Modern-Day American Imperialism: The Middle East and Beyond
[A Talk delivered at Boston University, March 17, 2009. Transcribed by Steve Lyne]
I’ve been asked to talk about modern-day American imperialism. That’s a rather challenging task. In fact, talking about American imperialism is rather like talking about triangular triangles. The United States is the one country that exists, as far as I know, and ever has, that was founded as an empire explicitly. According to the founding fathers, when the country was founded it was an “infant empire.” That’s George Washington. Modern-day American imperialism is just a later phase of a process that has continued from the very first moment without a break, going in a very steady line. So, we are looking at one phase in a process that was initiated when the country was founded and has never changed.
The model for the founding fathers that they borrowed from Britain was the Roman Empire. They wanted to emulate it. I’ll talk about that a little. Even before the Revolution, these notions were very much alive. Benjamin Franklin, 25 years before the Revolution, complained that the British were imposing limits on the expansion of the colonies. He objected to this, borrowing from Machiavelli. He admonished the British (I’m quoting him), “A prince that acquires new territories and removes the natives to give his people room will be remembered as the father of the nation.” And George Washington agreed. He wanted to be the father of the nation. His view was that “the gradual extension of our settlement will as certainly cause the savage as the wolf to retire, both being beasts of prey, though they differ in shape.” I’ll skip some contemporary analogs that you can think of. Thomas Jefferson, the most forthcoming of the founding fathers, said, “We shall drive them [the savages] -- We shall drive them with the beasts of the forests into the stony mountains,” and the country will ultimately be “free of blot or mixture”—meaning red or black. It wasn’t quite achieved, but that was the goal. Furthermore, Jefferson went on, “Our new nation will be the nest from which America, north and south, is to be peopled,” displacing not only the red men here but the Latin-speaking population to the south and anyone else who happened to be around.
There was a deterrent to those glorious aims, mainly Britain. Britain was the most powerful military force in the world at the time, and it did prevent the steps that the founding fathers attempted to take. In particular, it blocked the invasion of Canada. The first attempted invasion of Canada was before the Revolution, and there were several others later, but it was always blocked by British force, which is why Canada exists. The United States did not actually recognize Canada’s existence until after the First World War. Another goal that was blocked by British force was Cuba. Again, the founding fathers regarded the taking over of Cuba as essential to the survival of the infant empire. But the British fleet was in the way, and they were too powerful, just as the Russians blocked John F. Kennedy’s invasion. However, they understood that sooner or later it would come. The great grand strategist John Quincy Adams, the sort-of intellectual father of manifest destiny, pointed out in the 1820s that we just have to wait. He said that Cuba will sooner or later fall into our hands by the laws of political gravitation, just as an apple falls from the tree. What he meant is that over time the United States would become more powerful, Britain would become weaker, and the deterrent would be overcome, which in fact finally happened.
And we should not ignore these early events. They are very much related to current history. That’s made very clear by scholarship on current affairs. A major scholarly work on the Bush Doctrine (George W Bush doctrine), the preemptive war doctrine, is by John Lewis Gaddis, the most respected historian of the Cold War period. It’s on the roots of the Bush Doctrine. And he traces it right back to John Quincy Adams, who is his hero—the great grand strategist. In particular, to Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Florida, which conquered Florida from the Spanish. That was strongly approved by then Secretary of State Adams in a famous state paper in which he advocated the principle of preemptive war on the basis of the thesis that expansion is the path to security, as Gaddis puts it. So if we want to be secure (after all, we want to defend ourselves), we have to expand--at that time expand into Florida. We were being threatened by what were called runaway slaves and lawless Indians, who were in the way. They were threatening us by their existence, by barring our expansion. And as Gaddis points out, there’s a straight line from that to George Bush. And now “expansion is the path to security” means we take over the world, we take over space, take over the galaxy. There’s no limit to how much you have to expand to guarantee security, and that’s been the principle from the beginning.
Gaddis is a good historian, and he cites the right sources on the so-called Seminole war, Jackson’s conquest of Florida. But he doesn’t tell us what the sources say, and it’s worth looking at what they say. They describe it as a war of murder and plunder and extermination, driving out the indigenous population. There were pretexts made, but they were so flimsy that nobody paid much attention to them. It was also the first executive war in violation of the Constitution, setting a precedent which has been followed ever since. There was no Congressional authorization. Adams lied through his teeth to Congress. It’s all very familiar. So Gaddis is correct: it is the model for the Bush Doctrine. He approves of both of them, but that’s a moral judgment. But his analysis is correct. Yes, what is happening now traces right back to the wars of extermination and plunder and murder and lying and deceit and so on—the executive wars that John Quincy Adams was the great spokesman for.
Adams, incidentally, later in his life regretted this. After his own contributions were well in the past, he condemned the Mexican War as an executive war and a terrible precedent. It wasn’t a precedent; he’d established the precedent. And he also expressed remorse over the fate of what he called “that hapless race of Native Americans which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty.” They knew what they were doing. Contemporary history likes to prettify it, but if you read the descriptions and the observations by the people involved, they knew exactly what they were doing. He expressed regret for it, but his own role was long past.
Well, it’s commonly argued that American imperialism began in 1898. That’s when the US did finally succeed in conquering Cuba, what’s called in the history books “liberating” Cuba—namely intervening in order to prevent Cuba from liberating itself from Spain, and turning it into a virtual colony as it remained until 1959, setting off hysteria in the United States which hasn’t ended yet. Also, conquering and taking over Hawaii, which was stolen by force and guile from its population. Puerto Rico, another colony. Soon moving to the Philippines and liberating the Philippines. Also liberating a couple of hundred thousand souls to heaven in the process. And again, the reverberations of that extend right to the present: ample state terror, and the one corner of Asia that hasn’t undergone high development—something we’re not supposed to notice.
But the belief that the imperial thrust started in 1898 is an example of what historians of empire call “the salt water fallacy,” the belief that you have an empire if you cross salt water. In fact, if the Mississippi River were as wide as the Irish Sea, the imperial thrust would have started much earlier. But that’s an irrelevance. Expanding over settled territory is no different from expanding over the waters. So, what happened in 1898 was just an extension of the process that began when the infant empire, as it saw itself, was first formed, in its first moments. The extension to beyond was… Again, a lot of this starts in New England, with New England merchants who were very eager to take over the Pacific trade, the fabulous markets of China, which were always in their minds, which meant conquering the northwest so you can control the ports and so on, meant kicking the British out and others out, and so on. It went on from right here. The goal, as William Seward, who was Secretary of State in the 1860s, pointed out (a central figure in American imperialism) was that we have to gain command of the empire of the seas. We conquer the continent. We’re going to take it over. The Monroe Doctrine was a declaration that we’ll take it over—everybody else keep out. And the process of doing so continued through the nineteenth century and beyond until today. But now we have to have command of the seas. And that meant when the time was ripe, 70 years later, when the apple started to fall from the tree, given relative power, proceeding overseas to the overseas empire. But it’s basically no different than the earlier steps. The leading philosophical imperialist, Brooks Adams, pointed out (this is 1885; we were just on the verge of moving overseas extensively) that “all Asia must be reduced to our economic system, the Pacific must be turned into an inland sea” (just like the Caribbean had been). And “there’s no reason,” he said, “why the United States should not become a greater seat of wealth and power than ever was England, Rome, or Constantinople.”
Well, again there was a deterrent. The European powers wanted a piece of the action in East Asia, and Japan by then was becoming a formidable force. So it was necessary to explore more complex modes of gaining command of turning the Pacific into an inland sea and going on. And that was lucidly explained by Woodrow Wilson, who is one of the most brutal and vicious interventionists in American history. The probable permanent destruction of Haiti is one of his many accomplishments. Those of you who study international relations theory or read about it know that there is a notion of Wilsonian idealism. The fact that that notion can exist is a very interesting commentary on our intellectual culture and scholarly culture if you look at his actual actions. Fine words are easy enough. But these are some of his fine words which he was smart enough not to put into print. He just wrote them for himself. He said, “Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down … Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.”
That’s 1907. There’s a current version of that, a crude version by Thomas Friedman, who says that “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas” (meaning the US Air Force). Well, that’s a crude version of Wilson’s point. You’ve got to batter down the doors by force and threat, and no corner of the world must be left unused—no useful corner.
There was a watershed in this process at the time of the Second World War. At the time of the Second World War, the US already had by far the largest economy in the world and had for a long time, but it wasn’t a major player in world affairs. Britain was the leading player, France second, the United States lagging. It controlled the hemisphere and had made forays into the Pacific, but it was not the leading player. However, during the war, the US planners understood that the war was going to end with the US the world dominant power. However it turned out, other competitors were going to destroy themselves and each other, and the US would be left alone with incomparable security. In fact, the US gained enormously from the war. Industrial production virtually quadrupled. The war ended the Depression—the New Deal measures hadn’t done so. At the end of the war, the US had literally half of the world’s wealth (and competitors were either damaged or destroyed) and incomparable security. It controlled the western hemisphere; it controlled both oceans; it controlled the opposite side of both oceans. There’s nothing remotely like it in history. And during the war, planners understood that something like that was going to turn out. It was obvious from the nature of the war. From 1939 to 1945, there were high level meetings, regular meetings, of the State Department (the State Department planners) and the Council on Foreign Relations (the sort-of main external nongovernmental input into foreign policy), and they laid careful plans for the world that they expected to emerge. It was a world, they said, in which the United States will “hold unquestioned power” and will ensure “the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with US global designs.” Incidentally, I’m not quoting NeoCons. I’m quoting the Roosevelt administration, the peak of American Liberalism.
They called for what they called “an integrated policy to achieve military and economic supremacy” for the United States and bar any exercise of sovereignty by anyone who would interfere with it. And they would do this in a region that they called the “grand area.” Well, in the early part of the war, 1939 to 1943, the grand area was defined as the western hemisphere routinely, the former British Empire (which the US would take over), and the Far East. That would be the grand area. They assumed at the time that there would be a German-led world—the rest. So there would be a non-German world (that’s us) and a German world. As the Russians gradually ground down the Nazi armies after 1942, it became pretty clear that there wouldn’t be a German world. So the grand area was expanded to be as much of the world as could be controlled— limitless. That’s simply pursuing the old position that expansion is the path to security for the infant empire of 1736.
These policies were laid down during the war, but then they were implemented right after the war. In fact, now that we have available in the declassified record the planning documents of the late 1940s, it turns out they’re (not very surprisingly) very similar to the wartime planning. One of the leading figures was George Kennan, who was head of the State Department policy planning staff. He wrote one of his many important papers in 1948 (
Southeast Asia would be—its function was to provide resources and raw materials to the former colonial powers. Meanwhile, we would purchase them, too. That would send dollars there, which the colonial powers would take, not the population. And they could use those. Britain, France, the Netherlands could use the dollars to purchase US manufactures. (It’s called a triangular trading arrangement), which would allow… The US had the only really functioning industrial system in the world and had a huge excess of manufacturing products, and there was what was called a “dollar gap.” The countries we wanted to sell it to didn’t have dollars—that’s Europe, basically. So we had to provide them with dollars, and the function of Southeast Asia was to play a role in that. Hence the support for French colonialism in recapturing its Indochinese colony, and so on. There were various variations, but that’s the basic story.
And so Kennan went through the world and assigned them a function each part. When he got to Africa, he decided that the United States really didn’t have much interest in Africa at that time, and therefore we should hand it over to the Europeans to “exploit” (that’s his word)—to “exploit” for their reconstruction. He indicated that it would also give them a kind of a psychological lift after the damage of the war and while we were taking over all of their domains. Well, you could imagine a different relationship between Europe and Africa in the light of history, but that couldn’t even be considered. I mean, it was too outlandish to discuss and still is. So Africa was to be exploited by Europe for its reconstruction, with consequences we know.
The US has since gotten into the act. Well, that was Kennan. He was removed from office soon after because he was considered too soft-hearted—not up to dealing with this harsh world. And he was replaced with real tough guys: Dean Acheson, Paul Nitze, and others. There’s no time to go through it, but if you want an education on hysterical jingoist fanaticism, you really should read their documents. If you study these issues, you’ve heard of at least NSC68, which is discussed by everyone but its rhetoric is omitted. And you have to look at its rhetoric to see what’s going on in these crazed heads of the great thinkers. And this is true of the whole National Security Council culture. There’s a wonderful book on it that came out a couple of years ago by James Peck, a Sinologist, called Washington’s China. It’s the first scholarly book to go through the whole National Security culture. And it’s like reading a collection of madmen. But it’s very much worth studying, much more worth studying than most of what people study in their courses on these issues.
Well, anyway, what do we do about Latin America? It’s our domain. Well, Kennan was pretty explicit about that, too. He said in Latin America we should prefer police states. The reason is that, as he said, harsh government measures of repression should cause no qualms as long as the results are on balance favorable to our interests—in particular, as long as we guarantee the protection of “our resources.” Our resources happen to be somewhere else, but that’s a historical accident. They’re our resources, and we have to protect them, and if you have to do it by the mailed fist, okay, that’s the way you do it. As I say, he was removed. There is a long, ugly history.
There’s no time to go through it, but the Cold War history essentially follows this pattern. The Cold War was a kind of a tacit compact between the superpower and the smaller power, the United States and Russia. The compact was that the United States would be free to carry out violence and terror and atrocities with few limits in its own domains, and the Russians would be able to run their own dungeon without too much US interference. So the Cold War in effect was a war of the United States against the Third World, and of Russia against its much smaller domains in Eastern Europe. And the events of the Cold War illustrate that. Each great power used the other’s threats as a pretext for repression and violence and destruction, the United States way more than Russia if you look at the record, reflecting their relative power. But that’s essentially the picture. In fact, for the United States, the Cold War was basically a war against independent nationalism in the Third World—what was called “radical nationalism.” “Radical” means “doesn’t follow orders.” So, there’s this constant struggle against radical nationalism, and in particular, the leading thesis all the way through is that even the smallest place if it becomes independent is a serious danger. It’s what Henry Kissinger called a virus that might infect others. Like, even a tiny place—Grenada, or something. If it has successful independent development, others might get the idea that we can follow, the rot will spread as Acheson put it. So you’ve got to stamp it out right at the source. It’s not a novel idea. Any mafia don will explain it to you. The Godfather does not tolerate it when some small storekeeper doesn’t pay protection money. Not that he needs the money. But it’s a bad idea. Others might get the idea. And in particular small, weak countries have to be—we have to crush them with particular violence because there it’s easy. Nobody can stop you. And others get the point. That’s a large part of international affairs right to the present.
Well, to learn about what the Cold War was about, the obvious place to look is what happened when it ended. So, November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union soon collapsed. So what did the United States do? How did it react? I mean, the pretext for everything that had happened in the past was, y’know, the Russian monster—“the monolithic and ruthless conspiracy” attempting to take over the world, as John F Kennedy called it. Well, now the monolithic and ruthless conspiracy was gone, so what do we do? Well, it turns out what we do is exactly the same thing but with different pretexts. And that was made clear instantly. A couple of weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, the United States invaded Panama, killing unknown numbers of people. We don’t count our victims. According to Panamanian human rights groups, maybe a couple of thousand people, bombing the slum—the El Chorillo slum. The Panamanians take it seriously. In fact, last December they once again declared a national day of mourning referring to the invasion, but I don’t think it even made the newspapers here. I mean, when you crush ants in your path, you don’t pay much attention to what they may have to say about it. But they invaded Panama and had to veto some Security Council Resolutions. The point of the invasion was to kidnap a kind of a minor thug, Noriega, who was kidnapped, brought to the United States, tried, sentenced to a long sentence—sentenced for crimes that were real. But he had committed them when he was on the CIA payroll, almost without exception—a small footnote. But for that we had to invade Panama and kill however many people it was (a couple of thousand, probably) and install a government of bankers and narco-traffickers, and drug trafficking shot up, and so on. But it was a successful invasion and applauded here.
It was kind of a footnote to history. This kind of thing the US does in its domains all the time, but it was a little different. For one thing, the pretexts were different. This time it wasn’t that we were defending ourselves against the Russians. It was we were defending ourselves against the Hispanic narco-traffickers who were going to come and shoot up our kids and destroy the country and so on. In fact, Noriega was a minor narco-trafficker who had mostly been working for the
Another was that the United States was much freer to act. That was pointed out right away by Elliot Abrams, who is now back in office running Middle East affairs. He pointed out right away that the invasion of Panama was different from what had preceded because we didn’t have to be concerned about the Russians stirring up trouble somewhere in the world. We were free to use force without impediment. And it was a correct observation. It goes on right until today. Many of the violent acts that the US has carried out since then it would have hesitated seriously about if there was a deterrent. But now there are no deterrents anymore, so you do what you like. That was a change.
Again, if you want to learn more about what the Cold War was about, have a look at the documents that were produced right afterwards. This is George Bush the First. In early 1990, he gave his new budget request. There was a new National Security Strategy, and they described what the post Cold War world would be. Turns out, exactly as before. We still have to have a huge, massive military force, and we have to maintain what they called the Defense Industrial Base. That’s a euphemism for high-tech industry. For the public and so on, you talk about our belief in free trade and free enterprise and so on, but anyone who knows anything about the US economy knows it’s based extensively on the state sector. High-tech industry is very largely created within the state sector, and it’s typically under a Pentagon cover as long as it’s electronics based. And that’s called the defense industrial base. So we have to maintain the huge public subsidy to high-tech industry called the Defense Industrial Base.
We have to have a massive military. But it has different targets. As they pointed out, before this, we were aimed at a weapons-rich target: namely, Russia. Now we are aiming at a target-rich region: namely, the Third World. There aren’t many weapons, but there are a lot of rich targets there. So, that’s what we need the major military forces for. In fact, that’s pretty much what it was in the past, too, but now it’s openly conceded. With regard to the Middle East specifically, we have to maintain intervention forces directed at the Middle East. And then comes this interesting comment. We need the same intervention forces directed at the Middle East where the significant problems that we faced “could not have been laid at the Kremlin’s door.” Okay, so, sorry folks, we’ve been lying to you for the last 50 years claiming we’re defending ourselves against the Russians. But now that the Russians aren’t there, it turns out the problems couldn’t have been laid at the Kremlin’s door, which is correct.
The problems were independent nationalism and they continue to be so. But now it’s said open and clear because the pretext is gone. We have to also be concerned now about what they call the “technological sophistication” of Third World powers. It’s a really overwhelming threat. Kind of like Hillary Clinton a year or two ago saying that if Iran attacks Israel with nuclear weapons, we’ll obliterate Iran. The chance of Iran attacking Israel with nuclear weapons is somewhere below an asteroid hitting Israel. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a nice throwaway line. But that’s the kind of threat we have to worry about. It’s kind of like Ronald Reagan in 1985 strapping on his cowboy boots and declaring a state of national emergency because of the threat posed to the national security of the United States by the government of Nicaragua, which was only two days away from Harlingen, Texas. So we really had to tremble in terror. Well, that’s standard. It had to increase after the Cold War with the main pretexts gone, and it has.
This is all consistent with a conception of aggression that has developed through the period and right up to today—it’s very lively today. Aggression has a meaning, but that meaning doesn’t apply to us. For US leaders, aggression means resistance. So, anyone who resists the United States is guilty of aggression. And that makes sense if we own the world. So any active resistance is aggression against us. So when the US invaded South Vietnam in the early 1960s under Kennedy, Kennedy said we were defending ourselves from what he called “the assault from within.” The leading liberal light Adlai Stevenson described it as “internal aggression”—so, internal aggression by South Vietnamese against us, and of course we were there by right because we own the world. And that continues right to the present, so we’ll skip a lot of time, because nothing much changed, and come right up till today. So the big problem in the Middle East now, if you read the Washington Post a couple of days ago, is “the growing aggressiveness of Iran.” That’s what’s causing the problems of the Middle East. Well, y’know, aggression has a meaning. It means sending your armed forces into the territory of some other state. The latest case of Iranian aggression is a couple of centuries ago, unless we count Iranian aggression carried out under the Shah, which we approved of. A tyrant who we imposed conquered a couple of Arab islands, but that was okay. But, nevertheless, we have to defend ourselves against Iranian aggression in Iraq, in Lebanon, and in Gaza, where Iran is carrying out aggression—meaning people there are doing things we don’t like. And Russia isn’t around, so we’ll blame it on Iran. That’s aggression. And there’s even a lot of discussion about aggression inside Iraq carried out by the renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. If you read the press, you might get the idea that Muqtada’s first name is renegade. There’s hardly a reference to him that doesn’t talk about “the renegade Muqtada al-Sadr.” Why is he a renegade? Well, he opposes the US invasion of his country. Okay, that makes him a renegade or a radical—obviously. And that’s routine. Nobody questions that. It’s kind of a reflexive description.
Condoleezza Rice was asked a little while ago in an interview, How could we end the War in Iraq? She said there’s a very easy way to end the war, it’s quite obvious: Stop the flow of arms to foreign fighters. Stop the flow of foreign fighters across the border. That’ll end the war in Iraq. If somebody was looking at this who hadn’t been adequately brainwashed by a good western education, they would collapse in ridicule. I mean, yes, there are foreign fighters in Iraq and plenty of foreign arms in there—namely, from the country that invaded Iraq. But they’re not foreign, remember. They’re indigenous because we’re indigenous everywhere. That follows from owning the world, going back to the infant empire. It spreads. So we’re not foreign fighters there or anywhere else. We’re indigenous, and it’s the foreign fighters who have to be stopped.
And actually the concept of aggression has expanded recently. Back in January, you may have seen there was an important statement by five former NATO commanders which was reported. The big issue was that they had said we have to base our military posture on possession of nuclear weapons. But it’s nothing new. It’s always been true. It was strongly advocated by the Clinton administration—in much stronger terms, in fact. But one thing that was new was their expansion of the concept “acts of war.” They said an act of war against which we must defend ourselves by the use of nuclear weapons, if necessary, is using weapons of finance. Okay, so if a country uses weapons of finance against us, that’s an act of war, and we have to be ready to use nuclear weapons if necessary.
Well, two months after, in late March, the United States Treasury Department warned the world’s financial institutions against any dealing with Iran’s state-owned banks. Now, those warnings have teeth thanks to the Patriot Act. A little-noticed element of the Patriot Act permits the United States to bar from access to the United States financial system any country that violates its orders, meaning that if a German or Chinese or other bank tries to have dealings with Iran, they can be barred from the US financial system, which is a cost that very few are willing to bear--and is in fact a declaration of war by the judgment of the five NATO commanders, an act of war against which Iran is entitled to respond any way it likes, perhaps with nuclear weapons or terror or whatever, according to these judgments.
Now, you’ll notice that there’s a serious logical fallacy in what I’ve been saying. It overlooks two fundamental principles, which are the crucial principles of the world order. The rest is footnotes. The first principle is that we own the world, and Iran doesn’t. So therefore the principles don’t apply to us; they only apply to others. And kind of corollary to that is that everything we do is necessarily with the best of intentions. That’s a tautology. You don’t have to give evidence or arguments. And that’s a constant feature of the intellectual culture, almost without exception, across the spectrum.
So, for example, during the invasion of Vietnam—I hope I don’t have to describe it to you, but it killed several million people, destroyed three countries. It was just a monstrous atrocity. There was vast mainstream discussion of it. But if you look closely, you’ll find it never included a principled critique of the war. That was not permissible. Typically, just to keep to the left critical end (and the rest gets worse), at the end of the war, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times wrapped it up. He said, speaking from the left liberal extreme, that the United States entered the war with “blundering efforts to do good.” Notice “efforts to do good” is a tautology. We did it, so therefore it’s efforts to do good. So it’s not saying anything. “Blundering” because it didn’t work—as well as they wanted, at least. It worked pretty well, but not as well as they wanted. So we started with blundering efforts to do good, but by 1969 it was clear that we could not establish democracy in South Vietnam at a cost acceptable to ourselves. Well, “establish democracy in South Vietnam” is on a par with some Soviet Commissar saying that Stalin was trying to establish democracy in Eastern Europe. But that doesn’t matter. It’s us, so we were doing it. But the problem with it was the cost to us. Okay? So that meant we had to sort of start pulling out.
Well, that’s the critique at the very left end. I’ll take one more example: the leading American liberal historian, maybe the most famous historian of his generation, Arthur Schlesinger, who was at first a super hawk like the whole Kennedy administration was—no alternative to victory in their invasion of South Vietnam, which is what it was. But by the late 60s he was having second thoughts and he wrote a book expressing them. He said, “We all pray” that the hawks will be correct in hoping that the surge of the day (a big influx of troops) will be successful. And if they are, we will be “praising the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government” in winning the war. And he was aware of what it was. He said, leaving a land of wreck and ruin, with its institutions destroyed. It may never recover. But we’ll nevertheless be praising the wisdom and the statesmanship of the American government. And we pray that they’re right, the hawks. But he said they probably aren’t right. It’s probably going to be too costly to us. No question about the cost to the Vietnamese—land of wreck and ruin. So, therefore, maybe we ought to rethink it.
Well, that’s the criticism at the critical end of the spectrum—the dovish critical end. Then from there on over to the jingoist spectrum, we have a kind of a debate, could we have won with more force, or was it a lost cause anyway. It was rather striking that the population is out of this. So, in 1975, the year when Lewis wrote this, 70% of the population thought that the war was “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake. “ Try to find anything in the literature of educated sectors that says it was anything but a mistake, that it was fundamentally wrong and immoral. That’s not unusual. Internally, the government was aware of this. One of the things that is not taught but should be read, because it’s very illuminating, is the final part of the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers are not declassified archives. They are stolen archives, so we know or have a better idea of what they were thinking. The Pentagon Papers end in 1968, a few months after the Tet Offensive in January 1968, which convinced the business world this is going to cost too much and we’d better start winding it down. There was a request from the government to send another couple of hundred thousand troops to Vietnam. But they were dubious about doing it, and didn’t do it finally, because they were afraid that there would be a popular uprising in the United States of unprecedented proportions, and they would need the troops for civil disorder control because of protests among privileged people—women, youth, and others who just weren’t going to take any more. Well, that tells you… They didn’t admit that they were listening, but they were. And they always do. They needed the troops for control, and they sort of slowly started backing off. Another 6 years of war devastated Laos and Cambodia and much of Vietnam, but at least they started winding down.
Well, that was 1969. But notice that you can take the rhetoric about the Vietnam War and translate it almost verbatim to discussion of the Iraq War. There is no principled critique within the mainstream. And nobody can… By principled critique, I mean the kind of critique that we would carry out reflexively and do when somebody else commits aggression—say when the Russians invade Czechoslovakia, or Afghanistan, or Chechnya. We don’t ask, “Is it too costly?” In fact, it wasn’t costly at all. They practically killed nobody in Czechoslovakia, though they killed plenty in Chechnya after reducing the place to ruin. Apparently it’s functioning pretty well. In fact, according to western correspondents, if David Petraeus could achieve anything in Iraq like what Putin achieved in Chechnya, he’d probably be crowned king or something like that. But, nevertheless, we condemn it—rightly. It doesn’t matter whether it worked or not, or whether it was costly to them or not. Or when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, killing possibly a fraction of the number of people that Bush killed a couple of months earlier when he invaded Panama. But we nevertheless denounce it as aggression. That’s a principled objection.
But when we carry out aggression, it’s inconceivable. And that goes back to the principles that I mentioned. We own the world, and everything we do is by definition good in intention. So the worst it can be is what Barack Obama calls a “strategic blunder,” or what Hillary Clinton calls getting into a civil war which we can’t win. In fact, Iraqis overwhelmingly blame the civil war on us, but that’s irrelevant too. That’s the level of critique, and it follows from the principles that I mentioned. And it governs news coverage, too, in fact pretty openly. Here’s John Burns. He’s the dean of correspondents, the most senior, most respected correspondent in Iraq after a long career. He says that the United States is the predominant economic, political, and military power in the world” and has been “the single greatest force for stability in the world such as it is now, certainly since the second World War….If the outcome in Iraq were to destroy the credibility of American power, to destroy America`s willingness to use its power in the world to achieve good, to fight back against totalitarianism, authoritarianism, gross human rights abuses, it would be a very dark day.”
Okay, in other words, that’s the framework of reporting. Reporting must be cheering for the home team. Nothing else is conceivable because of the depth of these principles which are instilled into people in the educational system and propaganda. You can’t see the world in any other terms. So it’s “neutral, objective reporting” to say we’re cheering for the home team. And it’s quite open. It’s interesting that he said it so clearly. He says that’s particularly true in the Middle East.
But notice that it makes not the slightest difference what the people of the world or the Middle East think. That’s not relevant. Or for that matter what the people in the United States think. So the Vietnam War was benign efforts to do good, which were too costly to us even when 70% of the population said that it’s fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake. The population here is as irrelevant as the population in the rest of the world—unless you’re frightened of them and you have to keep your troops here for civil disorder control. What do people think? Well, what people think, we know from international polls that are regularly taken. They think that the United States is the most frightening, dangerous country in the world—not John Burns’s line. And there’s overwhelming opposition to US force, almost everywhere. It’s also true of the Middle East. And there’s nothing new about it.
So our current George Bush, after 9/11, asked, “Why do they hate us?” and went on to explain that they hate our freedoms, and so on. You remember that. But what the press should have reported is that he was just repeating a question that President Eisenhower asked in 1958. President Eisenhower asked his staff why there “a campaign of hatred against us” among the people of the Middle East. And the National Security Council, the highest planning agency, had provided an answer. They said of the people of the Middle East that their perception is that the United States supports brutal tyrannies, blocks democracy and development, and does so because we want control of their oil. And then they went on to say, yes, the perception is more or less correct and that’s the way it ought to be. And so therefore there is a campaign of hatred against us. And so it continues.
After 9/11, The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, conducted some polls in the Middle East. They didn’t care about the general population, what’s demeaningly called “the Arab street.” They polled what they called “moneyed Muslims”—bankers, managers of multinational corporations—y’know, the kind of guys we like. And they found pretty much the same thing as 1958. There’s a… They don’t have any objection to neo-liberalism or any of this stuff. In fact, they love it. But they condemn the United States for supporting harsh, tyrannical regimes (which it does) and opposing democracy and development (which it does) because we want to control their energy resources.
By 2001, they had other objections—namely, Israel’s US-backed vicious repression and dispossession of Palestinians, which is ongoing; and also the sanctions against Iraq. The sanctions against Iraq didn’t get much play here because we don’t pay attention to our crimes. That’s crucial. That’s part of the principle that everything we do is good. But they do pay attention. And in fact we know a lot about them, or we can if we want to. There were two directors of the Oil for Food Program, supposedly the humanitarian part of the sanctions. Both of them resigned because they regarded the sanctions as “genocidal,” carrying out a huge massacre of the population. The Clinton administration would not permit them to transmit their information to the Security Council, which was technically responsible. And the media agree. The spokesman for the State Department, James Burns, said in reference to Hans von Sponeck (the second of the directors), “This man in Baghdad is paid to work, not to talk.” And the press agrees, and scholarship agrees, so they’re suppressed. They knew more about Iraq than any other westerner. They had hundreds of observers running around the country sending back reports. But you can do a Google search and find out how often they were allowed to speak in the run-up to the war, or for that matter since. Von Sponeck, who is a very distinguished international diplomat, wrote a book about it about 2 years ago called A Different Kind of War. I don’t think there was a reference to it in the United States, let alone a review. We do not want to publicize our genocidal actions. But the people of the Middle East noticed and didn’t like it, and that increased the campaign of hatred among the moneyed Muslims, our friends there. We don’t have to think about the others. But it doesn’t matter what they think either.
The same is true of the invasion of Iraq. Iraqis compare it to the Mongol invasions. Iraq may never recover. The great success story of Petraeus is to establish warlord armies (which will probably tear the country up in the future) and also to turn Baghdad… It’s true the violence in Baghdad has declined—partly because there are fewer people to kill. Y’know, there’s been massive ethnic cleansing, and that’s been accelerated by the Petraeus strategy of building essentially walled communities. There’s a comment by Nir Rosen, who is one of the two or three journalists who actually reports seriously from Iraq. He speaks Arabic fluently and he looks Arab, so he can get around easily and travels all over—not with the armed guards and Abrams tanks and so on. He says, talking about Baghdad recently, “Looming over the homes (in the district he’s looking at) are 12-foot high walls built by the Americans to confine people to their own neighborhood, emptied and destroyed by civil war (which were fomented by the US invasion). Walled off by the surge, sections of the city feel more like a desolate, post-apocalyptic maze of concrete tunnels than a living, inhabited neighborhood.” They’re controlled by separation walls and in fact by the increasing use of air power. But it’s a little quieter, so therefore the critics (having no principal criticism) don’t talk about it much.
Well, what does the public think about all these things? Well, we know about Iraq. The public wants us to get out. But they’re irrelevant. What about Iran, the next major crisis looming, which will make Iraq look like a tea party if they go through with it? There are opinions about this. There is the opinion of American elites, which you can read in The New York Times, The Washington Post, liberal journals, and so on. They’ll tell you that Iran is defying the world by enriching uranium. Well, exactly who is “the world”? Well, we can find out. There is an organization called G77—130 countries. It includes the vast majority of the people of the world. They vigorously support Iran’s right to all the rights guaranteed by the nonproliferation treaty, including enriching uranium for nuclear power. So they’re not part of the world. Now what about the American population? A majority of the American population agrees with G77—namely, that Iran should have the right to produce nuclear energy but not nuclear weapons. So the American population is not part of the world. So non-aligned countries are not part of the world, the American population is not part of the world, and obviously Iranians are not part of the world. So, who’s left?
Well, “the world” consists of people who follow Washington’s orders. You can’t say it includes the United States because the majority of Americans are not part of the world. They oppose this, just as on many other issues. And that goes on without comment—correctly, if we’re cheerleaders for the home team. And that’s the framework for discussion. Is there a solution to the crisis with Iran, which is extremely serious? If the US goes through with its apparent plans, it might make Iraq look like a tea party. Well, there are solutions—potential solutions. One of them is what I just said: Iran should have the rights of any signer of the nonproliferation treaty. Israel, Pakistan, and India also ought to have those rights—if they sign the treaty. Since they haven’t done it, they don’t have those rights. But of course they’re doing it because we say it’s okay. But that’s the opinion of the majority of Americans.
A very large majority (it runs around 75%) says that a nuclear weapons free zone should be established in the region, including Iran, Israel, American forces deployed there, and so on. Well, that would end the crisis. Is that possible? Well, it’s supported by the large majority of Americans. But, as I mentioned, they’re not part of the world. It’s Iran’s official policy, but they’re not part of the world. The US and Britain are formally committed to it—in fact, more so than any other powers for a very simple reason (which we would read about if we had a free press). When the United States and Britain went to war with Iraq and tried to find a thin legal cover for it, they appealed to UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991), which ordered Iraq to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction. Well, you’re all literate. You can read Resolution 687. It commits the United States and Britain to work to establish a nuclear free weapons zone in the Middle East. So if you can appeal to it as a justification for aggression, you’re compelled to follow its provisions. But to point that out would be really to break the rules. You can again do a Google search to see if you can find anyone even near the mainstream who has ever bothered to point this out.
Another way to move towards a solution would be to end the threats against Iran. The threats, if anyone cares, are a violation of the UN Charter. But for outlaw states that’s irrelevant. Again, the large majority of the American population thinks we should end the threats and move to normal diplomatic relations with Iran. Well, if these steps were taken, the crisis would essentially be over.
So we can ask who’s defying the world if the world includes its people, including the American people. And the answer is very simple and straightforward. Those who are defying the world are the ones in power in Washington and in London and in the editorial offices and the university faculties and so on. They’re defying the world, but not Iran—not on these issues. And in fact it’s a serious matter because it could lead to a total disaster.
And the same is true on other issues. So the other major live issue in the Middle East is Israel/Palestine. Well, what does the world think about this? There is an international consensus—supported by about two-thirds of the American population, supported by former non-aligned countries, supported by the Arab world, formally at least supported by Europe, similarly Latin America, in fact everyone. Iran supports it. Hamas supports it. It’s for a two-state settlement on the international borders, the pre-June 1967 borders, perhaps with minor modifications. Who opposes that? Well, for the last 30 years, the United States has opposed it and it continues to oppose it. And Israel of course opposes it, though, if the US would support it, then Israel would necessarily go along. So the problem is right in Washington. This begins in 1976, when the US vetoed the first Security Council Resolution calling for a settlement in these terms as introduced by the Arab states—backed by the PLO. Actually, it even goes back earlier to 1971, when President Sadat of Egypt offered Israel a full peace treaty in return for withdrawal from occupied territories. What he cared about was withdrawal from the Sinai, where Israel was kicking out thousands of peasants and settling. He didn’t say anything about Palestinian national rights. They were not an issue at the time. Israel recognized this as a genuine peace offer and decided to reject it. They made a fateful decision, preferring expansion to security. A peace treaty with Egypt would’ve ended security problems. The important question is what would happen in the United States—y’know, the Godfather. Well, Kissinger managed… There was a bureaucratic internal battle in the United States. Kissinger won, and the US followed his policy, which he called “stalemate” —meaning no negotiations, just force. Okay? That set the stage for the 1973 war and on to a whole list of horrors since. And up till today the United States and Israel have been leading the rejectionist camp. By now they are the rejectionist camp—not the US population, but the government.
So, who is defying the world on this issue? Is there a possible settlement? Sure, there is. But it resides here. In fact, on issue after issue, the major problems happen to be right here, which is a really optimistic conclusion because it means we can do something about it—because here we can have an influence, not elsewhere.