Five presidents travel in a van across the country, to see the USA from sea to shining sea.
Their trip finally ends on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
They then have to decide which way to turn on Highway 1, which runs along the West Coast.
"It’s simple," says FDR, "We need to signal to the left and turn left."
"I agree it’s simple," says Ronald Reagan, "but we have to signal right and turn right."
"No, it’s a more complex question," says Bill Clinton, "We should signal to the left, but then turn to the right."
"I agree it’s complex," says Barack Obama, "but I hope that we can signal right, and then turn left."
"You’re all wrong," says George W. Bush, "We need to be resolute and show determination. Keep driving straight ahead."
It has been more than a month since Barack Obama made history, and Democrats won back the White House. Now that the celebration is over, and the party hats have been put away, progressives are getting a dose of reality. When it comes to domestic policy, the Obama Administration will certainly be a marked improvement over past administrations. But when it comes to foreign and military policy, Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as his vice-president–and his leading foreign policy advisor–was an early "signal" that little may change. This perception has been strengthened by the President-elect’s recent choices for his War Cabinet.
As the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (and its Chairman), Biden has rarely met a war he doesn’t like. He echoes George W. Bush that "Force will be used without asking anyone’s permission when circumstances warrant." If President Obama and the peace movement do not keep a tight rein on Vice President Biden, he could gain as powerful a role in foreign policy as Vice President Cheney. He would then be positioned to continue Bush’s occupations in different forms, and even lead the charge for new wars. If the peace movement prematurely lets down its guard, the number of military interventions may even increase rather than decrease.
Biden led the Democratic support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, has aggressively justified the occupation ever since, and proposed carving up Iraq into three Balkan-style statelets. Like previous Democratic administrations, however, he paints a "humanitarian" gloss over U.S. military interventions, to mask their real purpose of extending U.S. military bases and corporate control of resources.
It was always a mistaken and shallow analysis to demonize Bush and Cheney as the root of all evil, implying that removing them from office would excise unilateral militarism from foreign policy. Personalizing the problem was especially misleading for Americans who had not yet come of political age during previous Democratic administrations. It was Jimmy Carter who declared an "Energy War," established the Central Command in the Middle East, accelerated the nuclear arms race, and revived draft registration. It was Bill Clinton who repeatedly bombed Iraq, enforced draconian sanctions on the Iraqi people, and bombed Serbia and a few other countries. The problem with Democratic politicians is not only that they rarely stand up to Republican wars, it is that they have initiated wars of their own.
If the peace movement relaxes for even one minute because of the Democratic victory, it could demobilize the millions of people — particularly younger people — who have joined the movement since the Iraq occupation began. Note that the new administration is proposing to withdraw "combat" troops from Iraq, but keeping other "residual" troops and mercenaries in the new military bases (and adjacent countries) that could continue intervening in Iraq — perhaps curbing the "war" but not the occupation. The national security establishment wants Obama to extend his 16-month withdrawal timetable, and to send fresh forces (such as Stryker brigades) in 2009 for occupation duty.
The new administration plans to direct General Petraeus to initiate a new "surge" in Afghanistan, to transfer more occupation troops to that quagmire and escalate yet another disastrous war. It plans to continue or expand the dangerous attacks initiated by Bush against "insurgent refuges" in Pakistan and Somalia. And it could offer the precedent of so-called "humanitarian" interventions to justify meddling in Sudan, Georgia and possibly Syria and Iran. Below, I spell out some of these past, present and future "humanitarian" interventions — which are anything but.
Jean Bricmont’s book Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War should be required reading for antiwar activists in the months ahead, to build our understanding of Democratic rationales for intervention, such as countering the Taliban’s "barbarous customs" towards women. Bricmont’s point of view "readily admits the barbarous nature of such customs, but considers that our interventions do much more harm than good, including in relation to making barbarism recede. And it points out that there is a considerable amount of ‘barbarism’ in our own ‘civilized’ countries, especially as they interact with others." He adds that "to call on an army to wage a war for human rights implies a naive belief of what armies are and do, as well as a magical belief in the myth of short, clean, ‘surgical’ wars."
As the son of a Holocaust survivor, and as an American who was horrified by the Rwanda slaughter, I agree that outside intervention may at times be necessary to stop a genocide. But the claim of ethnic oppression has in recent years become a Western license to launch wars that cause even more death and destruction, and rationales to mask neocolonial access to resources and military bases. More importantly, these interventions usually end up taking sides in tit-for-tat cycles of interethnic violence that have lasted for decades. These actions often legitimize or actually prolong the cycles of ethnic cleansing and violence, rather than halting them.
Colonial powers always offered "humanitarian" rationales to argue that they were merely "liberating" subject peoples from "backward" cultures and "despotic" leaders. U.S. leaders such as Bush and Biden continue this division of subject peoples into two camps–allied "good guys" and enemy "bad guys"–without an acknowledgement that they are often really dealing with two "bad guys." They may be correct in labeling the "bad guy" as evil, but use the actions of this enemy as a reason to back their allied "bad guy." The result is that the U.S. only focuses on the abuses of its enemies rather than its friends, and thereby becomes a direct participant in massive human rights atrocities by its friends. In his autobiography, for example, Biden opposed Serbian "ethnic cleansing" in former Yugoslavia, but never once mentioned the forced removals carried out by the armies and nationalist militias that he supported.
Biden uses these so-called "humanitarian" bombings in Bosnia and Kosovo, and earlier "humanitarian" interventions in Somalia and Haiti, to justify his support for occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and getting involved in ethnic conflicts in Sudan and Georgia. (Of course, as he calls for a "no-fly zone" over Darfur, Biden has voted for weapons sales that kill civilians in Colombia, and has not called for intervening to stop the slaughter in eastern Congo over metals for mining companies.) Bush has also used the Democrats’ approval of his attacks on insurgents in Pakistan and Somalia, to begin targeting Syria and Iran.
After voters chose a Democratic Congress in the 2006 election in hopes that the Iraq War would finally end, they instead got Biden as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman who turned his back on their wishes. Will the same outcome haunt the 2008 election? On October 19, Biden told a campaign rally that the new administration will soon be "tested" abroad, so "We’re going have to make some incredibly tough decisions in the first two years. I’m asking you now, be prepared to stick with us. Remember the faith you had at this point because you’re going to have to reinforce us…. Because it’s not gonna be apparent initially, it’s not gonna be apparent that we’re right." Is Biden talking about the new Democratic administration initiating new interventions against the wishes of his own Democratic voters?
We can hope that President Obama will keep the militarist tendencies of his V.P. in check, but the peace movement can help by keeping on the pressure, and not relaxing at such a hopeful time when some of our longtime goals may actually be within reach. Bill Clinton was a master of "signalling left, yet turning right." Let’s hope that Obama is initially signalling right only so he can later turn to the left.
President-elect Obama himself is not asking us to ‘wait and see’ what he does, but to keep on organizing, and to not let up on the issues. In the South Carolina primary debate (held on Martin Luther King Day), Obama said, "I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable…I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that."
And as Obama said on election night in Chicago, "This victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change." Politicians change policies from above only because of pressure from below. Obama may be one of the first U.S. leaders to recognize and (perhaps at times) welcome pressure from grassroots movements the reinforce his call for change. Yet I’m not so confident about the Iraq War supporters–such as Biden, Clinton, Gates, and Emanuel–that he is now gathering around him. The only way he’ll ever stand up to them is if we keep standing up ourselves.
HOW "HUMANITARIAN" ARE THESE INTERVENTIONS?
Past interventions as precedents.
SOMALIA. In 1992, after the overthrow of a dictator who hosted U.S. warships in this strategic country, U.S. forces occupied Somalia supposedly as a UN "peacekeeping" force to separate warring clan militias. Biden backed the intervention as a way to alleviate Somalia’s famine, even though the famine was lessening when the forces landed. The following year, after the Pentagon began to take sides in the civil war against one warlord in the capital of Mogadishu, it paid the consequences in the infamous "Black Hawk Down" battle. The civil war raged until an Islamic Courts Union government brought peace to Mogadishu in 2006, and was subsequently ousted in a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion. The recent NATO naval deployment against "pirates" off Somalia’s coast is covering a U.S.-led intervention against these Islamist insurgents. Some of the "pirates" are insurgents raising funds to return to Mogadishu (through holding oil or arms-carrying ships for ransom), while others are criminals or rogue "government" soldiers taking advantage of the chaos. The Pentagon has also carried out missile and aerial gunship attacks on the insurgents, and is now sending Blackwater mercenaries to patrol the shipping lanes. Insurgent factions are now retaking most of southern Somalia, raising the spectre of new U.S. attacks.
HAITI. The closest that the Clinton Administration came to a truly "humanitarian" intervention was when it sent to troops to Haiti in 1994, to reinstall an elected progressive President who had been ousted in a military coup. The troops returned former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office, but not to power. The CIA continued to support right-wing death squads that slaughtered his supporters, and Aristide came under intense U.S. pressure to further privatize the already impoverished economy. When right-wing military rebels again ousted Aristide in 2004, Bush sent in U.S. troops to "escort" him into exile and install the rebels. Unlike other Foreign Relations Committee members (such as Chris Dodd and Maxine Waters), Biden did not forcefully speak out when Bush helped crush democracy in Haiti.
BOSNIA. The Bosnian War began as Yugoslavia split up in 1992, and many Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats in Bosnia wanted to join their own emerging states of Serbia and Croatia, rather than be part of an independent Bosnia where Muslims predominate. As Biden correctly points out, the West stood by and watched as Bosnian Muslim civilians were slaughtered by nationalist Serb militiamen. What he neglects to point out is that Muslims were also slaughtered by ethnic Croat forces, who were trained by Germans and U.S. contractors. Biden was the most outspoken of senators who called on Clinton to bomb Serb targets in Bosnia. But the U.S. only intervened in 1995 as the Croatian Army launched an invasion against ethnic Serbs in Croatia and western Bosnia, carrying out the largest-scale "ethnic cleansing" operation of the entire conflict. The U.S. not only refrained from stopping Croatia, but launched two airstrikes on Serb militia airfields in the Krajina region to back up Croatia’s "Operation Storm." The U.S. did not oppose "ethnic cleansing," but merely backed Croatian ethnic cleansers against Serbian ethnic cleansers. In the Dayton Accord, Clinton approved the de facto partition of Bosnia into a Serb republic and Muslim-Croat federation, lending official status to the new boundaries carved by violent nationalists, rather than trying to reintegrate ethnic groups that had lived side-by-side for decades. The British found that partition did not work very well in Palestine and India, as it led to chronic warfare in those regions. Bosnia may be relatively peaceful today, but it is a "peace" of the U.S. rubberstamping successful ethnic cleansing.
KOSOVO. The Yugoslav wars spread to the Albanian-majority Serbian province of Kosovo, in a civil war pitting Serbian forces against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) militia. In 1999, the McCain-Biden Resolution authorized President Clinton to begin bombing Serbia. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic began a brutal massive expulsion of Kosovar Albanians after NATO began the bombing, which killed hundreds of Serbian civilians (even in cities that had voted against Milosevic). After NATO drove out Serbian forces, it recognized the Albanian nationalist KLA as a police force, which proceded to violently expel ethnic minorities–Serbs, Roma (Gypsies), Turks and Jews–under the noses of Western troops. Again, the U.S. did not oppose forced removal, but merely backed Albanian ethnic cleansers against Serbian ethnic cleansers. Biden is the leading proponent of recognizing the independence of this new Kosovo ministate, which is now ethnically purer than at the height of Milosevic’s removals. This U.S. recognition recently completed the breakup of Yugoslavia into easily controllable ethnic enclaves, with Kosovo hosting Camp Bondsteel, the largest U.S. military base in eastern Europe.
Continuing present interventions.
AFGHANISTAN. The invasion of Afghanistan was supported by large majorities in the U.S. and the West, coming as it did within weeks of 9/11. The public was also horrified by the repression of women and religious minorities by the Taliban, and assumed that it was the Taliban that had introduced fundamentalist Islamism to the country. But the invasion merely reinstalled the previous fundamentalist warlords who had defeated the pro-Soviet government in 1992, and fought amongst themselves for four years until ousted by the ethnic Pashtun Taliban. The pro-U.S. warlords now back in power had been the first Islamist leaders to repress women, and the Taliban merely continued their approach. Many of the same warlords now rule their own ethnic regional enclaves in Afghanistan, with the U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai only ruling the capital city of Kabul. In recent months, the occupation has become bogged down, and the new administration proposes shifting troops from Iraq to fight in Afghanistan. Another approach would be to abandon the arming and empowering of warlords, participate in Saudi-sponsored peace talks with the Taliban, and let the Afghan people finally rule themselves without direction from outsiders — whether Britain, Russia, Al Qaeda, or the U.S.
IRAQ. Democratic voters chose Obama over Clinton largely because of his principled opposition to the invasion, but he ignored this support by selecting a V.P. who has been a far more aggressive backer of the war than Hillary Clinton. Biden said in 2002: "Saddam must be dislodged from his weapons or dislodged from power," and introduced the Biden-Lugar Resolution to authorize a war. Last year, he admitted that Saddam did not have WMDs, "but everyone in the world thought he had them… This was not some, some Cheney, you know, pipe dream. This was, in fact, catalogued." Biden also sponsored a resolution that the U.S. should impose a "federal solution" dividing Iraq into Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish sectarian enclaves, much as Bosnia had been internally divided by ethnic boundaries. Iraqis of all parties denounced the plan as leading to the de facto "partition" of Iraq, which could only be accomplished by violent separation of mixed villages, neighborhoods, and families. (Stephen Zunes has already written a definitive article on "Biden, Iraq and Obama’s Betrayal." The main purpose of my article is to show Biden’s support for other interventions.)
PAKISTAN. Since 2005, Bush has been directing cross-border attacks from Afghanistan, using Predator drone missiles and airstrikes against alleged Taliban targets within Pakistan. The recent escalation of these U.S. attacks, including Special Forces raids, has led to more than 100 civilian deaths, and opposition from Pakistan’s new democratic government. Both Obama and Biden have nevertheless strongly endorsed these cross-border attacks, and stated that they will become more important in the new administration. They have not shared their plan if U.S. forces again meet armed resistance from Pakistani government forces. They should realize that the democratic government risks losing public support if it does not defend the country’s sovereignty from foreign forces, in the process undermining any gains against the Taliban.
SYRIA. In October, using the precedent of the cross-border raids into Pakistan, U.S. Special Forces attacked an alleged Iraqi Sunni insurgent camp in Syria. The helicopter raid killed eight civilians at a construction site, and raised fears around the Middle East, including condemnation by Iraq’s U.S.-backed government. The U.S. raid on Syria (like an earlier Israeli air raid on an alleged nuclear site) was in turn clearly intended to communicate a warning to Iran, which the Pentagon has accused of training Iraqi Shi’a rebels on its territory. Such cross-border raids, whether by Bush or Obama, could easily expand the Iraq War into neighboring countries. It was just when many Americans thought that the Vietnam War was winding down that President Nixon expanded it into Cambodia and Laos, also on the pretext of shutting down insurgent routes.
Sparking future interventions.
SUDAN. There is no question that a form of genocide is being commited in Darfur, but the question is whether U.S. military action would help or hurt the chances for peace in Sudan. Biden promised in the 2008 primary campaign, "I will do more than talk about Darfur. I will send American troops to impose a no-fly zone in Darfur." But it would be a disaster for the U.S. to send troops (or Blackwater mercenaries) to Darfur, because they would tend to exacerbate the conflict, as their track record shown in the Balkans, Middle East and Somalia. Rather than stop the mass killings, they would simply turn them in reverse against the "enemy" population. As Bricmont points out, "experience in Iraq and elsewhere shows that foreign intervention tends to provoke intervention, even civil war, as the occupying power seeks to gain support by favoring one group or faction against others." It would be a better solution to adequately support the presence of the African Union, which understands much better than today’s oppressed people can easily become tomorrow’s oppressors.
GEORGIA. Much like Milosevic did in Kosovo, Georgia’s nationalist President Mikheil Saakashvili sent forces into the secessionist enclave of South Ossetia last August. Much like NATO did in Kosovo, Russia retaliated with troops to back "independence" for South Ossetia, and bombed targets elsewhere in Georgia. Instead of denouncing the offensive actions and ethnic cleansing carried out by both sides in the brief war, Biden solely condemned Russian "aggression" against Georgia, and even visited Saakashvili shortly before he was selected as VP. Yet the U.S. recognition of Kosovo’s independence clearly provided a precedent for Russia, and helped spark its response. For the first time since the division of the Soviet Union, U.S. naval ships brought supplies to a country fighting Russia, with Georgia gaining strong support from both McCain and Biden.
IRAN. Obama and Biden have generally questioned an all-out bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear sites, as they have left the option open, as Robert Dreyfuss documents in his recent article "Is Iran Policy Still Up for Grabs?." But intervention against Iran could come in other forms, such as a cross-border raid against alleged Iraqi or Lebanese Shi’a insurgent training camps (the President-elect said on Nov. 7 that "Iran’s support of terrorist organizations… has to cease"), or a "humanitarian" intervention to protect a secessionist rebellion against Iranian forces. According to journalist Seymour Hersh, the Pentagon has been sending Special Forces into Iran to train and direct ethnic minority rebels such as Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds, and Arabs. In my article, "Khuzestan: The First Front in the War on Iran?," I voiced concern that the U.S. and U.K. may try to turn the oil-rich Arab minority province of Khuzestan (next to Iraq) into a Kosovo-style protectorate in order to seize control of Iran’s oil economy. Biden’s "humanitarian" arguments would serve as the ideal rationale to spark this type of "small-scale" war with Iran, which could easily escalate into a major confrontation. And Middle East public opinion will never believe that the White House is defending minority rights in Iran if it continues to arm the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
Dr. Zoltan Grossman is a geographer teaching at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and a longtime peace movement organizer. His history of U.S. military interventions since 1890 is here.