They Speak

Hidden and not-so hidden agendas in the not-so post-Cold War era

by Paul Street

Z magazine, November 1999, p25


The mainstream media in the United States crafts two different versions of U.S. policy for two different audiences. The first audience, call it (following the work of the late Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey) the grassroots, comprises the general mass of citizens whose essential role in society is to keep quiet and do what they're told. In rare moments when media managers feel the need to do more than just divert this sorry human rabble from thinking about policy at all, as during times of U.S.-led war, they feed it nonsense about America's supposed global humanitarianism.

The second target group comprises the relevant political class of Americans from at most the upper fifth of society. Call this audience (again following Carey) the treetops-the people who matter and who deserve and can be trusted with something approximating the real story. This segment includes such privileged and heavily indoctrinated persons as corporate managers, lawyers, public administrators, and university professors. Since these people carry out key societal tasks of supervision, discipline, training, and indoctrination, they cannot be too thoroughly misled about current events and policy without deleterious consequences for the smooth functioning of the dominant social and political order. At the same time, information and commentary for the political class sometimes reflects a degree of reasoned debate among its members as to how best to manage the world in its interests.

Thus, media coverage of U.S. policy directed at the "elite" is often quite candid, supplementing humanitarian pretexts with a more forthright presentation of global realpolitik and "strategic interests." An excellent example is a September 9, 1999 front-page New York Times article titled "With Other Goals in Indonesia, U.S. Moves Gently on East Timor." It managed to report without irony the Clinton administration's explanation of why the U.S. was "resisting direct threats of economic or military sanctions" to punish Indonesia for its most recent brutal repression of the East Timorese. Like most mainstream media coverage of the latest Indonesian butchery, the Times deleted U.S. complicity in Indonesia's genocidal occupation of East Timor since 1975. Still, America's newspaper of record spoke in reasonably frank terms about the decidedly non-humanitarian reasons that Indonesia would not be subjected to anything like the rough U.S. treatment accorded to Serbia, supposedly for crimes against Kosovar humanity. The reasons mentioned included the United States' hope of "preserving its [strategic economic, diplomatic, and military] relationship" with the "fourth-largest country in the world" (Clinton defense advisor Sandy Berger) and U.S. calculations that an aid cutoff could precipitate a "new economic collapse" that "could harm American corporations that have large investments in Indonesia." As the Times explained the previous day, U.S. officials feared that "economic sanctions would jeopardize hopes for [Indonesian economic] recovery that foreign nations have worked so desperately to foster." As the New York presses rolled, hundreds of thousands of East Timorese worked desperately to stay alive in the face of a vicious assault from a terror state long financed, equipped, and trained by the United States.

The Hidden Hand & the Hidden Fist

The New York Times' heralded foreign policy columnist Thomas Friedman gave a more elaborate, ambitious, and far-reaching example of world capitalist candor last March. As the "humanitarian bombing" of Serbia was just underway, Friedman published an unapologetic manifesto on behalf of American imperialism in the Sunday magazine. Beneath the cover picture of a U. S. flag as a clenched fist, Friedman criticized Congressional neo-isolationists for failing to see that "sustaining globalization" is in America's "overarching interest" and has replaced "containing communism" as "the big reason" for bold U.S. militarism.

Friedman claimed that globalization-the official term for what is better understood as the planetary extension of an inherently expansionist political-economic system called capitalism-has replaced the Cold War as the dominant new international system, but its success is not inevitable. Without the planetary geopolitical stability that only a strong and flexible U.S. military capacity can provide, globalization can fall prey to regional disturbances and to a dangerous social and political "backlash" that will plunge humanity and American capitalism (which Friedman believes have largely identical interests) into disarray. In Friedman's view, the new imperialism required is not the "old fashioned" variety, "when one country physically occupies another." It consists of providing the muscle to create a "stable geopolitical power structure" for economic activity to flow smoothly across a planet already conquered by capitalism. Friedman argued in unanticipated-and were he to know it probably unwelcome-synergy with Marxist political scientist Ellen Meiksins-Wood. Meiksins-Wood recently distinguished between an older imperialism in which leading capitalist states conquered and competed over non-capitalist territories and a "new imperialism" which "has more to do with relations within a global capitalist system."

As she puts it: "Imperialism today is taking place in the context of...the 'universalization' of capitalism. It is not now primarily a matter of territorial conquest or direct military or colonial control. It is not now a matter of capitalist powers invading non-capitalist powers in order to bleed them dry directly and by brute force. Now it is more a matter of ensuring that the forces of the capitalist market prevail in every corner of the world (even if this means marginalizing and impoverishing parts of it), and of manipulating those market forces to the advantage of the most powerful capitalist economies and the United States in particular." Meiksins-Wood notes, "Military force is still central to the imperialist project, in some ways more than ever."

To Friedman, America's "overarching interest" in providing world political stability is obvious. "Globalization," he wrote, "means the spread of free market capitalism to every nation of the world." It also means the spread of "democracy," which he and other respectable intellectuals still (as in the Cold War era) routinely conflate with capitalism. The United States wins in a planet ruled by supposedly free market and democratic capitalism, because it has "had 200 years to invent, regenerate, and calibrate the checks and balances that keep markets free" and "has many of the most sought-after goods and services in the world market. . . Globalization-is-U.S. "

At the same time, however, globalization is for Friedman full of dangers as well as opportunities for the United States. The planetary "integration of free markets, nation states, and information technologies like never before" allows "individuals, corporations, and countries to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper, and cheaper than ever." This makes global investors and ordinary people unprecedentedly vulnerable to rapidly spreading financial and related security crises radiating from even the most seemingly remote corners of the planet. The new threats arise not from a single, easily identifiable, and monolithic enemy, as (supposedly) during the Cold War, but from such smaller, more slippery, and less predictable threats as Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Osam-bin-Laden ("the Saudi millionaire with his own global network-Jihad Online"), Slobodan Milosevic (the latest official U. S. reincarnation of "Hitler"), and Latin-American and Asian financial meltdown.

These dangers seem slighter than those allegedly once presented by the Soviet Union, but that's a dangerous illusion in Friedman's view. The rise of a delicately interwoven and intricately wired worldwide capitalism increases the costs of seemingly marginal anti-systemic activity in the world. The speed with which economic activity moves in the Information Age of Globalization intensifies the impact of regional disturbances and worsens their effect on international finance. Because everything is now so remarkably interconnected across national boundaries, Friedman's credo runs, events in the most backwater of places can have all sorts of corrosive consequences for the whole system. Since the new economic forces unleashed by global markets are deeply dislocating, moreover, they provoke social and political resistance that threatens to destroy the global system, leaving Uncle Sam all dressed up with no world to dominate. The United States must therefore monitor and police the planet with more diligence than ever.

The Clinton Doctrine

Friedman's manifesto is hardly the insignificant rhetoric of an isolated pundit. The Washington-based columnist is known to reflect official treetops policy statements and briefings. Well enough regarded by the White House to accompany Madeline Albright on state trips and strategically placed on the editorial page of the country's most significant agenda-setting newspaper, he has become what Amithabl Pal calls "a Pooh Bah of the foreign policy elite. Whatever he says carries weight in lots of [elite] circles."

A "careful reading of recent Administration and Pentagon documents," noted global security expert Michael Klare early in the NATO war, shows that Operation Allied Force was "part of a larger [U.S.] strategic vision." At the heart of that vision is "the assumption that as a global power with far-flung economic interests, the United States has a vested interest in maintaining international stability. Because no other power or group of powers can guarantee this stability, the United States must be able to act on its own or in conjunction with its most trusted allies (meaning NATO)." This idea of using military power to create a favorable global milieu for international investors is a crucial component of what Klare called "the Clinton Doctrine."

In explaining its global aims to fellow members of the policy elite in 1993, Defense Department planners claimed that only U.S. Ieadership could provide the "stability" to guarantee "a prosperous, largely democratic, market-oriented zone of peace and prosperity that encompasses more than two thirds of the world economy." Last year Defense Secretary William Cohen told the Boston Chamber of Commerce that NATO expansion would provide the "stability" required to "attract investment" to Eastern and Central Europe. The day before the initiation of the bombing of Serbia, Bill Clinton candidly told a Washington, DC audience that the United States would not be "free to pursue" a progressive domestic policy without "a strong economic relationship with the rest of the world that involves our ability to sell around the world.... That's what this Kosovo thing is all about." This comment was consistent with Clinton's long-standing insistence that Americans should accept the logic of economic globalism and "free trade" as "inevitable" and in their interests. Yet, like Friedman and the Defense Department, Clinton was not convinced that the triumph of world capitalism was completely inevitable: globalization still depends on American militarism.

A New Doctrine

Equally Friedman-esque was a speech delivered by British Prime Minister Tony ("Toady") Blair in early April 1999 to a classic treetops audience of 1,500 Chicago business leaders. With approval and input from the Clinton administration, Blair defended the U.S.-led NATO war in Yugoslavia, in terms of what he and his White House sponsors called, a new "Doctrine of International Community." Bowing to the standard pretexts, Blair justified NATO's bombing as a "humanitarian" response to Milosevic's Hitler-like ethnic cleansing and "genocide." But he also accused "rogue" dictators like Hussein and Milosevic of committing what capitalists in the regional cradle of historical American isolationism likely saw as a greater sin: threatening the geopolitical stability required for profitable world economic flows. In the integrated world system created by globalization, claimed Blair, "we are all internationalists now," and "many of our domestic problems are caused on the other side of the world." Fortunately, Blair concluded, there exists a great new benevolent world power to provide the proper mixture of guidance and discipline to keep the world safe for supposedly democratic and free market capitalism-the United States.

Blair's speech received favorable coverage in the Tribune under the headline, "A New Doctrine for the Post-Cold War Era."


Thomas Friedman's thesis is consistent also with rival columnist William Pfaff's critical but equally candid take on the U. S. agenda in the post-Cold War era. The idiosyncratic Pfaff dissents from what he considers to be the "utopian" notion (which he links to Friedman) that "the solutions to the 'central problems' [of humanity] have by now really been discovered and are being applied, bringing history to its conclusion by means of a global economic integration that will make the world over in the mold of rich and happy America." In December 1998, Pfaff, whose by-line appears regularly in the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, wrote of the ill-fated Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement of October that year as part of "Washington's grand plan to make NATO into a global military force" free to operate without interference from the UN. That plan was in turn a reflection, by Pfaff's analysis, of U.S. policymakers' commitment to sustaining "economic globalization"-a commitment he knew to reflect core U.S. objectives put in place without discussion in any public and democratic-representative forums: "Washington sees this as a precedent for a new NATO which would deal with a variety of existing and future problems inside and outside Europe... This new vision sees [NATO] expanding throughout Eastern and Baltic Europe, possibly taking in Russia itself, if that country stabilizes, and incorporating other states that formerly were part of the Soviet Union...AII of this adds up to an extraordinarily ambitious new global program. The Clinton administration is revamping NATO and redefining its mission in order to make it an instrument of American world engagement as peacekeeper, peacemaker, and policeman... This program has much support in the U. S. foreign policy community but has never been seriously debated either in congress or across the country.... It amounts to a globalization of U. S. strategy and foreign policy in parallel with the economic globalization and integration of world markets already well advanced."

During the Balkan bombing campaign, Pfaff noted that "NATO's extension and redirection has been seen in Washington as part of a desirable if not inevitable political 'globalization,' counterpart to the economic globalization of the last few years, in both cases U.S.-inspired and American-led." In numerous columns, he has criticized that globalization as destructive, destabilizing, and even imperialist.

Bad History

There is much to criticize from a radical perspective in the most candid mainstream commentary on U.S. foreign policy. Recalling that "economic globalization" is "a project as old as gunboats" (John Pilger), we can start by noting that since at least the 1890s U.S. foreign policy was fundamentally premised on the idea that American capitalism could not survive in its relatively liberal and democratic form ("corporate liberal" in the language of New Left revisionist historians) without access to an unrestricted global free trade and investment system-the "Open Door." Open Door policy was driven also by U. S. policymakers' belief that the special technological and organizational capacities of American corporation capitalism would ensure U.S. supremacy in an open, liberal, and properly policed world economy. There is nothing particularly "post-Cold War" about the U.S. drive for globalization or in the U.S. notion that America wins in a globalized capitalism. The drive remained critical, in fact, to U. S. Policy through the Cold War as diplomatic historians have shown in considerable detail.

Also doing violence to the historical record is Friedman's repetition of the doctrinal government story line that America's enemy on the world stage has not disappeared but changed from a monolithic Soviet-directed conspiracy to an assortment of indigenous "rogue" nationalisms and related regional threats. That line recycles preposterous and purposefully exaggerated Cold War doctrine on the character of the Soviet threat, the "containment" of which provided nearly 50 years of historically unmatched ,,cover for U.S. imperialism. It belies the fact that U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War era was deeply animated by fear of independent nationalism and regionalism throughout the world.

There are many other dark historical patterns and consistencies in the U.S. record before, during, and since the Cold War that fall outside the boundaries of appropriate discussion within even the better media commentary meant for the elite audience. Among the more unacceptable topics, which can be touched upon in only the most veiled and partial ways, if at all, within the mainstream media,(we might)include U. S. policymakers' long-standing, persistent, and all-too-successful determination to:

* Provide pretexts for massive defense budgets that provide huge public subsidies to high-tech corporations within the military-industrial complex while directing public resources away from broad social expenditures that threaten the wealth and prerogatives of the national business class as whole

* Enable U.S. multinational corporate exploitation of the Third World, and maintain the division between a rich core and impoverished periphery within the world capitalist system

* Use humanitarian pretexts as cover for an imperial global agenda more frankly acknowledged in "treetops" (intra-elite) discourse

* Violate and degrade the status of international law

* Roll back Russian power

* Impress potential world-systemic opponents with America's capacity for "insane" levels of violence and terror

* Maintain massive international U.S. arms sales

* Externalize the origins of social problems inside leading capitalist states and incapacitate democracy at home as well as abroad

The fundamentally state-dependent (not "free market") and anti-democratic nature of globalizing capitalism is (also generally, outside the boundaries of permissible discussion within our state-capitalist ministry of information.

Still, bad as it is, the coverage and commentary produced for the treetops is often much better than the media swill generated for mass society. Beyond the considerable amount of "ideologically necessitated deletion" (Ward Churchill's excellent phrase), the elite media content remains indispensable to those who want to determine real agendas behind the fairy tales spun for the masses.

They Speak

In John Carpenter's campy science-fiction/horror movie They Live, America is ruled by aliens disguised as members of the business and professional elite. The extraterrestrials manipulate the human mass through subtle, subliminal forms of thought control encoded in media content that both advances and hides the colonizers' international (in fact intergalactic) agenda of economic exploitation. They speak in hushed tones to one another through small radios installed in Rolex watches that symbolize their exalted class status while providing a safe conduit for intra-alien communication. In an underground complex whose existence is kept secret from the hated human herd, the colonizers speak openly and idealistically of their real objectives to large audiences of fellow aliens and a minority of co-opted human collaborators. They are resisted by a dedicated human cadre that has discovered how to manufacture special sunglasses that decode the numbing messages of the mass media and reveal the hidden alien identity of the infiltrators. Possessors of these glasses are tracked and gunned down by the alien-dominated forces of order.

The parallels between current U.S. reality and the nightmarish scenario depicted in They Live and in numerous other dystopian fantasies are clear to radicals living in the American eye of the world capitalist hurricane. Happily, however, we are not by any indication subject to a ruling-class of alien or superhuman lineage and we are generally free to manufacture and distribute special de-coder sunglasses-radical social theory and criticism-without fear of elimination by death squads (though our friends in numerous U.S. client states still live with that dread). Of the need to manufacture and distribute more of the radical visors there is no doubt. But we can still, above ground and with our own eyes or regular prescription lenses, make out significant parts of the real agenda between the lines, lies, and diversions of the ruling mainstream media, where all-too human elites still feel the occasional need to communicate and even argue with one another with a reasonable measure of candor about how they see the world and what is to be done.


Paul Street is a research associate in U.S. Social Policy and adjunct professor in U.S. History at Northern Illinois University.

Propaganda and Media Control