June 22, 2004

The predatory policies of the world's de facto government

By Stephen Gowans

You don't have to look much further to see that Washington intends to act as a de facto world government than Bush administration lawyers arguing the president isn't bound by US or international laws that prohibit the use of torture. In this, and in other ways, it is understood that the president is free to act according to his own laws, defined by reference to national security interests, and senior to all others, including the UN Charter, the Nuremberg Laws, the Geneva Conventions and numerous other international treaties and protocols.

There is much US public sympathy for the view that the president should do what is necessary to defend national security interests, even if what is necessary is harsh, and even illegal. But there is precious little understanding of what the term national security means. It seems to suggest security of the person against unprovoked aggression from abroad, but if so, one could be forgiven for scratching his head over how it is that the US has vital security interests in so many places, from Southeast Asia, to Africa, to Central Asia, to Latin America, to Europe, to...well, to everywhere. Are there really people in all these places plotting harm to US citizens out of malice?

What national security interests are at stake in Iraq? It might have been possible to formulate a semi-plausible argument that Iraq was a genuine threat, once, when Saddam Hussein's government was said to possess weapons of mass destruction, (though hardly as destructive as those possessed in infinitely greater quantities by the US itself.) According to the mythology, Iraq, or more specifically, the bogeyman of the moment, Saddam Hussein, could become the keeper of an armory for terrorist organizations, one of which, al Qaeda, had already shown itself capable of attacking the United States, causing the deaths of thousands of US citizens.

To be sure, there must have been some Iraqi hostility toward the US (though far less than there is now) owing to a US-led sanctions regime (which eventually led to the deaths of over one million), no-fly zones (which were illegal), and multiple US-UK bombing campaigns (also illegal, and responsible for a good deal of death and misery.) But that hostility was a reaction, a response to US provocation. Washington could have readily defused Iraqi hostility simply by abandoning its policy of provocation, which is to say, it could have lifted the sanctions and stopped the bombing campaigns. But this was not to be. There were too many economic interests at stake in Iraq from furnishing a justification for the massive military spending that buoys the economy to the promise of control over Mesopotamian oil to refrain from making an enemy. In any event, once the deception over banned weapons became apparent (now attributed to bad intelligence and the perfidy of Ahmad Chalabi) the claim that Iraq represented a material threat to the personal security of US citizens dissolved. In light of this, it might be asked why a deception was created in the first place, why US forces remain in Iraq, and why John Kerry, the most likely alternative to Bush (if indeed the word "alternative" is appropriate in connection with Kerry), would maintain the US occupation?

There is a long history of the professed raison d'etre of various US military actions melting away, and the actions carrying on anyway. More than 100,000 US troops remain stationed throughout Western Europe. During the Cold War, a significant US military presence was said to be necessary to deter "Soviet expansionism." Yet, more than a decade after the Soviet Union's demise, the US continues to maintain a huge military presence on the continent, and has expanded in small ways, and has plans to expand in much larger ways, into Eastern Europe. Moreover, the US-led NATO alliance has greatly expanded. If the threat of Soviet aggression had been the alliance's real reason for being, its operations would have wrapped up long ago. That they haven't indeed, that they've grown immensely -- suggests the alliance, and the continued US troop presence in Western Europe, has unacknowledged benefits.

Indeed, a case can be made that NATO's continued existence has at least three benefits for the US, all of which in some way involve enlarging the interests of US businesses. Reagan cabinet member Alexander Haig, once the NATO Supreme Commander, said a US military presence in Europe guarantees US access to European markets (1). There's NATO's interoperability requirements, a fancy way of saying NATO countries must line up with the US on equipment purchases so that everyone's equipment works together. In practice, that means Poland, the Czech Republic and other NATO countries place orders for fighter jets and other martial equipment with the US armaments industry, with happy bottom-line consequences for an important sector of the US economy. And involving NATO countries in US-led military operations holds out the alluring promise for Washington of being able to slough off some of the burden of bombing, invading and occupying other countries, whose state-owned enterprises can be sold off for the benefit of US investors, whose markets can be pried open to US exports, and whose raw materials can be placed at the disposal of US corporations. Indeed, John Kerry wants to do exactly this in Iraq (i.e., internationalize the costs), under the banner of "repairing relations with our allies." There can be little doubt that corporate America would be the immediate loser of a policy to withdraw US forces from Europe and disband NATO, just as there can be little doubt that political decision-making in the US is dominated by corporate America. From where have most of the members of the Bush cabinet from any cabinet in recent memory come? And the US Senate is so tightly interwoven with corporate America its key members connected to large US corporations through significant investments, or past (and future) appointments to key executive offices that it's a veritable organizing committee for the common affairs of US business. That NATO continues to exist and that tens of thousands of US troops will continue to do tours of duty in Germany, the UK, Italy and other European countries for decades to come -- is as elementary as 2 + 2 = 4.

That the US operates outside the law, as a de facto world ruler, has been amply evident for some time, and is hardly specific to the Bush presidency. No man-made law binds the US military machine and the country's intelligence apparatus. Yugoslavia was bombed by a US-led NATO coalition for 78-days under another president (for whom the label "hawk" was curiously never applied), despite the strictures of international law, the UN Charter, and even NATO's own charter. Bill Clinton was following a hoary presidential tradition of armed intervention, one that stretches back to the Indian wars, carrying forward to the conquests of Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, the domination of Latin America, through to the devastation of Korea and Indochina. No pattern as recurrent as this could simply reflect the hawkishness of a group of people in power, and yet, in this, an election year, the drive to war is said, with astonishing historical myopia, to be owned by Bush.

Equally recurrent as a pattern is the commission of war crimes, not only by US forces, but by all military forces of every country. The very fact that war crimes are repeatedly committed in conflict after conflict is unlikely to reflect ineptitude in filtering bad apples from the military. It suggests instead that there are instrumental benefits of certain activities in war, which, though decried as crimes, and articulated as such in law, nevertheless prove effective in attaining military goals. There are benefits, or at the very least presumed benefits, to destroying civilian infrastructure, to killing rather than sheltering prisoners, and so on.

Morality, it's evident, is not a part of the logic of war, and nor does it intrude on decisions made within the context of war, except from time to time by leaders, whose deference to scruple over military objectives leads to their immediate replacement as unsuitable for command. And this too is so in the corporate world, where scruples over the welfare of people adversely affected by corporate decisions has no place, and where all activity must be directed toward the single goal of profit making. This is not a decision managers of corporations are free to choose. They must subordinate all other consideration to the ne plus ultra of profit making, or be eliminated.

Were morality a part of the logic of war, war crimes would not be committed, and the entire body of law which seeks to define which actions in war are criminal and which not would, therefore, be superfluous.  We can expect then that armed forces are driven to behave in ways called criminal, the very reason a restraining body of war crime law exists. But the existence of this body of law does not in any way mean that the actions of those under its nominal jurisdiction will be, or have been, restrained. There must, in the end, be coercion or the threat of coercion to compel obedience, otherwise why should anyone obey, when there are benefits to disobedience? And who or what is in the position to coerce the United States, the most armipotent country in the world, to act in conformance with the rules of war, the Geneva Convention, the UN Charter, and so on? The answer, of course, is no one is, which is one reason among others that anyone who has a reasonable chance of negotiating a path to the presidency must be committed to the view, as John Kerry as much as George W. Bush is, that the US must always have the world's strongest military. Control over the world's strongest military is an inestimable asset. It means no body is in the position to compel US obedience, and therefore, the US can reap the rewards of disobedience. At the same time, it puts the US in a position of being able to compel the obedience of others, and so monopolize the rewards.

There are also other benefits to having a large military, most economic, and related to the need to provide profitable outlets for the investment of capital and to absorb excess industrial capacity. This can be put another way: An aggressive foreign policy, manifest recently in the armed domination of Iraq, is a necessity of the way in which the US economy is organized and operates. The implication is that change in US foreign policy, from an aggressive one to a peaceful one, requires a fundamental change in the economy's organizing principles.

The economy is always tending toward imbalances between capacity and effective demand, either because technological advances allow production to be organized more efficiently, because demand is approaching its asymptotic level, or because opportunities for the investment of profits are diminishing. That establishes enormous pressure to more thoroughly exploit existing markets, and importantly, to conquer foreign markets, otherwise, firms shut down and the economy falls into stagnation. To avoid this fate, closed markets, as Iraq's was, are pried open, and foreign rivals are muscled out, expanding opportunities for US-based corporations at the expense of their foreign competitors. The US, not surprisingly, intends to restructure the Iraqi economy to accord privileged access to US exports and investment.

The nature of contemporary capitalist economies is also to concentrate wealth and income, large parts of which are re-invested, where and when opportunities for profitable returns exist. Where those opportunities do not exist or are few, stagnation inevitably sets in. It is of considerable importance then to those entrusted with managing the economy to see to it that there are outlets for the investment of capital. Iraq provides promising opportunities in two areas: oil and reconstruction. US firms will be accorded preferential access to opportunities for investment in Iraq's oil industry, while foreign rivals, particularly German, French, and Chinese companies, that had the inside track prior to the US invasion, will be squeezed out; and it's a matter of record that most of the lucrative reconstruction contracts to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure (destroyed by US missiles and bombs) will be awarded to US firms, providing corporate America with yet more opportunities for profitable investment. What's more, Brobdignagian military expenditures also prop up demand and soak up surplus capital.

The nature of the US economy was no more thoroughly exposed than in a June 19, 2004 New York Times paean to US corporation Bechtel's rebuilding sewage treatment facilities in Iraq. This was lauded as an example of US munificence and leadership, but the Times failed to explain that the facilities Bechtel rebuilt had been deliberately destroyed by US bombs over a decade earlier (2). Former Secretary of State George Shultz, a Bechtel board member, had lobbied furiously for a US invasion of Iraq (3). Two days later, the Times reported that the US was quietly using proceeds from Iraqi oil sales to fund reconstruction efforts (4). The US armaments industry, including firms like Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon and others, profited from the sale of missiles, bombs, and aircraft used to destroy Iraqi civilian infrastructure that Bechtel and other US engineering firms are being paid to rebuild, using, in part, revenue from the sale of Iraqi oil. In other words, Iraqis are robbed by the US to pay US companies to rebuild facilities other US companies were paid to furnish the means to destroy. Meanwhile, the New York Times rhapsodizes over US generosity in helping Iraqis back on their feet. The details have changed, but this has been going on ever since capitalism arose as a global system five centuries ago. The wealth of the West is predicated on the plunder of the Third World.

Despite economic forces compelling the US to expand militarily and pursue an aggressive, predatory foreign policy, there are some who concede that while the world's de facto government cannot be compelled to act morally, or at least in accordance with international rules and conventions, it can nevertheless be embarrassed, or pressured through the activism of the public, into doing so. World opinion, it was argued not too long ago, is a second superpower.  There are few reasons to believe this is any more than wishful thinking, for it is difficult to think of any confirming instance of world opinion standing in the way of imperialist plunder. World opinion being massively against the invasion of Iraq, or against the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, made not one jot of a difference to the foreign policy of the US and its NATO allies; it simply presented spin-doctors with bigger, and in the end, easily overcome, challenges. Military operations went ahead, and the PR offensive was hiked up a notch or two.

Action, on the other hand, in the form of pressure brought to bear on governments, seems to have a greater potential to make a difference, but what pressure has been exerted on governments in connection with aggressive military intervention abroad has made little or no difference, except maybe in a few cases here and there, of minor importance. This may be because the pressure was of insufficient magnitude to make a difference, but if so, is it reasonable to expect that pressure of sufficient magnitude will ever be brought to bear to offset the powerful economic forces that impel the US toward domination of countries not yet under its control? The recent history of activism in opposition to the US conquest of Iraq leaves little room for optimism, for while the conquest was blatantly imperialist, its pretext conspicuously constructed by deception, and its effect thoroughly barbarous in other words, though being infamous enough to provoke a strong reaction the reaction in the imperialist countries was fairly mild (though it cannot be denied that protests were unquestionably of impressive size.) At any rate, the effect as far as the US government is concerned, however large or frequent the protests were, was nil.

Still, it may be said that governments that have supported the US conquest of Iraq have suffered at the polls. If protests and public activism haven't deterred Washington, maybe public activism of the ballot booth will. But this is a very optimistic formulation, for it assumes that the alternatives to governments in power that support the US occupation are not equally committed to the occupation of Iraq. This is certainly not true in the US, where the Democrats are as unremittingly committed to the domination of Iraq as the Republicans are. Indeed, the US political establishment, but for a few minor differences here and there over tactics, speak as one on Iraq, as on so many other issues where the interests of corporate America are at stake; and this must be so, for the election of a Democrat as president does not mean that the anonymous economic forces that shape US policy suddenly melt away.

As regards US allies, there's little to suggest that a change in government, from one that supports the US occupation, to one that doesn't, is going to make much difference. Is Washington any less committed to the continued occupation of Iraq for Spain having withdrawn its troops? To be sure, the high-profile defection of a number of coalition members would make the PR requirements of the US engagement in Iraq all the more difficult, but it wouldn't change the underlying logic that drives Washington to war in the first place. It would simply be an impediment to be steered around, and one Washington would be perfectly capable of navigating, if not immediately, then in time.

Indeed, a lot, if not all of the organized opposition to imperialism in the imperialist countries themselves, has the character of throwing a few obstacles in the way of governments pursuing aggressive foreign policies, obstacles that prove easy to circumnavigate. Demonstrations to "pressure elites," are a case in point. The effort to defeat Bush in November is another. US foreign policy would, were Bush defeated, continue as always, but for a few flourishes here and there that a different group of people would engrave, as their own personal signature, on the edges of foreign policy. It can be said that the election of a Democrat president could give the anti-war movement a ledge, however small, to stand on, but that too is wishful thinking, this all the more evident in the reality that whatever ledge is provided by Kerry is never specified. Kerry is assumed to be better than Bush, if only slightly, simply because he isn't Bush. This is silly.

De facto world governments do as they please, and can hardly be caught up in the laws and the bodies that enforce the laws they themselves dominate. There will, accordingly, be no international criminal tribunal to bring war crimes charges against the US and its NATO coalition for its multiple crimes in Yugoslavia, nor will the crime of initiating wars of aggression ever be answered in a tribunal established, controlled and funded by the de facto world government. There is a painful naivety at work in efforts to present the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia with evidence of NATO war crimes, as if there's even the remotest possibility the evidence will be acted on. The ICTY, and to come, the war crimes tribunal against Saddam Hussein, are simply instruments of the de facto world government's foreign policy. They are not impartial bodies, interested in the blind and docile pursuit of justice. That anyone should think otherwise is truly astonishing.

There are many who claim to be above the clashes of the de facto world government and the targets of its aggression, professing an equal disdain for both. They acknowledge, at times, that the actions of the de facto world government cannot be countenanced, but on other occasions, become partisans of its aggressive actions, uncritically pointing to the professed humanitarian or necessary character of the actions. They are, however, invariable in their denunciation of the target, which is always personalized, and the person in question, always demonized. Accordingly, while corporate America may have an enormous interest in the plundering, subjugating and exploiting of Iraq, the target becomes, not Iraq, but its leader, Saddam Hussein, and so an extension of US economic policy is transformed into a moral crusade against a villain. Whether the crimes and defects attributed to the personalized target are real, exaggerated or entirely contrived, is never clear, for Washington is nothing if not committed to spinning tall tales to justify its wars of aggression, and the media are nothing if not committed to uncritically accepting and amplifying their governments' foreign policy lies, up to the moment the truth becomes academic, at which point the media's skepticism is renewed. Little should need to be said on this, the failure of WMDs to turn up in Iraq, despite assurances from the US and UK and much of the media that Iraq was doubtlessly in possession of banned weapons, justifying the point. The justification for the NATO intervention in Kosovo turned out to be contrived as well; no genocide happened, the alleged crime bitterly dismissed by forensic pathologists dispatched to disinter bodies, as NATO war propaganda. With the WMD deception coming so close on the heels of the Kosovo genocide deception, one would have thought the media, and the public, would have been keenly skeptical.

If US interventions are a drama that invariably features a demon, there are also invariably angels. For the US government the angel is, of course, itself. For those who deplore both the US government for its aggression, and the personalized target of the aggression for the crimes of which he is accused, it is they themselves who are angels. They are the equivalent of the well-meaning teacher who preaches non-violence, even to the victims of bullies, who are expected to take their beating without striking back, allowing the authorities to mete out justice later in the form of a penalty. This, as every school-aged child knows, is the kind of high-sounding nonsense no one, for good reason, takes too seriously. The problem is the authorities are almost always never there when you need them to exercise their protective role; if you extend the analogy to the Palestinians being bullied by Israelis, or the Iraqis or North Koreans or Cubans being bullied by the US, they're never there, period. And that is because in world affairs, the authority is the de facto world government, and the de facto world government is hardly a disinterested party.

For Palestinians there are few choices. International law avails naught, for the US ensures international law has no effective jurisdiction where Palestinians, and their oppressors, the Israelis, are concerned. In the last few months, the Bush cabinet has blessed a de facto policy of uniquely denying Palestinians the right to return to homes they fled or were driven from, while granting Israel two freedoms prohibited under international law: the freedom to establish settlements on occupied territory, and the freedom of territorial expansion through military means. John Kerry echoes his support.

Palestinian campaigns of violence are denounced and deplored in the imperialist countries, often by the same people who romanticize the French resistance and the partisans who fought against the Nazis. The denunciations are self-righteous and shallow. Many of those who acknowledge that demands that Palestinians "end the violence" amount to an ultimatum to willingly accept subjugation, entertain naïve fantasies about campaigns of non-violence, a course that is to be uniquely pursued by Palestinians, as so much else. But it is doubtful that non-violence would accomplish much in the case of the Palestinians, except make it easier for Israel to gobble up even more Palestinian land and drive more Palestinians into refugee camps. Angels, however, cannot condone violence, so they refuse to take sides and effectively leave the Palestinians to their fate.

The claim must be addressed that while the war crimes tribunals organized by the de facto world government may represent victor's justice, they still do represent a form of justice, even if only partial and one-sided. This is the half a loaf is better than no loaf point of view. The view's proponents have even gone so far as to say that since no chance exists of US leaders ever being prosecuted in connection with, let alone being convicted of, crimes of war or against humanity, though deserved, one might as well concentrate on securing convictions of those whose prosecution would not be thwarted, and indeed may even be ardently invited, by the US. In other words, any leader on Washington's hit list will do. Cops in police dramas usually ignore the small time crook for a chance to snare the bigger criminal. This approach would ignore the bigger criminal to nab the small time crook or the victim who has been framed. Whoever pursues this becomes an accomplice, witting or otherwise, in the hoary practice of demonizing an enemy to make his conquest appear just. They act, though they may not intend to, as part of the machinery of imperialism.

There are instances in which the personalized target has committed heinous crimes, and therefore his prosecution can be seen as something noble. But the act cannot be separated from the function it serves in justifying imperialist conquest, simply because the prosecution of the targets can never be independent of the foreign policy goals of the de facto world government. Saddam Hussein could not be dragged before an international war crimes tribunal unless the US allowed it. If Hussein's prosecution was at odds with US foreign policy objectives, as, at one time it was, his being tried for crimes would be out of the question.  But it is only because the US will allow, and indeed seeks Hussein's prosecution, that it is now possible. If, on the other hand, the prosecution of those who carry out crimes of war or against humanity could be done independent of Washington's foreign policy interests, the charge that selective prosecutions contribute to justifying imperialist conquest would be groundless. But there can be no independent prosecution without an independent body that is not subordinate to the world's de facto government. Since no such body exists, bringing the personalized targets of US aggression to trial, unavoidably acts to legitimize conquest. And what is the bigger crime: that of which the accused is accused, or a war of aggression whose aim is to plunder, subjugate and exploit? In seeking to pursue justice in connection with the smaller crime or trumped up charge masquerading as a smaller crime, the basis is established for justifying the larger crime.

Human Rights Watch, the US foreign policy establishment-connected rights watchdog, is an ardent exponent of holding human rights abusers to account. The group argues that the prosecution of violators makes clear to dictators, tyrants and despots, that there's nowhere to hide. This is arrant nonsense. For one thing, leaders of the de facto world government need not worry about hiding, since they have no fear of ever being prosecuted; they control, or at the very least, have an enormous influence over, prosecutions and the bodies that carry them out. And since HRW's key members are drawn from the US foreign policy establishment, it's a pretty safe bet that the organization's view of the world closely resembles that of Washington. Would HRW call for the prosecution of US leaders? Of course not. The mild slap on the wrist the organization gave NATO leaders for the war of aggression on Yugoslavia which was an egregious assault on both the principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bello is proof enough. The rights group mildly admonished NATO leaders for ignoring humanitarian law, when, in fact, the US-led coalition committed the greatest crime of all according to the Nuremberg laws initiating a war of aggression. On top of that, NATO forces deliberately destroyed civilian infrastructure, a flagrant war crime. Vital allies of the US also have no fear either, a point Israeli leaders -- who, in connection with the Palestinians, oversee a human rights horror show and war crimes extravaganza -- can readily attest to. Who really has nowhere to hide are leaders of countries that are not allies, satellites or dependencies of the US. This includes anyone who presides over a closed or largely state-owned economy who refuses to bow to demands to accept what's euphemistically called "democratic" or "economic reforms" elevating the profit making interests of corporate America above the material and social security requirements of the domestic population. Renitent leaders will eventually be indicted on some charge, whether genuine, exaggerated or trumped up, to justify an inevitable predatory US war to pry open markets and elevate US corporate interests. To be sure, there is nowhere for these leaders to hide, but that hardly has anything to do with human rights abuses or war crimes, and everything to do with the world's de facto government concealing the pursuit of corporate America's interests behind the pursuit of justice. In this, Human Rights Watch is also an instrument of the de facto world government's imperialism.

It is inevitable that the world's strongest power will seek to act as a world government in fact; it need not accept limitations on the exercise of its power, for there is no body capable of constraining it. Public opinion does not limit the exercise of US power abroad and neither does the UN Charter, the Nuremberg laws, the Geneva Conventions, or any other component of international law. The US accepts international law where there are no penalties to the pursuit of its economic interests in doing so, and brazenly ignores it otherwise. This occasionally becomes a PR nuisance, but PR problems are usually managed successfully, helped along by the reality that the US public is willing to allow the country's executive considerable latitude in the pursuit of national security, which it misconstrues as having something to do with its personal security, but which in fact, is often inversely related to personal security. (US foreign policy, for example, is more a cause of, than a deterrent to, terrorism, and therefore is, itself, a threat to the US public.) Even if its association with an aggressive policy fatally harms one administration the next to take its place will pursue the same policy, but will make the necessary cosmetic changes to make the policy palatable.

US foreign policy, and the foreign policy establishment's pursuit of de facto world government status, is shaped by anonymous economic forces driven by accumulation and profit-making. The US government needs to maintain a massive military and to pursue a predatory foreign policy to bolster aggregate demand and provide outlets for the profitable investment of capital. If it doesn't, the economy will stagnate and foreign rivals will profit at the expense of US firms. No cabinet, whether made up of Republicans or Democrats, or even reformers, is going to allow this to happen; any cabinet that seemed to be going down this path would soon find itself replaced, either by legal means, or if necessary, illegally. The end of this sorry state of affairs cannot, therefore, be brought about simply by changing personnel, anymore than a change in the profit-making orientation of a business can be brought about by changing the CEO or the board of directors; something far more fundamental is required. In the case of US foreign policy, what is necessary is the replacement of accumulation and profit making as the economy's central organizing principle. This amounts to nothing short of replacing capitalism itself. Nowadays it's considered bad form to talk of replacing capitalism for fear of scaring off those who've been brainwashed into believing that anyone who proposes to do so is, at best, out of date, and at worst, detached from reality. Bad form or not, there is no hope of building a decent society and a peaceful foreign policy if we avoid talking about what stands in the way of its achievement.

1. UPI, January 7, 2002.

2. Thomas Nagy, "The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water Supply," The Progressive, September, 2001. http://www.progressive.org/0801issue/nagy0901.html

3. "Spoils of war," The New York Times, April 10, 2003 .

4. "U.S. Is Quietly Spending $2.5 Billion From Iraqi Oil Revenues to Pay for Iraqi Projects", New York Times, June 21, 2004.

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Stephen Gowans