Friday, September 12, 2014

Twentieth Century Narratives of International Relations Are No Longer Relevant (If They Ever Were)

Harry Targ

President Barack Obama spoke to the nation Wednesday night, September 10, about the need to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). For him ISIS (he calls them the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL which culls up the good old days of Western Empire in the region) constitutes “a small group of killers.” This small group of killers threatens the stability of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other regional states and Europe. Furthermore, he said, if unchecked some of them may even threaten the security of the United States as well.

The President reported that the United States had already been carrying out large scale air strikes against targets in Iraq, has been working to create a new more diverse Iraqi government in Baghdad, and is building a regional coalition to respond to the threat.

The President then announced new measures intended to communicate to the American people U.S. resolve and muscle. In addition to informing the public, a significant purpose of the speech was to stifle his critics on the Right who claim he has not been warlike enough. This motivation was more about the 2014 elections than about reducing violence in the Persian Gulf.

President Obama declared that the United States would expand bombing of ISIS targets, even, if need be, in Syria. This would constitute an expansion of the war which the American people rejected in 2013. Also the United States would train and equip the “moderates” among the Syrian resistance. In addition, the President announced he was sending 475 more U.S. troops to participate in military training of Iraqi troops. Further, counter-terrorism programs would continue and he would be requesting funds for “humanitarian” assistance for the region as well.

Obama reminded the American people that we are engaged in a long and arduous struggle to defeat ISIS (reminiscent of President Truman’s 1947 similar warning of the long-term struggle against “International Communism”). The upside of the message, he claimed, was that the model for our Iraq and Syrian military policy was Yemen and Somalia, which the President judged a success. Finally, he promised that there would be “no boots on the ground.”

President Obama ended with references to American exceptionalism, the mantra of every U.S. president at least since Theodore Roosevelt. The United States, he counseled, still led the world in science, education, development and most other human endeavors. And we had the “enduring burden,” “the responsibility to lead,” and stood for “freedom, justice, and dignity.”

As I suggested in an earlier essay (“Lies and War!” Diary of a Heartland Radical, September 3, 2014):  “Now the latest enemy, ISIS….is portrayed as a monster movement that beheads its prisoners and murders masses of people who do not share its religious ideology….War-hungry hawks inside the beltway particularly those with ready access to mainstream media demand that President Obama expand bombing, transfer more arms to so-called friends, and recruit militant opponents of ISIS to even the score. This new enemy, more scary than the Communists of the twentieth century, includes a handful of Americans…” They might, so the scenario suggests, return from ISIS training camps to terrorize the U.S. “homeland.”

Perhaps the most relevant passage from my prior essay is that “….those who raise questions about why ISIS is as popular as it is, what its grievances are, why there is hatred for the West, particularly the United States, in the region, and whether the application of military force would make matters better or worse, are drowned out by those who built careers based on arguments about the inevitability of war and violence and the need to kill for the greater good.”

Andrew Bacevich, historian and former military officer, raises the question of whether the lens on the world shared by U.S. foreign policy decision-makers, think tank advisors, media pundits, and most Americans is outmoded  (“The Revisionist Imperative: Rethinking Twentieth Century Wars,” Journal of Military History, April, 2012, 1033-1046).  He suggests that most influential foreign policymakers in every administration and large numbers of politicians and analysts still believe “war works,” a proposition belied by much twentieth century evidence.  Bacevich argues that today the war works hypothesis is believed only in the United States and maybe Israel. 

Those who accept the “war works” thesis defend it by referring to what another historian Tony Judt called the “moral memory palace,” or the storehouse of myths about the successes and failures of twentieth century international relations. The West erred by accepting “appeasement” in Munich, not paying attention at Pearl Harbor, being na├»ve at Yalta, but learning our lessons about the need for force at Normandy, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, for example.

Bacevich reminds us that Americans grew up in the twentieth century buying into myths about the inevitability of war, the possibilities of human improvement that wars bring, and the dangers of appeasing foreign leaders. Most critically the consciousness of the most influential policymakers is shaped by the belief that the world consists of a handful of great powers that determined the destiny of humankind. This he refers to as the “Short Twentieth Century” view. 

Bacevich argues that the popular way of reflecting on the “Short Twentieth Century” involves interpreting the world as “geographically centered in Eurasia” where a small number of great powers were pitted against one another. However, he adds that what he called the “Long Twentieth Century” more aptly describes the worlds of yesterday and today.

The Long Twentieth Century “…has been a contest between outsiders and insiders. Western intruders with large ambitions, preeminently Great Britain until succeeded by the United States, pursued their dreams of empire or hegemony, typically cloaked in professions of ‘benevolent assimilation,’ uplift, or the pursuit of world peace. The beneficiaries of imperial ministrations…seldom proved grateful and frequently resisted.” 

Applying Bacevich’s analysis to Obama’s speech suggests that the escalated U.S. military action that was promised on September 10 is precisely the wrong approach to relating to the Persian Gulf and Middle East. The President refuses to ask the important questions about why ISIS has been so successful. And nothing announced in that speech can do anything but create more dead in the region, more hatred for the United States, more traumatized U.S. troops, more trillions of dollars on wasteful spending, and the perpetuation of a U.S. political culture in which most people believe that “war works.”

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Harry Targ

Post-modernists talk about “discourses,” “narratives,” “tropes,” and verbal “deconstructions.” They should be commended for suggesting how words are used to mobilize, inspire, deceive, promote self-interest, and, too often, justify killing everywhere. Former Arkansas Senator, J. William Fulbright in describing how he was tricked by his old friend President Lyndon Baines Johnson to support a resolution authorizing escalating war in Vietnam said: “A lie is a lie. There is no other way to put it.”

The story can begin any time. As World War Two was ending, the Greek government constructed by Great Britain after the Nazis were defeated was engaged in an effort to crush a rebellion by activists who objected to their newly imposed rulers. The Greek rebels included former anti-fascists freedom fighters, some of whom were Communists or Socialists. The British, no longer able to support the repression of the Greek Left in what was a civil war, called on the Americans for help.

In February, 1947, Truman foreign policy advisers met to discuss what to do about the Greek civil war and the threat of “Communism” spreading along the Mediterranean. The Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenberg, attending the meeting. said he would support U.S. military and economic aid for the unpopular Greek government. But, he said, tell the President he better “scare hell out of the American people.”

One month later, President Truman gave his famous Truman Doctrine speech to the Congress and the American people. He warned the American people, who until that time still had positive feelings toward the Soviet people, that the United States and the “free world” were going to be engaged in a long-term struggle against the forces of “international communism.” The Truman Doctrine was not about nations and movements with different interests and ideologies but rather a global struggle between the forces of good threatened by the forces of evil.

United States administrations ever since have justified aggressive foreign policies by lying and distorting the realities behind complex international relationships. In addition, when a politician, a journalist, a scholar, or a whole peace movement criticizes targeting nations and movements as diabolical and security threats, these critics are challenged as weak, indecisive, cowardly, and, even worse, stalking horses for the vile enemy or enemies.

Campaigns of propaganda masquerading as truth have been a constant feature of international relations, particularly since World War Two. The reality of U.S. struggles against demonized enemies tells a sobering story. Deaths in wars and interventions in which the United States participated from 1945 until 1995 totaled about ten million people. These figures, extracted from the valuable research of Ruth Sivard, (World Military and Social Expenditures, 1996) do not include injuries and forced migrations of millions of people fleeing combat zones. Nor do these figures include the wasteful trillions of dollars of military expenditures and environmental damage resulting from a war system.

And now, in 2014, the United States and its allies in NATO are presenting scenarios justifying war based upon a new round of lies and distortions. In the Persian Gulf whole nations were constructed by European colonial powers after World War One. As the next World War ended, the United States agreed to provide arms and protection to the Saudi monarchs in exchange for oil. The U.S. identified client regimes to support its interests in the region, from the former Shah of Iran, to the state of Israel, to various so-called Islamic Fundamentalist groups including what became Al Qaeda, to leaders the U.S. once supported such as Saddam Hussein and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. In the twenty-first century, the stability of whole countries, Iraq and Libya for example, was destroyed by United States interventions costing many million deaths and injuries and many more people fleeing violence.

Now the latest enemy, ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is portrayed as a monster movement that beheads its prisoners and murders masses of people who do not share its religious ideology. While there is enough data to suggest that ISIS is engaging in cruel violence against its enemies, that violence is being used to justify bombing campaigns against alleged enemy targets. War-hungry hawks inside the beltway particularly those with ready access to mainstream media demand that President Obama expand bombing, transfer more arms to so-called friends, and recruit militant opponents of ISIS to even the score. Since this new enemy, even more scary than the Communists of the twentieth century, includes a handful of Americans, they claim, the territory of the United States is threatened by global terror. The rhetoric calling for a global war against this presumably global threat is escalating. Those who raise questions about why ISIS is as popular as it is, what its grievances are, why there is hatred for the West, particularly the United States, in the region, and whether the application of military force would make matters better or worse, are drowned out by those who built careers based on arguments about the inevitability of war and violence and the need to kill for the greater good.

The other apocryphal narrative of the day comes from Eastern Europe. The United States participated covertly in the overthrow of a dictatorial but elected regime in Ukraine. After the elected leader fled, those with ties to historic fascist parties gained influence in a newly created government. Ukrainians from the eastern part of the country with ties of politics, culture, and language to Russia rebelled against the new central government in Kiev which wants to join western military and economic organizations. Kiev has launched a brutal assault on the separatists in the East. The dominant narrative in Washington and the mainstream media is not about the coup in Kiev, the descendants of fascists in the government, but the Russians who want to move westward across Central Europe, reestablishing the old Soviet Bloc.

Indeed, Russia is giving material aid to the separatists, although information about what kind comes only from Washington and Kiev. Little attention is given to the NATO vision of expanding its military alliance eastward, ultimately to besiege a threatened Russia. Even less attention is given to the fact that Kiev oligarchs wish to incorporate Ukraine into the European Union. In other words, a country with a divided population in terms of culture and politics engaged in a violent civil war has been transformed by politicians, pundits, and media sources into a narrative of a struggling Ukraine democracy challenged by an aggressive Russia, the descendent of the twentieth century demon, the former Soviet Union.  (For a more detailed discussion of United States/Russian/ Ukraine relations in 2013-2014 see Harry Targ, “Pushing for Starvation at Home and War Abroad: A Time to Resist,” Diary of a Heartland Radical., March 28, 2014).

Getting back to Senator Vandenberg’s advice to President Truman about how to gain support of the American people for moral/military crusades, leaders and media are warning about a new global terrorist threat and a renewed post-Soviet threat from Russia, a new Cold War. The intensity of the selling job is testament to the good sense of the American people who continue to say “no more wars.”    

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Harry Targ

Robert Parry recently wrote about “Obama, the Neo-Cons, and Liberal Interventionists” (Consortium News, August 21, 2014, reposted on Parry describes the two, sometimes competing, factions among the foreign policy elite that dominate United States foreign policy today. The neo-conservatives, derived from Reagan era militarism and institutionalized in the Project for a New American Century, advocate the American use of military power virtually everywhere to create pliant regimes and quiescent populations. Their theoreticians, including William Kristol and Robert Kagan, argue that President Clinton in the 1990s and President Obama today have failed to use U.S. military superiority to create a world order that serves U.S. interests.

The neo-conservatives captured the White House in 2001 and Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the second level of administrators went about launching two brutal wars, dramatically increasing military spending, and establishing a military presence, soldiers, private armies, and drone-type technologies all across the “arc of instability.” The “arc of instability” constituted nations from northern Latin America, North Africa, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, South Asia, and the Pacific. Their vision was to reestablish a U.S. global empire.

The Clinton era “liberal interventionists,” sometimes called the “humanitarian interventionists,” also desired a new United States global hegemony. They believed, however, that the goal could not be achieved by unilateral militarism. Empire required alliances, international institutional collaboration, and the selective use of force. Military tools, preferably aircraft, drones, and selective assassinations, while avoiding “boots on the ground,” would limit backlash from a skeptical citizenry who are tired of U.S. wars. Preferably military interventions could be justified on humanitarian grounds, not to achieve conquest but to save beleaguered populations.

President Obama, Parry pointed out, since taking office in 2009 has “pursued conflicting strategies mixing his penchant for a less belligerent ‘realism’ with Official Washington’s dominant tough-guy ideologies of neo-conservatism and its close cousin, ‘liberal interventionism.’”

During his first two years in office Obama dialogued with leaders of the G20 countries, shook hands with former President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, condemned the military coup in Honduras, withdrew most soldiers from Iraq, and agonized before he decided to send more troops to Afghanistan while promising to end the U.S. military involvement there in a short time frame.

Unfortunately, in the face of increased international conflict, pressures from dangerous allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and domestic pressures from both neo-cons and liberal interventionists, Obama tilted to a more aggressive foreign policy, increasing drone attacks on human targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia who were claimed to be terrorists, and returning to traditional interventionist policies in the Western Hemisphere.

Over the last several months, and in part a response to his efforts to partner with Russia to reduce civil war in Syria and improve relations with Iran, Obama has been under increased pressure to send more arms to Israel. In addition, neo-cons in his administration worked covertly with Ukraine dissidents to overthrow the elected government in Kiev. They now are encouraging Obama to intervene militarily to protect the Kiev government threatened by Russian backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. With the emergence of an Islamic fundamentalist army (ISIS) occupying large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, both neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists have lobbied for U.S. military action. Obama, skeptical of recreating Cold War with Russia, and getting more bogged down in the Gulf, is moving cautiously but at the same time toward war policies that would be disastrous for the peoples of Eastern Europe, the Gulf, and the United States

The conflict between foreign policy elite factions today is reminiscent of similar conflicts in the Carter administration, 1976-1980. As historian Laurence Shoup wrote years ago, Carter, a modestly “anti-establishment” candidate for president, ran on a campaign promising no more Vietnams. He promised that United States foreign policy would be governed by human rights. He also promised to respect the sovereignty of countries of the Global South. Some of the key foreign policy advisors he assembled lobbied for a less interventionist, more human rights oriented foreign policy.

During the first two years of Carter’s term, he tilted in their direction. But, largely as a result of the shocking revolution overthrowing the impregnable ally the Shah of Iran in January, 1979, Carter was convinced by other advisers, global militarists, to return to Cold War. The issue for them, of course, was not an alleged escalated Soviet threat but rather the loss of U.S. control of the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.

President Carter, tilting toward the militarist wing of his administration, reintroduced draft registration, increased military aid to Egypt and Israel, increased funding for NATO, launched a research program to create a “neutron bomb,” and perhaps most significantly, began a covert funding program for rebels fighting against the pro-Soviet government of Afghanistan before the Soviets sent troops to that country. This funding of what would become the predecessors of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS planted the seeds of the spreading global resistance to the West today.

In both the Carter and Obama administrations, the presidents sought to establish a set of policies that were a little less militaristic, more supportive of diplomacy, and modestly respectful of nations and peoples of the Global South. Both these presidents won the presidency because they positioned themselves against the more militaristic aspects of traditional U.S. imperialism. Peace movements influenced these two presidents to be more “realist” than many of their advisors.

However, both of these presidents encountered sectors of the foreign policy elite who, despite modest differences, favored war. Both these presidents had at least a vague sense that United States hegemony could not be reinstituted militarily. 

The recognition that foreign policy factions exist does not negate the basic assumption that imperialism is the priority goal of foreign policy elites, including presidents. But factions differ as to tactics. They differ as to the amount of pain and suffering U.S. militarism causes in the world. And they differ as to the impacts such policies have on the working people of the United States itself. Therefore, whether United States foreign policy is defined and administered by neo-cons, liberal institutionalists, or realists, like Presidents Carter and Obama, matter. If the realist presidents move away from their initial positions, they should be challenged and they should be defended when they do oppose neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Meanings of Ferguson

            Harry Targ

In addressing violence, researchers, educators, journalists and religious leaders have usually concentrated on its most visible forms: murder and war. The central features of such violence include physical assault and killing. In our own day terrorism has joined war as the most popular common subject for study.

Over the years, peace educators have developed intellectual tools to uncover more diverse meanings of violence, their differences and their connections. Structural violence has been distinguished from direct violence. Researchers continue to analyze direct violence, physical assault and killing, but also study structural violence, the various forms of human suffering that take more time, impose pain and suffering on populations, and are perpetuated by leading institutions and relationships in society. Structural violence includes economic inequality, low wages and poverty, inadequate access to health care and education, and the psychological damage that economic suffering causes. These injustices, the concept of structural violence suggests, are embedded in economic, social, and political institutions.

It is possible to disaggregate further the structural violence that is embedded in institutions. Institutional violence refers to unequal distribution of power and influence in major societal institutions: political, criminal justice, and educational, for example.

Finally, cultural violence refers to the images, symbols, and educational materials that value some population groups over others. Culture refers to the public consciousness of history, traditions, and popular narratives that describe people. Stereotypes are short-hand representations of a culture.

In total then violence is direct, structural, institutional, and cultural. These kinds of violence may occur separately but in most cases are inextricably connected. It is this fourfold conception of violence that is relevant to the current crisis in Ferguson, Missouri.      

The tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri came to national attention because of direct violence. A Ferguson policeman shot and killed an unarmed young African American male. In response to the collective expression of community outrage that followed, the local police initiated a multi-day barrage of tear gas, strong-arm arrests, threatening street protestors with military vehicles and loaded rifles. The images on television screens nationwide have been of a people under assault, parallel to Israeli bombings in Gaza and United States targeted air strikes in Iraq. The fear that young African American males in Ferguson have historically felt every time they stepped into the streets of their city have escalated since the killing of Michael Brown.

Beyond the threat of direct violence in Ferguson is structural violence, less visible but as important. Brookings Institute researcher Elizabeth Kneebone (“Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty,” brookings@edu, August 15, 2014) reported that the community of Ferguson has experienced a qualitative economic decline over the last decade. The city’s unemployment rate increased from 5 percent in 2000 to 13 percent by 2010. Average earnings of community members have declined by one-third. One-fourth of the population lives in poverty.

Kneebone indicated that poverty rates have doubled in suburban neighborhoods surrounding the 100 largest cities. “By 2008-2012, 38 percent of poor residents lived in the neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher. For poor black residents in those communities, the figure was 53 percent.” Of course, poverty is highly related to declining schools, inadequate access to health care, lessened prospects for jobs, and large-scale youth unemployment.

Institutional violence is reflected in a 300-year history of slavery and racism. Professor Clarissa Hayward, Washington University, said: “The St. Louis metropolitan area has been an extreme example of racial segregation for 100 years.” She pointed out that St. Louis geographically was at the nexus of the South, the Midwest, and the West and added: “The practices and politics of St. Louis created the problems that underlie the tension that boiled out in Ferguson this week.” (Puneet Kollipara, “Wonkbook: The Social and Economic Story Behind the Unrest in Ferguson,” Wonkblog, The Washington Post, August 18, 2014).

In terms of the Ferguson political system, two-thirds of the community is Black and the local government is almost all white. Five of six city council members are white, the Mayor is white, and six of seven school board members are white. Fifty of 53 police are white.

Finally, cultural violence addresses the issue of ideology, consciousness, images of the other, and additional ways in which whites see African-Americans. Racist culture socializes the dominant class and race to reflect its superiority. For example, Missouri Lt. Governor Peter Kinder said: “That’s one of the great advances of Anglo-American civilization, is that we do not have politicized trials. We let the justice system work it out.” The mayor of Ferguson recently declared that his community was free of racism.

Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police and politicians have organized a campaign to demonize the victim of the police killing. The tall young man, an African-American, was a robber, a drug consumer, and violence-prone. Also, the days of protest in Ferguson were framed to privilege the peaceful, religious, mourning adults and to explain night-time violence (not as police violence) but violence by outside agitators from New York, Chicago, and California. The fact that young African Americans leave their houses at their own risk could not, the frame implies, engender outrage.

So from police violence--killing, gassing, beating--to economic despair, to lack of political representation to cultural rationales for state violence, the basic characteristics of American society are uncovered. And once again, the victimization of people of color, as well as workers, and women, lead to the following conclusions:

--the root cause of exploitation, racism, and sexism is structural violence (capitalism).
--physical violence is used to crush rebellion against class exploitation and racism.
--unrepresentative political institutions are dominated by the wealthy and powerful.
--dominant cultural stereotypes and specific narratives about society reinforce the economic system, the political system, and justify the police violence in the St. Louis area.

In sum, in addressing violence, its multiple forms should be taken into consideration.