Archive for the ‘Economic Warfare’ Category
January 2, 2015
By Stephen Gowans
It is the accustomed practice of Western news media to refer to North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, as a propaganda outlet, by which is implied that it is a source of self-serving lies. It would be more accurate to say that KCNA propagates the point of view of the North Korean government, which is unquestionably self-serving, or at least intended to be. It is hardly likely that anyone would express a point of view that was deliberately self-damaging. And as far as lies go, while I have no evidence that the North Korean government lies, it would come as no surprise to discover that it has, from time to time, backed its point of view with deceptions, both deliberate and unintended. Humans, as a rule, are not unfailingly honest or free from cognitive biases that sometimes make it difficult for them to see what others see, and North Koreans are as human as anyone else.
All the same, were KCNA to carry reports completely devoid of deception, it seems very likely that it would still be the case that the Western news media would label the news agency a propaganda outlet, in the sense of passing off deliberate lies as truth. This is so because the North Korean view is so often at odds with the spin pumped out in Western capitals by officials of state and reported and passed along by Western news media that it must seem to the purveyors of the Western point of view than the North Korean alternative must be wrong and deliberately so.
If we define propaganda as propagating a self-interested point of view, then entirely absent in Western journalistic commentary on the official news agencies of the foreign states that Western governments are hostile to is any recognition that they, themselves, i.e., the Western news media, are indistinguishable from the foreign news agencies they discredit. As much as the KCNA, Western news media propagate the official viewpoints of states, in their case the points of view of Western states, expressed by presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of defense, Pentagon generals, heads of intelligence agencies, and so on, whose words are carefully reproduced and reported, almost always uncritically, in Western newspapers and TV and radio broadcasts. Asked by the journalist and film-maker John Pilger to explain how his news organization failed to challenge official deceptions about Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction, the pretext for the 2003 Anglo-US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a senior news executive replied that it is not the job of the news media to question what state officials say, only to report their words. This amounts to admitting what left critics have long contended: that the Western news media are merely stenographers for those in power.
Moreover, the fact that Western news media are mainly privately-owned and not run by the state does not make them disinterested and neutral. For the most part, Western news media are owned by an ultra-wealthy business elite. Accordingly, these media promote positions that are compatible with and conducive to the interests of the larger corporate community to which they belong. The view that the news media reflect corporate community interests because they are part of the corporate community is almost axiomatic. There would be no controversy in the claim that a newspaper owned by labor unions would promote positions that are compatible with the interests of labor. Nor would there be much disagreement with the view that a news network owned by environmentalists would take a dim view of fracking. Clearly, then, we should expect media owned by wealthy business owners to reflect the viewpoint of wealthy business owners.
Indeed, it would be naive to accept the deception implied in the phrase “independent media” that media that are independent of the state are neutral, unbiased, and therefore uniquely authoritative. They may be independent of the state, but that does not make them independent; they’re still dependent on their owners. But concealing their dependency allows the news media’s business owners to smuggle their interests into the ways the news is reported behind a facade of journalistic neutrality. Hence, a pro-business point of view is seen to be common sense, since it is disseminated by news media which profess to be independent and therefore impartial, unbiased, and objective. However, the truth of the matter is that privately-owned news media have a point of view, i.e., that of the corporate elite which own them. The same corporate elite dominates the state and the public policy process through: lobbying; funding think tanks to prepare policy recommendations for governments; political campaign contributions; and over-representation relative to their numbers in the legislative, executive and bureaucratic branches of the state. This explains why the Western news media uncritically echo the viewpoint of state officials: they’re both working for the same masters.
The function of the Western news media in propagating a point of view that favors its owners is evident in its propagation of certain ideas about North Korea as incontestable truths, though which in fact are far from incontestable, but which have the congenial effect from the perspective of the corporate elite of seeming to uphold the superiority of the capitalist system and the necessity of governments catering to foreign investors if they’re to secure prosperity for their citizenry.
These ideas, or myths, come in two parts:
1. The idea that North Korea is desperately poor.
2. The attribution of its alleged poverty to the public ownership and central planning of its economy and failure to establish an attractive climate for foreign investment.
Visitors to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, are often struck by the contrast between the city as it is (clean, modern, and teeming with well-dressed and seemingly prosperous residents) and North Korea as it is portrayed by the Western news media (impoverished, rundown, gloomy, on the verge of collapse.) Pyongyang is not the horror of poverty that Western news media make it out to be.
A recent article in the South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh paints a picture wildly at odds with the Western news media’s gloomy view.
Three years after Kim Jong-un came to power in North Korea, the streets of Pyongyang look much different. The streets of the city are lined with new 40-floor skyscrapers, and taxis drive down them. Before, they had been dark at night, but now they are illuminated by bright lights, while smartphone-toting women are dressed more smartly than before.
The Hankyoreh quotes a recent visitor to North Korea, Jin Zhe, Director of Northeast Asia Studies for the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences: “The economy appears to be moving briskly in Pyongyang these days. What particularly stood out were the large apartment buildings being built in various parts of the city and the bustling activity at the markets. You can really feel how much it’s thriving.”
The North Korean economy is growing and production of industrial and agricultural goods is on the rise . Food scarcity, however, has been a problem (though a diminishing one), and conditions appear to be less favorable in the countryside than in Pyongyang.  The existence of food scarcity is almost invariably attributed by Western reporters and editorial writers to the alleged inefficiencies of public ownership and planning or to North Korea’s investment in its military, allegedly at the expense of its people. Both attributions are facile.
Until the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, North Korea experienced no food insecurity under an economic system based on public ownership and planning. It was only after the demise of communism in Eastern Europe that food security became a problem. As in Cuba, the crash of the Eastern European socialist states created an economic shock, as North Korea’s trading relationships and economic interconnections with these states broke down. Agricultural production suffered as inputs became scarce. Food production was further set back by a series of natural calamities.
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe had two additional effects on North Korea’s economy.
First, it allowed the United States to ramp up its military intimidation of North Korea. In 1991, the top US military official at the time, Colin Powell, complained that “I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.”  With the Warsaw Pact out of the way, the United States could now concentrate on eliminating other communist states. In February 1993, Lee Butler, head of the US Strategic Command, announced that the United States was retargeting hydrogen bombs aimed at the old USSR on North Korea (and other targets), though at the time, North Korea was a non-nuclear weapons state. One month later, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.  Already on a permanent war footing—the Korean War had never officially ended and the United States had tens of thousands of troops garrisoned across the border in South Korea and in nearby Japan—North Korea was forced to devote a crushingly large part of its resources to its military and self-defense. Now the pressure on the North Korean economy was being ratcheted up further.
Second, the United States and its allies had maintained a wide-ranging system of sanctions on North Korea—more accurately described as a campaign of economic warfare, aimed at wrecking the North Korean economy. With the option open prior to 1990 of establishing economic ties and trading relationships with communist allies, North Korea was largely able to side-step the effects of the US-led campaign of economic warfare. However, after 1991 the door was closed, except for North Korea’s relationship with its neighbor China.
John Mueller and Karl Mueller explain:
During the Cold War the effect of economic sanctions was generally limited because when one side imposed them the other side often undermined them. Thus the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba was substantially mitigated for decades by compensatory Soviet aid. But in the wake of the Cold War, sanctions are more likely to be comprehensive and thus effective, in causing harm if not necessarily in achieving political objectives. So long as they can coordinate their efforts, the big countries have at their disposal a credible, inexpensive, and potent weapon to use against small and medium-sized foes. The dominant powers have shown that they can inflict enormous pain at remarkably little cost to themselves or the global economy. Indeed, in a matter of months or years whole economies can be devastated. 
Western news media almost never attribute the economic difficulties experienced by countries that have been subjected to campaigns of economic warfare to the effects of those campaigns. Instead, their economic difficulties are almost invariably imputed to economic mismanagement (which is equated to expropriation of privately-owned productive assets or failing to compete for, cater to, and indulge foreign investors) or to the targeted government’s socialist policies (and always, targeted governments pursue policies the US State Department would decry as socialist, though they’re often more accurately labelled as economically nationalist.) The aim of this deception is obvious: to discredit economic policy that fails to comport with the profit-making interests of the Western corporate community.
Much has been said by the political left about the devastating effects of the US embargo on Cuba and of the millions of Iraqis who died as a result of disruptions caused by Western sanctions throughout the 1990s. But very little has been said about sanctions in connection with North Korea, despite the reality that North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned country on earth and has been menaced by a campaign of unremitting US-led economic warfare since 1950. Policy-makers in Washington now despair of having any levers left to exert pressure on North Korea. The country is under such a heavy burden of sanctions, and so thoroughly menaced by military pressure, that there are few levers left to reach for.
In a December 26 Washington Post op-ed former US president Jimmy Carter opened a tiny crack in the near total embargo on mentioning sanctions and their effects on North Korea’s economy. Carter acknowledged that the “U.S. embargo, imposed 64 years ago at the start of the Korean War, has been more strictly enforced, with every effort made to restrict or damage North Korea’s economy.” Carter then went on to draw the link between US policy aimed at “destroying the (North Korean) economy” and “the plight of people,” arguing for economic warfare that didn’t attack “the living conditions” of North Koreans.  What he didn’t espouse (not unexpectedly, but which needs to be argued for) is the complete removal of sanctions on North Korea. The US-led campaign of economic warfare on the country has no legitimate grounds. Its ultimate aim, working in conjunction with US-led military pressure, is to force the North Korean government to jettison its system of public ownership and planning and to fold itself into South Korea, where it can become part of a larger US neo-colony. There are no legal or moral grounds for this policy. Its existence is rooted entirely in the profit-making interests of the West’s corporate elite. The more immediate goal of the campaign is to limit and disrupt the North Korean economy in order to discredit alternatives to capitalism and US free enterprise. Achieving this aim critically depends on the cooperation of the Western news media. They must ignore the effects of the sanctions (as well as US military pressure) and attribute North Korea’s economic difficulties to its economic and defense policies.
If propaganda amounts to the propagation of a self-serving narrative, the Western news media need look no further than themselves and their owners to find the perfect model. North Korea, according the propaganda system of the West, is desperately poor, when in fact, at least in Pyongyang, it is anything but. North Korea’s alleged poverty, according to the same model, is due to it military policies, with no mention made of how they are legitimate self-defensive measures taken to resist the very real military threat posed by the United States and its allies. Similarly, North Korea’s alleged indigence is imputed to its economic system, with the effect of economic warfare whose object is the destruction of the North Korean economy totally ignored.
What Western propaganda must miss is the most compelling story of all—how a country born off a guerrilla struggle against Japanese occupation holds on, and even, by some measures, has managed to thrive, despite being subjected to 64 years of economic warfare and military threat, including the threat of nuclear annihilation, by the most powerful and predatory state on the planet.
1. “After three years of Kim Jong-un, skyscrapers popping up on Pyongyang skyline,” The Hankyoreh, December 29, 2014.
2. In his New Years 2015 address, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un referred to his country’s “food problem” as well as “the shortage of electricity.”
3. Quoted in Carl Kaysen, Robert S. McNamara and George W. Rathjens, “Nuclear weapons after the Cold War,” Foreign Affairs, Fall 1991.
4. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. p. 488-489.
5. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999.
6. Jimmy Carter, “Cuba, North Korea, and getting sanctions right,” The Washington Post, December 26, 2014.
“Economic sanctions are, at their core, a war against public health.”
–The New England Journal of Medicine 
By Stephen Gowans
While campaigns are organized to deter the United States and Israel from acting on threats to launch an air war against Iran, both countries, in league with the European Union (winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize) carry on a low-intensity war against Iran that is likely to be causing more human suffering and death than strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities would. This is a war against public health, aimed at the most vulnerable: cancer patients, hemophiliacs, kidney dialysis patients, and those awaiting transplants. Its victims are unseen, dying anonymously in hospitals, not incinerated in spectacular explosions touched off by cruise missiles and bunker buster bombs. But ordinary Iranians who can’t get needed medications are every bit as much victims of war as those blown apart by bombs. And yet, we think, that as long as the bombs don’t rain down, that peace has been preserved. Perhaps it has, in formal terms, but bleeding to death in the crater of a bomb, or bleeding to death because you can’t get hemophilia drugs, is, in either case, death.
In Iran today there is an acute shortage of pharmaceuticals for kidney dialysis and transplants and for treating cancer, hemophilia, thalessemia, multiple sclerosis, and other disorders. Hospital equipment is breaking down for want of spare parts. And raw materials used by domestic pharmaceutical manufacturers—blocked by Western sanctions—are in short supply. It adds up to a healthcare crisis. The United States and European Union say their sanctions don’t apply to drugs and medical equipment, but US and European banks are unwilling to handle financial transactions with Iran. If they do, the US Treasury Department will deny them access to the US banking system. Since isolation from the world’s largest economy would guarantee their demise, banks comply and shun Iran. As a consequence, few goods from the West make their way into the country, the exemptions for drugs and medical equipment being nothing more than a public relations ruse to disguise the barbarity of the sanctions. Not that Washington is denying that its sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians. It’s just that responsibility for their consequences is denied. US president Barak Obama “has said the Iranian people should blame their own leaders.”  For what—failing to knuckle under?
“In contrast to war’s easily observable casualties, the apparently nonviolent consequences of economic intervention seem like an acceptable alternative. However…economic sanctions can seriously harm the health of persons who live in targeted nations.”  This has been well established and widely accepted in the cases of Iraq in the 1990s and the ongoing US blockade of Cuba. Political scientists John Mueller and Karl Mueller wrote an important paper in Foreign Affairs, in which they showed that economic sanctions “may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history.” 
“The dangers posed today by such enfeebled, impoverished, and friendless states as Iraq and North Korea are minor indeed”, they wrote in 1999. It might be added that the dangers posed by Iran to the physical safety of US citizens are not only minor but infinitesimally small. Notwithstanding the fevered fantasies of rightwing commentators, Iran has neither the means, nor the required death wish, to strike the United States. Nor Israel, which has the means—an arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons—to wipe Iran off the face of the earth. However, the danger the country poses to the idea of US domination – and hence, to the banks, corporations, and major investors who dominate US policy-making – are admittedly somewhat greater.
“Severe economic sanctions”, the Muellers contend, ought to be “designated by the older label of ‘economic warfare’”. “In past wars economic embargoes caused huge numbers of deaths. Some 750,000 German civilians may have died because of the Allied naval blockade during World War I.” 
“So long as they can coordinate their efforts,” the two political scientists continue, “the big countries have at their disposal a credible, inexpensive and potent weapon for use against small and medium-sized foes. The dominant powers have shown that they can inflict enormous pain at remarkably little cost to themselves or the global economy. Indeed, in a matter of months or years whole economies can be devastated…”  And with devastated economies, come crumbling healthcare systems and failure to provide for the basic healthcare rights of the population.
We might ask, then, why the United States and European Union, practitioners of economic warfare against Iran, are bent on destroying Iran’s economy, along with its public health system. “Sanctions,” New York Times’ reporter Rick Gladstone writes, have subjected “ordinary Iranians” to “increased deprivations” in order to “punish Iran for enriching uranium that the West suspects is a cover for developing the ability to make nuclear weapons.”  In other words, Iran is suspected of having a secret nuclear weapons program, and so must be sanctioned to force it to abandon it.
Contrary to Gladstone, the West doesn’t really believe that Tehran has a secret nuclear weapons program, yet even if we accept it does believe this, the position is indefensible. Why should Iranians be punished for developing a capability that the countries that have imposed sanctions already have?
The reason why, it will be said, is because Iranians are bent on developing nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. Didn’t Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten to “wipe Israel off the map”?
Regurgitated regularly by US hawks and Israeli politicians to mobilize support for the bombing of Iran, the claim is demagogic rubbish. Ahmadinejad predicted that Israel as a Zionist state would someday disappear much as South Africa as an apartheid state did. He didn’t threaten the physical destruction of Israel and expressed only the wish that historic Palestine would become a multinational democratic state of Arabs and the Jews whose ancestors arrived in Palestine before Zionist settlers. 
No less damaging to the argument that Iranians aspire to take Israel out in a hail of nuclear missiles is the reality that it would take decades for Iran to match Israel’s already formidable nuclear arsenal, if indeed it aspires to. For the foreseeable future, Israel is in a far better position to wipe Iran off the map. And given Israel’s penchant for flexing its US-built military muscle, is far more likely to be the wiper than wipee. Already it has almost wiped an entire people from the map of historic Palestine.
But this is irrelevant, for the premise that the West suspects Iran of developing a nuclear weapons capability is false. To be sure, the mass media endlessly recycle the fiction that the West suspects Iran’s uranium enrichment program is a cover for a nuclear weapons program, but who in the West suspects this? Not high officials of the US state, for they have repeatedly said that there’s no evidence that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program.
The consensus view of the United States’ 16 intelligence agencies is that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program years ago. Director of US intelligence James Clapper “said there was no evidence that (Iran) had made a decision on making a concerted push to build a weapon. David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director, concurred with that view…. Other senior United States officials, including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made similar statements.” 
Rather than weakening this conclusion, stepped up US espionage has buttressed it. Iran’s leaders “have opted for now against…designing a nuclear warhead,” said one former intelligence official briefed on US intelligence findings. “It isn’t the absence of evidence, it’s the evidence of an absence. Certain things are not being done”  that would indicate that Iran is working on nuclear weapons. Even Mossad, Israeli’s intelligence agency “does not disagree with the US on the weapons program,” according to a former senior US intelligence official. 
So, contrary to the claim that the West “suspects” Iran of concealing a nuclear weapons program, no one in a position of authority in the US state believes this to be true. Neither does Israeli intelligence. Why, then, is the United States and its allies subjecting ordinary Iranians to increased deprivations through sanctions?
The answer, according to Henry Kissinger, is because US policy in the Middle East for the last half century has been aimed at “preventing any power in the region from emerging as a hegemon.” This is another way of saying that the aim of US Middle East policy is to stop any Middle Eastern country from challenging its domination by the United States. Iran, Kissinger points out, has emerged as the principal challenger. 
Indeed, it did so as long ago as 1979, when the local extension of US power in Iran, the Shah, was overthrown, and the country set out on a path of independent economic and political development. For the revolutionaries’ boldness in asserting their sovereignty, Washington pressed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq into a war with Iran. This served the same purpose as today’s economic warfare, sabotage, threats of military intervention, and assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists: to weaken the country and stifle its development; to prevent it from thriving and thereby becoming an example to other countries of development possibilities outside US domination.
Uranium enrichment has emerged as point of conflict for two reasons.
First, a civilian nuclear power industry strengthens Iran economically and domestic uranium enrichment provides the country with an independent source of nuclear fuel. Were Iran to depend on the West for enriched uranium to power its reactors, it would be forever at the mercy of a hostile US state. Likewise, concern over energy security being in the hands of an outside power has led Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and South Korea to insist over US objections that they be allowed to produce nuclear fuel domestically, without sanction. With US nuclear reactor sales hanging in the balance, it appears that their wishes will be respected.  Iran will be uniquely denied.
Secondly, uranium enrichment provides Tehran with the capability of developing nuclear weapons quickly, if it should ever feel compelled to. Given Washington’s longstanding hostility to an independent Iran, there are good reasons why the country may want to strengthen its means of self-defense. The hypocrisy of the United States championing counter-proliferation—and only selectively since no one is asking Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, and the United States hasn’t the slightest intention of ever relinquishing its own—reveals the illegitimacy of the exercise.
The reason, then, for waging war on Iran’s public health, a war that intensifies the suffering of the sick and kills cancer, kidney dialysis and other patients, is not because their government has a secret nuclear weapons program —which no one in the US intelligence community believes anyway—but because a developing Iran with independent energy, economic and foreign policies threatens Washington’s preferred world political order—one in which the United States has unchallenged primacy. Primacy is sought, not to satisfy ambitions for power for power’s sake, or to provide ordinary US citizens with economic opportunities at home, or to protect them from dangers that originate abroad, but to secure benefits for the plutocrats who dominate US public policy. The benefits uniquely accrue to plutocrats: opportunities to squeeze more for themselves from our labor, our land, and our resources and from those of our brethren abroad—the 99% in other lands, with whom we’re linked by a common economic position and interests. If the plutocrats and their loyal political servants in Washington and Brussels have to kill numberless Iranians to secure these benefits, they will. And are.
1. Eisenberg L, “The sleep of reason produces monsters—human costs of economic sanctions,” New England Journal of Medicine, 1997; 336:1248-50.
2. Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran sanctions take unexpected toll on medical imports”, The New York times, November 2, 2012; Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “In Iran, sanctions take toll on the sick”, The Washington Post, September 4, 2012
3. Karine Morin and Steven H. Miles, “Position paper: The health effects of economic sanctions and embargoes: The role of health professionals”, Annals of Internal Medicine, Volume 132, Number 2, 18 January 2000.
4. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of mass destruction”, Foreign Affairs, Volume 78, Number 3, May/June 1999.
7. Rick Gladstone, “Iranian President Says Oil Embargo Won’t Hurt”, The New York Times, April 10, 2012.
8. Glenn Kessler, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?” The Washington Post, October 6, 2011.
9. James Risen and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. agencies see no move by Iran to build a bomb”, The New York Times, February 24, 2012.
10. Joby Warrick and Greg Miller, “U.S. intelligence gains in Iran seen as boost to confidence”, The Washington Post, April 7, 2012.
11. James Risen, “U.S. faces a tricky task in assessment of data on Iran”, The New York Times, March 17, 2012.
12. Henry A. Kissinger, “A new doctrine of intervention?” The Washington Post, March 30, 2012.
13. Carol E. Lee and Jay Solomon, “Obama to discuss North Korea, Iran”, The Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2012.