At a critical juncture in the escalation of the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 describing the fundamental connections between war overseas and poverty at home:
“Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken.”
It is useful to reflect on the historic motivation for United States foreign policy, what Dr. King called "this madness," yesterday and today. And, in the spirit of Dr. King, it is incumbent upon us to continue to reflect also on its impacts on people abroad and at home. Such reflections should encompass venues such as Iraq and Afghanistan where the contemporary impacts are the result of war and countries such as Haiti where the structure of economic and political relations have been as devastating to the people as military occupation (though marines occupied Haiti from 1917 to 1934).
First, according to historians such as William Appleman Williams, the United States has pursued dominant influence in the world ever since the 1890s. After conquering the North American continent and all but exterminating its inhabitants, U.S. policy has been shaped by the pursuit of markets, investment opportunities, cheap labor, and vital natural resources. With the expansion of industrial capitalism, securing access to cheap oil became particularly important. Oil figured prominently in agreements with the ruling oligarchy in Saudi Arabia during World War 11, the 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, the severing of relations with a radical Iraqi regime in 1958, and the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
Historian Loren Baritz has argued that U.S. policymakers have defined these economically driven global and interventionist policies in moral terms. For example, President Truman spoke of the threat of totalitarian communism to the free world in his famous Truman Doctrine speech of March 12, 1947. However, one week earlier, in a less familiar speech at Baylor University, he asserted that economics and foreign policy were inextricably connected and that the United States was committed to creating a global market economy in the post-war world. Thirty-five years later President Reagan repeatedly referred to the Soviet Communist system as an historical aberration and at the same time borrowed from our Puritan ancestors, declaring that the United States was a “city on a hill.” We were destined by God to transform the world. President Clinton also mixed economics and morality repeatedly reiterating his commitment to create “market democracies” around the world.
The impacts of this century-long search for what Williams called, “the Open Door,” the drive to economically penetrate the globe has meant pain, suffering, and waste for peoples everywhere including the United States. The U.S. sent marines to invade Central American and the Caribbean 25 times between 1900 and 1933. During the fifty years since World War 11 the U.S. threatened to use force or sent troops on at least 40 occasions, spent $3 trillion on the military, participated in wars between 1945 and 1995 in which 10 million people died, and lost at least 100,000 of its own soldiers killed in action with 10 times that number becoming casualties.
It was in this historical context that President Bush responded to the terrorist attack on 9/11 by launching a new global crusade, replacing communism with a “war on terrorism.” He justified “preemptory” attacks on any country or people we would define as a possible threat to U.S. national security. The Pentagon defined an “arc of instability” running from the northern parts of South America through North Africa, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia. They said the United States had to develop small, mobile military bases all across the globe (Chalmers Johnson estimates some 700 bases exist in 60 countries) with new technologies that would make the U.S. fighting force more capable of quickly intervening in self-defined trouble spots. Successful operations in Afghanistan and Iraq would solidify the presence, power, and control of strategic resources and institutionalize this strategy of “the last remaining superpower.”
Clinton Administration policies toward Iraq differed in tactics but not in substance from his successor. Clinton sought to increase the U.S. presence in the Gulf by starving the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Economic sanctions led to a 60 percent decline in the GDP of the country and the economic embargo cost the lives of about one million Iraqis, mostly children under the age of five.
However, supporters of the lobby group, Project for the New American Century (PNAC), including Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Scooter Libby, and other Bush policymakers, demanded that Clinton do more. As soon as 9/11 happened, these neo-conservatives convinced President Bush to attack Iraq even though the latter had nothing to do with 9/11 and everyone knew that Iraq, after a decade of US and British bombing, economic sanctions, and rigorous inspections, had no weapons of mass destruction.
The war on Afghanistan began in October, 2001 and the war in Iraq in March 2003. The impacts have been devastating to these war torn countries.
What can be done about this “madness?” Despite President Obama’s recent decision to escalate the U.S. war in Afghanistan progressives must continue to demand that the United States deescalate and withdraw all U.S. troops from there and Iraq. U.S. military bases all across the globe must be shut down. This process should be done in conjunction with negotiations with relevant nations and peoples to transform international relations. Americans must pressure their leaders to embrace foreign and domestic policies that promote peace and justice. At the time of his assassination Dr. King was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign, a mass movement to end war, racism, and economic misery. That project still needs to be completed.