By Stephen Gowans
In the January 20th New York Times, Steven Erlanger justifies the French intervention in Mali on these grounds:
• It responds to “a direct request from a legitimate government.”
• It combats “the spread of radical Islamists, some of them foreign jihadists, strongly connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
Erlanger uses the word “legitimate” to describe Mali’s government. “Democratic” carries more weight, but Mali is governed by a military dictatorship, a truth one suspects Erlanger would prefer not to draw attention to. Neither does Erlanger’s report mention that Human Rights Watch accuses the Malian military of killing civilian Tuareg and Arab minorities (1). Being every bit a salesman, Erlanger presses “legitimate” into use as an inferior, though still high-sounding, surrogate for “democratic” and ignores the civilian killings. A military operation to help a legitimate government must be legitimate, right? In any event, it sounds a whole lot better than the truth, namely, that the West has mounted a military operation to prop up a dictatorship that kills its own people.
The intervention, of course, is far from legitimate. How can a French military operation in a North African country be legitimate, when not too long ago France undertook what was then called a legitimate intervention in another North African country, Libya, with the opposite aims:
• Not to support, but to topple a legitimate government;
• Not to stop the spread of radical Islam, but to help radical Islamists, some of them foreign jihadists, strongly connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, overthrow a legitimate government?
In other words, the Mali operation is the very antithesis of the Libyan one. Yet, according to state officials in France, the United States and Britain, along with their jingoist Western mass media cheerleaders, both interventions are legitimate. Where the Mali intervention protects a legitimate government, the Libyan intervention toppled one. Where the Mali operation opposes radical Islamists, the Libyan operation aided them.
It can’t possibly be true that Western governments are against radical Islamists as a matter of principle, when the principal financial and ideological backer of militant Sunni Islamism, Saudi Arabia, is a treasured ally.
Nor can it be true when Western powers backed radical Islamists against:
• The leftist Afghan government in the 1980s,
• Yugoslavia’s social democracy in the 1990s,
• Gaddafi’s economic nationalism in Libya,
• Assad’s secular nationalist government in Syria.
It can’t be true that Western powers are against despots, dictators, and absolutist monarchs, when they’ve backed so many of them in the past, and continue to back them in the present, from the potentates of the Gulf Cooperation Council to the military regime in Mali.
Neither are Western powers committed to backing struggles against tyrannies as struggles against tyrannies. On countless occasions, they’ve either stood idly by as tyrannies repressed democratic rebellions, or energetically aided their autocratic allies’ efforts to crush opposition. For a recent example, we need only turn to the crackdown on the rebellion in absolutist Bahrain, assisted by the same countries which supplied arms to misnamed “democrats” in Libya and equip the Muslim Brothers and foreign jihadists in Syria. Washington has done nothing to stop the crackdown in Bahrain, let alone vigorously protested it. The British, for their part, invited the offending tyrant to the royal wedding of Kate and William.
What then is the intervention all about? Profits. According to the New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon, the West needs to intervene militarily in northern Africa because the “region is rich with oil, gas, uranium and other international ventures that clearly represent Western interests and in some cases are poorly defended” (my emphasis) (2). That natural resources in northern Africa clearly represent Western interests defies both geography and democracy. It does, however, fit imperialist logic to a tee.
Erlanger notes that the Mali intervention “has been popular” and that it commands the support of three quarters of the French, according to one poll. This is a nod to the prowess of Erlanger’s cohorts in the trade of shaping public opinion, and the superficial attention most people pay to foreign affairs. It’s also an attempt to prop up his argument that the intervention is legitimate. After all, a military operation supported by a solid majority can hardly be a base affair, corrupted by hypocrisy and crass commercial interests, can it? And if you should happen to be against the French helping an ally defend itself against jihadists, Erlanger’s letting you know you’re on the wrong side of public opinion.
“The French people are ready to support a military operation as long as the objectives are clear and seem legitimate,” a French analyst told Erlanger. Well, no, the French people are willing to support a military operation so long as no one calls upon them to risk their lives and pay higher taxes, what “support for war” used to mean. No longer. Today, support means feeling good about France and nothing more.
The French will continue to feel good about their country so long as there are few French fatalities in Mali and so long as the connection between covering the costs of the war and higher taxes, is obscured. Payment for the war must be deferred, and then concealed, preferably in tax hikes on the poor and middle class to cover (wink-wink) skyrocketing social welfare expenditures.
So here we are. Gaddafi was sneered at when he said that the rebellion that erupted against him in Benghazi was the work of radical Islamists, some of them foreign jihadists, strongly connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He was just as contemptuously dismissed when he warned, “if he fell, chaos and holy war would overtake North Africa.” Now that chaos and holy war threaten to overtake a Western client, Gaddafi’s words are being treated with new respect. In death, the man once ridiculed as a buffoon has become a sage.
1. Geoffrey York, “Ethnic violence flares in Mali”, The Globe and Mail, January 21, 2013
2. Michael R. Gordon, “North Africa is a new test”, The New York Times, January 20, 2013
By Stephen Gowans
New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, writing on January 16 about the “hazy threat from Mali militants,” note that, “The group most worrisome to American officials is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which emerged out of Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s and originally was strictly focused on overthrowing Algeria’s government.”
US officials didn’t find AQIM so worrisome when the Islamist group was focused on overthrowing Libya’s government. At the time, Washington was happy to allow Islamist militants to destabilize a government that wasn’t wholly congenial to US business interests.
As the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese reported last year, Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi had “said the rebellion had been organized by AQIM and his old enemies the (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group), who had vowed to overthrow the colonel and return the country to traditional Muslim values, including Sharia law.”
AQIM’s goals for Libya raised no alarm in Washington, but according to Mazzetti and Schmitt, the organization’s vow to convert Mali to Sharia law is setting off alarm bells in Washington.
To assist AQIM and other Islamist rebels in Libya, the United States led NATO into an air war against the Gaddafi government. Acknowledging AQIM’s role in the Libyan rebellion, some of the Canadian pilots who participated in the NATO air campaign jokingly referred to themselves as part of “Al-Qaeda’s air force.”
Washington’s use of jihadists to topple leftist and nationalist governments stretches back to its 1980s alliance with Islamist rebels, including Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan. Today, al Qaeda-linked militants play an important part in the US-backed effort to overthrow the Syrian government.
To mobilize public support for jihadist rebellions, US officials and news media sanitize Islamist militants as “freedom fighters” or part of a “popular movement for democracy.” Few people anymore believe that the Islamists seeking to overthrow the Syrian government represent a popular movement for democracy. They are, instead, a movement for Sunni religious domination.
After the AQIM triumph in Libya, the organization turned to attacking the US consular building in Benghazi. With its transition from US cat’s paw to US enemy, Washington changed its naming protocol. Now AQIM would go by the moniker Gaddafi favored–terrorists. Which is also how Western officials and news media prefer to describe the organization today, now that AQIM’s goals in Mali collide with the West’s goal of maintaining a puppet regime in the country.
Were the AQIM working in Mali to topple a leftist or economically nationalist government, Washington and Western news media would be hailing the jihadists as a force for democracy.
The next time that empire comes calling in the name of human rights, please be found standing idly by
By Stephen Gowans
Maximilian C. Forte’s new book Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (released November 20) is a searing indictment of NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya, and of the North American and European left that supported it. He argues that NATO powers, with the help of the Western left who “played a supporting role by making substantial room for the dominant U.S. narrative and its military policies,” marshalled support for their intervention by creating a fiction that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was about to carry out a massacre against a popular, pro-democracy uprising, and that the world could not stand idly by and watch a genocide unfold.
Forte takes this view apart, showing that a massacre was never in the cards, much less genocide. Gaddafi didn’t threaten to hunt down civilians, only those who had taken up armed insurrection—and he offered rebels amnesty if they laid down their arms. What’s more, Gaddafi didn’t have the military firepower to lay siege to Benghazi (site of the initial uprising) and hunt down civilians from house to house. Nor did his forces carry out massacres in the towns they recaptured…something that cannot be said for the rebels.
Citing mainstream media reports that CIA and British SAS operatives were already on the ground “either before or at the very same time as (British prime minister David) Cameron and (then French president Nicolas) Sarkozy began to call for military intervention in Libya”, Forte raises “the possibility that Western powers were at least waiting for the first opportunity to intervene in Libya to commit regime change under the cover of a local uprising.” And he adds, they were doing so “without any hesitation to ponder what if any real threats to civilians might have been.” Gaddafi, a fierce opponent of fundamentalist Wahhabist/Salafist Islam “faced several armed uprisings and coup attempts before— and in the West there was no public clamor for his head when he crushed them.” (The same, too, can be said of the numerous uprisings and assassination attempts carried out by the Syrian Muslim Brothers against the Assads, all of which were crushed without raising much of an outcry in the West, until now.)
Rejecting a single factor explanation that NATO intervened to secure access to Libyan oil, Forte presents a multi-factorial account, which invokes elements of the hunt for profits, economic competition with China and Russia, and establishing US hegemony in Africa. Among the gains of the intervention, writes Forte, were:
1) increased access for U.S. corporations to massive Libyan expenditures on infrastructure development (and now reconstruction), from which U.S. corporations had frequently been locked out when Gaddafi was in power; 2) warding off any increased acquisition of Libyan oil contracts by Chinese and Russian firms; 3) ensuring that a friendly regime was in place that was not influenced by ideas of “resource nationalism;” 4) increasing the presence of AFRICOM in African affairs, in an attempt to substitute for the African Union and to entirely displace the Libyan-led Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD); 5) expanding the U.S. hold on key geostrategic locations and resources; 6) promoting U.S. claims to be serious about freedom, democracy, and human rights, and of being on the side of the people of Africa, as a benign benefactor; 7) politically stabilizing the North African region in a way that locked out opponents of the U.S.; and, 8) drafting other nations to undertake the work of defending and advancing U.S. political and economic interests, under the guise of humanitarianism and protecting civilians.
Forte challenges the view that Gaddafi was in bed with the West as a “strange view of romance.” It might be more aptly said, he counters, that the United States was in bed with Libya on the fight against Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorists, since “Libya led by Gaddafi (had) fought against Al Qaeda years before it became public enemy number one in the U.S.” Indeed, years “before Bin Laden became a household name in the West, Libya issued an arrest warrant for his capture.” Gaddafi was happy to enlist Washington’s help in crushing a persistent threat to his secular rule.
Moreover, the bed in which Libya and the United States found themselves was hardly a comfortable one. Gaddafi complained bitterly to US officials that the benefits he was promised for ending Libya’s WMD program and capitulating on the Lockerbie prosecution were not forthcoming. And the US State Department and US corporations, for their part, complained bitterly of Gaddafi’s “resource nationalism” and attempts to “Libyanize” the economy. One of the lessons the NATO intervention has taught is that countries that want to maintain some measure of independence from Washington are well advised not to surrender the threat of self-defense.
Forte, to use his own words, gives the devil his due, noting that:
Gaddafi was a remarkable and unique exception among the whole range of modern Arab leaders, for being doggedly altruistic, for funding development programs in dozens of needy nations, for supporting national liberation struggles that had nothing to do with Islam or the Arab world, for pursuing an ideology that was original and not simply the product of received tradition or mimesis of exogenous sources, and for making Libya a presence on the world stage in a way that was completely out of proportion with its population size.
He points out as well that “Libya had reaped international isolation for the sake of supporting the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the African National Congress (ANC)”, which, once each of these organizations had made their own separate peace, left Libya behind continuing to fight.
Forte invokes Sirte in the title of his book to expose the lie that NATO’s intervention was motivated by humanitarianism and saving lives. “Sirte, once promoted by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi as a possible capital of a future United States of Africa, and one of the strongest bases of support for the revolution he led, was found to be in near total ruin by visiting journalists who came after the end of the bombing campaign by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). “ This,” observes Forte, “is what ‘protecting civilians’ actually looks like, and it looks like crimes against humanity.” “The only lives the U.S. was interested in saving,” he argues “were those of the insurgents, saving them so they could defeat Gaddafi.” And yet “the slaughter in Sirte…barely raised an eyebrow among the kinds of Western audiences and opinion leaders who just a few months before clamored for ‘humanitarian intervention.’”
Among those who clamored for humanitarian intervention were members of the “North American and European left—reconditioned, accommodating, and fearful—(who) played a supporting role by making substantial room for the dominant U.S. narrative and its military policies.” While Forte doesn’t name names, except for a reference to Noam Chomsky, whom he criticizes for “poor judgment and flawed analyses” for supporting “the no-fly zone intervention and the rebellion as ‘wonderful’ and ‘liberation’”, self-proclaimed Africa expert Patrick Bond may be emblematic of the left Forte excoriates. Soon after the uprising began, Bond wrote on his Z-Space that “Gaddafi may try to hang on, with his small band of loyalists allegedly bolstered by sub-Saharan African mercenaries – potentially including Zimbabweans, according to Harare media – helping Gaddafi for a $16,000 payoff each.” This was a complete fiction, but one Bond fell for eagerly, and then proceeded to propagate with zeal, without regard to the consequences. As Forte notes, “the only massacre to have occurred anywhere near Benghazi was the massacre of innocent black African migrant workers and black Libyans falsely accused of being ‘mercenaries’” by the likes of Bond.
Forte also aims a stinging rebuke at those who treated anti-imperialism as a bad word. “Throughout this debacle, anti-imperialism has been scourged as if it were a threat greater than the West’s global military domination, as if anti-imperialism had given us any of the horrors of war witnessed thus far this century. Anti-imperialism was treated in public debate in North America as the province of political lepers.” This calls to mind opprobrious leftist figures who discovered a fondness for the obloquy “mechanical anti-imperialists” which they hurdled with great gusto at anti-imperialist opponents of the NATO intervention.
“NATO’s intervention did not stop armed conflict in Libya,” observes Forte—it continues to the present. “Massacres were not prevented, they were enabled, and many occurred after NATO intervened and because NATO intervened.” It is for these reasons he urges readers to stand idly by the next time that empire comes calling in the name of human rights.
Slouching Towards Sirte is a penetrating critique, not only of the NATO intervention in Libya, but of the concept of humanitarian intervention and imperialism in our time. It is the definitive treatment of NATO’s war on Libya. It is difficult to imagine it will be surpassed.
Maximilian C. Forte, Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa, Baraka Books, Montreal, ISBN 978-1-926824-52-9. Available November 20, 2012. http://www.barakabooks.com/
For half of the last century, Arab nationalists, socialists, communists and others were locked in a battle with the Muslim Brothers for hegemony in the Arab world.—Tariq Ali 
The Jihadists who toppled the secular nationalist Gaddafi government—and not without the help of Nato bombers, dubbed “al Qaeda’s air force”  by Canadian pilots who participated in the bombing campaign—are no longer disguised in the pages of Western newspapers as a popular movement who thirsted for, and won, democracy in Libya. Now that they’ve overrun the US consulate in Benghazi and killed the US ambassador, they’ve become a “security threat…raising fears about the country’s stability” —exactly what Gaddafi called them, when Western governments were celebrating the Islamists’ revolt as a popular pro-democracy uprising. Gaddafi’s description of the unrest in his own country as a violent Salafist bid to establish an Islamic state was doubtlessly accepted in Washington and other Western capitals as true, but dismissed in public as a transparent ploy to muster sympathy. This was necessary to sanitize the uprising to secure the acquiescence of Western publics for the intervention of their countries’ warplanes to help Islamic guerillas on the ground topple a secular nationalist leader who was practicing “resource nationalism” and trying to “Libyanize” the economy– the real reasons he’d fallen into disgrace in Washington. 
The uprising of militant Muslim radicals against a secular state was, in many respects, a replay of what had happened in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, when a Marxist-inspired government came to power with aspirations to lift the country out of backwardness, and was opposed by the Mullahs and Islamist guerillas backed by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China.
An Afghan Communist explained that,
“Our aim was no less than to give an example to all the backward countries of the world of how to jump from feudalism straight to a prosperous, just society … Our choice was not between doing things democratically or not. Unless we did them, nobody else would … [Our] very first proclamation declared that food and shelter are the basic needs and rights of a human being. … Our program was clear: land to the peasants, food for the hungry, free education for all. We knew that the mullahs in the villages would scheme against us, so we issued our decrees swiftly so that the masses could see where their real interests lay … For the first time in Afghanistan’s history women were to be given the right to education … We told them that they owned their bodies, they would marry whom they liked, they shouldn’t have to live shut up in houses like pens.” 
That’s not to say that Gaddafi was a Marxist—far from it. But like the reformers in Afghanistan, he sought to modernize his country, and use its land, labor and resources for the people within it. By official Western accounts, he did a good job, raising his country’s standard of living higher than that of all other countries in Africa.
Gaddafi claimed that the rebellion in Libya had been organized by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had vowed to overthrow him and return the country to traditional Muslim values, including Sharia law. A 2009 Canadian government intelligence report bore him out. It described the anti-Gaddafi stronghold of eastern Libya, where the rebellion began, “as an ‘epicenter of Islamist extremism’ and said ‘extremist cells’ operated in the region.” Earlier, Canadian military intelligence had noted that “Libyan troops found a training camp in the country’s southern desert that had been used by an Algerian terrorist group that would later change its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”  Significantly, US officials now believe that the AQIM may have plotted the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. 
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the Libyan rebellion’s most powerful military leader, was a veteran of the U.S.-backed Jihad against the Marxist-inspired reformist government in Afghanistan, where he had fought alongside militants who would go on to form al-Qaeda. Belhaj returned to Libya in the 1990s to lead the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was linked to his al-Qaeda comrades. His aim was to topple Gaddafi, as the Communists had been toppled in Afghanistan. The prominent role Belhaj played in the Libyan uprising should have aroused suspicions among leftists in the West that, as Western governments surely knew, the uprising was not the heroic pro-democracy affair Western media—and those of reactionary Arab regimes—were making it out to be. Indeed, from the very first day of the revolt, anyone equipped with knowledge of Libyan history that went back further than the last Fox News broadcast, would have known that the Benghazi rebellion was more in the mold of the latest eruption of a violent anti-secular Jihad than a peaceful call for democracy. 
“On Feb. 15, 2011, citizens in Benghazi organized what they called a Day of Anger march. The demonstration soon turned into a full-scale battle with police. At first, security forces used tear gas and water cannons. But as several hundred protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails attacked government buildings, the violence spiraled out of control.” 
As they stormed government sites, the rampaging demonstrators didn’t chant, “Power to the people”, “We are the 99 percent”, or “No to dictatorship.” They chanted “‘No God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of Allah’.”  The Islamists touched off the rebellion and did the fighting on the ground, while U.S.-aligned Libyan exiles stepped into the power vacuum created by Salafist violence and Nato bombs to form a new U.S.-aligned government.
Syria’s Hafiz Asad, and other secular nationalists, from his comrade Salaf Jadid, who he overthrew and locked away, to his son, Bashar, who has followed him, have also been denounced as enemies of Allah by the same Islamist forces who violently denounced Gaddafi in Libya and the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party in Afghanistan. The reason for their denunciation by Islamists is the same: their opposition to an Islamic state. Similarly, Islamist forces have been as strongly at the head of the movement to overthrow the secular nationalists in Syria, as they have the secular nationalists in Libya and the (secular) Marxists in the late 1970s-1980s Afghanistan.
The secular nationalists’ rise to power in Syria was a heavy blow to the country’s Sunni Islamic militants who resented their society being governed by secular radicals. Worse still from the perspective of the Islamists, the governing radicals were mostly members of minority communities the Sunnis regarded as heretics, and which had occupied the lower rungs of Syrian society. From the moment the secular nationalists captured the state, Islamists went underground to organize an armed resistance. “From their safe haven deep in the ancient warrens of northern cities like Aleppo and Hama, where cars could not enter, the guerrillas emerged to bomb and kill.” 
In 1980, an attempt was made to group the Sunni opposition to the secular nationalists under an “Islamic Front’, which promised free speech, free elections, and an independent judiciary, under the banner of Islam. When militant Islamic terrorists murdered Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a year later in Egypt, Islamists in Damascus promised then president Hafiz Asad the same fate. Then in 1982, Jihadists rose up in Hama—“the citadel of traditional landed power and Sunni puratinism” —in a bid to seize power in the city. The ensuing war of the Islamic radicals against the secular nationalist state, a bloody affair which costs tens of thousands of lives, convinced Asad that “he was wrestling not just with internal dissent, but with a large scale conspiracy to unseat him, abetted by Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the United States.”  Patrick Seale, a veteran British journalist who has covered the Middle East for decades, described the Islamists’ movement against Syria’s secular nationalists as a “sort of fever that (rises) and (falls) according to conditions at home and manipulation from abroad.” 
Media accounts of Syria’s civil war omit mention of the decades-long hostility between Islamists and secular nationalists—a fierce enmity that sometimes flares into open warfare, and at other times simmers menacingly below the surface—that has defined Syria in the post-colonial period. To do so would take the sheen off the armed rising as a popular, democratic, progressive struggle, a depiction necessary to make Western intervention in the form of sanctions, diplomatic support, and other aid, against the secular nationalists, appear just and desirable. Today, only Trotskyists besotted by fantasies that the Arab Spring is the equivalent of the March 1917 Petrograd uprising, deny that the content of the Syrian uprising is Islamist. But the question of whether the uprising was initially otherwise—a peaceful, progressive and popular movement aimed at opening democratic space and redressing economic grievances–and only later hijacked by Islamists, remains in dispute. What’s clear, however, is that the “hijacking”, if indeed there was one, is not of recent vintage. In the nascent stages of the rebellion, the late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid noted that the “most puritanical Islamists, known by their shorthand as Salafists, have emerged as a force in Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, with suspicions that Saudi Arabia has encouraged and financed them.”
Secular nationalists, socialists and communists in Muslim lands have struggled with the problem of Islamist opposition to their programs, to their atheism (in the case of communists) and to the secular character of the state they have sought to build. The Bolsheviks, perhaps alone among this group, were successful in overcoming opposition in the traditional Muslim territories they controlled in Central Asia, and improving the lives of women, who had been oppressed by conservative Islam. Female seclusion, polygamy, bride price, child and forced marriages, veiling (as well as circumcision of males, considered by the Bolsheviks to be child abuse) were outlawed. Women were recruited into administrative and professional positions and encouraged – indeed obligated – to work outside the home. This followed Friedrich Engels’ idea that women could only be liberated from the domination of men if they had independent incomes. 
Western governments, led by the United States, have made a practice of inflaming the Islamists’ hostility to secular nationalists, socialists and communists, using militant Muslim radicals as a cat’s paw to topple these governments, which have almost invariably refused to align themselves militarily with the United States or cut deals against the interests of their own people to fatten the profits of corporate America and enrich Wall Street investment bankers. But whether Washington aggravates fault lines within Muslim societies or not, the fact remains that the fault lines exist, and must be managed, but have not always been managed well.
For example, no matter how admirable their aims were, the reformers in Afghanistan had too narrow a political base to move as quickly as they did, and they rushed headlong into disaster, ignoring Moscow’s advice to slow down and expand their support. The Carter and Reagan administrations simply took advantage of their blunders to build a committed anti-communist guerilla movement.
The leftist Syrian regime of Salah Jadid, which Hafiz Asad overthrew, did much that would be admired by leftists today. Indeed, Tariq Ali, in an apology apparently intended to expiate the sin of seeming to support the current Asad government, lauds Jadid’s regime as the “much more enlightened predecessor whose leaders and activists…numbered in their ranks some of the finest intellectuals of the Arab world.”  It’s easy to see why Ali admired Asad’s predecessors. Jadid, who lived an austere life, refusing to take advantage of his position to lavish himself with riches and comforts, slashed the salaries of senior ministers and top bureaucrats. He replaced their black Mercedes limousines with Volkswagens and Peugeot 404s. People connected with the old influential families were purged from government. A Communist was brought into the cabinet. Second houses were confiscated, and the ownership of more than one was prohibited. Private schools were banned. Workers, soldiers, peasants, students and women became the regime’s favored children. Feudalists and reactionaries were suppressed. A start was made on economic planning and major infrastructure projects were undertaken with the help of the Soviets. And yet, despite these clearly progressive measures, Jadid’s base of popular support remained narrow—one reason why the Soviets were lukewarm toward him, regarding him as a hothead, and contemptuous of his claim to be practicing “scientific socialism.”  Scientific socialism is based on mass politics, not a minority coming to power through a conspiracy (as Jadid and Asad had) which then attempts to impose its utopian vision on a majority that rejects it.
Jadid backed the Palestinian guerrillas. Asad, who was then minister of defense, was less enamored of the guerrillas, who he saw as handing Israel pretexts for war. Jadid defined the bourgeoisie as the enemy. Asad wanted to enlist their backing at home to broaden the government’s base of support against the Muslim Brothers. Jadid spurned the reactionary Arab regimes. Asad was for unifying all Arab states—reactionary or otherwise—against Israel. 
Asad—who Ali says he opposed—recognized (a) that a program of secular nationalist socialism couldn’t be implemented holus bolus without mass support, and (b) that the government didn’t have it. So, after toppling Jadid in a so-called “corrective” movement, he minimized class warfare in favor of broadening his government’s base, trying to win over merchants, artisans, business people, and other opponents of the regime’s nationalizations and socialist measures. At the same time, he retained Jadid’s commitment to a dirigiste state and continued to promote oppressed classes and minorities. This was hardly a stirring program for Marxist purists—in fact it looked like a betrayal—but the Soviets were more committed to Asad than Jadid, recognizing that his program respected the world as it was and therefore had a greater chance of success. 
In the end, however, Asad failed. Neither he nor his son Bashar managed to expand the state’s base of support enough to safeguard it from destabilization. The opposition hasn’t been conjured up out of nothing by regime change specialists in Washington. To be sure, regime change specialists have played a role, but they’ve needed material to work with, and the Asad’s Syria has provided plenty of it. Nor did Gaddafi in Libya finesse the problem of mixing the right amount of repression and persuasion to engineer a broad enough consent for his secular nationalist rule to survive the fever of Salafist opposition rising, as Patrick Seale writes, according to conditions at home and manipulation from abroad . The machinations of the United States and reactionary Arab regimes to stir up and strengthen the secular nationalists’ opponents made the knot all the more difficult to disentangle, but outside manipulation wasn’t the whole story in Gaddafi’s demise (though it was a significant part of it) and hasn’t been the sole, or even a large part of the, explanation for the uprising in Syria.
The idea that the uprisings in either country are popular, democratic movements against dictatorship and for the redress of economic grievances, (a) ignores the significant history of struggle between secularist Arab nationalists and the Muslim Brothers, (b) mistakenly minimizes the role of Salafists in the uprisings, and (c) turns a blind eye to Washington’s longstanding practice of using radical Muslim activists as a cat’s paw against Arab nationalist regimes that are against sacrificing local interests to the foreign trade and investment interests of Wall Street and corporate America. With Islamists lashing out violently against US embassies in the Middle East, their depiction by US state officials and Western media as pro-democracy fighters for freedom may very well be supplanted by the labels used by Gaddafi and Asad to describe their Islamist opponents, labels that are closer to the truth –“religious fanatics” and “terrorists.”
Reactionary Islam may have won the battle for hegemony in the Muslim world, as Tariq Ali asserts, and with it, the United States, which has often manipulated it for its own purposes, but the battle has yet to be won in Syria, and one would hope, never will be. That’s what’s at stake in the country: not a fragile, popular, egalitarian, pro-democracy movement, but the last remaining secular Arab nationalist regime, resisting both the oppressions and obscurantism of the Muslim Brothers and the oppressions and plunder of imperialism.
1. Tariq Ali, “The Uprising in Syria”, http://www.counterpunch.com, September 12, 2012.
2. Stephen Gowans [A], “Al-Qaeda’s Air Force”, what’s left, February 20, 2012. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/al-qaedas-air-force/
3. Patrick Martin, “Anti-American protests seen as tip of the Islamist iceberg”, The Globe and Mail, September 13, 2012.
4. Gowans [A]
5. Rodric Braithwaite. Afghantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989. Profile Books. 2012. pp. 5-6.
6. Gowans [A]
7. Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous, “U.S. probing al-Qaeda link in Libya”, The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2012.
8. Gowans [A]
9. David Pugliese, “The Libya mission one year later: Into the unknown”, The Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2012.
11. Patrick Seale. Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. University of California Press. 1988, p.324.
12. Seale, p. 333.
13. Seale, p. 335.
14. Seale, p. 322.
15. Anthony Shadid, “After Arab revolts, reigns of uncertainty”, The New York Times, August 24, 2011.
16. Stephen Gowans [B], “Women’s Rights in Afghanistan”, August 9, 2010. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/women%e2%80%99s-rights-in-afghanistan/
Strike Myanmar from the regime change list. Only two years ago, the resource-rich country located between India and China was practicing the kind of economic nationalism that got Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi deep into trouble with the US State Department and oil company giants. Now, Washington has suspended its sanctions on Myanmar and nominated its first ambassador to the country in 22 years.
The Obama administration says it’s because of the profound political changes Myanmar has brought about over the last year, including the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, who now sits in Myanmar’s parliament. But the real reason has more to do with the country’s military rulers turning away from economic nationalism and throwing their economy’s doors open wide to ownership by outsiders.
Announcing the easing of US sanctions, US secretary of state Hilary Clinton went directly to the heart of the matter, after making obligatory remarks about Myanmar travelling the road to democracy. “Today we say to Americans business: Invest in Burma (Myanmar)!” 
When Myanmar’s military took power in a 1962 coup, it nationalized most industries and brought the bulk of the economy under government control, which is the way it stayed until two years ago.
Major utilities were state-owned and health-care and education were publically provided. Private hospitals and private schools were unheard of.
Ownership of land and local companies was limited to the country’s citizens. Companies were required to hire Myanmar workers. And the central bank was answerable to the government. 
But in the last year, Myanmar’s government began to sell off government buildings, its port facilities, its national airline, mines, farmland, the country’s fuel distribution network, and soft drink, cigarette and bicycle factories.
The doors to the country’s publically-owned health care and education systems were thrown open, and private investors were invited in.
A new law was drawn up to give more independence to the central bank, making it answerable to its own inflation control targets, rather than directly to the government. 
To top it all off, a foreign-investment law was drafted to allow foreigners to control local companies and land, permit the entry of foreign telecom companies and foreign banks, allow 100 percent repatriation of profits, and exempt foreign investors from paying taxes for up to five years.
What’s more, foreign enterprises would be allowed to import skilled workers, and wouldn’t be required to hire locally. 
With Myanmar signaling its willingness to turn over its economy to outside investors, President Obama last December dispatched Hillary Clinton to meet with Myanmar’s leaders, the first US secretary of state to visit in more than 50 years. 
William Hague soon followed, the first British foreign minister to visit since 1955. 
Other foreign ministers beat their own paths to the door of the country’s military junta, seeking to establish ties with the now foreign investment-friendly government on behalf of their own corporations, investors, and banks.
And business organizations sent their own delegations, including four major Japanese business organizations, all looking to cash in on Myanmar’s new opening. 
A new frontier
The Wall Street Journal calls Myanmar “the last, large frontier market in Asia” and describes its “potential” as “too great for …investors to ignore.”  The country is gas- and oil-rich, and teems with timber and gems. It could become a major exporter of rice and seafood, though with the country’s new foreign investment law, it will be the superrich of New York, London, and Tokyo who reap the lion’s share of benefits, not Myanmar’s citizens.
A country of poor people, Myanmar offers the attraction to overseas investors of low manufacturing wages. And it’s situated between India and China, giving manufacturers easy access to two emerging growth markets.
International companies are circling the country, says the Wall Street Journal,  (like vultures?) ready to invest their capital in the provision of heavy machinery, railways, airports, telecom networks, consumer goods–and services, including private healthcare. 
Their enthusiasm is no less than that expressed by US ambassador to Libya Gene A. Cretz in connection with that country. Cretz said the Libyans “were starting from A to Z in terms of building infrastructure and other things. If we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs”  to say nothing of redounding to Wall Street with respect to its enrichment.
Two countries teeming with investment opportunities. The only difference is that Libya had to be bombed in hopes that Gadhafi’s successors would lay out the welcome mat for foreign investors and US and western European corporations with greater alacrity than the resource nationalism-practicing Gadhafi did.
Myanmar’s generals got the message, and laid out the welcome mat themselves, before they too faced Gadhafi’s fate.
1. Steve Myers, “As relations warm with Myanmar, U.S. will ease trade limits”, The New York Times, May 17, 2012.
2. “Myanmar’s ruling junta is selling state’s assets,” The New York Times, March 7, 2010; “Change comes to Myanmar, but only on the Junta’s terms,” The New York Times, March 17, 2010.
3. “Myanmar’s ruling junta is selling state’s assets,” The New York Times, March 7, 2010.
4. “Firms see Myanmar as next frontier”, The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2011; Patrick Barta, “Myanmar considers letting outsiders in telecom market amid overhauls”, The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2012; Patrick Barta, “Myanmar eases investment laws”, The Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2012.
5. Thomas Fuller, “Clinton set to visit Myanmar as Obama cites progress”, The New York Times, November 17, 2011.
6. Patrick Barta, “On Myanmar visit, U.K. calls for further reform”, The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2011.
7. Yoree Koh, ”Japan Inc. Rushes to Myanmar”, The Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2012.
8. Patrick Barta, “A pariah regime courts West in China’s shadow”, The Wall Street Journal, November 17, 2011.
9. Patrick Barta, “Myanmar eases investment laws”, The Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2012.
10. John Bussey, “The new dance with Myanmar”, The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2011
11. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011.
“Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money.”—Muammar Gadhafi, 2006.
The Wall Street Journal of 5 May offers evidence, additional to that already accumulated, that last year’s NATO military intervention in Libya was rooted in objections to the Gadhafi government’s economic policies.
According to the newspaper, private oil companies were incensed at the pro-Libyan oil deals the Gadhafi government was negotiating and “hoped regime change in Libya…would bring relief in some of the tough terms they had agreed to in partnership deals” with Libya’s national oil company. 
For decades, many European companies had enjoyed deals that granted them half of the high-quality oil produced in Libyan fields. Some major oil companies hoped the country would open further to investment after sanctions from Washington were lifted in 2004 and U.S. giants re-entered the North African nation.
But in the years that followed, the Gadhafi regime renegotiated the companies’ share of oil from each field to as low as 12%, from about 50%.
Just after the fall of the regime, several foreign oil companies expressed hopes of better terms on existing deals or attractive ones for future contracts. Among the incumbents that expressed hopes in Libyan expansion were France’s Total SA and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.
‘We see Libya as a great opportunity under the new government,’ Sara Akbar, chief executive of privately owned Kuwait Energy Co., said in an interview in November. ‘Under Gadhafi, it was off the radar screen’ because of its ‘very harsh’ terms, said Mrs. Akbar. 
The Journal had earlier noted the “harsh” (read pro-Libyan) terms the Gadhafi government had imposed on foreign oil companies.
Under a stringent new system known as EPSA-4, the regime judged companies’ bids on how large a share of future production they would let Libya have. Winners routinely promised more than 90% of their oil output to NOC (Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corp).
Meanwhile, Libya kept its crown jewels off limits to foreigners. The huge onshore oil fields that accounted for the bulk of its production remained the preserve of Libya’s state companies.
Even firms that had been in Libya for years got tough treatment. In 2007, authorities began forcing them to renegotiate their contracts to bring them in line with EPSA-4.
One casualty was Italian energy giant Eni SpA. In 2007, it had to pay a $1 billion signing bonus to be able to extend the life of its Libyan interests until 2042. It also saw its share of production drop from between 35% and 50%—depending on the field—to just 12%. 
Oil companies were also frustrated that Libya’s state-owned oil company “stipulated that foreign companies had to hire Libyans for top jobs.” 
A November 2007 US State Department cable had warned that those “who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector” and that there was “growing evidence of Libyan resource nationalism.” 
The cable cited a 2006 speech in which Gadhafi said: “Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money.” 
Gadhafi’s government had forced oil companies to give their local subsidiaries Libyan names. Worse, “labor laws were amended to ‘Libyanize’ the economy,” that is, turn it to the advantage of Libyans. Oil firms “were pressed to hire Libyan managers, finance people and human resources directors.” 
The New York Times summed up the West’s objections. “Colonel Gadhafi,” the US newspaper of record said last year, “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” 
To be sure, that private oil companies and the US government objected to Gadhafi’s pro-Libya economic policies doesn’t prove that NATO intervened militarily to topple the Gadhafi government. But it is consistent with a panoply of evidence that points in this direction.
First, we can dismiss the West’s claims that it pressed its military alliance into service on humanitarian grounds. As civil strife heated up in Libya, a Saudi-led alliance of petro-monarchies sent tanks and troops to crush an uprising in Bahrain. The United States, Britain and France—leaders of the intervention in Libya—did nothing to stop the violent Bahraini crackdown. Significantly, Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet. Equally significantly, its economic policies—unlike Libya’s under Gadhafi—are designed to put foreign investors first.
Second, without exception, countries that are the object of Western regime change efforts—North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Iran—have set the economic interests of some part of their populations, or all of it, above those of foreign investors and foreign corporations. True, the economic policies of India, Russia and China are nationalist to some degree, and yet these countries do not face the same extent of regime change pressures, but they are too large for a US alliance to conquer without an onerous expense in blood and treasure. The West targets the weak.
Finally, Western governments are dominated by major investors and corporations. Corporate and financial domination of the state happens in a number of ways: lobbying; the buying of politicians through political campaign funding and the promise of lucrative post-political jobs; the funding of think-tanks to recommend government policy; and the placement of corporate CEOs and corporate lawyers in key positions in the state. To expect that foreign policy is shaped by humanitarian concerns and not the profit-making interests of oil companies, arms manufacturers, exporters, and engineering firms seeking infrastructure and reconstruction contracts aboard is to ignore the enormous influence big business and big finance exert over Western states.
In some parts of the world, the arrangement is different. There, governments have organized their economies to serve their citizens, rather than organizing labor, the country’s markets and its natural resources to serve outside investors and foreign corporations.
For refusing to give their citizens’ lives over to the enrichment of foreign titans of finance and captains of industry, these countries are made to pay a price. Their leaders are vilified by scurrilous propaganda and threatened with prosecutions by international criminal tribunals funded and controlled by Western states; they’re targeted by economy-disrupting blockades and sanctions whose chaotic effects are dishonestly blamed on the governments’ “mismanagement” and “unsound” economic policies and whose aim is to create widespread misery to pressure populations to rise up against their governments; fifth columns are created with Western funding and support to engineer regime change from within; and the omnipresent threat of outside military intervention is maintained to pressure the countries’ governments to back down from putting their citizens’ interests first.
Gadhafi’s sins weren’t crimes against humanity but actions in its service. His reputation blackened, government overthrown, country besieged from without and destabilized from within, his life was ended for daring to enact a radical idea—pressing the economy into the service of the people of his country, rather than the people of his country and their natural resources into the service of foreign business interests.
1,2. Benoit Faucon, “For big oil, the Libya opening that wasn’t”, The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2012
3, 4. Guy Chazan, “For West’s oil firms, no love lost in Libya”, The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2011.
5,6,7. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011
8. Clifford Kraus, “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins”, The New York Times, August 22, 2011.
Canadian fighter pilots “flew 946 sorties and dropped almost 700 bombs” in last year’s NATO intervention in Libya.  But rather than enforcing a no-fly zone to protect civilians, the Canadian pilots—and their counterparts from other NATO countries—took sides in the conflict, intervening directly on behalf of anti-Gaddafi rebels.
But who exactly were the rebels that NATO sided with?
Private remarks by Canadian military officers, reported by the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese, suggest the rebels weren’t everyday people thirsting for democracy, as NATO officials and mainline media made them out to be.
Gaddafi had claimed that “the rebellion had been organized by” Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb “and his old enemies the LIFG (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group), who had vowed to overthrow the colonel and return the country to traditional Muslim values, including Sharia law.”  But this was dismissed by the West as propaganda.
Still, a “Canadian intelligence report written in late 2009…described the anti-Gadhafi stronghold of eastern Libya” where the rebellion began, “as an ‘epicentre of Islamist extremism’ and said ‘extremist cells’ operated in the region.” 
And Canadian military intelligence noted “in 2004 (that) Libyan troops found a training camp in the country’s southern desert that had been used by an Algerian terrorist group that would later change its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM.” 
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who had “joined the U.S.-backed resistance to the Soviet (intervention in) Afghanistan, fighting alongside militants who would go on to form al-Qaeda,” was emblematic of the militant Islamic character of the uprising.
“Mr. Belhaj returned to Libya in the 1990s and led the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in fierce confrontations with Col. Gadhafi’s” government. The LIFG was aligned with al-Qaeda. 
Belhaj was “the rebellion’s most powerful military leader.” 
This should have aroused suspicions about the true nature of the uprising, but there was an earlier clue that the Benghazi revolt was inspired by something other than a thirst for democracy.
“On Feb. 15, 2011, citizens in Benghazi organized what they called a Day of Anger march. The demonstration soon turned into a full-scale battle with police.
“At first, security forces used tear gas and water cannons. But as several hundred protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails attacked government buildings, the violence spiralled out of control. Demonstrators chanted, ‘No God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of Allah’.” 
Today, Libya is a warzone of competing militias. The Transitional National Council, anointed by the West as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, has no authority.
And now, one year after the uprising began, some NATO officials are admitting that NATO aligned itself with militant Islamic rebels to oust Gaddafi, who US officials had complained was engaging in “resource nationalism,” while oil companies denounced him for trying to “Libyanize” the economy. 
According to the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese, some Canadian military officers in private refer “to the NATO jets bombing Gadhafi’s troops as ‘al-Qaeda’s air force’.” 
The parallels with Syria are obvious. As Gaddafi’s government struggled with a number of militant Islamic uprisings over the years, so too has the secular government of Bashar Assad in Syria.  Calls have been made for NATO countries to intervene there too, either as the rebels’ air force or arms supplier or both.
But it’s clear that a NATO intervention in Syria will be a repeat of Libya, with NATO forces backing militant Islamists with the sole goal of sweeping a government from power that the West’s economic interests are not wholly comfortable with. Syria too practices economic nationalism.
The Assad government has drafted a new constitution , to be put to a referendum later this month, which promises the multi-party democracy and democratic reforms the West demanded—but now, on the eve of their being delivered, dismisses as “meaningless.” 
Apart from allowing multiple parties to contest elections and multiple candidates to run for president, the new constitution mandates that the country’s resources be publicly owned (which is to say that the country will practice the “resource nationalism” that got Gaddafi in trouble), that taxation will be progressive, and that the economy will be directed, rather than laissez-faire. 
Democratic reforms are largely irrelevant to the West. Otherwise, it would do more to press Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and other petro-despotisms—from which Western oil companies derive billions of dollars in profits—to change their ways. Instead, Bahrain, site of a renewed uprising that is being violently suppressed–as one there was last year–continues to receive US-backing and arms.
Calls for democratic reforms—in some countries, not others—are simply pretexts for intervention. The West’s real motivation for backing uprisings in Libya and Syria are economic: turning the countries away from resource nationalism and a measure of independent, self-directed economic development into profit-disgorging spheres of exploitation for Western banks, corporations and investors.
In pursuit of these goals, NATO countries are willing to ally with anyone. Even al-Qaeda.
1. David Pugliese, “The Libya mission one year later: A victory, but at what price?” The Ottawa Citizen, February 20, 2012. http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Libya+Mission+Year+Later+victory+what+price/6178518/story.html
2. David Pugliese, “The Libya mission one year later: Into the unknown”, The Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2012. http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Libya+mission+year+later+Into+unknown/6172099/story.html
3. David Pugliese, “DND report reveals Canada’s ties with Gadhafi”, The Ottawa Citizen, April 23, 2011.
4. David Pugliese, “DND report reveals Canada’s ties with Gadhafi”, The Ottawa Citizen, April 23, 2011.
5. Hadeel Al-Shalchi and Maggie Michael, “Libyan rebel hero plays down Islamist past”, The Associated Press, September 2, 2011.
6. Rod Nordland and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Islamists’ growing sway raises questions for Libya”, The New York Times, September 14, 2011.
7. David Pugliese, “The Libya mission one year later: Into the unknown”, The Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2012.
8. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011
9. David Pugliese, “The Libya mission one year later: Into the unknown”, The Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2012.
10. Stephen Gowans, “Syria’s uprising in context,” what’s left, February 10, 2012. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/syrias-uprising-in-context/
11. David M. Herszenhorn, “For Syria, reliant on Russia for weapons and food, old bonds run deep”, The New York Times, February 18, 2012.
12. SANA, February 18, 2012
…self-directed economic development aimed at giving Libyans a stake in their economy.
I’m not saying Gaddafi’s Libya was a model society, but it did offer its own citizens advantages that are conspicuously missing in Washington’s Third World satellites.
Margaret Coker, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal (“Libya speeds oil output but sees hurdles ahead”) serves up an example of Gaddafi’s friendly-to-Libyans, not-so-friendly-to-overseas-investor policies. Among “many of (Gadaffi’s) heavy-handed state policies” were “foreign-currency exchange limits and a law that forced private enterprises to make Libyan employees shareholders of the business.” These policies “crimped corporate work during the Gadhafi regime,” writes Coker, by which she means encroached on the profits of Western banks, corporations and investors. Bad man.
In the same issue of the WSJ we learn that Washington is quietly funnelling bunker buster bombs and other ammunition to the group of anti-democratic oil monarchies that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. The aim is to build up these despotic regimes as “a unified counter-weight to Iran” (“U.S. plans bomb sales in Gulf to counter Iran.”)
The GCC, it will be recalled, dispatched tanks and troops to crush a popular uprising in one of its member states, Bahrain, while it was also helping rebels oust the Gaddafi government in Libya. GCC member, Qatar, an absolutist state, was particularly helpful to the Libyan rebels, dispatching hundreds of ground troops to aid the cause of…
• (A) Building democracy in Libya?
• (B) Ending Gaddafi policies that crimped corporate work?
Finally, yesterday’s WSJ ( “U.S. to build up military in Australia”) points to plans for “a new and permanent U.S. military presence in Australia…a step aimed at countering China’s influence and reasserting U.S. interests in the region.” Notes WSJ reporter Laura Meckler, the “South China Sea, which China considers as its sovereign territory…is important economically.”
Indeed it is.
Fortunately, the combined forces of the US Army, US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Air Force and the CIA exist to make sure the South China Sea—and every other economically important region of the globe—is available to Wall Street for its aggrandizement…and free from anyone who might exercise their sovereignty to impose policies that crimp corporate work.
Wars for Profits: A No-Nonsense Guide to Why the United States Seeks to Make Iran an International Pariah
By Stephen Gowans
Flipping idly through my morning newspaper, my eyes fell upon a headline, which, given its significance, should have appeared on the front page, but instead was tucked away at the back, on page A9.
“Israel won’t rule out attack on Iran”. (1)
Now, it’s true that Israel’s threatening to attack Iran is hardly news. Here was Ehud Barak, Israeli defense minister, over two years ago, talking about measures to dissuade Iran from continuing to process uranium: “We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table. This is our policy. We mean it.” (2) And here was Barak just the other day: “We strongly believe that…no option should be removed from the table.” (3) Same defense minister. Same words. Same threat.
Yet while the threat may be old, its significance remains undiminished. One country is threatening to commit the supreme international crime: to attack another even though it, itself, has not been attacked by the country it rattles its saber at. Were Iran to threaten Israel, the headline “Iran won’t rule out attack on the Jewish state” wouldn’t be tucked away inconspicuously in the back pages of my newspaper. Instead, it would be shouted in bold letters across the front page. “My God!”, NATO state officials and editorialists would cry. “Iran is threatening to attack the Jewish state. Something must be done!”
But in this case it is Israel that is issuing the threat against a country which has, since its escape from US domination in 1979, been limned as dark and menacing, and so while no one wants war, surely it’s all perfectly understandable that the plucky Israelis should be declaring their determination to stand against the Judeophobic menace of the Islamic Republic. After all, isn’t Iran building nuclear weapons to wipe Israel off the map? Well, if you listen to the Israelis and their US protector, the answer is yes.
The Strangelovian Israeli historian Benny Morris declares that Israel is “threatened almost daily with destruction by Iran’s leaders.” To eclipse this threat, Iran must be wiped off the map before Iran does any wiping of its own. “Israel has no option,” Morris chillingly says, “but to use its nuclear arsenal to destroy Iran, unless the US uses its formidable military to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities first.” (4)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns: “Iran is even arming itself with nuclear weapons to realize that goal (the obliteration of the Jewish state), and until now the world has not stopped it. The threat to our existence, is not theoretical. It cannot be swept under the carpet; it cannot be reduced. It faces us and all humanity, and it must be thwarted.” (5)
Ominous. But the idea that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons to obliterate Israel is pure flummery; a work of fiction, intended to create a frisson of fear.
So, why do I say this? First, we don’t know whether Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons, or only the capability of producing them, or even that. An International Atomic Energy Agency report, released yesterday, tables evidence that Iran is secretly working on a nuclear bomb. So let’s assume for the moment that Iran’s leaders do indeed intend to build nuclear weapons.
It’s widely agreed that it’s highly unlikely that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons while its nuclear energy program is still under the scrutiny of UN inspectors. A more likely scenario is that Tehran would develop the capability to produce a bomb from within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and once it had reached the point of being able to do so, would turn its capability into reality by withdrawing from the treaty, ejecting inspectors, and making a mad dash to develop a rudimentary arsenal. That’s what North Korea did, when, following the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States decided to re-target some its nuclear missiles from the USSR to the DPRK.
But would Iran ever get as far as being able to make a mad dash to status as the world’s newest nuclear-weapons state? The United States and Israel have made plenty of noise about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran’s nuclear scientists ever reach the point of having the capability of producing nuclear weapons. Indeed, the threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities has been trotted out anew because the steps the United States and Israel have taken to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program–from the Stuxnet computer virus to the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists to punitive sanctions–haven’t stopped the program’s development, although they have certainly slowed it.
But let’s make another assumption. Let’s assume that despite US and Israeli efforts to cripple Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons, that Iran, despite these impediments, brings this capability to fruition, and furthermore, manages against the concerted opposition of the United States and Israel to develop a few nuclear warheads. Does the possession of warheads mean that Iran will use them–either to wipe Israel off the map or attack the United States?
No, it does not.
The idea that Iran is an “existential” threat to Israel comes from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s alleged promise to wipe Israel off the map. US and Israeli political leaders have been invoking this chestnut for years to justify the assassinations, economic warfare, covert destabilization, and threats of military intervention used to undermine Iran’s nuclear energy program. The problem is, the allegation is groundless.
The firestorm started when Nazila Fathi, then the Tehran correspondent of The New York Times, reported a story almost six years ago that was headlined: “Wipe Israel ‘off the map’ Iranian says.” The article attributed newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks to a report by the ISNA press agency.
Specialists such as Juan Cole of the University of Michigan and Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project pointed out that the original statement in Persian did not say that Israel should be wiped from the map, but instead that it would collapse.
Khamenei stated, “Iran’s position, which was first expressed by the Imam [Khomeini] and stated several times by those responsible, is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region.” He went on to say in the same speech that “Palestinian refugees should return and Muslims, Christians and Jews could choose a government for themselves, excluding immigrant Jews.”
Khamenei has been consistent, stating repeatedly that the goal is not the military destruction of the Jewish state but “the defeat of Zionist ideology and the dissolution of Israel through a ‘popular referendum.’” (6)
To be sure, anyone who regards Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that “must be uprooted from the region” and replaced by a government freely chosen by the people who lived in Palestine prior to its conquest by Zionist settlers, is an existential threat to the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. But while the designation of Iran as an existential threat to the idea of Israel is literally true (in the sense that Iran doesn’t accept Zionism and therefore works against it by supporting such anti-Zionist groups as Hamas), the phrase “existential threat” is twisted to mean something more than intended: military destruction rather than collapse through a referendum.
Political leaders are in the habit of present non-threats into dire ones. A not particularly egregious example is provided by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who, needing to defend the Pentagon’s Brobdignagian budget against possible cuts, recently “cited North Korea and Iran as persistent threats, and said that the military had to maintain ‘the ability to deter and defeat them.’” (7) Yet North Korea and Iran are not threats to the physical safety and welfare of a single US civilian.
First, Iran’s military is built for self-defense. It doesn’t have aircraft carriers, a large fleet of warships, strategic bombers, foreign military bases or a naval presence near US waters. The United States, by contrast, bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, within shouting distance of Iran, directly across the Persian Gulf. Iranian warships won’t be found lingering menacingly in the Gulf of Mexico or patrolling the edges of US territorial waters.
Second, a graph nearby shows that Iran’s military spending, at $20B per annum, pales in comparison to the budgets of the United States ($700B) and even that of the United States’ regional allies ($102B). The US military budget is 35 times larger than Iran’s, and the sum of that of the United States, its invariable co-belligerent the United Kingdom, and Washington’s regional allies, is 43 times larger. The gulf in fighting ability supported by these expenditures is as yawning as the one between the New York City Police Department and a troop of Boy Scouts armed with BB guns.
As regards North Korea, the idea that it is a threat to the security of a single US civilian is even more absurd. Like Iran, North Korea’s military is built for defense, and it too has no foreign military bases, no aircraft carriers, no nuclear armed submarines and no strategic bombers, and it has never—unlike its compatriot neighbor to the south—sent troops abroad to fight in other country’s wars (as South Korean troops have fought in US wars.)
North Korean military expenditures are even more modest than Iran’s. Pyongyang spends an estimated $10B on its military (and that’s probably stretching it), many of whose members are engaged in agriculture and other civilian activities. (8) By comparison, South Korea (on whose soil are resident close to 30,000 US troops), spends $39B, while nearby Japan (home to 40,000 US troops) spends $34B. Together, these two US allies outspend Pyongyang on their militaries by a factor of 7 to 1. Add to this US defense expenditures and those of Britain—a country that can be counted on to docilely follow the United States into any war–and North Korea, surrounded by US troops and warships and whose air borders are incessantly menaced by the US Air Force, is outspent over 80 to 1. A threat? The claim is laughable.
And that understates the imbalance. What military budgets don’t reveal is the vastly superior destructive power of US military hardware (and that of many of its allies) compared to Iran’s and North Korea’s. The kill capacity of US strike aircraft, cruise missiles, and battleships is far in excess of the heavy artillery that figures so prominently in the North Korean armamentarium, for example.
And then there’s nuclear weapons. North Korea may (or may not) have an arsenal of a few warheads, and Iran may (or may not) be seeking one, but these rudimentary collections pale in comparison with the US, British, and Israeli arsenals arrayed against them. Would Iran attack Israel, or North Korea attack South Korea, with one or two nuclear missiles, knowing that to do so would invite a retaliatory tsunami of missiles from the target (in the case of an attack on Israel) or its hyper-armed patron, the United States, or both? The outcome of so foolhardy an attack would be game-over for either country.
“During the Democratic primaries, then candidate Hilary Clinton (now US Secretary of State) warned that if Iran attacked Israel, the United States would ‘totally obliterate’ Iran.” (9) Three years ago, Israeli “Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer went on record saying, ‘We must tell them: ‘If you so much as dream of attacking Israel, before you even finish dreaming there won’t be an Iran anymore.’” (10) It’s doubtful that the Iranians failed to get the message.
And then there’s the matter of Washington’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). If read superficially, the NPR would lead one to believe that US policy makers have finally figured out that the cardinal rule of nonproliferation is to abjure military aggression against non-nuclear states. Countries that aren’t threatened by nuclear powers have no need to develop nuclear weapons for self-defense. However, a closer reading of the review shows that nothing has changed. US president Barack Obama has stayed true to form, obscuring his pursuit of his predecessors’ policies beneath honeyed phrases that create the impression of change, where no change of substance exists.
The NPR declares “that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states”, even if they attack the United States, its vital interests or allies and partners with chemical or biological weapons. This differs, but only on the surface, from the policy of preceding administrations which refused to renounce the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. There are a number of reasons why the difference is apparent only.
While nuclear weapons are widely regarded as unparalleled in their destructive power, the United States is able to deliver overwhelming destructive force through its conventional military capabilities. A promise not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states is not the same as an assurance not to use or threaten to use devastating military force. Six decades ago it was possible to obliterate a city through conventional means, as the Western Allies demonstrated in the firebombing of Dresden. If a city could be destroyed by conventional means more than half a century ago, imagine what the Pentagon could do today through conventional forces alone. Indeed, the NPR makes clear that the United States is prepared to shrink its nuclear arsenal partly because “the growth of unrivalled U.S. conventional military capabilities” allows Washington to fulfill its geostrategic goals “with significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.”
The NPR also provides a number of escape hatches that allow Washington to continue to dangle a nuclear sword of Damocles over the heads of Iran and North Korea. One is that nuclear weapons can be used, or their use threatened, against a country that is not “party to the NPT” even if the country doesn’t yet have nuclear weapons, or it is unclear whether it does. This is the North Korea escape clause. It allows Washington to continue to threaten North Korea with nuclear obliteration, just as it has done since the early 1990s when the US Strategic Command announced it was re-targeting some of its strategic nuclear missiles on the DPRK (the reason why North Korea withdrew from the NPT.)
Another escape clause allows Washington to reach for the nuclear trigger whenever it deems a country to have fallen short of “compliance with [its] nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” even if the country doesn’t have nuclear weapons and is a party to the NPT. This is the Iran escape hatch, intended to allow Washington to maintain the threat of nuclear annihilation vis-à-vis Iran or any other country Washington unilaterally declares to be noncompliant with the treaty’s obligations.
As for the United States’ commitment to refrain from reaching for its nuclear arsenal in response to a chemical or biological attack on itself, its vital interests (a term that defies geography and democracy, for how is it that the United States’ vital interests extend to other people’s countries?) its allies and its partners, this too is verbal legerdemain. As a careful reading of the NPR makes clear, the truth of the matter is that the United States will attack any country with nuclear weapons if such an attack is deemed necessary by Washington to protect its interests. According to the NPR, “the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in [its commitment] that may be warranted…” Translation: We won’t attack non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons unless we decide it’s in our interests to do so.
Finally, we need to ask whether either Iran or North Korea have a motive to attack the United States, and whether Iran has a motive to attack Israel. Iran’s leaders may abhor the Zionist conquest of what they see as territory important to Islam, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to take on a suicide mission to deal a one- or two-nuclear missile blow to Israel—one which, by the way, probably wouldn’t destroy Israel, but would in all likelihood elicit a hail of retaliatory blows that would produce devastating damage to Iran. As for tangling with the United States, neither Iran nor North Korea want that. What they want is peaceful coexistence—to be left alone to develop in their own way.
The trouble is, the United States hasn’t the barest interest in peaceful coexistence, and the reason why is the key, not only to understanding US foreign policy, but to understanding why a US-led NATO spent months bombing Libya to drive Muamar Gaddafi from power.
But first, a digression. Critiques of US foreign policy often involve exposes of US hypocrisy. For example, critics might point out that the United States defends Israel, which has nuclear weapons and doesn’t belong to the NPT, while threatening to attack Iran, which belongs to the NPT, and doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Or that NATO bombed Libya to prevent the government there from using its military to put down an uprising but condoned Bahrain and Saudi Arabia using their militaries to put down an uprising in Bahrain. Some critics stop there, reasoning that if they’re going to muster opposition to US foreign policy, it’s enough to show that it’s built on hypocrisy. Or they show US behavior to be immoral, undemocratic or against international law and figure that showing this will rouse the indignation of people of good conscience. Other US foreign policy critics cogently show why US foreign policy couldn’t possibly be guided by the objectives US leaders say it is. But they stop there, leaving their audiences to scratch their heads, wondering, if not for the reasons stated, then why?
Liberals insist that US foreign policy makes no sense and that US leaders are confused, myopic, poorly motivated, or just plain dumb. An example of this point of view is offered by former US president Jimmy Carter, who contends that the conflict with North Korea can be resolved in half a day (11). Apparently US leaders have neither the political will nor smarts to do so.
The truth of the matter is that there is nothing to be gained for the corporations, investors and banks that dominate US foreign policy—the one percent who really matter in the United States–from peaceful coexistence with North Korea. Peaceful coexistence implies that each side poses a threat to the other, but North Korea, despite the rhetorical nonsense of political leaders seeking to justify Pentagon budgets, poses no threat to the United States. A $10B defense budget against a $700B one; aging aircraft whose pilots are grounded most of the time due to shortages of fuel; a puny arsenal of nuclear weapons; an army whose training time is partly displaced by engagement in farming; the most sanctioned country on earth, whose economy has been crippled by six decades of US economic warfare; a country of 24 million hemmed in to the south and east by the troops of a country of 300 million; no, North Korea is not a threat.
So how is it that peaceful coexistence would deliver anything in the way of improved security for Americans, which they already have in abundance anyway? It wouldn’t. The demand for peaceful coexistence is little more than a Quixotic plea from Pyongyang to be left alone to develop in a self-directed manner in exchange for giving up a few nuclear weapons that at best, are, to use an Edward Herman term, a “threat of self-defense.” The benefits of peaceful coexistence are all on the North Korean side.
What does the United States get for promising to leave North Korea to develop in its own way? An open door for exports and investments? North Korea’s integration into a US-dominated system of global capitalism? US troops on North Korean soil? North Korea’s incorporation into a US-led military alliance against China? No. What it gets is North Korea giving up a deterrent to attack in exchange for the United States promising not to attack. This is a one-sided deal. No wonder North Korea wants it, and Washington keeps turning it down. David Straub, director of the US State Department’s Korea desk from 2002 to 2004 sums up nicely why peaceful coexistence isn’t on Washington’s Korea agenda. “North Korea’s closed economic and social system means the country has virtually nothing of value to offer the United States.” (12) What the United States wants from North Korea (an open door to investment, exports, ownership and political influence) is the opposite of what North Korea offers (a closed door and a prickly sense of independence—both political and economic). Washington abandoned the policy of peaceful coexistence with the USSR, which was militarily strong enough to make the US a miserable place if the Pentagon ever decided to start a US-Soviet war. So why would it accept peaceful coexistence with a hated closed system that poses a minor threat at best?
Other critics of US foreign policy explain their subject in terms of power. US leaders want to preserve or expand US power (or primacy or hegemony) against such “peer competitors” as China or Russia or such regional powers as Iran. Of course, it’s never said what US leaders (or Chinese or Russian leaders) want power for. To believe these critics, power is what everyone wants, and the quest for it, as an end in itself, is what makes the world go around. But the trick here is to inquire into why power is sought. Washington doesn’t seek to enlarge its power so that it can strong-arm governments around the world into furnishing their citizens with public healthcare, guaranteed employment and free education. On the contrary, it seeks power to do the very opposite. Power serves some end, and in the case of US state power, it serves the end of protecting and enlarging the big business interests of the big business people who run the state of a big business country; it protects profits and establishes the conditions that allow them to grow—both at home and overseas.
It’s curious that the power-is-the-alpha-and-omega-of-world-politics view should hold such a strong sway among critics of US foreign policy, when in the internal affairs of capitalist countries the organizing principle is private business, and the alpha and omega of private business, is profits. Sure, it’s understood that business leaders want power, but not so they can lord it over others, and take pleasure in its trappings, but so they can enlarge their capital. Power is a means to an end.
So why should foreign policy be any different? The moment Gaddafi was toppled by NATO bombs, a stream of NATO foreign ministers traipsed to Benghazi, their countries’ corporate CEOs in tow, to line up new business deals. It was clear the National Transitional Council (NTC), whose key members—one, an exile who had been teaching economics in the United States for years; another, who earned his PhD in 1985 from the University of Pittsburgh under the late Richard Cottam, a former US intelligence official in Iran; and a third, who had been living within hailing distance of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, before being spirited back to Libya– would be a good deal more accommodating of US business interests than Gaddafi had ever been. For all his turning over a new leaf to befriend the West, Gaddafi had irked the US State Department by practicing “resource nationalism” and trying to “Libyanize” the economy, (13) which is to say, turn foreign investment to the advantage of Libyans. His threat in 2009 to re-nationalize Libya’s oil fields, stirred up old fears. (14) Now, the NTC—with its US-friendly principals–promises juicy plums to the countries whose bombs ousted Gaddafi.
The US ambassador to Libya, Gene A. Cretz, channeling the ghost of uber-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, acknowledged that Libyan oil was “the jewel in the crown” but that there would be broader profit-making opportunities to lay hold of, now that Gaddafi had been bombed from power. Even “in Qaddafi’s time,” he observed, the Libyans “were starting from A to Z in terms of building infrastructure and other things. If we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs.” (15) US Senator John McCain, for his part, noted that “American investors were watching Libya with keen interest and wanted to do business” in Libya as soon as the country was pacified. (16)
The New York Times’ Scott Shane summed up the excitement.
Western security, construction and infrastructure companies that see profit-making opportunities receding in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned their sights on Libya, now free of four decades of dictatorship. Entrepreneurs are abuzz about the business potential of a country with huge needs and the oil to pay for them, plus the competitive advantage of Libyan gratitude toward the United States and its NATO partners.
A week before Colonel Qaddafi’s death on Oct. 20, a delegation from 80 French companies arrived in Tripoli to meet officials of the Transitional National Council, the interim government. Last week, the new British defense minister, Philip Hammond, urged British companies to “pack their suitcases” and head to Tripoli. (17)
Shane’s summing up provides a pretty good account of what the NATO bombing campaign had been all about, with one exception. Western security, construction and infrastructure companies aren’t turning their sights on Libya because it is now free of four decades of dictatorship, but because it is now free of four decades of economic nationalism—an economic nationalism that once privileged Libyans over Western banks, investors and corporations. The country is now open for business…on the West’s terms.
The view that US foreign policy is shaped by considerations related to preserving and enlarging profit-making opportunities for investors, banks and corporations headquartered in the United States is based on two realities.
• The formulation of US foreign policy is dominated by the CEO’s, corporate lawyers and major investors who circulate between Wall Street and Washington.
• The countries that the United States has singled out for regime change, without exception, pursue self-directed economic policies aimed at fostering self-development and therefore deny or limit US investment and export opportunities.
Every rich country, with the exception of Britain, became rich through active state intervention in their economies to create industries, subsidize them and protect them from competition while they grew. The United States, as much as Germany, Japan, and other now rich industrialized countries, followed this path. (18) At one point, the United States had the world’s highest tariff barriers, which it used to shelter its nascent manufacturing industries against competition from established British firms. As protected industries matured under the guiding hand of a dirigiste state, they naturally sought to expand beyond their borders, as the possibilities offered by national markets were exhausted. Now, the policies that served their development so ably in the past, became fetters. Rather than protected markets at home, they needed open markets abroad. Poor countries couldn’t be allowed to emulate the policies that made the rich countries rich, because state-ownership, subsidies and trade barriers would eclipse the further development of the once protected industries of the rich countries. Poor countries would have to open themselves up as fields for exploitation by the banks, investors and corporations of the rich countries that had grown fat on the dirigiste policies some poor countries were now seeking to emulate.
A glance through the US Library of Congress’s country study on Iran reveals a truth that US officials never mention and that US foreign policy critics seem unaware of. Iran is not the kind of place an enterprising US business can hope to make money in. “The public sector dominates the economic scene, and the subordination of the private sector is observed in all industries and commerce.” (19) Worse, “Public-sector investments in transportation…utilities, telecommunications, and other infrastructure have grown over time.” (20) “The government plays a significant role in Iran’s economy, either directly through participation in the production and distribution of goods and services, or indirectly through policy intervention.” (21) Indeed, Iran’s constitution defines the public sector as primary, and “the private sector as the means of furnishing the government’s needs rather than responding to market requirements.” (22) Democratic socialists will be shocked to discover that this is the very same economic model that such New Left socialists as Ralph Miliband defined as emblematic of what a democratic socialism ought to be (which isn’t to say that Iran is a democratic socialist state, only that economically it is very close to what many socialist thinkers have envisaged for Western socialism.) In any event, it will be conceded that any economy that bears even a passing resemblance to that favored by radical democratic socialists is not likely to get a ringing endorsement from the kinds of people who formulate US foreign policy.
Other reasons why Iran’s economic policies are likely to have provoked the animosity of the US State Department: Despite its leaders making noises about going on a privatizing binge, Iran’s public sector has soberly grown rather than shrunk. (23) What’s more, large sectors of Iran’s economy remain off-limits to private ownership. ”Since the Revolution, the government has retained monopoly rights to the extraction, processing, and sales of minerals from large and strategic mines.” (24) Iran’s “agricultural policy is intended to support farmers and encourage production of strategically important crops” (25), not to open doors to US agribusiness. ”After the Revolution, many transportation companies, banks, and insurance companies were nationalized” (26) while price controls and subsidies have been used to make important consumer goods affordable (though many subsidies have been lifted recently.)
Wall Street and the US State Department dislike state-owned enterprises that serve the self-directed development goals of independent foreign countries, because they displace private investment by US capital. They abhor the practice of foreign governments subsidizing and protecting local business enterprises because it makes the task of US firms competing in overseas markets more difficult, and thereby limits the overseas profits of US firms. They revile regulations that protect local populations from pollution, desperation wages and deplorable working conditions, because they cut into profits. Some or all of these practices form significant parts of the economic policies of every country in the cross-hairs of US foreign policy, including Libya under Gaddafi and Iran today.
Washington doesn’t want to bring about a change of regime in Tehran to install a pliant government that will help expand US power. It wants to bring about a change of regime in Tehran that will cancel economic policies aimed at Iran’s self-development and replace them with policies that will open up the country’s resources, markets, labor and land to US banks, corporations and investors. It wants the holy trinity of free-trade, free-enterprise and free-markets at the center of poor countries’ economic policies, not protected trade, not state-owned and subsidized enterprises, and not trade barriers. (But while preaching the holy trinity abroad, the United States reserves the right to deploy subsidies, impede imports, and rely on state-intervention to support key industries at home. Consistency doesn’t matter. Profits do.)
To reach the goal of turning Iran into a country that can disgorge a bonanza of profits to US corporations and investors, Iran must first be denied the capability of mounting an effective defense against military intervention by the United States and its allies. It is for this reason that the United States and its Middle Eastern Doberman, Israel, have embarked upon a program of sabotage, assassinations and threats of aerial bombing aimed at crippling even the possibility of Iran acquiring a nuclear deterrent. The idea that Tehran is bent on lobbing a few nuclear-tipped missiles toward Israel, to complete what the Fuhrer had left undone, is demagogic nonsense, intended to provide a compelling justification for aggression against Iran. Evoking Hitler’s campaign of genocide against the Jews to invest contrived existential threats with gravitas has been a standard operating procedure of Zionist leaders dating to 1948. (27) Iran has no intention of attacking Israel, and would commit suicide if it did, a reality we can be certain has not escaped its leaders’ ken.
All of this to say that in order to understand US foreign policy it’s necessary to examine who rules in the United States, who formulates its foreign policy, and how the policy the rulers formulate intersects with their economic interests. (28) This is an inquiry into class. For if an economic elite dominates foreign policy, we should expect to find that the outcomes of foreign policy favor elite economic interests, and that foreign countries that pursue economic policies that are not agreeable to those interests will be harassed, sabotaged, sanctioned, destabilized, and possibly bombed or invaded, until the policies are changed.
It may be objected that the cost to the United States of military intervention in Iran would surely exceed any economic gain that would accrue to the country as a whole. For liberals, this would count as evidence that US foreign policy makers had once again made an error. For others, it would stand as a challenge to the idea that a war on Iran would be a war for profits.
But the costs of military intervention are what economists call externalities—costs created by a firm, an industry or a class, but borne by others. Hydraulic fracturing—the high-pressure injection of fluids into rock to release fossil fuels—creates costs in water pollution and wear and tear on roads used by trucks and heavy machinery. If these costs are internalized—borne by the oil companies whose activities have created them—then hydraulic fracturing makes no sense economically–its costs exceed its returns. But if the costs are externalized—left to society as a whole to absorb—hydraulic fracturing becomes an attractive way for oil companies to turn a profit. (29)
Here’s the parallel with military intervention. The giant engineering firm Bechtel would absorb virtually none of the costs of a successful war on Iran, but if one happens, Bechtel is likely to reap enormous profits in contracts to rebuild the infrastructure that the US Air Force would raze to the ground. For Bechtel, then, US military intervention in Iran would be highly profitable, even though it might not make sense economically when viewed from the perspective of the United States as a whole. Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon—the top five defense contractors–don’t foot the Pentagon’s massive $700B per annum bill, but large portions of that budget are transferred to them in the form of contracts for military hardware. While bloated military expenditures make no sense from the point of view of the country as a collectivity, major defense contractors reap enormous profits from them.
The problem, then, of arguing that military intervention in Iran would make no sense because the costs would exceed the economic gains that would accrue to the United States as a whole, is failure to recognize that the country is class-divided, and that the gains of war are internalized within the dominant class while the costs are externalized to the bottom 99 percent. Hence, war doesn’t make sense for the bulk of us, but the problem is that decisions about military expenditures, foreign policy and war are in the hands of the top one percent and their loyal servants, who privatize the benefits and socialize the costs. When liberals say US foreign policy makes no sense, they’re being misguided by a set of erroneous assumptions: that the United States has only one class, the middle-class, that it is not class-divided, that everyone within it has the same middle-class interests, and that the state rules in the interests of all.
Like all US wars, the war on Iran of sanctions, sabotage, assassinations and saber-rattling is a class war. It is a war of class in two respects. First, it is waged on behalf of a class of bankers, major investors, and corporate titans, to knock down walls in Iran that deny this elite access to markets and investment opportunities. Second, it is a war carried out on the back of a class of employees, pensioners, unemployed, and armed forces members—the bottom 99 percent–who bear the cost, through their taxes (and in the future possibly blood.)
The aim is to install local politicians, most of whom have been educated at US universities where they have been instilled with imperialist values, who can, assisted by US advisors, make over Iran into an agricultural, natural resources, low-wage appendage of the US economy in the service of Wall Street and the class of owners and high-level managers who occupy its commanding heights. In short, a war for profits.
1. Adam Blomfield, “Israel won’t rule out attack on Iran,” The Ottawa Citizen, November 7, 2011.
2. Associated Press, July 27, 2009.
4. Benny Morris, “Using Bombs to Stave Off War,” The New York Times, July 18, 2008.
5. Isabel Kershner, “Israeli strike on Iran would be ‘stupid,’ ex-spy chief says”, The New York Times, May 8, 2011.
6. Glenn Kessler, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?” The Washington Post, October 6, 2011.
7. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
8. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005.
9. Mark Landler, “Iran policy now more in sync with Clinton’s views,” The New York Times, February 17, 2010.
10. Mazda Majidi, “What lies behind US policy toward Iran?” Liberation, June 12, 2008.
11. Tim Beal. Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War. Pluto Press.2011. p. 71.
12. Kim Hyun, “US ‘Has No Intention to Build Close Ties with N Korea’: Ex-official,” Yonhap News, September 2, 2009.
13. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
14. Thomas Walkom, “What Harper and co. got from the Libyan war”, The Toronto Star, October 21, 2011.
15. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011.
16. Kareem Fahim and Rick Gladstone, “U.S. Senate delegation offers praise and caution to Libya’s new leaders”, The New York Times, September 29, 2011.
17. Scott Shane, “West sees opportunity in postwar Libya for businesses”, The New York Times, October 28, 2011.
18. Erik S. Reinert. How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor. Public Affairs. New York. 2007; Ha-Joon Chang. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. Bloomsbury Press. 2008.
19. The Library of Congress. Iran: A Country Study. 2008. p. 143. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/irtoc.html
20. Iran: A Country Study, p. 145.
21. Iran: A Country Study, p. 150.
22. Iran: A Country Study, p. 151.
23. Iran: A Country Study, p. 152.
24. Iran: A Country Study, p. 167.
25. Iran: A Country Study, p. 170.
26. Iran: A Country Study, p. 181.
27. Ilan Pappe. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications. 2006.
28. Albert Szymanski. The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class. Winthrop Publishers. 1978.
29. Paul Krugman, “Here comes the sun,” The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
I recognize that in my views and even use of certain phrases that I have been influenced by Michael Parenti, and that needs to be acknowledged here. Of particular influence is Parenti’s latest book, The Face of Imperialism, Paradigm Publishers, 2011 and his earlier Against Empire, City Light Books, 1995.
By Stephen Gowans
My local newspaper informed me this morning that with the killing of Muammar Gaddafi the “Libyan people can finally turn the page on 42 years of vicious oppression.”
The oppression began with Gaddafi liberating Libya from the tyranny of the puppet ruler King Idris I, whose flag has become the banner of the rebels.
It continued with Gaddafi’s expulsion of foreign military bases and his nationalization of the country’s oil.
Further oppression was heaped upon Libyans when under Gaddafi’s rule living standards rose to surpass those of every other country in Africa.
Certainly, Gaddafi’s fight to suppress the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group—whose members fought the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq and struggled alongside Osama bin Laden against the Soviets in Afghanistan—added to the oppression.
The leader of the LIFG, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, once jailed by the Americans for terrorism, is now the military ruler of Tripoli.
Gaddafi’s insistence over the objections of US oil company executives and State Department officials that the Libyan economy be “Libyanized” (that foreign investment be turned to the advantage of Libyans) cranked up the oppression a notch or two further.
And Gaddafi’s generous aid to national liberation movements and to sub-Saharan African countries expanded his oppressions worldwide.
Which pro-democracy forces fought back against these oppressions?
• Qatar, an absolute monarchy, which sent guns and ammunition to Islamist rebels.
• Monarchists, still incensed at the overthrow of their king.
• Islamists, who for years had struggled to bring an Islamist regime to power in Tripoli.
• CIA-connected dissidents, who hold key positions in the National Transitional Council, and promise Western oil companies first dibs on oil concessions.
• Nato, whose warplanes and special operation forces proved decisive in toppling Gaddafi.
Over the last few weeks, Nato warplanes occupied themselves with reducing the town of Sirte to rubble – in the name of protecting civilians. It turns out that it’s all right for Nato to bomb civilians, but not for the leaders of independent governments to put down insurgencies.
While these forces battled Gaddafi’s oppressions, US-provisioned Saudi tanks rolled into Bahrain to crush a popular uprising, the US-backed ruler of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, turned his guns on his own people, and US-approved Mubarakism continued in Egypt, under Mubarak’s henchmen.
These events—all involving US allies–have been little remarked upon. More importantly, none have been met with military intervention or indictments by the International Criminal Court, these attentions being reserved uniquely for Gaddafi.
It’s true that the Libyan people can finally turn the page on 42 years, but of independence, not of vicious oppression.
Nato military bases, an economy subservient to Western oil companies, and the oppressive yoke of US imperialism, await them.