Gabriel Kolko, Another Century of War? (New York: New Press, 2002)
Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State (New York: Verso, 2014)
More Like Wise Guys
One of the worst ideas I picked up from certain academic historians and political scientists when I was an undergraduate history major in the late 1970s was the notion of a sophisticated and far-seeing United States imperial elite that knew how to smoothly and benevolently manage the planet from the banks of the Potomac River. Who were my Establishment-adoring professors trying to kid?
When I was in nursery school in October of 1962, the purported visionary masters atop Camelot brought the world within a hair’s breadth of Armageddon through reckless nuclear posturing and a deadly game of chicken that might have ended the human experiment but for the heroic last-second actions of a Soviet submarine commander (Vasili Arkhapov) off the coast of Florida. Washington’s “exceptional” global system managers came shockingly close to provoking US-Soviet nuclear war again in 1973 and 1983.
As Harvard’s handsome John F. Kennedy garnered U.S. press and television accolades for facing down the Soviets in the Caribbean, the “best and the brightest” initiated the long mass-murderous debacle known to American History textbooks as “The Vietnam War.” It’s a curious term for a massively one-sided imperial assault on a poor peasant nation by the world’s richest industrialized state. Before that monumental crime was over, 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed along with 3 to 5 million Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians. Washington’s dream of creating a unified, U.S.-allied Vietnamese nation lay in tatters. Unlike the previous US quagmire in Korea, Washington failed to keep a client state intact in the southern half of the nation it pillaged. Saigon fell to the officially Communist Hanoi regime forty years ago last April 30th.
The leading Left intellectual Noam Chomsky has argued compellingly that the U.S. “won” the war in a very ugly sense. America pounded and poisoned Vietnam so mercilessly that the Vietnamese Revolution could not demonstrate to other small and poor nations the advisability of defying America to pursue an independent and egalitarian path beyond Washington’s supervision. The Vietnam “domino” (to use U.S. Cold War planners’ term) may have fallen, but if fell into a pile of ash, blood, and dictatorship. The “threat of a good example” – of positive national and populist development outside Washington’s capitalist and imperial oversight and direction (the real specter behind the fantastic U.S. “domino theory” of Kremlin-coordinated global revolution) – was averted.
If it was a victory for Washington’s “Wise Men,” it had little to do with my professors’ thesis of a munificent and farsighted U.S. Establishment. Confronted with the consequences of its repeated inability and refusal to grasp the basic social and political realities behind an at once nationalist and social-revolutionary peoples’ struggle in Vietnam, the U.S. Empire resorted to its standard default tool – sheer mass-murderous military force and technology – to attain the bottom-line goal. The policy was criminal beyond words, with no small price paid in “the homeland,” where the briefly declared “War on Poverty” was strangled in its cradle by the Vietnam atrocity, leaving Martin Luther King, Jr., to observe that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Twenty months before the last U.S. helicopters left Saigon in abject symbolic humiliation, mass murder was deployed by the Nixon administration and the CIA to undo another “threat of a good example” in Chile. A U.S.-sponsored military coup there overthrew the democratically elected Chilean government of the moderately Marxist Salvador Allende, ushering in a neo-fascist dictatorship that smashed popular organizations and killed thousands of workers, activists, and intellectuals. One lesson of Vietnam and perhaps Chile for Washington was to rely more on the direct killing power of its “Third World Fascist” clients and proxies when it came to making up for its failure to enforce its imperial aims through political means. “All told,” historian Greg Grandin notes, “U.S. allies in Central America during Reagan’s two terms killed over 300,000 people, tortured hundreds of thousands, and drove millions into exile.” This epic bloodshed took place with lavish funding, training, and equipment from Washington, which had learned to “farm out its imperial violence.”
Not that Uncle Sam didn’t already know how to subcontract mass killing. In Brazil, the Congo, Indonesia, Greece, and indeed across much of the Third World in the 1960s and 1970s, U.S.-sponsored dictatorships killed, maimed, and tortured millions of activists, peasants, intellectuals, and workers who sought the paths of social justice and national independence.
This record is more like what one would expect from Mafia Dons and their “wise guy” henchmen than from munificent “wise men” of principled global vision.
Kolko Reflects (2002): Imperial Hubris, Myopia, and Force Addiction
Not long after the al-Qaeda commandeered jetliners hit most of their targets in New York City and Washington DC in 2001, giving the U.S. its own 9/11 (Latin America had its own in Santiago, Chile, courtesy of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, on September 11, 1973), the late pioneer New Left historian Gabriel Kolko (August 17, 1932 – May 19, 2014) wrote and published a learned and prophetic little book titled Another Century of War? (New York: New Press, 2002). Unlike even some of his New Left counterparts, Kolko was never remotely impressed by the “best and brightest” Ivy League graduates who ran U.S. foreign policy. Struck instead by the seemingly endless “myopia, hubris, and ambition” of the nation’s imperial policymakers, he never fell prey to the myth of a U.S. imperial (or domestic) power elite that possessed the capacity to smartly run domestic and foreign affairs through rational and intelligent planning and sophisticated “corporate liberal” politics of “containment” at home or abroad. Kolko’s post-WWII U.S. imperial establishment was a clumsy, violence-addicted menace to global peace, justice, and security – including the security of the U.S. people. It was a mass-murderous agent and perpetrator of militarism, neo-colonial flag-showing and intervention (the U.S. undertook 215 actions of “force without war” from 1946 through 1975) and war – the field of human endeavor in which it felt most confidently supreme and technologically potent. Military power was the brutish tool to which it resorted to provide false and deadly “fixes” for political and social problems it could not resolve through civilized means. Again and again, as in Korea and Vietnam, its clumsy default militarism would come back to haunt it and undermine its grandiose planetary ambitions. As Kolko explained in the preface to Another Century of War ?:
“Technologically sophisticated American military power, which has won all the battles in Afghanistan, has only emboldened the Bush administration to use its might elsewhere. However, military success bears scant relationship to political solutions that end wars and greatly reduce the risk of their recurring. But this dichotomy between military power and political success has existed for most of the past century. The United States has always been ready to use its superior military strength even though employing that power often creates many more problems than it solves.” (Kolko 2002, p. ix).
Kolko’s deeply knowledgeable skepticism along these lines shaped his judgement on the primary peril facing humanity after September 11, 2001, itself classic “blowback” from prior blundering U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. The threat was the enduring chaotic, irrational, paranoid, unscrupulous, depraved, incoherent, shortsighted, crisis-ridden, self-fulfilling and self-defeating, force-addicted policy of Washington, not the Islamist terror networks and fundamentalism that the U.S. had done so much to create during the last century. Kolko’s reflections merit lengthy quotation:
“…the principal (but surely no exclusive) danger the entire world confronts is America’s capacity and readiness to intervene virtually anywhere. After Afghanistan there will be more American military adventures…. America may well intervene elsewhere in its futile, never-ending quest to use its military power to resolve political and social instabilities that challenge its interests as it defines them” (Kolko 2002, ix-x).
“…The United States has more military equipment than ever, and since 1950 Pentagon spending has become one of the traditional and indispensable foundations of American prosperity. There is no indication that it will decline. But there are no technological quick-fixes to political problems. Solutions are political. They require another mentality and much more wisdom, including a readiness to compromise and, above all, to stay out of the affairs of other nations…its reliance on weapons and force has exacerbated or created far more problems for the United States than it has solved…It is imperative that the United States acknowledge the limits of its power – limits that are inherent in its own military illusions and in the very nature of a world that is far too big and complex for any country to dream of managing” (140-141).
“Whatever rationality is built into the [U.S.] foreign policy apparatus has had little impact in guiding policymakers since 1950…There is far less understanding at the top than successive leaders have claimed, and domestic politics and short-term factors play a much greater role than they will ever admit. The world…cannot afford U.S. foreign policy’s opportunistic and ad-hoc character, its wavering between the immoral and the amoral …that official speechwriters portray as rational and principled. In reality, it has neither coherence nor useful principles but often responds to one crisis after another – and these are usually of its own making [and]… proof of confusion and ineptness…Rather than leading the world in a better direction, it has usually inflicted incalculable harm wherever it has intervened …Its leaders have been addicted to intervening for its own sake, to save the nation’s ‘credibility,’ to prevent an alleged vacuum of power, or to fulfill its self-appointed role as the enforcer of global or regional order (which it usually equates with the freedom of American businessmen to make money)…All of its policies in the Middle East have been contradictory and counterproductive” (142-43).
Creating the Islamic State
Not bad. As Kolko noted, “the two men whom the United States has most demonized over the past two decades” (143), Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, had both once been sponsored and backed with vast resources by Washington. The 9/11 attacks, Kolko might have added, would not likely have occurred without the support the jihadists received from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, key U.S. allies who received a free pass from the U.S. in its subsequent global “war on [of] terror.” The Saudi kingdom and the Pakistani military have remained official U.S. friends despite being what the leading Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn calls “the two countries most involved in support al-Qaeda and favoring the ideology behind the attacks.”
Opportunistic? As Cockburn notes in his recent book The Rise of the Islamic State, a brilliant study of (among other things) US-led Western myopia and failure, “The shock of 9/11 provided a Pearl Harbor moment in the US when public revulsion and fear could be manipulated to implement a preexisting neoconservative agenda by targeting Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq. A reason for waterboarding al-Qaeda suspects was to extract confessions implicating Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia in the attacks” (Cockburn 2014, pp.100-101).
Inept and counterproductive? After 9/11, Cockburn observes, the U.S. “targeted the wrong countries when Iraq and Afghanistan were identified as the hostile states whose governments needed to be overthrown” (Cockburn, 138). Look at the bloody and chaotic mayhem the U.S. has sowed across the Muslim world through its ham-fisted reliance on blunt, monumentally destructive military force in the wake of the jetliner assaults. More than a million Iraqis lost their lives unnecessarily because of Washington’s criminal invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia, launched on blatantly and viciously false, 9/11-exploiting pretexts. Like the Korean and Vietnam fiascos, the giant imperial transgression given the Orwellian name Operation Iraqi Freedom is a prolonged bloody seminar in violence- and technology-addicted idiocy rooted in epic political stupidity, racialized imperial arrogance, and capitalist profit lust. The soulless and mindless devastation imposed on Iraq by the world’s greatest killing, dismembering, destroying, and displacing machine (the U.S. military) has given rise to the barbaric and arch-reactionary Islamic State (IS), which now covers an area larger than Great Britain – the biggest radical change in the geography of the Middle East since the aftermath of World War I.
Still, the young lady who recently told presidential hopeful Jeb Bush that his brother George W. Bush “created the Islamic state” has it only partly right. The IS has also drawn critical strength from Washington’s Obama-era campaign against the Assad regime in Syria, where the new arch-reactionary caliphate has gained a critical foothold with no small help from the US ally Turkey. “Western support for the Syrian opposition may have failed to overthrow Assad,” Cockburn notes, “but it has been successful in destabilizing Iraq,” where the ISIS has drawn heavily on the prolonged and largely U.S.-funded and –equipped Syrian Civil War. The Sunni jihadist movement created by the U.S. invasion and the Shiite sectarianism of the U.S.-imposed regime in Baghdad had faded in Iraq by 2010. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the IS, was at its lowest ebb. But “by supporting the armed uprising in Syria,” Cockburn reports, the U.S. and the West “would inevitably destabilize Iraq and provoke a new round of its sectarian civil war.” It was given new life by the Syrian conflagration, fueled by Washington and its allies. As Cockburn explains, like something out of Kolko’s reflections on American ineptitude:
“ISIS is the child of war…The movement’s toxic but potent mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of war in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003 and the war in Syria since 2011. Just the violence in Iraq was ebbing, the war was revived by the Sunni Arabs in Syria…it was the war in Syria that destabilized [bordering] Iraq when jihadi groups like ISIS, then called al-Qaeda in Iraq, found a new battlefield where they could fight ah flourish…It was the US, Europe, and their regional allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates that created the conditions for the rise of ISIS. They kept the war going in Syria, though it was obvious from 2012 that Assad would not fall…He was not about to go, and ideal conditions were created for ISIS to prosper” (Cockburn, 8-9).
Jihadists easily and completely hijacked a Syrian opposition that the White House and other Western power and opinion centers foolishly portrayed as “moderate,” “democratic,” and on the verge of overthrowing Assad. Washington is further handicapped in its effort to roll back the IS by its ongoing conflicts with Syrian and Iranian regimes, both blood enemies of Sunni extremists, and by its continuing alliance with Saudi Arabia and other arch-reactionary gulf monarchies, key sponsors of Wahhabi extremism.
As I write today, on the first anniversary of Kolko’s death (May 19th), I look belatedly at yesterday’s New York Times to see that the Islamic State has seized the key Iraqi city of Ramadi after weeks of U.S. airstrikes meant to prevent that outcome. The latest radical Islamist triumph in Iraq mocks Washington’s recent claims that the IS is “on the defensive” (NYT, 5/18/2015, A1). Because of its irrational conflict with Teheran, the U.S. has discouraged Baghdad from mobilizing and deploying Iraq’s pro-Iran Shiite fighters, the blood enemies of the IS who are required in battle if the extremist Sunni state is going to be effectively countered in Iraq. It’s another epic imperial “cluster-fuck” of Washington’s own making to no small extent.
Meanwhile extremists thrive in Libya, where the Obama administration sowed anarchy and created fertile soil for radical Islamism within that nation by militarily overthrowing the formerly U.S.-allied Libyan government of Moammar Ghadafi. The Wall Street Journal reports on its first page today that “the Islamic State has solidified its foothold in Libya as it searches for ways to capitalize on its rising popularity among extremist groups around the world…[the] foothold…gives the group a new staging place to plan attacks in North Africa and across the Mediterranean sea in Europe…Deeper ties in Libya could give Islamic State the ability to extend its influence further into Africa, where groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria have pledged allegiance to the radical Sunni force.” (D. Nissenbaum and M. Abi-Habib, “Islamic State Sends Fighters to Libya,” WSJ, 5/19/2015, A1, A6).
Across the Muslim world, from North Africa to Afghanistan – where the Taliban has been back on the rise for years – the U.S. “war on [of] terror” policy is a rolling catastrophe, every bit as muddled and stumbling as the Indochinese fiasco. Under Obama no less than under Bush, the reasons for U.S. and Western failure in the Middle East are largely “recent and self-inflicted” (Cockburn). It’s been quite an accomplishment on the part of Washington’s not-so wise men. As Cockburn notes:
“Osama bin Laden’s gathering of militants, which did not call itself al Qaeda until after 9/11, was just one of many jihadi groups twelve years ago. But today its ideas and methods are predominant among jihadis because of the prestige it gained through the destruction of the Twin Towers, the war in Iraq and its demonization by Washington as the source of all anti-American evil. These days, there is a narrowing of differences in the beliefs of jihadis, regardless of whether or not they are formally linked to al-Qaeda central….At the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda was a small, generally ineffective organization; by 2014 al Qaeda-type groups were numerous and powerful. In other words, the ‘war on terror,’ the waging of which has shaped the political landscape for so much of the world since 2001, has demonstrably failed.” (Cockburn, 55, 59)
Nowhere is this abject failure – a monument to Kolko’s understanding of the U.S. imperial establishment – more glaringly obvious than across northern Iraq and Syria:
“If you look at a map of the Middle East, [Cockburn observes], you will find that al-Qaeda-type organizations have become a lethally powerful force in a territory that stretches from Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, to northern Latakia province on Syria’s Mediterranean coastline. The whole of the Euphrates Valley through Western Iraq, eastern Syria, and right up to the Turkish border is today under the control of ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the latter being the official representative of what U.S. officials call ‘core’ al-Qaeda in Pakistan” (Cockburn, 42-43).
Good at Killing People, Good at Spreading Jihad
Elected in the deceptive brand name of peace, the smooth-talking Barack Obama has not slaughtered on the same mass-homicidal scale of his more explicitly militarist cowboy predecessor. Obama was tasked with reducing the ground-force footprint of the US Armed Forces and has a special taste for murdering in smaller doses through the more “surgical” use of drones, laser-guided missiles, and Special Forces assault. He has joked to his White House staff that he is “good at killing people. Didn’t know that was going to be one of my strong suits.”
He is also quite proficient at broadening the political and ideological spread of jihad by widening the geographic reach and the frequency of America’s high-tech propensity to murder suddenly from the sky. George W. Bush may have him beat on body count, but Obama takes the prize when it comes to technologically sophisticated killing scope and in terms of direct killing involvement. The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner personally oversees the Pentagon and CIA’s Kill List, which designates “bad guy” Muslims for remote-control assassination without the irritating technicalities of law and politics – and without the risk of U.S. casualties. These cowardly killings and their considerable collateral damage have been emotionally potent jihadist recruiting tools from Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and indeed in Muslim communities around the world.
Under Obama as under Bush, Washington has further epitomized Kolko’s take on the politically feckless military illusions of U.S. imperialism by claiming to have won great “war on terror” victories through targeted military assassinations of key jihadi leaders. The spectacular Navy Seals helicopter raid that executed bi-Laden in Pakistan made great press in the West, eliciting patriotic celebration across the U.S. in May of 2011. It was wholly irrelevant to the “war on terror,” however, which was failing badly in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere as the Special Forces moved in for the great moment in what ABC News calls “the Osama bin Laden Kill Zone.”
Last weekend, the White House and Pentagon crowed about a Special Forces raid that killed the Islamic State’s “chief financial officer” and captured his wife. Meanwhile the IS completed its takeover of Ramadi. The IS functionary will be easily replaced.
Meanwhile, jihadist expansion is fueled by the transparent absurdity of the U.S. claiming to support “democracy” and “freedom” across the region while sponsoring the prodigiously corrupt and totalitarian governments of Saudi Arabia and other crooked and debased Gulf oil monarchies. As Cockburn notes, “there was always something fantastical about the US and its Western allies teaming up with the theocratic Sunni absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to spread democracy and enhance human rights in Syria, Iraq, and Libya” (Cockburn, 8).
War is a Racket
The endless clumsy application of U.S. and U.S.-sponsored terror only breeds more Islamist terror. Jihadist outrages only provide more pretexts for more Mafia-like Pentagon madness inflicted in the interest of U.S. “credibility,” with concomitant destabilizing consequences across the oil- and religion-fueled tinderbox that is the Middle East. The only clear winners are radical Islamist extremists and their curious partners the U.S. corporate military-industrial complex.
“War is a racket,” wrote Smedley Butler, a decorated Marine general who recalled functioning in essence as “a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers” during numerous early 20th century deployments in Central America and the Caribbean. The militarism that he coordinated enriched a select few wealthy Americans, Butler reflected, not the mostly working class soldiers on the front lines. “How many of the war millionaires shouldered a rifle. How many of them dug a trench?”
Butler’s reflections have, if anything, grown in relevance since World War II when the U.S. became home to the most powerful military empire the world has ever seen – and to a vast military-industrial complex whose direct prices (including mass death and injury in a long line of neocolonial wars of invasion and occupation from Korea through Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) and more indirect costs (including social welfare opportunity costs) have been borne by American society as a whole (not to mention the many millions of non-American others killed, injured and displaced by the U.S. military and its military client states). The benefits have flowed especially to wealthy Americans. Today, as during the Cold War and before, war and the apparently permanent preparation for war is a source of corporate mega-profits as it provides a deceptive cloak of national unity behind which elites concentrate wealth and power, shaming those who question that upward redistribution as unpatriotic carpers seeking to “divide rather unite America.” Military Keynesianism remains intact while the business class’s campaign to dismantle what’s left of the welfare state takes another step forward in poverty- and prison-ridden America. Such are the “perverted priorities” (Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase) of policymakers in the U.S., the “beacon to the world of the way life should be,” to quote onetime U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), reflecting in October of 2002 on why George W. Bush should be allowed to invade Iraq if he wanted to.
The U.S. imperial establishment might still rule, but it does not do so through superior intelligence, vision, principles, planning, and strategy. As Kolko suggested in his synthesis Main Currents in American History (1976), it reigns instead thanks to deep structural fragmentation, powerlessness, cruelty, misery, and chaos in the imperial “homeland” and across the world system. It rules over and through disorder, drift, violence, division, and sheer inherited technological, institutional, and territorial advantage at home and abroad. The moment when underlying political-economic and other structural and conjunctural shifts and events will unseat the great post-WWII “rogue superpower” once and for all from its deadly global position cannot be precisely determined of course. There have long been signs that the death spiral of U.S. hegemony is underway; how long the process will take and whether humanity can survive it in decent shape are open questions. In the meantime, Kolko was certainly right to note after 9/11 and before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that “Everyone – Americans and those people who are the objects of their efforts – would be better off if the United States …allowed the rest of the world to find its way without American weapons and troops…To continue as it has over the past century is [for the U.S.] to admit that it has the vainglorious and irrational ambition to run the world. It cannot. It has failed in the past and will fail in this century, and attempting to do so will inflict wars and turmoil on many nationals as well as on its own people” (Kolko, 150).
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).