If the Left Debated the Campaign Issues


"Election Dissension" is part of a Z Magazine series on all things electoral. We welcome your contributions to the discussion; send to zmag@zmag.org. The previous interview with Michael Albert, "Serving the Dominant Elites," was published in the April issue. The full discussion is available on DVD via Z Video Productions  — Eds.


An interview with Michael Albert by Lydia Sargent

SARGENT: In the last session you established that presidential elections are mostly a PR campaign and that, sincere or not, the campaign has little to do with truth or with fundamental changes in existing institutions and a lot to do with getting elected, with the help of elite funding and false promises to voters. Let’s turn to a few specific issues, starting with foreign policy. How would the left or a left candidate go about exposing U.S. foreign policy?

ALBERT: I don’t think what the candidates say about foreign policy means much at all. They seek to appeal to funders, media, and various constituencies. They say what their pollsters tell them to say. At times they say what they believe while at other times they say what they don’t believe. They sell themselves in the same way Proctor and Gamble sells toothpaste—by saying whatever needs to be said to find a way to get support.  

To find out about candidates, the way to go about it is not by looking at what they say, but by looking at the history of American foreign policy. Since the logic of it changes barely at all, there’s no reason to suspect it’s going to change now—unless, of course, large constituencies force it to change. 

As to what their foreign policy is it’s relatively simple: U.S. foreign policy is elites in the United States— the Pentagon, the White House, the corporations—pursuing policies designed to enhance their own power, their own options, and their own wealth. So the policies are designed to extract wealth from other places in the world, whether by actual coercive behavior or, more often, just the power of threats. 

A case in point is that the United States isn’t in Iraq to take Iraqi oil and benefit from it directly, it’s rather more in Iraq to be in control of Iraqi and Mideast oil and to be able to use that power, that threat, that position of dominance over a critical resource to coerce outcomes around the world that it wants. It’s always been our policy to behave in that way. 

So when candidates say that the U.S. should promote democracy and human rights around the world, what do they mean? 

I have no idea what’s in their heads, but it’s a little bit like saying Iran should promote democracy and human rights around the world. It makes no sense. It’s like saying domestically the Mafia should promote human rights and democracy in major urban areas of the United States. 

The United States doesn’t care what polls show the Iraqi people want; the United States doesn’t care what polls show the population of any country in the world wants. When Turkey was going to oppose the war in Iraq because the Turkish population was so against war that the Turkish elites were afraid not to, American media described Turkey as a backward country, not a country that was exhibiting democratic behavior— which it was. And the same went for countries throughout Europe. The countries that opposed the war in Iraq, that were critical of it in response to overwhelming sentiments of their populations, the United States treated as somehow backward, peculiar, misbehaving. The countries that ignored their populations and supported the U.S. role in Iraq, the United States was happy about, describing them as enlightened. That’s what American foreign policy is all about. The gap between reality and rhetoric is so huge that you can say things that are incredible. So to talk about the United States imposing democracy is like talking about the Mafia imposing non-violence or peace. 

What kind of a foreign policy would you present and how should America behave toward the rest of the world? 

I think a good leftist—my saying it doesn’t mean much—but a good leftist who might be running for office would say something like, "As president, here are some of the things I would do: close American military bases around the world; reorient the funds that would be saved and spend some in parts of the world that have suffered due to policies of the United States and other wealthy first world countries; spend some of it inside the United States—raising the consciousness and a sense of solidarity with others—and improving the life of people in the United States." 

I would simply remove from the docket of American behavior occupying, invading, or otherwise using violence to coerce other nations in any way whatsoever. I would make clear that there are several ways to deal with "terrorism" in the world. One is to pursue it, to actually be terrorists. That’s what the United States does as its primary policy. That is, the United States engages in coercive violence around the world to pursue its own interests regardless of its effect on populations.

The second thing that the U.S. does is provoke terrorism. We have a foreign policy that is so callous toward, so dismissive of, and so denigrating to, people around the world that people naturally react hostilely. And then we have created an environment in which the only thing that matters is power. If the only thing that matters is power, and you’re a third world country, you can’t exercise power via a gigantic military apparatus like the United States, you have to do it via terrorism. It’s the only avenue open. 

I should clarify that terrorism is a real issue. It is possible for there to be a terrorist apparatus that exacts gigantic horror. 

Besides the U.S., you mean? 

Yes. The U.S. is first in nuclear weapons, first in violence, first in coercion. But you could imagine a situation in which some apparatus got possession of nuclear weapons and used them. So how do you prevent that? Well, one way would be Bush’s way, by having a gigantic coercive cop on the beat who, ahead of any threat, goes in and exterminates what it takes to be the likely threat. The problem with that approach, aside from being immoral, is the idea that the U.S. should do it. Everybody in the U.S. would laugh if we said that the Iranians or North Koreans should be the cops of the world. Well, for the rest of the world the idea that the U.S. should be the cops of the world is like that.  It’s ridiculous. 

Imagine that six people decide they’re going on a rampage and engage in some horrible violent activity against Las Vegas. And surveillance discovers they are from Phoenix, Arizona. So what should we do? We want to prosecute these people, we think they’re in Phoenix—let’s bomb Phoenix. Let’s launch a massive air assault against the entire state, for that matter, because we believe these six terrorists are in Phoenix. What would the result be? Instead of 6 people, there would be 6,000 people hostile toward the rest of the country. 

What should we do with the six people in Phoenix? We might try to catch them without killing everyone else in the city. What if Japan or India decided to bomb the U.S. and cut off food and medicine because there’s a bunch of terrorists in Washington? 

The idea of solving the problem of coercive violence by the exercise of even greater coercive violence has never and probably will never work. These policies are barbaric and they do not deal with terrorism. On the other hand, they aren’t meant to deal with terrorism. They’re meant to perpetuate and propel the will of America in the world as the chief sovereign that decides what can and can’t be done. 

So what’s the alternative? The alternative would be international law. The alternative would be an environment in which international courts, international law, the UN, really meant something. The alternative would be an environment in which those who have power now—and it doesn’t change overnight—would be restrained from and would restrict themselves from exercising it. That’s what a left candidate would talk about. 

Let’s turn specifically to Iraq. In a candidates’ debate, what would you say about our foreign policy there? 

The United States should withdraw. But more than that, it should pay huge reparations. Why? Because we’ve destroyed the infrastructure of a country. We have harmed, perhaps irreparably, a society. We owe them reparations. We owe them support to get back to being a functioning polity, economy, and social system. So we should provide that, not just withdraw. But we should certainly withdraw. We are an occupying army. 

Another area of concern in the debates is China. The talk there is about human rights violations and lack of democracy. How would a left candidate discuss China? 

A left candidate might look and say not just what are the Chinese doing, but what are the Americans doing? For instance, American cigarette manufacturers are addicting the Chinese population to cigarettes. Why? In order to replace European and American populations’ diminishing smoking. So we’re exporting smoking to China. Let’s compare that to cocaine from Colombia to the United States. Cocaine from Colombia to the United States kills about 3,000 Americans a year. Cigarette addiction will kill millions, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of Chinese over decades. That’s what American policy does. What is China doing that remotely compares—and remember we’re only looking at one industry in the U.S.?

So what I would do first is look at our behavior with respect to China and the rest of the world. Then, if we clean it up, if we begin to behave in a remotely responsible fashion, we would have more justification in criticizing violations  elsewhere. 

Another country of great concern to the candidates is Cuba. Should we continue the sanctions, should we indict Castro, should we go in and get Castro’s ally Chavez? 

Again, it’s American political culture vs. reality. So what we have in Cuba is a situation where, for decades, the United States has engaged in economic warfare, terrorism as well. The economic warfare is the embargo, the terrorism is the acts of terror committed with the support of, and even engaged in by, U.S. policy toward Cuba. Why? If the Cuban people want to do X and X is dangerous to the United States, it’s not allowed. What is X in this case? X is to own their own resources. X is to administer their own society. X is to not have a distribution of wealth like that in the United States where a few percent of the population own the vast majority of the economic assets and the wealth accruing from them. The Cubans don’t have that. The Cubans have a society where the tremendous centralization of wealth in the hands of the few was undone. 

It’s not my idea of an ideal society by a long shot, but that was a gigantic step forward. It’s that step forward that makes Cuba anathema to the United States and which causes the U.S. to think that it makes sense to talk about what the future of Cuba should be. What if the Japanese started to talk about what the future of the U.S. should be? We can understand the idea that one nation doesn’t have the right to dictate to another how it should function, except in the case of the United States. 

And Chavez in Venezuela? 

With respect to Chavez, it’s even more ridiculous. For the U.S. to talk about Chavez as a dictator is a travesty. It’s a travesty in the sense that they’ve had election after election in Venezuela which he handily wins. Then they have one recently, not about his being in office, but about a set of policies that he was backing, which lost. What was Chavez’s response to that? "Okay, I lost." If he was a dictator he wouldn’t lose; he wouldn’t even have an election. 

So why is the U.S. government upset about Venezuela? We’re upset for the same reasons as in Cuba. It’s because in Venezuela the government is looking around at society and saying, "You know what? We should change things. We should change things such that those who are poorest, those who are suffering, those who are denied their dignity, will get it all back. How will they get it all back? We’ll redistribute wealth, we’ll redistribute power. We’ll think of new ways to organize the political system, new ways to organize the economy." That’s what they’re doing. But that’s a horror from the point of view of the United States. What happens if they succeed?  

The worst possible outcome for U.S. elites is not that Chavez is a dictator. In Washington each day the government gets up praying that he’ll do something that, in fact, would be dictatorial. The worst conceivable outcome is that the Venezuelans succeed in improving the quality of life of the people of Venezuela and in creating a model that could be emulated elsewhere. That’s why we go in and try to create turmoil and try to create a coup. And who knows what we’ll try and do in the future. 

And a left president would…? 

A left president would say, "My gosh, what’s going on in Venezuela is quite fascinating. Let’s go down there and try to learn something."


Michael Albert and Lydia Sargent are staff members of Z Communications.