A Policy neither Fainthearted nor Foolish
Why does the United States support right-wing autocracies around the world? Why is it antagonistic toward revolutionary movements and most socialist countries? Why does the United States intervene in other countries with military aid, embargoes, surrogate counterrevolutionary forces, and the US military? Why does the United States have military bases all around the world? Why does it spend hundreds of billions yearly on military appropriations? Why do Washington and Moscow have nuclear arsenals that can blow up the world many times over? In this book, I propose to answer these and other such questions and show that they are very much related to each other.
The debate over US foreign policy, as conducted in the political mainstream by liberals and conservatives, is a narrow one that evades the great realities of political economy. Conservatives argue that our policy has been "no-win" and fainthearted, that we too often play the "helpless giant" pushed around by third-rate powers, that we fail to stand up sufficiently to the "Soviet challenge" and have fallen dangerously behind the USSR in military capability, and that the Communist tide will soon be lapping at our borders--as Ronald Reagan put it--unless we squelch revolutionary movements in this hemisphere and elsewhere.
According to conservatives the world is inhabited by terrorist hit squads, evil empires, Communist aggressors, and other such mortal threats. Like the bloodthirsty savages of some Hollywood western or jungle epic, or the alien creatures of a science fiction film, these "enemies" are motivated not by any concern for their own welfare, but by a mindless impulse to destroy or subjugate us. So we must draw the Free World wagon train in a circle, a defensive perimeterthat includes almost all of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America. Should we falter in our resolve, slip in military strength, or try to appease or placate the predatory forces, they will be at our throats.
Liberals share much of this same ideological imagery. Like conservatives, they show concern about what is perceived to be the "Soviet challenge" and the "growing Communist influence." They usually dare not utter a positive word about existing socialist countries. They may not necessarily believe a global Red Menace is about to engulf us, but they are terrified about being portrayed as wimps who are soft on Communism. So they end up acting as wimps to the conservatives, toeing the conservative line on most foreign-policy issues.
However, some liberals (and some fewer conservatives) believe an accommodation can be reached with the Soviet Union, to avoid blowing up the world. Liberals also argue that if we were to improve relations with Moscow, we then could better concentrate on preventing the spread of Communism in the Third World. Like conservatives, liberals want a strong military. They tend to vote for gargantuan defense budgets that are only about 10 percent less than what conservatives want. Many (but not all) liberals are more reluctant to intervene with force and violence against revolutionary movements in other lands. They argue that the best way to stop Communism is by less reliance on military measures and more emphasis on reformist, nonmilitary means. Like conservatives, liberals never for a moment ask what is so urgent about stopping the Communists. They treat it as a point beyond debate (and therefore beyond rational examination) that Communism is a dreadful evil that must be contained and, if possible, eradicated.
As just noted, liberals suffer from the wimp factor, the nagging fear that they might be seen as soft on Communism. As a consequence, most of them jump on cue when the issues of anticommunism and anti-Sovietism come up. Back in 1947, when President Harry Truman initiated the loyalty programs--his own witch-hunt against "subversives" in government--he remarked, "Well, that should take the Communist smear off the Democratic Party."1 He was hoping that his imitative effort at repression would relieve Democrats of the charge of being soft on Communism--which it did not. Liberals do not seem to realize that conservatives try to stigmatize them on the Communism issue not only because conservatives don'tlike Communists but because they don't like liberals. Conservatives fear Communist revolution, but even more immediately they detest liberal reforms, which they see as taking the country down the slippery slope to socialism. So all the liberals' efforts at Soviet-bashing will not save them from being labeled "soft on Communism" by conservatives.
Neither liberals nor conservatives seem to have anything to say about economic imperialism as practiced throughout the world by the corporate and financial interests in the United States and other capitalist countries. Most liberals and conservatives, be they political leaders, academics, or media commentators, do not believe imperialism exists--at least not since Rudyard Kipling's day or not since the Spanish-American War. If they use the term "imperialism" to describe a contemporary event, it is usually in reference to something the Soviet Union is doing. They never consider whether capitalism as a global system has any integral relationship to US foreign policy. These remarkable omissions are a central focus of this book.
Just as they concur that Communism is bad, so do liberals and conservatives seem to agree that the US government acts with benign intent in the world. While they allow that the United States sometimes must do unsavory things because that is the kind of world we live in, they generally leave the goals and premises of US policy unexamined.
Most disagreements between liberals and conservatives are over tactics. Hence, during the Vietnam War, the questions debated in the mainstream political arena were: Are we relying too heavily on military means? Can we see the light at the end of the tunnel? Are we winning or is it a lost cause? Can we expect to build democracy in "a land that has no capacity for it"? Left unexamined was the idea that the USA was in Vietnam for reasons other than those stated by its leaders, or was pursuing anything but laudable, well-intentioned goals. The antiwar movement raised basic moral questions about the war and about the underlying class interests, but the debate as framed in the major media and in mainstream political life was mostly between those who said we could win the war and those who said we could not--the implication being that if the United States could have won, then the war's terrible devastation would have been justified. After US withdrawal from Vietnam, in conformity with this perspective, public discussion was confined to the idea that US intervention had been a well-meaning but unsuccessful effort to help theVietnamese install a Western-style democracy in their land. In fact, a vigorous effort to rewrite the history of the war was conducted in the post-Vietnam years, evidenced by the outpouring of academic apologies and media statements that have transformed the US Indochina intervention into a noble effort to defend democracy.2
Liberals and conservatives agree that there is something in the world called "US interests," which, while seldom defined, are always thought of as being in urgent need of defense and morally defensible. It is implicitly understood that these "interests" are linked in some way to the freedom and salvation of humanity. Liberals and conservatives also seem to agree that something called "stability" in the Third World is better than "instability"--that is, better than agitation and change, even though it is sometimes admitted that change is needed in one or another oppressively impoverished country.
Liberals--and, to a far lesser extent, conservatives--recognize that much "instability" is due to poverty, but they give little recognition to imperialism and capitalism as a cause of poverty, and any attempt to do so is treated as ideological posturing.
Liberals frequently complain that US policy is often misguided, or overextended, or prone to backing the wrong persons and wrong interests abroad, or given to self-defeating pursuits. Conservatives frequently complain, as already noted, that US policy suffers from timidity and faintheartedness, an unwillingness to commit American military power and stand up to the Russians. In this book, I will argue that US policy is neither fainthearted nor foolish, beset by neither folly nor failure. Rather it is powerful and coercive, and usually effective in its undertakings. And while it makes mistakes and suffers defeats, it is quite rational in its goals and resourceful in its methods. Many of the official explanations given to justify American policies abroad may be false, but this does not mean the policies themselves are senseless. Many of the arguments made in defense of such policies may be confusing--and are meant to be--but this does not mean the policies or policymakers themselves are confused.
The great realities about capitalism, imperialism, interventionism, militarism, and the East-West conflict, left unexamined and undebated in the conservative-liberal mainstream, are what I invite you to explore in the pages ahead. Such an exploration will reveal that US foreign policy has suffered defeats and made mistakes but has generally been consistent and successful. It may not be servingthe interests of Third World peoples, nor even of the American people, but it serves well those who know how to be well served.
This book is devoted to a critical treatment of both American imperialism and the US-USSR "rivalry." I will try to show a linkage between US interventionism in the Third World and the East-West arms race. (Some attention also is given to past imperial practices of other nations.) The criticism of United States foreign policy found herein is not to be mistaken for a criticism of the United States as a nation, nor a criticism of the American people. If anything, it is my view that Americans deserve something better than what their leaders have been giving them. In Chapter 7, I take pains to show how Americans themselves are victims of US policies abroad. It is my contention that such policies do not represent the interests of the American people. Nor do these policies coincide with the opinions registered by most Americans regarding issues like overseas interventionism, increased military spending, and arms buildups, as we shall see. No matter how many times one makes the point, however, some people cannot understand that a criticism of our nation's leaders and policies is not a criticism of our nation as such, not an attack on our country's moral worth as a nation. To criticize our leaders--the people in the White House, the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and members of Congress--is to do the American thing; it is our hard-won democratic right and remains part of what it means to be an American. To raise our voices in protest against imperialism and militarism is not to sell out to our enemies but to better locate them.
In the pages ahead, I will use terms such as the "ruling class," the "propertied class," the "owning class," the "dominant interests," and the "corporate interests." When I do so, I am referring to the rich and powerful who own most of the land, capital, and technology of this nation, who employ most of its labor, and who translate their immense economic power into a lion's share of political power, occupying the top policymaking positions of both boardroom and government, regardless of which political party or personality occupies the White House. It is no great conspiratorial secret as to who they are. They are described in fairly specific detail in Chapter 16.3
Finally, if there is any lesson to be drawn from this book, it is that while the history of imperialism is filled with dreadful injustices and atrocities, we, the people, can make a difference and can winvictories. The ruling class rules, but not quite in the way it might want to, for it must make concessions to popular protest and, at crucial points, it must suffer some of the constraints imposed by popular power at home and abroad. US imperialist policy is increasingly limited by resistant social forces around the globe and within our own country. So even as the destructive capacity of the US military grows, the ability of Washington policymakers to control the world is declining. Those who rule cannot always use their power with indifference to the countervailing forces of socialism, revolution, and democratic protest and resistance.
To those readers who will be quick to apply one or another label to my efforts, let me say that this book does not represent an extremist viewpoint. Its message is quite moderate and democratic; it is a critique of military buildup, police-state oppression, and economic exploitation. There is nothing "extremist" about that. The extremists are already in power. They have turned much of the world into a military garrison and an economic purgatory. Most of the people in the United States and throughout the entire world want an end to the arms race, an end to huge military spending programs, an end to nuclear confrontations, and an end to US interventionism on behalf of the rich and powerful; in effect, they want an end to imperialism--even if they don't call it imperialism. The sentiments and perspective found herein, therefore, do not represent the viewpoint of a fringe minority but of the great majority of the world--at least on basic points. The fringe minority is composed of those who need all the bayonets and bombs to keep the world as they want it. The majority of the earth's people are ready for something else, something better. And therein lies our hope.
Quoted in David Horowitz, The Free World Colossus (New York: Hill and Wang, 1965), p. 101.
Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology (Boston: South End Press, 1979).
For a study of class power in the American political system see Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few, 5th ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988).
Copyright © 1989 by St. Martin's Press, Inc.