The $1 trillion-plus Iraq and Afghanistan wars were the first US wars since the American Revolution to have been fought without a general tax increase to cover them. Without tax increases to pay for the Pentagon’s ballooning budget, the country’s debt as a percentage of GDP has grown. Since a rise in debt relative to income can’t continue indefinitely, politicians are looking for ways to arrest the trend. It’s very likely that the burden of covering the costs of run-away US military spending will fall upon poor and middle-income Americans. High-profile economists like N. Gregory Mankiw are preparing public opinion for eventual rate hikes, concealing the role played by US war spending in driving up the percentage of debt to GDP, and blaming growing entitlement spending on the need to raise taxes.
By Stephen Gowans
Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, economic policy adviser to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, and author of a widely used introductory economics textbook, weighed in this Sunday in The New York Times on the growing ratio of US debt to gross domestic product and what to do about it.  Forget about raising taxes on the wealthy, counselled Mankiw. Instead, stick it to everyone else. Here’s Mankiw’s reasoning:
• Debt as a proportion of national income is growing “thanks largely to growth in entitlement spending.”
• If debt to GDP continues to grow, investors will eventually refuse to lend at manageable rates, tipping the United States into a Greek-style financial crisis.
• The crisis can’t be averted simply by raising taxes on the rich. There just aren’t enough wealthy taxpayers around to make much of a difference. Nor would tax increases on the wealthy be fair. “The current tax system looks plenty progressive,” says Mankiw. “The rich are not…shirking their responsibilities.”
• Instead, entitlements need to be scaled back and taxes hiked on the vast majority of Americans.
Mankiw presents this as a corrective to too much wishful thinking on middle-class tax rates. But his argument is more snow job than corrective.
Wasteful Military Spending
Mankiw misses the elephant in the room on federal spending: the military and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to World Bank figures, from 1999 US military expenditures have steadily increased as a share of national income, rising from 3.0 percent of GDP to 4.7 percent by 2011.  New York Times’ reporters Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller reported last year that the US military budget “has doubled to $700 billion a year since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”  Yes, doubled. If anything is growing, the military is. The Pentagon’s budget is now “the highest in absolute and in inflation-adjusted, constant (for any year) dollars since 1946, the year after the Second World War ended. Adding non-Pentagon defense-related spending, the total may exceed $1 trillion.” 
The US defense budget exceeds the combined expenditures of the next 14 highest spenders—China, Russia, the UK, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Turkey. All but two of these countries are US allies.  China and Russia are not part of a US-led military alliance. But their combined military expenditures are less than one-third of the Pentagon’s budget. It’s difficult to fathom why soi disant hard-headed deficit hawks aren’t scolding Washington for wasteful overspending on defense, unless the professed deficit hawks are using debt as a pretext to argue for cut-backs in programs for poor and middle-income Americans.
The Pentagon’s obesity is largely due to the United States starting two completely unnecessary and extremely expensive wars: one on Iraq, based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and one on Afghanistan, to topple the Taliban who will likely return to power in a negotiated settlement.
Bumiller reported in 2010 that both wars had “cost Americans a staggering $1 trillion to date, second only in inflation-adjusted dollars to the $4 trillion price tag for World War II, when the United States put 16 million men and women into uniform and fought on three continents.”  With the war in Afghanistan dragging on at a cost of “about $2 billion a week”  another $200 billion has come due since Bumiller tallied up the original $1 trillion price tag. Genuine concern about managing US finances would have long ago led to an end to both wars (not just one), if not complete avoidance of either to begin with.
Taxes were not raised to pay for either war. These are the first wars since the American Revolution for which Washington hasn’t called upon taxpayers to ante up.  The reason is clear. Neither war was likely to galvanize Americans to accept sacrifices. So, the only way to get Americans behind them was to fight the wars in a way that allowed the country to avoid “breaking a sweat,” as historian David Kennedy put it. 
Many Americans are willing to acknowledge that the wars should never have been fought, but rationalize them by pointing to the supposed good they’ve done (the toppling of Saddam Hussein, improved conditions for women in Afghanistan.) But how accepting will they be when they’re presented with the bill, as they most assuredly will be? Someone will have to pay eventually. The trick for politicians will be to blame the bill on something else. Entitlements come to mind.
The Flat Tax System
If Mankiw ignores the obvious links among rising military expenditures, absent tax increases, and a climbing debt to GDP ratio, he also ignores property, state, excise, and sales taxes, to argue that the wealthy are already paying their fair share, and that “the current tax system looks pretty progressive.” Well, yes, the current federal income tax system does look progressive, and Mankiw would be on target if the federal income tax was the only tax Americans pay. But they also pay sales taxes, property taxes and more. Factor in all other taxes and the tax system isn’t quite as progressive as Mankiw would have us believe. As Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein noted in September, “Confining the discussion to the federal income tax…makes the tax code look much more progressive than it actually is.” 
So, just how unprogressive is the tax system? According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, total taxes in 2011 as a percentage of income were:
• Top 1% of income earners, 29.0%
• Bottom 99%, 27.5% .
In other words, taking into account all the taxes Americans pay and not just the one Mankiw wants to confine the discussion to, the real tax system is essentially flat. The super-wealthy are paying about the same rate as everyone else. And yes, while the poor pay little if anything in federal taxes, they make up for it in state, local and other levies. Which means that were federal income taxes hiked on the bottom 99 percent, as Mankiw urges, the real tax system would go from flat to regressive.
It’s widely believed that taxes on the wealthy are redistributed to the poor. It’s true that some redistribution of tax revenue from the wealthy to the poor does occur, but what’s less widely known, and rarely talked about, is that federal tax revenue flows mainly from the bottom 99 percent to the top one percent. This is clear if we recognize that:
• The bulk of taxes are paid by the bottom 99 percent (which is why defenders of the current flat tax system, like Mankiw, keep reminding us that hiking taxes on the rich will make little difference to government finances. The heavy lifting is done by poor and middle-income Americans.)
• A large fraction of tax revenue is used to fund activities the wealthy disproportionately benefit from.
What do federal income taxes pay for?
The US war machine, for one. A large part of federal income tax is paid to defense contractors, companies like Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics. The top executives and shareholders of these companies make off like bandits in regular times, but have benefited even more handsomely ever since post 9/11 military expenditures doubled. The profits of the top five defense contractors “rose from $2.4 billion in 2002, adjusted for inflation, to $13.4 billion in 2011,” a 450 percent increase. 
US federal income tax also helps finance US wars. And US wars almost invariably create profit-making opportunities for banks and corporations. For example, then US ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz was positively rhapsodic about the business opportunities that were opened by the US-led (from behind) Nato assault that toppled Muammar Gadhafi, not just petroleum-related but infrastructure contracts too.  In the charmed circle of US capitalism, defense contractors reap a bonanza of profits by supplying the Pentagon with arms, which the Pentagon use to destroy infrastructure that US engineering giants, like Bechtel, rebuild.
Military and non-military aid to other countries is also underwritten by federal income tax revenue. The bottom 99 percent, who contribute the bulk of funds to these programs, benefit only indirectly, if at all. Instead, their tax dollars are converted into credits, which are doled out to other countries to purchase goods and service from US corporations, the direct beneficiaries. For example, the $3 billion in annual military aid Israel receives travels from taxpayers’ pockets to US defense contractors’ coffers. The arms industry sends military equipment to Israel, with payment for the purchase never leaving the United States. The same kind of arrangement is used to provide economic aid to poor countries. These countries don’t get cash to spend as they see fit. They get credits to spend on American goods and services. There may be benefits to poor and middle-income Americans in job opportunities, but the benefits are disproportionately enjoyed by the top executives and shareholders of the companies on which the credits are spent.
Another sizeable part of US federal income tax revenue goes to purchasers of US debt—the debt that piled up to pay for the wars Washington didn’t want to raise taxes to pay for. Needless to say, it is the super-rich, not poor and middle-income Americans, who are the major holders of US debt. And super-wealthy bondholders are often the same people who own shares in companies that supply the Pentagon and benefit from the new foreign business opportunities that US military interventions secure.
So, no, the tax system doesn’t work against the wealthy, as Mankiw and others would have us believe. Instead, a large part of the tax system’s function is to transfer tax revenues from the bottom 99 percent to foreign aid, military appropriations, wars, and interest on debt that the top one percent disproportionately benefit from.
The United States has doubled military spending since 9/11, outspending its peer competitors, China and Russia, by more than a factor of three. It has squandered more than $1 trillion on wars that never should have been fought, and continues to waste $2 billion a week on war in Afghanistan. This excess has been paid for by borrowing rather than taxes, presumably to avoid hurting Americans in their pocketbooks, a pain that would likely provoke anti-war opposition. But the bills are coming due. Mankiw, and other prizefighters for the super-wealthy, are drawing attention away from outsize military spending—a significant contributor to burgeoning debt—and directing it instead to entitlements. They’re also deceptively ignoring payroll, property, sales and other taxes, to argue that the US tax system is progressive and that the wealthy already pay their fair share. In other words, Mankiw is arguing for higher taxes on poor and middle-income Americans, misdirecting attention to entitlement spending to conceal what the bill is really for: military spending that the super-rich have used to fatten their bank accounts.
A. Nothing comes free. Military spending can’t be doubled—and $1 trillion-plus wars fought— without someone eventually being handed the bill. And in the United States, the bill is always paid by the bottom 99 percent. This bill will be paid in entitlement cutbacks and tax increases.
B. The job of establishment economists is to make robbing poor and middle-income Americans seem both necessary and desirable. Feudal lords relied on priests to justify the exploitation of working people. Bankers, top executives and investors have economists.
1. N. Gregory Mankiw, “Wishful thinking and middle-class taxes”, The New York Times, December 29, 2012.
2. The World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS
3. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
4. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
5. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2012
6. Elisabeth Bumiller, “The war: A trillion can be cheap”, The New York Times, July 24, 2010.
7. David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, “Steeper pullout is raised as option for Afghanistan”, The New York Times, June 5, 2011.
8. Elisabeth Bumiller, “The war: A trillion can be cheap”, The New York Times, July 24, 2010.
10. Ezra Klein, “The one tax graph you really need to know”, The Washington Post, September 19, 2012.
12. Study co-written by Lawrence J. Korb for the Center for American Progress, cited by Walter Pincus in “Excess-profits tax on defense contractors during wartime is long overdue”, The Washington Post, December 31, 2012.
13. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011. Cretz said, “We know that oil is the jewel in the crown of Libyan natural resources, but even in Qaddafi’s time they 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.”
By Stephen Gowans
When in 1916 Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin expounded what historian V.G. Kiernan would later call virtually the only serious theory of imperialism, despite its shortcomings (1), Lenin cited Cecil Rhodes as among the “leading British bourgeois politicians (who) fully appreciated the connection between what might be called the purely economic and the political-social roots of modern imperialism.” (2)
Rhodes, founder of the diamond company De Beers and of the eponymous Rhodesia, had made the following remarks, which Lenin quoted at length in his Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.
I was in the East End of London yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘bread,’ ‘bread,’ ‘bread,’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism … My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced by them in factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists. (3)
Skip ahead 95 years. Here’s US ambassador to Libya, Gene A. Cretz:
We know that oil is the jewel in the crown of Libyan natural resources, but even in Qaddafi’s time they 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. (4)
New York Times’ reporter David D. Kirkpatrick noted that “Libya’s provisional government has already said it is eager to welcome Western businesses (and)…would even give its Western backers some ‘priority’ in access to Libyan business.” (5)
A bread and butter question. Also a profit-making one.
What Ahmadinejad really said at the UN
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s address to the 66th UN General Assembly meeting provided the Iranian president with the usual occasion to make the usual points and the Western media the usual occasion to misrepresent them.
Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon wrote that Ahmadinejad “sought to stoke controversy by again questioning the Holocaust,” (6) reminding readers that Ahmadinejad had once called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, a distortion that will live on in history through its mere retelling. (What the Iranian president really said was that Israel would dissolve as the Soviet Union had.)
I read the transcript of Ahmadinejad’s address, but found no questioning of the Nazi-engineered holocaust.
Here are his remarks on Zionism and the Holocaust.
They view Zionism as a sacred notion and ideology. Any question of its very foundation and history is condemned by them as an unforgivable sin.
Who imposed, through deceits and hypocrisy, the Zionism and over sixty years of war, homelessness, terror and mass murder on the Palestinian people and countries of the region?
If some European countries still use the Holocaust, after six decades, as the excuse to pay fine or ransom to the Zionists, should it not be an obligation upon the slave masters or colonial powers to pay reparations to the affected nations?
By using their imperialistic media network which is under the influence of colonialism they threaten anyone who questions the Holocaust and the September 11 events with sanctions and military action. (7)
It would have been more accurate for Solomon to have written that Ahmadinejad sought to stoke controversy by again questioning the legitimacy of Zionism and the manipulative use of the Nazi-perpetrated holocaust to justify it.
But these themes are unmentionable in the Western corporate media.
It is common practice to capitalize the Nazi-engineered effort to exterminate the Jews as the ‘Holocaust’, as if there had never been any other holocaust—or any at rate, any other worth mentioning. Even the transcript of Ahmadinjad’s address refers to ‘the Holocaust’ rather than ‘a holocaust.’
The Justice Process
It seems that the only argument US president Barack Obama could muster for why Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas shouldn’t seek recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN is that the ‘peace process’ would be derailed.
Let’s lay aside the obvious difficulty of Barak the Bomber caring about peace, and that the ‘peace process’ has been off the rails for some time. His objection missed the point. Recognition of a Palestinian state isn’t a question of the peace process but of the justice process, and hardly a very satisfying one at that. What justice is there in Palestinians settling for one fifth of their country? Which is what, in any practical sense, UN recognition of the Palestinian territories as a state would amount to.
But it’s better than the status quo and a starting point.
For Zionists, the peace process is a little more appealing, but is the opposite of the justice process. It means getting Palestinians to settle for even less than one-fifth of their country, and to acknowledge the theft of it as legitimate.
An aside: Over 30 countries do not recognize Israel, among them Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Do those who promote what Keynes called the fallacy of thrift (or fallacy of austerity, to give it a contemporary spin) really believe what they preach: that cutting pensions, laying off public servants, raising taxes on the poor, and closing government programs, is the way to avert a deeper economic crisis for the bulk of us?
Do they even care about the bulk of us?
Or is austerity simply a way of bailing out bankers and bondholders by bleeding the rest of us dry?
British prime minister David Cameron, on a trip to Canada to compare notes with fellow deficit-hawk Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM, remarked that “Highly indebted households and governments simply cannot spend their way out of a debt crisis. The more they spend, the more debts will rise and the fundamental problem will grow.” (8)
This was reported with tacit nods of approval in Canada’s corporate press, as if Cameron’s utterings were incontrovertible, rather than the ravings of an economic illiterate (in the view of economists), or the words of a political con artist (in the view of class struggle literates.)
Highly indebted governments simply cannot cut their way out of an economic crisis. The more they cut, the more aggregate demand weakens and the worse it gets. Greece’s continued slide into economic ruin underscores the point. The United States’ inability to drag itself out of the depths of the Great Depression, until arms orders brought the economy back to life, strikes an historical cautionary note.
But recessions are not without benefits for corporate plutocrats. It’s easier to cut wages, salaries and benefits during downturns, and to enjoy bigger profits as a result. Small competitors can be driven out of business. Unions can be weakened. And governments have an excuse to slash social programs that have pushed the balance of power a little too far in labor’s direction. Indeed, all manner of sacrifices can be extracted from most of us if we’re persuaded that debt is the cause of the problem and that belt-tightening is the physic that will cure it.
My bet is that Cameron and his fellow water carriers for moneyed interests are no dummies — but they’re hoping the rest of us are.
Knowing Who Your Friends Are
Here is the widely reviled (by Western governments) Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, at the 66th session of the UN General Assembly.
After over twenty thousand NATO bombing sorties that targeted Libyan towns, including Tripoli, there is now unbelievable and most disgraceful scramble by some NATO countries for Libyan oil, indicating thereby that the real motive for their aggression against Libya was to control and own its abundant fuel resources. What a shame!
Yesterday, it was Iraq and Bush and Blair were the liars and aggressors as they made unfounded allegations of possessions of weapons of mass destruction. This time it is the NATO countries the liars and aggressors as they make similarly unfounded allegations of destruction of civilian lives by Gaddafi.
We in Africa are also duly concerned about the activities of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which seems to exist only for alleged offenders of the developing world, the majority of them Africans. The leaders of the powerful Western States guilty of international crime, like Bush and Blair, are routinely given the blind eye. Such selective justice has eroded the credibility of the ICC on the African continent.
My country fully supports the right of the gallant people of Palestine to statehood and membership of this U.N. Organisation. The U.N. must become credible by welcoming into its bosom all those whose right to attain sovereign independence and freedom from occupation and colonialism is legitimate. (9)
It’s clear why he’s reviled by imperialists, but also by leftists?
If the Movement for Democratic Change’s Morgan Tsvangirai, favorite of the West, ever becomes president, expect a very different kind of address at future General Assembly meetings.
1. V.G. Kiernan, Marxism and Imperialism, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1974.
2. V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, International Publishers, New York. 1939. p 78.
3. Ibid. p 79.
4. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011.
6. Jay Solomon, “Iran adds Palestine statehood wrinkle”, The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2011.
8. Campbell Clark, “Cameron, Harper preach restraint in teeth of global ‘debt crisis’”, The Globe and Mail, September 22, 2011
By Stephen Gowans
If legitimacy and moral principle mattered, a groundswell of effective popular resistance would have arisen in NATO countries and brought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end long ago. But vigorous opposition is inspired by more than ideals; it happens when war has very real personal consequences for a large part of the population. In the NATO countries, this has not been true of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been fought with light causalities to a tiny fraction of the population that makes up a volunteer, professional military; have led to no major tax increases; and have provoked few disruptions due to retaliatory terrorist attacks. By contrast, the wars have had very real, tragic, personal consequences for large parts of the Afghan and Iraqi populations. Asymmetrical conditions (intolerable ones for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq; life lived much as it always is in the aggressor countries) produce asymmetrical responses (a determined armed resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq; a weak anti-war movement in the aggressor countries.)
Absence of Legitimacy
While it’s true that large numbers of people have been opposed to the war on Iraq from its formal beginning in 2003, those who said there was no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that the WMD angle was a transparent pretext, that the war was for oil, and that it (along with the war on Afghanistan) wouldn’t lessen threats to the US and Britain but increase them, were in the minority. They were dismissed in various ways: as loony and pro-authoritarian, as having never met a dictator they didn’t like, as thug-huggers and apologists for terrorism, and so on.
Others, perhaps intimidated by the ridicule they saw heaped upon this minority and afraid of departing too far from the mainstream of mass media-approved opinion, compromised. Some called for more sanctions rather than war, although sanctions, which are simply war by other means, had already led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children under the age of five(1)and perhaps as many people over five. Perhaps their concern was chauvinistic: not that Iraqis were being killed, but that US and British troops might get killed. Or maybe they didn’t know that sanctions are indeed directed at ordinary people. After all, the politicians who imposed them kept assuring everyone that sanctions only hurt the leadership of target countries, not the people.
The cowardly, afraid they would be tarred as dictator-lovers, issued statements denouncing both sides – the aggressor and the intended victim, as if, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland, they had declared, “We like neither the Nazis nor the Poles,” in case, in opposing the Nazi action, they should be accused of supporting Polish politics.
Some of these people thought they were being clever. If they said (quite truthfully though irrelevantly) that they hated Saddam Hussein because he was a dictator, they could take the dictator-lover charge off the table, and focus public attention on US actions. But all they did was help to give heart to those seeking a silver lining in the dark cloud of impending war. “The war might be conducted for the wrong reasons,” rationalized the silver lining seekers, “but at least some good will come of it. The world will be rid of a vicious dictator.”
Perhaps the largest part of the sector that opposed the war did so, not because the war was nakedly imperialist and would increase the threat to Americans by further inflaming the anger of Muslims against US domination of the Middle East, but because they were Democrats and this was Bush’s war. Likewise, there were many Republicans who opposed the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, not because it was nakedly imperialist, but because it was Clinton’s war. The Democrats who opposed the Iraq war weren’t anti-war or anti-imperialist, they were anti-Bush. And the Republicans who opposed the Kosovo air war weren’t anti-war or anti-imperialist, they were anti-Clinton. Part of the reason the anti-war movement, which has been mostly a part-time affair limited to a series of ritualized, orderly, marches, has virtually died out, is because Bush – the impetus for opposition to the wars – has retired to his ranch in Texas. Protest, at least in the view of partisan Democrats, is no longer necessary; indeed, from their point of view, it is to be vigorously avoided.
Withdrawal: An Exercise in Semantics
Today, the war in Iraq is in the midst of a US troop draw down, but not as the beginning to the end of US military involvement in Iraq. The real purpose is to redeploy troops to Afghanistan, where, with the war going poorly for the Pentagon, more troops are needed. US military occupation of Iraq is open-ended.
The withdrawal, which will reduce the number of American troops to 50,000 — from 112,000 earlier this year and close to 165,000 at the height of the surge — is … an exercise in semantics. What soldiers today would call combat operations — hunting insurgents, joint raids between Iraqi security forces and United States Special Forces to kill or arrest militants — will be called “stability operations.” Beyond August the next Iraq deadline is the end of 2011, when all American troops are supposed to be gone. But few believe that America’s military involvement in Iraq will end then. The conventional wisdom among military officers, diplomats and Iraqi officials is that after a new government is formed, talks will begin about a longer-term American troop presence. (2)
A longer-term American troop presence is exactly what US Secretary of War Robert Gates in 2007 told Congress could be expected. He said he envisioned keeping at least five combat brigades in Iraq as a long term presence, which is equal to about 20,000 combat personnel with an equal number of support staff. (3) The US military spokesman in Iraq, Major General Stephen Lanza, assured supporters of a US troop presence in Iraq that despite the troop draw-down, “In practical terms, nothing will change.” (4)
Meanwhile, the US government isn’t just rebranding the occupation, it’s also privatising it. There are around 100,000 private contractors working for the occupying forces, of whom more than 11,000 are armed mercenaries, mostly “third country nationals”, typically from the developing world. … The US now wants to expand their numbers sharply in what Jeremy Scahill, who helped expose the role of the notorious US security firm Blackwater, calls the “coming surge” of contractors in Iraq. Hillary Clinton wants to increase the number of military contractors working for the state department alone from 2,700 to 7,000, to be based in five “enduring presence posts” across Iraq. (5)
Colonialism without Colonies
The 1980 Carter Doctrine identified Persian Gulf oil as a US national security interest. In plain language, this meant that the petroleum rich countries of the Persian Gulf would be reserved as an area open to exploitation by US business enterprises and investors. The US would tolerate no attempt by other outside forces – or internal forces either — to control the region’s petro-reserves, and thereby deny or limit US enterprises access to the region’s oil and gas on preferential terms. Access would be guaranteed to ensure that US oil majors reaped a bonanza of profits from the sale of Middle Eastern oil to its principal consumers, namely Western Europe and Japan, and not primarily to guarantee sufficient oil to run the US military machine and economy, as is commonly supposed. Indeed, while the United States relies on oil from the Middle East, it has access to plentiful supplies of fossil fuels from sources that are much closer to hand: Canada (which has the world’s largest reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia); Venezuela (sixth in the world in oil reserves); and from its own oil wells. (6)
The Carter Doctrine was the modern version of colonialism. Under the old one, an outside power claims a territory as its own for the purposes of monopolizing its land, labor, markets and raw materials for the enrichment of its dominant politico-economic interests, its ruling class. It does so by planting its flag, appointing a governor, and establishing a military garrison. This announces to the world that use of this territory is exclusively at the discretion of the colonial power, and that the monopoly is backed by the colonial power’s military.
Under the Carter Doctrine, Washington would leave the flags, constitutions, currencies and leaders of the nominally independent Middle Eastern countries in place. But it would be understood that these countries would open themselves to exploitation by US business enterprises, if they weren’t already, or would remain open, if they were. The Pentagon would be the ultimate enforcer, ensuring that investment opportunities remained available on preferential terms to US businesspeople and that US investments were kept free from the threat of expropriation, or limitation by high taxes, stringent regulations, strong unions, restraints on repatriation of profits, and affirmative action programs designed to promote local businesses. Whereas the colonial powers had carved out territories for themselves and ipso facto claimed them as their own, Carter simply said what amounted to, “This now belongs to the United States on a de facto basis and anyone who says otherwise will have to deal with the Pentagon.” Significantly, this warning wasn’t directed at outside powers alone; it was also intended for communist, socialist and nationalist forces, who might take it into their heads that the land on which they lived and their raw materials ought to be collectively or publicly owned for the benefit of the local population or turned over to the local bourgeoisie to spur independent internal development.
Iran and Iraq were a problem. Nationalists were in power in both countries. Washington provided military assistance to help Iraq in its war against Iran, hoping the two nationalist powers would exhaust and weaken each other in war, and, in the aftermath, Washington could step in to assert control. When Iraq invaded Kuwait with what it believed was tacit US approval (7), Washington used the event to initiate a war against Iraq that continues today. The eventual invasion of Iraq was carried out under the Wolfowitz Doctrine, which said the United States would prevent the emergence of a regional Middle Eastern power capable of monopolizing the region’s petroleum resources, but which really meant that regional oil powers, like Iraq and Iran, would be prevented from controlling their own petroleum resources. George W. Bush pointed to preventing “a world in which these extremists and radicals got control of energy resources” (8) as the rationale for US military strategy in the Persian Gulf. What made the objects of Bush’s alarm “extreme” and “radical” was that they weren’t prepared to surrender control of their oil and gas to US corporations.
The Insecurity State
Fighting terrorism and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons has become the rationale for US military domination of the Middle East. Yet it was US military domination of the Middle East that sparked terrorist attacks against US targets in the first place, and established the conditions that pressure Iran to develop nuclear weapons (which isn’t to say that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, only that the need to build a defense against US and Israeli aggression makes it more likely that it will.)
What motivates Osama bin Laden and his followers has largely been kept from Western audiences, who have been fed pabulum about al Qaeda’s “hatred of our freedoms,” but it is clear that bin Laden’s campaign of terrorism is a reaction to US imperialism in the Middle East. He importunes his followers to strike the United States because:
…the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorising its neighbours, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples. (9)
On another occasion bin Laden explained that:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy Mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. (10)
Having operated on behalf of the CIA to oppose Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s, bin Laden is sometimes said to be a creation of the United States, a kind of Frankenstein monster. But receiving assistance from a state does not make one its creation. Bin Laden would have militantly opposed Soviet intervention in Afghanistan whether the CIA helped him out or not. There is, however, a sense in which bin Laden is, indeed, a creation of the United States, or more precisely, a reaction against its policies. Bin Laden, as a fighter against US domination of the Middle East, wouldn’t exist were it not for the US troop presence in Saudi Arabia, and now Iraq and Afghanistan; were the United States not the guarantor of Israel’s existence as an anti-Arab settler state; and had Washington not created a string of marionette rulers throughout the Arab world. In seeking to extend and consolidate US hegemony on behalf of the United States’ dominant economic class, these policies have had the effect of stirring up a nest of hornets. Once stirred up, the danger the hornets pose become a pretext for further extension of US hegemony to deny the hornets sanctuary and a base of operations from which they can inflict harm. As Victor Kiernan once remarked: “Now, as on other occasions, it appear[s] that American security require(s) everyone else to be insecure.” (11)
Right All Along
The ridiculed minority was right. The Iraq war was – and continues to be – about oil; there never were any weapons of mass destruction; Iraq posed no danger to the West; and rather than lessening the threat of terrorist attack, it has increased it. As for the idea, promulgated by Barack Obama as justification for his war policy in Afghanistan, that Afghanistan must be occupied by US forces and the militaries of its allies in order to prevent the country from becoming a base of operations for al-Qaeda, it can be pointed out that terrorist attacks can be – and have been – plotted and organized just about anywhere. William Blum asks:
[W]hat actually is needed to plot to buy airline tickets and take flying lessons in the United States? A room with some chairs? What does “an even larger safe haven” mean? A larger room with more chairs? Perhaps a blackboard? Terrorists intent upon attacking the United States can meet almost anywhere, with Afghanistan probably being one of the worst places for them, given the American occupation. (12)
Indeed, it is very unlikely that al-Qaeda is the position to establish a base of operations in Afghanistan, a point made by Stephen Biddle, a scholar at the uber-establishment Council on Foreign Relations, who advised General Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander in Afghanistan. Biddle “said the chance of a new Qaeda stronghold that could threaten American territory was relatively low” equating the odds of this happening “to a 50-year-old dying in the next year in America” which he said was “substantially less than 1 percent.” So why carry on an occupation whose costs approach $1 trillion (13) in order to avert an event that has virtually no chance of happening? Because, says Biddle – who advances an argument that is perhaps one of the least cogent ever — “It’s like buying life insurance” and “most Americans buy life insurance.” (14)
Richard Boucher had a different view. When he spoke on September 20, 2007 at the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, he was US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. Boucher’s account of why the United States has spent countless dollars on war in Afghanistan had nothing to do with insurance policies and much to do with oil and gas. “One of our goals is to stabilize Afghanistan, so it can become a conduit and a hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south,” he explained. (15) Boucher’s views mesh with Biddle’s if we take “stabilize” to mean pacifying forces opposed to the United States controlling Afghanistan as a hub between South and Central Asia.
Fadhil Chalabi, an adviser to Washington in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq and later Iraq’s oil undersecretary of state, described the invasion as “a strategic move on the part of the United States of America and the UK to have a military presence in the Gulf in order to secure [oil] supplies in the future”. (16) He echoed the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, Alan Greenspan, who, in his memoirs, The Age of Turbulence, lamented “that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” (17) George W. Bush himself, in worrying that “extremists would control a key part of the world’s energy supply” if the US did not have a troop presence in Iraq, indirectly acknowledged that oil was central to the reason he ordered an invasion of the country. (18) But it should be recalled that it is not the need to guarantee a secure supply of Middle Eastern oil for US consumers that was central to the reason for the invasion, for the US has access to plentiful oil from sources close to home. What really counted was the attraction of securing a bonanza of profits for US oil majors from the sale of Middle Eastern oil to Western Europe and Japan. A subsidiary benefit also figured in the equation: if Washington controls Japan’s and Western Europe’s oil supply, it controls Japan and Western Europe. (19)
Testifying before the Chilcot Inquiry into the Britain’s role in the Iraq war, Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former director general of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI-5, confirmed what the minority had said eight years earlier: “That Iraq had presented little threat … before the invasion”(20) and that fears that “Saddam could have linked terrorists to weapons of mass destruction, facilitating their use against the west…certainly wasn’t of concern in either the short term or the medium term.” (21)
Manningham-Buller also testified that “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had greatly increased the terrorist threat” and that “involvement in Iraq, for want of a better word, radicalized a whole generation of young people — not a whole generation, a few among a generation — who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.”(22)
Democracy for the Few
The majority of citizens of the aggressor countries are opposed to their governments deploying their nations’ troops to Iraq and Afghanistan,(23)and yet the wars go on. US voters elected a president whose equivocations led them to believe he would end the wars, although the letter of what he said was never anti-war. The wars continue, just as they did under his predecessor. The Nobel committee (grotesquely) gave the new US president the Peace Prize, hoping it might nudge him to declare peace. Its members’ hopes were dashed. There never were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and yet the occupation of Iraq continues, and will for the foreseeable future, by both US troops engaged in combat operations under a new name that draws a veil over their continued combat role and private sector mercenaries hired by the United States. The reasons for conducting the wars have been shown to be false, and yet talk of bringing US military intervention to a close is merely a sop to public opinion. The conventional wisdom among decision-makers is that a significant US troop presence will continue in both countries beyond 2011.(24) Even if US troops are repatriated (or redeployed to the next war for profits), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue anyway through local surrogates: the US-trained, equipped and directed Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan) armies, to say nothing of US State Department-hired mercenaries.
In a true democracy, the decisions made within the society reflect the interests of the majority. Does anyone believe the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan are waged in the interests of the majority?
It is commonplace to refer to the waging of the wars as if it is something that legitimately involves the plural “we”, as in: “we” are still in Afghanistan, and when are “we” going to get out of Iraq? There is no “we”. “We” weren’t asked to consent to the wars, “we” don’t support them, and “we” don’t benefit from them. The reality is that “we” don’t matter, except insofar as we have to be tossed a lagniappe every now and then to prevent our opposition from escalating to levels that would threaten to destabilize the rule of those who, from the system’s perspective, really do matter.
On the other hand, “we” are not really burdened by the wars, either. “We” don’t fight them, or not many of us do. A small minority of volunteer professional soldiers and private sector mercenaries fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they fight in ways that minimize the number of their casualties. And because “we” don’t fight the wars, even though “we” oppose them and “we” don’t benefit from them, it doesn’t really matter whether “we” are opposed morally and intellectually. Foreign policy is shaped without reference to public opinion and in complete isolation from it, and therefore the moral and intellectual opposition of majorities counts for little. Foreign policy, it should be clear, doesn’t depend on public opinion as an input. That’s not to say it can’t be shaped by pressure from below, but the pressure that alters foreign policy doesn’t come in the form of ritualized, non-disruptive expressions of popular opposition: the orderly and nonviolent march; petitions and letter writing campaigns; letters sent to editors of newspapers, and so on. The fact that all of these things have been done and continue to be done without the slightest discernible effect is proof enough. No, foreign policy bends from pressure that disrupts the normal functioning of society and therefore threatens the interests of the dominant economic class; in other words, from activities that are “incompatible with the stability required by big business for the tranquil digestion of profits.” (25) And foreign policy becomes something other than an expression of the class interests of big business, that at best can be momentarily restrained only by enormous pressure from below, when the authority to make foreign policy is wrested from the control of big business’s representatives and reconstituted on the basis of a different class altogether.
But bringing about reforms within the system (that is actually bringing them about and not simply registering dissent), much less changing the system altogether, requires a willingness to accept all manner of risks, dangers and penalties: trouble with the police and security services and the potential of going to jail or being forced to live underground. While a small minority may be prepared to accept these risks as the price of pursuing their moral and intellectual ideals, most people are not made in the mold of Che Guevara. Mass movements for change that disrupt the tranquil digestion of profits arise when conditions become intolerable for the mass of people – so intolerable that the considerable costs of acting to change them are outweighed by the costs exacted by the conditions themselves. It is no surprise that the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States was student-led. It was students who faced the unwelcome prospect of being sent to Southeast Asia to kill or be killed. It wasn’t until the war led to tax increases that opposition in the wider society was aroused. But as “soon as the risk of having to serve at the front was removed, agitation and concern over Vietnamese sufferings died down abruptly; a year or two more, and Vietnam was forgotten.”(26)In the end, it wasn’t the student movement that brought the war to a close; it was the resistance of the people for whom the conditions of the war and decades of colonial domination had proved intolerable: the Vietnamese.
Cost of War
It’s worth quoting an Elisabeth Bumiller New York Times article on this at length.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost Americans a staggering $1 trillion to date, second only in inflation-adjusted dollars to the $4 trillion price tag for World War II, when the United States put 16 million men and women into uniform and fought on three continents. (27)
But while the numbers are high in absolute terms, a second look
shows another story underneath. In 2008, the peak year so far of war spending for Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs amounted to only 1.2 percent of America’s gross domestic product. During the peak year of spending on World War II, 1945, the costs came to nearly 36 percent of G.D.P. (28)
With the cost of the war being eminently affordable, there’s little burden on US citizens.
“The army is at war, but the country is not,” said David M. Kennedy, the Stanford University historian. “We have managed to create and field an armed force that can engage in very, very lethal warfare without the society in whose name it fights breaking a sweat.” The result, he said, is “a moral hazard for the political leadership to resort to force in the knowledge that civil society will not be deeply disturbed.” (29)
The wars haven’t imposed a painful tax burden either. Bumiller points out that,
taxes have not been raised to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan — the first time that has happened in an American war since the Revolution, when there was not yet a country to impose them. Rightly or wrongly, that has further cut American civilians off from the two wars on the opposite side of the world. (30)
Some will say the anti-war movement is weak because it has been hijacked by the Democrats and derailed by Obama’s beguiling anti-war rhetoric. While these factors can’t be discounted, it seems more likely that a greater cause of the weakness can be found in the light to virtually non-existent costs the wars have imposed on the civilian populations of the aggressor countries and the failure of massive demonstrations of the past to make any difference, coupled with the expectation that future demonstrations will likewise fail to influence decision-makers. People seem to implicitly recognize than on matters of foreign affairs, governments operate on a plane completely divorced from, and unresponsive to, public opinion expressed in peaceful, respectful, and non-disruptive ways. Or to put it another way, despite its vaunted status, democracy, as it is practiced in most places, bears little connection to the original and substantive meaning of the word.
Everything about Bush’s wars, now Obama’s wars, and which have always been US wars and more broadly wars for profits, is false. They weren’t started to reduce threats to the physical safety of citizens of the countries that waged them, but to consolidate US domination of the Middle East to ensure the region’s land, labor, markets and especially its raw materials and petro-resources are available for the enrichment of the business enterprises of the United States and its allies. The effect has been quite the opposite of the stated intent. Rather than reducing the threat of terrorist attacks, which had arisen in response to ongoing US efforts to dominate the Middle East, the wars have increased the threat. Still, while the threat has increased, disruptions due to terrorist attacks have been minimal. The wars have made little difference in the lives of the citizens of the aggressor countries. As a result, while military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are completely illegitimate and their continuation is opposed by majorities in the NATO bloc, they are not total wars involving global conflicts among fairly evenly matched countries that disrupt the lives of the citizens of all belligerents, but grossly uneven contests between an alliance of industrialized countries led by a global hegemon of unprecedented military power against weak, Third World, countries that suffer complete devastation while the civilian populations of the other side emerge unscathed. The gross imbalance in wealth and military strength means that for the hegemonic powers there is no need to inconvenience their civilian populations with conscription, there are no tax increases explicitly levied to fund the wars, and there are few retaliatory attacks of consequence. Civil society, accordingly, remains quiescent, and while its members may be morally and intellectually opposed to the wars, the costs they face as a result of the wars are too mild and the threat of jail and trouble with the police that an effective resistance implies is too great, to allow a strong, effective and sustained anti-war movement to develop. It seems that so long as disruptions are kept to a minimum and most people’s lives are kept fairly comfortable and filled with family, friends and work, that naked imperialism and rule by governments with utter disdain for popular opinion are possible as the normal features of political life in an imperialist “democracy”.
Contrast the quietude of life in the aggressor countries with conditions in Iraq (little different from those in Afghanistan.)
It’s not only the hundreds of thousands of dead and 4 million refugees. After seven years of US (and British) occupation, tens of thousands are still tortured and imprisoned without trial, health and education has dramatically deteriorated, the position of women has gone horrifically backwards, trade unions are effectively banned, Baghdad is divided by 1,500 checkpoints and blast walls, electricity supplies have all but broken down and people pay with their lives for speaking out. (31)
And what was the reason for producing this humanitarian catastrophe? It wasn’t to eliminate the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, for Iraq’s WMDs would have posed little threat, if they existed, which they didn’t, when US and British troops invaded. Nor was it to eliminate a dictator. If it was, the costs — hundreds of thousands dead, four million refugees, and a destroyed society – can hardly be justified to eliminate a single man whose threat to the wider world was virtually nil. Neither was the reason for the 2003 invasion to guarantee access to the world’s energy supply so that Americans can continue to burn fossil fuels in their SUVs, run their power plants, keep their B2 bombers in the air, and continue to enjoy a standard of living based largely on petroleum. Yes, it’s true that the US standard of living depends on oil, but the United States is capable of satisfying its energy requirements through ready access to plentiful supplies of oil located elsewhere in the world and closer to home. Its next door neighbour, Canada — which is a virtual appendage of the United States — has the world’s largest reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia. No, the reasons for the invasion of Iraq weren’t WMDs, eliminating a dictator, and keeping the world’s oil supply out of the hands of radicals and extremists; the reason was to secure a bonanza of profits for US oil majors from the sale of Iraqi oil to Western Europe and Japan, the principal customers for oil from the Middle East. Energy profits – specifically those to be derived from transforming Afghanistan into “a conduit and a hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south” – figured in the decision to invade that country. In a business society, where stability depends on big business’s tranquil digestion of profits, and key decision-making posts in the state are filled by corporate executives, corporate lawyers and ambitious politicians backed by corporate money, is it really any surprise that its wars, much as almost everything else about it, are organized around the inexorable need of business to expand its capital?
All of this should leave us thinking: about how much substance there is to the idea that we live in democracies of the many; of whether the democracies we live in are really democracies of, for, and by the few; and whose interests really matter. Other questions: How can the societies in which we live be made different? Who – and what — is standing in the way of real, meaningful change? And how might the roadblocks be swept away? Also: What conditions conduce to the mobilization of the mass energy necessary to bring about radical change? And what activities carried out when the conditions are not present can facilitate their emergence and prepare for the time they do emerge?
1. “Iraq surveys show ‘humanitarian emergency’”, UNICEF.org, August 12, 1999. http://www.unicef.org/newsline/99pr29.htm
2. Tim Arango, “War in Iraq defies U.S. timetable for end of combat”, The New York Times, July 2, 2010.
3. The New York Times, September 27, 2007.
4. Seumas Milne, “The US isn’t leaving Iraq, it’s rebranding the occupation”, The Guardian (UK), August 4, 2010.
6. Research Unit for Political Economy, Behind the Invasion of Iraq, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2003, pp. 97-98; Albert Szymanski, The Logic of Imperialism, Praeger, 1983, pp. 161-166.
7. David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 2003.
8. Robert A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No.3, August 2003.
11. V.G. Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism, Verso, 2005, pp. 293.
12. William Blum, ”The Anti-Empire Report”, August 4, 2010, http://killinghope.org/bblum6/aer84.html
13. Elisabeth Bumiller, “The war: A trillion can be cheap”, The New York Times, July 24, 2010.
14. Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt, “Several Afghan strategies, none a clear choice,” The New York Times, October 1, 2009.
15. William Blum, “The Anti-Empire Report”, December 9, 2009.
16. Naomi Klein, “Big Oil’s Iraq deals are the greatest stick-up in history,” The Guardian (UK), July 4, 2008.
17. The Observer (UK), September 16, 2007.
18. The Guardian (Australia), September 5, 2007.
19. Research Unit for Political Economy.
20. Sarah Lyall, “Ex-official says Afghan and Iraq wars increased threats to Britain”, The New York Times, July 20, 2010.
21. Haroon Siddique, “Iraq inquiry: Saddam posed very limited threat to UK, ex-MI5 chief says”, The Guardian (UK), July 20, 2010.
23. In April 2010, 39 percent of Canadians supported Canada’s military mission to Afghanistan, while 56 percent opposed it. “Support for Afghanistan Mission Falls Markedly in Canada,” http://www.visioncritical.com/2010/04/support-for-afghanistan-mission-falls-markedly-in-canada/
Two out of three Germans are opposed to the war, according to a poll in Stern magazine. Judy Dempsey, “Merkel tries to beat back opposition to Afghanistan”, The New York Times, April 22, 2010.
Some 72 per cent of Britons want their troops out of Afghanistan immediately. William Dalrymple, “Why the Taliban is winning in Afghanistan”, New Statesman, June 22, 2010.
In the United States, public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans have turned against the war. Dexter Filkens, “Petraeus takes command of Afghan mission”, The New York Times, July 4, 2010.
A July 11 ABC/Washington Post poll, found just 42 percent of respondents said that the Afghan War was “worth fighting” — with a majority, 55 percent, saying they did not think it was. A CNN poll (5/29/10) found that 56 percent opposed the war in Afghanistan, while 42 percent supported it. In three surveys since July, the AP/GfKpoll has reported that at least 53 percent of respondents say they oppose the Afghanistan War. In September, 51 percent told the Washington Post/ABC News poll (9/10–12/09) that the war was not “worth fighting.”
Steve Rendall, “USA Today: Americans continue to support Afghan war—in 2001”, FAIR Blog, July 30, 2010.
25. Kiernan, p.302.
26. Kiernan, pp. 340-341.
By Stephen Gowans
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Washington replied by launching the Gulf War to reverse the invasion and punish Baghdad for its serial aggressions. Or so Washington said. Iraq was indeed a serial aggressor, having attacked and waged a long war with Iran in the 1980s, followed by an invasion of Kuwait. What Washington and the compliant US media minimized was that the US had prodded Iraq to attack Iran, soon after the country sloughed off US domination by toppling the Pahlavi regime through which US influence in the country was exercised. With prodding came military aid to Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction that Washington would later use as the basis for a murderous sanctions regime that killed over one million Iraqis, many of them children. In 1989, when Iraq sounded out the US ambassador, April Glaspie, about a possible invasion of Kuwait, she raised no objection. How odd it must have seemed to Iraq, then, that after fighting one war with US prodding, and launching another with what seemed like implicit US support, that Washington should point to Iraq’s serial aggressions as a pretext for launching its own string of anti-Iraq aggressions beginning in 1990 and lasting to the current day.
The US itself is no stranger to serial aggressions, having intervened militarily in countless countries, often without provocation and with the sole objective of enforcing US domination. Whereas the Nazi’s serial aggressions were limited to Europe (and direct military assistance to their Italian allies in northern Africa), those of the US have been carried out on a global scale. The tenth anniversary of one such US-inspired aggression, the 78-day Nato terror bombing of Yugoslavia, has recently passed, without the fanfare usually associated with the exercise of US military power. Where were the media retrospectives, the self-adulation commending the West for its humanitarian intervention? If any mainstream news organization ran a story on how much better off Serbia is 10 years after Nato’s humanitarian bombing, I haven’t seen it. Perhaps the absence is due to the reality that anyone setting foot in Belgrade today would be forced to confront what Serbia has become – a state dismembered from a multicultural federation whose once publically- and socially-owned assets have been sold off to investors and corporations from the same countries that sent their air forces to drop ordnance on schools, factories, bridges, a radio-TV building, the Chinese embassy, and civilians.
Perhaps it is because the US has woven a long string of aggressions into its history that its media are inclined to ignore the aggressions of Uncle Sam’s extension in the Middle East, Israel. When they’re not ignoring them, they’re excusing them. It is a matter of some astonishment that Israel can launch attack after attack outside its ceaselessly expanding and amorphous borders and it hardly registers on the consciousness of North Americans, whose media hide these aggressions in plain view.
Israeli warplanes violated Sudanese airspace in January, on a mission to destroy a convoy of trucks said to be carrying arms to be smuggled to resistance fighters in Gaza. While Iranian warplanes bombing a convoy of trucks in Iraq would be met by howls of outrage by the White House and State Department, Israel’s bombing raid in Sudan was sanitized, even celebrated, in The New York Times, as a “daring military operation,” and then quickly forgotten. Official enemies launch illegal attacks; allies carry out daring military operations.
The bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 was another of Israel’s vaunted military operations. This illegal act remains accepted in Western media discourse as a legitimate operation, justified as a preventive measure against Iraq acquiring a nuclear weapon. According to official doctrine, it was only a matter of time before Saddam Hussein acquired the means to send a nuclear warhead hurtling toward Tel Aviv. What makes this scenario implausible is that such a temerarious act would trigger an obliterating counter-strike by the United States. Unless you believe the Iraqi president was insane or had a death wish, neither of which propositions rest on the slightest evidence, this is pure political fantasy.
Iraq may indeed have intended to develop nuclear weapons, but its reasons for doing so probably (if indeed it was heading in this direction) had much to do with the reality that Israel, a country with no shortage of aggressive military operations under it belt, has an estimated 200 nuclear weapons, receives $3 billion annually in military aid from Uncle Sam, and has a penchant for sending its troops and warplanes into battle.
Let’s consider Israel’s serial aggressions, all of which have been motivated by the desire to acquire territory to expand the borders of the Jewish colonial state, or to defend itself against the backlash its expansionist aggressions provoke. We can begin with the 80 percent of Palestinian territory Zionist forces seized by force in 1948, after the UN allocated 56 percent to a Jewish state, a more than generous allotment, considering that Jews made up only one-third of the population, owned less than 10 percent of the land, and were favored by the UN with the fertile coastal areas. There was nothing fair or legitimate about the UN offer. It was carried out over the objections of the majority, but even this corruption of justice was not enough to satisfy the Zionist craving for other people’s land.
In 1956, Israel struck a deal with France and Britain to invade Egypt. France was irritated by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser’s support for the national liberation movement in Algeria, and Britain wanted the return of the recently nationalized Suez Canal to the hands of British capital. In exchange for marching on the Suez Canal, France would transfer nuclear technology to Israel, providing the Zionist state with the basis for its nuclear arsenal. The operation proved to be a contretemps, with the US ordering the conspirators to withdraw. But it did demonstrate to Washington that Israel could be a useful tool in enforcing US foreign policy in the region.
In 1967, Israel seized Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Later, it launched a series of operations in Lebanon beginning with Operation Litani in 1978, aimed at driving the PLO north of the Litani River. This culminated in an occupation of southern Lebanon that lasted 18 years, from 1982 to 2000, followed by yet another attack in the summer of 2006. Lebanon today has the highest per capita debt in the world, largely thanks to the costs of rebuilding infrastructure Israel destroyed. (1)
Added to Israel’s aggressions are its amply documented violations of the laws of war. Israeli war crimes are a delicate matter in North America, where politicians and the media either steer clear of mentioning them, or step nimbly around them, seeking to avoid the inevitable backlash against anyone who suggests that Israel may not be the shining beacon of democracy in what’s calumniated as the otherwise benighted Middle East. The British press, The Guardian in particular, show fewer reservations. Condemnatory reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on Israel’s January 2009 assault on Gaza barely received any attention in the North American media, in stark contrast to the high profile that similarly condemnatory reports receive when they’re aimed at official enemies. By comparison, The Guardian covered a February 23, 2009 Amnesty International report that called on the US to cut off military aid to Israel, because “as a major supplier of weapons to Israel, the USA has a particular obligation to stop any supply that contributes to gross violations of the laws of war and human rights.” (2) Last week, The Guardian reported on a Human Rights Watch investigation that found that Israel had repeatedly and indiscriminately fired white phosphorus over crowded areas of Gaza, killing and injuring civilians, a war crime. White phosphorus burns through tissue and can’t be extinguished. It must burn itself out, a process that may take days. In a 71-page report, the rights group concluded that Israel’s “repeated use of air-burst white phosphorus artillery shells in populated areas of Gaza was not incidental or accidental.” (3) Significantly, Israel initially denied it had used white phosphorus. When the evidence became overwhelming, it admitted it had, but countered that its use was fully in accord with international law. When that was disproved, Israel announced it would launch its own investigation.
In a move that would be considered foolishly gutsy in the United States, The Guardian undertook its own investigation of Israeli war crimes in Gaza, concluding that Israel violated the laws of war. (4) The conclusions drawn by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and The Guardian were corroborated by Israeli soldiers themselves. An Israeli squad commander said,
“What’s great about Gaza — you see a person on a path, he doesn’t have to be armed, you can simply shoot him. In our case it was an old woman on whom I did not see any weapon when I looked. The order was to take down the person, this woman, the minute you see her. There are always warnings, there is always the saying, ‘Maybe he’s a terrorist.’ What I felt was, there was a lot of thirst for blood.” (5)
Worse than being brutally indifferent to Palestinians, Israeli soldiers are completely morally calloused, wearing t-shirts bearing messages that evince absolute contempt for Arabs. “A shirt designed for the Givati Brigade’s Shaked battalion” depicted “a pregnant Palestinian women with a bull’s-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, ‘1 shot, 2 kills.’” (6)
While the utter brutality of Israeli troops was being laid bare in the pages of The Guardian, across the Atlantic, Israeli war crimes were being minimized in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s newspaper of record. Foreign correspondent Patrick Martin wrote that the failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians “is found in almost every military force (think Serbs in Bosnia, Americans at Abu Ghraib and Canadians in Somali) and has existed as long as there has been war.” (7) What Martin didn’t point out was that Serbs were prosecuted by Nato’s Hague Tribunal for failures to distinguish civilians from combatants, but that US and Canadian atrocities – including those in connection with the terror bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 — have gone unpunished. Martin also failed to mention the warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Omar, too, is accused of war crimes, but unlike those committed by Americans, Canadians and Israelis, his have become the subject of prosecution by an international court, one that has yet to issue indictments against anyone but Africans. The court will never prosecute Americans, Russians, and Chinese, who have chosen not to be bound by the court and are able, by virtue of being permanent members of the UN Security Council, to veto any Security Council resolution ordering the court to undertake an inquiry. Likewise, these countries can veto court inquiries into crimes committed by nationals of allied countries, like Israel, which have also rejected the court’s authority. War crimes, it seems, are intolerable when committed by countries the West seeks a pretext to dominate, but when the same crimes are committed by Americans, Canadians and Israelis, the “everyone is doing it” defense applies.
Meanwhile, as nuclear-armed Israel adds to its string of outrages on the sovereignty of neighboring countries with its bombing raid into Sudan, the Western media spotlight shines on north Korea, the northern half of a peninsula whose division was imposed by outsiders, and has never attacked another country. While official doctrine holds that north Korea invaded south Korea in 1950, it’s hardly possible for Koreans to have invaded Korea. What’s more, the question of who started the war – both sides clashed on and off for up to a year before major hostilities broke out – remains murky. Deciding on what event precipitated the war is like deciding when a hill becomes a mountain. Any attempt to abstract a discrete event from a complex of richly interconnected events as the cause of the war is to play with arbitrariness. Even deciding when the war began and ended (has it ended?) involves an arbitrary demarcation. Hugh Deane argued that the war began in 1945, the moment the US army arrived and suppressed the national liberation People’s Committees. Conceived as a struggle to free the peninsula from foreign domination, the war has never ended, and has lasted 99 years.
Korea, it should be recalled, was colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945. No sooner had Koreans declared their independence, did US military forces arrive to establish a military government, shot through with former Japanese collaborators. While the Soviets, who agreed to the division of the peninsula, occupied the north, they withdrew their forces in 1948 and allowed the maximal guerrilla leader, Kim Il Sung, to rise to power, rather than imposing their own man, as the United States was to do in the south, when it brought the anti-communist Sygman Rhee, a long-time US resident, to Korea. US troops remain on Korean soil to this day.
The reason the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (DPRK is the north’s official name), is receiving considerable Western media attention is because it plans to launch a satellite. The launching, it is said by US officials, and repeated uncritically by the US media, is a cover for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear payload as far away as the shores of Alaska. In case north Korea’s launching a satellite strikes anyone as being far from belligerent – certainly not in the same league as flying bombers into another country to destroy its nuclear facilities (as Israel did in Iraq and threatens to do in Iran) the new US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, assures us that, appearances aside, the launching is “a provocative act.” This is duly reported, but nobody asks why. Why should the launching of a satellite, even if the rocket technology is dual-purpose (it can be used to launch satellites and warheads) be provocative? Doesn’t the United States have rockets, satellites and warheads in abundance? The cause for alarm certainly can’t be because the DPRK has launched aggressions against other countries. It hasn’t. On the other hand, the United States and Japan, both with notorious records of employing military force to violate other conutries’ sovereignty, are sounding the alarm. The real reason the DPRK’s satellite launching is depicted as provocative is the same reason its nuclear test was depicted as provocative. Having nuclear warheads and the technology to deliver them expresses the threat of potential self-defense.
So it is that the North American media, playing its accustomed role as private propagandist for US foreign policy, has striven to elevate north Korea’s satellite launching to the provocative act Clinton says it is. The launching of a satellite has become, in The New York Times’ headlines, a missile launching (8), inducing the Japanese to ready their missile interceptors. (9) The Washington Post does The New York Times one better by calling the launching a nuclear test. (10) Even if the DPRK is testing rocket technology that could be used to deploy a nuclear warhead, is this any more reason to be alarmed than the reality that Israel can annihilate its neighbors with nuclear weaponry in numbers and sophistication far greater than north Korea can ever hope to match? The idea that Israel is a responsible country committed to the stability of the Middle East is a fiction; Israel is the main source of instability in the Middle East and has been since 1948. Had Zionists not arrived in Palestine to displace an Arab majority that had lived peacefully with Jews and Christians for centuries, there never would have been an armed struggle waged by the PLO, or an Islamic Jihad and Hamas to carry it on once the PLO’s dominant party, Fatah, faltered with a series of capitulations. Nor would there have been an Israeli invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon aimed at destroying the PLO, and therefore no basis for the rise of Hezbollah. As for the idea that Israeli leaders are level headed, look at the carnage Israel visited upon Gaza, ostensibly to deter rocket attacks that have killed 20 people in the last eight years. (11) Or consider this:
“The winter assault on the Gaza Strip was officially portrayed in Israel as an attempt to quell rocket fire by militants of Hamas. But some soldiers say they also were lectured about a more ambitious aim: to banish non-Jews from the biblical land of Israel. ‘This rabbi comes to us and says the fight is between the children of light and the children of darkness,’ a reserve sergeant said, recalling a training camp encounter. ‘His message was clear: ‘This is a war against an entire people, not against specific terrorists.’ The whole thing was turned into something very religious and messianic.’” (12)
Lebensraum comes to mind.
While US officials may contrive to regard north Korea’s satellite launching as provocative, it pales in comparison to the provocation of the United States and south Korea holding annual war games exercises along north Korea’s borders, this year larger than ever, and after the new government in Seoul of Lee Myung Bak has departed from the conciliatory line of the previous government, adopting a decidedly hostile posture.
Lest anyone think that north Korea’s impending satellite launching amounts to even a slight threat, consider the testimony of US Navy Admiral Timothy J. Keating before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 19, 2009. Keating said he does not regard the planned north Korean launching as a threat. “’It is a normal notification process, which they didn’t do in 2006, when they attempted a launch from the same facility,’ Keating said. Keating added that U.S. intelligence cannot yet say whether the launch will be of a communications satellite, as North Korea has asserted, or of a missile with intercontinental range. But he and two other commanders said they think it will be a satellite launch because of the public announcements from Pyongyang, including coordinates of the ocean area where the booster rocket is likely to fall.” (13)
Nuclear armed Israel carries out a massacre in Gaza, backed by a rabbinate echoing the Nazi’s rationale for territorial expansion, while Israeli soldiers wear t-shirts depicting Palestinians as vermin to be exterminated, and Israeli warplanes violate the sovereign airspace of Sudan. Soon after, the hostile Lee Myung Bak government of south Korea, more interested in picking fights with the north than seeking peaceful reunification, escalates the country’s annual war games with the United States, aimed at intimidating the north. These aggressive and provocative acts are minimized by the North American media – either barely acknowledged, sanitized or celebrated. In the meantime, north Korea’s planned satellite launching is depicted as a provocation meriting stepped up sanctions and escalated efforts to bring down the government in Pyongyang. It can be hardly doubted that the North American media are an apparatus of public persuasion in the service of US foreign policy. In its hands black becomes white, the oppressed become oppressor, serial aggressors become keepers of the peace, and self-defense becomes provocation.
1. Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History, Princeton University Press, 2007.
2. Rory McCarthy, “Amnesty calls on US to suspend arms sales to Israel,” The Guardian (UK), February 23, 2009.
3. Rory McCarthy, “Israel accused of indiscriminate phosphorus use in Gaza,” The Guardian (UK), March 25, 2009.
4. Clancy Chassay and Julian Borger, “Guardian investigation uncovers evidence of alleged Israel war crimes in Gaza,” The Guardian (UK), March 24, 2009.
5. Ethan Bronner, “Soldiers’ accounts of Gaza killings raise furor in Israel,” The New York Times, March 20, 2009.
6. Peter Beaumont, “Gaza war crime claims gather pace as more troops speak out,” The Observer (UK), March 22, 2009.
7. Patrick Martin, “Israel’s principle of purity of arms sacrificed in Gaza, soldiers say,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), March 20, 2009.
8. “N. Korean missile reportedly in place,” New York Times, March 26, 2009.
9. “Japan readies missile interceptor” New York Times, March 29, 2009.
10. “North Korean nuclear test a growing possibility,” The Washington Post, March 27, 2009.
11. Rory McCarthy, “Amid the ruins, a fragile truce and a fragile future for Gaza,” The Guardian (UK), January 18, 2009.
12. Richard Boudreaux, “Israeli army rabbis criticized for stance on Gaza assault,” The Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2009.
13. “US could hit N. Korean missile, says commander,” The Washington Post, March 20, 2009.
By Stephen Gowans
Michael D. Yates wrote an MRZine article accusing Fox and CNN journalists, and Michael Steele, the first black person to be selected to chair the Republican National Committee, of being complete boneheads. That Yates chose MRZine as his vehicle for launching a diatribe against the intellectual failings of the likes of Lou Dobbs and Wolf Blitzer means he must have been looking for an easy sell. He might as well have told Palestinians that Zionists are not their friends.
Everyone on the Left knows there are plenty of right-wing morons, but rarely acknowledged is the plenitude of liberal morons. Progressives, for obvious reasons, don’t talk about them, though liberal morons are no less deserving of invective than Dobbs, Blitzer and Steele are.
Consider, for example, Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org. MoveOn.org, to quote directly from Sourcewatch.org,
“is a web-based liberal advocacy organization that raises tens of millions of dollars for Democratic Party politicians and causes from the millions of people on its e-mail list. MoveOn funds or sponsors with other liberal advocacy organizations various coalitions such as Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI), SavetheInternet.com Coalition, and Win Without War. It endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, fundraised and organized for him, and has become perhaps the lead lobby organization for his policies in 2009, apart from Obama’s own Organizing for America.”
My evidence for Ruben’s gobsmacking stupidity lies in the following four paragraphs from the New York Times of February 26. Discussing President Obama’s plans for “withdrawal” from Iraq, Times’ reporters Peter Baker and Thom Shanker note that “Even after August 2010 (the target date for withdrawal) as many as 50,000 of the 142,000 troops now in Iraq would remain.”
Obama says he intends to withdraw the remaining 50,000 “by 2011 in accordance with a strategic agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush before he left office,” (1) but has carefully chosen his words “to avoid a firm commitment.” (2) Intending to withdraw is different from committing to withdraw, and is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s talk of aspirational goals, as in: I aspire to do something, but that doesn’t mean I will.
Obama, the February 26 New York Times article continued,“plans to seek more money for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from a separate fund outside the Pentagon’s base budget, which will also grow beyond the 2009 spending plan of $513 billion. The separate ‘war costs’ budget proposal for 2010 could reach $130 billion to $140 billion, officials said.”
These are hardly the actions of a president preparing to wind down the war, but are entirely in keeping with the actions of a president whose country is structurally compelled to pursue an aggressive foreign policy.
“Word of Mr. Obama’s impending decision generated little of the anger that has flavored the Iraq debate for years,” The New York Times’ reporters noted. “Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, a group that has strongly opposed the war, said activists were willing to give Mr. Obama the benefit of the doubt.”
“’People have confidence that the president is committed to ending the war’,” Mr. Ruben said. “’This is basically what he promised in the election.’”
What Obama promised and what people think he promised are not often the same. But even in the face of Obama acting against what people thought he promised, morons like Ruben are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. In the divide between those selling you a bill of goods, and those being suckered, Obama sits on one side and Ruben on the other. Or is Ruben on Obama’s side? Is he the confederate who shouts from the crowd, “I’ll take ten of those,” after the snake oil salesman finishes his spiel on his amazing elixir that cures cancer, heart disease, flagging libido and the fleas?
It should be noted that plans for a stay-behind-force of around 50,000 troops were in the works under the Bush administration — another brick in the wall of evidence showing there are no foreign policy discontinuities of significance between Republican and Democrat administrations. Regime change in Iraq was official policy under the Clinton administration and the permanent military occupation of Iraq is as much a fixture of Obama’s foreign policy as it was of Bush’s. Indeed, that Obama has chosen to retain the Bush team’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates (who has served under seven previous presidents (3)) and Generals Petraeus and Odierno, shows he has not only “decided not to challenge the fundamental strategic orientation” of the Bush administration, but that he has chosen not to break to with the US policy of permanent military aggression. Obama’s carry-overs from the Bush administration will “oversee and manage the Iraq occupation” and “the widening U.S war in Afghanistan and the aerial assaults on Pakistan.” (4) Nothing has changed.
That Obama is carrying on in the traditions of previous US presidents should come as no surprise. What matters are not the personnel in Washington, and whether the president is black, brown, yellow, red, white, liberal or conservative, but the systemic imperatives that structure US policy and the interests of the corporate class whose wealth and connections are used to place people with the right politics in senior state positions.
1. Peter Baker, “With pledges to troops and Iraqis, Obama details pullout,” The New York Times, February 28, 2009.
3. “Iraq: Will Obama’s ‘change’ be more of the same?” Proletarian, Issue 28 (February 2009)
4. ANSWER coalition response
By Stephen Gowans
Hollywood director Steven Spielberg has withdrawn as artistic adviser to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing because China has failed to pressure Sudan to end the war in Darfur.
China is developing oil fields in the embattled region of Sudan and Spielberg wants Beijing to use its clout to end the insurgency in the west of the country.
Arguing that “Sudan’s government bears the bulk of the responsibility” for the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, Spielberg blames China for failing to do “more to end the continuing human suffering there.” (1)
“China’s economic, military and diplomatic ties to the government of Sudan continue to provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change,” Spielberg says. (2)
But while Spielberg wants China to use its influence in Khartoum, he has released no statements, of which I’m aware, to press Washington to use its influence to end the larger humanitarian catastrophes in Somalia and Iraq, both of which are directly attributable to the actions of his own country, and therefore should be well within the grasp of the US government to end.
China’s ability to end the Darfur conflict, however, is a far more uncertain matter.
Three of the five rebel groups fighting Sudanese forces in Darfur are unwilling to negotiate a peace, according to the UN’s special envoy to Darfur, Jan Eliasson. (3) This makes it difficult for Khartoum, let alone China, to bring an end to the conflict, unless ending the conflict means Khartoum capitulating and handing Darfur and its oil assets to the rebels and their Western backers. This, of course, would suit strategists in the US State Department, to say nothing of the US oil industry.
By comparison, ending the much larger humanitarian catastrophes in Somalia (with 850,000 displaced, Somalia has been called Africa’s largest and most ignored catastrophe) and Iraq (four million refugees and hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the US invasion) is directly within the capability of Washington. (4)
The US simply has to order Ethiopia, which it directed to illegally invade Somalia in December 2006, to withdraw. (5) If the Ethiopians balk, cutting off the rich flow of military aid Washington rewards the Meles regime with, will exert needed pressure. (6)
As regards the tragedy of Iraq, there can be no greater ameliorative act than immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. Withdrawal should occasion no fear of touching off a full-scale civil war. The Pentagon’s own research shows that Iraqis attribute sectarian tensions to the US military presence and ardently wish to see the Americans leave. (7) If a civil war were to ensue, it could hardly be worse than the suffering the US continues to visit upon Iraq in lost lives, mangled bodies, rampant disease, hunger and homelessness – far in excess of the tragedy in Darfur.
If China’s ties to the government of Sudan provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change, doesn’t Spielberg’s visibility, and his status as a US citizen, provide him with the opportunity and obligation to press for change where his own government has created far greater human suffering?
In the fall of 2002, Spielberg said he “could not not support” the Bush administration’s policies on Iraq (8). Today, he seeks to embarrass China over Sudan, another oil-rich country Washington seeks regime change in. And as far a Spielberg is concerned, the US-authored humanitarian catastrophes in Somalia and Iraq are best ignored. Are these the actions of a humanitarian, or of a chauvinist whose concern for the suffering of others stops at the door of, and indeed caters to, US ruling class interests?
(1) New York Times, February 13, 2008.
(3) New York Times, February 8, 2008.
(4) Displacement of Somalis, Washington Post, November 14, 2007; Iraqi refugees, The Independent (UK), July 30, 2007. There are a number of estimates of deaths in Iraq due to the US invasion: The Iraqi Body Count, 47,668; World Health Organization, 151,000; Johns Hopkins, 600,000; British polling firm ORB, 1.2 million (mid-range estimates.)
(5) US General John Abizaid visited the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, in November, 2006. Ethiopia invaded Somalia the next month. “The US provided key intelligence from spy satellites…CIA agents traveled with the Ethiopian troops, helping direct operations…US forces have carried out at least four attacks inside the country in the past 12 months.” The Independent (UK), February 9, 2008.
(6) Stephen Gowans, “Looking for Evil in all the Wrong Places,” http://www.gowans.wordpress.com, November 20, 2007,
(7) Washington Post, December 19, 2007.
(8) In September 2002, Spielberg pledged support for the gathering US war on Iraq. “Film director Spielberg lines up with Bush war drive,” WSWS, October 3, 2002, http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/oct2002/spie-o03.shtml
The US is using a hoary imperial tactic dating back to the Romans to dominate Iraq and to justify a long-term military presence in the country
By Stephen Gowans
A US-financed program to build a Sunni paramilitary Guardian organization in Iraq, and US proposals for a soft partition of the country, are the latest steps in a divide and rule strategy the US is pursuing to keep Iraqis fighting among themselves so they won’t fight the occupation. Sectarian strife also provides the US with the pretext it needs to establish a long-term military presence in the country.
The US occupation authority has made ethnicity and religion salient in Iraq, where once it was a matter of little moment in the daily political lives of Iraqis. The US organized elections and the army along sectarian lines. It decided which parties could run in elections, favoring those that emphasized religious affiliations (Sunni vs. Shia) and ethnicity (Arab vs. Kurd), while banning the largest non-sectarian party, the Baath party. Key government positions were doled out along sectarian lines. The interior ministry was turned over to the Badr Brigade, a sectarian Shia paramilitary organization. From head to toe, Iraq has been transformed from a secular society into one in which religious and ethnic identity matter. Imagine the Department of Homeland Security being turned over to the KKK, the Pentagon to Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, while the Democrat and Republican parties are banned and replaced by religious and ethnic parties. If ever there was a recipe to get people fighting among themselves, this is it.
The most recent manifestation of the US divide and rule policy is a program to create a Sunni paramilitary Guardian force whose mandate is to protect Sunni neighborhoods (1). Imagine Washington creating a Black paramilitary Guardian force, a White paramilitary Guardian force, and a Hispanic paramilitary Guardian force in the US. The effect in sparking racial tension would be the same.
Now, some US policy makers are talking about partitioning Iraq into Kurd, Sunni and Shia regions. Leading advocates include senior politicians and US ruling class foundations. Joseph Biden, chairman of the US Foreign Relations Committee and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination endorses “soft” partition, as does Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (2). Last year, the two put together the Biden-Gelb plan, which calls for a “soft” partition of Iraq. Soft partition would see Iraq divided into three distinct ethno-religious regions: Kurdistan, Shiastan and Sunnistan, held together by a weak federal government.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues the “time may be approaching when the only hope for a more stable Iraq is soft partition (3).” The Brookings Institution, associated with the Rockefellers, is one of the most influential US ruling class policy-making organizations.
Western politicians portray Iraq as a country whose simmering sectarian tensions were held in check by the brutal repression of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who ruled on behalf of the Sunni population and its political vehicle, the Baath party. It’s only now that Mr. Hussein’s tyranical rule has ended that sectarian conflict has slipped its restraints and come to the surface. At least, that’s the favored US view. Trouble is, it’s a crock of shit. When “the Committee of Debaathification issued a list of 100,000 senior Iraqi Baathists who would not be allowed to enjoy government posts,” 66,000 of them turned out to be Shiites (4). And anyone who cared to check the deck of cards used to list the 55 top Iraqi officials the US invasion force wanted dead or alive, would discover that half were Shiite, and the remainder a mix of Sunnis, Christians and Kurds (5).
The former Ottoman territory that is now Iraq was governed as a single territory before 1880. The three provinces that were pieced together in 1921 to form modern Iraq had no “clear sectarian identities (6).” “For much of Iraq’s history, the two communities (Shia and Sunni) co-existed peacefully (7).”
Partitioning the country would be no mean feat. “The geographic boundaries do not run toward partition. There is no Sunnistan or Shiastan.” On the contrary, conditions are “highly commingled” with people “totally intermixed, especially in the major cities (8).” Five million Iraqis would have to be moved were the country to be divided into homogeneous ethno-religious slices (9).
More importantly, most Iraqis don’t want their country partitioned. “Apart from the Kurds in the north, there is no unanimous, popular demand for federalism or soft partition or any partition at all (10).”
The 1920 Revolution Brigades, one of three resistance groups to form the political office of the Iraqi resistance, rejects the idea of a sectarian division in Iraq. “Our position,” says its spokesman, “is that there are two kinds of people in Iraq: not Sunni and Shia, Kurdish and Arab, Muslim and Christian, but those who are with the occupation and those who are against it (11).” Sectarian divisions in Iraq have been amplified, he says, “as part of the ‘British imperial tactic of divide and rule (12).’”
The British employed the Roman principle of divide et impera to enslave colonial peoples. The US has taken up the tradition. “Our endeavour,” remarked Lieutenant-Colonel Coke, Commandant of Moradabad during the middle of the nineteenth century, “should be to uphold in full force the (for us fortunate) separation which exists between the different religions and races, not to endeavour to amalgamate them. Divide et impera should be the principle of Indian government (13).” Lord Elphinstone, Governer of Bombay, seconded the motion. “Divide et impera was the old Romon motto, and it should be ours (14).”
Adumbrating US imperial tactics in Iraq, the British devised a system of separate electorates in India and separate representation by religion, caste and ethnicity. Sound familiar? “The effect of this electoral policy,” observed one commentator, was “to give the sharpest possible stimulus to communal antagonism (15).” Prior to British rule in India there was no trace of the type of Hindu-Muslim conflict that later emerged under British rule (16).
“There is no natural inevitable difficulty from the cohabiting of differing races or religions in one country (17).” Mulsim and Hindu lived side-by-side peacefully until the British arrived in India; Sunni and Shiite commingled peacefully before the US imposed its occupation on the country. “The difficulties arise from social-political conditions. They arise, in particular, whenever a reactionary regime is endeavouring to maintain itself against the popular movement (18).”
In the USSR, diverse religions and races lived together amicably. Germans and Jews lived together peacefully under Germany’s Weimar Republic. It wasn’t until the Nazis emphasized national identity to weaken growing working class consciousness that systematic persecution of Jews began.
The strategy is simple. The last thing an occupying power wants is for the people it’s dominating to recognize their common situation and interests. Were they to do that, they might mobilize their energies to fight their common enemy. So occupied countries are organized by their occupiers along color, religious and ethnic fault-lines. Iraqis mustn’t think of themselves as Iraqis, but as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, locked in a struggle with each other for access to resources.
The same is true within imperialist countries. People who work for a living mustn’t identify with their class, but with their ethnic, religious or racial cohorts, or must be imbued with patriotism, so that they equate their personal interests with those of their ruling class. In this way, Americans and Britons who have nothing to gain personally from their country’s occupation of Iraq, and much to lose, are bamboozled into supporting the war. Likewise, employees who have much to gain from coming together as a class are diverted by racism, religion and patriotism.
Another thing the US divide et impera tactic provides is an excuse to maintain a military presence in Iraq, and therefore, the continued domination of Iraq by Washington. For liberals, the argument that the US can’t leave Iraq now, otherwise a full-scale civil war will erupt, is decisive. But what this view ignores is that the possibility of a full-scale civil war is the product of the occupation itself. Had the US not fomented ethnic and religious divisions, the possibility of a civil war would never have arisen. On the other hand, were the US to cease efforts to pit Iraqi against Iraqi, the occupation – already greatly challenged by the resistance, despite US divide and rule tactics – would surely be defeated, an outcome the US will never willingly consent to. Soft partition, then, seems to those seeking both sectarian peace and US withdrawal, to be the answer. But slicing the country up into Sunnistan, Shiastan and Kurdistan, won’t set the stage for a US pull-out. On the contrary, “senior military planners caution that should partition become American policy, withdrawal almost certainly wouldn’t. Partition would require a stabilization force – code for American military presence – of 75,000 to 100,000 troops for years to come (19).” Heads I win, tails you lose. No matter what, the US figures to be hanging around Iraq for a long time, using sectarian tensions as the justification for its ongoing presence. What will foil these plans are non-sectarian groups, like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, that recognize there are only two kinds of people in Iraq: those who are with the occupation and those who are against it.
1. New York Times, August 19, 2007.
2. The CFR brings together CEOs, government and military officials and scholars, to recommend policy to the US State Department. The policy recommendations are typically responses to problems identified in corporate boardrooms, or exclusive clubs catering to the ultra-wealthy. The State Department relies on very little internal expertise, and uses the ruling class funded, directed and staffed think tanks and foundations to suggest policy. The CFR is the most important and influential of these organizations in matters of US foreign relations. See G. William Dumhoff, Who Rules America? McGraw-Hill, 2005.
3. New York Times, August 19, 2007.
4. Workers World, February 11, 2007.
6. Reidar Visser, who studies Iraq’s sectarian issues at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, quoted in New York Times, August19, 2007.
7. New York Times, March 26, 2006.
8. Joost Hilterman, deputy director of Middle East programs for the International Crisis Group, quoted in New York Times, August 19, 2007.
9. New York Times, August 19, 2007.
11. Guardian (UK), July 19, 2007.
13. R. Palme Dutt, The Problem of India, International Publishers, New York, 1943, p. 98.
15. Ibid., p. 101.
16. Ibid. p. 97.
19. New York Times, August 19, 2007.
According to a December 19, 2007 Washington Post article (All Iraqi Groups Blame U.S. Invasion for Discord, Study Shows) “Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation, according to focus groups conducted for the U.S. military last month.”
“D3 Systems, a Virginia-based company that maintains offices in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces…showed [in a survey conducted in September] the same widespread Iraqi belief voiced by military focus groups: that a US departure will make things better. A State Department poll in September 2006 reported a similar finding.”
“Few [focus group participants] mentioned Saddam Hussein as a cause of their problems.”
Film-makers Steve Connors and Molly Bingham spent five months with resistance fighters in Iraq, from April to August 2003. They discovered that “the idea that has recently become common currency, that Iraq is a country riven by ancient sectarian hatreds, is a claim for which [they] found little evidence…Indeed, the research [they did for their documentary film Meeting Resistance] indicates that any existing fissures in Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion were exploited and exacerbated by coalition forces and administrators in order to enable the success of the occupation.”
Even in apologizing for backing the war, Ignatieff defends “imperialism lite”
By Stephen Gowans
Former Harvard professor and now Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff is admitting he made a mistake in backing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq (1). But not because the invasion was based on a fraud, but because the humanitarian goals he and others attributed to the invasion have not been achieved.
Ignatieff’s mea culpa comes on the heels of an Oxfam report that paints a grim and disturbing picture of an Iraq that has become a shocking charnel house, where four million are displaced, infrastructure remains in a shambles, and poverty is rampant. More than Darfur, Iraq is a humanitarian disaster; it is an acute embarrassment for those who plumbed for war on humanitarian grounds, promising the ouster of Saddam Hussein would usher in an era of peace, prosperity and the flowering of human rights between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.
That doesn’t mean that Igantieff is backing away from the doctrine of humanitarian intervention he and others championed to justify the “imperialism lite” that has wrought such misery in Iraq. On the contrary, his mea culpa is a defense of the thinly disguised justification for military imperialism left-liberal public intellectuals have promoted since Yugoslavia to elevate wars of conquest waged on behalf of the corporate elite to human rights crusades.
Ignatieff says his support for the war grew from the moment he “saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds (2).” It was at that point he became convinced that Saddam Hussein had to go, and that a war to remove him could be justified on those grounds alone. Others, including Noam Chomsky, also believed the Iraqi leader was a menace whose forced removal from power would constitute a major gain for humanity, though, to be sure, not all of those who shared this view backed the war. With hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the invasion, and a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since WWII, one wonders how many of those who invested the war with moral gravitas by demonizing the Iraqi leader, regret their craven pandering to Washington’s propaganda requirements. I suspect few do.
That doesn’t mean, however, that a few soft-left public intellectuals are not squirming in embarrassment. Ignatieff, for one, can no longer leave unaddressed the uncomfortable gulf between the reality of what the invasion has created and the promises of the war’s ameliorative effects the humanitarian interventionists inveigled the public into accepting.
Ignatieff’s error, he says, was in letting his good intentions cloud his judgment. He didn’t realize it would be so difficult to hold Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites together without “Saddam’s terror” or that it would be impossible to build a “free state” on the foundations of “35 years of police terror.” What’s more, his revulsion at Saddam’s repression of the Kurds (apparently one he doesn’t feel for the Turk’s repression of the same people, at least not enough for him to plead for a war on Turkey on humanitarian grounds) left him blinded to the reality that just “because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo (didn’t mean) it had to be doing so in Iraq.”
Ignatieff’s mea culpa has enough references to “Saddam’s terror” to make plain he still regards the invasion as justifiable on moral grounds (as in, it’s all right to kill 600,000 to depose one man from power, especially when he keeps giving away all the oil concessions to the wrong countries.) Moreover, his claim that US intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo represented a defense of human rights and freedom genuflects to the myths upon which the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is built. Ignatieff isn’t apologizing for “imperialism lite”; he’s defending it.
The United States no more defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo than it is doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan, except for the rights of those who own income-producing property and the freedom of US corporations, banks and investors to secure profitable investments, i.e., rights that are against the interests of you and me but are dearly held by those who give Ignatieff high-profile academic posts, open the op-ed pages of the New York Times to him, and encourage him with money and advice in his bid to become Canada’s prime minister.
Ignatieff speaks the language of the bamboozler. It is enough, he knows, to invoke the terms human rights and freedom, without in any way indicating whose rights he’s talking about and what referent he’s pairing freedom with (free to achieve what or be free from what?) to get people to at least acquiesce to the idea of war. This, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown also know. And so, in his mea culpa, human rights and freedom get star billing. Ignatieff wants us to believe his intentions, like those of America, were good; it’s just that his zeal to promote human rights and freedom kept him from seeing that Saddam had poisoned the soil in which the US government has so painstakingly tried to plant the seeds of democracy.
It’s impossible to take Ignatieff seriously. His self-appointed role is to justify the US ruling class’s naked pursuit of its class interests by dressing them up in the galvanizing language of humanitarianism to bring the rest of us onboard. His job is to enlist you and me to be the dupes who will sign up to fight in, promote, or acquiesce to, wars Bechtel, Exxon-Mobil, Lockheed-Martin, Chase Manhattan and scores of wealthy investors will profit from.
For this he is amply rewarded with high-profile academic positions, a pulpit in high-circulation establishment newspapers, and financial backing for his dalliances with electoral politics. Were he a German in Hitler’s Germany he would be on Goebbels’s payroll, putting a humanitarian gloss on the Fuehrer’s aggressions; in Mussolini’s Italy he would be demonizing Haile Selassie, pleading for an Abyssinian invasion; and in Tojo’s Japan, he would be calling for the invasion of China to liberate Asia from Western imperialism.
Like the sophists who hired out their forensic skills to the highest bidder, Igantieff is an intellectual whore who trades his credentials and skills of persuasion to shape public opinion in support of his patron’s wars for profits. His mea culpa is no apology; it is simply an attempt to save face now that the humanitarian disaster of Iraq has become an embarrassment that can no longer be ignored.
(1) Michael Ignatieff, “Getting Iraq Wrong”, The New York Times, August 5, 2007.
(2) Ignatieff’s deep feelings of humanitarian solidarity extend only to ethnic minorities whose plights Washington uses as a pretext to intervene in the affairs of other countries. Ignatieff feels sympathy for the Muslim community of Bosnia and ethnic Albanian Kosovars, but not for Palestinians or Lebanese. During the summer, 2006 Israel re-invasion of southern Lebanon, Ignatieff dismissed deaths of Lebanese civilians by Israeli forces as something “he wasn’t losing sleep over.” Globe and Mail, August 31, 2006.
By Stephen Gowans
In a speech before the UN General Assembly, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the conflict in Darfur “the greatest humanitarian disaster the world faces today.” (1)
Britain, along with the United States and other Western countries, have been pushing Sudan to accept a beefed up contingent of peacekeepers in Darfur. The new mission, which will operate under UN command, will replace the current African Union mission.
The AU mission represented a compromise between African nations and the West.
“The Americans and Europeans promised…that as long as the Africans deployed in these kinds of situations, (they) would pay for the soldiers and equip them.” (2)
That suited the Sudanese government, which feared the West would use a UN peacekeeping mission to re-colonize Sudan.
But Washington wasn’t pleased. The Bush administration complained of “the pervasive role played by the government of Sudan in Sudan’s petroleum and petrochemical industries,” describing Khartoum’s stewardship of the country’s oil resources as a threat to “U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.” (3)
Western financial support for the AU mission began to dry up. Soon after, Washington started to call for a UN force, arguing that the (underfinanced) AU mission was too small and too underequiped to be effective.
After months of pressure, cajoling and threats from Washington, the UN Security Council finally gave Washington want it wanted. It authorized the deployment of 26,000 soldiers and police to Darfur under UN, not AU, command.
Brown’s describing the conflict in Darfur as “the greatest humanitarian disaster the world faces today” was intended to raise support for the new UN mission.
But is Darfur really the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster?
Not by a long shot. There are many humanitarian disasters, but few are as great as one Brown’s own government shares a large part in creating: Iraq.
“Iraq’s civilians are suffering from a denial of fundamental human rights in the form of chronic poverty, malnutrition, illness, lack of access to basic services, and destruction of homes, vital facilities, and infrastructure, as well as injury and death,” (4) reported Oxfam International just days before Brown declared Darfur the world’s principal humanitarian disaster.
Eight million Iraqis – one-third of the population – “are in urgent need of water, sanitation, food and shelter.” Seven in 10 do not have adequate access to potable water, up from 50 percent in 2003, when US and British forces invaded on fraudulent grounds. More than one-quarter of children are malnourished, up from 19 percent in 2003. (5)
It’s unclear how many people have been displaced by fighting in Darfur. The UN says 686,000. (6) Other estimates reach as high as 2.5 million. While these figures are alarming, they’re not as alarming as the figures for Iraq. Some four million Iraqis have fled their homes since the US and Britain invaded, the greatest refugee crisis in the Middle East ever, topping the Nakbah of 1948 and as great as the refugee crises of WWII Europe.
An estimated 200,000 have died in Darfur, most from malnutrition. But in Iraq, a 2006 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study estimated there had been between 426,000 and 794,000 excess civilian deaths since the start of the invasion in 2003. (7) Considering there were 150,000 civilian deaths as a result of the Gulf War, 1.5 million deaths as a result of 13 years of sanctions, and somewhere in the order of 650,000 deaths as a result of the latest Anglo-American war on Iraq, the total death toll reaches as high as 2.3 million.
The US and Britain are the authors of this unacknowledged disaster – a disaster on a greater scale than the one that bedevils Darfur. Who, but the truly naïve, would believe a UN Security Council dominated by the US and Britain can solve – or indeed, is even genuinely interested in solving — the crisis in Darfur?
(1) New York Times, August 1, 2007.
(2) John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, Washington Post, May 12, 2007.
(3) Cited in Nativdad Carrera, “U.S. imperialists increase efforts to recolonize Sudan,” Party for Socialism and Liberation, November 3, 2006.
(4) The Washington Post, July 31, 2007.
(5) The Independent, July 30, 2007.
(6) Guardian, June 23, 2007.
(7) New York Times, October 11, 2006.