In the aftermath of World War II, the US emerged as one of the three biggest economic powers in the world, the others being Western Europe and the Soviet Union. This stayed pretty much constant, with the East Asian “Tiger economies” replacing the Soviet Union in the tripartite economic arrangement. The area where America overwhelming dominates is in military power. The Cold War was already in its embryonic stages in 1945. From then until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US and its western allies maintained they were “containing” the Soviet Union. It is more accurate to say that the Soviet Union was “containing” the United States. According to Edward S. Herman “the Soviet Union was actually a defensive and quite weak regional power”. America, on the other hand, had been establishing security states throughout Latin America and Africa and had control of Western Europe through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Soviet Union did not pose a problem militarily in the way public rhetoric claimed. The problem was the “virus” of “independent nationalism” that was likely to infect the rest of the world with notions of equality and independence. The wish of American business elites to keep high-scale military spending up, and of the political elites to maintain a grip on their populations meant that the threat of Soviet invasion became a common trope. Military spending shot up in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, at this time, according to Ken Livingstone, the former MP and the first Mayor of London, who was involved in international politics throughout the period, “the Cold War was largely a fiction because the US had 20 times more nukes than the Soviets”. The historian Niall Ferguson disagrees, writing that the Cold War was a period “when the containment of Soviet expansion, rather than democratic nation building, was the objective of policy”. The excuse for military spending was destroyed along with the “Evil Empire” in the early 1990s; yet the continuation of bloated military spending demonstrates that America’s aim was only loosely related to the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1990s and up until the present, American military power has had no rival. Since the end of the Cold War, almost all the world’s military budgets have declined, except America’s. In 2001, the US military budget comprised 36 percent of the entire world’s – six times the size of the number-two power, Russia, and seven times the size of the next three together, France, the UK and Japan. The US budget for 2012 took it to over 40 percent of the world’s total. It exceeds the spending of the next 10 states combined. All of this with no Soviet – or equivalent – menace. When the Soviet Union fell, the US turned to other covers, such as the “Drug War”, to keep military budgets high, as we will see.
The late historian Howard Zinn told me when I met him in Boston: “Very often the economics of empire requires a militarization of the economy, which then starves the domestic economy and eventually causes collapse.” In terms of military superiority, more important than nuclear or conventional firepower have been the military bases the United States spawned across the world during the Cold War. The Pentagon says there are currently military facilities in 132 countries. Only about half of these are fully operational but the existing bases mean that nowhere is beyond the range of an American strike. The executive has been consciously accruing these outposts since World War II and it has meant deals with unsavory regimes and, in the case of Diego Garcia in 1966, the repatriation of indigenous people. Noam Chomsky told me that so-called proxy wars became common because the government “intended at first to use US forces … but there was so much popular reaction that they turned to what is called ‘clandestine war’”. This meant that a large-scale propaganda offensive was not needed and none of the high-minded idealism was given lip-service. Chomsky continued: “Clandestine means the war that everybody knows about except the American population – it’s kept from them and it was fought with an international terrorist network, in which Britain contributed incidentally. So it was Taiwan, Israel, Argentine neo-Nazis until they were thrown out, Saudi Arabian funding, British assistance. So that’s a kind of an international terror network that was used to support the murderous state terrorist governments of Central America and in the case of the one government where they didn’t control the security forces, Nicaragua, they were used just to attack. There was a terrorist war against Nicaragua for which the US was actually condemned by the World Court and the Security Council – the US vetoed the resolution, Britain loyally abstained.”
One of the main institutions of enforcement through violence is NATO, which was signed into force in April 1949. It is a military pact among western countries that is supposed to commit all countries to the defense of their allies should they be attacked. In practice it became a vehicle for the United States to protect its interests in Western Europe. According to historian Michael Mann: “The other states of the North had been under protection since 1945, unable to defend themselves against communism without American help.” Consequently, “America dominated security organizations like NATO.” At the time it was the first US military alliance with Europe in 171 years. Planners such as the influential Dean Acheson paid lip-service to the idea that NATO was designed to “develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” It was said to be a wholly defensive organization. Walter LaFeber, the historian, on the other hand, contended that NATO was created by the US with the knowledge that “It could now dominate an alliance by using its partners to carry out US foreign-policy aims.” The aims LaFeber mentions were twofold. The first was to restrict the percolation of Soviet communism into Western Europe, and the second to restore the independence and power of West Germany. NATO was largely successful in these aims and, aside from some pushback during Charles de Gaulle’s presidency (1958–69) in France, the US managed to retain its singular role within the organization. In a memorandum to President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, de Gaulle complained of the “tripartite world strategy” that did not include France. Eisenhower, in turn, wrote that the “United States had no ambition to carry the heavy responsibility that had been forced upon it in NATO”.
Even though the alliance stayed strong and grew to include a number of other countries over the decades, its first military operation did not occur until after the fall of the Soviet Union. It took place in Kosovo in 1999 and marked the apparent metamorphosis of this “defensive alliance” into a force for “humanitarian intervention”. NATO’s militarism now apparently marked a beautiful new moment in the racket’s altruistic program. President Bill Clinton remarked on June 10, 1999 at the end of the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo: “The demands of an outraged and united international community have been met … Because of our resolve, the 20th century is ending not with helpless indignation but with a hopeful affirmation of human dignity and human rights for the 21st century.” The US and its allies had actually designed the peace talks – called the Rambouillet Agreement – to fail. By imposing the condition that NATO forces would be free to operate throughout not just Kosovo but all of Serbia, those pushing for war knew that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic could never accept it. It was a typically smart move on the part of the racketeers and one for the trophy cabinet of their enforcement mechanism.
Once again, scrutiny of the facts reveals a story that had much more to do with self-interest than any preoccupation with human rights and dignity. Before the war in 1999 US Defense Secretary William Cohen claimed: “We’ve now seen about 100,000 military-aged [Albanian] men missing … they may have been murdered.” When the bombing was over and investigations had failed to find any mass graves, the International War Crimes Tribunal said the total number killed on both sides was 2,788. The pre-war figures had turned out to be grossly inflated, with the leader of the Spanish forensic team lamenting the “semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machines”. The purpose of the military offensive was to re-establish this diminishing military organization that many had perceived as obsolete at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact (which had been its antonym). A White House official stated President Clinton’s position: “From the first day, he said we have to win this. It was absolutely clear. Because of the consequences for the US, for NATO, for his responsibilities as Commander in Chief, we had to win this.”Columnist William Pfaff went further, stating, before the conflict: “The debate about intervention is no longer a dispute over the means to an end. It is a debate over abandoning NATO and the claim to international leadership”. The Yugoslav government thus had to be destroyed to maintain US military supremacy in the institutionalized form of NATO.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the point of NATO was unclear, but then NATO bombed Serbia and Kosovo in 1999 to ensure the break-up of Yugoslavia; 9/11 provided the West with a new enemy; and NATO employed new and different machinations to keep Russia out while expanding into Eastern Europe via Georgia and Ukraine. The role of Turkey, as explored, was also crucial: since 1951 it has supported this alliance without qualification. During Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon, Turkish soldiers were sent to be “peacekeepers”, and there were 1,300 Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan at one point. NATO has been used in Turkey to combat Kurdish activists, trade unionists, socialists and other enemies of the state. NATO troops are supposed to be prepared for foreign invasions, but actually they are often used against democrats.
The Mob Rules by Fear
It is true that there have been relatively few direct military interventions by the United States. Control, as already discussed, has largely been maintained by supporting right-wing elements within a country from a distance. Military force has been a last resort. The major exceptions to this modus operandi are the Korean War of 1953, the Vietnam War, the war in Afghanistan and those in Iraq. The “defensive” rationalization was used to legitimate direct military adventures during the Cold War. In fact, it was a desire to circumvent expansionary communist powers that would spread, to use Henry Kissinger’s telling phrase, “the virus” of “independent nationalism”. In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, they fell under the rubric of the “war on terror” which, on the whole, maintained the same conceptual and institutional framework, with “terrorism” replacing “communism” as the Other that must be destroyed at all cost. Far from supporting “democracy-promotion”, the US military has, in recent history, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In his autobiography, Colin Powell, Secretary of State under George W. Bush, noted how Clinton’s National Security Advisor Madeleine Albright asked him rhetorically: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
The philosopher Zygmunt Bauman links current militarism to the economic downturn in the US. He told me: “There is no competition in arms, there is no question about that. But if that is the case then America wants to make the world in its image; namely, that what decides in this world is application of force: who has more bombs, who has more smart missiles and things like that, the more mobile army and so on. And that’s a danger. Economically the power has shifted already.” The war in Iraq, which began in March 2003, is a perfect illustration of the United States’ desire to use direct foreign invasion as a means to further its own economic interests. The war eventually deposed the dictator Saddam Hussein, but it was no coincidence that Iraq had the third largest reserves of oil in the world. Ostensibly the US is fighting a “war on terror” – the same war designed in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan – and “the liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror”. In fact, Saddam Hussein had no hand in the September 11, 2001 atrocities in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, but those atrocities were used to pull a veil over a preconceived desire for regime change in Iraq. Many elements of George W. Bush’s administration were previously members of a lobby group called Project for the New American Century. The most informative document produced by this think-tank is titled Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategies, Forces and Resources for a New Century (2000). It stated: “The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” Much like the communist pretext was used to pursue violent conflict to establish favorable economic circumstances, “terrorism” falls into the same paradigm. The history of the Cold War shows that the US is also driven by questions of prestige, and is especially concerned to demonstrate to its supposed allies that it can do certain things. The Vietnam War occurred substantially because of the defeats in Korea and Laos: various presidents felt that the US had to demonstrate its power. Once the US was in Vietnam it was extremely difficult to get out without significant loss of prestige, so the conflict was prolonged. All leading American racketeers still share this view.
While speaking of Vietnam it would be remiss not to mention one of the most exalted mobsters in the whole system, Dr Henry Kissinger. When the then president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to campus at Columbia University where I was studying at the Journalism School, there were weeks of debate about whether we should allow him to address us at our home. On the day he arrived hundreds of protesters spoke out against his pernicious statements on the Holocaust and his crackdown on dissidents, homosexuals and secularism back in Iran. The university president joined the chorus and opened his introduction with a rhetorical salvo against Ahmadinejad. All good. Except, soon after, Columbia Journalism School welcomed a speaker who was much worse than a Holocaust denier – he had been partly responsible for one; in fact, more than one. That man is Kissinger, the National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under presidents Nixon and Ford. There was none of the publicity, none of the protests, none of the ire – he was given a warm and effusive welcome and answered questions about his experience at the hub of the United States. Conceivably, the lack of publicity was an effort to stop the protest movement that follows Kissinger around the world. But at the end of his peroration, dewy-eyed students took photos alongside him and one even hugged him passionately. It is hard to know what is more worrying – that a reputable journalism school invites someone like Kissinger to speak every year, despite his past, or that the majority of students are oblivious to what the man has done. In his 2001 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, the prominent late journalist Christopher Hitchens catalogued with tragic specificity the carnage that Kissinger consistently unleashed around the world during his time at the center of power. “Many if not most of Kissinger’s partners in crime are now in jail, or are awaiting trial, or have been otherwise punished or discredited,” he wrote. “His own lonely impunity is rank; it smells to heaven.” The first holocaust concerned the country of East Timor in East Asia. It was invaded by neighboring Indonesia on December 7, 1975. That same day, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger concluded an official visit to Jakarta and flew to Hawaii. Ford and Kissinger are revealed by declassified files to have given the “green light” to the Indonesian dictator to start the invasion. East Timor was home to an independence movement called Fretilin, or the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, whose leftist ideology put them on the wrong side of the Cold War divide and at the mercy of the Indonesian military. What ensued was nearly 25 years of mass slaughter, rape and torture and the near-destruction of a nation. It is estimated that more than 200,000 East Timorese were killed during the Indonesian occupation, a third of the population of the country. Proportionally, it remains one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, all backed by Kissinger and his boss.
It is not only the disregard for human life that is troubling, but the legal aspect. What Kissinger and Ford had supported was illegal: Indonesia had violated international law by invading a sovereign nation, they had also violated American law, which said that weapons supplied to Indonesia were only to be employed in self-defense. But this was the pattern with Kissinger. His disregard for human life was matched only by his disregard for legal niceties. His blood-soaked résumé includes other continents too. In 1973, the democratically elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende was violently liquidated by the fascist leader of the military, General Augusto Pinochet. For the three previous years, Kissinger had been integral in trying to undermine the legal and internationally recognized Allende government. The campaign included a program to remove the coup-averse General René Schneider and replace him with a sharper toothed coup-hungry operator. A $50,000 sum was offered to anyone who could do it. Although the CIA backed out of its support for former army General Roberto Viaux shortly before the kidnapping and accidental murder of Schneider, enthusiasm for a coup was still strong among American leaders. Following the successful coup, 17 years of dictatorship were foisted on the Chilean people, while the economy was opened to western speculators. Over 3,000 people were killed, and countless others “disappeared” or were tortured. Similar scenarios were played out across the world during Kissinger’s terms in office. The Kurds were massacred in droves between 1974 and 1975; rape, burning, torture – every conceivable horror visited on them after they had rebelled against Saddam Hussein with Kissinger’s support. They were sold out and left to die.
The second holocaust Kissinger was partly responsible for was that in Cambodia under the genocidal maniac Pol Pot. During the Vietnam War, which Kissinger is thought to have prolonged in an effort to get Richard Nixon elected in 1968 (in Kissinger’s life these titanic crimes only make the sidebar), Kissinger had ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos, two desperately poor countries that the US was not officially at war with. Between March 18, 1969 and May 1970, 3,630 bombing raids were flown into Cambodia. A Finnish government study estimates that 500,000 people died in this first phase, with 2 million refugees produced. Some analysts also argue that this bombing campaign, which depopulated large rural regions, led to the Pol Pot regime, which murdered 25 percent of the Cambodian population.
So there you have it: a veritable war criminal and facilitator of mass slaughter. And all of this information was in the public domain, available to any student with an enquiring mind. Fed up with the love-in at Columbia Journalism School, I asked Kissinger in front of his enraptured audience how he slept at night. “Do you think you are morally superior to me?” he asked after a pause. “Yes. I do,” I answered confidently, stunned that he might mistake me for a mass murderer. All the while there were groans in the room from fellow students and professors, a startled disbelief that a journalist might actually confront a powerful mobster rather than attempt to fondle his ego with the usual fatuous questions. Despite this, it is still assumed that Columbia University has the best journalism school in the country. But thinking about this pandering to and reverence of one of the racket’s most illustrious, I realized that to flourish in the corporate media, the destination of nearly all of these students, you have to block out the truth of how the world works. Looking at the racket with open eyes can spell career suicide, so, as Harold Pinter put it, “it never happened”. Kissinger is a cuddly old statesman, not a mass-murdering racketeer. In fact, a couple of days after I confronted Kissinger, one of the school’s top professors came up to me and said: “I heard you disgraced yourself the other day”. If I’m honest I wasn’t even surprised – this academic would never be teaching at Columbia Journalism School if he thought the purpose of journalism was to expose his own country’s mass-murderers rather than suck up to them. Power selects for obedience, and by now it was obvious to me that the most obedient are inevitably rewarded with fancy positions in universities or with newspaper columns. The closest I came again to holding another mobster to account was when I was covering the 2008 Republican National Convention in St Paul and I chased Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s “brain” (he needed one), down the street asking him if he believed he was a war criminal. He pled the fifth before getting into a car.
Another method of enforcement devised by the US is the so-called “Drug War” or “War on Drugs”, which is made up of two elements – the racialized war on the domestic poor, and the war on the rest of the world. It was formally started in the early 1970s by President Richard Nixon, focusing on eradication and interdiction all over the western hemisphere. The Drug War at home began as a way to deal with what some sociologists called the “superfluous population” – those people for whom there were just no jobs, the “permanent unemployed” that every capitalist economy has. It came in tandem with the growth of what is now called the “prison–industrial complex” whereby the privatization of corrections facilities offered all sorts of perverse incentives that made it in the interests of corporations (and the politicians whom they funded) to push for harsher sentences and more incarcerated people. Since the 1970s, the US has spent upwards of $1 trillion and seen thousands of people killed in this two-front fight.
In 2010 the US federal government spent over $15 billion on the Drug War at a rate of about $500 per second. But nearly everyone in policy circles admits it has been a failure. “I think that a lot of the arguments are quite convincing that current drug policy isn’t working,” Michael Shiftner, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank, told me. “The evidence is strong, it has produced broad consensus of opinion.” Even the Obama administration’s own drug tsar, Gil Kerlikowske, was skeptical in 2011. “In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,” he said. “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.” The Obama administration did use a different tone on drug eradication policy, refusing to call it a war on drugs, and behind the scenes there is very little enthusiasm for the current approach. But the bureaucratic apparatus that has been built up over the past 40 years has made change difficult. The Obama administration requested $26.2 billion in its 2012 drug control budget for federal efforts to rein in the problem, an increase of 1.2 percent from the 2010 budget. Nearly 60 percent of that, or $15.5 billion, was directed to “supply reduction”; in other words, law enforcement and interdiction internationally and domestically.
It is worth considering why this massive outlay in capital and human life continues. It is no coincidence that it began at the height of the Cold War – it was just another tool of control to shore up the “backyard”, or Latin America, the focus of most of the efforts. That control still needs to be exercised in a continent that is showing signs of moving away from US influence. The Drug War gave the US an excuse to keep a massive military presence in the region after the Soviet “threat” had disappeared. For example, a number of countries with drug problems – such as Colombia and Panama – have good relationships with the US, but even they seem to realize the war is not doing any good. Despite that, they let it go on because it allows them to fight their adversaries – in many cases, left-wing rebels – under the cover of the Drug War and thus escape censure from the US or anyone else.
But the conversation is building. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in 2011 that he was not against legalization. “If the world considers that [legalization] is a solution, I would gladly go along with that. I can understand the benefits, and I can understand the arguments,” he said. A commission on drug policy was set up by former Colombian president César Gaviria, calling for decriminalization of drugs in the region. Many Latin American governments are hoping the US will realize the shortcomings and begin a debate about other options that would be more viable. Before that happens they are hedging their bets.
Mexico is one of the most important countries for the US to control, as they share a long border (half of Mexico was bought by the US in 1803 for next to nothing). The border region has become a hell as a result of the Drug War. It has witnessed 36,000 deaths since former President Felipe Calderón launched a crackdown on drug trafficking, soon after he came to power in 2006, with the encouragement of the US which promised $1.6 billion in aid to the effort through the Mérida Initiative. Human rights groups have reported huge numbers of atrocities by the Mexican military against indigenous communities and civil society, under the guise of the Drug War. The murder of Jaime Zapata, a US immigration agent, by a drugs cartel in Mexico in 2011 and continuing violence in the border region again attested to the costs of this futile war. If you looked at it objectively you would have to say it is not working. The traffickers are cultivating and selling drugs to a huge market in the US that is growing all the time. The US seems to be incapable of doing anything internally about the demand for drugs, and where there is demand there will be supply. If a Colombian or Bolivian peasant farmer is deciding between growing a hectare of banana trees or a hectare of coca, there’s no comparison in terms of the return.
The US has had problems in recent years, as left-wing governments have sprung up in Latin America opposed to the program, making enforcement increasingly difficult. It has become harder to launch coups to get rid of them, too. This nascent movement in Latin America has made the enforcement side of the eradication policy by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) harder. Bolivia’s leftist President Evo Morales kicked out the DEA, arguing that it was being used to pursue the geostrategic interests of the US, which was undoubtedly true. At the moment only Ecuador has followed suit, but this could change. The US’s teetotal approach has also led it to oppose Bolivia’s formal request to the UN to remove the ban on the chewing of coca leaves – an indigenous practice dating back more than 2,000 years. All over Latin America in recent history there have been moves to legalization. Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled to decriminalize possession of drugs for personal consumption and there are continued efforts in Ecuador to reform its heinous drug law that was basically drafted under the guidance of the US. Senior figures in the region such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ernesto Zedillo, the former presidents of Brazil and Mexico, have questioned the validity of the Drug War. Back in the US, it is the cowardice of the political establishment that stops anything from changing. “People are admitting it’s a failure,” Ron Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas, told me. “But they are intimidated. If they say it’s a failure they are worried about being perceived as soft on drugs.” He added: “I think we are making progress. I sense a major change with the people, but I don’t think the government has caught up yet.” The libertarian wing of the Republican Party has been increasingly pro-legalization and against the huge outlays in Latin America while the rise of the Tea Party has brought the issue to the fore, with some wings favoring a cessation of the policy. “I have had this position for years, people always thought I wouldn’t be re-elected [in the] Deep South bible belt, but it’s never been harmful politically,” said Paul. “It has hurt so many people and so many families, there has been a realization that it’s the war that is hurting people more than drugs themselves.” And some Democrats are wising up, too. The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act aimed to create a commission appointed in part by the president to re-evaluate the eradication and production-side emphasis of the US’s drug policy in Latin America. Sponsored by Eliot Engel, a congressman from New York, it was defeated in the Senate in 2010 after passing through the House unanimously. Another act of the same name was introduced in 2014. “The War on Drugs is a failure, we still have problems with drugs,” Engel told me. “In Mexico the cartels are even bolder.” But it was only a failure if you believed the War on Drugs was about drugs. Honduras shows it is actually about something else entirely.