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Bob Herbert Doesn’t Get It: It’s About Empire, Not Democracy


American liberals, even left-liberals, just don’t get United States (U.S.) imperialism. 

For an excellent case in point, see a recent opinion-editorial titled “Stop Bush’s War” by Bob Herbert, who is probably the “liberal” New York Times’ leftmost columnist (Hebert, “Stop Bush’s War, New York Times, 16 March 2006, p. A23). 

The column makes some excellent points.  Herbert is right to say that “an ocean of blood has been shed” in the criminal occupation of Iraq whether the total Iraqi body count is as low as president Bush says (30,000) or (as numerous responsible investigators say) well into six figures. 

Herbert is right to say that “there’s no end to this tragic [blood] flow in sight.”  He’s right to observe that many of the war’s supporters hold a fundamentally “deprav[ed]” thought: “that the best way to fight [the current Iraq war] is with other people’s children.” He’s right to remind us of “the formerly healthy men and women who have come back to the United States from Iraq paralyzed or without their arms or legs or eyes or the full use of their minds.”  He’s right to quote David Halberstam to the effect that U.S. foreign policymakers’ desire to be seen as “tough” and “strong” is part of the reason for the continuing bloodshed in Iraq.

But Herbert is wrong to call “Bush’s war” “mindless” and to see little more than the timeless “madness” and “folly” of blind and power-mad elites in the making of both the U.S. assault on Vietnam and the current U.S. occupation of Iraq.  He’s wrong to think it is telling, relevant, and useful to quote Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam-era special assistant Jack Valenti on “how difficult it is ‘to impress democracy’ on other countries.”  He’s wrong to take the Bush administration seriously when it says it wants a free and democratic Iraq, as he does when he says that “the democracy that was supposed to flower in Iraq and then spread throughout the Middle East was as much a mirage as the weapons of mass destruction.” 

The notion that the White House wants “democracy in Iraq and the Middle East” has never been anything more than a childish fairly tale concocted to cover imperial machinations.  Herbert is engaging in wildly wishful thinking and whistling in the wind of imperial arrogance when he says that “the White House should be working cooperatively with members of both parties in Congress to figure out the best way to bring the curtain down on U.S. involvement.”  And he’s wrong to say that Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” is “the best book about America’s involvement in Vietnam.”  

The “liberal” Kennedy and Johnson administrations attacked Vietnam for a very good imperial reason: to crush the “virus” of independent Third World revolutionary nationalism.  Far from being sheer “madness” or irrational “folly,” this bloody imperial mission was largely achieved even as maximal U.S. objectives were not attained.  And the Bush II administration invaded Iraq for its own significantly rational imperial reason: to deepen U.S. control over strategically hyper-significant Middle Eastern oil.  Whether that mission will succeed is is unclear but one thing that ought to abundantly evident is that neither the Bush administration nor its successor will be closing out its presence in Iraq anytime soon. 

The notion of the Iraqi people doing whatever they wish with their critical petroleum resources is unacceptable to American imperialists from both of the two dominant business parties.  The oil and related world-economic and strategic geopolitical stakes in Iraq and the region are simply to high for that. As James M. Lindsay, a vocre president at the eminently imperialist Council on Foreign recently proclaimed: “It was always hard to sustain the argument that if the United States withdrew from Vietnam there would be immense geopolitical consequences. As we look at Iraq, it’s a very different issue. It’s a country in one of the most volatile parts of the world, which has a very precious resource that modern economies rely on, namely oil.”

Neither the U.S. war on Vietnam nor the the current U.S. war on Iraq was even remotely about any sincere desire on the part of U.S. policymakers to “impress” freedom, independence, and democracy “on other countries.” In both cases, independence, democracy, sovereignty, and freedom were the last things that Unce Sam’s top officials wanted to see breaking out in the territories targeted for massive aggression. 

And for what it’s worth, the “best book about America’s involvement in Vietnam” is Noam Chomsky’s “For Reasons of State” (1970), a judicious dissection of, and reflection upon, the Pentagon’s internal planning record.  Unlike Herbert, this study never falls for the Washington war masters’ deceptive rhetoric about fighting for what the great Vietnam war critic Martin Luther King Jr. termed “so-called freedom.”  And I wish Herbert had remembered to mention something he knows quitewell: that “the other people’s children” sent to kill and die in Iraq come disproportionately from America’s poor and working classes. 

Paul Street ([email protected]) is a former historian and urban civil rights researcher in the American Midwest.  He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004) and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005).

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