What's Left

August 21, 2003

Yugoslavia=Iraq=North Korea

By Stephen Gowans

If you were to expand the definition of war from the actual use of force by one nation against another to include the threatened use of force, it could be said the US is in a state of war with North Korea, and it is the US that is the aggressor.

Strictly speaking, the two nations are, at this moment, at war. An armistice was signed in 1953 to end open conflict, but an official end to hostilities was never declared, despite Pyongyang's incessant pleas for a formal end to the conflict and a nonaggression treaty. North Korea is often portrayed as the aggressor, measures it takes in self-defense cast as threats to the US and its allies, but it is the United States that has insisted the cold war continue, and is taking steps to heat it up.

Ever since the Bush administration announced its doctrine of regime change and preventive war, and included North Korea as a last minute addition to the axis of evil because "North Korea needed to feel a firmer hand," Washington has gone out of its way to squeeze the communist holdout, with a view to provoking the collapse of the country's government.

Replacing North Korea's communism with something more congenial to the profit interests of American capital has long been an aim of US administrations, both  Republican and Democrat, but the current administration has ratcheted up the pressure, perhaps sensing that with North Korea growing weaker, and the war on terrorism providing a cover for robust imperialism, the time is ripe to press home its advantage.

So it is that in recent months Washington has undertaken a number of menacing military maneuvers, seemingly designed to provoke North Korea into a response, and certainly designed to underscore Washington's determination to topple Kim Jong Il, the country's leader. Kim has been warned to draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq. Now, the US is threatening to interdict North Korean shipping a blatant act of war.

Despite what might, in other times, be regarded as an intolerable outrage, Washington's open bullying of North Korea has been met, largely, with indifference. People who can be normally depended on to protest unprovoked US aggression have mostly been silent, either because they're largely unaware of Washington's march to war on the Korean peninsula, are preoccupied with the occupation of Iraq and the campaign to bring the troops home, are suffering from protest-fatigue, or are actively hostile to North Korea's communist government

Indeed, the hot-cold reaction to recent US imperial interventions can be puzzling. Popular demonstrations against Washington's march to war on Iraq were large, and in happening before the invasion by US and British forces, unprecedented. Few people who consider themselves left politically were in favor of the invasion; most did at least something to work against it.

On the other hand, many people who consider themselves left, progressive or liberal, supported NATO's 78-day bombing campaign of Yugoslavia, despite numerous parallels with the 2003 Anglo-American attack on Iraq. In both cases, the attacks, led by the United States, were unprovoked, undertaken without UN Security Council authorization (and were therefore illegal), and were justified on the basis of flagrant lies (in the case of Yugoslavia, that a genocide was in progress; in the case of Iraq, that Saddam was hiding banned weapons.) It can be argued that both were blatant instances of imperialism run amok. But not for left, progressive and liberal supporters of the 1999 bombing campaign. Is it the case that commitment to anti-imperialism is not absolute, or that matters seemed otherwise to backers of the 1999 intervention?


Supporters of NATO's aggression against Yugoslavia point to the intervention as being necessary to stop a brutal genocide. At the time, there were good reasons to suspect a genocide or something like it was in progress.

There was history. Secessionist struggles, ethnic cleansing and atrocities had stained the recent history of the Balkans. Wasn't Kosovo just another chapter in the same bloody horror story?

There was context. A civil war raged in the Muslim-dominated province of Serbia. Security forces, largely Serb, the dominant ethnic group, were brutally cracking down on guerillas, ethnic Albanians, the minority. Wasn't this part of a larger scheme to purge the province of its Muslim population?

There was an analogy: Milosevic to ethnic Albanians as Hitler to the Jews. The world had stood by while Hitler set out to exterminate one ethnic minority. Would it stand by and let a new Hitler exterminate another?

Finally, there was absence. There was no obvious economic or geo-strategic objective one could point to, to explain why Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, two liberals, were demanding Serb forces withdraw from Kosovo.

Contrast that with George Bush's war on Iraq. A cabinet teeming with oil industry insiders lies about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction to provide a pretext to take over a country that has the world's second largest reserves of oil. An invasion goes ahead, and reconstruction contracts are divided amongst US corporate titans, with proceeds from the sales of Iraq's stolen oil to be used to foot the bill. The whole thing screams imperialism, and indeed, right-wing commentators set out to rehabilitate the idea, at the very time it became clear the Bush administration was unable to craft a believable story to explain why US and British forces were about to march into Iraq. If you can't hide imperialism behind a façade, you try to guild it with pretty words.

Yugoslavia, on the other hand, appeared to be little more than a troubled, third-rate federation that offered nothing in the way of oil, mineral resources, or rich markets and only the prospect to NATO countries of having to incur an enormous policing expense. What possible reason could NATO be interested in intervening, if not because  humanitarian concerns compelled the alliance to take action?

Accordingly, the combination of history, context, analogy, and absence, pushed many people, who otherwise would have opposed war, into the pro-war camp. It didn't hurt either that on foreign policy matters, liberals (including Clinton and Blair, the principals behind the attack) tend to be more adept at arriving at the same place conservatives would arrive at, without being so blatant about what they're up to as to arouse popular opposition; they're better at hiding imperialism behind a pleasing façade.

But there were a few clues that all was not right with the Clinton-Blair story.

For one, there was no evidence of genocide. To be sure, there was a civil war. The Kosovo Liberation Army, the KLA, had taken up arms in a fight for independence. The security forces had responded, sometimes with overwhelming force. Deaths--of Serbs killed by the KLA and of ethnic Albanians who refused to support the KLA killed by the guerillas, and of ethnic Albanians killed by the Serbs-- numbered in the low thousands.

NATO said there were tens of thousands slaughtered, but forensic pathologists, who roved across Kosovo after the war looking for mass graves, found a few thousand corpses only, most buried individually consistent with the low-level civil war that had been fought prior to the bombing.

Most damning of all, when the NATO-connected Hague Tribunal charged Milosevic with war crimes in connection with Kosovo, the charges totaled to hundreds of deaths, most of which had happened after NATO began its bombing campaign. If bombing was necessary to stop a genocide in progress, how is that the deaths Milosevic is accused of hardly in numbers approaching a genocide occurred afterwards?

Even more, a cursory review of American foreign policy should have been a tip off that economic considerations, not humanitarian concern, lay at the heart of NATO's bombing campaign. The United States and Britain have long histories of foreign interventions, none of which, to that point (or since) have had anything to do with humanitarianism, and everything to do with securing economic advantage for investors, or safeguarding existing investments from expropriation by economic nationalist, socialist or communist regimes. If this war were humanitarian, it would be a sui generis the first time ever Americans and Britons had gone to war for altruistic reasons.

What most people didn't know was that the Clinton administration had issued an ultimatum to Milosevic: allow NATO forces to occupy your country, and let us revamp the economy of Kosovo to be run along free market lines. Milosevic refused the ultimatum, and the bombing began.

Another tip off that this was an exercise in battering down closed doors: Milosevic is a socialist, perhaps not by the definition of parts of the US left who decry the application of the label to anyone who actually runs a government, but a socialist in the sense of presiding over a largely socially and publicly owned economy that didn't present many money-making opportunities to investors in the West.

What's more, Milosevic evinced little interest in joining NATO, an organization that allows Washington to expand its hegemony over Europe (and now the world), while propping up the collective bottom line of the US arms industry, from which the Pentagon insists new NATO countries buy their equipment.

In other words, for all that Yugoslavia appeared to be a third rate country of no material interest, American capital stood to gain from the Balkans being folded into the US imperial orbit, its governments transformed into neo-liberal Quislings, its economies privatized, and its socially and publicly owned assets sold-off to the highest bidder at knockdown prices. Milosevic -- and the Serbs who kept voting for him -- stood in the way. Now that they've been swept aside, the Balkans is under US control, its economies in the process of being integrated into a global economy dominated by US capital. Another imperialist mission accomplished, with many liberals, progressive and leftists having cheered on the perpetrators.

So what of North Korea? That country too is socialist, though clearly not of the variety the bulk of those who comprise the American left virulently anti-Communist can cozy up to. If Milosevic can be scorned as a dictator, strongman, warlord, vicious Serb nationalist and engineer of a genocide, Kim can be scorned as a dictator and militarist who starves his people. But is the victim's negative cuddliness quotient reason not to oppose imperialism?

Saddam too has been scorned in thoroughly dark, menacing, and invidious terms, though much of what has been said about him is true, whereas you have to stray further from the truth to demonize Milosevic and Kim. Much of the demonology surrounding the former Yugoslav president and presumed Serb nationalist is bunk, owing more for its existence to NATO's propaganda requirements, than reality. North Korea may be militarist, and famine may be a problem, but that has more to do with the collapse of the socialist trading bloc, natural calamities, and the country never having been free for a moment from the threat of US attack. Yet, the way Washington tells it and unfortunately the way it's then reported in the media Kim has a yen for building missiles, maintaining a large army, and letting people starve, presumably because he has a gross personality defect, or because he's a communist, and that's what communists do.

It's commonplace for media reports to be unburdened by context. And without context, media consumers are forced to attribute the behavior of foreign policy hobgoblins to  the hobgoblin's presumed personal defects. So it is that Palestinian suicide bombers are seen to carry out terrorist attacks, not because Israel has dispossessed Palestinians of their land and property, but because the suicide bombers are anti-Semitic fanatics. Milosevic rejected NATO's ultimatum at Rambouillet, not because it was unacceptable to hand over the country's sovereignty, but because he's a warlord consumed by Serb nationalism. Kim doesn't escape this. His government pursues militarist policies, not as self-defense against unceasing US threats, but because he's bizarre, unstable, paranoid, or, according to the favorite slur of the anti-Communist American left, because he's "neo-Stalinist."

Root causes

There are enormous economic pressures that drive the United States to intervene militarily in the affairs of other countries, especially those that are closed to US investment, or are less than hospitable to US capital, as North Korea under Kim is, as Yugoslavia under Milosevic was, and as Iraq under Saddam was as regards oil.

The military-industrial complex, a large part of the engine of the US economy, provides an impetus for military buildup. Without enormous defense expenditures, the economy would slip into crisis. Jobs would be lost. Times would be hard. Americans would ask questions about the economy, and wonder whether there was a better way, and drift into radicalism.

What's more, American firms produce far more than can be consumed domestically. They need foreign markets to absorb surplus goods. Investors have surplus capital that needs to be invested. Often the most attractive investment opportunities are overseas, in places closed to private investors, or where investments are at risk.  They want Washington to open those markets, and provide the assurance, backed up by arms, that their investments will be safe.

For Washington, it's a no-brainer. Corporations have to have markets to dispose of surplus goods. Investors have to have markets in which to invest surplus capital. And an economy propped up by military expenditures needs a huge military to keep going. Without these things, crisis.

It's no surprise then that George Bush's National Security Strategy is built around two major themes: (a) the need to spend liberally on the military and (b) the need to establish free trade and free markets -- that is, opportunities to sell surplus goods and invest surplus capital -- on a global basis.

The way Bush puts it, free trade and free markets are necessary for poor countries to prosper; prosperous countries don't promote terrorism; therefore free trade and free markets are essential to fighting terrorism. In other words, a robust American imperialism is an antidote to terrorist attacks.

But rather than being an antidote, US imperialism is at the very heart of terrorist strikes against American, and allied, targets. It's the cause, not the cure. Osama bin Laden and his followers cited the US presence in Saudi Arabia (a virtual occupation since Washington reserved the right to decide when it would quit the country), sanctions against Iraq, and US support for Israel (vital to US domination of the Middle East) as principal grievances, and reasons for the Sept. 11 attacks. The US occupation of Iraq has sparked a growing campaign of terrorist bombings. Terrorist attacks haven't stopped; they've been stepped up. As imperialistic outrages escalate, terrorist attacks, that is, violent acts of resistance, escalate too. Cause and effect.


With candidates gearing up to contest presidential nominations, and a presidential election on the horizon, liberal, progressives and other leftists are wondering whether a Democratic administration would offer something better, if only marginally. There's a desperate desire to believe it would, but a desperate desire won't make it so. To be sure, a Democratic administration would offer the appearance of a kinder imperialism, but it would be imperialism all the same, and the difference would be superficial alone. This might make progressives and liberals feel better, but it would make no material difference. Countries that refused to turn their markets, resources, land and labor over to US capital would still be menaced. The Pentagon's budget would still be huge. The US would still have troops stationed in almost 130 countries, and the number of foreign bases would continue to grow. And wars, unprovoked and illegal, would still be carried out...to keep the economy afloat. There's a good chance, however, that a Democrat would be more effective in turning rank imperialism into something that looks progressive and humanitarian, the way Clinton and Blair did with Yugoslavia.

Democrats, no matter how liberal, won't change the enormous economic pressure that drives the US to war. A Democrat can't, and indeed has no intention of even trying, to erase the systemic demand to carve out spaces for firms to sell surplus goods, for investors to invest surplus capital, and for the military-industrial complex to expand. A systemic problem can't be fixed by someone who proposes to do nothing more than put a humane face on an inhumane, anarchic and irrational system whose equilibrium state demands incessant expansion, even if it means outraging the sovereignty of unwilling nations, and the death, through war, of numberless victims.

Today, Washington and London have decided that North Korea's socialism must be replaced with something kinder to the imperatives of their own expansionist economies. If war is necessary, war will come; if psychological and economic pressure will work, psychological and economic pressure will suffice. There's nothing unique about North Korea as a target -- it's simply a victim, as any other nation that strives to exercise some measure of sovereignty is in a global capitalist economy, as any nation is that refuses to cater to the needs of investors and corporations of the principal imperial centers, as any country is that pursues planned production for use over anarchic production for profit. If the incessant drive to war is to be stopped, we must be smarter about what the causes are, more critical of the pretexts, more cognizant of the patterns.


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What's Left