I was on an educational tour of Vietnam when NATO forces launched an air war on Libya. Our group heard the news with shock and horror. Part of the reason for the depth of our reaction was that we were touring a country that had experienced a decade of sustained bombing by U.S. aircraft.
Members of our delegation to Vietnam had come to political awareness in the 1960s. We were educated by the daily bloody newscasts we watched of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement we observed and played a role in building. In addition to observation and participation in anti-war activities, we read about the history of empires, particularly the American empire.
Through our study in school and out, we learned how European powers--the Dutch, the Spanish, the French, and the British--had emerged from feudalism, built modern navies, and developed weapons systems to conquer the world. The Western Hemisphere, the African continent, the Persian Gulf region and Asia were occupied by foreign powers and forever had their cultures, polities, and economies shaped by them.
By the late nineteenth century the industrial revolution spread to the United States. Agricultural and industrial productivity required markets, natural resources, and cheap labor. To fulfill these needs the United States became an imperial power.
The U.S. empire was launched in a war that crushed Spain in 1898 and led to the colonization of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and the Philippines in Asia. For the next thirty years, the marines were sent to the Caribbean and Central America at least 30 times. After two world wars, the United States began to construct a worldwide empire in 1945. It overthrew governments overtly and covertly that were deemed part of the “communist threat.” By the dawn of the twenty first century in response to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States established over 700 military installations in 130 countries and created a high-tech war machine to target presumed enemies virtually everywhere.
So as we traveled through Vietnam we remembered the 1960s when our consciousness, our sensibilities, and our passions were driven by a commitment to challenge American imperialism. And then, all of a sudden, we heard about the United Nations resolution endorsing humanitarian intervention in Libya. This was followed by a NATO-led air war on targets in that country. We asked how another preposterous war could be waged in 2011 by NATO and its key partner, the United States. In the Persian Gulf the contradictions between so-called humanitarianism and reality seemed more stark than ever.
First, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949 as a military alliance to defend Europe from any possible aggression initiated by the former Soviet Union. If words mattered, NATO should have dissolved when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Second, the United States, so concerned for the human rights of people in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, was virtually silent as non-violent revolutions overthrew dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt earlier in the year.
Third, the United States continued to support regimes in Bahrain and Yemen in the face of popular protest and violent response.
Fourth, the United States has been a rock-solid supporter of the state of Israel as it has expanded settlements in the West Bank, and embargoed Palestinians in Gaza
Fifth, in the face of growing ferment in the Middle East and Persian Gulf for democratization not a word has been said by way of criticism of the monarchical system in Saudi Arabia.
So as the Qaddafi regime in Libya nears its end, the NATO alliance and the United States praise themselves for their support of movements for democratization in Libya. What they cannot hide in the media is the fact that the overthrow of the Libyan regime, for better or worse, could not have occurred without the massive bombing campaign against military and civilian targets throughout Libya carried out by NATO forces.
Remembering our shock when we heard of the initiation of bombing of Libya in March and seeing what has happened since, I can only come to the conclusion that United States foreign policy and the reaction to it has not changed very much from the Vietnam era. Deadly policies, we are told, are carried out for humanitarian reasons. Violence remains the major tool of the state. The great powers continue to interfere in the political life of small and poor countries. And, the mainstream media continues to provide a humanitarian narrative of imperialism at work.
Alexander Cockburn put it well in The Nation in June, 2011 when he wrote:
“America’s clients in Bahrain and Riyadh can watch the undignified pantomime with a tranquil heart, welcoming this splendid demonstration that they have nothing to fear from Obama’s fine speeches or Clinton’s references to democratic aspirations, well aware that NATO’s warplanes and helicopters are operating under the usual double standard-with the Western press furnishing all appropriate services.”