December 16, 2015
Days of Revolt: The Militarism of U.S. Diplomacy
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and author Vijay Prashad trace the acceleration of U.S. militarism since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and discuss the consequences of U.S. domination over global affairs.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College. He is the author of sixteen books, including The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK, 2012), (co-edited with Paul Amar) Dispatches from the Arab Spring (2013), and No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (Leftward Press, 2015). Vijay’s latest book is Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation. Vijay is the chief editor at Leftward Press, and writes regularly for The Hindu, Frontline, Jadaliyya, Counterpunch, Himal and Bol.
CHRIS HEDGES: Hi, I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt. Today we’re going to discuss the propensity of the United States to center its foreign policy around military intervention. That’s not a new phenomenon. Something that we have seen certainly since the Spanish-American war of 1898. A series of disastrous military interventions in Iran and Guatemala, 1953 and 1954. But it’s accelerated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the invasion of Panama in 1989. And joining me to discuss the nature of American military intervention and its consequences, not only for the world but for the United States itself, is Vijay Prashad, who is a professor of international studies at Trinity University as well as a columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline. He is the author of 17 books, including Arab Spring Libyan Winter, The Karma of Brown Folk, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, as well as The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.
PRASHAD: Thanks a lot. Thank you.
HEDGES: So America is unique in a sense that unlike European empires, the British in India, we colonized ourself, internally, through Westward expansion. The campaigns of genocide against indigenous communities. The war against Mexico. And then after [02:34] that internal colonization, we moved. Cuba, the Philippines, which many people forget was a horrific war, up to one point 5 million Philippines, Filipinos, were killed in gruesome acts of torture, you know, scorched earth policies.And then with the rise of the Cold War, and proxy wars, we had a series of interventions. As I mentioned, the overthrow of Mossadegh, the elected, democratically elected, prime minister in Iran. [Arben’s] government. So it’s not a new phenomenon. But I think you argue that since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has come to dominate American foreign policy. And maybe you can first address that acceleration.
PRASHAD: Yes. There has indeed been an acceleration. And you’re quite correct to say, to use the, the, the example of Panama. In 1989, when the Soviet Union had not yet collapsed but was really in, on its last legs, the United States decided to conduct an operation in Panama at a scale which resembled the operation in Grenada in 1983, when the U.S. Marines essentially landed there, overthrew the government of Maurice Bishop, and then turned, you know, the country over to their proxies.But the scale of Panama, despite the fact that it resembled Grenada–again, big U.S. presence, went in there, snatched [inaud.].
HEDGES: We were overthrowing Noriega, right.
PRASHAD: Manuel Noriega. Snatched him.
HEDGES: Who we, who we kidnapped.
PRASHAD: We kidnapped him. Brought him to Florida. He was put in prison, where he sits. So at the surface level, Panama looks like Grenada. You know, the U.S. goes in, grabs the guy, overthrows him, et cetera.But there was something very interesting in the way in which the assault took place in Panama. The scale of the bombardment was incredibly much greater than the bombardment in Grenada. Second grammatical feature of this new invasion was the use of special forces to dive in there, actually rappel down from helicopters, grab Noriega in a very quick raid.But this second piece is very important, because it becomes, you know, part of, as I said, the kind of grammar of American regime change. Massive aerial bombardment, special forces go in, grab the bad guy, get him out of the country. And you really don’t care about what comes next, you know, it’s just left to rot. And Panama for a long while after, you know, sort of simmered in a chaotic state.Very soon after Panama, this grammar was perfected in Iraq, where you had–again, incredible level of bombardment. And the aftermath was not seen as relevant.
When you think about Iraq 1990-91, the test of why this was, you know, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its demise is important, is that inside the presidential palace Saddam was sitting with his senior advisors. One of his main ministers, the minister of culture, Hamdani, was sitting there. Hamdani and Saddam are talking to each other. This was all recorded by Saddam. Hamdani says where, where is the Soviet Union? Why aren’t they objecting? Because they knew intuitively, and I think by now, in hindsight we can show, that the collapse of the Soviet Union opened the floodgates of a kind of American unipolarity, where the full force of this incredible military machine that has been built up can be utilized. This is not limited force. This is not CIA dirty tricks, you know, which is what Kermit Roosevelt did in [inaud.] in 1953.
This is a different kind of barrage, against civilians, using mainly aerial bombardment. And that is why I say from [07:35] then on we’ve seen this grammar become normal.
HEDGES: Well, it once, some people say Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a foreign policy, it just has money. We don’t have a foreign policy, we just bomb. Isn’t that the transformation? It’s the kind of eclipsing of diplomacy, and you see it in the composition of embassies. I was 20 years overseas as a foreign correspondent. And I watched the composition of the embassies essentially change so that they were dominated by the CIA, by military intelligence.
PRASHAD: Well, when you look at the WikiLeaks cables in Yemen it becomes patently clear that when David Petraeus came to town, you know, Abdullah Saleh, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the head of the whole country, the president, would take David Petraeus much more seriously than the U.S. ambassador. It is quite correct that a corrosive influence came after the fall of the Soviet Union. And it, it’s a funny thing. Because you’d imagine that during the time of the Soviet Union, you’d have much more care for military-to-military contact. That was true to some extent. But they didn’t define the space.
HEDGES: Well, because it was dangerous. Because if you provoked the Soviet Union there were consequences. And so therefore you needed–whereas diplomats, you know, to handle situations like Tito’s Yugoslavia, or the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia or Hungary. Whereas now, you know, to what extent is it just the unleashing of the arms manufacturers, who essentially, you know, have now a kind of funnel through the military by which they can make, you know, almost unlimited profits. The bombing of Libya, where you’re dropping Tomahawk cruise missiles, I think they’re $1.4 million each. In a matter of days you’ve just spent half a billion dollars.
To what extent do you think that–because it’s not rational. I mean, I spent seven years in the Middle East. What we’re doing in the Middle East is, you know, creating one failed state after another, which give rise, you know, quite logically to groups like ISIS and others. Do you think it’s, it’s essentially being driven by these corporate arms manufacturers?
PRASHAD: I think it’s very complicated. One of the very serious problems for U.S. foreign policy that predates 1989 is an old assumption, well, I think, articulated by the late Samuel Huntington in a book that he did in the 1960s, where he made, I think, a fairly interesting argument that in countries that had been colonies or semi-colonies the colonial power, the British, the French, Portuguese, Spanish, you know, essentially created a society without reasonably good institutions. So that educational structures weren’t created. The state structure was not fully created for the benefit of the population.
HEDGES: Well, is that true in India? Because India–.
PRASHAD: India is an exception to some of this.
HEDGES: Okay. All right.
PRASHAD: You know, and India indeed has been an exception. But this is true, they would argue this is true in Pakistan. Because it was a new state, after all. You know, it had to create everything from scratch.
But what they argued, what Huntington argued, what others argued, was that the one institution that was based in modern principles was the military. And this was a theory that they called military modernization.
So therefore, the military has to be taken seriously. And you see that even till today where, when there’s a military coup in Egypt, the gov–the United States government, has–they don’t articulate it, because they don’t want to say it outright. But they’ll say if you actually allow democracy, then the Muslim Brotherhood will govern, and they are not a modern force. So if you want to modernize Egypt, well, the generals are not so bad. You know, they’re okay, fine, they are brutal here and there, but they’re not as bad as a force that is not committed to modernity.
So this military modernization plays a role. Second thing is plain old-fashioned racism, that these people simply don’t know how to be democratic. So therefore if they have a military or a dictator, these people know how to keep the divisions in place. You know, there is an understanding that in the global South the populations are too [fractious]. They don’t like each other enough. You know, Hindus and Muslims are at each other’s throats. The Shias and Sunnis are at each other’s throats. If you have a dessicated view of the population, you don’t give them any sense of confidence that you can actually create a society that is not driven by ancient identities.
PRASHAD: So let’s, let’s add another piece to it. Because I, I agree that there has been an eclipsing. So just as in the commerce side, in the economics policy side, you have a kind of religion of neoliberal policy, in the side of making policy about the world a new religion does develop. And I think this religion has also undermined the old hands in the State Department. That is why I think some of these ambassadors are [new] to complain, because they understood these societies are more complicated. You know, if you’re going to come and visit Egypt, you should meet, you know, somebody who’s not necessarily a Mubar–Mubarakite. You should talk to perhaps some of the liberals. You should talk to, you know, maybe some of the religious people. Have a broad view of society. That’s what they would have liked to have done. But they were sidelined.
And so this sidelining is parallel in the foreign policy side. Why it happens is a very fascinating question. But why this is happening, some of it has to do plainly with the understanding that we can shape the world now. We have the opportunity to do so. We were held back by the Soviet Union, that we–that because the Soviet Union existed, this alternative set of, of, you know, perhaps third-world-ism emerged. What Alan Dulles, you know, very derisively used to call neutralism, has infected the planet. We need to wash the planet of all these things. Get rid of our enemies, you know.
This messianic view doesn’t start with George W. Bush’s administration. You know, we like to now look back at it and say, you know, Bush was the one who rode roughshod and invaded Iraq. Actually, this goes back to his father. I mean, the new world order language that comes to us is from George H. W. Bush.
HEDGES: Right after the first Gulf War.
PRASHAD: Right after the first Gulf War. He said, we now can reshape the world.
PRASHAD: And they begin to hammer an agenda through the United Nations. They begin to sideline the General Assembly with a great deal of robust pressure on the various, you know, institutions of the United Nations, focusing everything into the Security Council.
You know, if you look back at it, if you look before 1989, yes of course the Security Council was important. But the General Assembly had–was able to assert itself. You know, that is why when Moynihan is sent there his task–by the way, Moynihan’s memoir of the years in the, in the UN, is called A Dangerous Place. Why was it a dangerous place–because the United States government couldn’t force a policy through. It was constrained by the General Assembly. By the time Bill Clinton comes in the ’90s, they pushed an agenda against the General Assembly, brought power to the Security Council, you know, invented this idea of humanitarian intervention. After Rwanda.
HEDGES: Samantha Power.
PRASHAD: Samantha Power comes even later than this, because Rwanda, when Susan Rice was at the African section of the State Department, Rwanda was to their mind a great error. But Rwanda allowed them, after Rwanda, it allowed them to push this theory that we can intervene and should indeed intervene to so-called help civilians.
And from 1985-2005 when they passed the responsibility to protect directive of the UN, the idea of humanitarian intervention had narrowed so deeply from being help civilians to what serves U.S. interests.
HEDGES: To what extent do you think the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, which I think we both agree, it was ultimately going to have disastrous consequences, already has within the regions such as the Middle East that are visited by this indiscriminate lethal power, but also internally. But to what extent was it driven by the fact that the military as an institution within the United States became unassailable?
PRASHAD: So, now, the ground was prepared long before 1989 for this particular piece. And it’s, it’s so deep that it would be very hard to pull the roots out. How did this work? You know, it is now an established process in economics to know that even countries run through business cycles. There is an up cycle and then a down cycle. And Keynesianism’s, you know, John Maynard Keynes, his perhaps contribution was to say that at the time when the business cycle starts to go down, you have to have counter-cyclical spending. That means the government has to ratchet up spending in order to prevent the decline to deepen and then go out of control. What he was thinking of of course was the great depression and the, the collapse in Europe. So you need to have counter-cyclical spending.
In most countries in the world, counter-cyclical spending is done on the social side. So you have expenditure for health, expenditure for education, expenditure for–. In the United States, social expenditure is kept suppressed. Counter-cyclical spending from the 1930s was done on the military side of the books. So you had massive military spending, which helped stabilize the waves of, you know, countries’ economic cycles. Secondly, very cleverly, and this came over the course of decades, almost every single congressional district in the United States–.
HEDGES: Yeah. Has–.
PRASHAD: Either has a base or it has military production. You know, I mean, I live in Northampton, Massachusetts, perhaps one of the most liberal cities in America, in many different ways. Socially liberal, politically liberal. Our city council passed a, a resolution for Syrian refugees. Nonetheless, we have a military firm there, [inaud.], which makes sighting systems for bombers. Every single congressional district is implicated, and the structure of spending from the government through a balancing out, you know, the waves of [inaud.] is done through military expenditure.
But it allowed you to have, you know, this massive apparatus grow up of military bases overseas. You have incredible power held in by the Soviets on the one side, held in also by the third world project. You know, these collapse around the same time. You have the collapse of the Soviet Union pretty much by ’86-’87. You have Gorbachev comes to power. He starts talking about perestroika, glasnost, it’s over. The third world goes into a serious debt crisis in 1983. So around the same time you see the collapse of these two major bulwarks against the wholesale use of American power.
And so from around 1990 till about 2005, or maybe till 2015, you had essentially fair game. You know, you don’t like Gaddafi, take him out. You don’t like somebody, take him out. You know, somebody’s a bad guy. We’re coming to get you. In world history, we have only seen barbarians talk about other people like that. You know, a barbarian leader would stand up and say, we’re gonna come and get you. I mean, it’s, it’s undignified of a world leader.
HEDGES: So what, what are the consequences of this? What do we–.
PRASHAD: Remember, I said from 1990-2015.
PRASHAD: Something changed in the 2000s. Of course, George Bush’s war in Iraq was a major dent to the idea of humanitarian intervention. For many reasons. One reason of course is it, just [parochially] in West Asia, it [unsheathed] Iran. You know, it gave Iran incredible freedom. And the history of the region since 2003 has been how to put Iran back in the box.
HEDGES: No, they won the war.
PRASHAD: They won the war. I mean, they hated the Taliban.
HEDGES: We fought it, they won it.
PRASHAD: Exactly. They hated the Taliban, they hated Saddam, we took them both out. So that’s a parochial problem in that region. More dramatically, Bush’s entry of, in 2003, dented ideologically the idea of humanitarian intervention. So the United States government pushed very hard in the UN to move this theory called responsibility to protect, which the UN adopted in 2005. And sort of cleaned up, burnished humanitarian intervention after Bush had essentially spat upon it. And this was provided to the world.
Now, at the same time you have the rise of these major countries. Brazil, India, South Africa, all oppose the 2003 Iraq war. Quite, you know, strongly. In fact, India had a right-wing government, nonetheless opposed the Iraq war. China has been gradually moving away from its Treaty of Westphalia understanding of interstate politics. You know, China’s view used to be you do your thing, we do our thing. Don’t tell us how to run our country we won’t tell you–they’re slowly walking away from that. And Russia under Putin has rebuilt their military. It had collapsed under Yeltsin, it had gone into freefall even, during the first Putin term. You know, with the war in Chechnya and Dagestan. He has rebuilt the military.
So when Libya took place in 2011, it was the first major use of the responsibility to protect doctrine of 2005. When that vote came before the Security Council, under immense pressure, Russia and China decided to abstain. India and Brazil also abstained. It happened that South Africa was also on the council then. These are the five BRICS countries. South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, got a personal phone call from President Obama, who begged him to vote for it, and South Africa broke ranks.
Now, I remember interviewing the ambassadors right afterwards. And they said the same thing. They said that we gave the West, essentially, the power to do [inaud.] responsibility to protect mandate. To protect civilians in Libya, what did they do? Before you could blink your eyes they went for regime change.
PRASHAD: And so we will never give them again blanket mandate through the Security Council. That’s why Syria would never receive any R-to-P mandate. You know, under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, use of force. They will never get it. Why? Because they thought that Obama is not Bush. They didn’t see this–it’s amazing, Chris, you know, these are sophisticated countries, with Brazil particularly as an–and India, very sophisticated foreign ministries. And yet they were swayed by the personality difference, not seeing that there’s a structural problem here. They thought, we’ll give it to Obama, and Obama will make sure that this is merely responsibility to protect. Of course Sarkozy was already bombing, the French already–.
The point I’m making is that we have entered a different phase now where American unipolarity has come to an end. American unipolarity began in 1990 or 1989. It has come to an end between 2011 and 2015. When the Russians entered Syria–now, I’m not talking about whether it’s good or bad, or you know, I’m agnostic on that for a minute. When the Russians entered Syria militarily, what they said for the first time since the 1980s is, you cannot do this. They annulled regime change in Syria. Now it’s impossible.
HEDGES: And you know, for–when we, before we went on camera, you were talking about signs of morbidity. Just–which I think is right. I mean, what is–what did you mean by that?
PRASHAD: Ah. So, you know, there’s a person that I like to read a lot. His name is Giovanni Arrighi. And Arrighi wrote a tremendous series of books, but the last book was called Adam Smith in Beijing. He had this theory that empires go in waves. You go from, you know, the Italians to the, you know, to Amsterdam, to Britain, to America. And what he, he saw in looking at the evidence is as you go through these phases, the size of the imperial corp gets larger. Its imperial footprint gets bigger. But its time of imperial hegemony is less and less and less.
And there are a couple of reasons for this. Technology being one of them. But he said that there are two crises that take place in the history of these modern empires, capitalist empires. The two crises that he looks for. One is called a signal crisis, and the second is a terminal crisis. The signal crisis is detected when finance, which is obviously international and not national. But when finance ceases to see the core country, the main, hegemonic country, when it ceases to see that country as being a good investment for itself. And it flees. So we see that finance fled, say, you know, the states of, of, of Italy, and went to Amsterdam. Then finance fled Amsterdam, went to England. And in the ’20s went to America. You know, finance–now, he says, finance is fleeing America. It’s a little more complicated, it’s not fleeing to China, it’s fleeing globally. So he says that’s a signal crisis.
He says a terminal crisis is when the contradictions of the country can no longer be managed, and you go to other extremely irrational solutions because there is no rational solution. What is a rational solution to the problem of America? First you have to define what is the problem of America. The problem of America is that capital, American capital, international capital, has decided that they don’t want to hire Americans. What you want is you want highly-skilled Americans designing very sophisticated new things, which will be produced by suppressed labor elsewhere and sold to Americans who borrow money from the Chinese to buy them. There is no solution on the table, because the American political class hasn’t even defined the problem clearly to its own public.
You know, to say I’m going to make America great again, to say we’re going to put factories in America, who’s going to be doing the investment? Which capitalist is going to come back and invest so heavily that the American, you know, labor force is going to be revitalized? If you don’t articulate the problem clearly you will never articulate a solution. So you have instead signs of morbidity. Attack immigrants. Attack Muslims. Bomb somewhere. Believe that if we strongarm China they’ll revalue the currency, and that somehow is going to revitalize America. These are signs of morbidity.
Donald Trump, actually, is, is to my mind not a special problem. He is the most vulgar sign of morbidity. But in fact if you run from Trump all the way down, everybody is a sign of morbidity, because they are not capable of turning to the public and saying, friends, nobody wants to hire you. We have to think of new ways to raise capital. That means you’re going to have to go after the American 1 percent, 0.1 percent, that has been on tax strike for the last 45 years. They’ve refused to pay tax. So that needs a new political understanding. It’s not here now.
HEDGES: No, it isn’t. Thank you very much.
HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.