What's Left

October 5, 2003

A more sensible alternative to replacing Bush with a Democrat

By Stephen Gowans

Bush can be stopped, a "Letter to the Left" [1] tells me. It's signed by Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, and Pete Seeger, among others. Frankly, I'd prefer that the whole system be stopped, and replaced with something more sensible, but Cagan and company seem to think that ousting Bush is the key to putting an end to "the inseparable connection between the deepening economic and social crisis at home" and the "drive to dominate the world through military force." I think they're wrong.

The letter speaks of Bush's "drive to dominate the world through military force," as if the drive is Bush's and his administration's alone. Vote for whoever can block a second Bush term, is what the letter effectively recommends, and since this almost certainly means electing Clark or Dean or another of the candidates who could bear the Democratic Party standard in 2004, one wonders whether the letter's endorsers have discounted the possibility of there being some future Lieberman, or Gephardt, or Dean, or Clark drive to dominate the world through military force.  And one wonders too whether they're troubled so much by their government's "drive to dominate world" as by its use of "military force." You get the impression that dominating the world through nonmilitary means (if that's possible), might be considered all right, or at least preferable to a muscular display of force.

Pressing the powerful US military into service to extend US hegemony over the world, or large parts of it, hardly originated with the current president, though like a teenager who thinks his own generation invented sex, Cagan and company seem to think the world became an entirely different place the moment George W. Bush arrived in Washington, trailing an entourage of Project for a New American Century advocates. And so they've slapped a sign on a hoary US tradition of using military might to dominate other countries that reads "George W. Bush's Private Property." And yet, it has been an ongoing part of American foreign policy for well over a century, if not longer, to wield the Pentagon's might to dominate ever larger parts of the globe, the sword being wielded as assiduously by those who wax eloquent about a foreign policy built on multilateralism and animated by the need to promote human rights as those who fail to put a pleasing gloss on the fundamental motivations of US foreign policy, and so leave its crass, self-interest exposed. Therein lies the difference between Bush, the man said to own the drive to dominate the world through military force, and his predecessors. Bush hasn't done a terribly good job of putting a smiley face on a US foreign policy, marked more by its continuities than any tendency to shift with each successive administration.

Liberals like smiley faces; it assuages the guilt and discomfort they feel over their country waging wars of conquest. Delegates to the British Labour Party conference can lament their leader Tony Blair's pressing the British military into service as juniors to the Pentagon, citing Blair's failure to secure UN authorization for the march on Baghdad as the reason for their discomfort. Had UN authorization been secured, would the war have been any less a war of conquest? Would it have been any less predicated on a lie? The answer makes little difference to liberals, who, it appears, place enormous emphasis on surface forms (a UN imprimatur or the blessing of the vaguely defined "international community"), but on little else. The delegates' view of the attack on Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999, which Blair vigorously supported, is far more sanguine than their view of Bush's and Blair's Iraq war, even though Blair, then junior to the US President Bill Clinton, failed to secure UN authorization for NATO's aerial bombardment. Indeed, Washington and London didn't even seek UN authorization, knowing Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, would veto their request.  Somehow, this has been forgotten in the rush to tar Bush as qualitatively different from his predecessor.

In the US, Bush has been excoriated by liberals for practicing unilateralism, a groundless charge. His administration has lined up dozens of countries as backers of US military adventures abroad, included virtually all of "new" Europe (the former Communist countries of eastern Europe), and parts of "old" Europe – Spain, Italy, and the UK, the latter of which has provided substantial backing. France and Germany, however, have been conspicuous dissenters, the two countries forming an axis around which aspirations for a European superpower, strong enough to challenge US hegemony, have been built. Failure to engage Bonn and Paris in the plunder of the Third World through military force is, it would sometimes seem, Bush's major transgression. Clinton, it should be recalled, pushed ahead with his conquest of the Balkans over the anticipated objections of Russia, which means that Clinton (who liberals are happier with than Bush) acted "unilaterally" according to the peculiar liberal definition of "unilateral." And if you extend unilateral to mean, "acting without UN authorization," Clinton is guilty on a second count.  Yet, somehow, Clinton is remembered to have presided over a gentler, more multilateral, and more UN friendly, foreign policy than Bush.

The differences are illusory. There are no breaks of consequence in the two administrations' foreign policies. What apparent breaks there are have a great deal to do with Clinton's masterly salesmanship (better at putting smiley faces on his war of conquest), and Bush's blundering in attempting, and failing, to provide a convincing pretext for his war on Iraq. Even their approach to furnishing the public with a casus belli has been the same, though sloppily executed by the Bush cabinet. Clinton's cabinet would never have been so amateurish. Before there were banned weapons that couldn't be found, there was a genocide that couldn't be found. Bush invented a story about weapons of mass destruction to justify war on Iraq, which many doubted, while Clinton invented a story about genocide in Kosovo, which almost everyone believed, and continues to believe. Clinton is the better liar.

But liberals, in their haste to declare the bombardment of Yugoslavia a shining example of a war that was fought for good, unlike Bush's brutally obvious war of conquest, forget that forensic pathologists, dispatched to Kosovo soon after NATO called a halt to weeks of intensive bombing, left in disgust, complaining they'd been deceived by NATO war propaganda. They found only a few thousand bodies, most buried individually, not the tens of thousands of bodies in mass graves NATO assured them -- and the world -- were there. [2] Tony Blair can admit that maybe there never were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but he's never had to admit that maybe there never was a genocide in Kosovo -- a measure of how much more effective NATO's 1999 propaganda was than the Bush administration's marketing of its 2003 Iraq war.

Clinton had bombed four countries in the space of one year -- Yugoslavia, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. The Iraq bombing didn't have UN authorization, and nor the approval of France. And the Sudan and Afghanistan bombings were entirely unilateral, and on top of that, patently illegal. What's more, Clinton planned to bomb North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear power facilities (the same ones whose recent reopening has led to Washington issuing more than a few threats to use military force against the beleaguered communist country), backing off only when it became clear North Korea would retaliate, killing countless South Koreans and US soldiers in the process.  How curious then that Wesley Clark, the commander who was in charge of Clinton's war on Yugoslavia -- a war that lacked UN authorization, hadn't the backing of scores of countries, including a Security Council permanent member, and was sold to the public as necessary to put a stop to a crime that never happened—should emerge as the Democratic front-runner to topple Bush, who's loathed by liberals for having waged a war that lacked UN authorization, hadn't the backing of scores of countries, including a Security Council permanent member, and was sold to the public as necessary to put a stop to a crime that never happened.

Clark is regarded as having the best chance to send Bush and his Project for a New American Century proponents back to their sumptuously appointed boardrooms. If he's elected, Clark will be vacating his own sumptuously appointed boardroom, for a time. Somehow, the retired warrior has been dubbed the antiwar candidate. A career soldier who fought in Vietnam, and was known during the Kosovo campaign to leap from his chair and slam his fist down on his desk, thundering "I've got to get maximum violence out of this campaign -- now!" [3] can hardly be regarded as antiwar, though, to relax the definition somewhat, it could be said that the former Supreme Commander of NATO is "antiwar" in the liberal sense. Which is to say, he isn't against war per se, just wars that make the US look bad, either because they're not fought particularly well, or because they're objected to by Bonn or Paris.

Clark's new book "Winning Modern Wars" (whose title should lay to rest any lingering  illusions about the retired general being opposed to war) criticizes Bush for pursuing a unilateralist foreign policy, undermining old alliances, and putting too much strain on the military. On Iraq, Clark says Bush's "war plan contained 'fundamental flaws' that raised the level of risk to US troops."  Bush skimped "on the forces made available to military commanders," and shortchanged "postwar planning." And, says Clark, in "failing to enlist support from the United Nations and NATO," Bush denied the war "greater international legitimacy and additional foreign troops and other resources." The war on Iraq, Clark concludes, has "been a perfect example of dominating an enemy force but failing to secure the victory." But Clark raises no objection to "Bush's" drive to dominate the world through military force. What he objects to is the way Bush has gone about it: without enlisting the support of NATO and the UN; without having an exit strategy; by putting too much strain on the military; by failing to generate greater international legitimacy; and by failing to secure the victory. Clark's promise to those who would vote for him is not to be an antiwar candidate who will wrest US foreign policy from its drive to dominate the world, but one who will channel the drive in a more effective way, one that doesn't put too much strain on the military, enlists the support of other Western imperial powers, and secures the victory. Clark, in other words, is promising to be more like Clinton, a good salesman, and less like Bush, a PR flop. But he's not promising to change the nature of the product coming off the assembly line.

Gore -- the man some US Leftists are beating themselves up over for not having supported in the last election – would have offered a foreign policy that differed in no material way from that of Bush, with one exception: Gore wouldn't have been as brazen as Bush, but all the same would have ended up in the same place, not as quickly, perhaps, but eventually. There would, however, have been smiley faces plastered all over his foreign policy. Of course, no one can say for sure that this is true, but the continuities between the Clinton and Bush White House on foreign policy, and a long-standing US drive to dominate the world, often by military force, (if not always directly), points to coercive forces external to the personalities who occupy the White House as the motor forces behind what the US seeks to achieve in the international arena. Where personalities matter is in salesmanship -- how well the White House occupant connects with the public. Call it the smiley face factor.

Ask yourself this: What is there to suggest that a different occupant of the White House would have behaved differently than Bush in any fundamental way on foreign affairs, that is, in a way that is strategically different, but not merely tactically different; that is, what makes us think a different occupant would have pursued different goals, as opposed to pursuing the same goals either differently, or in the same manner as Bush? Most people would say that a president's values shape his foreign policy. A president who is politically to the left of Bush would build his foreign policy on different goals, which might be noninterventionist, non-imperialist, and pro-egalitarian. But if that were true, how would you explain Kennedy, or Johnson, or Clinton, all of who were to the left of Bush -- and each of whom was extolled by liberals for being a liberal -- and yet set out to dominate other countries by military force? And how would you explain British Prime Minister Tony Blair? He's far to the left of Bush (indeed, to the left of the current field of Democratic candidates), and yet, the drive to dominate the world through military means is as much Blair's drive as Bush's. An interesting thought experiment is to ask: "Who would progressives vote for were Blair American and running against Bush?" The answer, I think, is obvious: Progressives would line up behind Blair. But were he elected, would it make any difference? Noam Chomsky says that people at the top have so much power that even small differences can have large consequences. In other words, you might as well for vote for a Democrat (or someone like Blair), because even if he seems only a little better than Bush, the small difference can have noticeable ameliorative consequences. But here's a case where apparently large differences have no foreign affairs implications at all. True enough, were he the senior partner, Blair almost certainly would have done a better job at accommodating war plans to the PR demands of creating "international legitimacy," but the policy of conquest by military force would have remained the same. Chomsky's small differences, would have yielded large differences, but only in the way the policy is sold, not in the policy itself. Putting Blair, or a US equivalent, in charge of US foreign policy, would make liberals feel better about the way their country conducts itself on the world stage, but it would hardly have changed the goals the country's foreign policy is yoked to.

A troubling truth Americans haven't had occasion to confront in living memory – not in any major way -- is that it doesn't really matter who you elect, if who you elect plans to work within the context of, or is committed to, the prevailing economic system. Hence, they live with the illusion that personnel changes at the top are the key to building a fairer, more democratic, more egalitarian America. Others, like Chomsky, don't share the same illusion, but believe, nevertheless, that liberal Democrats are better than conservative Republicans (which isn't to say that on abortion rights, capital punishment and other social issues they aren't; just that when it come to economic matters, including foreign policy, the differences are tactical alone.) The illusion is not so strongly embraced elsewhere in the world, where voters have had the opportunity to elect governments that have promised extensive reforms in an egalitarian direction, only to discover that liberals and progressives in power, are a whole lot like conservatives in power. And so it must be so. In the end, they have to live within the logic of the capitalist economy. The closest Americans have come to witnessing the recurrent phenomenon of liberals in power failing to distinguish themselves from conservatives is Bill Clinton's abandoning of his promise to introduce a national health care plan, blocked by insurance companies and health care providers; and then Clinton's behaving as if he were carrying on in the manner of his Republican predecessor. It is sometimes quipped that the last liberal president was Nixon.

Often, the promise of egalitarian reforms is quickly departed from once the would-be reformers come face to face with the harsh realities of governing in a capitalist society, in which the state, to use Lenin's words, "is connected by a thousand threads to the capitalist class." The capitalist class, for obvious reasons, is hostile to reforms which encroach on its power -- and profits, and is almost invariably able to thwart them, if it so desires, or allow them to go ahead, if it must. Nowadays, however, it is more typical that reforms are thwarted, if indeed they are proposed, for it is rare to find a leftist party willing to advance them anymore.

This hasn't always been so. Reforms of a substantial character were achieved by socialist parties in Scandinavia and Western Europe, in the decades immediately following W.W.II. At the time, communists enjoyed considerable prestige, having in many cases led the resistance against the Nazis, and the Soviet Union offered a counter-model. Socialist parties, which promised reforms within the capitalist system, were welcomed by conservative forces as an alternative to the communists, who advocated radical change. Whereas communists were demonized, blocked, repressed, undermined and sabotaged, socialist and progressive parties were encouraged, allowed to thrive, and in some cases, funded by Washington. [4] It was these parties, tolerated as a necessary evil, that pressed demands for extensive reforms in the manner of public healthcare, universally accessible public education, public pensions, public housing, unemployment insurance and other income support programs. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the weakening of communist parties throughout Western Europe, it was no longer necessary to accommodate demands for social and economic reforms. Socialist parties dropped their commitment to working toward socialism gradually, and then dropped their commitment to social democracy altogether, arguing that globalization limited a government's choices, and that the best one can do is slash corporate taxes and ensure the work force is pliable, disciplined, and well-trained,  to attract private investment and jobs.

Activists argued that leaders of reformist governments lacked the backbone to push through reforms, and sought to marshal public opinion to hold their presumed champion's feet to the fire. Lula, a recent example of a would-be reformer who has backed away from the program he rose to power on, has, in short order, gone from being darling of  progressives to darling of foreign investors, the IMF and Monsanto. Bowing to the demands of the IMF, the Brazilian president has placed the country's central bank, and hence, its monetary policy, beyond the reach of the elected government and the country's voters; has slashed public spending; has increased interest rates; and has sought to reduce the retirement benefits of public employees. Recently his government announced it will allow farmers to grow genetically modified soybeans, despite to the Workers Party's long-standing opposition to GMO agriculture. His supporters howl betrayal. But the outcome has been foreordained. If you're going to accept Brazil's integration into the global capitalist economy (as Lula does) it makes no sense to challenge IMF dictates regarding monetary and fiscal policy, or to ban GMO seeds, if doing so raises agricultural production costs (and it does). There's no escape from the logic of capitalism within the capitalist system.

This is now largely recognized among the leaders of reformist parties in Western capitalist societies who have, these days, largely abandoned their reformist inclinations, accepting capitalism and its demands as a reality to be submitted to. For anyone who has seen reformist parties in power fail to distinguish themselves from conservative parties, it has becomes increasingly apparent that the few parties left that seek to achieve reforms within the prevailing capitalist system, are almost certainly doomed to failure. Which, far from being lamentable, is to be welcome for making the choices clear. You either accept capitalism and live as best you can with its attendant failures, or replace it with something rational, planned, and subservient to human needs.  There's no middle way, where you can enjoy all the good things of capitalism and avoid all the bad. The problems of gross inequality in the distribution of income and power; of the misery and poverty of billions of the world's people; of recurring recessions and their attendant misery; of environmental degradation; and of the incessant drive of large capitalist countries to control the markets and resources of weaker countries, are not solvable within the capitalist system itself; these are, indeed, outcomes of capitalism.  The best that can be done is to formulate Band-Aid measures, but those measures invariably encroach on the privileges and interests of the corporate class, which, by virtue of its enormous influence over public policy and the state, is able to block or thwart, or soon get around. Which is why the Labour Party in the UK, the Democrats in the US, and the Socialists in Germany and France, are, when in power, virtually indistinguishable from conservative parties on economic matters (including foreign policy.)

Unfortunately, most Americans, indeed most people of the West, cling to the idea that a change in governmental personnel can lead to pleasing changes of consequence, that ousting Bush will put an end to the drive of the US to dominate the world through military force. This is tantamount to thinking that a change in personnel in the executive suite of a clothing manufacturer that has shut down its North American operations, moving production to the Third World, could mean the reopening of the company's North American factories and salary increases for all its employees. Anyone who believes these fairy tales will be bitterly disappointed. Those at the top, no matter how liberal or repulsed by sweat shops, are not free from constraints imposed by the logic of the system in which they operate. If your competitors are paying 45 cents per hour to employees in China, you can't pay $15.90 per hour to employees in Cleveland and expect to survive. Either the company will tank, or – and this is far more likely -- you'll be sacked before you can say "But these Third World wages are exploitative!" Presidents, no matter how liberal – and it's doubtful that Clark, who voted for Nixon and Reagan, and spoke favorably of Bush at a GOP fundraiser as recently as two years ago, is a liberal – also operate within constraints. Their constraints are very much like those of CEOs. They include the capitalist economy and its demands, but more than that, they also include what the corporate class needs to thrive within it.  Corporate America may be able to muddle through without US domination of the Mideast, but it can thrive with it. Consider what the drive to dominate Iraq – and beyond that, the Mideast -- does for the US corporate sector.

It furnishes a reason for Washington to bump up military expenditures, and so stoke the flames of an economy whose output habitually threatens to outrun demand, plunging much of the world into depression, and corporate America's balance sheets into the red; and it also furnishes the massive military-industrial complex, whose titans include Lockheed Martin, General Electric, Boeing and Raytheon, with an unceasing and growing flow of revenue;

It provides sectors of the US corporate elite, including Bechtel and Haliburton, with billions of dollars in reconstruction contracts;

It throws open the doors of the Iraqi economy to US investment and trade, expanding profit-making opportunities abroad for US firms. Addressing an economic conference in Detroit, Colin Powell "spoke of the administration's effort to develop a huge free trade zone in the [the Mideast] that is now hobbled with more trade barriers than any other part of the world." [5]

It allows corporate America to snap up previously state-owned Iraqi businesses at fire-sale prices;

It puts Washington in a position to grant US oil firms preferential access to Iraqi oil, squeezing out Russian and European competitors;

It provides Washington with leverage over Bonn and Paris, and the corporate interests they represent, by controlling their access to Mideast oil, on which their economies depend.

Big business is the lobbyist and pressure group par excellence. The corporate world is in the face of legislators and the executive every day; it acts as the unofficial personnel department for the state's key positions (advisors, cabinet members, and top bureaucrats rotate in and out of the upper echelons of the corporate world and government); it funds think tanks and lobbyists to look after its own interests, which it presents, and is understood to be, equal to the national interest; it owns the media, and, as the principal source of the media's revenue, has enormous influence over what the media reports and how it reports it; and it's the major source of funding for political campaigns. What's more, corporate America is guaranteed access to the highest reaches of the state.

"Suppose you go to Washington," said Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, "and try to get at your Government. You will always find that while you are politely listened to, the men really consulted are the men who have the biggest stake -- the big bankers, the big manufacturers, the big masters of commerce, the heads of railroad corporations...The master of the Government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States." [6]

You don't need to invoke conspiracy theories, or point to the Bush cabinet's corporate connections, to see that corporate America is in a position to exert enormous influence over public policy, no matter who is in the White House. The very nature of a capitalist economy ensures that those who ascend its heights and control its strategic resources will have the ear of those in government. Even a cabinet comprised of those who have few, if any, connections to the corporate world, will find the office they occupy does. Even were this not true, a cabinet, by itself, is not the state, which is a much bigger thing, and the US state is teeming with long-established and virtually ineffaceable connections to the corporate class. A cabinet comprised solely of social activists and university professors, to use an example, would be every bit as much subject to the influence of corporate America, both from within and outside the state, as one comprised of CEOs. It is an inescapable truth that capital, by virtue of its control over strategic resources, is very much in the position to shape a government's agenda, no matter who forms the government, and remains so, so long as it presides over a country's wealth and assets and so long as the state, tethered to the corporate world through innumerable connections, remains in place. Which isn't to say that reformist governments can't, or haven't, tried to encroach on the power of capital, but those that have, in recent times, have found themselves locked in a vigorous struggle, which few win, and most soon enough back away from, consoling themselves they're only retreating to fight another day. At that point, they've capitulated, accepted the capitalist economy and the state which supports it, and govern as "realists." Almost every reformist party in Western capitalist society is now "realist," if not always in rhetoric then most certainly in government.

Bush can be beaten, Cagan, Seeger and Chomsky assure us, but so what? Beating Bush isn't the same as beating the drive, through military force or otherwise, to dominate the world. That exists independent of Bush, or whoever else occupies the White House. And if you think anyone, even slightly to the left of Bush, has to be better, take a long, hard look at Tony Blair. Or consider Clinton's record, free from the distorting mythology that Clinton respected international law, engaged every ally, and never by-passed the UN. It's not Bush that has to be beaten; it's a drive to dominate the world that has to beaten, which means beating something much more fundamental than Bush.

Corporate forces, of course, are not unchallengeable, and people power, or what is now called the second superpower, public opinion, can be marshaled to countervail the pressure the corporate world is able to exert on governments, but it is naively optimistic to suppose that public opinion can be organized as effectively, and on as many fronts, over a prolonged period, as corporate power can. Public opinion may be a second superpower, but it's hardly superpower enough to have diverted Washington and London from pursuing war on Iraq.

It will be said that propounding the view that changes in the personnel of the capitalist state can lead to no fundamental change in direction, is a recipe for quiescence. The conspiracy-theory minded will say that I'm a secret Republican promoting a course of inaction that will ensure four more years of Bush and his incessant drive to dominate the world through military force. What I'm saying is that voting for Bush will unquestionably ensure four more years of an incessant drive to dominate the world through military force, but so too will voting for Clark, or whoever else bears the Democratic Party standard in 2004.  I'm not prescribing a course of inaction, but a course of action that stands a better chance of making a difference than throwing out Bush and landing someone else in the White House who is no more free to alter the course of US foreign policy than a CEO is to put the interests of his employees, the community and the environment above those of shareholders. Changing personnel, without changing the state, and its fundamental aims, will amount to squat. And I'm hardly advocating quiescence. Instead, I'm advocating change: A change from working to elect people who propose to govern within the logic of a system organized on profit and its pursuit, to working with people who propose to replace that logic, with a rational, planned system, subservient to human needs.

It's not that different personnel can't make a difference. Different personnel committed to eradicating the root causes of systemic problems can. Sadly, those Cagan, Chomsky and Seeger want you to vote for, are not among them.

1. "Bush can be stopped: A letter to the Left," http://www.petitiononline.com/LttrLeft/petition.html

2. See my "Genocide or Veracicide: Will NATO's Lying Ever Stop?" http://www.swans.com/library/art7/gowans02.html

3. The Washington Post, September 21, 1999.

4. See Frances Stonor Saunders, "The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters," The New Press, New York, 1999.

5. "Powell Tells Arab-Americans of Hopes to Develop Mideast," The New York Times, September 30, 2003.

6. Leo Huberman, "The Truth About Socialism," Lear Publishers Inc, New York, 1950, p. 104.


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