Archive for January 2008
By Stephen Gowans
In mid-January, former US Chief of Staff General John Shalikashvili and four top military leaders from European Nato countries released a report calling for a new Western military alliance that could act without UN authorization and use nuclear first strikes to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The generals were justifiably denounced as Drs. Strangelove, but what was missed was the reality that the former military men hadn’t acted on their own, but were brought together to write their report by a think-tank whose board of directors includes chairmen and CEOs of America’s top corporations and investment firms.
The recommendations the generals made were every bit as much those of America’s corporate elite as they were the generals’.
Who rules America?
The American sociologist William Domhoff has spent years asking who rules America?
He thinks he has the answer. America’s rulers, he says, comprise a tiny slice of the US population whose members intermarry, go to the same private schools, join exclusive clubs, travel the world for business and pleasure, and own most of the country’s corporate wealth.
They pursue careers in business, corporate law and finance and sit on the boards of large corporations, head up investment banks, and lead top corporate law firms.
They’re not a cabal issuing secret edicts from behind the scenes but an interconnected group who are keenly aware of their common interests and who use their wealth openly to dominate the political process in legal — and in what most people would consider legitimate — ways.
They hire lobbyists and fund think tanks and foundations to influence public policy.
They employ public relations firms and use their control of the media to shape public opinion.
They provide most of financial backing to the United States’ two major political parties, the Democrats and Republicans.
Top government positions – secretaries of state, defense, treasury and commerce, top diplomats, the top tier of the bureaucracy – are overwhelmingly staffed by members of this tiny, interconnected, group.
Conflicts with organized labor, consumers, and others aren’t always won by this upper class of corporate grandees, but their domination of the political process allows them to come out on top most of the time.
Where money power dominates, public policy tends to be shaped to promote the interests of those with money. Here’s how the upper class uses its money power to shape public policy, according to Domhoff.
o A problem is identified in corporate boardrooms or exclusive clubs.
o The problem is communicated to one of the foundations and think-tanks the upper class finances and directs. These include the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Business Council and dozens of others.
o These organizations assemble groups of corporate executives, scholars (1), military officers and government bureaucrats to formulate solutions to the problems the upper class initially identifies in its boardrooms and exclusive clubs.
o The solutions are presented in papers, released to the public and sent to legislatures, where they are transformed into legislation, or to government departments to be enacted by executive order.
The upper class’s policy recommendations are often accepted by legislators and government officials. Top government officials almost always belong to, or are indebted to, the upper class. Legislators rely on upper class support to get elected, and to receive lucrative corporate lobbying or executive positions after politics.
Domhoff argues that political parties aren’t vehicles for formulating policy, but serve the purpose of selecting ambitious exhibitionists as candidates who can be relied on, if elected, to implement policies recommended by the ruling class’s experts.
Formulation of policy happens, instead, within ruling class think-tanks and foundations.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a little known think-tank which “seeks to advance global security…by providing strategic insights and practical policy solutions to decision-makers.” It calls itself “a strategic planning partner for the government.”
The CSIS fits Domhoff’s description of a ruling class policy formulation organization. Its board of trustees is made up a bipartisan collection of upper class leaders who have spent their adult lives alternating between top government appointments and the boardrooms of some of America’s largest corporations.
The organization brings together experts – usually retired generals, admirals and military strategists – to work on security issues the upper class has identified as needing attention. Policy recommendations are released in reports, and presented to the relevant decision-makers.
Recently CSIS brought together five top military officers from across the Nato community to prepare a “150-page blueprint for urgent reform of western military strategy and structures.” (2)
The blueprint “has been presented to the Pentagon and to Nato’s secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.” It’s expected the think-tank’s proposals will be discussed at the April Nato summit in Bucharest. (3)
There has been virtually no media coverage of the proposal in North America, but it has received some coverage in the British press.
The authors of the report, who include ”the US’s top soldier under Bill Clinton, John Shalikashvili,” recommend that the West use preventive nuclear first strikes to stop other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. (4)
The generals were immediately denounced as Drs. Strangelove for their readiness to recommend preventive nuclear strikes. But the story, and the reaction to it, seemed to miss the connection of the military men to the CSIS, and the CSIS to the US ruling class.
Shalikashvili and his counterparts were brought together by the CSIS to prepare a military strategy to deal with countries that resist domination by the West, particularly those, like Iran, which could be in a position to defend themselves by developing a nuclear weapons deterrent.
The blueprint proposes the development of “a new pact drawing the US, Nato and the European Union” together as a single, unified fighting force capable of taking immediate action – up to and including the use of nuclear weapons – without the authorization of the UN Security Council.(5)
Like the anti-Comintern pact, which brought together Germany, Japan, Italy and later Spain in a crusade against communism and the Soviet Union, a new Western military alliance would bring North America and Europe together in a crusade against political Islam (which the generals refer to as a growing irrationality in the world.)
But unlike the anti-Comintern pact, the new military alliance the generals prescribe would be a lot more cohesive and far more deadly.
Whose policy is this?
There is a danger of misunderstanding the generals’ policy prescriptions as being solely the work of individuals representing private concerns rather than recommendations endorsed by an organization that has taken a leadership role in representing the interests of America’s ruling class.
Behind the generals’ manifesto lies the CSIS and behind the CSIS lies some of the top names in American business and investment banking, including former and current chairmen and CEOs of Merril Lynch, Lightyear Capital, The Carlyle Group, Coca-Cola, Glaxo, Time Inc, and Exxon Mobil. The investment firm Lehman Brothers is represented on CSIS’s board. So too are CARE and the United Way.
For the US ruling class, Nato’s consensual nature, the strictures of international law, Europe’s occasional assertions of independence, and reluctance to exploit America’s nuclear arsenal to secure military objectives, have delayed the arrival of a new American century.
Countries which practice policies of independent economic development need to be brought to heel.
The owners of America’s corporate wealth complain bitterly about Iran’s foreign investment-unfriendly policies, Belarus’s largely state-owned economy, and South America’s budding 21st century socialism.
China is competing with Western companies for investment, raw materials and markets in Africa. An assertive Russia is reclaiming its economy and competing with US firms for Western Europe’s energy markets.
A unified Western military alliance that marched in the same direction and used overwhelming force would be decisive in conquering space for Western capital.
While Shalikashvili and his counterparts are the public face of this strategy, the interests of the owners of America’s corporate wealth are its real author.
(1) Ruling class think-tanks don’t rely exclusively on right-wing scholars. Left-wing scholar Stephen Zunes is associated with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, a ruling class think-tank headed up by Wall Street investment banker Peter Ackerman. The ICNC specializes in training youth groups in using non-violent direct action to destabilize countries whose governments pursue economic policies that, while friendly to their own populations, are unfriendly to the profit-making interests of US corporations and investors. One of the ICNC’s latest projects has been to give courses to young activists on how to resist, oppose and change the Chavez government in Venezuela using non-violent techniques. Patrick Bond, a left scholar based in South Africa, heads up a think-tank, the Centre for Civil Society, which counts business groups and capitalist foundations as its backers. Bond is on record as endorsing youth groups funded by the US State Department as being representative of the “independent” left in Zimbabwe.
(2) Ian Traynor, “Pre-emptive nuclear strike a key option, Nato told,” Guardian (UK), January 22, 2008; Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World: Renewing a Transatlantic Partnership, http://www.csis.org/media/csis/events/080110_grand_strategy.pdf
(5) Traynor; Towards a Grand Strategy
By Stephen Gowans
The Canadian government has disavowed a training document written by its own bureaucrats that lists the US and Israel as countries that abuse prisoners and practice torture.
Officially, the Canadian government says the US and Israel aren’t torture states, no matter what its internal documents – or Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, The Centre for the Defense of the Individual and B’Tselem, an FBI investigation, the UN and photos of US soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib — say.
But Ottawa also says officially that Afghanistan doesn’t practice torture, despite the fact that the “Canadian military secretly stopped transferring prisoners to Afghanistan’s government in November after Canadian monitors found evidence that they were being abused and tortured.” *
Canadian soldiers began transferring prisoners to Afghanistan at the end of 2005. Prior to that, prisoners were handed off to the US military for interrogation. Ottawa ordered its troops to stop transferring captured fighters to the US when fears were raised that the prisoners were being abused and tortured.
While the government of Canada is willing to play along with the deception that the US and Israel don’t torture prisoners, its actions add to the weight of evidence that the US is not the beacon of democracy, freedom and human rights its leaders say it is.
* New York Times, January 24, 2008
By Stephen Gowans
An internal document of the Canadian Foreign Affairs Department has listed both the United States and Israel as countries that potentially torture and abuse prisoners.
The U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkens, says his country’s inclusion on the list is “offensive”, as if the Canadian designation of the U.S. as a country that practices torture is a baseless slander, rather than a near certainty based on mountains of evidence.
A perusal of newspaper headlines over the last few years at the very least makes the case that there’s reason to believe the U.S. and Israel abuse prisoners, if not torture them.
For example, on October 6, 2007 The New York Times reported that the U.S. Justice Department in 2005 authorized the CIA to use torture techniques that produce no permanent physical injury.
You can quibble about whether non-injurious interrogation procedures are torture, but anyone who is subjected to such techniques, which include simulated drowning, have no illusions about whether they’re being tortured.
The United Nations agrees. On May 19, 2006 the world body concluded that the use of so-called extreme interrogation techniques – torture without permanent physical injury — is a violation of the U.N. Convention against Torture.
Consider this headline, from the British newspaper the Guardian, dated May 7, 2007, summarizing the findings of the Israeli human rights groups The Centre for the Defense of the Individual and B’Tselem: “Palestinians ‘routinely tortured’ in Israeli jails”.
Guantanamo Bay, identified by the Canadian government as a place where torture is likely practiced, has a deservedly infamous reputation. As British cabinet minister Harriet Harman asked, “If there’s nothing wrong with what’s going on at Guantanamo Bay, why isn’t it in America?”
The answer to that question was offered by the FBI on January 2, 2007. According to a Bureau investigation, captives at Guantanamo Bay were chained to the floor for 18 hours or more, forced to urinate and defecate on themselves, and were subjected to extremes of temperature. A United Nations investigation declared these acts to be tantamount to torture.
Gauntanamo isn’t the only prison that is deliberately located outside the U.S. Locating prisons on foreign soil allows U.S. interrogators to escape the restraints U.S. law imposes on abuse of prisoners at home.
On June 9 of last year, The New York Times revealed that the Council of Europe confirmed suspicions that the U.S. operated secret prisons in Europe. Prisoners were abused and tortured, according to the Council.
On January 7, The New York Times reported that prisoners held by the U.S. at Bagram prison in Afghanistan are subjected to cruel treatment. This was according to the Red Cross, which says the U.S. routinely keeps prisoners away from its inspectors. Bagram, it’s said, is worse than Guantanamo.
Prisoners are being abused at other U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan, as well. Human Rights Watch said it has separate consistent accounts from eight men detained at a secret U.S. prison in Afghanistan of being tortured.
And let’s not forget the abuses at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. On March 7, 2006 The New York Times reported that Amnesty International had found that the U.S. had committed “widespread abuses in Iraq, including torture.”
What, then, should we make of the inclusion of the U.S. and Israel on the Canadian government torture list – misguided and baseless, or simply a reflection of what has been clear to anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last five years?
If the U.S. ambassador is astonished, he hasn’t been paying attention.
By Stephen Gowans
It is very likely that a Pentagon video showing Iranian patrol boats confronting three US warships in the Strait of Hormuz was deliberately embellished to back up US president George Bush’s efforts to enlist allies to confront Iran.
The video was released on the eve of Bush’s departure on “a five-day, five-country tour of the Arab world…to build a common front to pressure Iran – which Mr. Bush said…’was a threat to world peace’ – into ceasing its efforts to acquire nuclear technology.” (1)
There are a number of reasons to believe Iranian patrol boats did not provocatively confront US warships in international waters, and that the evidence they did was “sexed up,” to borrow a phrase used to describe Bush administration efforts to cherry pick evidence to fabricate a casus belli for its 2003 military conquest of Iraq.
The release last month of a new National Intelligence Estimate that declares Iran to have abandoned a nuclear weapons program in 2003 has set back the efforts of the Bush administration to build an international coalition to confront Iran.
Washington has three reasons to pressure Iran.
1. Iran is exercising a degree of independence from the US that does not suit the corporate and investment banking interests that dominate US foreign policy. Economic independence removes Iran from the territory US capital is free to unconditionally exploit. Washington’s ultimate goal is regime change, in which the current government in Tehran would be replaced by a comprador government beholden to the US, in keeping with the accustomed US imperialist practice of dominating other countries through local elites. With a Western-oriented regime in Tehran, tariffs and restrictions on foreign investment would be lifted and state-owned enterprises would be sold off. This would benefit the profit-making interests of US firms, investment banks and American hereditary capitalist families.
2. Countries which are weak economically and dependent on foreign sources of critical economic inputs are readily manipulated to serve the interests of the owners and managers of income-producing properties – the bankers, corporate executives, corporate lawyers and major investors who make up the US ruling class. The development in Iran of a domestic nuclear power industry, and reliance on domestic supplies of uranium, would strengthen Iran economically, and make the country more self-reliant. An Iran that imported enriched uranium from outside its borders – a “compromise” proposal put forward by Russia and Europe – would leave the country vulnerable to economic blackmail and under the thumb of foreign powers. It is for this reason that the Iranian state insists on being able to control the enrichment of Iran’s plentiful uranium.
3. The development of an independent, self-reliant domestic nuclear industry would furnish Iran with the capability of producing nuclear weapons, a potential it could exercise to deter US aggression. From the point of view of the US foreign policy establishment, this amounts to the very real threat of self-defense, an intolerable development to an establishment that relies on force, and the threat of force, to outrage the sovereignty of other countries.
With Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, opposed to highly punitive sanctions against Iran, the Bush administration has been pressuring its allies to apply their own trade and investment sanctions. Many allies, especially those with economic stakes in Iran, are reluctant to comply with Washington’s demands. For these countries, the pain of sanctions goes two ways. With the National Intelligence Estimate impugning the administration’s case, the pressure on US allies has diminished. To generate new pressure, the US administration has been looking for opportunities to convey the message that Iran continues to pose a threat; hence, Bush’s week-long tour of the Middle East. It appears all too convenient that the incident in the Strait of Hormuz occurred on the eve of Bush’s mission to enlist support for a renewed push to confront Iran.
The most dramatic part of the evidence the Pentagon used to underline the US president’s case against Iran was the audio portion of the videotape. In heavily accented English, a voice – presumably belonging to one of the Iranian sailors — warns: “I am coming at you – you will explode in a couple of minutes.” The audio, recorded separately from the video, was stitched together with scenes of Iranian patrol boats manoeuvring around US warships. The Pentagon acknowledges that it can’t say the words originated from one of the patrol boats. Indeed, the absence in the audio of ambient sound — wind, waves and the growl of outboard motors – makes the initial implication of the Pentagon video — that the threat came from the patrol boats — rather unlikely. The Iranians were travelling in open speedboats. The wind, waves and engine sounds would have been heard in the background. The fact that the Pentagon used audio it now acknowledges is of uncertain origin to embellish its video (and video, being easily doctored cannot nowadays be taken as compelling evidence of anything), calls to mind the Gulf of Tonkin incident. To win support for stepping up war in Vietnam, the Johnson administration concocted a story about two US warships, the Maddox and Turner Joy, coming under attack from North Vietnamese naval forces. It was pure fiction.
Contriving evidence to support aggression, whether military, subversive or economic, is part of a practice that recurs in US foreign policy with a regularity that makes the practice institutional. Grand deceptions to justify war, from the false allegations of genocide in Kosovo to contrived intelligence of banned weapons in Iraq, are not symptoms of the moral weakness of high state officials, but are part of a regular pattern of the US state shaping public opinion to the demands of its aggressive and expansionary foreign policy.
The threats the Bush administration have already made against Iran, and the economic warfare it has already waged, are themselves justified by concocted evidence. Over the last few years, the principal justification the US has invoked to rattle its sabre against Iran is the need to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, weapons Washington claims Iran seeks to wipe Israel off the map. The evidence that Iran is secretly building nuclear weapons – now discredited by the latest National Intelligence Estimate – is based on an earlier, 2005, National Intelligence Estimate. That estimate declared with high confidence that Iran had a nuclear weapons program. The latest estimate declares, also with high confidence, that Iran didn’t have a nuclear weapons program in 2005. If the latest assessment is true, the intelligence community could not have had high confidence in its positive assessment in 2005. Significantly, sections of the 2005 estimate were written by the same team that “sexed up” the intelligence on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. The 2005 conclusions, according to intelligence sources interviewed by the New York Times, were “thinly sourced” and “based on somewhat murky knowledge of Iran’s capabilities and the goals of its leaders.” (2) In other words, the evidence was concocted to fit a pre-conceived conclusion, one needed to justify an aggressive posture toward Iran.
The other part of the claim that Iran represents a threat – that the Iranian president is a vicious Jew-hater on the order of Hitler who seeks to destroy Israel in a hail of nuclear missiles – originates in a deliberate misrepresentation of Ahmadinejad’s words. The Iranian president’s wish to wipe Israel off the map is metaphorical. He supports a bi-national, one person-one vote state in ex-British mandate Palestine, the territory comprising Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Were such a state to succeed Israel – something Ahmadinejad believes is inevitable – Israel, a Jewish state based on the theft of the land and property of the indigenous Palestinian population, would figuratively disappear from the map. Anyone willing to work to help the Palestinians reclaim the territory they were dispossessed of is quite naturally a threat to Israel. This accounts for Israel’s hysterical reaction to the Iranian president. Israeli state officials, however, do not for a moment believe that were Iran to acquire nuclear weapons it would launch a nuclear first strike. That is a convenient fabrication used to justify an aggressive posture toward Iran.
While US state officials and the mimetic Western media shape public opinion to the view that Iran is a threat, the reality is quite different. To see this, consider the thought experiment conducted by British journalist Neil Clark. Clark announced on his blog that Tehran had called upon the world to confront the US because US Navy patrol ships had harassed Iranian warships off the coast of Florida. Of course, there are no Iranian warships off the coast of Florida, but there are US warships – dozens of them – off the coast of Iran.
If the Iranian patrol ships had truly been as provocative as the Pentagon says, the threat they posed would have been miniscule compared to the infinitely larger threat the US poses to Iran. Washington has been dangling a military sword of Damocles over the heads of millions of Iranians for years, allegedly because Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program. The real reason is because the officers of the Iranian ship of state refuse to steer in the direction the US admiralty demands. With a protectionist economy that features oodles of state-owned enterprises, and which therefore denies US capital coveted export and investment opportunities, Iran has long been on Washington’s (economic) regime change radar screen. Washington is willing to threaten millions of Iranians to get its way, all for the profits of corporate America, not least those of US oil. Who’s really threatening whom?
1. Globe and Mail, January 11, 2008.
2. New York Times, December 5, 2007.