Rationalizng U.S. Interventions
in the Third World

excerpted from the book

Imperial Alibis

by Stephen Rosskamm Shalom


For at least half a century, the Soviet threat admirably served the needs of U.S. policy-makers, providing the defining enemy that rationalized massive military spending, constant interventions abroad, and repression at home. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the managers of the U.S. state are already trying to concoct new rationalizations to achieve the same end.


U.S. troops did not land in Grenada or the Dominican Republic order to save American citizens in distress. The intervention is far better explained by the fact that the government of the former and the constitutionalists contending for power in the latter were both nationalistically-inclined and thus a challenge to U.S. economic hegemony in the Caribbean. In Nicaragua, U.S. economic interests were also challenged; and in its effort to crush the Sandinistas, Washington resorted to terrorism and cooperated with narcotics-traffickers. Alliances of convenience were forged as well with drug dealers in Southeast Asia in an effort to defeat the Vietnamese revolution.

Controlling the world's oil resources has always been a fundamental goal of the U.S. government. In the Middle East, radical nationalist regimes in Libya, Iran, and Iraq have threatened this control. The United States has worked to demonize Libya (often for actions that U.S. allies have conducted on a far larger scale), to destabilize it, and even to attack it. Washington has also used supplies of arms and intelligence, covert operations, and occasional military force in order to minimize the independence of the governments in Baghdad and Teheran. And when Saddam Hussein went too far (not in massacring Kurds, but in threatening U.S. control over the petroleum supplies of the Persian Gulf) enormous military force was applied.

In promoting the interests of corporate America, the U.S. government has helped to provide markets, regardless of the social consequences of the products sold. Weapons sales to the Shah of Iran in the 1970s led to a regional arms race costly in human as well as financial terms. Continuing U.S. arms sales to the Middle East today stoke tensions in that region while boosting the corporate balance sheets. Washington has also facilitated the sale of tobacco and other legal but harmful products overseas.

Foreign corpses evoke little sympathy from U.S. policy-makers, particularly when the victims are considered racial inferiors. Jews during the holocaust, Africans in Biafra or Burundi, Asians in Bangladesh-all were expendable to the larger interests of U.S. foreign policy. Sometimes the United States ignored the deaths of these Untermenschen, sometimes it collaborated with their killers, as in Indonesia or Guatemala. When Third World people fought and died in the Iran-Iraq war, Washington covertly armed both sides.

Lack of sentimentality for dark-skinned people has been part of an approach to foreign policy that prizes masculine toughness and disparages any human empathy as feminine weakness. Kissinger called for "a tough, even abrasive foreign policy" in the aftermath of the Vietnam War to reclaim U.S. virility. The pounding of Cambodia in the Mayaguez affair did not save American lives, but, in Barry Goldwater's words, showed "we still got some balls in this country." The Reagan administration was particularly determined to restore the U.S. reputation for manly ruthlessness. Accordingly, Grenada was invaded, as White House aides admitted, so that the United States wouldn't be seen as a paper tiger. And U.S. policy-makers openly spoke of challenging Qaddafi's "manhood" to provoke him into an act that would give Washington a chance to "stick it to him." Testosterone poisoning has been a long-standing ailment of U.S. officials, who have frequently invoked military responses to problems that were susceptible to more pacific solutions.

Militarism and interventionism have also served the political needs of U.S. presidents. When domestic policies are routinely pursued that reduce the living standards of the average citizen and redistribute wealth to the rich, a distraction that can get the public to rally 'round the flag will provide a healthy boost to presidential approval ratings. A quagmire like Vietnam can be an administration's undoing, but there is nothing like a short military operation against a hopelessly outclassed opponent to enhance a president's popularity: witness the attacks on Grenada, Libya, Panama, or Iraq.

The recent changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have been dramatic and profound, but they have had a negligible impact on the fundamental roots of U.S. foreign policy. The capitalist system functions essentially as before, and the prevailing ideology of racism, sexism, and heterosexism is basically intact. Thus the social forces that have driven U.S. interventionism in the past will continue to spawn interventions in the aftermath of the Cold War. But the changed international environment will likely alter the pattern of U.S. interventionism.

In the past, the Soviet Union provided radical movements in many U.S. client states with the material support they needed to seriously challenge the regime in power. Moscow did this not out of a deep commitment to radical ideals, but as a way to weaken its global adversary-the United States. (The Kremlin did not come to the aid of even pro-Soviet Communist parties who were ruthlessly suppressed in Turkey in the 1920s or Egypt in the 1960s or Iraq in the 1970s, because the regimes doing the suppressing were deemed sufficiently anti-western.') Soviet support for some of the popular insurgencies within the U.S. empire has often meant that the local gendarme alone has been unable to maintain the status quo. And when U.S. economic and military aid and U.S. covert operations have not been enough to keep down popular unrest, more direct forms of U.S. intervention have been employed. With the demise of the Soviet Union, there will be fewer serious threats to the survival of repressive regimes, and thus less need for direct U.S. interventionism.

On the other hand, the Soviet Union also played a role in inhibiting U.S. interventions during the Cold War. The presence of Soviet naval vessels off the coast of India or in the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf raised the specter that the landing of U.S. Marines in some Third World country might broaden into a superpower confrontation. During the Cold War, the Pentagon sought to achieve military superiority over the Soviet Union at every level of the escalatory scale as a way to maintain U.S. freedom of action (that is, freedom to intervene). Ship-board nuclear missiles and similar weapons systems had no real military utility in an all-out U.S.-Soviet conflict, but they were useful for discouraging Moscow from intervening in Washington's interventions. Nevertheless, given that U.S. military action against a Third World nation carried with it the risk of a wider war, there is no doubt that the existence of a powerful Soviet Union constrained U.S. interventions. This constraint is now gone.

The Cold War served the needs of the capitalist system in Western Europe and Japan as well as in the United States. In Europe and Japan, the U.S.-led anti-Soviet crusade helped to undermine the appeal of the Communist Party and the Left more generally. More importantly, U.S. action against those who would threaten U.S. foreign investment often also protected the investment opportunities of Japanese and European corporations. Only the United States had the military ability to project force globally and only the United States had the power to deter a Soviet counter-intervention. So the European and Japanese allies deferred to U.S. leadership in the Cold War though they often had to go along with policies that benefited Washington far more than themselves.

Japanese and European subordination to the United States also reflected the global preeminence of the U.S. economy in the years following World War II. But U. S. economic primacy has declined since the 1960s, and the allies have grown correspondingly independent. The final end of the Cold War coincided with the end of U.S. economic dominance. And thus, in the new post-Cold War world, U.S. allies in Europe and Japan will be far less willing to accept Washington's lead. The French government, for example, recently warned the United States not to try to rule the world. For its part, the U. S. government understands the new international realities. Recent Pentagon planning documents (revised into more diplomatic language after much criticism) defined the key U.S. objective to be preventing the emergence of a new superpower. In the Middle East, the overall goal was to "remain the predominant outside power in the region."

Does this mean that the United States will soon be going to war with the Europeans or Japan? No, but nor did the Cold War mean that the United States went to war with Moscow. Nevertheless, conflicts of interest among the capitalist powers may well result in different ones of them supporting opposite sides in a civil or local war. It will be difficult to invest these conflicts with the same level of popular backing that the global campaign against the Soviet Union enjoyed, but economic stagnation may yet provide fertile ground for xenophobia. Anti-Japanese racism in the United States and Japanese racism against minority groups in the United States reflect and add to the growing tensions.

Because the capitalist nations do have more interests in common than did the United States and the Soviet Union, U.S. interventions in the future are more likely to be under the guise of collective action. The U.S.-led coalition war against Iraq in 1991 was in some ways the archetypical case of collective action in the post-Cold War era. But the United Nations Security Council which Washington was able to dominate during the Gulf War situation will come under increasing pressure to more accurately reflect the actual power distribution, if not the population distribution, of the world. With Germany and Japan on the Council, chat body will be less susceptible to U.S. control. Unless Third World representation is increased as well, the United Nations will become a front for the interests of the rich countries in situations where the interests of the capitalist states coincide. Where these interests do not coincide, interventions will be undertaken on a unilateral basis, most often by the most powerful nation: the United States.

The focus on domestic issues in the U.S. presidential campaign may suggest that foreign policy just isn't that important anymore, that U.S. intervention no longer matters very much. But U.S. intervention aims to maintain the global status quo, a status quo that consigns much of the Earth's population, mostly people of color, to poverty and misery. The eastern gulag may be gone, but millions of people in the western empire live in literal slavery-in such nations as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Pakistan, India, Mauritania, and South Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, living standards declined in absolute terms during the decade of the 1980s. Children have been particularly victimized: in many poor countries the average weight-for-age of those under five has been falling, spending on education has been declining, primary school enrollments have dropped, and child prostitution is growing.

This is suffering on a massive scale. And it is perpetuated by the interventions on behalf of the status quo on the part of the United States and other rich nations. An end to these interventions will not suddenly eliminate global poverty. But it would create the space within which popular movements throughout the world could confront the systemic roots of that poverty.

Stopping U.S. interventionism thus constitutes a continuing moral imperative for those in the United States concerned with peace and social justice. The U.S. government will try to build public support for its interventionist policies by claiming it is defending vital resources, human rights, or Americans in distress, or preventing weapons proliferation, terrorism, or drug-trafficking. But, ... these are just covers for policies motivated by the dynamics of U. S. capitalism and a racist, sexist, and heterosexist ideology.

Imperial Alibis