The secret to understanding US foreign policy is that there is no secret. Principally, one must come to the realization that the United States strives to dominate the world, for which end it is prepared to use any means necessary. Once one understands that, much of the apparent confusion, contradiction, and ambiguity surrounding Washington’s policies fades away. To express this striving for dominance numerically, one can consider that since the end of World War II the United States has
• endeavored to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically elected;
• grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries;
• attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders;
• dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries;
• attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries.
The impact on world consciousness in recent decades of tragedies such as in Rwanda and Darfur has been more conspicuous than the American-caused tragedies because the first two each took place in one area and within a relatively short period of time. Despite the extensive documentation of the crimes of US foreign policy, because of the very breadth of American interventions and the time period of sixty-eight years it’s much more difficult for the world to fully grasp what the United States has done.
In total: since 1945, the United States has carried out one or more of the above-listed actions, on one or more occasions, in seventy-one countries (more than one-third of the countries of the world), in the process of which the US has ended the lives of several million people, condemned many millions more to a life of agony and despair, and has been responsible for the torture of countless thousands. US foreign policy has likely earned the hatred of most of the people in the world who are able to more or less follow current news events and are familiar with a bit of modern history.
Oderint dum metuant – ‘Let them hate so long as they fear’ – was attributed to one or another prominent leader of Ancient Rome.
Shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, career diplomat John Brady Kiesling, the political counselor at the US embassy in Athens, resigned over the Iraq policy. ‘Has “oderint dum metuant” really become our motto?’ he asked in his letter of resignation, referring to the fact that more than one member of the Bush administration had used the expression.
Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, former CIA director James Woolsey commented about worries that storming Baghdad would incite Islamic radicals and broaden support for them: ‘The silence of the Arab public in the wake of America’s victories in Afghanistan,’ he said, proves that ‘only fear will re-establish respect for the U.S. … We need to read a little bit of Machiavelli.’ (In the same talk, Woolsey further established himself as a foreign policy pundit by stating: ‘There is so much evidence with respect to [Saddam Hussein’s] development of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles … that I consider this point beyond dispute.’)
Speaking at the graduation ceremony of the US Military Academy in West Point, New York, in June 2002, President George W. Bush told America’s future warriors that they were ‘in a conflict between good and evil’ and that ‘We must uncover terror cells in 60 or more countries.’ The United States institutional war machine was, and remains, on automatic pilot.
When the plans for a new office building for the military, which came to be known as The Pentagon, were brought before the Senate on August 14, 1941, Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan was puzzled. ‘Unless the war is to be permanent, why must we have permanent accommodations for war facilities of such size?’ he asked. ‘Or is the war to be permanent?’
‘Wars may be aberrant experiences in the lives of most human individuals, but some nations are serial aggressors,’ observed The Black Commentator in the fourth year of the war in Iraq. ‘American society is unique in having been formed almost wholly by processes of aggression against external and internal Others.’
It can be said that American history is the history of an empire in the making, since the first British settler killed the first native American.
All countries, it is often argued, certainly all powerful countries, have always acted belligerent and militaristic, so why condemn the United States so much? But that is like arguing that since one can find anti-Semitism in every country, why condemn Nazi Germany? Obviously, it’s a question of magnitude. And the magnitude of US aggression puts it historically into a league all by itself, just as the magnitude of the Nazis’ anti-Semitism did. Is the world supposed to uncritically accept terribly aggressive behavior because it’s traditional and expected? Somehow normal? Is that any way to build a better world?
Full spectrum dominance
A number of expressions and slogans associated with the Nazi regime in Germany have become commonly known in English.
Sieg Heil! – Hail Victory!
Arbeit macht frei – Work makes you free.
Denn heute gehört uns Deutschland und morgen die ganze Welt – Today Germany, tomorrow the world.
Ich habe nur den Befehlen gehorcht! – I was only following orders!
But none perhaps is better known than Deutschland über alles – Germany above all.
Thus I was taken aback, in June 2008, when I happened to come across the website of the United States Air Force (www.airforce.com) and saw on its first page a heading ‘Above all’. Lest you think that this referred simply and innocently to planes high up in the air, this page linked to another site (www.airforce.com/achangingworld) where ‘Above all’ was repeated even more prominently, with links to sites for ‘Air Dominance,’ ‘Space Dominance,’ and ‘Cyber Dominance,’ each of which in turn repeated ‘Above all’. These guys don’t kid around. They’re not your father’s imperialist warmongers. If they’re planning for a new ‘thousand-year Reich’, let’s hope that their fate is no better than the original, which lasted twelve years.
Here’s how the gentlemen of the Pentagon have sounded in the recent past on the subject of space.
We will engage terrestrial targets someday – ships, airplanes, land targets – from space. … We’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space. (General Joseph Ashy, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Space Command)
During the early portion of the 21st century, space power will also evolve into a separate and equal medium of warfare. … The emerging synergy of space superiority with land, sea, and air superiority will lead to Full Spectrum Dominance. … Development of ballistic missile defenses using space systems and planning for precision strikes from space offers a counter to the worldwide proliferation of WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. … Space is a region with increasing commercial, civil, international, and military interests and investments. The threat to these vital systems is also increasing. … Control of Space is the ability to assure access to space, freedom of operations within the space medium, and an ability to deny others the use of space, if required. (‘United States Space Command: Vision for 2020’)
Space represents a fundamentally new and better way to apply military force. (US Strategic Command)
Washington’s ambition for world domination is driven not by the cause of a deeper democracy or freedom, a more just world, ending poverty or violence, or a more liveable planet, but rather by economics and ideology.
Michael Parenti has observed:
The objective is not just power for its own sake but power to insure plutocratic control of the planet, power to privatize and deregulate the economies of every nation in the world, to hoist upon the backs of peoples everywhere – including the people of North America – the blessings of an untrammeled ‘free market’ corporate capitalism. The struggle is between those who believe that the land, labor, capital, technology, and markets of the world should be dedicated to maximizing capital accumulation for the few, and those who believe that these things should be used for the communal benefit and socio-economic development of the many.
It can thus be appreciated that to the American power elite one of the longest lasting and most essential foreign policy goals has been preventing the rise of any society that might serve as a good example of an alternative to the capitalist model. This was the essence of the Cold War. Cuba and Chile were two examples of several such societies in the socialist camp which the United States did its best to crush.
Like most powerful leaders – past, present, and future – American officials would have the rest of us believe that the policies they pursue in their quest for domination are beneficial to their own people and to most of the world, even if the blessings are not always immediately recognizable. They would like nothing better than to remake the world in America’s image, with free enterprise, ‘individualism’, something called ‘Judeo-Christian values,’ and some other thing they call ‘democracy’ as core elements. Imagine, then, what a shock September 11, 2001 was to such men; not simply the kind of shock that you and I experienced on that fateful day, but the realization that someone had dared to ‘diss’ the empire, a traumatic shock to the political nervous system. American leaders assume that US moral authority is as absolute and unchallengeable as US military power. ‘The messianism of American foreign policy is a remarkable thing,’ a Russian parliamentary leader noted in 2006. ‘When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks it seems like Khrushchev reporting to the party congress: “The whole world is marching triumphantly toward democracy but some rogue states prefer to stay aside from that road, etc. etc.”’
And here is Michael Ledeen, former official of the Reagan administration, later a fellow at one of the leading conservative think tanks, American Enterprise Institute, speaking shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003:
If we just let our own vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don’t try to be clever and piece together clever diplomatic solutions to this thing, but just wage a total war against these tyrants, I think we will do very well, and our children will sing great songs about us years from now.
It was difficult to resist. A year after the dreadful invasion and catastrophic occupation of Iraq I sent Mr Ledeen an email reminding him of his words and saying simply: ‘I’d like to ask you what songs your children are singing these days.’ I did not expect a reply, and I was not disappointed.
Future president Theodore Roosevelt, who fought in Cuba at the turn of the last century with the greatest of gung-ho-ism, wrote: ‘It is for the good of the world that the English-speaking race in all its branches should hold as much of the world’s surface as possible.’ One can find similar sentiments without end expressed by American leaders since the 1890s.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001 many Americans acquired copies of the Quran in an attempt to understand why Muslims could do what they did. One can wonder, following the invasion of Iraq, whether Iraqis bought Christian bibles in search of an explanation of why the most powerful nation on the planet had laid such terrible waste to their ancient land, which had done no harm to the United States.
Wars of aggression
Has there ever been an empire that didn’t tell itself and the rest of the world that it was unlike all other empires, that its mission was not to plunder and control but to enlighten and liberate?
The National Security Strategy, a paper issued by the White House in September 2002, states:
In keeping with our heritage and principles, we do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage. We seek instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom: conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty.
However, later in the same report we read:
It is time to reaffirm the essential role of American military strength. We must build and maintain our defenses beyond challenge … Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States. … To forestall or prevent … hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.
‘Preemptive war’ is what the post-World War II International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, called a war of aggression. ‘To initiate a war of aggression,’ the Tribunal declared, ‘therefore, is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’
Six months after issuing the National Security Strategy, the United States carried out an attack on Iraq which was less – that is, worse – than ‘preemptive’: there was no provocation or threat of any kind from Iraq. The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by imperial Japan was certainly more preemptive. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out:
Japanese leaders knew that B-17 Flying Fortresses were coming off the Boeing production lines and were surely familiar with the public discussions in the US explaining how they could be used to incinerate Japan’s wooden cities in a war of extermination, flying from Hawaiian and Philippine bases – ‘to burn out the industrial heart of the Empire with fire-bombing attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps,’ as retired Air Force General Chennault recommended in 1940, a proposal that ‘simply delighted’ President Roosevelt. Evidently, that is a far more powerful justification for bombing military bases in US colonies than anything conjured up by Bush–Blair and their associates in their execution of ‘preemptive war.’
The Germans insisted that their invasion of Poland in 1939 was justified on the grounds of preemption. Poland, declared the Nazis, was planning to invade Germany. (Nineteenth-century German Chancellor Otto Bismarck once asserted that ‘Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.’) In 2003, and for some years subsequent, it was the United States saying that Iraq was an ‘imminent threat’ to invade the US or Israel or whoever, even when no weapons of mass destruction had been located in Iraq and no plausible motive for Iraq invading the US or Israel could be given. The claim of an imminent Iraqi threat eventually fell of its own weight, as did many other prominent Bush administration assertions about the US invasion.
Intelligence of the political kind
American leaders have convinced a majority of the American people of the benevolence of their government’s foreign policy. To have persuaded Americans of this, as well as a multitude of other people throughout the world – in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, such as the lists of US international atrocities shown above – must surely rank as one of the most outstanding feats of propaganda and indoctrination in all of history.
I think there are all kinds of intelligence in this world: musical, scientific, mathematical, artistic, academic, literary, mechanical, and so on. Then there’s political intelligence, which I would define as the ability to see through the nonsense which the politicians – echoed by the media – of every society feed their citizens from birth on to win elections and assure continuance of the prevailing ideology. A lack in the American citizenry of any of the other types of intelligence, though perhaps personally detrimental, does not kill. A widespread deficiency of political intelligence, however, can and does allow the taking of the lives of large numbers of innocent people in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam. The American people alone have the power to influence the extremists who, in one election after another, in the form of Democrats or Republicans, come to power in the United States and proceed to create havoc and disaster in one new killing field after another. But the citizenry fall for US government propaganda justifying its military actions as regularly and as naively as Charlie Brown falling for Lucy’s football.
The American people are very much like the children of a Mafia boss who do not know what their father does for a living, and don’t want to know, but then wonder why someone just threw a firebomb through the living room window.
Now why is that? Why are these people so easily indoctrinated? Are they just stupid? I think a better answer is that they have certain preconceptions; consciously or unconsciously, they have certain basic beliefs about the United States and its foreign policy, and if you don’t deal with these basic beliefs you’ll be talking to a stone wall. This book deals with many of these basic beliefs, or what can also be called ‘myths.’
It is not at all uncommon to grow to adulthood in the United States, even graduate from university, and not be seriously exposed to opinions significantly contrary to these prevailing myths, and know remarkably little about the exceptionally harmful foreign policy of the government. It’s one thing for historical myths to rise in the absence of a written history of a particular period, such as our beliefs concerning the Neanderthals; but much odder is the rise of such myths in the face of a plethora of historical documents, testimony, films, and books.
To describe this on a personal level: I remember the good warm feeling I used to have in my teens and twenties, and even into my thirties, whenever I heard good ol’ Bob Hope dishing out his good ol’ American humor to the good ol’ American GIs scattered all over the world. I never gave any thought to what the good ol’ American GIs were actually doing all over the world in the first place. But would good ol’ Bob Hope be entertaining good ol’ American GIs embarked on anything less than honorable missions? Could the nice, young, clean-cut American boys who laughed so heartily at the same jokes I laughed at be up to no good? Had our soldiers ever been up to no good? Nothing I had been exposed to in any school or mainstream media had left me with that impression in any firm or lasting way. The question had never even crossed my mind.
On the infrequent occasion that I encountered someone of dissident views they invariably did not have the facts at their fingertips, did not argue their case very well, did not understand – as I myself did not – my basic beliefs/myths. Their effect upon my thinking was thus negligible. It took the horror of Vietnam inescapably thrown into my face by protesters and their media coverage to initiate a whole new personal intellectual process. The process would likely have begun much sooner had I been able to read something like the present book.
Democracy is a beautiful thing, except that part about letting just any old jerk vote
The people can have anything they want.
The trouble is, they do not want anything.
At least they vote that way on election day.
(Eugene Debs, American socialist leader, early twentieth century)
Why was the 2008 presidential primary vote for Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich so small when anti-Iraq War sentiment in the United States was apparently so high – millions had marched against it on repeated occasions, with perhaps not a single demonstration of any size in support – and Kucinich was easily the leading anti-war candidate in the Democratic race, indeed the only genuine one after former senator Mike Gravel withdrew? Even allowing for his being cut out of several televized national debates, Kucinich’s showing was remarkably poor. In Michigan, on January 15, it was only Kucinich and Hillary Clinton running. Clinton got 56 percent of the vote, the ‘uncommitted’ vote (for candidates who had withdrawn but whose names were still on the ballot) was 39 percent, and Kucinich received but 4 percent. And Clinton had been the leading pro-war hawk of all the Democratic candidates.
I think much of the answer may lie in the fact that the majority of the American people – like the majority of people elsewhere in the world – aren’t very sophisticated politically or intellectually, and many of them weren’t against the war for very cerebral reasons. Their opposition often stemmed from things like the large number of American soldiers who’d been killed or wounded; the fact that the United States was not ‘winning’; that America’s reputation in the world was being soiled; that numerous other Americans had expressed their opposition to the war; that President Bush suffered from multiple verbal and character shortcomings with television comedians regularly making fun of him – or because of a number of other reasons we couldn’t even guess at. There is not much that is particularly perceptive or learned in this collection of reasons, no special insight into history, foreign relations, international law, warfare, economics, propaganda, or ideology – the basis of the ‘political intelligence’ referred to above; which makes it so much easier for a politician who actually supports a war to sell herself as an anti-war candidate when the occasion calls for it.
Activists like myself are often scoffed at for saying the same old things to the same old people; just spinning our wheels, we’re told, ‘preaching to the choir’ or ‘preaching to the converted.’ But long experience as speaker, writer and activist in the area of foreign policy tells me it just ain’t so. From the questions and comments I regularly get from my audiences, via email and in person, I can plainly see that there are numerous significant information gaps and misconceptions in the choir’s thinking, often leaving them unable to see through the newest government lie or propaganda trick; they’re unknowing or forgetful of what happened in the past that illuminates the present; or knowing the facts but unable to apply them at the appropriate moment; vulnerable to being led astray by the next person who offers a specious argument that opposes what they currently believe, or think they believe. The choir needs to be frequently reminded and enlightened.
As cynical as many Americans may think the members of the choir are, the choir is frequently not cynical enough about the power elite’s motivations. No matter how many times they’re lied to, they still often underestimate the government’s capacity for deceit, clinging to the belief that their leaders somehow mean well. As long as people believe that their elected leaders are well intentioned, the leaders can, and do, get away with murder. Literally. This belief is the most significant of the myths the present book deals with.
One reason for confusion among the electorate is that the two main parties, the Democrats and Republicans, while forever throwing charges and counter-charges at each other, actually hold indistinguishable views concerning foreign policy, a similarity that is one of the subjects of this book. What is the poor voter to make of all this?
Apropos of this we have the view of the American electoral system from a foreigner, Cuban leader Raúl Castro. He has noted that the United States pits two identical parties against one another, and joked that a choice between a Republican and Democrat is like choosing between himself and his brother Fidel. ‘We could say in Cuba we have two parties: one led by Fidel and one led by Raúl, what would be the difference?’ he asked. ‘That’s the same thing that happens in the United States … both are the same. Fidel is a little taller than me, he has a beard and I don’t.’
In sum, even when the hearts of the choir may be in the right place, their heads still need working on, on a recurring basis. And, in any event, very few people are actually born into the choir; they achieve membership only after being preached to, multiple times.
The essays that make up the book are a combination of new and old; combined, updated, expanded, refined; many first appeared in one form or another in my monthly online Anti-Empire Report, or on my website, at various times during the past eight years or so; where a date is specified at the beginning of the piece it’s the date it was first written and should be read from that vantage point (although in some cases it may differ markedly from the original). This book is for current and, hopefully, future members of the choir.