Nation-Busting Euphoria, Nation-Building Fatigue

The United States has a long tradition of arrogance, racism, unilateralism,
and disregard of international law in its external dealings. So
while it is easy to imagine that the Bush-Cheney- Rumsfeld Axis
of Evil represents something new, it doesn’t, it is merely
more frightening because of the power and global scope and effects
of this Axis, which owns and is eager to use a truly massive arsenal
of “weapons of mass destruction.” The Axis leaders pretend
to be quaking in their boots at somebody else’s possession
of such weapons (the mainstream media and intellectuals quake with
them), but they pose the real global threat of their use.

The readiness with which the media and intellectuals adapt to and
serve their leaders’ rampaging surprises many who don’t
grasp the extent to which the corporate media are a part of the
imperial enterprise and structure and how naturally the intellectual
community accepts and works within the parameters fixed by imperial
needs. If the structure of imperialism gives the United States the
power to impose its will in many foreign locales, its institutions
and intelligentsia will, as a matter of course, normalize and support
the ensuing projection of power. The liberals will do this with
varying degrees of enthusiasm, some reluctantly, calling for “multilaterally”
accepted constraints—and attacks—on “rogues”
(they never question the identification of rogues), and the acceptance
of “responsibilities” for “nation-building,”
rather than unilateral actions and quick exit while readying the
imperial center for follow-on campaigns. But many liberals, along
with the mainstream majority and right wing, are enthused about
the new projection of power in the interest of “self defense”
against terrorism.

Given that the superpower’s leaders put its interests first,
and especially those of its dominant transnational corporations;
that they are greatly affected by domestic political considerations,
including the demands of the more powerful lobbies; that the leadership
doesn’t care a fig for legalisms, and has contempt for the
bleeding heart weaklings among their allies, the superpower leaders
have felt free to run roughshod over international law and traditional
notions of justice. The resultant challenges to the media and intellectuals
to rationalize the law violations, the use of force, and the bullying
to get allies and clients in line have been severe. But media and
intellectuals have met this challenge impressively.

For example, we regularly encounter the notion of “nation-building,”
but never of “nation-busting,” although arguably that
has been the primary role of the United States for decades. It shattered
Indochina, and when it exited in 1975 it not only didn’t help
rebuild but instead imposed a long boycott on its victim. It destroyed
the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and reduced Nicaragua to
the stone age, but even after it succeeded in getting into power
its own neoliberal leadership in 1990, it abandoned its victim and
has allowed it to remain a basket case ever since. It helped South
Africa and “freedom fighter” Savimbi crush Angola, and
then left. It smashed Iraq in 1991, and then, as with Vietnam, inflicted
further severe damage on its victim via “sanctions of mass
destruction.” Serbia and Kosovo were severely damaged, and
then abandoned. Afghanistan has been treated similarly.

United States suffers from “nation-building fatigue” even
before it can do more than hand out some candy bars to orphaned
children. But its liberals still prate about its responsibilities
and the importance of it completing its good works after devastating
a country in the process of replacing a demon (usually a former
U.S. agent), failing to note the regularity with which it runs after
it does its hit. (William Blum speaks of “America’s ‘traditional
policy’ of zero reconstruction.”) The U.S. official view
is that since the United States has done such yeoman service in
busting some poor country, others should take on the responsibility
of nation-building. Clinton and Albright left it to the Europeans
to reconstruct Kosovo (and to bring it that still elusive stability
and justice), just as Bush and Powell call for others to do the
same in Afghanistan. The trouble is that those other countries may
not have agreed that busting was desirable or that it should be
they who do the reconstruction, which is more difficult and expensive
than just dropping bombs. Maybe the country that bombs should have
the responsibility of “nation-building” and not be able
to shunt it to others. This pattern of busting without followup
reconstruction is not featured in the media or by the intellectual

is the fact that “preemption” and “regime change”
by invasion and/or subversion is in straightforward violation of
Articles 1 and 2 of the UN Charter and the most basic element of
international law—the prohibition of an armed attack on another
state. That process of regime change, which the Bush administration
proposes to carry out against Iraq is called “aggression,”
except in cases where the U.S. (or one of its clients like Israel
or Indonesia) indulges in it. It is testimony to the advanced state
of degradation of the “international community” that the
DC Axis can announce many months in advance that it intends to commit
aggression against Iraq, but this is not denounced as a Hitler-worthy
enterprise that the world community must oppose by all necessary
means. Instead, the U.S. is appeased almost without limit—“we”
all agree that it means well, that its target is monstrous and a
true threat to the U.S. and everybody else, but we must remove this
threat slowly and in stages and not just let the U.S. start bombing
tomorrow. The idea that the Iraq threat is a sick joke, and that
that country has been a victim of serious war crimes committed by
the U.S., its poodle, and the UN, and that the U.S. and poodle are
the main global threat, is outside the realm of polite discourse.

The U.S. is also appeased in its desire to be free of any threat
that its citizens might be hauled before an international crimes
court. It regards itself as the global God (or Godfather), who brings
justice (or breaks kneecaps) as the law-justice giver (or enforcer)
and is above or outside the law. It claims to fear “frivolous”
or “politicized” actions against his citizens; it likes
instead Tribunals like the Yugoslavia Tribunal now dealing with
Milosevic that is not “political” because under the U.S.’s
firm control (NATO’s public relations person Jamie Shea even
acknowledged this control in a press conference of May 17, 1999,
but the U.S. media and intellectuals didn’t notice or care,
given that the U.S. was—once again—pursuing a just cause).

Strenuous efforts have been made by the international community
to assure the U.S. of the unlikelihood that its personnel would
be hauled before the court, but there has been little discussion
of the threat that if it joined the court, it would throw its weight
around, dominate and compromise its judicial integrity as it has
done with the Yugoslavia Tribunal. Such a point doesn’t arise,
nor is the brazenness of it putting itself in a special category
above the law. The U.S. has even gotten belligerent on the matter
of an international court outside its control. Its congress has
passed a law called the American Service Members Protection Act—in
the dissident media referred to as “The Netherlands Invasion
Act”—which calls for the armed forces to recover by force
any U.S. citizen taken into custody by any purported international
crimes tribunal. However, not to worry: U.S. war crimes ambassador,
Pierre-Richard Prosper, has assured the world that an invasion of
the Hague to recover U.S. prisoners of crime tribunals is not automatic;
it is merely “within [the president’s] range of tools.
It’s not mandatory.”

is also worth noting that the United States never apologizes for
anything it does. At most, when it can’t wriggle out of responsibility
for killing large numbers of innocent civilians, as in the assault
on the wedding festivities at Kakarak in Afghanistan on July 1,
2002, or the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner on July
3, 1988 (with 290 dead), it may express “regrets” and
offer some compensation to survivors. But apologies are for the
Japanese, Germans, and others, not for the U.S. This is because
it always means well, is responding in just causes, and the world
owes it a debt for the service it is rendering. As Human Rights
Watch (and Washington Post) analyst William Arkin said to
Afghans, “When are you going to pay the US for the cost of
the bombs and the jet fuel and the American lives selflessly given,…all
done so you can have a future?” (WP, April 9, 2002).
But besides this selfless purpose in U.S. actions abroad, surely
God (or Godfather) cannot be expected to apologize.

It is a long tradition in the liberal mainstream to exhort U.S.
officials to get their nasty clients to be good, in accord with
“our values.” This is of course important right now when
“our values” are allegedly in competition with those of
al Qaeda and other terrorist forces that represent evil values.
A small problem surfaced when we supported the Northern Alliance
in Afghanistan, whose murderous proclivities match those of the
Taliban. The Northern Alliance has not only killed and raped in
Pashtun territory during the past year, it starved and killed Taliban
prisoners on a large scale, even after the Northern Alliance and
U.S. forces together had negotiated a protected surrender.

In a recent op-ed column, Holly Burkhalter, U.S. policy director
for the Physicians for Social Responsibility, points out that the
U.S. failure to “come to grips with the consequences of alliances
with local forces [who]…show little respect for the laws of armed
conflict…resulted in the execution of hundreds of captured combatants
and the imprisonment of thousands of others in life-threatening
squalor.” (“POW Atrocities: An Ugly Lesson,” Los
Angeles Times
, October 14, 2002.) She urges, among other things,
that this country should require military personnel to protect civilian
populations and, “if atrocities are committed by local partners…secure
all evidence, carry out a full investigation and hold accountable
those responsible.”

While these are well-meaning recommendations, they gloss over fundamental
facts that show the United States to be not so innocent of the crimes
in question and to have a policy directly contrary to Burkhalter’s
recommendations, for clear and obvious reasons. She also ignores
history, recent and more distant. In the recent Afghan war it is
on the record that the United States used air power to kill hundreds
of prisoners during a prison revolt in the Qala-i-Janghi prison.
There is also evidence that U.S. personnel abused Taliban prisoners
and were on the scene and did nothing to hinder the stuffing of
the prisoners in containers for the death convoy (documented in
Jamie Doran’s film Massacre at Mazar, suppressed by
the U.S. media).

Burkhalter understates the number probably executed (there are several
thousand missing of the 8,000 who surrendered at Kunduz). Her appeal
to preserve the evidence and prosecute the killers flies in the
face of the U.S. refusal to do that in this very case, and the clear
U.S. failure to acknowledge its own killings in Afghanistan, along
with a systematic effort to keep them out of sight. Burkhalter can’t
acknowledge that it might be U.S. policy to allow or possibly even
encourage its clients to kill prisoners, even though Rumsfeld said,
“The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders,
nor are we in a position, with relatively small numbers of forces
on the ground, to accept prisoners.” He also said he would
“do everything I could” to prevent these people “who
have done terrible things” to leave Afghanistan and be free
to fight again (Department of Defense Briefing, November 19, 2001;
Ian Cobain and Damian Whitworthy, “America Will Take No Prisoners,”
Times of London, November 20, 2001).

also fails to recognize that covering up civilian killings of our
bombings allows a more lavish use of firepower, killing more enemy
cadres—even if at the expense of heavy civilian casualties—and
helps keep our own casualties down (see Edward Herman, “Body
Counts in Imperial Service,” Z, February 2002; and “‘Tragic
Errors’ in U.S. Military Policy,” Z, October 2002).

Looking back further in history, the United States has long supported
torture and death squad-prone clients. The rise in torture in the
1960s and 1970s was closely correlated with flows of U.S. aid and
training. While the media, pundits, and establishment intellectuals
were regularly taken in by claims that the United States was doing
its level best to make these clients nice, the apologists failed
to note two things. First, that the crucial relationship between
the torture regimes and this country was that the United States
chose to support them in the first place, suggesting that the torture
and terror were either acceptable or positively desired. Second,
in a great many cases it was clear that U.S. training in “methods
of interrogation,” as well as its stress on the evils of the
populists or radicals under attack by the U.S. clients, gave both
a spiritual and technical push to torture and killing (see A. J.
Langguth, Hidden Terrors; Miles Wolpin, Military Aid and
Counterrevolution in the Third World
; Edward Herman, The
Real Terror Network

One of the most dramatic and revealing cases of U.S. official support
for client state mass murder was the U.S. relationship to the huge
Indonesian killings of 1965-1966, which may have claimed over a
million victims, many incidentally on the island of Bali. It is
on the record that the United States supplied lists of people to
be killed to the coup and genocide managers, and it is also clear
that U.S. officials, pundits, and media were ecstatic at what James
Reston saw as a “gleam of light” and Time magazine
called “The West’s best news for years in Asia,”
referring to an Indonesia being subjected to mass slaughter.

Less well known is the fact that U.S. officials had been regretful
that the Indonesian military seemed to lack the gumption to “clean
house,” and expressed great pleasure when the house cleaning
took place. Thus, Rand Corporation and CIA official Guy Pauker had
been despondent in 1959 about the possibility of an army takeover,
but he did hope that “Perhaps overnight the General Staff or
some younger members of the officer corps of Indonesia will strike,
sweep their house clean, and rededicate themselves to a higher purpose”
(presumably stealing, and opening the door to private investment,
after a mass slaughter). After the coup, Pauker exulted that “The
assassination of the six army generals by the September 30 Movement
elicited the ruthlessness that I had not anticipated a year earlier
and resulted in the death of large numbers of Communist cadres [actually,
mostly peasant farmers and ordinary citizens who might have supported
the Communist Party].” (Quoted in Peter Dale Scott’s chapter
in Malcolm Caldwell, ed., Ten Years’ Military Terror In
[Spokesman, 1975].)

This expression of “our values” could be replicated many
times over the past several decades.

Edward S. Herman is an economist, author, and media analyst.