Wars for Profits: A No-Nonsense Guide to Why the United States Seeks to Make Iran an International Pariah

By Stephen Gowans

Flipping idly through my morning newspaper, my eyes fell upon a headline, which, given its significance, should have appeared on the front page, but instead was tucked away at the back, on page A9.

“Israel won’t rule out attack on Iran”. (1)

Now, it’s true that Israel’s threatening to attack Iran is hardly news. Here was Ehud Barak, Israeli defense minister, over two years ago, talking about measures to dissuade Iran from continuing to process uranium: “We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table. This is our policy. We mean it.” (2) And here was Barak just the other day: “We strongly believe that…no option should be removed from the table.” (3) Same defense minister. Same words. Same threat.

Yet while the threat may be old, its significance remains undiminished. One country is threatening to commit the supreme international crime: to attack another even though it, itself, has not been attacked by the country it rattles its saber at. Were Iran to threaten Israel, the headline “Iran won’t rule out attack on the Jewish state” wouldn’t be tucked away inconspicuously in the back pages of my newspaper. Instead, it would be shouted in bold letters across the front page. “My God!”, NATO state officials and editorialists would cry. “Iran is threatening to attack the Jewish state. Something must be done!”

But in this case it is Israel that is issuing the threat against a country which has, since its escape from US domination in 1979, been limned as dark and menacing, and so while no one wants war, surely it’s all perfectly understandable that the plucky Israelis should be declaring their determination to stand against the Judeophobic menace of the Islamic Republic. After all, isn’t Iran building nuclear weapons to wipe Israel off the map? Well, if you listen to the Israelis and their US protector, the answer is yes.

The Strangelovian Israeli historian Benny Morris declares that Israel is “threatened almost daily with destruction by Iran’s leaders.” To eclipse this threat, Iran must be wiped off the map before Iran does any wiping of its own. “Israel has no option,” Morris chillingly says, “but to use its nuclear arsenal to destroy Iran, unless the US uses its formidable military to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities first.” (4)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns: “Iran is even arming itself with nuclear weapons to realize that goal (the obliteration of the Jewish state), and until now the world has not stopped it. The threat to our existence, is not theoretical. It cannot be swept under the carpet; it cannot be reduced. It faces us and all humanity, and it must be thwarted.” (5)

Ominous. But the idea that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons to obliterate Israel is pure flummery; a work of fiction, intended to create a frisson of fear.

So, why do I say this? First, we don’t know whether Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons, or only the capability of producing them, or even that. An International Atomic Energy Agency report, released yesterday, tables evidence that Iran is secretly working on a nuclear bomb. So let’s assume for the moment that Iran’s leaders do indeed intend to build nuclear weapons.

It’s widely agreed that it’s highly unlikely that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons while its nuclear energy program is still under the scrutiny of UN inspectors. A more likely scenario is that Tehran would develop the capability to produce a bomb from within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and once it had reached the point of being able to do so, would turn its capability into reality by withdrawing from the treaty, ejecting inspectors, and making a mad dash to develop a rudimentary arsenal. That’s what North Korea did, when, following the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States decided to re-target some its nuclear missiles from the USSR to the DPRK.

But would Iran ever get as far as being able to make a mad dash to status as the world’s newest nuclear-weapons state? The United States and Israel have made plenty of noise about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran’s nuclear scientists ever reach the point of having the capability of producing nuclear weapons. Indeed, the threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities has been trotted out anew because the steps the United States and Israel have taken to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program–from the Stuxnet computer virus to the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists to punitive sanctions–haven’t stopped the program’s development, although they have certainly slowed it.

But let’s make another assumption. Let’s assume that despite US and Israeli efforts to cripple Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons, that Iran, despite these impediments, brings this capability to fruition, and furthermore, manages against the concerted opposition of the United States and Israel to develop a few nuclear warheads. Does the possession of warheads mean that Iran will use them–either to wipe Israel off the map or attack the United States?

No, it does not.

The idea that Iran is an “existential” threat to Israel comes from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s alleged promise to wipe Israel off the map. US and Israeli political leaders have been invoking this chestnut for years to justify the assassinations, economic warfare, covert destabilization, and threats of military intervention used to undermine Iran’s nuclear energy program. The problem is, the allegation is groundless.

The firestorm started when Nazila Fathi, then the Tehran correspondent of The New York Times, reported a story almost six years ago that was headlined: “Wipe Israel ‘off the map’ Iranian says.” The article attributed newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks to a report by the ISNA press agency.

Specialists such as Juan Cole of the University of Michigan and Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project pointed out that the original statement in Persian did not say that Israel should be wiped from the map, but instead that it would collapse.

Khamenei stated, “Iran’s position, which was first expressed by the Imam [Khomeini] and stated several times by those responsible, is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region.” He went on to say in the same speech that “Palestinian refugees should return and Muslims, Christians and Jews could choose a government for themselves, excluding immigrant Jews.”

Khamenei has been consistent, stating repeatedly that the goal is not the military destruction of the Jewish state but “the defeat of Zionist ideology and the dissolution of Israel through a ‘popular referendum.’” (6)

To be sure, anyone who regards Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that “must be uprooted from the region” and replaced by a government freely chosen by the people who lived in Palestine prior to its conquest by Zionist settlers, is an existential threat to the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. But while the designation of Iran as an existential threat to the idea of Israel is literally true (in the sense that Iran doesn’t accept Zionism and therefore works against it by supporting such anti-Zionist groups as Hamas), the phrase “existential threat” is twisted to mean something more than intended: military destruction rather than collapse through a referendum.

Political leaders are in the habit of presenting non-threats into dire ones. A not particularly egregious example is provided by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who, needing to defend the Pentagon’s Brobdignagian budget against possible cuts, recently “cited North Korea and Iran as persistent threats, and said that the military had to maintain ‘the ability to deter and defeat them.’” (7) Yet North Korea and Iran are not threats to the physical safety and welfare of a single US civilian.

First, Iran’s military is built for self-defense. It doesn’t have aircraft carriers, a large fleet of warships, strategic bombers, foreign military bases or a naval presence near US waters. The United States, by contrast, bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, within shouting distance of Iran, directly across the Persian Gulf. Iranian warships won’t be found lingering menacingly in the Gulf of Mexico or patrolling the edges of US territorial waters.

Second, a graph nearby shows that Iran’s military spending, at $20B per annum, pales in comparison to the budgets of the United States ($700B) and even that of the United States’ regional allies ($102B). The US military budget is 35 times larger than Iran’s, and the sum of that of the United States, its invariable co-belligerent the United Kingdom, and Washington’s regional allies, is 43 times larger. The gulf in fighting ability supported by these expenditures is as yawning as the one between the New York City Police Department and a troop of Boy Scouts armed with BB guns.

As regards North Korea, the idea that it is a threat to the security of a single US civilian is even more absurd. Like Iran, North Korea’s military is built for defense, and it too has no foreign military bases, no aircraft carriers, no nuclear armed submarines and no strategic bombers, and it has never—unlike its compatriot neighbor to the south—sent troops abroad to fight in other country’s wars (as South Korean troops have fought in US wars.)

North Korean military expenditures are even more modest than Iran’s. Pyongyang spends an estimated $10B on its military (and that’s probably stretching it), many of whose members are engaged in agriculture and other civilian activities. (8) By comparison, South Korea (on whose soil are resident close to 30,000 US troops), spends $39B, while nearby Japan (home to 40,000 US troops) spends $34B. Together, these two US allies outspend Pyongyang on their militaries by a factor of 7 to 1. Add to this US defense expenditures and those of Britain—a country that can be counted on to docilely follow the United States into any war–and North Korea, surrounded by US troops and warships and whose air borders are incessantly menaced by the US Air Force, is outspent over 80 to 1. A threat? The claim is laughable.

And that understates the imbalance. What military budgets don’t reveal is the vastly superior destructive power of US military hardware (and that of many of its allies) compared to Iran’s and North Korea’s. The kill capacity of US strike aircraft, cruise missiles, and battleships is far in excess of the heavy artillery that figures so prominently in the North Korean armamentarium, for example.

And then there’s nuclear weapons. North Korea may (or may not) have an arsenal of a few warheads, and Iran may (or may not) be seeking one, but these rudimentary collections pale in comparison with the US, British, and Israeli arsenals arrayed against them. Would Iran attack Israel, or North Korea attack South Korea, with one or two nuclear missiles, knowing that to do so would invite a retaliatory tsunami of missiles from the target (in the case of an attack on Israel) or its hyper-armed patron, the United States, or both? The outcome of so foolhardy an attack would be game-over for either country.

“During the Democratic primaries, then candidate Hilary Clinton (now US Secretary of State) warned that if Iran attacked Israel, the United States would ‘totally obliterate’ Iran.” (9) Three years ago, Israeli “Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer went on record saying, ‘We must tell them: ‘If you so much as dream of attacking Israel, before you even finish dreaming there won’t be an Iran anymore.’” (10) It’s doubtful that the Iranians failed to get the message.

And then there’s the matter of Washington’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). If read superficially, the NPR would lead one to believe that US policy makers have finally figured out that the cardinal rule of nonproliferation is to abjure military aggression against non-nuclear states. Countries that aren’t threatened by nuclear powers have no need to develop nuclear weapons for self-defense. However, a closer reading of the review shows that nothing has changed. US president Barack Obama has stayed true to form, obscuring his pursuit of his predecessors’ policies beneath honeyed phrases that create the impression of change, where no change of substance exists.

The NPR declares “that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states”, even if they attack the United States, its vital interests or allies and partners with chemical or biological weapons. This differs, but only on the surface, from the policy of preceding administrations which refused to renounce the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. There are a number of reasons why the difference is apparent only.

While nuclear weapons are widely regarded as unparalleled in their destructive power, the United States is able to deliver overwhelming destructive force through its conventional military capabilities. A promise not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states is not the same as an assurance not to use or threaten to use devastating military force. Six decades ago it was possible to obliterate a city through conventional means, as the Western Allies demonstrated in the firebombing of Dresden. If a city could be destroyed by conventional means more than half a century ago, imagine what the Pentagon could do today through conventional forces alone. Indeed, the NPR makes clear that the United States is prepared to shrink its nuclear arsenal partly because “the growth of unrivalled U.S. conventional military capabilities” allows Washington to fulfill its geostrategic goals “with significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.”

The NPR also provides a number of escape hatches that allow Washington to continue to dangle a nuclear sword of Damocles over the heads of Iran and North Korea. One is that nuclear weapons can be used, or their use threatened, against a country that is not “party to the NPT” even if the country doesn’t yet have nuclear weapons, or it is unclear whether it does. This is the North Korea escape clause. It allows Washington to continue to threaten North Korea with nuclear obliteration, just as it has done since the early 1990s when the US Strategic Command announced it was re-targeting some of its strategic nuclear missiles on the DPRK (the reason why North Korea withdrew from the NPT.)

Another escape clause allows Washington to reach for the nuclear trigger whenever it deems a country to have fallen short of “compliance with [its] nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” even if the country doesn’t have nuclear weapons and is a party to the NPT. This is the Iran escape hatch, intended to allow Washington to maintain the threat of nuclear annihilation vis-à-vis Iran or any other country Washington unilaterally declares to be noncompliant with the treaty’s obligations.

As for the United States’ commitment to refrain from reaching for its nuclear arsenal in response to a chemical or biological attack on itself, its vital interests (a term that defies geography and democracy, for how is it that the United States’ vital interests extend to other people’s countries?) its allies and its partners, this too is verbal legerdemain. As a careful reading of the NPR makes clear, the truth of the matter is that the United States will attack any country with nuclear weapons if such an attack is deemed necessary by Washington to protect its interests. According to the NPR, “the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in [its commitment] that may be warranted…” Translation: We won’t attack non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons unless we decide it’s in our interests to do so.

Finally, we need to ask whether either Iran or North Korea have a motive to attack the United States, and whether Iran has a motive to attack Israel. Iran’s leaders may abhor the Zionist conquest of what they see as territory important to Islam, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to take on a suicide mission to deal a one- or two-nuclear missile blow to Israel—one which, by the way, probably wouldn’t destroy Israel, but would in all likelihood elicit a hail of retaliatory blows that would produce devastating damage to Iran. As for tangling with the United States, neither Iran nor North Korea want that. What they want is peaceful coexistence—to be left alone to develop in their own way.

The trouble is, the United States hasn’t the barest interest in peaceful coexistence, and the reason why is the key, not only to understanding US foreign policy, but to understanding why a US-led NATO spent months bombing Libya to drive Muamar Gaddafi from power.

But first, a digression. Critiques of US foreign policy often involve exposes of US hypocrisy. For example, critics might point out that the United States defends Israel, which has nuclear weapons and doesn’t belong to the NPT, while threatening to attack Iran, which belongs to the NPT, and doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Or that NATO bombed Libya to prevent the government there from using its military to put down an uprising but condoned Bahrain and Saudi Arabia using their militaries to put down an uprising in Bahrain. Some critics stop there, reasoning that if they’re going to muster opposition to US foreign policy, it’s enough to show that it’s built on hypocrisy. Or they show US behavior to be immoral, undemocratic or against international law and figure that showing this will rouse the indignation of people of good conscience. Other US foreign policy critics cogently show why US foreign policy couldn’t possibly be guided by the objectives US leaders say it is. But they stop there, leaving their audiences to scratch their heads, wondering, if not for the reasons stated, then why?

Liberals insist that US foreign policy makes no sense and that US leaders are confused, myopic, poorly motivated, or just plain dumb. An example of this point of view is offered by former US president Jimmy Carter, who contends that the conflict with North Korea can be resolved in half a day (11). Apparently US leaders have neither the political will nor smarts to do so.

The truth of the matter is that there is nothing to be gained for the corporations, investors and banks that dominate US foreign policy—the one percent who really matter in the United States–from peaceful coexistence with North Korea. Peaceful coexistence implies that each side poses a threat to the other, but North Korea, despite the rhetorical nonsense of political leaders seeking to justify Pentagon budgets, poses no threat to the United States. A $10B defense budget against a $700B one; aging aircraft whose pilots are grounded most of the time due to shortages of fuel; a puny arsenal of nuclear weapons; an army whose training time is partly displaced by engagement in farming; the most sanctioned country on earth, whose economy has been crippled by six decades of US economic warfare; a country of 24 million hemmed in to the south and east by US allies and US troops; no, North Korea is not a threat.

So how is it that peaceful coexistence would deliver anything in the way of improved security for Americans, which they already have in abundance anyway? It wouldn’t. The demand for peaceful coexistence is little more than a Quixotic plea from Pyongyang to be left alone to develop in a self-directed manner in exchange for giving up a few nuclear weapons that at best, are, to use an Edward Herman term, a “threat of self-defense.” The benefits of peaceful coexistence are all on the North Korean side.

What does the United States get for promising to leave North Korea to develop in its own way? An open door for exports and investments? North Korea’s integration into a US-dominated system of global capitalism? US troops on North Korean soil? North Korea’s incorporation into a US-led military alliance against China? No. What it gets is North Korea giving up a deterrent to attack in exchange for the United States promising not to attack. This is a one-sided deal. No wonder North Korea wants it, and Washington keeps turning it down. David Straub, director of the US State Department’s Korea desk from 2002 to 2004 sums up nicely why peaceful coexistence isn’t on Washington’s Korea agenda. “North Korea’s closed economic and social system means the country has virtually nothing of value to offer the United States.” (12) What the United States wants from North Korea (an open door to investment, exports, ownership and political influence) is the opposite of what North Korea offers (a closed door and a prickly sense of independence—both political and economic). Washington abandoned the policy of peaceful coexistence with the USSR, which was militarily strong enough to make the US a miserable place if the Pentagon ever decided to start a US-Soviet war. So why would it accept peaceful coexistence with a hated closed system that poses a minor threat at best?

Other critics of US foreign policy explain their subject in terms of power. US leaders want to preserve or expand US power (or primacy or hegemony) against such “peer competitors” as China or Russia or such regional powers as Iran. Of course, it’s never said what US leaders (or Chinese or Russian leaders) want power for. To believe these critics, power is what everyone wants, and the quest for it, as an end in itself, is what makes the world go around. But the trick here is to inquire into why power is sought. Washington doesn’t seek to enlarge its power to strong-arm governments around the world into furnishing their citizens with public healthcare, guaranteed employment and free education. On the contrary, it seeks power to do the very opposite. Power serves some end, and in the case of US state power, it serves the end of protecting and enlarging the big business interests of the big business people who run the state of a big business country; it protects profits and establishes the conditions that allow them to grow—both at home and overseas.

It’s curious that the power-is-the-alpha-and-omega-of-world-politics view should hold such a strong sway among critics of US foreign policy, when in the internal affairs of capitalist countries the organizing principle is private business, and the alpha and omega of private business, is profits. Sure, it’s understood that business leaders want power, but not so they can lord it over others, and take pleasure in its trappings, but so they can enlarge their capital. Power is a means to an end.

So why should foreign policy be any different? The moment Gaddafi was toppled by NATO bombs, a stream of NATO foreign ministers traipsed to Benghazi, their countries’ corporate CEOs in tow, to line up new business deals. It was clear the National Transitional Council (NTC), whose key members—one, an exile who had been teaching economics in the United States for years; another, who earned his PhD in 1985 from the University of Pittsburgh under the late Richard Cottam, a former US intelligence official in Iran; and a third, who had been living within hailing distance of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, before being spirited back to Libya– would be a good deal more accommodating of US business interests than Gaddafi had ever been. For all his turning over a new leaf to befriend the West, Gaddafi had irked the US State Department by practicing “resource nationalism” and trying to “Libyanize” the economy, (13) which is to say, turn foreign investment to the advantage of Libyans. His threat in 2009 to re-nationalize Libya’s oil fields, stirred up old fears. (14) Now, the NTC—with its US-friendly principals–promises juicy plums to the countries whose bombs ousted Gaddafi.

The US ambassador to Libya, Gene A. Cretz, channeling the ghost of uber-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, acknowledged that Libyan oil was “the jewel in the crown” but that there would be broader profit-making opportunities to lay hold of, now that Gaddafi had been bombed from power. Even “in Qaddafi’s time,” he observed, the Libyans “were starting from A to Z in terms of building infrastructure and other things. If we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs.” (15) US Senator John McCain, for his part, noted that “American investors were watching Libya with keen interest and wanted to do business” in Libya as soon as the country was pacified. (16)

The New York Times’ Scott Shane summed up the excitement.

Western security, construction and infrastructure companies that see profit-making opportunities receding in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned their sights on Libya, now free of four decades of dictatorship. Entrepreneurs are abuzz about the business potential of a country with huge needs and the oil to pay for them, plus the competitive advantage of Libyan gratitude toward the United States and its NATO partners.

A week before Colonel Qaddafi’s death on Oct. 20, a delegation from 80 French companies arrived in Tripoli to meet officials of the Transitional National Council, the interim government. Last week, the new British defense minister, Philip Hammond, urged British companies to “pack their suitcases” and head to Tripoli. (17)

Shane’s summing up provides a pretty good account of what the NATO bombing campaign had been all about, with one exception. Western security, construction and infrastructure companies aren’t turning their sights on Libya because it is now free of four decades of dictatorship, but because it is now free of four decades of economic nationalism—an economic nationalism that once privileged Libyans over Western banks, investors and corporations. The country is now open for business…on the West’s terms.

The view that US foreign policy is shaped by considerations related to preserving and enlarging profit-making opportunities for investors, banks and corporations headquartered in the United States is based on two realities.

• The formulation of US foreign policy is dominated by the CEO’s, corporate lawyers and major investors who circulate between Wall Street and Washington.
• The countries that the United States has singled out for regime change, without exception, pursue self-directed economic policies aimed at fostering self-development and therefore deny or limit US investment and export opportunities.

Every rich country, with the exception of Britain, became rich through active state intervention in their economies to create industries, subsidize them and protect them from competition while they grew. The United States, as much as Germany, Japan, and other now rich industrialized countries, followed this path. (18) At one point, the United States had the world’s highest tariff barriers, which it used to shelter its nascent manufacturing industries against competition from established British firms. As protected industries matured under the guiding hand of a dirigiste state, they naturally sought to expand beyond their borders, as the possibilities offered by national markets were exhausted. Now, the policies that served their development so ably in the past, became fetters. Rather than protected markets at home, they needed open markets abroad. Poor countries couldn’t be allowed to emulate the policies that made the rich countries rich, because state-ownership, subsidies and trade barriers would eclipse the further development of the once protected industries of the rich countries. Poor countries would have to open themselves up as fields for exploitation by the banks, investors and corporations of the rich countries that had grown fat on the dirigiste policies some poor countries were now seeking to emulate.

A glance through the US Library of Congress’s country study on Iran reveals a truth that US officials never mention and that US foreign policy critics seem unaware of. Iran is not the kind of place an enterprising US business can hope to make money in. “The public sector dominates the economic scene, and the subordination of the private sector is observed in all industries and commerce.” (19) Worse, “Public-sector investments in transportation…utilities, telecommunications, and other infrastructure have grown over time.” (20) “The government plays a significant role in Iran’s economy, either directly through participation in the production and distribution of goods and services, or indirectly through policy intervention.” (21) Indeed, Iran’s constitution defines the public sector as primary, and “the private sector as the means of furnishing the government’s needs rather than responding to market requirements.” (22) Democratic socialists will be shocked to discover that this is the very same economic model that such New Left socialists as Ralph Miliband defined as emblematic of what a democratic socialism ought to be (which isn’t to say that Iran is a democratic socialist state, only that economically it is very close to what many socialist thinkers have envisaged for Western socialism.) In any event, it will be conceded that any economy that bears even a passing resemblance to that favored by radical democratic socialists is not likely to get a ringing endorsement from the kinds of people who formulate US foreign policy.

Other reasons why Iran’s economic policies are likely to have provoked the animosity of the US State Department: Despite its leaders making noises about going on a privatizing binge, Iran’s public sector has soberly grown rather than shrunk. (23) What’s more, large sectors of Iran’s economy remain off-limits to private ownership. ”Since the Revolution, the government has retained monopoly rights to the extraction, processing, and sales of minerals from large and strategic mines.” (24) Iran’s “agricultural policy is intended to support farmers and encourage production of strategically important crops” (25), not to open doors to US agribusiness. ”After the Revolution, many transportation companies, banks, and insurance companies were nationalized” (26) while price controls and subsidies have been used to make important consumer goods affordable (though many subsidies have been lifted recently.)

Wall Street and the US State Department dislike state-owned enterprises that serve the self-directed development goals of independent foreign countries, because they displace private investment by US capital. They abhor the practice of foreign governments subsidizing and protecting local business enterprises because it makes the task of US firms competing in overseas markets more difficult, and thereby limits the overseas profits of US firms. They revile regulations that protect local populations from pollution, desperation wages and deplorable working conditions, because they cut into profits. Some or all of these practices form significant parts of the economic policies of every country in the cross-hairs of US foreign policy, including Libya under Gaddafi and Iran today.

Washington doesn’t want to bring about a change of regime in Tehran to install a pliant government that will help expand US power. It wants to bring about a change of regime in Tehran that will cancel economic policies aimed at Iran’s self-development and replace them with policies that will open up the country’s resources, markets, labor and land to US banks, corporations and investors. It wants the holy trinity of free-trade, free-enterprise and free-markets at the center of poor countries’ economic policies, not protected trade, not state-owned and subsidized enterprises, and not trade barriers. (But while preaching the holy trinity abroad, the United States reserves the right to deploy subsidies, impede imports, and rely on state-intervention to support key industries at home. Consistency doesn’t matter. Profits do.)

To reach the goal of turning Iran into a country that can disgorge a bonanza of profits to US corporations and investors, Iran must first be denied the capability of mounting an effective defense against military intervention by the United States and its allies. It is for this reason that the United States and its Middle Eastern Doberman, Israel, have embarked upon a program of sabotage, assassinations and threats of aerial bombing aimed at crippling even the possibility of Iran acquiring a nuclear deterrent. The idea that Tehran is bent on lobbing a few nuclear-tipped missiles toward Israel, to complete what the Fuhrer had left undone, is demagogic nonsense, intended to provide a compelling justification for aggression against Iran. Evoking Hitler’s campaign of genocide against the Jews to invest contrived existential threats with gravitas has been a standard operating procedure of Zionist leaders dating to 1948. (27) Iran has no intention of attacking Israel, and would commit suicide if it did, a reality we can be certain has not escaped its leaders’ ken.

All of this to say that in order to understand US foreign policy it’s necessary to examine who rules in the United States, who formulates its foreign policy, and how the policy the rulers formulate intersects with their economic interests. (28) This is an inquiry into class. For if an economic elite dominates foreign policy, we should expect to find that the outcomes of foreign policy favor elite economic interests, and that foreign countries that pursue economic policies that are not agreeable to those interests will be harassed, sabotaged, sanctioned, destabilized, and possibly bombed or invaded, until the policies are changed.

It may be objected that the cost to the United States of military intervention in Iran would surely exceed any economic gain that would accrue to the country as a whole. For liberals, this would count as evidence that US foreign policy makers had once again made an error. For others, it would stand as a challenge to the idea that a war on Iran would be a war for profits.

But the costs of military intervention are what economists call externalities—costs created by a firm, an industry or a class, but borne by others. Hydraulic fracturing—the high-pressure injection of fluids into rock to release fossil fuels—creates costs in water pollution and wear and tear on roads used by trucks and heavy machinery. If these costs are internalized—borne by the oil companies whose activities have created them—then hydraulic fracturing makes no sense economically–its costs exceed its returns. But if the costs are externalized—left to society as a whole to absorb—hydraulic fracturing becomes an attractive way for oil companies to turn a profit. (29)

Here’s the parallel with military intervention. The giant engineering firm Bechtel would absorb virtually none of the costs of a successful war on Iran, but if one happens, Bechtel is likely to reap enormous profits in contracts to rebuild the infrastructure that the US Air Force would raze to the ground. For Bechtel, then, US military intervention in Iran would be highly profitable, even though it might not make sense economically when viewed from the perspective of the United States as a whole. Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon—the top five defense contractors–don’t foot the Pentagon’s massive $700B per annum bill, but large portions of that budget are transferred to them in the form of contracts for military hardware. While bloated military expenditures make no sense from the point of view of the country as a collectivity, major defense contractors reap enormous profits from them.

The problem, then, of arguing that military intervention in Iran would make no sense because the costs would exceed the economic gains that would accrue to the United States as a whole, is failure to recognize that the country is class-divided, and that the gains of war are internalized within the dominant class while the costs are externalized to the bottom 99 percent. Hence, war doesn’t make sense for the bulk of us, but the problem is that decisions about military expenditures, foreign policy and war are in the hands of the top one percent and their loyal servants, who privatize the benefits and socialize the costs. When liberals say US foreign policy makes no sense, they’re being misguided by a set of erroneous assumptions: that the United States has only one class, the middle-class, that it is not class-divided, that everyone within it has the same middle-class interests, and that the state rules in the interests of all.

Like all US wars, the war on Iran of sanctions, sabotage, assassinations and saber-rattling is a class war. It is a war of class in two respects. First, it is waged on behalf of a class of bankers, major investors, and corporate titans, to knock down walls in Iran that deny this elite access to markets and investment opportunities. Second, it is a war carried out on the back of a class of employees, pensioners, unemployed, and armed forces members—the bottom 99 percent–who bear the cost, through their taxes (and in the future their lives.)

The aim is to install local politicians, most of whom have been educated at US universities where they have been instilled with imperialist values, who can, assisted by US advisors, make over Iran into an agricultural, natural resources, low-wage appendage of the US economy in the service of Wall Street and the class of owners and high-level managers who occupy its commanding heights. In short, a war for profits.

1. Adam Blomfield, “Israel won’t rule out attack on Iran,” The Ottawa Citizen, November 7, 2011.
2. Associated Press, July 27, 2009.
3. Blomfield.
4. Benny Morris, “Using Bombs to Stave Off War,” The New York Times, July 18, 2008.
5. Isabel Kershner, “Israeli strike on Iran would be ‘stupid,’ ex-spy chief says”, The New York Times, May 8, 2011.
6. Glenn Kessler, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?” The Washington Post, October 6, 2011.
7. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
8. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005.
9. Mark Landler, “Iran policy now more in sync with Clinton’s views,” The New York Times, February 17, 2010.
10. Mazda Majidi, “What lies behind US policy toward Iran?” Liberation, June 12, 2008.
11. Tim Beal. Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War. Pluto Press.2011. p. 71.
12. Kim Hyun, “US ‘Has No Intention to Build Close Ties with N Korea’: Ex-official,” Yonhap News, September 2, 2009.
13. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
14. Thomas Walkom, “What Harper and co. got from the Libyan war”, The Toronto Star, October 21, 2011.
15. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011.
16. Kareem Fahim and Rick Gladstone, “U.S. Senate delegation offers praise and caution to Libya’s new leaders”, The New York Times, September 29, 2011.
17. Scott Shane, “West sees opportunity in postwar Libya for businesses”, The New York Times, October 28, 2011.
18. Erik S. Reinert. How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor. Public Affairs. New York. 2007; Ha-Joon Chang. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. Bloomsbury Press. 2008.
19. The Library of Congress. Iran: A Country Study. 2008. p. 143. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/irtoc.html
20. Iran: A Country Study, p. 145.
21. Iran: A Country Study, p. 150.
22. Iran: A Country Study, p. 151.
23. Iran: A Country Study, p. 152.
24. Iran: A Country Study, p. 167.
25. Iran: A Country Study, p. 170.
26. Iran: A Country Study, p. 181.
27. Ilan Pappe. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications. 2006.
28. Albert Szymanski. The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class. Winthrop Publishers. 1978.
29. Paul Krugman, “Here comes the sun,” The New York Times, November 6, 2011.

I recognize that in my views and even use of certain phrases that I have been influenced by Michael Parenti, and that needs to be acknowledged here. Of particular influence is Parenti’s latest book, The Face of Imperialism, Paradigm Publishers, 2011 and his earlier Against Empire, City Light Books, 1995.

Libya: Imperialism and the Left

By Stephen Gowans

While the class character of regimes under siege by Western powers is often explored in analyses of imperialist interventions and is frequently invoked to justify them, it neither explains why capitalist imperialist powers intervene nor stands as a justification for their actions.

The relevant consideration in explaining why interventions occur is not the political orientation of the government under siege, nor its relations with its citizens, but whether it accommodates the profit-making interests of the dominant class in the intervening countries. Does it welcome foreign investment, allow repatriation of profits, demand little in the way of corporate income tax, open its markets, and offer abundant supplies of cheap labor and raw materials? Or does it impose high tariffs on imports, subsidize domestic production, operate state-owned enterprises (displacing opportunities for foreign-private-owned ones), force investors to take on local partners, and insist that workers be protected from desperation wages and intolerable working conditions?

Much as it might be supposed that imperialist interventions target worker and peasant-led governments alone, this is not the case. Regimes that promote national bourgeois interests by denying or limiting the profit-making interests in their own countries of the dominant class of other countries are routinely targeted for regime change, especially if they are militarily weak or have pluralist political systems that afford space for destabilization and political interference. Since the effects are the same in imperialist countries of a local regime, say, expropriating a foreign-privately-owned oil company, no matter whether the company is turned over to local business people, the state, or the company’s employees, it is a matter of supreme indifference to imperialist countries whether the expropriation is carried out by communists, socialists or radical nationalists. Whether you’re inspired by Marx and Lenin, 21st century socialism, or the actually-existing capitalist policies that the United States, Germany and Japan followed to challenge Britain’s industrial monopoly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, if you’re going to mess with the profit-making opportunities of an imperialist country’s capital class, it will mess with you.

Gaddafi was faulted by the US State Department for his “increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector” and for trying to “Libyanize” the economy. (1) He “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” (2) And his pro-Libya trade and foreign investment policies were irritants to Western banks, corporations and major investors as they surveyed the globe for lucrative profit-making opportunities.

Equally likely to be targets of imperialist designs are capitalist rivals that compete for access to investment and trade opportunities in third countries. They too may become the objects of destabilization, economic warfare, and military encirclement.

This is evidenced in one of Nato’s roles: to contest spheres of exploitation. The organization’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, explaining why Nato countries need to spend more on their militaries, remarked that: “If you’re not able to deploy troops beyond your borders, then you can’t exert influence internationally, and then that gap will be filled by emerging powers that don’t necessarily share your values and thinking.” (3) You can interpret this to mean that when it comes to Africa and the Middle East—which are likely the regions Rasmussen alludes to–the alliance’s raison d’être is to keep North Americans and Western Europeans in, the Russians, Chinese and Brazilians out, and the natives down. But however you interpret it, it’s clear that the alliance’s secretary general doesn’t understand Nato to be an organization of mutual self-defense, but an instrument to be used by developed countries to compete with emerging ones.

Concerning the validity of interventions by Nato countries, here too reference to the class character of targeted governments misses the point. It is not a regime’s class character, nor how it treats its citizens, that explains the reasons for intervention against it, but the class character of the countries that intervene. This in turn illuminates whether the intervention is valid or not.

The principal Nato countries are all incontestably class societies in which major corporations, banks and ultra-wealthy investors wield out-sized influence over their societies. Their representatives and loyal servants hold key positions in the state, including and especially in the military and foreign affairs, and the corporate rich have access to resources that allow them to lobby governments far more vigorously than any other class or interest can. Accordingly, the foreign policy of these countries reflects the interests of the class that dominates them.

It would be exceedingly odd were this not so. Profit-making concerns don’t melt away when corporate CEOs, corporate lawyers and bankers are assigned to key foreign policy posts in the state; when they develop foreign policy recommendations for governments in elite-consensus-making organizations, like the Council on Foreign Relations; or when they lobby presidents, premiers, and cabinet secretaries and cabinet ministers.

For this reason, US and Nato interventions, while billed as humanitarian for obvious PR reasons, are at their heart, exercises in protecting and advancing the interests of the class that dominates foreign policy. This is clear enough in the business pages of major newspapers.

In recent days, the business section of The New York Times announced that “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins.” Eric Reguly, a business columnist with The Globe & Mail, the newspaper of Canada’s financial elite, echoed the point.

“The oil industry’s biggest players, meanwhile, are salivating to reclaim their old concessions and nab new ones, all the more so since their own oil production has been in decline. The vast Ghadames and Sirte basins, largely off limits to foreign oil companies since Col. Gadhafi swept to power 42 years ago, are especially attractive. So is Libya’s offshore area.

“Who will get the prizes? The (National Transitional Council) has already said it will reward the countries that bombed Col. Gadhafi’s forces. ‘We don’t have a problem with Western countries like Italians, French and U.K. companies,’ Abdeljalil Mayouf, a spokesman for the rebel oil company Agogco, was quoted by Reuters as saying. ‘But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.’”

Reguly’s column ran under the headline, “They bombed and therefore they shall reap.” They shall reap, too, in another way. “The head of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, explicitly promised to reward those nations that backed Libya’s revolt with contracts in the state’s postwar reconstruction.” (4) This is the charmed circle of aggressive imperialism.

Billions of dollars are sucked out of taxpayers and into the pockets of arms manufacturers to build a war machine. The war machine is pressed into service against countries whose governments have denied or limited the profit-making opportunities of the imperialist country’s corporations, banks and major investors (many of whom have interests in arms manufacturing), causing significant damage to the victim countries’ infrastructure. Comprador regimes are installed, which throw their country’s doors wide open to the intervening country’s exports and investments and invite the intervening country to set up military bases on their territories. At the same time, the new regimes funnel reconstruction contracts to the intervening country to rebuild what its war machine has destroyed. So it is that the capitalist class of the intervening country profits in three ways: From defense contracts; new investment and export opportunities; and post-war rebuilding. A peaceful resolution of Libya’s civil war would have disrupted this charmed circle. Is it any wonder, then, that Washington, Paris, and London ignored all proposals for a negotiated settlement?

An alternative explanation might be offered. While the major oil and engineering companies of the leading Nato countries will profit from Gaddafi’s downfall, the motivation to intervene was nevertheless independent of crass commercial concerns, and was humanitarian at its core.

But if this were so you would have to explain how it was that Nato’s humanitarian concern was uniquely invested in a country in which there are still Western oil-industry-profit-making opportunities to be had, while Nato remained unmoved by humanitarian concern over the plight of Shiite Bahrainis whose peaceful protests were violently suppressed by an absolute monarchy — with the help of the tanks and troops of three other absolute monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A third contributor to the violent suppression of the Bahraini revolt, Qatar, deserves special mention. It is celebrated in the Western press for its contribution to the Libyan rebels in arms, warplanes, training, diplomatic recognition, and (in the Qatar-state-owned Al Jazeera) propaganda–a real friend of democracy in its struggle against dictatorship and repression. The New York Times referred to Al Jazeera as an “independent news channel” (5) though it is not clear what Al Jazeera is independent of. The Times has never, to my knowledge, referred to the state-owned media of countries under imperialist siege as “independent,” this laudatory and impossible adjective (all media are dependent—whether on the state or private investors) is reserved for media that have adopted a perspective that is pleasing to the interests of The New York Times’ board of directors and its major owner.

Bahrain—a paragon society for Western investors—is already a profit-making bonanza for Western oil companies. It is also home to the US Fifth Fleet. It is therefore a de facto extension of the US economy, indeed, of US territory, and so its government can do whatever it likes, so long as it continues to keep Wall Street happy. Bombing, sanctions, destabilization and International Criminal Court indictments are reserved for governments that “raise fees and taxes” on US oil firms and try to nationalize their economies, a clear red-line.

In the view of one sector of the left, imperialist interventions are supportable so long as they lead to the toppling of a capitalist regime, irrespective of its succession by another. Of course, the outcome of any successful imperialist intervention against a bourgeois nationalist regime is its replacement by a comprador one. This hardly amounts to an advance.

For still another sector, the character of the besieged government is all that matters. The character of the intervening state, by contrast, matters not at all – not its domination by corporate, banking and investor interests; not its record of pursuing wars of conquest; and not its resort to fabrication to justify its aggressions. For these leftists, such as they are, the targeted government is reprehensible, while their own is either angelic or well-meaning. In this frame, Gaddafi’s attempts to crush an uprising is understood to be on a more barbaric plane than, say, the war on Iraq, which created a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale Gaddafi’s repressions could never match. What manner of delusion leads one to believe that the United States and Britain, the architects of rapacity and slaughter on a global scale, are (a) angelic and well-meaning, (b) motivated in their foreign policy by humanitarianism, and (c) playing a constructive role in Libya?

The most pusillanimous of leftists are those who condemn the brutalized and brutalizers equally. They take a comfortable though craven moral stance, but their condemnation of targeted governments is irrelevant. Since the character of governments under siege has nothing whatever to do with the reasons for the intervention, and does not, in the case of capitalist imperialist interventions, justify it, there can be one reason alone for singling out the victim for equal condemnation in the context of his assault: a desire for respectability and a penchant for knuckling under to mainstream opinion, not challenging it and offering an alternative, counter-hegemonic, explanation.

Suppose you live next door to an ill-mannered, thoroughly dislikeable woman who has managed to alienate everyone you know. One day her husband beats her. You can condemn the husband for beating his wife, and say nothing of his wife’s character. Why would you? It doesn’t excuse the husband’s behavior. Or you can condemn both equally, noting that as much as you deplore wife-beating, you also deplore the victim for her bad manners and irksome ways. To do the latter is unsupportable and anyone who did this would be deservedly rebuked. Yet left fence sitters do the same when they insist on condemning the governments of countries that capitalist imperialist countries intervene in to show that they don’t support the crimes of which those governments are accused. Worse, they refuse to even investigate the veracity of the accusations, and then challenge them if they fail to stand up to scrutiny, for fear of being denounced as apologists. Instead, they simply accept the accusations as true, even though similar accusations against other victims on similar occasions have been shown to be fabrications (Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, for example.) This is apologetics of another kind, on behalf of the left fence sitters’ own ruling class. It keeps them on safe ground. They can say later, as so many did in connection with the Iraqi WMD scam, “We didn’t know. I’m shocked, shocked!, that the government deceived us.”

However, the analogy suggests that interventions only happen in countries where governments behave in reprehensible ways, and this isn’t the case. Certainly, the impression produced by the propaganda assault that accompanies interventions is one of targeted regimes being thoroughly detestable and their demise consequently to be wished for, even if the intervention that brings it about is undertaken for the wrong reasons. And leftists, if they’re to be taken seriously in the court of respectable mainstream opinion, are expected to genuflect before the depiction of targeted countries as criminal lest they be accused of being apologists for dictators, or useful idiots. But it sometimes happens that the crimes of which targeted regimes are accused are not crimes at all, or if they are, are mild ones at worst.

The narrative used to explain the need for intervention in Libya is that a peaceful uprising of democracy-loving Libyans against the Gaddafi dictatorship was about to be crushed in blood. A narrative that navigates closer to the truth is that the uprising, touched off by surrounding events in Tunisia and Egypt, originates in the longstanding rift between a nationalist, government on the one hand, and Islamists and comprador elements on the other. While this fails to explain the uprising in full, it explains a good part of it. Is the repression of reactionary forces that threaten the state a crime? If you’re a Libyan Islamist, monarchist or CIA-backed exile, the answer is yes, just as it is if you’re an ideologue for this particular imperialist intervention. But if you’re Gaddafi, and his nationalist supporters, the answer is no.

Significantly, few people are seriously calling for Nato to mount an operation to protect Bahraini civilians from the violent repression of an absolute monarchy. However much the Khalifa regime’s crackdown on Bahraini protestors is considered a crime, it is not a crime on a large enough scale to warrant a Nato intervention. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any justification for a Nato intervention, since Nato countries are only good at undertaking interventions as investments. There has to be a promise of a lucrative payoff for an elite of capitalist masters if the investment in blood and treasure is to be justified: oil concessions free from profit-reducing taxes and fees; new export and investment opportunities; reconstruction contracts. Humanitarianism doesn’t add to the bottom line. But let’s assume for the moment, as the naïve do, that Nato can intervene for selfless reasons, and that this is not, like the lion lying down with the lamb, an impossibility. Why would we call for intervention against Gaddafi but not Khalifa? The reasons why bankers, corporations and major investors who dominate foreign policy in the Nato countries would do this is clear. That leftists do the same raises questions about what is meant by the “left”.

Diana Johnstone and Jean Bricmont lambasted significant sections of the European left for failing to vigorously oppose the Nato intervention in Libya’s civil war and in many cases for supporting it. (6) But this is like faulting sheep for grazing on grass. While regrettable, there is nothing strange or unprecedented about people who consider themselves to be of the political left, even socialists, siding with their own government’s imperialist eruptions. It has been happening since at least WWI. Lenin offered an explanation — and whether you find his explanation compelling or not the phenomenon he set out to explain cannot be denied. A sector of the left regularly sides with its own government’s imperialism, while another sector finds ways to subtly support it while professing opposition. The only sector of the Western left, with one or two exceptions, that can be counted upon to reliably oppose imperialism, and to have some kind of sophisticated understanding of it, are the Leninists.

Max Elbaum points to the phenomenon in his book about the 1960s New Communist Movement, Revolution in the Air. “Late-sixties activists,” he writes, “felt a powerful political and emotional bond” with the Leninist wing of the socialist movement. During WWI, this wing broke decisively “with those socialists who supported the war, or at least did little or nothing to oppose it.” They were drawn to Leninism because, like the original followers of Lenin, “they too had spent years in frustrating fights with more prestigious left forces that had dragged their feet—or worse—in the antiwar campaign.”

Elbaum credits democratic socialism’s refusal to vigorously oppose the US war on Vietnam with building support for the New Communist Movement. “Though today’s democratic socialists don’t talk about it much,” writes Elbaum, “the U.S. social democrats played a sluggish or even backward role in the anti-Vietnam War movement.” The official US affiliate of the Socialist International, the Socialist Party, “actually supported the war” and “was all but absent from antiwar activity.” Editor of Dissent, Irving Howe, among the most prominent of US social democrats, “long opposed the demand for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.” Michael Harrington, perhaps the most widely known US social democrat, never offered a full-throated denunciation of the war. According to his sympathetic biographer, Maurice Isserman, Harrington referred to the war as if it were a force of nature rather than a product of human agency (a tragedy, like a hurricane or earthquake, rather than an instrument of US imperialism) for fear of alienating “his closest and long-standing political comrades who were supporting the slaughter…” Harrington regarded his pro-war social democratic colleagues not as backward, reactionary collaborationists but as “good socialists with whom he differed on peripheral issues.” (7)

Internationally, democratic socialists acted in ways that provoked disgust. “French Socialists, while in power had conducted the colonial war in Algeria—complete with torture. The Harold Wilson-led Labour Party government in Britain backed US Vietnam policy despite its misgivings.” And “social democrats worldwide were among the most vocal supporters of Zionism and opponents of Palestinian self-determination.”

Sound familiar?

In the late-sixties, writes Elbaum, “it seemed only natural to identify with the tendency that had fought against similar social democratic backwardness during an earlier imperialist bloodletting.”

So too in 2011.

1. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
2. Clifford Kraus, “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins”, The New York Times, August 22, 2011.
3. Stephen Fidler and Alistair MacDonald, “Europeans retreat on defense spending”, The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2011.
4. Steven Lee Myers and Dan Bilefsky, “U.N. releases $1.5 billion in frozen Qaddafi assets to aid rebuilding of Libya”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
5. David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Inside a Libyan hospital, proof of a revolt’s costs”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
6. Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone, “Who will save Libya from its Western saviours?” http://www.counterpunch.org, August 16, 2011.
7. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, Verso, 2006, p. 46

In Libya, Lies and Imperialism on the Verge of Victory

By Stephen Gowans

Nato’s mandate in Libya was to protect civilians, not to take sides in a civil war between secular nationalists on one side and Al Qaeda Islamists and CIA backed-exiles on the other. (1) But all pretence that the organization was neutral was swept aside in the Western media’s celebration of the rebel march into Tripoli.

Now it is acknowledged that “NATO warplanes had flown overhead for days, bombing targets in the capital and its surroundings to clear the (rebel’s) path to Tripoli” (2); that “intensification of American aerial surveillance in and around the capital city (was) a major factor in helping to tilt the balance after months of steady erosion of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s military”; that “coordination between NATO and the rebels…had become more sophisticated and lethal in recent weeks”; that “Britain, France and other nations deployed special forces on the ground inside Libya to help train and arm the rebels”; and that the rebels had become “more effective in selecting targets and transmitting their location, using technology provided by individual NATO allies, to NATO’s targeting team in Italy.“ (3)

In effect, the rebels—aided by Nato special forces—acted as Nato’s army. It was a Nato regime change operation all along, with Libyan rebels as pawns. Gaddafi won’t be swept from power by a popular uprising, but by nine parts Nato bombs and special forces and one part Libyan rebels from the east.

Some will rationalize Nato’s violation of its UN mandate by pointing to the probable outcome: the toppling of a dictator. But Nato has little concern for the type of government a country has, so long as it is open to exploitation by Western banks, corporations and investors.

One need only contrast the Nato war on Libya with the West’s muted response to the violent suppression of a popular uprising in Bahrain to see this is so.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has played a key role in the Nato war on Libya, greets Bahrain's crown prince in May, soon after Bahraini authorities, with the help of Saudi tanks and troops, violently suppressed a popular uprising . Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The Khalifa tyranny’s killing of its own people—with the help of Saudi tanks and troops–merited no punitive action by Nato and no indictments from the International Criminal Court. On the contrary, Bahrain’s absolutist monarch, King Hamid, was invited by Queen Elizabeth II to the royal wedding in April, while British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed “Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to London in May, greeting him on the doorstep of No 10 (Downing Street) with a firm handshake and bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘blood on our hands’.” (4)

Why the double standard?

Significantly, Bahrain—home to the US Fifth Fleet–is a virtual wet dream for Western investors, boasting no restrictions on repatriation of profits, no corporate income taxes (except on oil companies), absent regulation, no restrictions on foreign investment, and no minimum wage.

Libya, on the other hand, provoked Washington’s ire by practicing “resource nationalism” and amending labor laws to “Libyanize” the economy, as a leaked State Department cable revealed.(5) Gaddafi’s insistence on screening foreign investment, imposing performance requirements on foreign investors, and demanding that Libyans have a 35 percent stake in the country’s economy, did little to help his cause in Washington, London and Paris, even if it did help Libyans enjoy the highest standard of living in Africa.

It appears as if Gaddafi’s days are numbered. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that this represents an advance of democracy. All that has happened is that a local dictatorship, one which at least had the merit of promoting Libya’s independent economic development, is about to be succeeded by a puppet government answerable to a dictatorship of foreign corporations, banks and investors.

1. For Al Qaeda involvement in the uprising see particularly, David Pugliese, “DND report reveals Canada’s ties with Gadhafi”, The Ottawa Citizen, April 23, 2011 and Rod Nordland and Scott Shane, “Libyan shifts from detainee to rebel, and U.S. ally of sorts”, The New York Times, April 24, 2011.
2. Kareem Fahim, “Instead of a bloody struggle, a headlong rush into a cheering capital”, The New York Times, August 21, 2011.
3. Eric Schmitt and Steven Lee Meyers, “Surveillance and coordination with NATO aided rebels”, The New York Times, August 21, 2011.
4. Mehdi Hasan, “Let them eat doughnuts: the US response to Bahrain’s oppression”, The Guardian (UK), July 11, 2011.
5. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.

Who Is Killing Iran’s Nuclear Scientists – And Why?

By Stephen Gowans

One day last November, assassins on motorbikes drove up to the cars of two of Iran’s nuclear scientists as they were leaving for work and attached bombs to their vehicles. The bombs detonated in seconds, killing Majid Shahriari, a member of the engineering faculty at a Tehran university, and Fereydoon Abbasi, a professor at Shahid Besheshti University. 

Last week, in an eerie reprise, Darioush Rezaei, a physics professor working in the field of nuclear chain reactions, was killed in his car. This time by a pair of gunmen on a motorcycle. 

Suspicion immediately fell upon the United States, and for good reason. The CIA is running a program to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by eliminating its nuclear scientists. Until recently, the program has sought to create a brain drain by luring physicists and engineers out of the country.(1) But now it appears that the nuclear scientists who won’t or can’t be lured away are being targeted for elimination – either by assassination or abduction. 

Another Iranian nuclear scientist, Shahram Amiri, was abducted while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and “spirited quickly to the United States.” (2) 

It should be recalled that while the United States and its possible partner in the assassinations, Israel, are working to undermine Iran’s nuclear program, both have their own civilian nuclear power industries plus more than a few nuclear weapons. 

So why are they adamant about denying Iran what they, themselves, already have?

And just to be clear, what Washington and the Israelis don’t want Iran to have is the capability of processing nuclear fuel at home. While this would allow the Iranians to convert Iran’s vast supplies of uranium into fuel to power a civilian nuclear energy industry, it would also furnish Iran with the means to quickly develop nuclear weapons, something it might want to do if, say, the United States threatened to attack (hardly an improbable scenario).

Denying Iran its own nuclear fuel processing industry has obvious advantages to rich countries.

  • They derive profits from the sale of nuclear fuel.
  • With their hands on the nuclear fuel spigot, they acquire political leverage over Tehran.
  • Iran’s ability to resist US pressure by developing nuclear arms is severely crimped.

The official story on why Iran mustn’t have its own nuclear fuel processing capability is that if Iran can process uranium it can secretly develop nuclear arms. And the country must not be allowed to go nuclear because its president is a Judeophobic madman who, if he gets the chance, will send a barrage of nuclear-tipped missiles hurtling toward Israel to complete what Hitler had left undone.

This view is utter nonsense.

First, the United States would incinerate Iran in a second if Tehran used nuclear weapons against Israel. And if Washington couldn’t do the job, the Israelis, with their own formidable nuclear arsenal, surely would. At best, Iran’s possession of nuclear arms (and it doesn’t have them now and it’s not clear it seeks them) would provide a deterrent against attacks on its own territory.

What’s more, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, never promised to “wipe Israel off  the map,” as some Western and Israeli political leaders demagogically claim. Instead, he predicted that Israel as a Jewish state would dissolve, as the Soviet Union once did. Hardly the same.   

Another view is that Ahmadinejad intends to attack Israel in order to return Palestine to the Palestinians. Except this would turn Palestine into a nuclear wasteland, not what the Palestinians want. And why would Ahmadinejad risk Iran’s nuclear annihilation to advance the Palestinian cause? Sure, Iran is a big booster of the Palestinians, but not to the point of imperilling its own existence. 

No, the real reason Washington seeks to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program is to deny the country a means by which it can resist efforts to bring it within the US imperial orbit, that is, to eliminate the threat of Iranian self-defense. 

Iran is charting its own course. Its economic policies, which emphasize state-ownership of key sectors of the economy, and the sheltering of manufacturing behind high tariff walls, are an anathema to the ultra-wealthy bankers and investors who dominate US foreign policy and insist that profit-making opportunities be made available to them just as much beyond US borders as within.

As an example of the opportunities that Iran’s nationalist policies deny investors and corporations of rich countries, consider the country’s automobile industry. It operates behind steep tariff walls which allow two domestic firms, both partly government-owned, to absorb 97 percent of all automobile sales in the country. Sales reached 1.6 million units last year. (3) Were Iran’s high tariff barriers toppled, US, European and East Asian automobile manufacturers could add handsomely to their bottom lines.

But a nuclear-armed Iran—even one which doesn’t have nuclear weapons, but has the knowledge and means to quickly develop them—could strongly resist demands made at gunpoint that it turn over its markets, natural resources and enterprises to foreign capital.

Of course, US sophistry holds that that’s not what Washington wants. It’s not seeking economic domination, only a level playing field. The trouble is, asking a Third World country to compete with rich countries on a level playing field is like asking high school football teams to compete in the NFL – without assistance. 

Since US foreign policy is all about opening doors to US investors and exporters, and Iranian policy is focussed on using state-ownership, subsidies and tariffs to develop the country’s economy, Washington and Tehran are in conflict. Washington wants Tehran’s economic policy to accommodate the profit-making interests of US banks, corporations and investors, while Tehran fashions its economic policy to accommodate the interests of Iranians.

For Washington, the route to resolving the conflict lies in ushering in a new regime in Tehran, one more attentive to the needs of US capital. It would be pro-foreign investment and committed to free markets, free trade and free enterprise.  

Since Iranians don’t seem to be heading in this direction as rapidly as Wall Street would like, Washington hopes to change their minds through sanctions, threats of war, financial isolation, and destabilization, centred on demonization of Iran’s political leadership.  

Oh, and abduction and assassination too.

1. Greg Miller, “US now sees Iran as pursuing nuclear bombs,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2009.

2. David E. Sanger, “Scientist heads home, Iran says”, The New York Times, July 14, 2010; Alan Cowell, “Pakistan says Iran scientists in U.S.flees to its embassy”, The New York Times, July 13, 2010.

3. “Iranian car lines keep rolling despite sanctions”, Reuters, June 29, 2011.

Military Interventions: Progressive vs. Imperialist

By Stephen Gowans

Wars have almost always been highly devastating affairs, with dire consequences in ruined and destroyed lives, as well as in the destruction of economies, farms, factories, housing and public infrastructure. While it cannot be said that all people at all times have considered wars to be best avoided, it is safe to say that the humanitarian case against war is overwhelming.

This essay is concerned, not with war in general, but with military interventions. To be sure, military interventions are often inseparable from wars, since they are often the causes of them. But not always. Some occur in the context of wars that are already underway. And some happen without provoking major resistance.

Today, on the left—and even the right—there are many activists who are committed to an anti-war position, but who are more properly said to oppose military intervention. Opposition to war implies, not only opposition to one country initiating a war against another (aggression), but also to using military means to repel an attack (self-defence.) Yet it is highly unlikely that people who say they are against war mean that they are against self-defence. It is more likely that they mean that a military response to a conflict must only occur for valid reasons, and that self-defence is the only valid one.

However, those who have adopted an anti-war position often stress other reasons for opposing military interventions. These include the ideas that:

• Democracy is senior to other considerations and that people should be allowed to resolve internal conflicts free from the meddling of outside forces.
• Institutions and ideologies cannot be successfully imposed on other people and interventions that seek to do so (e.g., bring democracy to another country) are bound to fail.
• International law is a legitimate basis for determining the validity of military interventions and countries ought to abide by it.

In this essay, the arguments will be made that: none of these principles are grounds to oppose military intervention; one of them is empirically insupportable as an absolute statement; the idea that military force ought to be used only in self-defence is indefensible; and that had these principles been adopted as inviolable, a number of interventions that are now widely regarded as progressive and desirable would never have occurred. A case will be made, instead, that some military interventions are valid and that validity depends on whose interests the intervention serves and whether the long-run effects are progressive. By these criteria, NATO interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not valid, while France’s intervention on the side of the United States in the American Revolution and the Union government’s intervention in the states of the Confederacy in the American Civil War were valid. Also valid were the interventions of the Comintern on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1938), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) interventions in Korea (1950) and Tibet (1959), Cuba’s intervention in Angola (1975), and the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan (1979).

Full essay in PDF format: Military Interventions Progressive vs Imperialist

Looking Out for Western Business and Investor Rights: Why the West Approves Military Interventions to Topple One Arab Government and Prop Up Another

By Stephen Gowans

In a previous article I pointed to three factors to explain the West’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya to prevent the government there from putting down an armed rebellion while it tacitly approves the Gulf Cooperation Council’s military intervention in Bahrain to put down a peaceful rebellion there. The double-standard, I argued, reflects dramatic differences between Libya and Bahrain in their relationship with the United States and its dominant investor and corporate class.

Bahrain is the home of the US Fifth Fleet, has long-standing warm relations with Washington, and strongly caters to Western corporate and investor interests. Since the Khalifa regime supports US corporate profit-making and military interests, and a new regime might not do the same to the same degree, Washington is prepared to allow Saudi and other GCC troops and tanks to assist Bahraini authorities in violently quelling a peaceful rebellion.

Libya, I pointed out, doesn’t provide bases for the US or other Western militaries, hasn’t had long-standing warm relations with Washington, and isn’t particularly accommodating of Western corporate and investor interests. From a neo-colonialist standpoint, Western powers could do better in Libya.

Some readers objected, arguing that in recent years Libya has sought to open itself to Western corporations and investors and has struck a number of deals with Western oil companies. It cannot be concluded, they continued, that the West’s decision to intervene military in Libya was motivated by Western profit-making considerations, for Libya is already catering to Western business interests.

To be sure, Libya has opened itself to the West, but doing deals with Western corporations is not the same as engineering a wholesale subordination of domestic interests to those of foreign bankers and corporations — typically, what corporate-and investor-oriented Western governments look for in Third World “partners”. For the wealthy scouring the globe for investment opportunities and corporations seeking export markets, an opening door in Libya doesn’t necessarily mean that Libya’s business climate is fully conducive to maximizing profits. That Libya allows some Western corporations to operate in the country doesn’t guarantee that investments are safe from expropriation, that performance requirements aren’t imposed on foreign investments, that repatriation of profits isn’t controlled, that taxes aren’t high, or that there is a commitment to labor market “flexibility.” In short, the Kaddafi government may, in recent years, have sought to expand Western access to investment opportunities in Libya, but that alone doesn’t mean that the conditions of access were regarded by corporations and investors as being as desirable as they could be, or as desirable, for example, as those provided by the government of Bahrain, or as desirable as those a future government might provide.

The Heritage Foundation provides a guide to how accommodating countries are to the profit-making interests of US corporations and investors. Every year the foundation publishes an Index of Economic Freedom, which ranks countries on how open they are to exports and foreign investment, how low their taxes are, how committed they are to protecting property rights, and so on; in short, how strongly a country favors foreign businesses and investors over its own people. Significantly, governments that are perennially targets of US government regime change efforts rank at or near the bottom of the index. This year’s list identifies the following 10 countries as the least economically free (i.e., least accommodating to foreign businesses), in order, from worst to slightly better:

• North Korea
• Zimbabwe
• Cuba
• Eritrea
• Venezuela
• Myanmar
• Libya
• Democratic Republic of Congo
• Iran
• Timor-Leste

Seven of the bottom 10 (North Korea, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Venezuela, Myanmar, Libya and Iran) are the targets of open regime change operations by the United States and its allies, carried out ostensibly because the targeted countries are not protecting human rights, threaten regional stability, or in the case of Libya, because the government is said to be attacking its own people. That these countries happen to be considered the least accommodating of foreign business profit-making points to an ulterior motive on the part of Western governments to bring about regime change, and to use human rights and humanitarian rhetoric as a cover for pursuing the economic interests of Western corporate and investor elites.

Significantly, not one country in the top 10 is a target of Western regime change efforts. If regime change were linked to human rights concerns and not unfavorable investment and export conditions, we might expect to find regime change targets scattered throughout the rankings, rather than bunched up at the bottom. One counter-explanation is that economically free countries tend to respect human rights, which is why the worst offenders on both counts are found at the bottom of the list. However, this couldn’t possibly be true, for the United States, which has an atrocious human rights record (Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, torture and rendition of prisoners, arrest and detention without charge, extrajudicial assassination, weakening of Miranda rights, spying on its own citizens, restrictions on travel to Cuba, and so on) ranks as the 9th freest country in the world in economic terms, while Saudi Arabia, the least free country in terms of political and civil liberties and perhaps the most contemptuous of human rights, ranks in the top half.

Bahrain, as it turns out, is ranked number 10 of 179 countries on the Heritage Foundation list, next to the United States. Regionally, Bahrain is top ranked in North Africa and West Asia, while Libya, ranked 173 over all countries, falls dead last in regional rankings. Bahrain’s higher ranking is based on an array of government policies aimed to please foreign businesses. Property ownership is secure and expropriation is unlikely, whereas in Libya foreign companies are vulnerable to expropriation. Bahrain welcomes foreign investment and allows new businesses to be 100 percent foreign owned and controlled, while Libya screens foreign investment, imposes performance requirements on foreign investors that domestic investors are not required to meet, and demands that Libyans have a 35 percent stake in foreign companies that operate in the country. And while Bahrain imposes no restrictions on repatriation of profits, Libya does.

On trade, Bahrain imposes few restrictions on imports, while Libya maintains a variety of tariff and non-tariff barriers to help local firms develop. With the exception of oil companies, businesses that operate in Bahrain pay no corporate tax, while businesses in Libya are subject to a tax rate as high as 40 percent. Personal income tax is extremely low in Bahrain, but can reach as high as 90 percent in Libya. And while Bahrain provides businesses maximum flexibility in dealing with employees, even allowing them to pay desperation-level wages, Libya provides protection for workers on pay and working conditions.

In short, the Bahraini monarchy runs a foreign-investment- and import-friendly regime, while Libya’s economic policies favor local investors and businesses and provide some protections for labor. A government that was more like Bahrain’s, and less like Kaddafi’s, would unquestionably be congenial to foreign business interests.

Some readers contend that Western military intervention in Libya is aimed at preventing the slaughter of Libyan civilians. But a stronger case can be made that Western military intervention is aimed at regime change, and that far from protecting civilians, NATO bombing is only setting the stage for a prolonged civil war by weakening loyalist forces and thereby allowing the rebels to contest for power.

There are a number of reasons why the NATO operation in Libya can be seen as a regime change effort, on top of the motivation of replacing the current government with one more congenial to Western profit-making interests, discussed above.

First, the decision of the French government to recognize the rebel opposition as the legitimate government was a declaration that France, at least, is manoeuvring to install a new government in Libya. (1) Indeed, both France and Britain have acknowledged that they are seeking the ouster of Kaddafi. (2)

Second, US secretary of state Hilary Clinton said “Kaddafi’s ouster was the ultimate goal of the UN resolution” (3) and while US president Barack Obama denied this, he did say that the military “campaign will likely continue as long as Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is in power.” (4) If the intervention’s goal is to protect civilians and not install a new government, how can the aims of France and Britain and the comments of Clinton and Obama be reconciled?

Third, Washington hopes that sanctions “combined with NATO air power, will be enough to turn the tide militarily.” While the UN Security Council resolution authorizes the use of military means to protect civilians, it doesn’t authorize the use of military means to aid rebel forces. Yet newspapers on March 23, 2011 were full of stories on how fresh airstrikes were allowing rebel forces to recover lost ground. For example, The Wall Street Journal commented that,

“The hope for the West is that a continuation of military pressure on Col. Gadhafi’s forces, even at somewhat lower levels in coming days, combined with continued forward movement by the rebels, will be enough to make the Libyan army either buckle or turn on the Libyan leader. That would produce the outcome the West hopes for – the removal of Col. Gadhafi.” (5)

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that “the airstrikes have lifted the rebels back from the brink of defeat in the eastern city of Benghazi and enabled them to rush west along the coast past their farthest gains of the previous peak weeks ago.” (6)

It is clear that the intention of the military intervention, which was authorized when the rebels’ defeat by loyalist forces was imminent, was to weaken the government side to allow the rebels to rally and seize the momentum. This hardly favors a quick resolution of the conflict. The conflict could go on for some time, perhaps taking more lives than would have been lost had the UN sent a fact-finding mission in return for a cease-fire, or had loyalist forces successfully put down the uprising weeks ago. The potential for the conflict to drag on, fuelled by the aid NATO provides the rebels through its airstrikes, was acknowledged by US secretary of defense Robert Gates. The Pentagon boss said “he couldn’t be sure NATO would have finished its mission by year-end.” (7)

The idea, then, that the UN Security Council authorized military intervention to protect civilians has no substance. Furthermore, the idea that the intervention is protecting civilians, whether that is the real intention of the intervention or not, seems unlikely, since the outcome so far has been to create the conditions for a protracted civil war – one moreover, that will be worsened by civilian deaths caused by NATO bombing on behalf of rebel forces.

If the rebel forces prevail and extend their control to all of Libya, or eventually settle for partition of the country, we can expect the economic policies of the future government to be closer to those of Bahrain, and therefore closer to the profit-making interests of Western corporations and investors. In this sense, the UN Security Council, and the military operation it authorizes, can be seen as investments in making Libya a more attractive place to do business in.

Finally, it might be pointed out, as Johnstone has (8), that the Gaddafi government has invested a considerable part of its oil revenues in sub-Saharan Africa, contrary to the usual practice among Arab oil states of shipping the proceeds of their oil sales to New York investment banks, the London Stock Exchange, and US arms manufacturers. These practices are more conducive to Western business interests than Gaddafi’s investments in Africa, and might be expected to become the standard practice in Libya if the rebel movement succeeds in ousting the current government.

1. Diana Johnstone, “Why are they making war on Libya?” Counterpunch, March 24, 2011.
2. Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee, “Obama bets on limited engagement”, The Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2011.
3. Keith Johnson, Yaroslav Trofimov and Sam Dagher, “Allies rally against Gadhafi”, The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2011.
4. Nathan Hodge, Sam Dagher, Stephen Fidler and Stacy Meichtry, “Allies strain to mend split”, The Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2011.
5. Sam Dagher and Stephen Fiddler, “Fresh airstrikes aid rebels” The Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2011.
6. David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Libyan rebels march toward Qaddafi stronghold”, The New York Times, March 27, 2011.
7. Sam Dagher and Stephen Fiddler, “Fresh airstrikes aid rebels” The Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2011.
8. Diana Johnstone, “Why are they making war on Libya?” Counterpunch, March 24, 2011.

Imperialism or Barbarism! (Bahrain Doesn’t Count)

By Stephen Gowans

The renegade Achcar

Lebanese socialist Gilbert Achcar (author with Noam Chomsky of Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy) can cite chapter and verse on why the US-French-British-Canadian military intervention on the side of the armed uprising in Libya is imperialist, but that doesn’t mean he’s against it. On the contrary, in this fight he’s lining up with the imperialists.

Gilbert Achcar: Imperialism is anti-imperialist.

In an interview featured in Z-Net, Achcar writes: “The Western response, of course, smacks of oil” and “We all know about the Western powers’ pretexts and double standards.”

Still, Achcar, who somehow has managed to build a reputation as an anti-war activist, says “I believe that from an anti-imperialist perspective one cannot and should not oppose the no-fly zone, given that there is no plausible alternative for protecting the endangered population.”

Achcar stands at the head of a long line of renegades who talk the anti-imperialism talk, but when push comes to shove, walk the imperialist walk.

Their stock-in-trade is to justify their nonsense by turning reality on its head. That’s why, in Achcar’s world, anti-war activism and anti-imperialism now mean the opposite of what we always thought they meant.

We’re bombing to protect civilians—but we might kill them

Canadian prime minister Stephen (cowboy) Harper: We're protecting civilians, but expect civilian casualties.

Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, who is contributing six fighter-bombers to the hastily assembled Libyan rebel air force, as well as a frigate to lead a naval blockade, is warning Canadians that while “Canada is at war to protect innocent Libyan civilians…there are no guarantees that they…can avoid getting hurt.” [1] Harper must be channelling the US Army officer who infamously said during the Vietnam War that US forces had to destroy a village to save it. Canadians, Harper is warning, will be killing some Libyans to protect them.

The other allied military intervention

In the rush to climb aboard the let’s bomb Tripoli bandwagon, we mustn’t forget the other allied military intervention. Tanks and soldiers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are already in Bahrain, to protect the absolutist monarchy of the Khalifa family from the pro-democracy movement there. Saudi and Emirate’s troops will soon be joined by foreign troops from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council. The GCC is made up of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. [2].

The Khalifa regime says it’s not waging war against its people. It’s only restoring order. [3]
Kaddafi on the other hand isn’t restoring order. He’s waging war.

That’s the way things work now. When the US and its allies wage war they’re restoring order and protecting civilians. When countries targeted by the US try to restore order, they’re waging war and attacking civilians.

Three for the price of one

The Wall Street Journal reported today that “western officials worried that a victory for Col. Kaddafi could prevent the movement from spreading to places they would like to see it reach, such as Syria and Iran.” [4]

I believe the part about Western officials wanting to see uprisings spreading to Syria and Iran – countries they like no more than they like Libya. But if they were truly worried that a successful crackdown on rebellion could discourage uprisings in other countries, they wouldn’t be tacitly endorsing the crackdowns in Bahrain and Yemen. Do they think the opposition in Syria and Iran is oblivious to what’s going on in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where US allies are brutally cracking down on rebellions in those countries with impunity?

The concern of Western officials is more likely this: Intervening on behalf of rebel forces sends a signal to opposition movements in Syria and Iran that if they take up arms against their governments, the West will help them too.

Charter, we don’t need no stinking charter

It doesn’t really matter that the UN Charter says that the UN Security Council can’t intervene in the internal affairs of its members. Who’s going to stop the biggest, most powerful countries, from doing whatever they want? Sure, they talk a good game about the rule of law. But the rule of law is for chumps. It is, as someone once said, a spider-web for catching the weak. The powerful simply push through it.

They picked the wrong guy

Jean-Paul Sartre turned down a Nobel Prize in 1964 on the grounds that it was a distinction reserved for “the writers of the West or the rebels of the East,” i.e., that it was used as an instrument of Cold War propaganda.

Immanuel Wallerstein: "There is not going to be any significant military involvement of the western world in Libya."

The Nobel Peace Prize is no less political today for the Cold War having ended. It is used, now as then, as an instrument of pro-imperialist propaganda. How else to explain the peace prize being conferred on a man who can only be described as an imperialist warmonger, now with, what – three, four, five wars under his belt: Barack Obama?
Contrast Obama’s giving the green-light to a declaration of war on Libya with the words of the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (who, by the way, could teach Gilbert Achcar, and another Z-Net favorite, Immanuel Wallerstein, a thing or two about what anti-imperialism really means. Wallerstein, it should be remembered, sought last week, in supercilious tones, to disabuse the anti-imperialist left, and Hugo Chavez in particular, of its confused analysis of Libya. Sighing heavily, and wondering where to begin to instruct the ignoramuses who were sounding the alarm about an impending Western military intervention, Wallerstein declared that the US was not about to intervene in Libya. “The … point missed by Hugo Chavez’s analysis is that there is not going to be any significant military involvement of the western world in Libya,” instructed Wallerstein. [7])

Here’s Chavez, whose analysis has turned out to be a good deal more insightful than Wallerstein’s:

“More death, more war. They are the masters of war. What irresponsibility. And behind that is the hand of the United States and its European allies.

“They want to seize Libya’s oil. The lives of Libya’s people don’t matter to them at all.

“It is deplorable that the United Nations lends itself to supporting war, infringing on its fundamental principles instead of urgently forming a commission to go to Libya.

“We know what’s going to happen: bombs, bombs, war, more suffering for the people, more death.” [5]

I think Chavez would have been a more fitting candidate for a genuine peace prize. But, then, his imperialist credentials aren’t in order.

Mass Delusions

I thought I had become so accustomed to the depth of US hypocrisy that I could no longer be surprised by it. But the following words, from today’s Wall Street Journal, left me speechless: “Potential Republican presidential candidates for 2012 have criticized the president in recent days for…not pushing America’s traditional role of international peacekeeper.” [6] Peacekeeper! What planet have these people been living on? Has their drinking water been contaminated by a hallucinogen? They might as well have said that WWII put an end to Hitler’s role as international peacekeeper.

Egypt Stagnation, Libya Intervention

Stephen Gowans and Brendan Stone talk about Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. Recorded March 16.

1. Mike Blanchfield, “Risks inherent in helping protect Libyans, Harper says”, The Canadian Press, March 19, 2011.
2. Alex Delmar-Morgan and Nicholas Casey, “Bahrain razes iconic square”, The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2011.
3. Ibid.
4. Sam Dagher and Adam Entous, “Allied forces attack Libya”, The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2011.
5. Hugo Chavez condemns military strikes in Libya”, The Associated Press, March 19, 2011.
6. Adam Entous and Laura Meckler, “Libyan raids show Obama doctrine in action”, The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2011.
7. Immanuel Wallerstein, “Libya and the world left”, Z-Net, March 16, 2011. Z-Net advertises itself as a community of people committed to social change. Social change, yes, but in which direction, and in whose interests?

Getting Perilously Close to Truth about US Foreign Policy

By Stephen Gowans

It started off promisingly enough. Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Scott Shane wondered why “the drama unfolding in Cairo” seems “so familiar” if “the United States, as so many presidents have said in so many speeches [is] the world’s pre-eminent champion of democracy.”

Shane never arrived at the obvious explanation: that the United States isn’t the world’s pre-eminent champion of democracy. But he came close.

He touched on some of the more egregious examples of Washington’s dictator-backing: Batista in Cuba; Mahammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran; Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines (whose “adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process” then US vice president George H. W. Bush conjured out of a vacuum and then shamelessly praised.)

“The list could be extended,” Shane admitted, to “at least a couple of dozen despots” since World War II alone.

Rarely does the New York Times acknowledge that the United States has a long record of backing dictators, all right-wing and not a few fascist (though the Times brushed over the political character of the dictatorships the US favors.) On the contrary, the newspaper’s accustomed practice is to reinforce what “so many presidents have said in so many speeches”: that the country’s foreign policy is guided by the core US value of spreading democracy.

The reason may be that there is no way the United States can plausibly continue to back its three-decade-long paladin in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak – and the continuation of Mubarak’s regime by his heir apparent Omar Suleiman – and still invoke pro-democracy rhetoric to justify its support (though secretary of state Hilary Clinton, who talks of Suleiman overseeing a transition to democracy, is game to try.)

With US hypocrisy laid bare, the follow-the-flag New York Times has had to make a concession – to truth, at least a partial one.

What Shane concedes is that the United States has values and interests, and that circumstances often conspire to keep the two from intersecting. But that’s as far as he’ll go. Admitting that the United States has “interests” which don’t always align with its “values” comes dangerously close to the truth. But if you follow what Shane has acknowledged to its limit, and ask a key question, dangerously close becomes dangerously there.

Go where Shane fears to tread. US values and interests sometimes conflict. Okay, fine. But when they do – and here are the dots Shane fails to connect — US values take a back seat. In other words, what’s important in US foreign policy are not the country’s values, but its interests.

Okay, but what are its interests? R. Palme Dutt once observed that the idea that countries have interests in other countries was an abomination of geography and democracy. How could the United States have interests in Egypt? Do Egyptians have interests in the United States, to be enforced by shipping billions of dollars to a dictator to hold the interests of US citizens in check, subordinate to their own? If so Americans would surely call this imperialism, rather than failure of values and interests to align. If Egyptians said that they really valued democracy, but that other considerations were senior, Americans would say that Egypt’s commitment to democracy was rhetorical. It’s the other considerations that really matter.

According to Shane, Mubarak has served US interests as “a staunch ally against Soviet expansionism,” by maintaining “a critical peace with Israel,” as “a bulwark against Islamic radicalism” and in promoting “a trade- and tourist-friendly Egypt.” Shane’s New York Times colleague Mark Landler sums it up this way: Mubarak’s regime protects US strategic and commercial interests.

Commercial interests are, of course, business interests, and more specifically, big business interests. They aren’t directly the interests of the bulk of US citizens, nor in many cases do they represent their indirect interests either. An investment by US investors in an existing Egyptian business profits the investors, not other US citizens. A call center set up by a US firm in Egypt to take advantage of low-wage labor benefits the US firm’s wealthy shareholders – many of whom are not even US citizens — while putting downward pressure on US wages and exporting jobs abroad.

In other words, the business interests that Mubarak and other US-backed autocrats protect on behalf of the United States are not the interests of most US citizens, but of an upper stratum of investors, bankers and wealthy shareholders whose sole loyalty is to their bottom lines. The interests of average Americans hardly matter. Indeed, in many cases, their interests are diametrically opposed to those of the investors and shareholders US foreign policy represents (as in the export of jobs).

And who’s footing the bill for the billions of dollars in military aid Mubarak’s regime receives? Given the low corporate tax policies the US government pursues, and the corporations’ skill at minimizing the taxes they pay, the answer is average Americans, not the direct beneficiaries of US foreign policy.

It’s worse. While it might seem that big business interests aren’t the only interests guiding US foreign policy – after all, there are strategic interests too — strategic interests really boil down to the interests of big business. US foreign policy makers weren’t opposed to what they called “Soviet expansionism” because they valued “democracy” but because they valued nearly limitless exploitation of labor, which expanding Soviet influence would have pared back. The problem with Islamic radicalism isn’t that it offends Western values (even if it does), but that it inspires regimes that place national interests above those of US oil companies. Arab peace with Israel is desirable because Israel is beholden to Washington to act on its behalf to prevent an Arab pan-nationalism that might see oil-rich countries balk at domination by US oil interests.

So what of US values? We’re supposed to believe that US policy-makers value liberal democracy, even if they’re willing to place profit-making interests first. But if big business interests win out over liberal democracy when the two collide, what Washington really values – if value is to have any meaning at all – is profit.

It’s like this: I say I value literature, but I always toss my books aside whenever someone turns on the TV. And I never miss an episode of Cribs. So, where do my values really lie?

The significance of this might seem all the greater if it is realized that none of this is bounded by foreign policy. Embracing liberal democracy where it doesn’t conflict with the naked pursuit of profit applies equally in the domestic sphere as well. The readiness of US policy-makers to trash civil liberties in the Red Scare years following the Bolshevik Revolution — when capitalists cowered at the thought of socialist revolution spreading around the world (with little justification it turned out) — attests to this. Civil and political liberties also took a beating later on when fears of spreading Soviet influence also seemed to threaten the capitalist system and the wealth and position of those at the top of it.

As for the democracy Washington is prepared to embrace, it looks good on paper, but comes up short in practice. Washington-friendly democracy is not democracy in its original sense as the rule of a previously oppressed class (the rabble), but democracy of the currently dominant class, the capitalist rich. True, democracy of the kind cabinet secretaries and editorial writers rhapsodize about appears to provide equal opportunity to all to influence the political process, but the reality is that the wealthy use their money to dominate the process through lobbying, funding of political parties and candidates, ownership of the media and placement of their representatives in key positions in the state.

How many cabinet secretaries in Obama’s administration held top corporate jobs and will return to them when their sojourn in Washington ends, replaced by other corporate luminaries who travel in the same circles, sit on the same boards of directors, and whose children go to the same schools and intermarry? The art of politics in capitalist democracy, to paraphrase a key Labour politician of the past, is to enable the wealthy to persuade the rest of us to use our votes to keep the wealthy in power.

Democracy, then, is not a core US value – and it is not, on two counts. First, the democracy Washington embraces isn’t democracy in any substantial sense, but is more aptly termed a plutocracy with democratic trappings. Second, the real core US value is profits. Even Washington’s preferred democracy of the rich gets pushed aside when, for whatever reasons, big business interests cannot be accommodated adequately — that is, whenever real expressions of democracy threaten to break through the restraints the system provides to hold it in check.