U.S. imperialism: Hidden in plain sight

By Stephen Gowans

The dominant U.S. approach to exercising influence over people in foreign countries is to operate through locals who are committed to U.S. imperialist values or fiercely oppose U.S. enemies. Locals, whether rulers, politicians, military officers, journalists, scholars or activists, are provided with opportunities, funding, training, equipment and support in exchange for assuming leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests or against U.S. targets. The sine qua non of the paradigm is the appearance of independence. While locals may express admiration and support for U.S. positions, their own pro-U.S. stances, or opposition to U.S. enemies, are to be understood to have been arrived at independently. And, in many, if not most, cases, this is true. Locals who assume leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests are often educated or trained in the United States, where they have absorbed pro-imperialist values. At the same time, the ubiquitous U.S. mass media convey pro-imperialist values to locals who haven’t been educated in the imperial nerve center. And some may, for their own (often class) reasons, be passionate opponents of individuals, groups or movements the United States government would like to eliminate. What matters is not how pro-U.S. positions, or anti-U.S.-enemy passions, are arrived at, only that some locals have them and that U.S. funding and support provide them with a platform to influence the political, military and informational landscape of their home country.

A recent example of how this paradigm operates is provided in an August 16, 2009 New York Times article by Thom Shanker (“U.S. turns to radio stations and cellphones to counter Taliban’s propaganda.”)

Shanker quotes Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. proconsul in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who acknowledges that the United States is losing the information war to the Taliban. In this, Holbrooke reminds us that war is multi-faceted, comprising not only military action, but other elements, as well. Warfare may be waged concurrently with or independently of military action: through economic means (trade sanctions, blockades and financial isolation); through non-violent warfare (destabilization); through sabotage; through cyber attacks; and through what concerns Holbrooke, information. Information warfare is “variously named public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations.” In plain language, it’s propaganda, a term invariably applied to the other side’s public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations, but propaganda all the same.

U.S. officials say they’re losing the information war because their “efforts to describe American policy and showcase American values are themselves viewed as propaganda.” The other reasons, unacknowledged by Holbrooke, are that the U.S. military has created considerable hardship, fear, and bloodshed in its efforts to quell opposition to its attempted conquest of Afghanistan and because, as the New York Times reported on July 28, 2009, the Taliban has bolstered its popularity by pursuing “a strategy intended to foment a class struggle,” rewarding “landless peasants with profits of the crops of the landlords,” the Taliban has ousted. To counter the Taliban’s growing popularity, Washington plans to “amplify the (anti-Taliban) voices of Afghans speaking to Afghans, and Pakistanis speaking to Pakistanis” by spending up to $150 million per year to “step up the training of local journalists and help produce audio and video programming, as well as pamphlets, posters, and CDs denigrating militants and their message.” By operating through locals, Washington hopes to conceal the “‘Made in the U.S.A.’ stamped on the programming.”

There’s little new here. For decades the C.I.A amplified the voices of citizens talking to citizens by funding anyone who had anything negative to say about the Soviet Union and Communism. As Frances Stonor Saunders revealed in her book The Cultural Cold War, anti-Communist leftists were particularly favored with C.I.A lucre, often channelled through philanthropic foundations – foundations parts of the Western left continue to receive funding from today. Just as Shanker reports that U.S. officials say they’ll amplify the voices of Pakistanis and Afghans who “denigrate the enemy”, so too did the C.I.A amplify the voices of Westerners who denigrated the Soviet Union and Communism. Since social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists were already fiercely opposed to the Soviet Union, and being leftists could be presented as credible critics of Soviet Communism, they received the bulk of covert funding from the U.S. state, funding whose origins many were unaware of or chose to turn a blind eye to. Their mission: denigrate the U.S.S.R and Communism. This they were already doing, but C.I.A funding allowed them to do it more visibly, to a wider audience, and therefore more effectively. By doing so they justified U.S. engagement in the Cold War and, acting knowingly or unwittingly as U.S. agents, used Uncle Sam’s money to denigrate a shared enemy. Today, the common understanding of the Soviet Union and Communism carries over from the C.I.A amplifying the voices of Communism’s, the U.S.S.R’s, and Stalin’s political enemies. The amplification of categorically critical voices so thoroughly polluted scholarly histories of the U.S.S.R that historians have had to discard what was produced in the Cold War period and start afresh. It’s time too that Western leftists did the same. The fear of British historian E.H. Carr — that only the worst aspects of the Soviet experiment with socialism would be remembered, while the astonishing achievements would be forgotten – has been realized, thanks in no small part to the C.I.A and the anti-Communist leftists whose voices it amplified. Advances in human progress as significant as those achieved by the Soviet Union (full employment, free health care and education through university, no inflation, gender equality, mild and shrinking income inequality, low-cost housing and transportation, worker participation in enterprise management, support for national liberation movements, industrialization of underdeveloped regions) should no longer remain concealed behind the muck of C.I.A-backed Cold War propaganda.

While the paradigm is a long-standing one, what’s different today, from when the C.I.A covertly channelled funds to voices that served Washington’s interests, is that funding is no longer provided covertly. Washington learned a lesson when C.I.A support for anti-communist, anti-socialist and anti-national liberation movements came to light. Washington’s revealed hidden hand immediately undermined the legitimacy of these movements, setting back U.S. efforts to counter opposition to the unchecked spread of U.S. financial, military and corporate domination. From that point, greater openness was injected into funding individuals, groups and movements working against U.S. enemies. Rather than concealing Washington’s hand, Washington’s objectives would be concealed behind a rhetorical screen. Funding would be targeted at democracy promotion, international development, and public diplomacy – carried out openly, so that no one could say the hidden hand of U.S. imperialism was involved (though the overt hand of U.S. imperialism certainly was.) By dressing up U.S. imperialism in clothing that appealed to the sartorial preferences of the non-Communist left, the overt hand of U.S. imperialism was concealed behind honeyed phrases. Social democrats didn’t see imperialism; they saw humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion and the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations. Anarchists and Trotskyites didn’t see U.S. efforts to dominate other countries on Wall Street’s behalf; they saw the fight against tyrants, dictators and Stalinists.

And so it is that U.S. imperialism is concealed in plain sight. Washington’s funding of fifth columns, quislings, phoney ‘independent’ journalists and overthrow movements may be on the public record, but few know it, and even fewer are prepared to spend the time to make it widely known. Those who do are dismissed by social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists – unwilling to rock the boat of U.S. imperialism under its humanitarian, anti-despot guise – as revealing nothing of significance. The money, training, equipment and support that flow in cataracts from the hands of Western governments, wealthy financiers and corporate foundations make no difference, they counter weakly. In this milieu, U.S. officials are now able to openly talk in the pages of the New York Times about how they plan to win the information war against the Taliban by enlisting locals as their mouthpieces – and openly acknowledge they are doing so to conceal the “Made in the U.S.A” stamped on the programming – without fear the exercise will be seen as illegitimate.

13 thoughts on “U.S. imperialism: Hidden in plain sight

  1. One clear distortion in your article is when you claim that “social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists” were given support. Social Democrats were certainly backed as an alternative to the Left-wing. I’ve heard charges that the Black Bloc anarchists of today are working for the police. Perhaps you know of something earlier? But Trotskyists were certainly never given any such support. There were a few ex-Trotskyist-turned-social-democrat types like Max Shachtman, just as there were ex-Stalinist-turned-social-democrat types like Louis Althusser. Former communists of whatever stripe are often welcomed. That was how Kenneth Goff, a former CPUSA member of the 1930s, got to be one of the board members of Liberty Lobby. There’s nothing unusual about having some people quit and turn away from Leftism and then be welcomed on the Right. But there was never any aid given to Trotskyists by the Congress of Cultural Freedom or any related racket.

  2. AR youren right!!!!
    Leftgatekeepers is now a site which has nothing to do with the label! Maybe the site should be written to and ask why they have thats name all…

  3. The New York Times headline that you quote “US turns to radios and cellphones…” bears a chilling similarity to what’s unfolding in Zimbabwe.

    Inspite of the inclusive govt agreeing to work together against pirate radio stations that spew forth unadulterated propaganda & hate language against Mugabe, Zanu PF and any real/imagined supporters thereof, we continue to be bombarded by Studio 7, SW Radio, etc. The opposition predictably refuses to acknowledge this.

    Our Finance minister(from the opposition) in his recent budget speech allowed cellphone handsets and foreign newspapers to flood Zimbabwe duty free!
    What is more, the people at the fore front of the onslaught by radio stations, cellphones & newspapers are not Yankees but fellow Zimbabweans! So the the “Made in America” insignia have been cleverly hidden!

  4. As Frances Stonor Saunders revealed in her book The Cultural Cold War, anti-Communist leftists were particularly favored with C.I.A lucre, often channelled through philanthropic foundations – foundations parts of the Western left continue to receive funding from today.

    Saunders’ work–and the broader task of exposing this Anti-Communist Left–are important and deserve much greater coverage.

    This is especially true since the Anti-Communist Left dominates American and Western Leftism today. This ersatz Left defines the very parameters of Left wing politics and polices these parameters aggressively–with the generous support of US establishment foundations of course.


    Speaking of which, what happened to the website LeftGatekeepers.com? It had some great articles on the politics and funding of various supposed Western Left/Progressive organizations.

    But its URL has now been taken over by some German business site!


  5. Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Books, 1984.
    Albert Szymanski, Is the Red Flag Flying? The political economy of the Soviet Union today, Zed Press, 1983.
    Bahman Azad, Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat: Factors Contributing to the Dismantling of the Socialist State in the USSR, International Publishers, 2000.
    Austin Murphy, The Triumph of Evil: The Reality of the USA’s Cold War Victory, European Press Academic Publishing, 2000.
    Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, 2004.

  6. Stephen, what are your primary book(s) recommendations on the history of the USSR -written accounts that reveal their remarkable achievements and challenges while not straying into vicious anti-communism.

  7. I found professor Petras’s article more informative:

    The result of US colonial policies were to fund and multiply a wide range of internal conflicts as mullahs, tribal leaders, political gangsters, warlords, expatriates and death squads proliferated. The ‘war of all against all’ served the interests of the US occupation forces. Iraq became a pool of armed, unemployed young men, from which to recruit a new mercenary army. The ‘civil war’ and ‘ethnic conflict’ provided a pretext for the US and its Iraqi puppets to discharge hundreds of thousands of soldiers, police and functionaries from the previous regime (especially if they were from Sunni, mixed or secular families) and to undermine the basis for civilian employment. Under the cover of generalized ‘war against terror’, US Special Forces and CIA-directed death squads spread terror within Iraqi civil society, targeting anyone suspected of criticizing the puppet government – especially among the educated and professional classes, precisely the Iraqis most capable of re-constructing an independent secular republic.


  8. But Stephen, you are forgetting that the Taliban is a creation by the Americans. The situation is not black and white as the Western media like to tell us. In fact, the election of Afghanistan reveals how the West supports the Taliban against Karzai :

    This is where the “operational role” of the Pakistani intelligence (ISI – Inter-Services Intelligence) will assume critical importance. The Pakistani intelligence disfavors Karzai’s victory. It has scores to settle with almost all the “warlords” who rally behind Karzai – Fahim, Khalili, Mohaqiq, Dostum, Ismail Khan – and they happen to be in the rogues’ gallery in the Western world, too. Besides, these “warlords” will upset the US-British-Saudi-Pakistani game plan to co-opt the Taliban into the Afghan power structure, as they know Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his followers will go after them one day or another.

    Equally, the Pakistani security establishment and the Obama administration will consider it hard to stomach that a democratically elected government dominated by the Northern Alliance “warlords”, who used to enjoy the support of Russia, Iran and India, may come to power in Kabul. The agenda of introducing Islamism for the remaking of Central Asia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s expansion, the long-term military presence in Afghanistan – all these get disrupted.


    There is alot dirty work going on in that era, and I’d not trust anyone.

  9. I agree with everything that Mr. Gowans writes, and I would like to state some heresy that does not contradict his world outlook. It is not only “US Corporations” that benefit from US imperialism, but the First World as a whole, including its “working class”. Those benefits are called parasitism. The first world “workers” and “intelligentsia” are thoroughly bourgeoisified because of this parasitism and that explains nicely why there is so much pro-imperialist anti-communist pseudo-leftism. This is the biggest heresy imaginable among western leftist, but the Third World will defeat the First World one day regardless of them and despite of them.

  10. With Stephen’s permission, we are going to translate this excellent essay into Russian.
    Many years ago we translated Parenti’s chapter on left anticommunism and made this concept
    and political phenomenon known in the former Soviet Union where left anticommunism was cultivated by Western leftist organizations and foundations but remained unrecognized and unexplained exactly as Stephen describes it here. This was the beginning of our own political enlightenment and we firmly believe that the question of the anticommunist left, above all in the imperialist core is pivotal to any movement forward from our political impasse. And this question goes even beyond the paradigm of antiimperialist struggle. It concerns the struggle for the recognition of the historical achievements of socialism. If we have failed to enlighten the masses around the world about that great historical openning in the 20th century they will continue to see no alternative to the coming capitalist armageddon.

    I must say that while, to my knowledge, nothing comparable to Saunders’ great book has been published so far on the later operations of the Piper and his handlers, some valueable work has been done by Western intelligentsia. For instance the right-wing project. This resource helps us a lot to identify the forces behind some ideological operations in Russia. By the way, historically Russian case is many ways similar to India’s. Hitler considered Russia “Germany’s India” and admired British and American experience in colonization and subjugation of indiginous peoples. We need to remember that US imperialists had good teachers in Britain, especially in a non-violent and low level violence control over the bodies and minds of their victims.

    Thanks for this piece.

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