Making the World Safe for Hypocrisy
by Michael Parenti
from the book Dirty Truths
Why has the United States government supported counterinsurgency
in Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and many other places around
the world, at such a loss of human life to the populations of
those nations? Why did it invade tiny Grenada and then Panama?
Why did it support mercenary wars against progressive governments
in Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Indonesia,
East Timor, Western Sahara, South Yemen, and elsewhere? Is it
because our leaders want to save democracy? Are they concerned
about the well-being of these defenseless peoples? Is our national
security threatened? I shall try to show that the arguments given
to justify U.S. policies are false ones. But this does not mean
the policies themselves are senseless. American intervention may
seem "wrongheaded" but, in fact, it is fairly consistent
and horribly successful.
The history of the United States has been one of territorial and
economic expansionism, with the benefits going mostly to the U.S.
business class in the form of growing investments and markets,
access to rich natural resources and cheap labor, and the accumulation
of enormous profits. The American people have had to pay the costs
of empire, supporting a huge military establishment with their
taxes, while suffering the loss of jobs, the neglect of domestic
services, and the loss of tens of thousands of American lives
in overseas military ventures.
The greatest costs, of course, have been borne by the peoples
of the Third World who have endured poverty, pillage, disease,
dispossession, exploitation, illiteracy, and the widespread destruction
of their lands, cultures, and lives.
As a relative latecomer to the practice of colonialism, the United
States could not match the older European powers in the acquisition
of overseas territories. But the United States was the earliest
and most consummate practitioner of neoimperialism or neocolonialism,
the process of dominating the politico-economic life of a nation
without benefit of direct possession. Almost half a century before
the British thought to give a colonized land its nominal independence,
as in India-while continuing to exploit its labor and resources,
and dominate its markets and trade-the United States had perfected
this practice in Cuba and elsewhere.
In places like the Philippines, Haiti, and Nicaragua, and when
dealing with Native American nations, U.S. imperialism proved
itself as brutal as the French in Indochina, the Belgians in the
Congo, the Spaniards in South America, the Portuguese in Angola,
the Italians in Libya, the Germans in Southwest Africa, and the
British almost everywhere else. Not long ago, U.S. military forces
delivered a destruction upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia that
surpassed anything perpetuated by the older colonizers. And today,
the U.S. counterinsurgency apparatus and surrogate security forces
in Latin America and elsewhere sustain a system of political assassination,
torture, and repression unequaled in technological sophistication
All this is common knowledge to progressive critics of U.S policy,
but most Americans would be astonished to hear of it. They have
been taught that, unlike other nations, their country has escaped
the sins of empire and has been a champion of peace and justice
among nations. This enormous gap between what the United States
does in the world and what Americans think their nation is doing
is one of the great propaganda accomplishments of the dominant
political mythology. It should be noted, though, that despite
the endless propaganda barrage emanating from official sources
and the corporate-owned major media, large sectors of the public
have throughout U.S. history displayed an anti-interventionist
sentiment, an unwillingness to commit U.S. troops to overseas
actions-a sentiment facilely labeled "isolationism"
by the interventionists.
The Rational Function of Policy Myths
Within U.S. ruling circles there are differences of opinion regarding
interventionist policy. There are conservatives who complain that
U.S. policy is plagued by weakness and lacks toughness and guts
and all the other John Wayne virtues. And there are liberals who
say U.S. policy is foolish and relies too heavily on military
solutions and should be more flexible and co-optive when protecting
and advancing the interests of the United States (with such interests
usually left unspecified).
A closer look reveals that U.S. foreign policy is neither weak
nor foolish, but on the contrary is rational and remarkably successful
in reproducing the conditions for the continued international
expropriation of wealth, and that while it has suffered occasional
setbacks, the people who run the foreign policy establishment
in Washington know what they are doing and why they are doing
If the mythology they offer as justification for their policies
seems irrational, this does not mean that the policies themselves
are irrational from the standpoint of the class interests of those
who pursue such policies. This is true of domestic myths and policies
as well as those pertaining to foreign policy. Once we grasp this,
we can see how notions and arrangements that are harmful, wasteful,
indeed, destructive of human and social values-and irrational
from a human and social viewpoint-are not irrational for global
finance capital because the latter has no dedication to human
and social values. Capitalism has no loyalty to anything but itself,
to the accumulation of wealth. Once we understand that, we can
see the cruel rationality of the seemingly irrational myths that
Washington policy makers peddle. Some times what we see as irrational
is really the discrepancy between what the myth wants us to believe
and what is true. But again this does not mean the interests served
are stupid or irrational, as the liberals like to complain. There
is a difference between confusion and deception, a difference
between stupidity and subterfuge. Once we understand the underlying
class interests of the ruling circles, we will be less mystified
by their myths.
A myth is not an idle tale or a fanciful story but a powerful
cultural force used to legitimate existing social relations. The
interventionist mythology does just that, by emphasizing a community
of interests between interventionists in Washington and the American
people when in fact there is none, and by blurring over the question
of who pays and who profits from U.S. global interventionism.
The mythology has been with us for so long and much of it sufficiently
internalized by the public as to be considered part of the political
culture. The interventionist mythology, like all other cultural
beliefs, does not just float about in space. It must be mediated
through a social structure. The national media play a crucial
role in making sure that no fundamentally critical views of the
rationales underlying and justifying U.S. policy gain national
exposure. A similar role is played by the various institutes and
policy centers linked to academia and, of course, by political
lead ers themselves.
Saving Democracy with Tyranny
Our leaders would have us believe we intervened in Nicaragua,
for instance, because the Sandinista government was opposed to
democracy. The U.S.-supported invasion by right-wing Nicaraguan
mercenaries was an "effort to bring them to elections."
Putting aside the fact that the Sandinistas had already conducted
fair and open elections in 1984, we might wonder why U.S. leaders
voiced no such urgent demand for free elections and Western-style
parliamentarism during the fifty years that the Somoza dictatorship-installed
and supported by the United States-plundered and brutalized the
Nicaraguan nation. Nor today does Washington show any great concern
for democracy in any of the U.S.-backed dictatorships around the
world (unless one believes that the electoral charade in a country
like El Salvador qualifies as "democracy").
If anything, successive U.S. administrations have worked hard
to subvert constitutional and popularly accepted governments that
pursued policies of social reform favorable to the downtrodden
and working poor. Thus the U.S. national security state was instrumental
in the overthrow of popular reformist leaders such as Arbenz in
Guatemala, Jagan in Guyana, Mossadegh in Iran, Bosch in the Dominican
Republic, Sukarno in Indonesia, Goulart in Brazil, and Allende
in Chile. And let us not forget how the United States assisted
the militarists in overthrowing democratic governments in Greece,
Uruguay, Bolivia, Pakistan, Thailand, and Turkey. Given this record,
it is hard to believe that the CIA trained, armed, and financed
an expeditionary force of Somocista thugs and mercenaries out
of a newly acquired concern for Western-style electoral politics
In defense of the undemocratic way U.S. leaders go about "saving
democracy," our policy makers offer this kind of sophistry:
"We cannot always pick and choose our allies. Sometimes we
must support unsavory right-wing authoritarian regimes in order
to prevent the spread of far more repressive totalitarian communist
ones." But surely, the degree of repression cannot be the
criterion guiding White House policy, for the United States has
supported some of the worst butchers in the world: Batista in
Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, the Shah in Iran, Salazar in Portugal,
Marcos in the Philippines, Pinochet in Chile, Zia in Pakistan,
Evren in Turkey, and even Pol Pot in Cambodia. In the 1965 Indonesian
coup, the military slaughtered 500,000 people, according to the
Indonesian chief of security (New York Times, 12/21/77; some estimates
run twice as high), but this did not deter U.S. leaders from assisting
in that takeover or from maintaining cozy relations with the same
Jakarta regime that subsequently perpetuated a campaign of repression
and mass extermination in East Timor.
U.S. leaders and the business-owned mainstream press describe
"Marxist rebels" in countries like El Salvador as motivated
by a lust for conquest. Our leaders would have us believe that
revolutionaries do not seek power in order to eliminate hunger;
they simply hunger for power. But even if this were true, why
would that be cause for opposing them? Washington policy makers
have never been bothered by the power appetites of the "moderate"
right-wing authoritarian executionists, torturers, and militarists.
In any case, it is not true that leftist governments are more
repressive than fascist ones. The political repression under the
Sandinistas in Nicaragua was far less than what went on under
Somoza. The political repression in Castro's Cuba is mild compared
to the butchery perpetrated by the free-market Batista regime.
And the revolutionary government in Angola treats its people much
more gently than did the Portuguese colonizers.
Furthermore, in a number of countries successful social revolutionary
movements have brought a net increase in individual freedom and
well-being by advancing the conditions for health and human life,
by providing jobs and education for the unemployed and illiterate,
by using economic resources for social development rather than
for corporate profit, and by overthrowing brutal reactionary regimes,
ending foreign exploitation, and involving large sectors of the
populace in the task of rebuilding their countries. Revolutions
can extend a number of real freedoms without destroying those
freedoms that never existed under prior reactionary regimes.
Who Threatens Whom?
Our policy makers also argue that right-wing governments, for
all their deficiencies, are friendly toward the United States,
while communist ones are belligerent and therefore a threat to
U.S. security. But, in truth, every Marxist or left-leaning country,
from a great power like the Soviet Union to a small power like
Vietnam or Nicaragua to a minipower like Grenada under the New
Jewel Movement, sought friendly diplomatic and economic relations
with the United States. These governments did so not necessarily
out of love and affection for the United States, but because of
something firmer-their own self-interest. As they themselves admitted,
their economic development and political security would have been
much better served if they could have enjoyed good relations with
If U.S. Ieaders justify their hostility toward leftist governments
on the grounds that such nations are hostile toward us, what becomes
the justification when these countries try to be friendly? When
a newly established revolutionary or otherwise dissident regime
threatens U.S. hegemonic globalists with friendly relations, this
does pose a problem. The solution is to (1) launch a well-orchestrated
campaign of disinformation that heaps criticism on the new government
for imprisoning the butchers, assassins, and torturers of the
old regime and for failing to institute Western electoral party
politics; (2) denounce the new government as a threat to our peace
and security; (3) harass and destabilize it and impose economic
sanctions; and (4) attack it with counterrevolutionary surrogate
forces or, if necessary, U.S. troops. Long before the invasion,
the targeted country responds with angry denunciations of U.S.
policy. It moves closer to other "outlawed" nations
and attempts to build up its military defenses in anticipation
of a U.S.-sponsored attack. These moves are eagerly seized upon
by U.S. officials and media as evidence of the other country's
antagonism toward the United States, and as justification for
the policies that evoked such responses.
Yet it is difficult to demonstrate that small countries like Grenada
and Nicaragua are a threat to U.S. security. We remember the cry
of the hawk during the Vietnam war: "If we don't fight the
Vietcong in the jungles of Indochina, we will have to fight them
on the beaches of California." The image of the Vietnamese
getting into their PT boats and crossing the Pacific to invade
California was, as Walter Lippmann noted at the time, a grievous
insult to the U.S. Navy. The image of a tiny ill-equipped Nicaraguan
army driving up through Mexico and across the Rio Grande in order
to lay waste to our land is equally ludicrous. The truth is, the
Vietnamese, Cubans, Grenadians, and Nicaraguans have never invaded
the United States; it is the United States that has invaded Vietnam,
Cuba, Grenada, and Nicaragua, and it is our government that continues
to try to isolate, destabilize, and in other ways threaten any
country that tries to drop out of the global capitalist system
or even assert an economic nationalism within it.
Remember the Red Menace
For many decades of cold war, when all other arguments failed,
there was always the Russian bear. According to our cold warriors,
small leftist countries and insurgencies threatened our security
because they were extensions of Soviet power. Behind the little
Reds there supposedly stood the Giant Red Menace. Evidence to
support this global menace thesis was sometimes farfetched. President
Carter and National Security Advisor Brezinski suddenly discovered
a "Soviet combat brigade" in Cuba in 1979- which turned
out to be a noncombat unit that had been there since 1962. This
did not stop President Reagan from announcing to a joint session
of Congress several years later: "Cuba is host to a Soviet
In 1983, in a nationally televised speech, Reagan pointed to satellite
photos that revealed the menace of three Soviet helicopters in
Nicaragua. Sandinista officials subsequently noted that the helicopters
could be seen by anyone arriving at Managua airport and, in any
case, posed no military threat to the United States. Equally ingenious
was the way Reagan transformed a Grenadian airport, built to accommodate
direct tourist flights, into a killer-attack Soviet forward base,
and a twenty-foot-deep Grenadian inlet into a potential Soviet
In 1967 Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued that U.S. national
security was at stake in Vietnam because the Vietnamese were puppets
of "Red China" and if China won in Vietnam, it would
overrun all of Asia and this supposedly would be the beginning
of the end for all of us. Later we were told that the Salvadoran
rebels were puppets of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua who were puppets
of the Cubans who were puppets of the Russians. In truth, there
was no evidence that Third World peoples took up arms and embarked
upon costly revolutionary struggles because some sinister ringmaster
in Moscow or Peking cracked the whip. Revolutions are not push-button
affairs; rather, they evolve only if there exits a reservoir of
hope and grievance that can be galvanized into popular action.
Revolutions are made when large segments of the population take
courage from each other and stand up to an insufferable social
order. People are inclined to endure great abuses before risking
their lives in confrontations with vastly superior armed forces.
There is no such thing as a frivolous revolution, or a revolution
initiated and orchestrated by a manipulative cabal residing in
a foreign capital.
Nor is there evidence that once the revolution succeeded, the
new leaders placed the interests of their country at the disposal
of Peking or Moscow. Instead of becoming the willing puppets of
"Red China," as our policy makers predicted, Vietnam
found itself locked in combat with its neighbor to the north.
And, as noted earlier, almost every Third World revolutionary
country has tried to keep its options open and has sought friendly
diplomatic and economic relations with the United States.
Why then do U.S. Ieaders intervene in every region and almost
every nation in the world, either overtly with U.S. military force
or covertly with surrogate mercenary forces, death squads, aid,
bribes, manipulated media, and rigged elections? Is all this intervention
just an outgrowth of a deeply conditioned anticommunist ideology?
Are U.S. Ieaders responding to the public's longstanding phobia
about the Red Menace? Certainly many Americans are anticommunist,
but this sentiment does not translate into a demand for overseas
interventionism. Quite the contrary. Opinion polls over the last
half-century have shown repeatedly that the U.S. public is not
usually supportive of com mitting U.S. forces in overseas engagements
and prefers friendly relations with other nations, including communist
ones. Far from galvanizing our leaders into interventionist actions,
popular opinion has been one of the few restraining influences.
There is no denying, however, that opinion can sometimes be successfully
manipulated by jingoist ventures. The invasion of Grenada and
the slaughter perpetrated against Iraq are cases in point. The
quick, easy, low-cost wins reaffirmed for some Americans the feeling
that we were not weak and indecisive, not sitting ducks to some
foreign prey. But even in these cases, it took an intensive and
sustained propaganda barrage of half-truths and lies by the national
security state and its faithful lackeys in the national media
to muster some public support for military actions against Grenada
In sum, various leftist states do not pose a military threat to
U.S. security; instead, they want to trade and live in peace with
us, and are much less abusive and more helpful toward their people
than the reactionary regimes they replaced. In addition, U.S.
Ieaders have shown little concern for freedom in the Third World
and have helped subvert democracy in a number of nations. And
popular opinion generally opposes interventionism by lopsided
majorities. What then motivates U.S. policy and how can we think
it is not confused and contradictory?
The answer is that Marxist and other leftist or revolutionary
states do pose a real threat, not to the United States as a national
entity and not to the American people as such, but to the corporate
and financial interests of our country, to Exxon and Mobil, Chase
Manhattan and First National, Ford and General Motors, Anaconda
and U.S. Steel, and to capitalism as a world system.
The problem is not that revolutionaries accumulate power but that
they use power to pursue substantive policies that are unacceptable
to U.S. ruling circles. What bothers our political leaders (and
generals, investment bankers, and corporate heads) is not the
supposed lack of political democracy in these countries but their
attempts to construct economic democracy, to depart from the impoverishing
rigors of the international free market, to use capital and labor
in a way that is inimical to the interests of multinational corporatism.
A New York Times editorial (3/30183) referred to "the undesirable
and offensive Managua regime" and the danger of seeing "Marxist
power ensconced in Managua." But what specifically is so
dangerous about "Marxist power ?" What was undesirable
and offensive about the Sandinista government in Managua? What
did it do to us? What did it do to its own people? Was it the
literacy campaign? The health care and housing programs? The land
reform and development of farm cooperatives? The attempt at rebuilding
Managua, at increasing production or achieving a more equitable
distribution of taxes, services, and food? In large part, yes.
Such reforms, even if not openly denounced by our government,
do make a country suspect because they are symptomatic of an effort
to erect a new and competing economic order in which the prerogatives
of wealth and corporate investment are no longer secure, and the
land, labor, and resources are no longer used primarily for the
accumulation of corporate profits.
U.S. Ieaders and the corporate-owned press would have us believe
they opposed revolutionary governments because the latter do not
have an opposition press or have not thrown their country open
to Western style (and Western-financed) elections. U.S. Ieaders
come closer to their true complaint when they condemn such governments
for interfering with the prerogatives of the "free market."
Similarly, Henry Kissinger came close to the truth when he defended
the fascist overthrow of the democratic government in Chile by
noting that when obliged to choose between saving the economy
or saving democracy, we must save the economy. Had Kissinger said,
we must save the capitalist economy, it would have been the whole
truth. For under Allende, the danger was not that the economy
was collapsing (although the U.S. was doing its utmost to destabilize
it); the real threat was that the economy was moving away from
free-market capitalism and toward a more equitable social democracy,
albeit in limited ways.
U.S. officials say they are for change just as long as it is peaceful
and not violently imposed. Indeed, economic elites may some times
tolerate very limited reforms, learning to give a little in order
to keep a lot. But judging from Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, and
a number of other places, they have a low tolerance for changes,
even peaceful ones, that tamper with the existing class structure
and threaten the prerogatives of corporate and landed wealth.
To the rich and powerful it makes little difference if their interests
are undone by a peaceful transformation rather than a violent
upheaval. The means concern them much less than the end results.
It is not the "violent" in violent revolution they hate;
it is the "revolution." (Third World elites seldom perish
in revolutions. The worst of them usually manage to make it to
Miami, Madrid, Paris, or New York.) They dread socialism the way
the rest of us might dread poverty and hunger. So, when push comes
to shove, the wealthy classes of Third World countries, with a
great deal of help from the corporate-military-political elites
in our country, will use fascism to preserve capitalism while
claiming they are saving democracy from communism.
A socialist Cuba or a socialist North Korea, as such, are not
a threat to the survival of world capitalism. The danger is not
socialism in any one country but a socialism that might spread
to many countries. Multinational corporations, as their name implies,
need the entire world, or a very large part of it, to exploit
and to invest and expand in. There can be no such thing as "capitalism
in one country." The domino theory-the view that if one country
falls to the revolutionaries, others will follow in quick succession-may
not work as automatically as its more fearful proponents claim,
but there usually is a contagion, a power of example and inspiration,
and sometimes even direct encouragement and assistance from one
revolution to another.
Support the Good Guys?
If revolutions arise from the sincere aspirations of the populace,
then it is time the United States identify itself with these aspi
rations, so liberal critics keep urging. They ask: "Why do
we always find ourselves on the wrong side in the Third World?
Why are we always on the side of the oppressor?" Too bad
the question is treated as a rhetorical one, for it is deserving
of a response. The answer is that right-wing oppressors, however
heinous they be, do not tamper with, and give full support to,
private investment and profit, while the leftists pose a challenge
to that system.
There are those who used to say that we had to learn from the
communists, copy their techniques, and thus win the battle for
the hearts and minds of the people. Can we imagine the ruling
interests of the United States abiding by this? The goal is not
to copy communist reforms but to prevent them. How would U.S.
interventionists try to learn from and outdo the revolutionaries?
Drive out the latifundio owners and sweatshop bosses? Kick out
the plundering corporations and nationalize their holdings? Imprison
the militarists and torturers? Redistribute the land, use capital
investment for home consumption or hard currency exchange instead
of cash crop exports that profit a rich few? Install a national
health insurance program and construct hospitals and clinics at
public expense? Mobilize the population for literacy campaigns
and for work in publicly owned enterprises? If U.S. rulers did
all this, they would have done more than defeat the communists
and other revolutionaries, they would have carried out the communists'
programs. They would have prevented revolution only by bringing
about its effects-thereby defeating their own goals.
U.S. policy makers say they cannot afford to pick and choose the
governments they support, but that is exactly what they do. And
the pattern of choice is consistent through each successive administration
regardless of the party or personality in office. U.S. Ieaders
support those governments, be they autocratic or democratic in
form, that are friendly toward capitalism and oppose those governments,
be they autocratic or democratic, that seek to develop a noncapitalist
Occasionally friendly relations are cultivated with noncapitalist
nations like China if these countries show themselves in useful
opposition to other socialist nations and are sufficiently open
to private capital exploitation. In the case of China, the economic
opportunity is so huge as to be hard to resist, the labor supply
is plentiful and cheap, and the profit opportunities are great.
In any one instance, interventionist policies may be less concerned
with specific investments than with protecting the global investment
system. The United States had relatively little direct investment
in Cuba, Vietnam, and Grenada-to mention three countries that
Washington has invaded in recent years. What was at stake in Grenada,
as Reagan said, was something more than nutmeg. It was whether
we would let a country develop a competing economic order, a different
way of utilizing its land, labor, capital, and natural resources.
A social revolution in any part of the world may or may not hurt
specific U.S. corporations, but it nevertheless becomes part of
a cumulative threat to private finance capital in general.
The United States will support governments that seek to suppress
guerrilla movements, as in El Salvador, and will support guerrilla
movements that seek to overthrow governments, as in Nicaragua.
But there is no confusion or stupidity about it. It is incorrect
to say, "We have no foreign policy" or "We have
a stupid and confused foreign policy." Again, it is necessary
not to confuse subterfuge with stupidity. The policy is remarkably
rational. Its central organizing principle is to make the world
safe for the multinational corporations and the free-market capital-accumulation
system. However, our rulers cannot ask the U.S. public to sacrifice
their tax dollars and the lives of their sons for Exxon and Chase
Manhattan, for the profit system as such, so they tell us that
the interventions are for freedom and national security and the
protection of unspecified "U.S. interests."
Whether policy makers believe their own arguments is not the key
question. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Sometimes presidents
Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton were
doing their hypocritical best when their voices quavered with
staged compassion for this or that oppressed people who had to
be rescued from the communists or terrorists with U.S. missiles
and troops, and sometimes they were sincere, as when they spoke
of their fear and loathing of communism and revolution and their
desire to protect U.S. investments abroad. We need not ponder
the question of whether our leaders are motivated by their class
interests or by a commitment to anti-communist ideology, as if
these two things were in competition with each other instead of
mutually reinforcing. The arguments our leaders proffer may be
self-serving and fabricated, yet also sincerely embraced. It is
a creed's congruity with one's material self-interest that often
makes it so compelling.
In any case, so much of politics is the rational use of irrational
symbols. The arguments in support of interventionism may sound
and may actually be irrational and nonsensical, but they serve
a rational purpose. Once we grasp the central consistency of U.S.
foreign policy, we can move from a liberal complaint to a radical
analysis, from criticizing the "foolishness" of our
government's behavior to understanding why the "foolishness"
is not random but persists over time against all contrary arguments
and evidence, always moving in the same elitist, repressive direction.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Eastern European
communist governments, U.S. Ieaders now have a freer hand in their
interventions. A number of left reformist governments that had
relied on the Soviets for economic assistance and political protection
against U.S. interference now have nowhere to turn. The willingness
of U.S. Ieaders to tolerate economic deviations does not grow
with their sense of their growing power. Quite the contrary. Now
even the palest economic nationalism, as displayed in Iraq by
Saddam Hussein over oil prices, invites the destructive might
of the U.S. military. The goal now, as always, is to obliterate
every trace of an alternative system, to make it clear that there
is no road to take except that of the free market, in a world
in which the many at home and abroad will work still harder for
less so that the favored few will accumulate more and more wealth.
That is the vision of the future to which most U.S. Ieaders are
implicitly dedicated. It is a vision taken from the past and never
forgotten by them, a matter of putting the masses of people at
home and abroad back in their place, divested of any aspirations
for a better world because they are struggling too hard to survive
in this one.
Michael Parenti page