America Chose and America Chooses

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He Doth Bestride the Narrow World

Every few years the U.S. intervenes in a new foreign country, making headlines even as its lesser bases, alliances, and pacts pass beneath the radar. To name a continent, to name a country, is to name some form of intervention: Korea, Grenada, Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Vietnam, to name a few. Even the moon and Mars lie ‘neath the new Caesar.

Each intervention is new and news; and our rulers furnish specific reasons for each one. They also appeal to unifying umbrella themes such as anti-Communism, anti-Fascism, and anti-Islamo-Fascism. Few remember or can name last year’s theme. Yet the number of interventions, their global reach, and their long-term persistence paint a different picture. There is continuing method to this madness. An intelligible process is at work. There are long-term causal factors. Today’s overblown War on Terror is merely the latest convenient cover story for numberless future interventions openly promised by our demoniacal current leaders. It is part of a long-term process.

Fashions change but clothes remain. The tools of international intervention, not its thrust, have changed in the new century. America traditionally relied upon behind-the-scenes methods of control such as aid pacts, banking credits, and military aid. All-out military engagements occurred but not as a first choice. Today’s leaders choose war first and relish it. Today they choose to torture, to violate international canons of justice, and to destroy personal freedoms in the U.S. with Patriot Acts, dictatorial executive orders, and Bill of Rights violations. The American state bestrides the narrow world, and that includes America the country. America has become another of the President’s "fronts."

Why have these interventions and wars happened? Why are they now happening? Why will they keep on happening? In the late 1800s, America chose between ploughshares and swords. She chose between spreading her glory by her traditional individuality or by the modern collective. She chose between blossoming forth peacefully through voluntary cooperation or pressuring others with state internationalism. She chose the deepest and bloodiest of foreign engagements directed by the state. She shunned her tradition of spreading knowledge and progress by personal and peaceful means. Jefferson’s advice to avoid foreign entanglements gave way to Wilsonian internationalism. America chose the state. State power exceeding that of any king took precedence over the spreading of American ways in accordance with the commandments. Godly ways diminished as Americans reached for national greatness and pride through their state. America chose empire. She focused her resources and power on her imperial leaders. Continental expansionism became international expansionism by force of state and world-girdling battleships.

In 1882 Nietzsche declared "God is dead…And we have killed him." America soon thereafter chose empire, the devil on its doorstep. America and all the other murderers, for we are not the only killers, now must face Nietzsche’s questions: "How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves?"

Four levels of causation

We read that Israel attacked Lebanon because Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Assuming the accounts are accurate, this intervention-specific event tells us almost nothing about why Israel actually attacked Lebanon. There are other causes, several levels of them.

What are historical causes? Historical causation can’t be discovered with scientific precision. Nor is it the product of abstract or impersonal forces. Human beings make history and each human being acts according to motivating ideas. To name an historical cause is to say that some individual person acted upon the ideas that underlie that cause. To make a convenient simplification of an impossibly complex process, we can say that four major levels of causation are simultaneously at work when America intervenes in a foreign land: empire, geopolitical, intervention-specific (or just specific), and personal.

Presidents over long time periods pursue somewhat similar policies. But since history is made by individual actions, we suppose that each President is affected in somewhat similar ways by the ideas underlying empire and the ideas underlying geopolitical factors. It’s not hard to imagine that President Bush was motivated by the empire factor, a geopolitical factor related to the Middle East, and specific factors relating to Iraq itself like oil, weapons of mass destruction, and perhaps even terrorism.

And we need a fourth level that comprises personal factors. No doubt President Bush acted differently from anyone else who might have been President at the same juncture in history, even had that other person evaluated all the other factors in the same ways that Bush did. He brought some purely personal factors to the table such as his feelings about Saddam Hussein. In addition, any other President would no doubt also have evaluated the empire, geopolitical, and specific factors differently. Some other President might have been more concerned with bin Laden and less concerned with Saddam Hussein, say. Presidents interact with their advisors and Congress in distinctive ways, introducing still more scope to personal factors. More and more such complications are conceivable.

The empire factor

Because America has intervened so often overseas over many years and under many rulers, we suppose that there exists a major underlying factor. This factor is the empire factor. If the empire factor is real, it means that there is an underlying set of ideas or motivations and that these ideas motivate Presidents and others. If an empire factor is at work, then we should be able to find commonalities in the Presidential motivations that activate their decisions to intervene overseas. We should find these ideas expressed in the press. For example, there is the idea that interventions are necessary to bring America prosperity and security. There is the belief that Americans are morally justified in taking action. There is the idea that Americans are bringing justice and freedom to other peoples.

The empire factor is the root factor of American internationalism, militarism, and intervention. Empire has to do with controlling foreign lands and peoples by economic, political, and military means. If this element were absent, the interest of the American state in many parts of the world would vanish. Washington would even retreat from its alliance with Great Britain, which only waxed as the U.S. began advancing its interests overseas. Washington would end its involvements in the Middle East. America would shut down its overseas bases. America’s overseas involvements would radically change in scope and form. Americans would learn how to defend their own lands without intruding on the lands of others.

The reasons for wishing to control foreign lands are many. Business interests are generally somewhere in the picture. This implies that if a state for whatever reason is more strongly controlled by businesses or interests that benefit from foreign expansion, then we expect a stronger tendency to empire. Empire is driven in part by technology, including military means. A state that has learned how to travel afar and control the seas (or air) is more likely to use the sea (or air) lanes and sea (air) power to extend its domination. Empire is driven in part by religious, semi-religious, and ideological reasons such as the White Man’s Burden or ideals of democracy. Empire depends upon the support or acquiescence of citizens and this depends on their psychology and beliefs. Reasons like these help explain the expansion of the British Empire. They also apply to the American Empire.

Geopolitical factors

In addition to the empire factor, domination expresses itself via geopolitical factors. These also stem from underlying ideas. For example, the U.S. intervened in Korea and Vietnam. There was an idea that if Korea became Communist, then nearby Japan would be threatened or that the Soviet Union would be encouraged to conquest. There was an idea that if Vietnam became Communist, then all of Southeast Asian would fall (the domino theory). Underlying the geopolitical factor in those cases were ideas such as anti-Communism, keeping Asia free, retaining the Pacific trade with Asia, etc. The U.S. geopolitically regards the Caribbean and Central America as a kind of buffer zone. Its land is a kind of stepping-stone to the U.S. The U.S. has intervened in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, etc. partly for geopolitical reasons. Great Britain is a major Atlantic power connected to America by the sea lanes. This geopolitical connection helped bring America into two World Wars, not to mention other ties. The U.S. has a regional Middle Eastern interest that has involved it with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, etc. over a long period. This factor is driven in part by oil and the peculiarities of geography as oil is transported through critical waterways in the Mid-East.

Breaking up the large causation problem into smaller pieces is crude, but it helps us to think about causation more effectively. It might even help us make predictions that are better than throwing darts at a map. For example, what do we expect the U.S. interest in Sri Lanka to be? The empire factor suggests that the U.S. will have some interest, because American pretensions are global. If America did not project power globally, it simply would not be concerned about Sri Lanka. The geopolitical factor suggests America will have quite a bit of interest in Sri Lanka because its position south of India places it near important trade routes (including oil), it has a deep-water port that can dock U.S. Navy ships, it overlooks the Indian Ocean, and it is near Pakistan and Bangladesh which have fundamentalist Islamic constituencies. Sri Lanka was once a crown colony, and it has a literate population. It would make a good place to invest in if it could settle its civil war.

Sri Lanka lies within India’s sphere of influence, so we might not expect Americans to introduce themselves to any large extent. However, Washington in fact signed a defense agreement with Sri Lanka in 2002 by which America gained access to Sri Lankan ports for the U.S. Navy. This proved helpful during the Afghanistan War. That may have been a specific cause for the agreement in addition to the geopolitical links already mentioned. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to provide Sri Lanka with military training and equipment. This places the U.S. on the side of the government in its battle against the secessionist Tamil Tigers. America typically allies itself with the incumbent regimes. Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran were once such allies and incumbents. We might go on to consider specific causes that might crop up and lead to even greater American entanglement with Sri Lanka. There might be mineral, tourist, or voting blocks in the U.S. that would like to see the civil war ended.

Specific factors

Every intervention has specific factors that cause it, and these specific causes occasion much of the conversation and debate about wars. When we come to a given case like Malaya, the seagoing British Empire catered to tin, coffee, and rubber interests after an initial period of settlement and trade. Tin was an intervention-specific or simply a specific cause. Cuban independence groups, sugar interests, and the U.S. Navy helped motivate the Spanish-American War, for example. Banking and industrial interests have sparked various interventions elsewhere. The presence of Israel and the influence of Israel on American politics helped motivate the Iraq War. At times the press and public have screamed for particular wars; they are part of domestic political factors that are intervention-specific.

What is so notable about Bush II’s Iraq War is that the specific causes were largely fabricated and that personal factors came to the fore. We have had specific causes fabricated or blown up in the past, such as the explosion aboard the Maine and the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And they too occurred after preliminary frictions and jostling that went on for some years as preludes to war. But perhaps never before have we seen such single-minded determination to initiate war combined with so little reason to do so and so much propaganda and lies to make it happen. Furthermore, the arrogant hopes of a triumphant march into Baghdad followed by dreams of an American reconstruction of the Middle East with cooperative parliaments springing up right and left sounded like the dreams of the Third Reich as the Nazis marched into Paris.

With statement after misleading statement that turned into lie after clever lie, Bush and others built Saddam Hussein into a "grave threat" who possessed weapons of mass destruction. Bush labeled him as a man who possessed an arsenal of terror ready to be unleashed against the U.S. as had occurred on 9/11. He connected Saddam Hussein to 9/11. These were lies sold as specific causes of war, along with other phony revelations about uranium, aluminum tubes, and weapon-carrying drones.

Up until 9/11, many Bush administration figures regarded Iraq as contained and as no serious threat. This was not Bush’s view. The 9/11 disaster was the catalyst that immediately transformed previous initial plans concerning Iraq into full-scale planning for war. The war on terror and the axis of evil were conceived as ways to package this and other wars. These became further fabricated causes that linked Saddam Hussein to 9/11.

Personal factors

History is always affected by personal factors. If only empire, geopolitical, and specific causes mattered, we would still observe differences in historical interventions if one person were replaced by another because the persons involved evaluate these factors in different ways and they bring purely personal factors to bear.

President Bush as a candidate staked out a combative position on Saddam Hussein, threatening to take him out on any hint of "weapons of mass destruction." He surrounded himself with war-hawks who had promoted war with Iraq for years. He spoke of Saddam Hussein in highly personal terms: "But there’s no doubt his hatred is mainly directed at us. There’s no doubt he can’t stand us. After all, this is a guy who tried to kill my dad at one time." Psychologist Oliver James gives us a speculative but persuasive portrait of George Bush as an authoritarian personality whose pent-up fury and hostility could easily be turned against a Saddam Hussein or a Dr. Ahmadinejad.

Bush alone might not have attacked Iraq had it not been for the war-hawks he had recruited (and the 9/11 catalyst). Their influence had already made itself felt when Congress in 1998 passed the Iraq Liberation Act calling for "efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein" and replace it by a "democratic government." But since the Senate passed this Act unanimously and the House overwhelmingly (360-38), the deeper empire and geopolitical causes were no doubt at work.

Randy Scheunemann was a key figure in drafting this legislation, and his hawkish (neocon) connections are spread far and wide, including links to the world’s largest military contractor Lockheed Martin. He headed a lobbyist firm that represented Lockheed Martin and was President of The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq alongside Chairman Bruce P. Jackson, a former vice-president of Lockheed Martin. Scheunemann, a consultant and advisor to Donald Rumsfeld on Iraq sometime in 2001/2002, joined with William Kristol and others in supporting military intervention in Iraq. His public statements stress moral and other reasons for the Iraq intervention. A board member of the Project for a New American Century, Scheunemann like all of those associated with PNAC automatically assumes that American Empire is both right and prudent. In his work as an aide to Trent Lott, Jesse Helms, John McCain, and Bob Dole, he has been associated with American efforts in Panama, Somalia, Korea, Bosnia, and Haiti as well as with the expansion of NATO.

I do not mean to paint Scheunemann as some kind of rabid war-fevered hawk, or an exceptional behind-the-scenes power broker, or anything less than the dedicated public servant that he conceives himself to be and probably is. I only want to use his work as an example of how the several levels of causation work out in human form and how the personal factor becomes important.

To find rabid war-hawks, we need not go very far. With very little effort, one can examine the records of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Steven Hadley, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, and many other hard-liners to see how personal biases matter. In a number of cases, like Donald Rumsfeld, it is apparent that their pro-military, pro-empire, and anti-détente attitudes go back a very long time. In other cases, like that of Feith, there is a pronounced pro-Zionist, pro-Israel, and anti-Arab strain.

In 1972, Wolfowitz’s doctoral thesis was on the danger of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Wolfowitz came out against atomic de-salinization plants that would produce fresh water in the Middle East, emphasizing the risk of diversion of plutonium to atom bomb production. (The de-salting plan had been proposed by Eisenhower as part of his Atoms for Peace initiative and later studied at Oak Ridge.) The idea for the thesis was given to Wolfowitz by his mentor Albert Wohlstetter, who was a staff member of Rand Corporation and also mentored Richard Perle. Wohlstetter was a mathematician heavily involved in nuclear war analysis.

By that time, the Israeli nuclear capabilities were quite well-known; it was thought to have a number of nuclear devices. An article by Hedrick Smith in the July 18, 1970 New York Times was titled "U.S. Assumes the Israelis Have A-Bomb or Its Parts." Wolfowitz’s thesis in effect advocated protecting Israel’s Middle Eastern nuclear monopoly while preventing peaceful commercialization of atomic energy and nuclear proliferation to nearby Arab states.

Bush conferred power on these figures. Some of them had advised him during his campaign. He shared their views. War against Iraq may not have occurred except that Bush paired himself with other strong-minded and one-sided promoters of American power. I suspect a symbiosis or reinforcement of views occurred that led to the folly of Iraq.

America Chooses

The same personal factors and/or chemistry may yet lead to the worse folly of war with Iran. The parallels are eerie. Bush has recently said: "The development of know-how and or nuclear weapons is unacceptable because an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon poses a grave threat to the security of the world." Not with such U.S. threats but only with skilled diplomacy can a military confrontation with Iran now be defused because, on his side, Dr. Ahmadinejad continues to push strongly for an increased Iranian presence in the Middle East. The Lebanon episode and the Iraqi morass have emboldened him in his efforts. He will expand his links to other nations and continually irritate the U.S. Iran’s reported actions clearly suggest a movement in the direction of developing nuclear arms. If this proceeds much further or succeeds, the U.S. will either have to accommodate a new nuclear power, as it has North Korea, or make war, as Bush and his men aim to do. If history repeats, America will again make war.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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