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The Sorrows of Liberal Imperialism
The American Prospect on Bush's failure to exploit America's "unipolar moment"
T here’s nothing quite as revolting as “left-liberal” Democrats struggling to identify themselves with United States imperialism. Take a look, for example, at the March 2005 issue of the avowedly progressive American Prospect magazine. Along with a poorly conceived cover cartoon portraying the leading left critic of U.S. imperialism and thought control Noam Chomsky and leading imperialist Dick Cheney scowling at each other. The headline of this special “Foreign Policy and National Security Issue” reads “Between Chomsky And Cheney: American power in the service of liberal ideals.” The cover, however, is the last you hear of Chomsky. The special issue focuses on the sins of George W. Bush and his neoconservative cabal.
What is the primary White House misdeed that provokes the American Prospect ’s ire? Dropping the ball of empire. Do Bush’s transgressions include the murder of perhaps more than 100,000 Iraqis in the commission of the Nuremberg Trials’ “supreme crime”—the launching of an unjustified war of aggression on a formerly sovereign state? The imperial occupation of that state (Iraq) in the false name of exporting “freedom” and “democracy,” a belatedly declared U.S. objective that is revealed as coldly disingenuous when we review U.S. support for such dictators as Pakistan’s Pervez Musharrraf, Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, etc? The brazen attempt to establish an Iraqi client state that will host major U.S. military bases and give the U.S. privileged access to Iraqi oil? The simultaneous, interrelated deepening of U.S. empire and U.S. inequality?
Not really. According to Prospect writers Paul Starr, Michael Tomasky, and (journal editor) Robert Kuttner, the real problem is that Bush’s “over-optimistic” and “inadequately planned” invasion of Iraq has “undermined American power and influence in the world.”
“Three and a half years after September 11,” these authors argue, “U.S. military forces are stretched to the limit, anti-Americanism has intensified in Europe and the Middle East, and our traditional allies are increasingly distrustful of U.S. leadership and are setting an independent path in foreign affairs.” To make matters worse, Bush’s “fiscal policies have created a dangerous dependence on foreign borrowing to finance our budget and trade deficits, and its energy policies have increased our dependence on foreign oil.” All in all, “the war and other administration policies are weakening our power” and “undermining our freedom of action.”
The weakening of U.S. global power is the central charge made by two other contributors. According to Prospect correspondent Michael Steinberg, the Bush White House’s obsession with military might has led it to “calamitously” “sacrifice U.S. global economic leadership,” thereby threatening to bring “America’s unipolar [post-Cold War] moment” to “a premature close.” Bush’s crime is that he has blown the chance to turn that “moment” into “a unipolar era.”
“The administration’s indifference to global economics,” Steinberg argues, “has created a void that is being filled by both the European Union, and, more ominously, China.” After pausing to “savor the irony that an administration determined never to surrender an inch of U.S. sovereignty has created a situation in which several Asian central banks control the fate of the dollar,” Steinberg notes that Bush’s acceleration of the decline of the U.S. greenback threatens the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. This confronts the U.S. with the (classic late-imperial) task of trying to “sustain an empire that is broke.” It’s too bad, Steinberg feels, that the fiscally reckless, hyper-militarist Bush administration lacks “the Clintonites” recognition that “America’s economic strength could be a critical tool in keeping the peace while extending U.S. dominance.”
Forgotten Shantytowns of Clintonite Globalism
N ever mind that Clinton’s supposedly progressive and “peaceful” exercise of world-economic “leadership” sustained and deepened gross human suffering and shocking inequality. In a major study that received moderate media attention in the summer of 1999, the United Nations Human Development Program found that “global inequalities in income and living standards have reached grotesque proportions.” The UN reported that the income gap between the richest fifth of the world’s nations and the poorest fifth (measured by average national income per head) increased from 30 to one in 1960 to 74 to one in 1997. The top fifth of nations possessed 86.1 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, 68 percent of direct foreign investment, and 74 percent of the world’s telephone lines.
Taking into account the wide disparities between rich and poor people in all countries (rich and poor alike), it seemed likely that the richest 20 percent of the world’s people received at least 150 times more income than the poorest 20 percent. In the candid words of the Boston Globe , the neoliberal “globalization” overseen by Clinton during the 1990s “resulted in a boom for the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population and a bust for just about everyone else.”
Such disparity would have seemed less disturbing if it hadn’t been a leading cause of substantial misery among those at the bottom. While the world’s 200 richest people (overwhelmingly from advanced northern states) doubled their wealth to $1 trillion from 1994 to 1998, the media reported, more than 1.3 billion people in the developing world scraped by on less than one dollar a day—the World Bank’s benchmark for “abject poverty.”
Correspondent R.C. Longworth of the Chicago Tribune marked the millennium’s turn by noting that the world’s “surging economy enriches a few” but “bypasses the rest.” In Longworth’s view, “the 21st century, like the 20th, began as a belle epoque for those lucky enough to enjoy it.” Those fortunate people were a distinct minority for whom the new global era was “a golden age of peace, great wealth, booming markets, easy travel, instant communications, fabulous comfort and, with it, an innocence and confidence that this good fortune is not only deserved but permanent.”
But things were “very different,” Longworth noted, for the world’s “majority [who]...live in shanty towns on the outskirts of the global village.” Longworth referred to “the rest of humanity” beneath the opulent minority: “millions of unemployed nomads in China, street people in Calcutta, European workers without jobs, the 28 percent of Americans whose jobs pay poverty-level wages, semi-educated young men in Morocco begging in four languages, the hopeless poor of Africa, child laborers in Bangladesh, the pensioners of Poland, the Russians wondering what happened to their lives.”
Such disturbing socioeconomic outcomes were the natural result of a particular, corporate-dominated de-regulatory or neoliberal “free-trade/free-capital” global trade and investment system advanced with great enthusiasm by “the Clintonites.” This system turns everything—water, land, air, animals, vegetation, health care, science, knowledge, academia, culture, public space, human labor power, love, law and order, crime, politics—into a commodity and/or private investment opportunity. It also:
- Increases inequality both within and between states, “concentrating,” in the words of the UN’s 1999 Human Development Report, “power and wealth in a small and privileged group of people, nations and corporations and marginalizing the others”
- “Kicks away the ladder of development” from peripheral nations in the world economic system, preventing them from using the same policy methods (e.g., import restrictions, industrial policy, state-owned industries and extensive controls on foreign capital and exchange rates) that produced “successful” internationally competitive development in core states and “late-industrializing” semi-peripheral states
- Pits unfairly over-indebted “developing” nations against each other in an orgy of export competition while denying them (in the curious name of “free markets”) the right to protect their own domestic economies from the heavily subsidized exports of more “advanced” nations and the incursions of heavily state-subsidized multinational corporations
- Requires poor nations to sacrifice their own food security and ecological balance and to divert scarce funds away from education, health care, social services and environmental protection and into the hands of wealthy bondholders and corporations as the price of admission to the world economy
- Drains tens of billions of dollars out of developing nations through the intellectual-property protectionism of the richest states—the costly, inefficient and often life-threatening patent monopolies enjoyed by corporations based chiefly in Europe and North America
- Deregulates global currency and capital flows, leaving nations and governments hostage to rapidly shifting market sentiments and creating financial crises that cause suffering for millions
- Saturates the world with a flood of weapons, adding fuel to fires of violence that are fed by the destabilizing consequences of corporate and financial globalization and that provide self-fulfilling pretext for massive state subsidy of high-tech military corporations in the West
- Favors authoritarian states over democracies since wages tend be lower and environmental laws and social protections weaker in the former than in the latter, giving businesses in dictatorships an advantage in exploiting human and natural resources and selling exports abroad
On the positive side, the Prospect applauds Bush II for undertaking what Starr, Tomasky, and Kuttner call a “fully justified attack” on Afghanistan. These authors also credit Bush II for setting out (in his second inaugural address) “an attractive vision of the United States as a liberator of oppressed nations”—a vision that “Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have recognized.”
At the same time, the Prospect thinks, Bush’s foreign policies “invite liberals to offer a compelling alternative in the spirit of FDR, Harry Truman, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and John F. Kennedy.” That liberal “alternative” would maintain U.S. “credibility,” reinvigorate U.S. global alliances, respect longstanding principles of international law, and accept the need to work through “multi-lateral institutions.”
As a living example of that supposedly noble liberal vision, the Prospect’s special issue includes a two-page Tomasky interview with former U.S. National Security Adviser (under Democratic President Jimmy Carter) Zbigniew Bzrezinski. Grand imperial strategist Bzrezinski, some may recall, initiated the original massive U.S. payments to fundamentalist Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan as part of his effort to lure the Soviet Union into “its own Vietnam.” He calls for “a more energetic re-engagement with the Europeans and Japanese as the richest parts of mankind in trying to deal with the problem of the politically awakened [global] populace, which is resentful of the global inequalities which it now perceives very sharply because of mass communications.” He wants to “appeal to the good side of the American tradition and exploit the demonstrable preference of the American people for multilateral solutions.” He advocates “an enlightened foreign policy which respects the necessity of American leadership,” but “recognizes that legitimacy and moral support are necessary ingredients” of effective strategy for global dominance.
What’s behind this seemingly counter-intuitive phenomenon of a supposedly progressive magazine bemoaning the decline of imperial power and criticizing the Bush administration primarily for damaging U.S. global hegemony and destroying the supposed possibility of long-term “unipolar” U.S. dominance? There were numerous good reasons for hard, anti-imperial leftists to join American Prospect in preferring the more sanely internationalist John F. Kerry over the radical-nationalist Bushcons last fall. Some on the left, most prominently Alexander Cockburn, advanced an irresponsible perspective when they claimed that Bush was actually “the lesser evil” because he would be the less effective and sophisticated imperialist—the one most likely to speed the evil empire’s demise. Such reckless reasoning was far too relaxed in the face of the truly dangerous and bloody record, ambitions, and philosophy of the “messianic militarist” (Ralph Nader’s description) Bush administration’s foreign policy, not to mention Bush’s ongoing assault on what’s left of the U.S. welfare state and social contract. It also ignored the strong likelihood that the climate for left organizing would be better with Democrats in the White House and the fact that it is better for people overseas to focus their resistance to U.S. hegemony on bipartisan institutions and structures of empire (including economic empire), not an evil cabal of over-the-top jingoists.
The American Prospect is right to criticize Bush for “intensify[ing] anti-Americanism…in Europe and the Middle East.” As Stephen Shalom notes, “the American populace is not wrong to care about their security. What’s wrong is to want it at the expense of others. Our (the left’s) solution to the problem of security is that we need a different foreign policy, one that doesn’t drive people to hate us and serve as recruits for terrorism…and Bush’s policies of increasing anti-Americanism in the Middle East are exactly the opposite of what is required to enhance the security of the American people.”
Still, it is curious and revealing to see the American Prospect penning a critique of Bush’s foreign policy that singles out the Administration for doing what some radicals said would make Bush “the lesser evil”: bungling empire. Aren’t people on “the left” opposed to imperialism and single-state world hegemony in all its dimensions—economic, political, and/or military? Isn’t it precisely “the left” that points out the regressive, repressive, and reactionary sorrows of world domination and the toxic, dialectically inseparable relationships between empire, militarism, and domestic and global inequality?
Unlike the hard left, of course, the “liberal-left” pro-imperialists at American Prospect are convinced that the U.S. is at heart an essentially good and liberating force in the world. To sustain this belief, they have to ignore the massive record of imperial arrogance and criminality to which liberals like Roosevelt, Kennan, Acheson, Truman, and Bzrezinski have richly contributed. As Chomsky and other radical writers and historians have noted, the crimes inflicted by the Prospect ’s liberal foreign policy heroes to date include:
- The Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration’s decision to support Italian and German fascism as reasonable middle-class bulwarks against European social democracy and Soviet “communism”—a decision that was reversed only by the realization that the fascist Axis threatened U.S. imperial power and related global Open Door investment interests
- The Roosevelt administration’s decision to adopt an official position of “neutrality” that translated into support for Spanish fascism and alliance with Stalinist Russia against popular-democratic Spanish forces during the 1930s
- The Roosevelt administration’s decision to restore fascists and monarchists to power in Allied-occupied Italy during and after the great “peoples’ war for democracy” (World War II)
- Harry Truman’s decision to demonstrate the mass-murderous power of nuclear weapons by dropping atomic bombs on the densely civilian-populated Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after it was already clear that Japan had been defeated and wished to surrender
- Truman’s decision to back fascist, landlord, and monarchical forces in the brutal suppression of popular democratic rebellion in post-WWII Greece
- Truman’s decision to use the crushing of that rebellion as an opportunity to terrorize the U.S. populace into supporting a massive expansion of the burgeoning U.S. military-industrial complex in the name of countering a mythical Soviet-directed communist conspiracy
- The Kennedy administration’s decision to dramatically escalate the international arms race after Kennedy campaigned on the monumentally deceptive claim that the U.S. was on the wrong side of the Soviet-American “missile gap”
- The liberal Kennedy administration’s significant escalation of the monumentally illegal and immoral U.S. attack on Vietnam
- The Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ support for numerous Latin-American dictatorships in the name of “progress”
- The Clinton administration’s decision to enforce mass-murderous “economic sanctions” against the devastated, heavily impoverished nation of Iraq, justifying 500,000 resulting Iraq child deaths as “a price worth paying” (Madeline Albright) and deepening the hold of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime over the overwhelmed Iraqi populace
- The Clinton administration’s decision to kill thousands of innocent African civilians by bombing a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan in loose “retaliation” for terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya
- The Clinton administration’s decision to bomb Serbia to discipline a perceived challenger of U.S. global hegemony in the falsely proclaimed name of humanitarian concern for ethnic Albanians
During many of these and other imperial actions, U.S. policymakers of both parties—liberals and conservatives alike—have regularly described U.S. objectives in terms of the advance of “democracy.” But the operative U.S. definition of “democracy” is rather different from the dictionary meaning. The U.S. only recognizes a curious sort of overseas “democracy”—the kind that supports interrelated U.S. global economic and military-strategic objectives. U.S.-acknowledged “democracies” provide U.S. transnational capital with a favorable investment climate. They accept neoliberal prescriptions that forbid poor states from undertaking common-sense economic-nationalist measures required for them to develop rapidly and independently on the model of the richer states. They agree to serve as neocolonial military vassals of Uncle Sam. Since few world peoples and nations are eager to accept such a curious, absurdly restricted definition of “democracy” (contemporary Iraq is another of many examples), there is a chasm between idealistic liberal (“Wilsonian”) rhetoric and authoritarian policy reality in the long and failed history of America’s effort to “make the world safe” for both “democracy” and U.S. empire at one and the same time.
The liberal Kennedy epitomized the conditional nature of U.S. “democracy” as a foreign policy objective when he remarked that while the U.S. would prefer democratic regimes abroad, it will choose “a [pro-American dictator] Trujillo” over “a [“anti-American” dictator] Castro” if those were the only choices. “It is necessary only to add,” Chomsky noted in 1991, that Kennedy’s “concept of ‘a Castro’ was very broad, extending to anyone who raises problems for the ‘rich men dwelling at peace with their habitations,’ who are to rule the world according to [Winston] Churchill’s aphorism, while enjoying the benefits of its human and material resources.”
John F. Kerry seems to have applied such reasoning to Venezuela’s popular, left-populist, and freely elected President, Hugo Chavez. In 2004, Kerry made it clear that he’d like to see the replacement of the proud left nationalist Chavez by a government that was favorably disposed to granting the U.S. privileged access to Venezuela’s oil wealth.
Need we once again follow Chomsky in quoting the great liberal Prospect foreign policy hero George Kennan on the actual objectives behind the officially declared democratic and humanitarian purposes of U.S. global policy? In Policy Planning Study 23, written for the State Department in 1948, Kennan argued, “We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population.... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy…. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.” To perform that task effectively, Kennan argued, “we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; we should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization.”
A few years later, the liberal Kennan embraced brutal police-state measures by U.S.-supported Latin American governments to ensure “the protection of our [that is, Latin American] raw materials” from the dangerous notion “that the government has direct responsibility for the welfare of the people.” Such thinking probably informed the Clintonites’ decision to make Columbia, one of the world’s bloodiest states, into the top recipient of U.S. military aid in 1999.
We might also note liberal statesperson Dean Acheson’s comments in 1963 when he told the American Society of International Law that there wereno legal issues that constricted U.S. behavior when U.S. “power, position, and prestige” were at stake. “Contempt for international law and institutions,” Chomsky notes, was hardly invented by the Bushcons, who have been criticized by Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright for being so recklessly open about U.S. longstanding and (for Albright) legitimate principle of acting “multilaterally” when it “can” and “unilaterally when” it feels it “must.”
Empire, Democracy, and Inequality
I n a recent left critique of liberal imperialist George Packer’s book The Fight is For Democracy (2003), Edward S. Herman notes the ironic curiosity of domestically half-progressive liberals thinking that the arch-plutocratic United States (“the best democracy that money can [and did] buy”) possesses democratic freedom to export in the first place. “Maybe the liberals,” Herman writes, “ought to be working full-time to get a working democracy here before pushing for spreading it elsewhere.” Indeed.
The further irony is that the U.S. empire in all its guises and under the direction of both neoliberals and neoconservatives, undermines democracy at home, making the American Prospect look more than a little self-defeating in bemoaning the decline of U.S. imperial power. But then, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Prospect ’s real purpose is a little less than consistently progressive. There are reasons to agree with its critique of Bush’s recklessness and the real danger the current White House poses to the security of people in the U.S. At the same time, serious leftists need to think about empire in its full, many-sided complexity, including economic and neoliberal aspects. They must also avoid the trap of seeming to seek little more than the replacement of one wing of the imperial corporate-polyarchic party duopoly (the Democrats) with the other wing (the Republicans) atop the interrelated pyramids of empire and inequality.
Paul Street is a writer and researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His most recent book is Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2004).
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