The first part of this essay series on ‘Empire Under Obama’ aims to establish some fundamental premises of modern imperialism, or what is often referred to as ‘international relations,’ ‘geopolitics’, or ‘foreign policy.’ The author draws upon Noam Chomsky’s suggestion of understanding international relations as the application of ‘Mafia Principles’ to foreign policy. Future parts to this series will examinine the manifestation of empire in recent years.
On August 21, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad was accused of using chemical weapons on its own population, prompting Western countries – led by the United States – to declare their intention to bomb Syria to somehow save it from itself. The reasons for the declared intention of launching air strikes on Syria was to punish the Syrian government, to uphold international law, and to act on the ‘humanitarian’ values which the West presumably holds so dear.
George Orwell discussed this in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, written two years prior to the publication of 1984. In his essay, Orwell wrote that, “the English language is in a bad way” and that language is ultimately “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” The decline of language, noted Orwell, “must ultimately have political and economic causes… It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Still, Orwell suggested, “the process is reversible.” To reverse the process, however, we must first understand its application and development.
When it comes to words like “democracy,” Orwell wrote: “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
In our time, wrote Orwell, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.” Thus, he noted, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Orwell provided some examples: “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” This type of “phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” Today, we use words like counterinsurgency and counterterrorism to describe virtually the same processes.
Thus, noted Orwell: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms… All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia… But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can be spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” Political language, wrote Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
These critiques are arguably more valid today than when Orwell wrote them some 67 years ago. Today, we not only use political language to discuss ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty,’ but to justify war and atrocities based upon our ‘humanitarian’ interests and ‘values.’ I have previously discussed the uses and abuses of political language in the context of the European debt crisis, using words like ‘austerity,’ ‘structural reform,’ ‘labour flexibility’ and ‘economic growth’ to obfuscate the reality of the power interests and effects of the policies put in place, spreading poverty, misery and committing ‘social genocide.'
When it comes to empire, language is equally – if not more – deceptive; hiding immoral, ruthless and destructive interests and actions behind the veil of empty words, undefined concepts, and make-believe ‘values.’ I firmly believe that in order to understand the world – that is, to gain a more realistic understanding and view of how the global social, political and economic order actually functions – we need to speak more plainly, directly, and honestly to describe and dissent against this system. If we truly want a world without war, destruction, empire and tyranny, we must speak honestly and openly about these concepts. If we adopt the language of deception to describe that which we are given no accurate words to describe, we run a fool’s errand.
In other words, if you are against war and empire in principle, yet engage in the concocted debates surrounding whatever current war is being pushed for, debating the merits of the one of usually two positions fed to the populace through the media, punditry and pageantry of modern political life, then you simply reinforce that which your own personal values may find so repulsive. If you are not given a language with which to understand issues and the world in a meaningful way, then you are curtailed in your ability to think of the world in a non-superficial way, let alone articulate meaningful positions. By simply adopting the political language which makes up the ‘discourse of empire’ – allowing for politicians, pundits, intellectuals and the media to justify and disagree to various degrees on the objectives and actions of empire – your thoughts and words become an extension of that discourse, and perpetuate its perverse purposes.
In the recent context of Syria, for example, those who are ‘in principle’ against war, and hold personal values akin to those ‘humanitarian’ values which are articulated by the political elites in the name of justifying war, may then be succumbed into the false debate over – “what is the best course of action?” – “to bomb or not to bomb?” – and while the horror of chemical weapons use may trigger an impulse to want to end such usage, the media and political classes have framed the debate as such: should we let Syria get away with using chemical weapons? Should provide more support to the ‘rebels’? How should we try to end the conflict in Syria?
This is a false debate and empty, for it poses answers as questions instead of questions looking for answers. In other words, the question is not – ” what can we do to help Syria?” – the question is: “what have we done in Syria?” When you ask that question, the answer is not appealing, as the strategy of the West – and specifically the United States – has been to prolong the civil war, not stop it. Thus, when you have asked the right questions, and sought more meaningful answers, then you can ask – “what can we do to help Syria?” – and the answer becomes simpler: stop supporting civil war. But one must first learn to ask the right questions instead of choosing from one among many pre-packaged “solutions.”
Mark Twain once wrote, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uniformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” If you view yourself as ‘politically conscious’ or ‘engaged,’ and yet, you engage only with thoughts and words presented to you by the corporate-owned media and politicians – who allow for a very limited spectrum of variation in views – you’re not “politically conscious,” but rather, politically comatose. Though your own personal values, interests and intentions may be honourable and sincere, they are made superficial by adopting superficial language and thoughts.
To rectify this, we must speak and think honestly about empire. To think and speak honestly, we must look at the world for what it is, not to see what we want to see, that which supports our pre-conceived notions and biases, but to see what we want to change. We have at our fingertips more access to information than ever before in human history. We have the ability to gather, examine and draw explanations from this information to create a more coherent understanding of the world than that which we are presented with through the media and political pandering. In establishing a more accurate – and ever-evolving – understanding of the world, we are able to reveal the lies and hypocrisy of those individuals, institutions and ideologies that uphold and direct the world we live in. The hypocrisy of our self-declared values and intentions is exposed through looking at the real actions and effects of the policies we pursue under the guise of political language.
If the effects of our actions do not conform to the values we articulate as we undertake them, and yet, neither the language nor the policies and effects change to remedy these inconsistencies, we can come to one of two general conclusions. One, is that our political leaders are simply insane, as Einstein defined it – “doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results” – or; they are liars an deceivers, using words for which they hold personal definitions which are not articulated to the populace, attempting to justify the indefensible, to promote the perverse and serve interests which the general population may find deplorable. While I think that – in many cases – it would be presumptive to rule out insanity altogether, it strikes me as more plausible that it is the latter.
Put in different terms, politicians – if they rise high enough to be in positions in which they become advocates and actors in the propagation of empire – are high-functioning sociopaths: they deceive and manipulate for their own selfish interests, hold no hesitations to act immorally and knowingly cause the suffering and destruction of others. Imagine what our world would look like if serial killers were running countries, corporations, banks and other dominant institutions. I imagine that our world would look exactly at it is, for those who run it have the same claims to moral superiority as your average serial killer; they simply chose another path, and one which leads to the deaths of far more people than any serial killer has ever – or could ever – achieve.
So, let’s talk about Empire.
Mafia Principles and Western ‘Values’
Renowned linguist, scholar and dissident Noam Chomsky has aptly articulated Western – and notably American – foreign policy as being based upon ‘Mafia Principles’ in which “defiance cannot be tolerated.” Thus, nations, people and institutions which “defy” the American-Western Empire must be “punished,” lest other nations and peoples openly defy the empire. This principle holds that if a smaller, seemingly more insignificant global actor is able to “successfully defy” the empire, then anyone could, and others would likely follow.
Thus, for the empire to maintain its ‘hegemony’ – or global influence – it must punish those who detract from its diktats, so that others would not dare defy the empire. As Chomsky has suggested, this is akin to the way the Mafia would punish even the smallest of vendors who did not pay their dues, not because of financial loss to the ‘Godfather,’ but because it sends a message to all who observe: if you defy the Godfather, you will be punished.
Extending this analogy to ‘international relations,’ we can conclude that the United States is the ‘Godfather’ and the other major Western states – notably Britain, France, and Germany – are akin to the Mafia ‘capos’ (high-level bosses). Then you have China and Russia, who are significant crime bosses in their own right, though far from holding anywhere near the same weight of influence as the ‘Godfather.’ Think of them as separate crime families; usually working with the Godfather, as there is a relationship of co-dependency between them all: the Godfather needs their support, and they need the Godfather’s support in order for all parties to have a significant influence in their criminal racketeering and illicit markets.
As with any crime families, however, cooperation is often coupled with competition. When the Godfather steps on the personal turf of the other crime families – such as Syria in relation to Russia and China – then the other families push back, seeking to maintain their own turf and thus, maintain their leverage when it comes to power and profits.
Now, for those who believe American and Western political leaders when they discuss ‘values’ that they uphold, such as ‘democracy’, ‘liberty’, the ‘rule of law’, or any other ‘humanitarian’ notions of life, justice and peace, I have two words for you: grow up. The Western world has no precedent for upholding values or acting on the basis of ‘morality.’ One of the central issues we face when dealing with modern empire is that we have very little means – or practice – in communicating honestly about the nature of the world, or our role within it. Language is undermined and inverted, even destroyed altogether. Waging war in the name of ‘peace’ undermines any meaningful concept of peace which we may hold. Supporting coups in the name of democracy reveals an empty and inverted concept of what we may typically think of as democracy. Yet, this is common practice for the West.
When Cuba had its revolution in 1959, brining Castro to power on a little island just south of the United States, overthrowing the previous American-supported dictator, the U.S. implemented a policy of covert, military and economic warfare against the tiny and desperately poor nation. The main reasoning was not necessarily that Cuba had become ‘Communist’, per se, but rather, as a 1960 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate noted, Cuba had provided “a highly exploitable example of revolutionary achievement and successful defiance of the U.S.” For the ‘Godfather,’ such an example of “successful defiance” could spur other nations to attempt to defy the U.S. Thus, Cuba had to be made an example of.
When the Eisenhower administration imposed economic sanctions upon Cuba (which have been extended through every subsequent administration to present day), the objective was articulated within internal government documents of the National Security Council (NSC) and other U.S. agencies responsible for the maintenance and expansion of American imperialism (such as the State Department, CIA, Pentagon, etc.).
Noting that the sanctions “would have a serious effect on the Cuban people,” denying them medical equipment, food, goods and necessities, President Eisenhower explained that the “primary objective” of the sanctions was “to establish conditions which bring home to the Cuban people the cost of Castro’s policies,” and that, if Cubans were left hungry, “they will throw Castro out.” Under the Kennedy administration, a top State Department official stated that, “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba… to bring about hunger, desperation and [the] overthrow of the government.”
In other words, the intentions of sanctions are to punish populations in order to undermine support for regimes that “successfully defy” the empire. No concerns are paid to the actual suffering of human beings, though, as these policies are articulated by the political class – and their supporters in the media and intellectual establishment – they were justified on the basis of a grand struggle between the “democratic” West and the “threat” of totalitarian Communism, of upholding “values” and supporting “freedom” of peoples everywhere.
Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, was appointed by President Reagan in the early 1980s to chair the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (known as the ‘Kissinger Commission’) which was created to assess the strategic threat and interests to the United States in Central America, as many nations had been experiencing revolutions, leftist insurgencies against U.S.-backed dictators, and large social movements. The Reagan administration’s response was to undertake a massive war of terror in Central America, killing hundreds of thousands and decimating the region for decades. Kissinger provided the imperial justification for the U.S. to punish the tiny Central American countries for their “defiance” of the Godfather, when he wrote in 1983, “If we cannot manage Central America… it will be impossible to convince threatened nations in the Persian Gulf and in other places that we know how to manage the global equilibrium.” In other words, if the Empire could not control a tiny little region just south of its border, how could it be expected to wield influence elsewhere in the world?
Henry Kissinger and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski co-chaired President Reagan’s U.S. National Security Council-Defense Department Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy, outlining U.S. imperial strategy and interests over the long term, publishing the report, Discriminate Deterrence, in 1988. They wrote that the U.S. would continue to have to intervene in conflicts across much of the Third World, because they “have had and will have an adverse cumulative effect on U.S. access to critical regions,” and if such effects cannot be managed, “it will gradually undermine America’s ability to defend its interest in the most vital regions, such as the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and the Western Pacific.”
Noting that most Third World conflicts were “insurgencies, organized terrorism, [and] paramilitary crime,” which included “guerrilla forces” and “armed subversives,” referring to revolutionary and resistance movements, the U.S. would have to acknowledge that within such “low intensity conflicts,” the “enemy” is essentially “omnipresent,” meaning that the U.S.-designated enemy is essentially the population itself, or a significant portion of it, and thus, “unlikely ever to surrender.” But it would be necessary for the U.S. to intervene in such wars, the report noted, because if they did not do so, “we will surely lose the support of many Third World countries that want to believe the United States can protect its friends, not to mention its own interests.”
In other words, if the U.S. does not intervene to crush insurgencies, uprisings, rebellions or generally steer the direction of ‘internal conflicts’ of Third World nations, then its proxy-puppet governments around the world will lose faith in the ability of the Godfather/Empire to support them in maintaining their dictatorships and rule over their own populations if they ever get into trouble. It would also damage the ‘faith’ that the Godfather’s ‘capos’ (or Western imperial allies like France and Britain) would have in the U.S.’s ability to serve their imperial interests. If client states or imperial allies lose faith in the Godfather, then the U.S. likely won’t remain the Godfather for long.
An internal assessment of national security policy undertaken by the Bush administration in 1991 was leaked to the media, which quoted the report’s analysis of U.S. imperial policy for the future: “In cases where the U.S. confronts much weaker enemies, our challenge will be not simply to defeat them, but to defeat them decisively and rapidly… For small countries hostile to us, bleeding our forces in protracted or indecisive conflict or embarrassing us by inflicting damage on some conspicuous element of our forces may be victory enough, and could undercut political support for U.S. efforts against them.” In other words, the weaker the “enemy,” the more “decisive and rapid” must be their defeat, so as not to “embarrass” the empire and undermine its reputation for maintaining power and punishing those who defy its power. Imagine a small-time crook standing up to the Godfather in defiance: his punishment must not only be quick, but it must be severe, as this sends a message to others.
It has since been acknowledged by top imperial strategists and government agencies that the Cold War was little more than a rhetorical battle between two behemoths to advance their own imperial interests around the world. Samuel Huntington, one of the most influential political scientists of the latter 20th century, closely tied to the American imperial establishment and served in high-level government positions related to the running of foreign policy, commented in a 1981 discussion, when reflecting upon the “lessons of Vietnam,” that “an additional problem” for strategists when they decide that there is a conflict in which “you have to intervene or take some action,” he noted, “you may have to sell it in such a way as to create the misimpression that it is the Soviet Union that you are fighting… That is what the United States has been doing ever since the Truman Doctrine [of 1947].”
In other words, the concern of the ‘Cold War’ was not really the Soviet Union, it was the populations across the ‘Third World’ who were seeking independence and an end to imperialism. However, to intervene in wars where the interests were about repressing popular uprisings, revolutions, crushing independence movements, maintaining imperial domination and subjugation, one cannot – if you proclaim to be a ‘free’ and ‘democratic’ society upholding grand ‘values’ – articulate accurately these interests or the reasons for intervening. Thus, as Huntington noted, the United States would “create the misimpression that it is the Soviet Union that you are fighting.” So long as the domestic population was made to fear some outside malevolent enemy – formerly the Soviet Union and today ‘terrorism’ – then strategists manage to justify and undertake all sorts of atrocities in the name of fighting “communism” or now “terrorism.”
When the Cold War was coming to an official end and the Soviet Union was collapsing in on itself, President George H.W. Bush’s administration released the National Security Strategy of the United States in 1990 in which it was acknowledged that following decades of justifying military intervention in the Middle East on the basis of a Cold War struggle between democracy and communism, the actual reasons for intervention “were in response to threats to U.S. interests that could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door.” Further, while the Soviet Union collapses, “American strategic concerns remain” and “the necessity to defend our interests will continue.”
In 1992, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote an article for the establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, in which he bluntly assessed the reality of the ‘Cold War’ battle between America and the USSR – between the causes of democratic ‘liberation’ versus totalitarian communism – writing: “The policy of liberation was a strategic sham, designed to a significant degree for domestic political reasons… the policy was basically rhetorical, at most tactical.”
America’s imperial interests had long been established within internal government documents. In a 1948 State Department Policy Planning document, it was acknowledged that at the time the United States controlled half the world’s wealth with only 6.3% of the world’s population, and that this disparity would create “envy and resentment.” The task for American in the world, then, was “to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming,” and instead focus “on our immediate national objectives,” which were defined as managing foreign policy in such a way as “to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.” With such an objective in mind, noted the report, “We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”
In other words, to maintain the “disparity” between America’s wealth and that of the rest of the world, there was no point in pretending that their interests were anything otherwise. Imperial planners were direct in suggesting that “we need not deceive ourselves” about their objectives, but this did not imply that they did not have to deceive the American population, for whom internal documents were not meant to be read.
In the Middle East, imperial interests were bluntly articulated by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, who defined the region as “an area in which the United States has a vital interest.” The oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole was said to “constitute a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history,” and that controlling the oil would imply “substantial control of the world.”
Threats to these interests were quick to arise in the form of Arab Nationalism – or “independent nationalism” – most effectively represented by Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt, where nations sought to pursue a policy both foreign and domestic in their own interests, to more closely address the concerns of their own populations rather than the interests of the Godfather, and to take a ‘neutral’ stance in the Cold War struggle between the US and USSR.
A 1958 National Security Council report noted that, “In the eyes of the majority of Arabs the United States appears to be opposed to the realization of the goals of Arab nationalism,” and rather, that the US was simply “seeking to protect its interests in Near East oil by supporting the status quo” of strong-armed ruthless dictators ruling over repressed populations. This, the report noted, was an accurate view that Arab peoples held of the U.S., stating that, “our economic and cultural interests in the area have led not unnaturally to close U.S. relations with elements in the Arab world whose primary interest lies in the maintenance of relations with the West and the status quo in their countries.” Further, because the U.S. was so closely allied with the traditional colonial powers of the region – France and Britain – “it is impossible for us to avoid some identification” with colonialism, noted the report, especially since “we cannot exclude the possibility of having to use force in an attempt to maintain our position in the area.”
Thus, a key strategy for the U.S. should be to publicly proclaim “support for the ideal of Arab unity,” but to quietly “encourage a strengthening of the ties among Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq,” all ruthless tyrants, in order to “counterbalance Egypt’s preponderant position of leadership in the Arab world.” Another strategy to “combat radical Arab nationalism and to hold Persian Gulf oil by force if necessary” would be “to support Israel as the only strong pro-West power.”
In Latin America, long considered by U.S. imperial planners as America’s ‘backyard,’ the “threat” was very similar to that posed by Arab nationalism. A 1953 National Security Council memo noted that there was “a trend in Latin America toward nationalistic regimes maintained in large part by appeals to the masses of the population,” and that, “there is an increasing popular demand for immediate improvement in the low living standards of the masses.” For the U.S., it would be “essential to arrest the drift in the area toward radical and nationalistic regimes” which was “facilitated by historic anti-U.S. prejudices and exploited by Communists.” To handle this “threat,” the NSC recommended that the United States support “the development of indigenous military forces and local bases” to encourage “individual and collective action against internal subversive activities by communists and other anti-U.S. elements.” In other words: the U.S. must support repression of foreign populations.
American strategy thus sought to oppose “radical and nationalistic regimes” – defined as those who successfully defy the U.S. and its Mafia capos – and to “maintain the disparity” between America’s wealth and that of the rest of the world, as well as to continue to control strategically important resources and regions, such as oil and energy sources. America was not alone in this struggle for global domination, as it had its trusted Mafia capo “allies” like Britain, France, Germany, and to a lesser extent, Japan, at its side. Concurrently, other large powers like Russia and China would engage in bouts of cooperation and competition for extending and maintaining influence in the world, with occasional conflicts arising between them.
The International Peace Research Institute (IPRI) in Oslo, Norway, compiled a dataset for assessing armed conflict in the world between 1946 and 2001. For this time period, IPRI’s research identified 225 conflicts, 163 of which were internal conflicts, though with “external participants” in 32 of those internal conflicts. The number of conflicts in the world rose through the Cold War, and accelerated afterward. The majority of conflicts have been fought in three expansive regions: from Central America and the Caribbean into South America, from East Central Europe through the Balkans, Middle East and India to Indonesia, and the entire continent of Africa.
Another data set was published in 2009 that revealed much larger numbers accounting for “military interventions.” During the Cold War era of 1946 to 1989 – a period of 44 years – there were a recorded 690 interventions, while the 16-year period from 1990 and 2005 had recorded 425 military interventions. Intervention rates thus “increased in the post-Cold War era.” As the researchers noted, roughly 16 foreign military interventions took place every year during the Cold War, compared to an average of 26 military interventions per year in the post-Cold War period.
Interventions by “major powers” (the US, UK, France, Soviet Union/Russia, and China) increased from an average of 4.3 per year during the Cold War to 5.6 per year in the post-Cold War period. Most of these interventions were accounted for by the United States and France, with France’s numbers coming almost exclusively from its interventions in sub-Saharan Africa. During the Cold War period, the five major powers accounted for almost 28% of all military interventions, with the United States in the lead at 74, followed by the U.K. with 38, France with 35, the Soviet Union with 25, and China with 21.
In the post-Cold War period (1990-2005), the major powers accounted for 21.2% of total military interventions, with the United States in the lead at 35, followed by France with 31, the U.K. with 13, Russia with 10, and China with 1. Interventions by Western European states increased markedly in the post-Cold War period, “as former colonial powers increased their involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa,” not only by France, but also Belgium and Britain.
Meanwhile, America’s actual share of global wealth has been in almost continuous decline since the end of World War II. By 2012, the United States controlled roughly 25% of the world’s wealth, compared with roughly 50% in 1948. The rich countries of the world – largely represented by the G7 nations of the U.S., Japan, Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Canada – had for roughly 200 years controlled the majority of the world’s wealth. In 2013, the 34 “advanced economies” of the world (including the G7, the euro area nations, and Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea) were surpassed for the first time by the other 150 nations of the world referred to as “emerging” or “developing” economies.
Thus, while the American-Western Empire may be more globally expansive – or technologically advanced – than ever before, the world has itself become much more complicated to rule, with the ‘rise’ of the East (namely, China and India), and increased unrest across the globe. As Zbigniew Brzezinski noted in 2009, the world’s most powerful states “face a novel reality: while the lethality of their military might is greater than ever, their capacity to impose control over the politically awakened masses of the world is at a historic low. To put it bluntly: in earlier times, it was easier to control one million people than to physically kill one million people; today, it is infinitely easier to kill one million people than to control one million people.”
[21 ] Nils Petter Gleditsch, Peter Wallensteen, Mikael Eriksson, Maragreta Sollenberg, and Havard Strand, “Armed Conflict 1946-2001: A New Dataset,” Journal of Peace Research (Vol. 39, No. 5, September 2002), page 620.
[23 ] Jeffrey Pickering and Emizet F. Kisangani, “The International Military Intervention Dataset: An Updated Resource for Conflict Scholars,” Journal of Peace Research (Vol. 46, No. 4, July 2009), pages 596-598.