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
There are three key facts that place the brinkmanship being played out on the Korean peninsula into perspective. With these facts providing the context, the recent behavior of south Korea is revealed to be that of a local bully acting on behalf of a much larger global one.
The first key fact is that north Korea is a military pipsqueak in comparison with the militaries that have taken an actively hostile stance towards it. South Korea’s military budget is many times larger than north Korea’s, and the south Korean military is integrated into the world’s preeminent military machine, the US armed forces. Close to 30,000 US troops are stationed on Korean soil; 40,000 in nearby Japan can be deployed quickly to increase US military power on the peninsula. US submarines lurk on the edges of north Korea’s territorial waters. US spy planes fly high over its territory. And US strategic nuclear missiles are targeted on north Korean sites. To think that north Korea poses a danger to south Korea is to think that a flyweight boxer is a threat to a middleweight backed by the world’s superheavyweight champion. The best a flyweight can do is strike back if attacked and inflict some damage, knowing he’ll be pulverized in the conflict. The north Koreans recognize the gross imbalance in power and do what a military pipsqueak can only do: develop the most formidable deterrents it can while seeking peace.
The north Korean leadership is transformed by US officials and their media echo chamber from a non-threat into a menacing threat by being depicted as mad and unpredictable. Only in this way can a weak country be turned into a danger. But as a former US ambassador to south Korea, Donald Gregg, put it: “We demonize [Kim Jong Il] as a ‘nut case,’ but I have talked to Russians, Chinese, South Koreans and Americans who have met with him at length, and all say he is extremely intelligent. What Kim wants is sustained, serious talks with the US, leading to a comprehensive peace treaty.” 
The second key fact is that the United States has sought the destruction of the north Korean state for the last 60 years. And the way it has tried to bring about this demise– apart from going to war with the DPRK in the early 1950s – is to:
• Isolate north Korea diplomatically.
• Subject it to the longest campaign of economic warfare in modern history (stretching all the way back to 1950).
• Continually threaten Pyongyang militarily to place it on a constant war footing that depletes its resources and cripples its economy.
Open hostilities may have come to a close in 1953 with the signing of an armistice, but the United States and its south Korean marionette have waged a cold war (with brief periods of detente) against north Korea ever since. A peace treaty has never been signed to formally end the war, despite numerous entreaties by Pyongyang to do so.
The third key fact is that the current government in Seoul under the right-wing Lee Myung-bak is more closely aligned with US foreign policy on north Korea than two previous governments were. Lee wants to see north Korea’s collapse and its absorption by the south, while two other south Korean administrations had once pursued a policy of detente.
Lee, a former chairman and chief executive officer of Hyundai, came into office to save the country from what his supporters called “leftist, anti-U.S. and pro-north Korean elements. ” In the view of his supporters, this included former presidents Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Dae Jung, who pursued policies of coexistence with north Korea and worked toward an eventual confederation. Lee, by contrast, is committed to a policy of confrontation, heightened tensions and subordination of the north to the south. Where Roh and Kim dropped the designation of north Korea as the ROK’s archenemy, Lee restored it. This led US Korea expert Selig Harrison to declare that “south Korea is once again seeking the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.” 
Lee’s local reputation is one of a US puppet betraying Korean interests.
When tens of thousands of South Koreans spilled into central Seoul …(in 2008) … in the country’s largest antigovernment protest in 20 years, the police built a barricade with shipping containers. They coated them with oil and filled them with sandbags so protesters could not climb or topple them to march on President Lee Myung-bak’s office a couple of blocks away. Faced with the wall, people pasted identical leaflets on it, their message dramatically summarizing Mr. Lee’s image and alienation from many of his people: ‘This is a new border for our country. From here starts the U.S. state of South Korea.’ In the background, a female voice from a battery of loudspeakers led the crowd to chant: ‘Lee Myung-bak is Lee Wan-yong!’ Lee Wan-yong is an infamous name every South Korean child knows. A royal court minister at the turn of the last century who helped Imperial Japan annex Korea as a colony, he is Korea’s No. 1 national traitor. Lee has become ‘a Korean leader kowtowing to the Americans.’ 
Far from originating in north Korean aggression, the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula are the outcome of the Lee government’s policy of seeking the collapse of north Korea in order to absorb it into the south. To justify its policy of heightened confrontation, Seoul has turned reality on its head and presented all its provocations as self-defense against north Korean aggression. Accordingly, when the south Korean corvette, the Cheonan, sank in March in shallow waters near the north Korean coast after running aground and becoming entangled with an old mine, Lee quickly manoeuvred to blame the tragedy on a north Korean torpedo, even though his own military initially denied a torpedo was involved and said that north Korean submarines weren’t in the area. Despite this, Lee said his intuition told him a north Korean torpedo was behind the sinking. Unsurprisingly, weeks later, the official inquiry into the sinking bore out the president’s intuition. Lee seized on the opportunity to blame the tragedy on Pyongyang. This allowed him to call for an even more aggressive stance toward north Korea. Washington too exploited the tragedy and the pinning of it on Pyongyang to justify its continued military presence in Japan.
In November, when north Korea shelled a south Korean marine garrison on an island lying only eight miles off the north Korean coast, the south Korean president – as well as Washington and the western media – portrayed the shelling as an unprovoked act of north Korean aggression. But south Korean marines had fired live artillery into waters that, according to international customary law, belong to north Korea. Seoul, however, claims the waters as its own based on a sea border drawn unilaterally by the US military in 1953. Hardly unprovoked, the north Korean retaliation was triggered by the south Korean violation of north Korean territorial waters.
Moreover, the artillery exchange between the two Koreas coincided with south Korean manoeuvres involving 70,000 ROK troops backed by US Marines. Pyongyang saw the exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion, not an unreasonable inference given the number of troops involved and Lee’s overt hostility to the DPRK. In the context of a highly charged and ambiguous military situation (how could the DPRK generals distinguish a rehearsal for an invasion from preparation for a real one?) south Korea’s live artillery fire from an island only miles from the north Korean coast, and into waters Pyongyang claims as its own, was a highly aggressive act. On top of that, Pyongyang needed to react militarily to enforce its claim to sovereignty over the waters south Korea had violated by its live fire drill.
Just days ago Seoul repeated its November 23 provocation, firing live artillery into the same disputed waters from the same island. This time the stakes were raised. Washington arranged for US Marines to be present on the island  while Seoul warned that a north Korean response would be met by US and south Korean air strikes on north Korean targets.  Doubtlessly, Pyongyang regarded the potential killing of US marines in an artillery barrage as far more dangerous than killing south Korean troops. Realizing this was a confrontation it could not possibly win, it wisely refrained from retaliation.
Seoul’s alignment with Washington’s strategy of maintaining unceasing pressure on Pyongyang has been evident in other ways too. The Lee government has appointed a minister of unification. The minister, Hyon In Thaek, says it is necessary for “south Korea to carve out the future of the Korean Peninsula on its initiative” with “freedom, human rights, democracy and market economy as values.”  Imagine the uproar if Pyongyang said it was going to carve out the future of the Korean peninsula on its initiative. The Institute for Policy Studies’ John Feffer points out that the word “tongil” was emblazoned on the headbands worn by south Korean marines who carried out the latest artillery barrage into north Korean waters. Tongil is the Korean word for reunification. This led Feffer to conclude that Seoul is seeking reunification by force. 
To further ratchet up military pressure, Seoul has added another live fire drill to the dozens it has already conducted this year. And this one was carried out threateningly close to the north Korean border. According to the Associated Press:
South Korea’s army said (the) planned firing drills near the land border – the 48th of their kind this year – would be the biggest wintertime joint firing exercise the army and air force had staged. It would involve 800 troops, F-15K and KF-16 jet fighters, K-1 tanks, AH-1S attack helicopters and K-9 self-propelled guns. 
Revealingly, the Associated Press pointed out that South Korea had planned to conduct 47 drills of this type this year, but decided to conduct one more owing, as one south Korean officer put it, to “tension with the North.”  This only makes sense if Seoul’s goal is to heighten tension.
Finally, while the following doesn’t compare for provocation to adding another military exercise, it does underscore the reality that Seoul is bent on provoking its northern compatriots. According to the Guardian, “For the first time in seven years, South Korea has illuminated a 30m steel Christmas tree near the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas. The practice was stopped by the previous government as it was deemed a provocative act”. 
Pyongyang’s options are limited. While the United States and south Korea are unlikely to wage hot war (north Korea could inflict too much harm on south Korea), their cold war against the north will continue, no matter what concessions Pyongyang makes. The best north Korea can hope for is a relaxation of pressure under another ROK president, but never its end. While there may, at times, be periods of detente, the only peace Washington will ever settle for is a peace on its own terms – one in which north Korea turns away from socialism and uncompromising commitment to anti-imperialism.
In the meantime, north Korea bravely carries on, steadfast in the face of enormous imperialist pressure.
1. Donald Gregg, “Obama’s North Korea strategy?”www.politico.com, November 23, 2010. http://www.politico.com/arena/perm/Donald_Gregg_142C4C3C-A583-47DA-ABA9-F610E984C95B.html
2. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.
3. The New York Times, June 12, 2008.
4. Ashley Rowland, “U.S. will take part in South Korea live-fire drill”, Stars and Stripes, December 18, 2010.
5. Kwon Tae-ho, “S.Korea, U.S. and Japan convene tripartite talks”, The Hankyoreh, December 8, 2010.
6. KCNA Blasts Puppet Minister of Unification′s Outbursts, KCNA, December 15, 2010.
7. John Feffer, “South Korea: Seeking Reunification by Live Fire?”, Institute for Policy Studies, December 20, 2010. http://www.ips-dc.org/blog/is_south_korea_seeking_reunification_by_fire_-_live_fire_that_is
8. Hyun-Jin Kim, “SKorea to stage firing drills near land border”, The Associated Press, December 22, 2010.
10. Jonathan Watts, “North Korea steps back, but South Korea remains on high alert”, The Guardian (UK), December 21, 2010.
By Stephen Gowans
Does this sound familiar?
“In South Korea, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that marines based on Yeonpyeong Island, a tiny fishing community with military bases near the Koreas’ disputed sea border, will stage one-day live-fire drills.” 
The “Marines will fire artillery to the southwest, away from North Korea”  but into North Korea’s customary law-defined territorial waters.
The North Koreans responded by notifying the South Korean military that it should “stop the provocative planned shelling from (Yeonpyeong Island)” otherwise it would unleash a “self-defensive blow” to protect its “inviolable territorial waters.” 
It should sound familiar. This is the sequence of events that led to the November 23 exchange of artillery fire between the two Koreas.
But the reports cited above aren’t from November. They’re from yesterday and today.
Yes, the South Koreans – who would have you believe they’re innocents struggling with a highly provocative and bellicose neighbor — are replaying the provocation that set off the artillery exchange of only a few weeks ago.
If Seoul were really interested in peace, you would think it would carry out its military drills in a less sensitive area.
Remember, North Korea isn’t a military giant looming threateningly over a cowering pipsqueak. Seoul’s military budget is many times larger than Pyongyang’s and the South Korean military is integrated into the world’s largest military machine; which explains why the South Koreans appear to have little fear of provoking the North Koreans again — and in exactly the same way.
“It is appalling,” says Korea expert Leonid Petrov. “If it was a bona fide need for artillery practice they have plenty of islands in the Western sea. This is simply sending a message that the South is putting pressure on the North.” 
Turning up the heat, “South Korea and the United States have agreed to bomb North Korea using aircraft if North Korea launches additional provocations”  – that is, if it responds to live-fire into its territorial waters as it did on November 23.
An idle threat? Perhaps. But it’s clear that South Korea – and its US patron – are playing a dangerous game.
This was acknowledged by General James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the US Joints Chiefs of Staff. “What you don’t want to happen out of that is for us to lose control of the escalation,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.  Notice the words “us” “control” and “escalation”.
To place this in context, South Korea plans to fire live artillery into waters that, according to international law, belong to North Korea, but according to a unilaterally defined sea border drawn by the United States in 1953, belong to South Korea.
The US-defined sea border – called the Northern Line Limit – is illegitimate, a point acknowledged by then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a 1975 classified cable. Kissinger said the US-drawn sea border was “clearly contrary to international law.” 
And in 1973, the US ambassador to South Korea pointed out that many would see South Korea and the United States as “in the wrong” if they clashed with North Korea in the disputed waters. 
The latest US-South Korean provocation is not an isolated event. Because open war with North Korea would prove too costly, Washington uses economic warfare, diplomatic isolation, and military pressure to achieve what open war would be intended to achieve: the collapse of the North Korean state.
A long list of sanctions, some dating from as long ago as 1950, keep North Koreans hungry and starved of inputs necessary to run modern agricultural and health care systems. North Korea, George W. Bush once reminded us, is the most sanctioned country on earth.
Military pressure – which keeps the North Koreans on a continual war footing – cripples their economy by diverting what would otherwise be productive resources into non-productive – though necessary – military spending.
It’s hoped that all this will sabotage North Korea’s unique brand of anti-imperialism and socialism — in the short-term to discredit it and in the long-term to make the North Korean communists go away so that the United States can secure domination of the Korean peninsula up to the Chinese border.
Washington’s junior partner on the peninsula, Seoul, will absorb the North if US policy succeeds. In preparation, the South Korean government has established the post of minister of unification. The current minister, Hyun In-taek, has talked of the necessity of “carv[ing] out the future of the Korean Peninsula” with “freedom, human rights, democracy and market economy as values.” 
There can be little doubt that had Pyongyang appointed a minister of “unification” and declared its intention to carve out the future of the Korean peninsula — with anti-imperialism and a command economy as its values — this would have been denounced far and wide as tantamount to a declaration of war. And so it would be.
War may or may not come from the latest planned South Korean provocation of its northern neighbor. But either way, the lives of millions of Koreans, of both north and south, are at risk. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Koreans are being treated as expendable lives to be cavalierly sacrificed to Washington’s quest to dominate every inch of the world’s territory it doesn’t already control. But then Korean lives – in the millions – have been sacrificed to US geopolitical ambitions before.
1. Hyung-jin Kim, Christopher Bodeeng and Matthew Lee, “US governor visits NKorea in bid to calm tensions”, Associated Press, December 16, 2010.
3. “S. Korean puppet military warned to cancel its plan for shelling from Yonphyong Island”, KCNA, December 17, 2010.
4. Tania Branigan, “South Korea to start live-fire drill on shelled island”, The Guardian (UK), December 16, 2010.
5. Kwon Tae-ho, “S.Korea, U.S. and Japan convene tripartite talks”, The Hankyoreh, December 8, 2010.
6. “US governor visits NKorea in bid to calm tensions”
7. Daniel Ten Kate and Peter S. Green, “Defending Korea line seen contrary to law by Kissinger remains U.S. policy”, Bloomberg, December 17, 2010.
9. “KCNA Blasts Puppet Minister of Unification’s Outbursts”, KCNA, December 15, 2010.
By Stephen Gowans
A series of recent newspaper articles portend more — and potentially graver — troubles ahead on the Korean peninsula.
The Guardian of December 16 reports that “South Korea will hold a live-fire drill in an area shelled by North Korea as early as Saturday.” It is unclear from the Guardian report whether the South Korean military will fire artillery from Yeonpyeong Island into customary law-defined North Korean waters, thereby reprising the provocation that touched of the artillery exchange between the two sides only a few weeks ago. But if not a direct reprise of the earlier South Korean provocation, the planned live fire exercises will certainly approximate it.
According to the article, Korea expert Leonid Petrov, “warned that the move could inflame tensions on the peninsula.”
“It is appalling. If it was a bona fide need for artillery practice they have plenty of islands in the Western sea,” he said.
“This is simply sending a message that the South is putting pressure on the North – but at the same time refuses to negotiate.”
The North Korean news agency, KCNA, notes that the South’s naval firing exercises will take place in the East and South seas as well, and will follow similar drills carried out from December 6 to December 12.
North Korea sees the South’s exercises as “escalating the military tension and confrontation.”
The South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh reported on December 8 that “South Korea and the United States have agreed to bomb North Korea using aircraft if North Korea launches additional provocations.”
It’s clear from South Korea’s response to the November 23 North Korean shelling of the South’s military garrison on Yeonpyeong Island that a similar response by North Korea to live fire into its territorial waters on Saturday will be labeled a provocation by Seoul.
This could, then, trigger a joint US-South Korea air strike on the North. Or it could simply be a move to continue to ratchet up military pressure on the North.
Either way, it’s clear who the aggressors are. Their game is dangerous.
There they go again. Those crazy, bellicose, destabilizing North Koreans are once again threatening their South Korean neighbors.
Pyongyang has appointed a minister of “unification” to oversee the takeover of the South by the North.
According to the minister, it is necessary for North Korea to carve out the future of the Korean peninsula, with anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and a command economy as its values.
He might as well have said that the North is preparing to absorb the South.
When will the provocations stop?
Oh. Hold on.
It wasn’t the North that said this. It was the South.
Hyun In-taek, a member of the South Korean government, whose title is Minister of Unification and whose mandate is to oversee the absorption of North into the South, said it is necessary for “South Korea to carve out the future of the Korean Peninsula” with “freedom, human rights, democracy and market economy as values.”
By Stephen Gowans
Only days after South Korea and the United States destabilized the Korean peninsula by holding military exercises in the Yellow Sea (and for the first time ever, in North Korea’s territorial waters) and soon after South Korea further destabilized the region by touching off a firefight between the two Koreas after lobbing artillery shells into waters Pyongyang claims as it own, the North Koreans began their own military drills.
South Korea—whose defense budget towers over that of the North—regularly holds drills by itself, and also with contingents drawn from the 28,000 US soldiers stationed on its soil and 40,000 stationed in nearby Japan. By contrast, there are no foreign troops in North Korea, and the North conducts its exercises alone.
To be sure, the North’s military drills do nothing to bring down the temperature, but they hardly compare in their destabilizing impact to the US and South Korean provocations of the last two weeks. A flyweight stepping up his sparring practice is hardly a threat to the middleweight who only goes into the ring with his super-heavyweight ally. And it’s clear that Washington and South Korea’s Lee government aren’t particularly interested in temperature-reduction anyway.
And yet, this headline appeared today in The Guardian:
It takes a lot of chutzpah to pick someone’s pocket and shout, “Stop thief!” but Washington has chutzpah aplenty, and in the Western media’s recounting of world events, Washington’s chutzpah is carefully concealed. And so it really does seem like North Korea is destabilizing South Korea, rather than the other way around.
What puts Washington’s complaint about North Korea’s military drills completely over the top is this: “South Korea is holding a nationwide set of artillery drills this week. And the United States and Japan are currently staging their largest-ever war games, including, for the the first time, South Korean observers.” And that’s not destabilizing?
Had I come across anything like the following headlines last week—which would have been a fair description of the situation from the North Korean side–I wouldn’t complain as bitterly.
Joint US-South Korea military drills are destabilizing region, says North Korea
US-South Korea wargames rehearsal for invasion, Pyongyang says
But I didn’t. Instead, I was bombarded by headlines about North Korean aggression.
And I still am.
It seems that no matter what the North Koreans do—or how destabilizing the actions of its southern neighbor and the United States are–the North Koreans will always be portrayed as the aggressors, the South Koreans as the victims, and the United States as the tough but fair peace-keeper.
If the ganging up on North Korea by the United States and South Korea–to say nothing of the Western media–weren’t enough, Washington has reminded Korea’s former colonial master, Japan, that it too has “a stake”. “We have to get to a place where there’s much more trilateral cooperation (among the US, South Korea and Japan against North Korea) than there has been in the past,” says chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, who is in Japan for discussions on creating “a truly historic trilateral” alliance–a kind of anti-North Korea three-power axis.
I guess Malcolm X was right. If you substitute “destabilize” for his original “oppress”, the following epigram pretty well sums up the dangers of newspaper reading: “If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are destabilized, and loving the people who are doing the destabilizing.”
It could also be pointed out that whether military drills are destabilizing or a way of containing “a rapidly evolving threat” depends on whose side you’re on: the side of the freedom of independent peoples to pursue their own peaceful development or the side of a military behemoth seeking to bring down another independent state.
By Stephen Gowans
“The International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary investigation into allegations that North Korean forces committed war crimes when they shelled civilian areas in South Korea and allegedly sank a South Korean warship,” according to The Washington Post of 7 December.
The North Koreans, it should be pointed out, didn’t shell civilian areas in South Korea; they shelled a South Korean military installation on Yeonpyeong Island, only eight miles from North Korea, after artillery was fired from the island into North Korea’s territorial waters. 
The North Koreans warned the South—which at the time was conducting massive military exercises with the United States—that it would retaliate if the South went ahead with its planned test firing from the island into its waters.
Pyongyang regarded the joint South Korean-US exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion, based on their substantial size (70,000 South Korean troops had been mobilized), the fact that they were taking place for the first time ever in the North’s international customary law–defined territorial waters, and involved US Marines based in Japan who were trained in amphibious assault and urban warfare. 
Despite the North’s entreaties that the South not proceed with its planned shelling, the South went ahead anyway. The North retaliated, as it warned it would and as Seoul surely knew it must.  It fired artillery at the South’s garrison on the island. While many news reports, such as the one cited above, suggest the North deliberately targeted civilians, the civilian casualties were accidental; the target was military.
The allegations that North Korea sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan—allegations which seem to owe their existence more to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s political agenda than anything else—are in tatters, the victim of an official Russian investigation and a series of independent inquiries that have punched holes in the misnamed “international”—more aptly named South Korea-plus-allies-report.  Is it any surprise that an inquiry carried out by countries that are hostile to North Korea would arrive at a conclusion that justifies their hostility? The report’s findings—that a North Korean torpedo sank the warship–resonated with Lee’s intuition, expressed well before the investigation was launched, that North Korea was to blame.  It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the report was written to justify a conclusion Lee had already arrived at, despite his own military’s initial assessment that no evidence existed to link North Korea to the mishap. 
The Cheonan–which had been operating in the shallow waters off Baengnyeong Island, only 10 miles from North Korea but 120 miles from the South Korean mainland—appears to have either run aground or struck an old mine.  But the official South Korean investigation rejected all alternative explanations, settling on the North Korea-is-guilty conclusion that members of Lee’s right-wing Grand National Party had seized upon immediately after the sinking, despite the South Korean military initially trying to dampen speculation that the North was involved. There was no evidence linking North Korea to the corvette’s sinking, Won See-hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence, told a South Korean parliamentary committee in early April. South Korea’s then defense minister Kim Tae-young backed him up, pointing out that the Cheonan’s crew had not detected a torpedo , while Lee Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the South Korean joint chiefs of staff agreed that “No North Korean warships have been detected…(in) the waters where the accident took place.”  Notice he said “accident.” Blaming the sinking on a North Korean torpedo, however, fit with what Selig Harrison, the US establishment’s foremost liberal expert on Korea describes as Lee’s goal: to “once again [seek] the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.”  So too does blaming the recent artillery exchange between the two Koreas on the North, when, in point of fact, it was the South that pulled the trigger. And so too does the ICC investigation.
While the ICC serves US interests, the United States itself refuses to submit to the court’s jurisdiction. The court could be subverted by political mischief-makers, US officials say. China, Russia and Israel also refuse to submit to the court’s purview. But Washington’s real problem with the court isn’t that frivolous charges might be brought against the country’s armed forces, but that legitimate charges most surely would be. The US record of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, to say nothing of the other theaters in which it pursues its war on resistance to US domination of Southwest Asia, could keep the ICC permanently occupied for the next decade. And Israel’s crimes—most especially those committed in Gaza–could keep the court going for years to come. Indeed, there’s a string of US and allied leaders who should be dragged before the court to stand trial—from George W. Bush to Tony Blair to Benjamin Netanyahu to Barack Obama. But they won’t be. The US, Britain, NATO and Israel have never been investigated by the ICC, and never will be, no matter how monstrous their crimes. The court exists to prosecute the weak and legitimize the crimes of the strong by ignoring them.
We have, then, a situation that is ludicrous beyond words: An ICC that is mute on US, British, NATO and Israeli war crimes—war crimes that have led to countless fatalities, the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, the collective punishment of displaced Palestinians for voting for a party that refuses to accept Israeli ethnic cleansing as legitimate, the displacement of millions of Iraqis—but is prepared to investigate the events surrounding the death of two South Korean civilians! A court that ignores the major crimes of the strong while investigating crimes that—even if they had been truly committed—would be microscopic in comparison, is an abomination against reason, justice and humanity. 
While its surface mandate may be the pursuit of justice, the ICC is every bit as much a part of the apparatus of imperialist domination as the US military and NATO are; its justice that of the powerful against the weak; its mandate to demonize the resisters and trundle them off to jail, while the imperialist architects of war crimes on a grand scale furnish the court with its prosecutors, direction, and agenda.
1. For sources see Stephen Gowans, “Wrong country blamed for artillery exchange on Korean peninsula”, what’s left, November 24, 2010 and “North Korea attacks South Korea…or is it the other way around?” What’s left, November 23, 2010.
2. Tim Beal, “Fire fight at Yeonpyeong: the manufacturing of crisis”, The Pyongyang Report, Vol 12 No 1 December 2010.
3. In order to enforce its claim to territorial waters, Pyongyang must contest the South’s exercise of military force in its waters, or its claim will be weakened. Moreover, failure to respond resolutely to the challenge would invite the South to take further liberties. See “US Ultimately to Blame for Korean Skirmishes in Yellow Sea”, what’s left, December 5, 2010.
4. See the following by Gregory Elich: “The Sinking of the Cheonan, Reviewing the Evidence,” globalresearch.ca, July 30, 2010 and “The Cheonan Incident. America’s Pretext for Threatening North Korea”, globalresearch.ca, December 6, 2010.
5. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
6. See Stephen Gowans, “The sinking of the Cheonan: Another Gulf of Tonkin incident”, what’s left, May 20, 2010.
7. See Elich.
8. Nicole Finnemann, “The sinking of the Cheonan”, Korea Economic Institute, April 1, 2010.
9. “Military leadership adding to Cheonan chaos with contradictory statements”, The Hankyoreh, March 31, 2010.
10. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.
11. I recognize that the ICC can only prosecute citizens of signatory countries or those of countries the UN Security Council—many of whose permanent members are not signatories themselves—direct the court to investigate. But this doesn’t make the actions of the court in investigating events surrounding the deaths of two civilians while ignoring large scale war crimes which have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions, any less ludicrous or any less an abomination against reason, justice and humanity.
By Stephen Gowans
There has been a lot written about the escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, tensions touched off by the South’s firing artillery shells into disputed waters in the Yellow Sea. Much of the commentary—including my own–has only tangentially addressed the key issue: how the United States’ unilateral drawing of a sea border in 1953 has thrust both sides into the position of having to continually climb to the brink of war to enforce overlapping claims to territorial waters.
The author of this tragedy—as so many other tragedies in Korea– is Washington. At the end of the Korean War, the United States and North Korea agreed that five islands, including Baengnyeong Island, in whose shallow waters the South Korean warship Cheonan sank in March, and Yeonpyeong Island, at the center of the recent exchange of artillery fire between the two sides, would remain under the South’s control. But they did not agree on a maritime demarcation line. The United States wanted to base the line on a three-nautical-mile limit, then the norm, while the North insisted on a 12-nautical-mile limit, which, by the 1970s, would become the standard in international customary law. The United States unilaterally drew a demarcation line, called the Northern Limit Line, based on a three-nautical-mile limit. In 1955, the North claim territorial waters based on a 12-nautical-mile limit.
Baengnyeong Island is only 10 miles from the North Korean coast but 120 miles from the South Korean mainland! Yeonpyeong Island is only eight miles from North Korea, and is home to a garrison of 1,000 South Korean marines. By the standards of international customary law, both islands belong to the North.
Having created a basis for unending conflict by unilaterally imposing a western maritime frontier, Washington has ensured that the intersection of the two side’s claimed territorial waters has been the site of numerous clashes. In 1999, the two Koreas’ warships skirmished over their competing maritime territorial claims. In the battle, two North Korean warships were sunk and 30 North Korean sailors lost their lives. Seventy were wounded. In clashes in 2002, a South Korean warship sank, with six lives lost. In November of last year, a North Korean naval vessel went down in flames after a battle with a South Korean warship. In March, the South Korean corvette Cheonan sunk off Baengnyeong Island, only 10 miles from the North Korean coast. The South accused the North of torpedoing the ship, but Pyongyang vehemently denied the charge. That North Korea would sink a South Korean warship operating close to its coast—that any country would attack a warship of a hostile state operating in its waters–is not implausible. Seoul’s charge that the North was the culprit therefore had a ring of truth to it, but there is evidence which points to the ship either running aground or hitting an old mine. In August, the North fired 110 artillery rounds near Yeonpyeong. And only weeks ago a South Korean warship fired warning shots at a North Korean fishing vessel that had crossed the Northern Limit Line. “This is a no man’s land,” observes Korea scholar Bruce Cumings. “You have an incident waiting to happen.”
The key to why the North and South regularly clash in these waters lies in the choices Washington’s unilateral border fixing inevitably create. Pyongyang and Seoul can either enforce sovereignty over their overlapping territorial claims through military means. Or not, in which case they cede sovereignty. The North could avoid confrontation with the South if it simply accepted the Northern Limit Line. Likewise, the South could avoid confrontation with the North, if it accepted a sea border based on international customary law. But neither side plans to capitulate, and so both sides carry out military activity in waters the other slide claims as its own. Failing to do this—and choosing not to respond to the other side’s provocations—would amount to an implicit recognition that the waters belong to the other side.
This can be seen in two incidents that happened roughly one year apart. Late last year, the North threatened to fire artillery into the disputed waters. The South denounced the threat as a brazen provocation, and warned that it would respond resolutely. Seoul’s agitation, reported The New York Times, was sparked by concern that if the North carried through with its threat it would “enforce its claims to an area currently held by the South.” The only way the South could contest the North’s sovereignty enforcement action was to counter-attack. Failing to do so would implicitly recognize the North’s territorial claim to the waters.
Last month, the roles were reversed. Now it was the South threatening to fire artillery into the same waters and it was the North denouncing the planned action as an abominable provocation. And the North’s reason for agitation was exactly the same as the South’s one year earlier. As the North Korean Foreign Ministry explained on November 24: “The ulterior aim sought by the (South) is to create the impression that the (North) side recognized the waters off the islet as their ‘territorial waters’, in case that there was no physical counter-action on the part of the former. “
In both cases, the firing of artillery into the disputed waters was seen as a sovereignty enforcement action by the other side. In order to counter the claim—and enforce its own sovereignty over the waters–the other side had to respond militarily. This is so because, by definition, a country’s boundaries represent the area in which its government exercises a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. The clashes in the Yellow Sea can be viewed as one side trying to demonstrate that it exercises a monopoly over the use of force in the contested area, and the other side trying to do the same.
As we know, the South did fire into the disputed waters, provoking a North Korean response, as Seoul surely knew must come. Indeed, the North had issued stern warnings that it would retaliate. While some news reports said the South fired toward the North, thus making the provocation all the more flagrant, Pyongyang acknowledged that, on the contrary, the South fired away from the North Korean mainland, but still “inside the territorial waters of the (North) no matter in which direction (the South Korean shells were) fired.”
Being based on international customary law, the North’s claim to the disputed waters is superior to that of the South, which rests on an outdated norm, and Washington’s unilateral border fixing. Pyongyang has urged Washington repeatedly to sign a peace treaty to replace the armistice which brought open hostilities to an end in 1953—and which leaves the two Koreas technically at war. Settling the disputed western sea border would be part of a formal peace. But Washington regularly rejects Pyongyang’s pleas for an official end to the war. After one such request, then Secretary of State Colin Powell replied, “We don’t do non-aggression pacts or treaties, things of that nature.” And after the latest skirmish, Washington rejected China’s call for discussions to defuse the tensions. Instead, it escalated tension by dispatching the aircraft carrier George Washington to conduct joint military exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea, including in waters China declares as its own.
In 1945 Washington drew a border bisecting Korea. It later set up a puppet government in the South to crush the People’s Committees that Koreans had organized to govern their country after decades of Japanese colonial rule. The People’s Committees were allowed to thrive in the North, and in 1948 formed the basis of a new government led by Kim Il-Sung, a famed guerilla leader who had fought the Japanese. In the South, Washington restored Japanese collaborators to positions of prominence. Divided by Washington, the two Koreas, one anti-imperialist, fiercely independent and progressive, the other a near fascist state of collaborators with Japanese colonialism and later U.S. neocolonialism, were set against each other. And so they remain today, and will remain, regularly climbing to the brink of war in the Yellow Sea as the North challenges a unilaterally imposed sea border—one at odds with international customary law–and the South seeks to enforce it.
By Stephen Gowans
While North Korea has been blamed for Tuesday’s exchange of artillery fire on the Korean peninsula, a close reading of news reports shows that it was South Korea that created a tinderbox and then provided the spark.
The incident happened along the Northern Limit Line, a Western sea border unilaterally drawn by the United States at the end of the Korean War and never accepted by the North. The Northern Limit Line has been the site of a number of skirmishes between ROK and DPRK naval forces.
A year ago, the countries’ warships clashed in the disputed area, with a North Korean warship going down in flames. “In 1999, a North Korean ship went down with thirty sailors lost and maybe seventy wounded” in the same area.  The contested border is not part of the Armistice Agreement that brought active hostilities to an end.
The backdrop for the latest incident was the South’s mobilizing 70,000 troops, 50 warships, 90 helicopters, 500 warplanes and 600 tanks in war-games exercises the North had vigorously objected to. Pyongyang described the exercises—which also involved the US Marines and the US Air Force–as “simulating an invasion of the North”, “a means to provoke a war” and “a rehearsal for an invasion.” Western press reports and US government officials dismissed Pyongyang’s anxiety over the war-games as overblown, pointing out that the exercise had been announced in advance. But advance notice hardly lessens the potential threat of massing troops, or makes the North Korean military’s task of distinguishing between war-games and preparation for an invasion any easier.
With the North Koreans already on edge, South Korea acted to heighten the tension.
According to an Associated Press report:
“The skirmish began Tuesday when North Korea warned the South to halt military drills near their sea border…When Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters…the North retaliated by shelling the small island of Yeonpyeong…” 
The South Korean newspaper, The Hankyoreh, carried a similar report.
“Prior to the incident the South Korean military carried out a firing exercise…in the (disputed) area around Yeonpyeong Island and Baengnyeong Island…North Korea sent a message Tuesday morning that it would not tolerate firing in its territorial waters.” 
The New York Times noted that South Korean “artillery units had been firing from a battery on the South Korean island of Baeknyeongdo, close to the North Korean coast” and that “the South acknowledged firing test shots in the (disputed) area.” 
These press reports show that South Korea acted to inflame an already volatile situation. While most media reports obscured the point, South Korea fired the first shots.
The South regularly mounts war-games drills directed at North Korea, keeping the North on a continual war footing and in a constant state of high alert. North Korea’s response to the provocation is being used to justify a build-up of US forces in the region, and more joint ROK-US exercises.
“President Obama and South Korea’s president agreed…to hold joint military exercises as a first response,” reported the New York Times. “The exercise will include sending the aircraft carrier George Washington and a number of accompanying ships into the region…” 
Earlier this year, the United States and South Korea used the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, as an excuse to ratchet up military pressure on North Korea. The warship appears to have run aground in the same area in which the latest incident occurred. Seoul and Washington blamed North Korea for the sinking, but the evidence South Korea brought forward in a report authored by itself and its allies is disputed within South Korea and has been questioned by an official Russian investigation. North Korea vehemently denies it sunk the warship.
The latest South Korean provocation may be part of a larger US-ROK campaign to escalate military pressure on North Korea, with the aim of forcing Pyongyang to divert more of its limited resources to defense, thereby crippling North Korea’s prospects for development and possibly ushering in the collapse of the country. Washington has long followed a practice of isolating, blockading and using military threats to intimidate countries that have broken free of imperialist domination. This isn’t an isolated incident, in which an unpredictable and bellicose North Korea behaves badly to extract concessions from the West–as the predictably anti-North Korea Western media put it–but part of a larger pattern of the West seeking the DPRK’s destruction through a program of escalating diplomatic isolation, economic warfare and military provocations.
1. “Historian Bruce Cumings: US Stance on Korea Ignores Tensions Rooted in 65-Year-Old Conflict; North Korea Sinking Could Be Response to November ’09 South Korea Attack”, Democracy Now, May 27, 2010.
2. Hyung-Jin Kim and Kwang-Tae Kim, “Tensions high as North, South Korea trade shelling”, The Associated Press, November 23, 2010.
3. Kwon Hyuk-chul, “President Lee has changed his position from controlled response to manifold retaliation”, The Hankyoreh, November 24, 2010.
4. Mark McDonald, “Crisis Status’ in South Korea After North Shells Island” The New York Times, November 23, 2010.
5. David E. Sanger, “U.S. to send carrier for joint exercises off Korea”, The New York Times, November 23, 2010.
By Stephen Gowans
If you read Mark McDonald’s article in The New York Times, “‘Crisis Status’ in South Korea After North Shells Island”, the answer depends on whether you paid attention to the headline, the expert commentary, and the tone of the article, or whether you paid attention to the facts.
If you paid attention to the former then North Korea attacked South Korea.
If you paid attention to the latter, the opposite is true.
Here are the facts McDonald reported.
o 70,000 South Korean troops were beginning a military drill…sharply criticized by Pyongyang as “simulating an invasion of the North” and “a means to provoke a war.”
o ROK artillery units fired toward the DPRK from a battery close to the North Korean coast. The South acknowledges firing the shots.
o The DPRK replied.
Shouldn’t the headline read: ‘Crisis Status’ in North Korea after South Korea Mobilizes 70,000 Troops and Shells the North’?