From Republic to Empire
by Curtis F. Jones
The recent spate of Islamist attacks on American embassies was violent enough to demand a serious explanation. It was dismissed by our cynical wing, including George Will, as more evidence that Muslim extremists think it’s good politics to blame their own mistakes on the Americans. The more understanding observers concluded that, while the desecration of the Prophet’s image by an ephemeral video was a convenient provocation, the Muslims’ real grievance was the failures of their own governments, exacerbated by the support they get from Washington.
This reading is closer to the truth, but incomplete. It whitewashes the iniquities of Western imperialism.
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had a cardinal rule in foreign policy: “Never invade Afghanistan.” Three Western countries lamentably ignored that rule – the United Kingdom three times, the Soviet Union once, the United States once.
The rule also has metaphorical validity: “Afghanistan” can be shorthand for imperialist wars – wars of choice – as distinguished from necessary wars of self-defense, endorsed in the UN charter. The Korean War was an example of both: the American action against North Korean invasion was a war of self-defense. Douglas MacArthur’s invasion of North Korea was a war of choice – a costly one, because it brought in China. Luckily for us, it was the China of 1950, not the China of 2012.
In this dichotomy, World War II was a war of self-defense, but in the subsequent 67 years, Washington has broken Macmillan’s rule eleven times: four times in the Far East (North Korea in 1950, Vietnam in 1964, Cambodia in 1970, Laos in 1971) and seven times in the Muslim world (Lebanon in 1983, Iran in the 1980’s, Iraq in 1991, Afghanistan since 2001, Iraq from 2003 to 2011, Islamists – by assassinations, commando raids, and unmanned aircraft – since the 2000’s, and now Iran – by sanctions and allegedly by cyberwarfare. Add to the list the ten wars fought by our Israeli proxies (Palestine War in 1948, Suez War in 1956, June War in 1967, War of Attrition with Egypt in 1970, Yom Kippur War in 1973, invasion of Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, Hizballah War in 2006, First Hamas War in 2006, Second Hamas War in 2008, War of Assassination and Cyber Subversion against Iran in the 2000’s). All Israeli wars have been fought with American political and logistic support whenever requested.
These 21 wars – all wars of choice – are the most conspicuous manifestations of America’s 65-year escalation of militant imperialism. It started so quietly that only a few Cassandras (Loy Henderson, George Marshall) foresaw the Muslim-Israeli deadlock we’re wrestling with today. In 1945, on an American warship in the Suez Canal, FDR and Ibn Saud reportedly concluded a secret agreement – American military assistance in return for an inside track to Saudi oil. International consensus has it that Saudi Arabia has been an American protectorate ever since. This belief was probably the primary motivation for Al Qa‘idah’s attacks of 9/11/2001 – 56 years later. Most of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, as was Bin Ladin.
Roosevelt lied to Ibn Saud about American concern for Arab interest in Palestine, but it was left to Truman in 1947 to ram through the UN General Assembly Palestine partition resolution 181 (the legal basis of the Israeli state); Truman set the precedent for the American guarantee of the eternal security of that state – which as something more than a colony made the United States an embryonic empire as of 1948.
Eisenhower was a font of wisdom: “Nobody can win a nuclear war;” “Beware the military-industrial complex.” Nevertheless, his election – in the words of columnist Roger Cohen – was a “rightward lurch”. In 1953 he allowed the communism-obsessed Dulles brothers to join the UK in, first, staging a coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq for his patriotic nationalization of the avaricious Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and, second, reinstating a traitorous Shah. In 1954
Eisenhower rejected the Geneva Accord, setting the stage for America to inherit from France the imperialist role in Vietnam. In 1956 Egypt recognized Communist China. Washington retaliated by breaking its promise to help build the High Dam on the Nile. Nasir counter-retaliated by nationalizing the Suez Canal – by rights an Egyptian property, although the Western powers claimed it, and the UK and France invaded the Canal Zone, while Israel invaded Sinai.
At this point, Eisenhower got back to the path of reason, used financial mortmain to abort the Anglo-French invasion, and unspecified leverage to expel Israel from Sinai and the Gaza Strip – the only known case of Israeli capitulation to American pressure since 1948.
Under Kennedy, the Democrats wielded the mace of imperialism again, making ludicrous efforts to kill Castro, and starting bombing in Vietnam. Johnson upped the ante: in Vietnam by massive deployment of ground troops; in the Middle East by trying to cover up the mysterious Israeli attempt to sink an American warship during the 1967 war. The American Congress – occupied Israeli territory – has never pressed for an investigation of why Israel killed 34 American sailors. On the other hand, it has supported an ultimate form of imperialism – Israel’s lockdown of The Gaza Strip.
Under Nixon, the Republicans took over the parade of imperialist blunders. He and his devious accomplice, Kissinger, trying to make good on Nixon’s mythical plan to win in Vietnam, managed only to prolong the agony. Also, in their desperate efforts to make Watergate go away, they manufactured a phony crisis with the Soviets in Egypt.
The policies of Democrat Carter were more altruistic, but the results were hardly any better. America’s government and media colluded in celebrating the warped Camp David Accord of 1978. Egypt’s Sadat earned his Nobel Prize – and his American bribe – by contributing a cold peace with Israel. Israel’s Begin smirched his Nobel by scuttling the promise of autonomy for the occupied Palestinian territories.
The Reagan administration was distinguished by CIA subversion in Latin America, American support for Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran, a quixotic promise to prevent any takeover of the Saudi monarchy (Imagine Washington trying to restore order in Syria.), the inauguration of CIA assassination activity in the Middle East, and the incomprehensible participation of American forces in the doomed Israeli invasion of Lebanon (an invasion which the House of Representatives backed 410-8).
George H. W. Bush was much more cautious. In fact, when Saddam occupied Kuwait, Bush was sufficiently open-minded to brood for a few days before giving in to the imperialist reflex. The eventual expulsion of the Iraqi forces clashed with Iraq’s strong historical and geopolitical claims to Kuwait. At least Bush had the good sense not to go on to Baghdad – the blunder committed by Bush 43, twelve years later.
Clinton presided over a seamless transition of bipartisan servility to Israel: No wars, but harassment of Israel’s two nemeses – vindictive sanctions against Iraq, plus spasmodic bombing; “watertight” sanctions against Iran, plus hints of interest in regime change in Tehran. Meanwhile, the United States and Israel celebrated the Oslo Accord of 1993 – a false promise of a Palestinian state.
George W. Bush revived the Republican tradition of profligate militance. He exploited American outrage over the attacks of 9/11 by launching unwinnable wars against two countries that had nothing to do with those attacks, and by inflating the challenge of rising anti-Americanism into the fantasy of a “global war on terrorism”.
Obama’s secular liberalism in domestic politics invited Republican-Democratic gridlock, but his aggressiveness against Islamism has been so indistinguishable from that of the Republicans that they can do little but fume. Obama was free to inject a hit team into Pakistan, murder bin Ladin without due process, and boast about it. How does this operation square with prohibitions against official assassination by previous presidents, including Lincoln and Ford? Or with the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution? How does it differ from an honest definition of “terrorism”?
In summary, the United States has done gratuitous violence, directly or indirectly, to half a billion Muslims over a period of 65 years. It has expropriated a piece of Muslim territory, allegedly out of benevolence, actually for opportunistic purposes. It has taken advantage of its state-of-the-art technology to slaughter thousands of people whose only known role in life was to serve as cannon fodder.
Armies are designed to kill, and sometimes to overkill. The reported death count from the Second Hamas War was Israel – 13, Gaza – 1300. In the relatively small war against Iraq in 1991, Saddam put his less seasoned soldiers in trenches along the Kuwait-Iraq border. According to a press report, we didn’t even have to shoot them. We just ran bulldozers down the trench lines and plowed them under – leaving us with a mental image of 10,000 Rachel Corrie’s. Other thousands of Iraqi soldiers, whose only objective was to take the highway back to Iraq, were eliminated by our total command of the air. That escape route goes down in history as the “highway of death.”
All 21 of the Israeli-American wars of choice displaced people from ancestral homes, sometimes in multitudes: 700,000 Palestinians in 1948, 300,000 Palestinians in 1967, 200,000 Lebanese in 1982, 3-4 million Iraqis in the early 2000’s.
People ask, can’t the professionals in the State Department play a moderating role? One answer comes from an article in The New York Times Magazine by the late Joseph Kraft. After research in Washington and the field, he concluded that the American electorate could rest easy: the rumors of pro-Arab bias among the State Department’s Arabists were true, but their influence on US Middle East policy was negligible.
What’s wrong with these feckless Muslims? Why don’t all 500 million rise up and throw the Americans out?
Answer: They’re not even close to that level of political organization. We’ve seen enough frenzy in Washington to know that every government’s priority is to stay in power. For governments in the Middle East and central Asia, the distant threat from America fades before the immediate threat from the rivals next door. Here lies the secret of imperialist machination. America temporarily dispelled an Iraqi threat to the states in the Arabian Peninsula. The Persians have been in Arabia before, so Saudi survival may depend on the American security guarantee. The Islamicists in Egypt are challenging 60 years of military dictatorship; their survival may depend on the annual American subsidy. The Arabian shayhkdoms appreciate Israeli-American opposition to Iranian acquisition of the ability to build nuclear weapons. Jordan is a de facto protectorate of Israel, which scared out a Syrian salient in 1970.
A united front, whether Arab or Muslim, will require wholesale reconfiguration from the present conglomeration of feuding communities, tribes with flags, military despotisms, and cartographic residues of imperialism. Meanwhile, this glaring need for change will continue to mobilize the ultras. It’s a weird subliminal conflict – our effort to kill them off, versus their effort to wear us out, as they wore out the British and French in the 1900’s.
The 2008 accession to the White House of a member of a once-downtrodden community is the proof that, so far, humanity’s greatest political achievement is America’s multi-ethnic democracy. The next step is for America to extend democratic practice to its barbaric foreign policy. In 2011, three-quarters of global arms exports came from the United States. High praise for America’s industrial initiative. Not so much for its exploitation of international discord.
Curtis F. Jones, a retired senior U.S. Foreign Service officer, had a thirty-year career as a diplomat, most of it stationed in the Middle East or concerned with Middle Eastern affairs in Washington. He is the author of Divide and Perish: The Geopolitics of the Middle East. He writes frequently for American Diplomacy.