The Truth Behind US Foreign Policy

Violence for Power and Profit

by Henry Rosemont, Jr.

Resist newsletter, July / August 1999


When looked at only superficially, US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has seemed directionless at best, inconsistent at the worst. Why do we celebrate the Chinese government one moment, berate it the next? Why did we intervene in Somalia, but not Rwanda? Why Panama but not Colombia, Iraq but not Iran, Kosovo but not Kurdistan? A closer examination of those policies, however, going back to the end of World War II and even before, reveals a very definite and consistent pattern, but one that is painful for American citizens to reflect upon deeply because of the brutalities committed in our names.

The US has intervened well over 100 times in the internal affairs of other nation states since 1945. The rhetoric has been that we have done so largely to preserve or restore freedom and democracy, or for purely humanitarian reasons. The reality has been that our policies have not done so, but on the contrary, have been consistently designed and implemented to further the interests of US (now largely transnational) corporations, and the elites both at home and abroad who profit from corporate depredations. These policies- often illegal, always unjust-have been enormously successful, so long as we ignore the incalculable suffering endured by tens of millions of innocent peoples the world over as the price paid for "success."

Results of Intervention

Lest this claim be dismissed at the outset as too strong, attempt the following: from among our 100-plus interventions, try to find one in which the great majority of the people in the affected states were not far worse off after than before the intervention. Where have freedom and democracy been strengthened rather than stifled? Where have the "humanitarian" efforts been successful?

Certainly not in those countries where we saw to the overthrow of democratically elected governments-e.g., Iran, 1953; Guatemala, 1954; Chile, 1973-and installed reactionary royalty and murderous military in their stead: the Shah, right-wing generals, and Augusto Pinochet. And surely no sane person would maintain that even in those countries whose governments we sought to replace which were not democratically elected were their peoples in any way better off for our efforts, including such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Iraq, etc.

These examples are only among the more well-known cases of US actions contributing directly to unspeakable horrors being visited on millions of innocent people, most of them poor. However, in order to comprehend the full extent of US responsibility for human suffering through its foreign policies, it is necessary to see that intervention can take many forms.

Forms of US Intervention

For example, the US government did not directly attempt to destabilize the Indonesian government of President Sukarno in 1965 (although we did try seven years earlier). But we made it clear to General Suharto and his fellow thugs how much we appreciated their hard-line stance against the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which was legally contesting elections. And after Suharto's thugs overthrew Sukarno themselves, the US supplied them not only with much weaponry, but also the names of suspected PKI members compiled by our intelligence sources, which insured that the blood-bath which ensued after the coup would destroy the PKI and other progressive organizations once for all. By even the most conservative estimates, Suharto's regime slaughtered more than 500,000 people (mostly ethnic Chinese).

This, too, is intervention. And we did it again in Indonesia a decade later, when we let Suharto know that we had no objection to his invading East Timor after the Portuguese withdrew from their former colony. The invasion probably couldn't have wrought the havoc it did on the Timorese people without, again, the weaponry (and training in how to use it) supplied to the Indonesian army by the US

Indonesia is by no means a solitary case of this more covert type of intervention; we have engaged in it everywhere from Italy and Greece to Afghanistan to the Congo (opposing Lumumba) and Angola (supporting Savimbi). Covert intervention has been the norm in our dealings with Latin American countries since World War II (before then we simply invaded them when we didn't approve of their governments).

Moreover, this second type of intervention is ongoing: the Colombian government is murdering its citizens by the thousands with US support, which we also supply to the Turks in their" ethnic cleansing" campaigns against the Kurds. The effect in both cases is profound, especially the latter, in which 80% of Turkey's armaments have "Made in the USA" stamped on them. These weapons have been used to destroy more than 3,500 Kurd villages and displace at least 2.5 million people since 1991- roughly seven times the numbers estimated for Kosovo.

Direct and Indirect Killing

It is important for activists to appreciate the difference between the invasive and the covert forms of intervention. In order to aid the Kosovars being slaughtered by the murderous Serb regime, we must ourselves directly engage in slaughter. On the other hand, to aid the Kurds being massacred by the murderous Turk regime we must work to have our government stop aiding and abetting the even greater slaughter (which is very different from advocating "neo-isolationism").

A third pattern of US foreign policy which may legitimately be considered interventionist is the systematic attempt to isolate "rogue states" when other efforts are unsuccessful, inconvenient or potentially embarrassing. After more direct actions in Cuba failed to topple the Castro government (the Bay of Pigs invasion, CIA Mafia attempts to assassinate him, etc.), the economic sanctions were strengthened and enforced with a vengeance, continuing to this day.

In Vietnam, not only did we renege on Kissinger's promise to help rebuild the country after the war, we placed enormous diplomatic and economic pressures on all countries outside the Soviet bloc not to do so either. We continue to isolate Iraq (coupled with occasional bombings of the country in the "no-fly" zones). The manifold miseries accompanying these sanctions obviously fall disproportionately on the civilian peoples in the affected countries, especially the poor, the children, the sick, and the elderly. What is humanitarian about such policies? How do they promote freedom and democracy?

Betting on the Wrong Sides

Against this indictment, apologists for the foreign policy establishment will allow that some mistakes were made, of course, but that our motives were pure. "We meant well," they insist, "but simply supported the wrong side at times." Such apologies appeal to us as a way to assuage our consciences, because the alternative suggests that we should feel a profound sense of shame for the atrocities committed in our name.

But it is anger and not shame that is called for. The record shows fairly clearly that we have always supported the "wrong side," and worse, much evidence was available at the time of intervention to suggest support for the other side-which simultaneously shows the extent to which apologies for US foreign policies necessitated a great suppression of information, even greater distortion of the "facts," and much outright Iying to the American peoples.

For example, the liberation of the "Pentagon Papers" by Daniel Ellsberg created a stir largely because they showed the CIA had done its intelligence-gathering job well in Vietnam, making clear to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that: 1) the Diem and Thieu governments, and ARVN military-which we supported to the bitter end-were hopelessly corrupt and brutal; 2) the National Liberation Front (NLF) leadership and cadres (the Viet Cong) were much less corrupt, and were indigenous South Vietnamese, not infiltrators from the North; 3) the NLF enjoyed twice the support as the ARVN (roughly 25% to 12%, with the remaining two-thirds of the people in the best tradition of ancient peasant wisdom seeing all governments simply as tax collectors; and 4) there was no evidence linking the NLF or the North to China.

If genuinely motivated by good will then, the US might have developed a policy of actively supporting the NLF, providing it with the food, medicines, books, walking tractors, fertilizers, building materials and much else that neither the North, nor China, nor the Soviet Union could provide, and in that way assist the NLF in promoting the economic development of South Vietnam. Instead we destroyed the NLF, making the occupation of the entire country by Northern forces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Well over two million Vietnamese (by US estimates) died in the process, along with 58,000 US troops; elements of Agent Orange and land mines continue to plague the country a quarter of a century later.

The Nicaraguan Example

There are numerous other examples of where history would read very differently today had we not supported "the wrong side"-Greece in 1947, China two years later, Cuba a decade after that, etc. but one more recent case can stand duty for many.

During the early 1980s, Oxfam praised the Sandinista government for the support and assistance it gave the organization in its humanitarian relief efforts in Nicaragua. Amnesty International described some human rights abuses there, but noted that they were far fewer in number and ferocity than in any other Central American country at the time, save Costa Rica. And the unremitting repression of the three decades-long Somoza regime which the Sandinistas overthrew was admitted on all sides.

Yet when the issue of Nicaragua came before the US Congress, the only question for discussion was whether or not to continue supporting the Contras which had been initiated by the Reagan administration. That is to say, out of 535 members of the US Congress, not one asked: why don't we support the Sandinistas (as the Nicaraguan people did in the 1984 elections)? Instead of supporting the democratically elected government, we continued to supply the Contras covertly, pumped money into the later elections sufficient to defeat the Sandinistas, and since then have altogether ignored the Nicaraguan peoples whose lives are now the most miserable in all of Central America.

These examples are not intended to suggest that the many insurgent groups the US has violently opposed since World War II were composed solely of saints; clearly they were not. Rather the examples are intended to show, first, that the preponderance of evidence available at the times of intervention suggested those insurgent groups were far more worthy of humanitarian support than their opponents (whom we did support). The examples also raise a troubling question: how much less authoritarian might these groups have subsequently been had we supported, rather than endeavored to subvert, them?

The Wages of War

This all-too-hurried sketch of US foreign policy could be elaborated at length, but should suffice to generate great suspicion about all stated reasons for US intervention abroad, past and present. However, all that has been (minimally) argued thus far is that the stated reasons are almost uniformly false; what are the real reasons for our manifold interventions?

These reasons will of course be many and varied, depending on the details of time and place, but they will share the goals of enhancing US corporate interests, or at the minimum, blocking real or imagined threats to these interests. Before turning to specific examples, it might be useful to consider the relationship between the corporations and the government for a moment.

The globalization of the world's economies is currently too often being described as eliminating nation states in favor of the untrammeled power of transnational companies, and this is highly misleading; these companies, especially the US-owned ones, would collapse in months, if not weeks, without the active support of the US government.

To be sure, the recently shelved (but not forgotten) Multilateral Agreement on Investment would weaken considerably the governments of nation-states, but only in one area: the regulation of commerce. The MAI would surely restrict the ability of governments to check capital flight, restrict currency trading, enact minimum wage and environmental protection laws, and much else that might impede the flow of profits. All of these measures are of course threats to equality, justice, and democracy, and progressives should be vigilant in looking for the return of the MAI, and struggle against it when it again rears its ugly head.

But this is the only area in which the corporations wish an emasculated government. Without a bloated military budget, not only would Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Grumman, Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin be in trouble, but the automobile companies as well, plus the oil companies, the majority of hi-tech firms, and the major suppliers of all these firms.

And the corporations need much more. Profits would be much lower if they had to build and maintain the roads, electric, water, and sewage lines to their plants, run a public transportation system for their workers (or customers), and so on, and were not consistently the recipients of tax breaks.

At the international level, US corporations need the government to ensure that target countries are "safe for investment" (no movements for freedom and democracy), that loans will be repaid, contracts kept, and international law respected (but only when it is useful to do so). It is also the task of the US government to create and maintain markets overseas for US goods, and to protect the corporations from genuine competition from abroad whenever it is feasible to do so.

Finally, the US government must remain on constant standby to rescue US corporations when their mismanagement becomes conspicuous, from consistently subsidizing agribusiness, to the Chrysler bailout, to a bill currently before the House to provide a $1.5 billion loan guarantee to steel corporations that are not competitive with Japan or Taiwan, even though the wage differential is slight (and in the case of Japan, favors the US).

Seen in this light, it can be said that no one knows whether the "free market" could work in the US, for it has never been practiced; corporations have needed the active intervention of the government since industrialization began. Different corporations may have somewhat different interests at times, and hence vie to influence governmental policies. What remains of American manufacturing, for example, in coordination with the AFL-CIO, must press the Clinton administration for an international minimum wage law; the likes of Nike, Mattel, and Wal-Mart must press equally hard against it. But the overall point remains: all corporations want, and desperately need, massive government activity in order to secure profits.

Kosovo and Serbia

Returning now more directly to foreign policy, we may examine the most recent interventionist action of the US government, the bombing of Kosovo and Serbia. At first blush it would appear that this is a counterexample to the claims of foreign policy solely serving corporate economic interests, for Serbian and Kosovar markets are negligible; they manufacture nothing that competes well with US or European goods; no large oil reserves are there, and the strategic importance of the area seems minimal.

The historical precedents enumerated above should generate skepticism that we might have intervened for humanitarian principles, but even if they are ignored, surely the government did not act on behalf of the suffering Albanian Kosovars, for if so, at the least it would not have informed their killers in advance that we would only oppose them from a minimum altitude of 15,000 feet. Moreover, that the Kosovars would suffer much more after the bombing began was, according to military intelligence, "predictable."

And so it was. By the time the accords were signed, at least 700,000 Kosovars had died, been wounded, or displaced by the Milosevic gang of killers and NATO. The bombing itself killed at least 1,200 civilians and 5,000 Serbian soldiers. The agreements reached were worse for the Kosovars than the earlier Rambouillet Accords, and in the end, there is precious little left in Kosovo to await the return of its citizens. As one reporter on the scene noted, "Large areas of Mitrovica and Pristina, two Kosovar cities, look like a cross between Kristallnacht and the blitzkrieg. What wasn't burned and looted by Serbian soldiers and para-militaries in those nights of fury after March 24 has been seen to by the NATO bombs."

Aims of Kosovo Intervention

NATO bombs" move us closer to the aims of the intervention. The first aim was to ignore the United Nations and thus diminish its power. This will cause resentment on the part of virtually all member states, and severely strain relations with Russia and China; a small price for the US to pay, however, for weakening the organization, because a strong UN would clearly place constraints on the ability of the world's sole superpower to do whatever it wished, wherever and whenever it wished to. (If we wanted a strong UN, we would pay our back dues, increase our dues, and stop vetoing so many measures in the Security Council).

NATO, on the other hand, was an entirely different matter. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, no credible threat to the security of Western Europe or the United States remained. But ending the alliance would be disastrous for a number of reasons. First, it would in all probability result in a call to reduce significantly the US military budget, which transnational corporations can't allow to happen (see above).

Equally important, the US dominates NATO, and it is one of our major entries into European affairs. A solid European Union might not be so compliant with US policies as the government would wish; they might even become a more independent competitive economic bloc, and worse, endorse and support genuine development in the poorer nations of the world (per capita, the citizens of the Scandinavian countries give thirty times as much in development aid as their US counterparts).

Hence NATO had to have something to do to celebrate its semi-centennial, and with much fanfare they did it in Kosovo. They certainly weren't about to do anything in Turkey, despite the parallelisms between the Kurds and the Kosovars. Turkey is itself a member of NATO, provides a splendid counterweight to an uppity Iran (and Iraq), and, again, is the recipient of great stores of US-made weaponry. Hence the propaganda ministry-a.k.a. the standard media-had to keep the plight of the Kosovars on page one for months and ignore completely what was, and is, being done to the Kurds.

In much the same way, other US interventionist actions-from the overt occupation of parts of Somalia to the more subtle support for Barak against Netanyahu in the recent Israeli elections can be seen to be neither directionless nor inconsistent, so long as it is borne in mind that major corporations need a very strong US government abroad no less than at home which can be relied upon to serve their interests. (Despite seeming inconsistencies, even our policies toward China are not an exception to this generalization, but the analysis thereof would be a lengthy one).

Need for Hope and Action

To conclude, once media propaganda and academic apologia are set aside, the history of US foreign policy can be seen for what it is: an almost unremitting catalogue of horrors for a great many millions of the world's peoples.

But the catalogue must be read with hope, and a commitment to struggle for fundamental change, not as a counsel of despair, or to generate feelings of helplessness. Hope, because the historical record shows that despite our strong and consistent support for the Batistas, Diems, Pinochets, and Suhartos of this world, insurgent groups committed to justice arose, and successfully challenged them in several instances. And surely similar insurgencies against US-supported authoritarian governments will rise again, because the thirst for justice and freedom is unquenchable.

It thus behooves all US citizens of good will to champion neither violent intervention in other countries nor some form of "neo-isolationism," but rather to struggle for fundamental changes in the three interventionist patterns of our foreign policy.

This struggle is necessary for two reasons. First, until change comes about the US budget will continue to be tilted heavily toward the military, rather than in support of the millions among us who do not live the American dream, but a nightmare: with fully a fifth of our children growing up in dire poverty, we do not need to spend money for cluster-bombs to rain on Kosovo, or anywhere else.

Second, the peoples of the world who currently endure the suffering caused by US foreign policies can only look to us to alleviate their misery. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a currently weak UN, the only possible check on US brutality lies with its own citizenry. Unlike a great many others who struggle for justice and freedom, US citizens can change their government without having to put their lives at stake in an armed uprising. The odds are long, but it can be done, and much of the world must depend on us to do it.

In this spirit, it is perhaps appropriate to end by quoting from the first Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority, which went forth 32 years ago, inspiring a great many readers of this publication, as well as their parents and older friends. Active struggle for fundamental change must be undertaken until such time as "the US ceases to be a terror in the politics among nations."

Now, more than ever, is the time to Resist.


Henry Rosemont, Jr., is a member of Resist s Board of Directors and teaches at St. Mary s College of Maryland.

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