What's Left

December 3, 2002

Coercive external forces, not personnel, behind America's cruel and inhumane foreign policy

Stephen Gowans

"[T]he Bush administration," remarked the National Post [Dec. 3, 2002], "is making clear that no matter what [is said in the Dec. 8 report Iraq is required to file detailing what weapons of mass destruction it has, if any] Saddam Hussein will be accused of lying. Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said yesterday that if Iraq denies having weapons of mass destruction, U.S. Intelligence reports will disprove that claim. On the other hand, if Iraq admits to having banned weapons...that will be proof Saddam has been in violation of United Nations resolutions."

That Washington is hell-bent on attacking Iraq isn't news; that's been clear from the moment, only hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, that Pentagon boss Donald Rumsfeld ordered aids to find some connection between the attacks and Iraq. And it's been clear in scores of articles, interviews and press conferences, in which the regime's principals and supernumeraries have made the case for war.

What's astonishing, however, is that Washington has been so blatant in its efforts to fashion a pretext for launching a war of aggression, running through a dozen arguments for why war is necessary, each failing pretext replaced inevitably by another, and the media looks on, as if describing a sporting event, where the finish line is crossed once the regime hits upon a pretext suitable to keep large parts of the population from getting too restive about a brazen act of aggression of the kind that got Nazis hanged at Nuremberg. The truly astonishing part of this scenario is that the media never questions the game. Instead, reporters act as play-by-play announcers, columnists as color commentators.

That's no less true than in reporting on a transparently corrupt, crooked, and illegitimate "heads I win, tails you loose" policy regarding weapons inspections. The game and its rules are utterly absurd, and yet the absurdity passes without comment.  It's as if the White House, declaring the moon is made of Limburger cheese, is met by nothing more that the usual reportage.

That the regime wants war, and will stop at nothing to get it, should be obvious by now. Bush's words, more than ever, are plain: "The signs," he says, "are not encouraging. A regime that fires upon American and British pilots is not taking the path of compliance. A regime that sends letters filled with protests and falsehoods is not taking the path of compliance."

And the timing of acolyte Tony Blair's report on Iraq's human rights violations, released Monday, speaks volumes of the inevitably of a US-led attack. Amnesty International, showing spine the meek and complicit Western press doesn't have, condemned the report as a transparent attempt to justify war, pointing out that London is silent on the "appalling human rights" record of Saudi Arabia and Israel, key Anglo-American allies.

The report is truly breathtaking in its hypocrisy. The dossier outlines "inhumane and degrading" prison conditions in Iraq, failing to mention the inhumane and degrading captivity of "battlefield detainees" swept into cages at Gautanamo Bay by US forces on no authority stronger than the Pentagon's ability to jackboot around the world with impunity, or the degrading and inhumane conditions under which the American Taliban John Walker-Lihnd was held. Nor does the report  mention the US citizens held indefinitely in military prisons in flagrant violation of the US Constitution or the detention of thousands of Muslim males without charge in American jails.

But the boldest hypocrisy is reserved for the report's conclusion. On the eve of an attack the British heathcare group Medact says could cruelly and callously kill up to 500,000 Iraqis, Tony Blair concludes his dossier with this: "A cruel and callous disregard for human life and suffering remains the hallmark of [Saddam Hussein's] regime."

On May 11, 1996  Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeline Albright was asked by 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl whether the hundreds of thousands of  Iraqi children killed by sanctions was worth it. (As many as 90,000 Iraqis, including 40,000 under the age of five, die every year from sanctions-related causes.) Albright's words remain the hallmark of a Washington that has a cruel and callous disregard for human life and suffering. She replied, "It's a hard choice, but I think, we, think, it's worth it." Were a country's leaders' cruel and callous disregard for human life just grounds for bombing hundreds of thousands of civilians to death (and it is not), the United States would have to be bombed dozens of times over, millions of its citizens plowed into mass graves to punish its cold, callous and monstrous leaders. This, to be sure, is reasoning the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden would embrace to justify his own outrages, but it's clear his moral scruples are no more highly elevated than those of the terrorists at the White House and Whitehall.

It's significant that one so cruel and hardhearted as Albright should be part of a different administration than Bush's. It's easy to think of the current regime as a rogue -- colder, crueller, more bellicose than its predecessors and it's easy to be led into the trap of assuming that had Al Gore's victory not been denied that matters would have been different.  The idea that the current regime in Washington represents a discontinuous break from US foreign policy is sirenic: we're irresistibly attracted to the idea, but embracing it leads to the demise of any good that can come from opposition to US foreign policy.

To be sure, the pack of velociraptors that make up Bush's regime are perhaps more belligerent in their rhetoric than a Gore cabinet may have been, but it's wrong to assume the personal characteristics of the regime's principals mean much. True, only those expert at playing the game can find themselves appointed to the cabinet, but it's the game, not the labels of the players, that matters most.

An acquaintance of mine, an executive in a large corporation, illustrates the distinction. Over the course of a decades-long career he's found himself in the position of having to layoff hundreds of employees, and to justify the dismissal of thousands of others, and has been called upon from time to time to explain his corporation's union-busting activities. As an individual he is gentle, kindly, polite, and generous and while it may be tempting to call him a sociopath for maintaining a kindly and charming demeanour while carrying out cruel and callous policies, a sociopath he is not. He justifies his actions by pointing out that he has a trust which he is obligated, by law and the rules of the game, to fulfil: he must make whatever decision is necessary to advance the interests of the corporation's shareholders he represents. "It's not pretty, it can be cruel and callous, but that's capitalism," he says. (To which I reply, "Fine -- so let's get rid of capitalism.")

Now, it could be that my acquaintance is cruel, hardhearted, even a sociopath, and there are plenty of executives who fit the bill. We could vent our frustration with the harsh way employees are treated by calling the executive inhumane, but his inhumanity isn't the point; a gentle, kind and humane executive would do the same; my acquaintance affirms that.

Karl Marx put it this way:

"(Capital's) answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases our profit? But looking at these things as a whole, it is evident that this does not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him."
People at the head of large organizations, whether commercial or government, are driven in certain directions. Some may celebrate the directions in which they're driven (the Bush cabinet, for example, may celebrate the unremitting pressures that push the US to war over and over again), while others lament them (as a Green administration might.) But whether celebrated or lamented, the coercive external forces remain.

It may be that we concentrate all our venom on the Bush regime because it's so comfortable with the audacious exercise of US military power and because we can think of no other way to stop the outrages that inevitably follow than to change the regime. But the answer doesn't lie in putting liberal Democrats or the Green Party in power; that's like replacing a sociopathic executive with my kind and generous acquaintance; the same cruel and callous policies will inevitably follow.

We might instead take a leaf from Washington's own book on "regime change." It should be understood that when Washington talks of changing regimes abroad it doesn't simply mean that one group is to be replaced by another, the equivalent, say, of a Democrat (or Green Party) administration following a Republican one; it means that one group is to be replaced by another that will undertake to change the very basis of government, changing its nationalist or socialist orientation, to a capitalist one. This means a complete overhaul, not only of economic arrangements but of civil and political arrangements, so that the system (or "the game" to carry on the metaphor) is conducive to private ownership and integration with the Washington-dominated global capitalist system. In other words, the rules of the game aren't left in place; they're changed, because it's not individuals per se that matter; it's the system they defend or acquiesce to.

Likewise, while calling Bush a monster, a velociraptor, even a moron, can be cathartic, we should be clear that it's not Bush who is the problem; it's the rules of the game, rules that compel the administration, whether Republican or Democrat or Green, to move in directions conducive to enlarging the interests of those, who by virtue of their control and ownership of the economy, wield immense power, and in whose service, fiscal policy, monetary policy, labor policy, defense policy and foreign policy is shaped.

It's no accident that Washington has been saying the same thing about its foreign policy for a century. Today, Bush's National Security Doctrine talks of imposing free trade, free markets, and capitalism on the rest of the world. In 1907, Woodrow Wilson was saying much the same:

"Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nation which are closed against him must be battered down.  Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process."
In his 1953 State of the Union Address Dwight Eisenhower pointed out that, "A serious and explicit purpose of our foreign policy [is] the encouragement of a hospitable climate for investment in foreign nations."

And how much separation is there between the Bush doctrine and the ideas of Zbigniew Brzezinski, liberal Democrat Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor? In his The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski argues that the United States should cement its global "primacy" by conquering Eurasia.

Left Democrats or Green Party candidates who find themselves in government are just as much confronted by coercive external forces (of markets and lenders and threats of capital flight and strike and 'geostrategic imperatives' as Brzezinski puts it) as Republicans are, and while they may resist, rather than celebrate those forces, in the end they must either comply or be swept aside; that's the nature of the game.

In Marx's case of the individual capitalist, it's not will, either good or bad, that's the issue. Some individuals may be heartless in their defense of cruel and callous corporate policies, others less so, and while we may find the callous individuals abhorrent, replacing them with kinder, gentler executives doesn't replace the cruel and callous policies: it simply changes their face.

The dreams of countless supporters of Green parties and social democrats who have struggled to have their party and leader elected, only to be cruelly disappointed as those they've vouchsafed their dreams of a better world to act in ways that are little different from those of the conservative regimes they've replaced, affirms the point. There are many Tony Blairs, Gerhard Schroeders, Joschka Fischers, and yes, Bill Clintons. In large systems, as in corporations within markets or in governments in interdependent societies, the rules of the game, not the players, matter.

Making any difference then, means throwing out the rules, and starting over with a different game; replacing Bush with someone else who leaves the rules in place, means no end to Washington's aggressive and murderous foreign policy. Making the rules over in humane, egalitarian and non-exploitative ways is the key.


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