owner.
Bahrain—a paragon society for Western investors—has already disgorged its profit-making opportunities to Western oil companies. It is also home to the US Fifth Fleet. It is therefore a de facto extension of the US economy, indeed, of US territory, and so its government can do whatever it likes, so long as it continues to keep Wall Street happy. Bombing, sanctions, destabilization and International Criminal Court indictments are reserved for governments that “raise fees and taxes” on US oil firms and try to nationalize their economies, a clear red-line in an imperialist time.
In the view of one sector of the left, imperialist interventions are supportable so long as they lead to the toppling of a capitalist regime, irrespective of its succession by another. Of course, the outcome of any successful imperialist intervention against a bourgeois nationalist regime is its replacement by a comprador one. This hardly amounts to an advance.
For still another sector, the character of the besieged government is all that matters. The character of the intervening state, by contrast, matters not at all – not its domination by corporate, banking and investor interests; not its record of pursuing wars of conquest; and not its resort to fabrication to justify its aggressions. For these leftists, such as they are, the targeted government is reprehensible, while their own is either angelic or well-meaning. In this frame, Gaddafi’s attempts to crush an uprising is understood to be on a more barbaric plane than, say, the war on Iraq, which created a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale Gaddafi’s repressions could never match. What manner of delusion leads one to believe that the United States and Britain, the architects of rapacity and slaughter on a global scale, are (a) angelic and well-meaning, (b) motivated in their foreign policy by humanitarianism, and (c) are playing a constructive role in Libya?
The most pusillanimous of leftists are those who condemn the brutalized and brutalizers equally. They take a comfortable though craven moral stance, but their condemnation of targeted governments is irrelevant. Since the character of governments under siege has nothing whatever to do with the reasons for the intervention, and does not, in the case of capitalist imperialist interventions, justify it, there can be one reason alone for singling out the victim for equal condemnation in the context of his assault: a desire for respectability and a penchant for knuckling under to mainstream opinion, not challenging it and offering an alternative, counter-hegemonic, explanation.
Suppose you live next door to an ill-mannered, thoroughly dislikeable woman who has managed to alienate everyone you know. One day her husband beats her. You can condemn the husband for beating his wife, and say nothing of his wife’s character. Why would you? It doesn’t excuse the husband’s behavior. Or you can condemn both equally, noting that as much as you deplore wife-beating, you also deplore the victim for her bad manners and irksome ways. To do the latter is unsupportable and anyone who did this would be deservedly rebuked. Yet left fence sitters do the same when they insist on condemning the governments of countries that capitalist imperialist countries intervene in to show that they don’t support the crimes of which those governments are accused. Worse, they refuse to even investigate the veracity of the accusations, and then challenge them if they fail to stand up to scrutiny, for fear of being denounced as apologists. Instead, they simply accept the accusations as true, even though similar accusations against other victims on similar occasions have been shown to be fabrications (Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, for example.) This is apologetics of another kind, on behalf of the left fence sitters’ own ruling class. It keeps them on safe ground. They can say later, as so many did in connection with the Iraqi WMD scam, “We didn’t know. I’m shocked, shocked!, that the government deceived us.”
However, the analogy suggests that interventions only happen in countries where governments behave in reprehensible ways, and this isn’t the case. Certainly, the impression produced by the propaganda assault that accompanies interventions is one of targeted regimes being thoroughly detestable and their demise consequently to be wished for, even if the intervention that brings it about is undertaken for the wrong reasons. And leftists, if they’re to be taken seriously in the court of respectable mainstream opinion, are expected to genuflect before the depiction of targeted countries as criminal lest they be accused of being apologists for dictators, or useful idiots. But it sometimes happens that the crimes of which targeted regimes are accused are not crimes at all, or if they are, are mild ones at worst.
The narrative used to explain the need for intervention in Libya is that a peaceful uprising of democracy-loving Libyans against the Gaddafi dictatorship was about to be crushed in blood. A narrative that navigates closer to the truth is that the uprising, touched off by surrounding events in Tunisia and Egypt, originates in the longstanding rift between a nationalist, government on the one hand, and Islamists and comprador elements on the other. While this fails to explain the uprising in full, it explains a good part of it. Is the repression of reactionary forces that threaten the state a crime? If you’re a Libyan Islamist, monarchist or CIA-backed exile, the answer is yes, just as it is if you’re an ideologue for this particular imperialist intervention. But if you’re Gaddafi, and his nationalist supporters, the answer is no.
Significantly, few people are seriously calling for Nato to mount an operation to protect Bahraini civilians from the violent repression of an absolute monarchy. However much the Khalifa regime’s crackdown on Bahraini protestors is considered a crime, it is not a crime on a large enough scale to warrant a Nato intervention. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any justification for a Nato intervention, since Nato countries are only good at undertaking interventions as investments. There has to be a promise of a lucrative payoff for an elite of capitalist masters if the investment in blood and treasure is to be justified: oil concessions free from profit-reducing taxes and fees; new export and investment opportunities; reconstruction contracts. Humanitarianism doesn’t add to the bottom line. But let’s assume for the moment, as the naïve do, that Nato can intervene for selfless reasons, and that this is not, like the lion lying down with the lamb, an impossibility. Why would we call for intervention against Gaddafi but not Khalifa? The reasons why bankers, corporations and major investors who dominate foreign policy in the Nato countries would do this is clear. That leftists do the same raises questions about what is meant by the “left”.
Diana Johnstone and Jean Bricmont lambasted significant sections of the European left for failing to vigorously oppose the Nato intervention in Libya’s civil war and in many cases for supporting it. (6) But this is like faulting sheep for grazing on grass. While regrettable, there is nothing strange or unprecedented about people who consider themselves to be of the political left, even socialists, siding with their own government’s imperialist eruptions. It has been happening since at least WWI. Lenin offered an explanation — and whether you find his explanation compelling or not the phenomenon he set out to explain cannot be denied. A sector of the left regularly sides with its own government’s imperialism, while another sector finds ways to subtly support it while professing opposition. The only sector of the Western left, with one or two exceptions, that can be counted upon to reliably oppose imperialism, and to have some kind of sophisticated understanding of it, are the Leninists.
Max Elbaum points to the phenomenon in his book about the 1960s New Communist Movement, Revolution in the Air. “Late-sixties activists,” he writes, “felt a powerful political and emotional bond” with the Leninist wing of the socialist movement. During WWI, this wing broke decisively “with those socialists who supported the war, or at least did little or nothing to oppose it.” They were drawn to Leninism because, like the original followers of Lenin, “they too had spent years in frustrating fights with more prestigious left forces that had dragged their feet—or worse—in the antiwar campaign.”
Elbaum credits democratic socialism’s refusal to vigorously oppose the US war on Vietnam with building support for the New Communist Movement. “Though today’s democratic socialists don’t talk about it much,” writes Elbaum, “the U.S. social democrats played a sluggish or even backward role in the anti-Vietnam War movement.” The official US affiliate of the Socialist International, the Socialist Party, “actually supported the war” and “was all but absent from antiwar activity.” Editor of Dissent, Irving Howe, among the most prominent of US social democrats, “long opposed the demand for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.” Michael Harrington, perhaps the most widely known US social democrat, never offered a full-throated denunciation of the war. According to his sympathetic biographer, Maurice Isserman, Harrington referred to the war as if it were a force of nature rather than a product of human agency (a tragedy, like a hurricane or earthquake, rather than an instrument of US imperialism) for fear of alienating “his closest and long-standing political comrades who were supporting the slaughter…” Harrington regarded his pro-war social democratic colleagues not as backward, reactionary collaborationists but as “good socialists with whom he differed on peripheral issues.” (7)
Internationally, democratic socialists acted in ways that provoked disgust. “French Socialists, while in power had conducted the colonial war in Algeria—complete with torture. The Harold Wilson-led Labour Party government in Britain backed US Vietnam policy despite its misgivings.” And “social democrats worldwide were among the most vocal supporters of Zionism and opponents of Palestinian self-determination.”
In the late-sixties, writes Elbaum, “it seemed only natural to identify with the tendency that had fought against similar social democratic backwardness during an earlier imperialist bloodletting.”
So too in 2011.
1. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
2. Clifford Kraus, “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins”, The New York Times, August 22, 2011.
3. Stephen Fidler and Alistair MacDonald, “Europeans retreat on defense spending”, The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2011.
4. Steven Lee Myers and Dan Bilefsky, “U.N. releases $1.5 billion in frozen Qaddafi assets to aid rebuilding of Libya”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
5. David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Inside a Libyan hospital, proof of a revolt’s costs”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
6. Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone, “Who will save Libya from its Western saviours?” http://www.counterpunch.org, August 16, 2011.
7. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, Verso, 2006, p. 46