The Empire is not Invincible

Bush has given Iraqis 48 hours to remove Saddam Hussein. If they do not comply they will be bombed and thousands of them will probably be killed. This is only the latest example of a long history of the United States making demands that cannot be met in order to justify war. In 1999, the US demanded that Yugoslavia accept the complete military occupation of the entire country in order to prevent war. When Yugoslavia refused, it was bombed. In 2001, the US demanded that Afghanistan hand over bin Laden or be bombed. When the Taliban demanded evidence, Afghanistan was bombed. This year, the US demanded that Iraq disarm, and Iraq— no doubt to Bush’s dismay– complied! The result? A new demand, one that is virtually impossible to meet, so that the US can go to war, as it always wanted to.


The pretexts have been dismantled and the genuine war aims, for this war and for wars to come, are spelled out nowhere better than in the words of many members of the current US’s regime in their ‘Project for a New American Century’. What might not be so well known is that for all the weapons in its horrific arsenal, the US Empire’s greatest weapon has been its ability to get what it wants without using force. Its propaganda and economic levers are every bit as important. Before threatening to destroy a country, the US threatens to isolate it. But by threatening to isolate so many, the Empire could find itself isolated.


Isolation via Oil Dependence


Many analysts believe that the whole Iraq war is motivated by a desire by US elites to have an ‘oil veto’. If the US has direct control over Iraq in addition to its indirect control over Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and most of the other large oil reserves of the world, it will be able to deny developing countries like China, Russia, or India, or rival economies like Europe and Japan access to oil. By having control over the world’s oil reserves, it can therefore exercise an ‘oil veto’ over the ability of any country to develop its economy and compete with the US economy.


The weakness of the ‘oil veto’ is that the world needs to switch from being a global oil economy to a renewable energy economy for ecological reasons in any case. The United States is already far behind Europe and Japan in this regard. Europe and Japan have far more extensive public transportation infrastructure than car- and highway-filled North America. They also have developed alternative energy systems and conservation technologies far beyond what North America has. Finally, they have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, like most of the world, while the US has not. If the world switches over to renewable energy, the US will find itself with an oil veto that it is unable to exercise over anyone but itself.


Isolation by Capital Flight


The weapon more often used is ‘capital flight’. When a developing country challenges US corporate control over its resources, or even IMF and World Bank dictates over its social policies, it faces ‘capital flight’—all the investors take their cash elsewhere, leaving businesses to shut down because they can’t pay their workers, who then suffer devastating poverty and misery. Brazil is facing capital flight today. Venezuela has been struggling against it for years, since its government enacted some progressive reforms.


There are numerous answers to capital flight, all of which worry the US a good deal. One was tried by the government of Malaysia in the 1990s when it implemented capital controls. The Prime Minister of Malaysia was attacked for this move, and his human rights record was suddenly ‘discovered’ by the United States, but some of the damage of the ‘Asian Crisis’ was mitigated by it. The Venezuelan government has made moves in this direction as well. In Cuba, the response to economic embargo has been the development of a public sector that offers health, education, and nutritional services. As a result, Cubans have survived not only capital flight, but also every attempt of the US to destroy their experiment.


Isolated Populations that survive


But one need not even have the support of a government to respond to being ‘isolated’. In Argentina, when the owners of workplaces emptied their bank accounts and disappeared, the workers took over the factories. Many of the factories are struggling for lack of credit or support, but quite a few are in production and overcoming obstacles. Argentinians are building links between the occupied factories and the neighbourhood assemblies in networks of ‘solidarity economy’.


Some of the most innovative economic experiments come from people who have been neglected, excluded, embargoed, terrorized, or otherwise excluded. The Zapatistas struggle against paramilitary and military blockade and occupation by developing co-operatives based on the ‘solidarity economy’. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have developed seed exchanges where they try to find strategies for food security that will help them survive paramilitary blockades and multinational incursions.


Aziz Choudry writes about the incredible ingenuity of the people of Bougainville under blockade: http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2001-12/11choudry.cfm


‘In April 1990 the Papua New Guinea government imposed a land, sea and military blockade around Bougainville. It aimed to make life even harder for Bougainvilleans so that they would turn against the pro-independence BRA and the Panguna mine could reopen.


All government and social services were suspended, schools closed and medical staff left Bougainville. For nine years, the blockade kept journalists out, along with food, medical supplies, fuel and humanitarian assistance. But in the BRA-controlled areas (over 80% of the Bougainville mainland) communities showed incredible resourcefulness, determination and ingenuity in fashioning solutions to complex problems from local materials and nature itself. They built and maintained indigenous health and education services without outside assistance.


While the seriously ill could take the chance of being ferried at dusk across the blockade in small boats to hospital in the Solomon Islands, bush medicine – the traditional knowledge and practice of indigenous healing underwent a revival in the absence of medical supplies and health professionals. A system of schools and training colleges were set up. Houses, schools and clinics were built from local timbers, vines and foliage. Nails were made from cutting up cyclone fencing. In Pidgin, local chiefs dubbed this indigenous inventiveness “mekim na savvy”, or learning by doing.


Without diesel, Bougainvilleans discovered a new, truly revolutionary use for coconuts. Coconut oil was fermented in upturned fridges discarded at the beginning of the crisis, boiled and used as fuel to run generators and the specially-adapted four wheel drives needed to cross the rugged terrain. The abandoned mine became a hardware supermarket for spare parts which were salvaged, carried across the island, and put to new uses. Solar power was harnessed to charge batteries for two-way radios and satellite phones – an important link with the outside world. As one Bougainvillean woman comments at the beginning of the film: “The war was like a university – it made us creative. We thought for ourselves and we discovered alternative ways to survive”.’


In his new book, “Epidemic of Globalization” (Palestine Research and Publishing Foundation, 2002), Palestinian writer Adel Samara discusses the model of ‘Development by Popular Protection’ (DBPP). Based on the experiences of the first Intifada in the occupied territories in the 1980s, DBPP seeks to develop a parallel economy, creating co-operatives and building local production and gradually boycotting both working and consuming in capitalist institutions. Rather than seeking state power, DBPP happens directly at the level of the people. Samara argues that the strategy of DBPP was successful in the First Intifada and was defeated not by violence, but by Oslo. The 7 years of Oslo were used to undermine the alternative economy that had been built, to make Palestine a captive market again, and to build the settler roads and disconnect Palestinians from each other and from the world so that by the time the Second Intifada broke out, a DBPP strategy was far more difficult.


All of these are examples of what people have been able to accomplish under horrific conditions of repression and isolation, when they have almost nothing to lose. The reason many countries choose to follow the rules of the ‘global economy’ is that they do have much to lose. When the United States threatens a small, poor country with isolation, it is not just threatening isolation from the US itself, but from the whole world. The US is in the process of overplaying its hand, however, and moves increasingly towards isolating itself even from its rich friends.


The Observer reported on February 17 that the US planned to punish German ‘treachery’ by removing its military bases from Germany, to harm the German economy, and teach the world the costs of standing up to America. The US ought to worry, however, not only that Germans might discover they didn’t want or need the military bases of a foreign power on their land, but also that other countries (Turkey? Saudi Arabia?) might wonder: “Is it that easy to get the US to remove its military bases?”. http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=14&ItemID=3060


There have been threats of punishing French ‘ingratitude’ as well, of boycotting French cheese, wine, and cars. And of punishing Mexican ingratitude by penalizing Mexican immigrant labourers. And of punishing Canadian ingratitude by penalizing Canada’s massive travel and trade with the US. But the power of the US has always been based—to an extent that US elites seem not to recognize– as much on its being the hub of a network of relationships of mutual dependence as it is on overwhelming military force (which it certainly has).


If the over-use of America’s threats to isolate others gives the peoples of the world a chance to talk directly to each other instead of through the US, and particularly if it gives poor people a chance to talk directly to each other instead of through the rich, the Empire might just isolate itself out of existence.


Justin Podur is a ZNet commentator and volunteer.

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