Tuesday, November 21, 2006



There is an interesting book review essay by George Scialabba in the November 27, 2006 issue of The Nation (“The Business of America.”) In this essay Scialabba discusses two new books, one an apology for U.S. imperialism, the other a critique of it. The books are, respectively, “The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life,” by Michael Lind (Oxford, 294 pp.) and “Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism,” by Greg Grandin (Metropolitan, 286 pp.). Let us see which of these two approaches better reflects reality.

Scialabba begins his essay by informing us that the view of most Americans, regular citizens and “respectable intellectuals” alike, is that the balance between material advantages and “idealism” in the history of U.S. foreign policy is “distinctive” and maybe even “unique.” Beware, for we are here in the presence of the tried and true philosophy of American “exceptionalism.”

Scialabba might benefit, by the way, in entertaining the possibility that the majority of regular Americans are completely ignorant of “the history of American foreign policy.” At the risk of being “unrespectable” I would also like to suggest many intellectuals do find that there is a lopsided relationship between “idealism” and material interests and advantages (in favor of the latter) in U.S. foreign policy. Idealists don’t have to lie, coverup and conceal their actions and motives-- an all too common characteristic of the practitioners of U.S. foreign policy.

To be fair, Scialabba doesn’t completely subscribe to this view, but allows that it contains several “grains of truth.” His examples of U.S. actions that have “earned it the permanent gratitude of humankind” are 1.) aiding the USSR in defeating Hitler (no doubt by delaying opening the Western Front in the hope that the Germans could take out as much of the Red Army as possible before being defeated.) 2.) Preventing the Red Army from advancing westward after it defeated Hitler (the USSR evidently doesn’t deserve any gratitude for this victory). There is, however, no convincing evidence that the Red Army desired to advance and take over the west. In fact it was Stalin who was most insistent that the Second Front be opened and that the allies, not the Soviets, be responsible for the liberation of western Europe. 3.) For allowing Taiwan and South Korea (“among others”) to become “stable democracies” and fore go the “horrors of Maoism and Stalinism.” Must we really have "eternal gratitude" for a foreign policy that led to the Korean War and vicious fascist dictatorships on Taiwan and South Korea that the people of those countries took forty years to get out from under?

Even if we grant that the U.S. deserves eternal gratitude for advancing its own perceived national interests, the question is, the author says, does this support the conclusion to be drawn by what he considers to be the above stated consensus: i.e., “that American foreign policy generally, including military interventions, deserves credit for good intentions, whatever mistakes were made in carrying them out.” In other words, should we take a Pollyanna like attitude toward U.S. imperialism?

Let us see what Lind’s book has to say about all this, according to Scialabba. We are told that in "The American Way of Strategy" Lind maintains, among other things, that: "The United States promotes national self-determination and basic human rights-- by example and exhortation rather than brute force, preferably,"

This is a ridiculous position. Any reading of contemporary history shows that the U.S. only promotes self-determination when it coincides with the economic interests of American corporations and U.S. imperial strategy. Let let the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, the Iran-Contra Affair, the present day attacks on the democratically elected Chavez government in Venezuela and the attempts to subvert the democratic process in the recent elections in Nicaragua which returned Daniel Ortega to the presidency stand as evidence against any such foolish notion regarding the promotion of human rights and "self-determination" by the United States.

Lind appears to think, according to the review, that the U.S. only reacts against the imperial ambitions of others while entertaining none of its own.
Lind is quoted as saying that: "For more than two centuries the main motive for American security strategy has been the fear, sometimes unreasonable but usually justified, of other great powers." From this it follows that we had to take over Texas and California, Oregon, Florida, Hawaii, Samoa, etc., to prevent their being taken over by others. In other words, for example, if we had not invaded Mexico and taken its territory someone else would have, and that's the only reason we did so. How completely ignorant of history does Lind think his readers must be?

It gets better. Both world wars and all our actions in the cold war were the
fault of others and we were forced to do whatever we did and if we did anything wrong its really ok because our intentions were always the best.
Our actions in the cold war were especially justified because after WW2 "Stalin," Lind writes, "was poised to inherit the world." It is astonishing to me that Oxford would publish such drivel.

Scialabba is somewhat critical of Lind's views. Lind holds, for example, that the U.S. was justified in overthrowing elected governments, subverting elections, helping to repress unions and workers and peasants in other countries, etc., even as it turned to waging horrendous colonial wars resulting in what amounted to genocidal [not Lind's or the author's word]
slaughter of third world peoples, but all this was justified because, "There was, after all, an international Communist conspiracy to rule the world."
That this fairy tale is still bandied about in 2006 is beyond incredible, it is simply stupid. No doubt twenty or thirty years hence Oxford will be publishing histories of the war in Iraq explaining how Saddam Hussein's attack on the U.S. on 9/11 and his weapons of mass destruction were the reasons for it.

Scialabba"s critical view amounts to the following. "I don't believe it was necessary for the United States to wage a savage war against democracy and independent development throughout the Third World-- as we did-- in order to keep the blight of Stalinism and Maoism from spreading. But since I don't know exactly how I would have kept it from spreading, I won't press the point." A brilliant analysis. It is precisely by supporting democracy and encouraging people's independent development that the "blight" could have been stopped from spreading. The fact that we did not do that indicates that something other than stopping the "blight" of Communism was behind out foreign policy, and that was our own desire to dominate the world and control its resources and markets. To paraphrase Pogo, we met the "blight" and it was us.

So much for Lind whose shallow cold war polemic appears not worthy of a read, except to see how bad such old think is in the new century, and this despite Scialabba's opinion that he is an "estimable" thinker!

Let us now turn our attention to Grandin's "Empire's Workshop." Scialabba begins his review with two great quotes from the book. The first informs us that the U.S. developed "a coherently sophisticated imperial project, one better suited for a world in which rising nationalism was making a formal colonialism of the kind European nations practiced unworkable." The second explains how this was done, i.e., by developing "a flexible system of extraterritorial administration, one that allowed the United States, in the name of fighting Communism and promoting development, to structure the internal political and economic relations of allied countries in ways that allowed it to accrue more and more power and to exercise effective control over the supply of oil, ore, minerals, and other primary resources-- all free from the burden of formal colonialism."

While this book focuses on Latin America, the reader will easily be able to relate it to the policies of U.S. imperialism in other parts of the world. Scialabba seems to prefer this book to the previous one. His misinformed anti-Communism has not blinded him to the real nature of U.S. foreign policy. He, in fact, in the course of his review, gives an excellent definition of the concept of "democracy" as it is used in the context of U.S. foreign policy. In fact, it has a much broader use, being the tacit definition used in the media as well, as, for example, The New York Times and all other news dailies, the big news magazines, all the TV, radio and cable networks, and in all the schools and universities on the administrative level, and in the majority of the teaching levels.

This definition is that "democracy" equals "the freedom to vote for candidates who can be counted on to allow unrestricted capital flows; foreign ownership of vital resources; privatization of water, health, utility and banking systems; the opening of domestic markets to cheap (often subsidized) foreign imports; the repeal or lax enforcement of environmental, worker-safety, public-health and minimum-wage laws; an investor-friendly tax code; drastic reductions in social-welfare spending; the suppression of labor or peasant activism; and if asked, the provision of facilities for US military forces."

That is quite a long, if excellent, definition. I will only remark first that the Communist movement was historically opposed to all nine of the basic components of the aforegoing definition of "democracy" and that is the real reason it was seen as a "blight" and second, that the concept of "rule by the people" is completely absent in the definition.

Scialabba's essay was very informative. Based upon it, I would suggest that at least one of the two books discussed is well worth reading.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs magazine and can reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net

1 comment:

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