Sunday, August 29, 2010


Harry Targ

Empires Past

Nations, tribes, armed members of messianic religions from time to time have engaged in conquest of others. Peoples have been slaughtered for their land, their natural resources, their mistaken beliefs. The techniques used to be simple: killing, imprisonment or enslavement, and occupation.

With the rise of capitalism as a global economic system, accumulated resources were used to create modern instruments of war--guns, ships, pollutants, and poisons. As Marx claimed long ago, capitalism was of necessity a global system so nation-states created in the era of economic modernity were compelled to pursue exploitable labor (particularly slaves), natural resources, market opportunities, and investment sites everywhere. Mercenary armies were created to conquer people and land and fight against the mercenary armies of other capitalist countries.

The British empire (“the sun never sets on the British Empire”) was caused by and facilitated the industrial revolution. In the 1880s European imperial powers came together to divide up the African continent. After the first of two world wars in the twentieth century, wars which cost 60 million deaths, the Middle East was divided up among declining powers, Great Britain and France.

The United States joined the imperial fray in the 1890s. It took the Hawaiian Islands, fought Spain to conquer Cuba, occupied other Caribbean Islands, and crushed the independence struggle in the Philippines. Over the next 30 years the United States invaded countries in the Western Hemisphere some 25 times, often leaving US Marines in place for years.

The United States and the Cold War

A variety of imperial techniques became common as the United States fought the Communist enemy during the Cold War. With the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, the first of many “intelligence agencies” were launched to interfere with the political life of countries the U.S. regarded as strategic. CIA money was used to shape elections in democracies such as France and Italy. Money flowed to Christian Democratic Parties created to oppose Socialist campaigns. Also money found its way into anti-Communist trade union federations. This pattern of interference was replicated in Latin America as well and later in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The United States engaged in visible campaigns to create and support military coups; the most critical being in Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s, Brazil and Indonesia in the 1960s, and Chile in the 1970s. And of course U.S. policymakers launched long and brutal wars in Korea and Vietnam leading to four million Asian deaths and 100,000 American soldiers killed.

The pursuit of U.S. empire included some modern strategies as well as conquest and subversion. President Truman, through the Marshall Plan, instituted an expensive campaign of economic and military assistance which would become a staple of U.S. Cold War policy. From the initiation of the Marshall Plan in 1948 with a modest $14 billion aid program to anti-Communist regimes in Europe through the Carter years, $235 billion was provided to selected and strategic imperial partners: first in Europe, then Asia and the Middle East.

President Kennedy contributed to the imperial tool kit; the provision of military advisors, funding for local militaries in countries threatened by revolution (such as in Central America), and training programs for military officers such as in the old School of the Americas. Economic assistance came with strings, the promotion of market-based economies, and opposition to indigenous and Communist political forces, at least as much as local political contexts would allow.

President Reagan was an imperial innovator as well. Constrained by the “Vietnam Syndrome,” public opposition to further Vietnam-style military quagmires, he established policies based upon “low intensity conflict.” Creating and funding local counter-revolutionary armies in places as varied as Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Afghanistan, the U.S. role in conflicts could be kept off the front pages of newspapers. Civil war violence stimulated by U.S. resources would not be “low intensity” in countries where it occurred but it might be considered so in the U.S. Citizens would not learn of the critical U.S. support given to Islamic fundamentalist rebels, including Osama Bin Laden, fighting a pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan in the 1980s until quite recently.

To insure the limited visibility of U.S. global operations, and to reward political allies with government contracts, the Reagan administration dramatically expanded programs privatizing U.S. military operations. Support for the Contra war against the Nicaraguan people involved transferring public funds to private armies and using key foreign policy advisers, such as Colonel Oliver North, as conduits and organizers of networks of private sources of funding for war. Thus began public programs to encourage and stimulate the creation of private companies that would fight America’s wars. The American people had little way of knowing how deeply involved they were in violence around the world and the danger of sinking into new Vietnams.

21st Century Techniques of Empire

The world has come a long way from the days of Roman Legions slogging across land pillaging and killing. The days of nineteenth century colonial rule--clumsy and arrogant with foreign occupants of land lording over exploited local workers--has changed. However, it is important to reflect on the new or more developed techniques of empire, while never forgetting that there are centuries long continuities of techniques of imperial rule.

For starters, Marc Pilisuk reports in Who Benefits From Global Violence and War: Uncovering a Destructive System that the character of war has changed over the years and centuries. Wars today are not usually between nations. Casualties of wars are overwhelmingly civilians rather than soldiers. The weapons used in wars today are more likely than in the past to temporarily or permanently damage the natural habitat as well as kill people. Wars in recent years have been likely to be fought over natural resources. Nations and groups now are more likely to be supplied with weapons produced by a handful of corporations that specialize in the production of military supplies. These weapons are provided by a small number of nations. Finally, wars fought in modern times, the last 100 years, have caused more deaths than any other comparable period of human history.

Pilisuk reports that since World War II 250 wars have occurred causing 50 million deaths and millions homeless. (The United States participated significantly in 75 military interventions).

Recently a number of journalistic and scholarly accounts have added to our understanding of newer techniques of empire, particularly U.S. empire.

Global Presence. Pilisuk, Chalmers Johnson (The Sorrows of Empire) and others have estimated that the United States has over 700, perhaps 800 U.S. military installations in more than 40 countries. Some years ago the Pentagon determined that huge Cold War era military bases needed to be replaced with smaller, strategically located bases for rapid mobilization to attend to “trouble-spots” in the Global South. While forward basing in South Asia and in nations formerly part of the Soviet Union has received some attention seven new U.S. bases being established in Colombia (within striking distance of hostile Venezuela) and increased naval operations in the Caribbean have not. In addition, there are some 6,000 domestic military bases, many that anchor the economies of small towns.

Privatization of the U.S. Military. David Isenberg (“Private Military Contractors and U.S. Grand Strategy,” PRIO, Oslo, 2009) refers to “…the U.S. government’s huge and growing reliance on private contractors” which “…constitutes an attempt to circumvent or evade public skepticism about the United States’ self-appointed role as global policemen.” While PMCs provide many services, such as combat, consulting, training armies, and military support, their combat presence in the two major wars of the 21st century, Afghanistan and Iraq, has generated the most, if limited, public attention. Isenberg says that between 1950 and 1989 PMCs participated in 15 conflicts in other countries and from 1990 to 2000 another 80. PMCs were employed in civil wars such as in Angola, Sierre Leone, and the Balkans.

A recent Washington Post investigation compiled a data base, “Top Secret America,” “that found 1,931 intelligence contracting firms” doing top secret work “for 1,271 government organizations at over 10,000 sites.” TSA indicates that 90 percent of the intelligence work is done by 110 contractors. Defense department spokespersons and legislators claim that the United States needs to continue allocating billions of dollars to private contractors to maintain military performance levels that are minimally acceptable.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Nick Turse, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives describes the introduction of unmanned aerial weapons in the 1990s and their current weaponry of choice for the White House and others who prefer antiseptic and bloodless (on our side) technologies to eliminate enemies. New predator drones can be programmed to fly over distant lands and target enemies for unstoppable air strikes. Drones have been increasingly popular as weapons in fighting enemies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

Connecting drone strikes to assassination teams and other war-making techniques, Shane, Mazzetti, and Worth, (“Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” The New York Times, August 16) refer to shadow wars against terrorist targets. “In roughly a dozen countries--from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife--the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.”

Assassinations. The United States has initiated campaigns to identify and assassinate presumed enemies. CIA operatives and private contractors join teams of army specialists under the Joint Special Operations Command (13,000 assassination commandoes around the world) to kill foreigners alleged to be affiliated with terrorists groups. These targets can include U.S. citizens living abroad who have been deemed to be terrorist collaborators. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States, through Latin American military personnel trained at the School of the Americas, has long supported assassination programs that now seem to be “globalized,” that is administered everywhere.

Fred Branfman (Alternet, August 24, 2010) starkly describes the assassination policy: “The truth that many Americans find hard to take is that mass U.S. assassination on a scale unequaled in world history lies at the heart of America’s military strategy in the Muslim world, a policy both illegal and never seriously debated by Congress or the American people.”

Missionary Humanitarian Interventions. While most techniques of empire involve the direct use of violence, public and private organizations expand the presence of empire through so-called “humanitarian assistance.” While the work of the missionary has often followed the flag, never has such activism impacted so heavily on global politics as today.

For example, The New York Times (July 6, 2010) reported that Christian evangelical groups have transferred substantial amounts of funds to Jewish settlements in occupied territories of the West Bank. Furthermore, fund raising for settlements that stand in the way of the creation of a Palestinian state receive tax exemptions. The newspaper reports on “…at least 40 American groups that have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last decade.”

The newspaper correctly points out that so-called “humanitarian” and tax deductible donations to entities in other countries tied to U.S. foreign policy are not new. But, the article suggests that donations to the settler movement are special “because of the centrality of the settlement issue in the current talks and the fact that Washington has consistently refused to allow Israel to spend American government aid in the settlements. Tax breaks for the donations remain largely unchallenged, and unexamined by the American government.”

What is New About Imperial Policies

While the general character of imperial policies remains the same, whether the empire is Rome, Japan, Germany, France, Great Britain, or the United States, changes in technology, the state system, ideology, and tactical thinking have had their effects.

First, imperial rule has become truly global. From bases in far-off places, to unmanned drones flying over literally millions of targets everywhere, empires operate with no constraints based on geography.

Second, the military has become big business. Private corporations assume a greater share of Department of Defense budgets. Private companies now clean up and cook for the troops, train foreign soldiers, assassinate assumed terrorist enemies, and fight small wars with almost no visibility to publics.

Third, the United States is moving toward fighting wars without soldiers on the ground. Enemies can be identified by computer and military technologists can then push the right buttons to kill the unfortunate targets. Killing has become antiseptic. Killers can say goodbye to the kids in the morning, drive to work, push some buttons, drive home and spend the evening with the family. Meanwhile thousands of miles away there are mourners crying over those just assassinated.

Fourth, empires, at least the U.S. empire, can kill with impunity. Targets labeled terrorist can be eliminated by unmanned space weapons, specially trained assassination teams, or average foot soldiers.

Finally, empires can expand and change the destiny of peoples through so-called “humanitarian assistance.” Local goals, good or bad, are furthered by the large financial resources that special interests can bring to other countries.

Empires have had a long and ugly history. Because of technology, economics, and ideology new techniques of empire have been added to the old. The struggle against all empires must continue.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Harry Targ

Childhood Remembrances

When I was a kid I had to go to Hebrew school to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah. I confess I would have preferred being in the school yard playing baseball to studying Hebrew.One of my few remembrances from days of religious study, aside from my resentment about time away from the ball field, was reading the stories of the tribes of Israel conquering or killing political/religious enemies. Acts of violence and hate seemed to me to be sanctioned by a wrathful God, my God.

Down the street from where we lived were St. Timothy’s Church and school. The building was an imposing broad red-brick structure. There was no contact between the children who went to school there and those of us who attended public school a few blocks away.

Ideology and the Place of the United States in the World

When I grew up, began to study international relations, became an activist against the war in Vietnam and started teaching foreign policy, I saw the power of ideology in mobilizing whole peoples to hate others. War, while a byproduct of economic interest, was facilitated by ideologies of hate; by creating “the other,” who were less than human and believed in the wrong God.

Millions died in the Crusades, the Inquisition in Spain, the taking of the lands of the Western Hemisphere and Africa, the occupations of China, Indonesia, Indochina, and the Middle East. Most of those deaths were justified by obedience to the Christian God.

In 1996 I was asked to give a talk at a church on “Is United States Foreign Policy Moral or Not?” I went to Ruth Sivard’s compilation of data on wars over the centuries, World Military and Social Expenditures, 1996. I counted up the war deaths of peoples in wars in which the United States was a direct participant, such as Korea and Vietnam, or in which the United States was indirectly involved such as Guatemala, Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua. The number of those who died in those wars between 1945 and 1995 in which the United States had a role totaled 10 million.

Of course, participation in most of these wars and covert operations was justified by a mix of secular and sacred terms: democracy, markets, and God. President Reagan had reiterated the religious zealotry articulated by virtually every politician, banker, or theologian who called for US militarism. The United States was “the city on the hill,” the “beacon of hope” for the world.

Lloyd Gardner in his recent book, The Long Road to Baghdad, A History of U.S. Foreign Policy From the 1970s to the Present, argues that there is a vision of global perfectibility behind United States foreign policy from its rise to great power status at the dawn of the twentieth century, to Woodrow Wilson’s vision of making the world safe for democracy, to Harry Truman’s announcement of our great struggle against communism in 1947, to John Kennedy’s “new frontier” and Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam, to the Reagan Doctrine, and George W. Bush’s proclamation that nations are either with us or the enemy.

Underlying all this is the proposition, as Bob Dylan suggested, that “God is on our side.” Gardner writes that “Bush equates American foreign policy here with God’s will….God is on the side of justice; America has chosen the side of justice as its goal; therefore, God will bless American policy. Obstacles to this mission were only to be expected from forces on the wrong side of history.”

The Campaign Against Islam in the United States

Now politicians are demanding that the constitutional right of sectors of the Islamic community in New York to build a community center be denied because they offend the sensibilities of the Christians and Jews living in the city, indeed in the entire nation. They ignore the history of their co-religionists who have misused people’s faith to justify conquest and mass slaughter. They deny the fact that the presence of their religious institutions in other lands or located throughout communities in the United States create fear and anger among those of different faiths or no faith.

Perhaps most scurrilous of all is the way that the public mind is being manipulated and used for purposes of political gain at a time when joblessness, environmental devastation, and hatred spread across the land.

The little boy studying the Old Testament sixty years ago was uncomfortable about aspects of his religion that he could only partially understand. The great American writer, Mark Twain much earlier described the irony of religious fanaticism as he reported on a massacre of Muslim rebels fighting U.S. military occupiers at the dawn of the twentieth century in the Philippines:

“Contrast these things with the great statistics which have arrived from that Moro crater! There, with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men killed outright, and we had thirty-two wounded. . . . The enemy numbered six hundred-including women and children-and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Harry Targ

I view as despicable the Obama administration strategy, expressed through Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, of ostracizing members of the “left” which criticizes shortcomings of administration policies.

Progressives have appropriately condemned economic policies that limited job stimuli, bailed out banks without nationalizing them, assumed away the very popular single payer option in health care reform, escalated war in Afghanistan, stalled the end of the blockade on Cuba, and maintained an imperial military presence in Latin America, East Asia, and just about everyplace else. The administration has not pursued immigration reform, climate change legislation, and the Employee Free Choice Act.

However, the reality of the first 19 months of this administration includes some health care reform, modest symbolic gestures to reduce hostilities toward other countries and the reintroduction of diplomacy as a tool of international relations, negotiations on the reduction of nuclear weapons, reestablishment of funding to international agencies that promote family planning, and a set of economic policies that bailed out banks and the auto industry that reduced somewhat the horrific consequences of the current recession. The Obama administration still has on the table a progressive agenda as to the environment, labor, job creation, and foreign policy. This is a public agenda for which he can and will be held accountable while electoral and tea party opponents are committed to the destruction of public institutions, fairness, and access to basic human needs.

As I read the Gibbs comments, however, a small part of me, I confess, was reminded of those who are inalterably opposed to every policy and practice of this administration. Some analysts on the left have articulated views that seem to me to ignore the historical context, the constellation of political forces today, the consciousness of people at the grassroots, and the almost omnipresence of an electronic media that frames virtually everything in terms of markets, the terrorist threat, unions as “special interests,” and government as an unmitigated evil.

I was ruminating about this discomfort I have with some of our left discourse as I sat through the August meeting of the Northwest Central Labor Council, Indiana, AFL-CIO meeting. We were listening to a presentation by a labor lawyer who works for a firm that specializes in cases of worker injuries and deaths on the job. This firm, for years, has worked with liberal state legislators, mostly Democrats, to get legislation passed that might guarantee the right of families of deceased workers to sue for deaths of loved ones at workplaces and to provide access to workers compensation. It seems that Indiana law limits legal and compensation claims for victims of mesothelioma and other asbestos exposure diseases to cases occurring within ten years. Scientific evidence indicates that victims of workplace asbestos exposure may not appear for 20 or 30 years. In effect, most claims for survivors and victims of asbestos related diseases would be ineligible for compensation.

Then the Council heard from State Representative Dennis Tyler (D-Muncie) who has been working with the law firm, George and Sipes, to change the law. Tyler described the procedural roadblocks to proposed legislative reform in 2009; Republican opposition in both the State House and Senate to legislative reform, and lobbying efforts by the Indiana Manufacturers Association, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Associated Builders and Contractors, the National Federation of Independent Business, Indiana Energy Association, the Indiana Petroleum Council and the Insurance Institute of Indiana.

The Tyler Bill was reintroduced in 2010. As George and Sipes describes the outcome: “The bill was assigned to the House Labor and Employment Committee and was heard in late January. With the bill about to pass the Committee and move to the House floor for a vote, the Republicans on the Committee, doing the bidding of the manufacturer and insurance lobbyists, walked out, which left too few members to hold a vote, effectively killing the bill.”

In Council discussion State Representative Tyler admitted that Indiana working people, including union members, are disillusioned with both parties and the electoral process generally. However, as expected from a state politician, he pointed out that the only hope workers and families have for some assistance when mesothelioma hits a family is to elect a pro-worker, largely Democratic, State House. Traditionally, in the Indiana legislature, Democrats have a narrow lead in the House and rarely control the Senate.

This fall, the Democrats could lose the House which will not only bury any prospects of reform on asbestos compensation legislation but a Republican victory in the House and Senate would lead almost immediately to passage of legislation making Indiana a so-called “Right-to-Work” state. “Right-to-Work states allow workers in unionized workplaces to not join the unions that represent their interests. Wage rates and union membership in Right-to-Work states are uniformly less than in states that have not embraced such anti-union legislation.

So what do we on the “left” do? We surely do not want to be fodder for the White House strategy to convince voters that they are not “left.” We surely do not want to support more off shore drilling, more war in Afghanistan, allocation of fewer resources for public employment and green jobs etc. But, at the same time, we need to work to protect workers stricken with mesothelioma. We need to work to create real regulation of mines, of oil drilling, of global warming. We need push for single-payer health care. And we need to mobilize around a real job creation agenda. And we need to demand that with tight resources our needs must be paid for by a dramatic draw-down of military spending.

In the end, I come to the conclusion that we on the “left” must continue to perform to Robert Gibb’s characterization. But, I believe we must also continue to work in our communities, our states and nationally, electorally and in the streets, to improve the lives of all who suffer today as we organize to build a better world tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Harry Targ

Ethics Charges: The Natural Order of Things

The stories about ethics violations by Congressman Charles Rangel (NY) have been making the rounds of the media for a week or so. Last Friday, wire service reports indicated that the House Ethics Committee will be charging Congresswoman Maxine Waters (California’s 35th Congressional District) with financial and influence improprieties as well. Of course, the leaked information in both cases is complicated and presumes guilt while the targets’ denials seem like desperate gestures to save themselves.

These stories have been contextualized in two ways. First, the charges against Rangel and Waters have been framed as part of concern about the seeming rise in corruption in public life and reminders that candidate Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have promised greater political transparency. So the upcoming Rangel/Waters hearings seem a natural byproduct of a changing political atmosphere in Washington and the country.

Second, virtually all the analyses of the announcement of the charges, the responses from those charged, and estimates of when panel hearings will take place, highlight the impacts of these cases on the November 2010 elections. Pundits speculate on what effect these political troubles will have for Democrats and reinforce media conclusions that the Democrats will be even more hurt from these revelations than everyone already expects.

What Are These Charges Really About

I have not read all the stories on Rangel or Waters but none I have seen have mentioned three other variables that just might relate to the attacks on the Congresspersons in question. First, both, but particularly Maxine Waters, have been visible progressives on war/peace and economic issues. Second, both Congresspersons are African-American and have been articulate spokespersons for the Congressional Black Caucus. Third, and not unconnected to the other two, these charges follow a two-year trajectory of assaults on progressive African-Americans, including the grassroots organization ACORN, green jobs activist Van Jones, and most recently, agricultural specialist, Shirley Sherrod.

On Waters and Harman

On Tuesday August 3, 2010, The New York Times published a front-page story titled “A Capital Abuzz With Ethics,” reflecting the standard frame suggested above. “The charges reflect, in part, a heightened sensitivity in Washington to indiscretions by members of Congress.”

On page one of the business section in the same issue of the paper a story appears with the title “An Audio Pioneer Buys Beleaguered Newsweek.” It describes Sidney Harman’s purchase of the faltering but still visible news magazine, Newsweek. Curiously, paragraph seventeen, on page 2 of the section opens with the following: “He is married to Jane Harman, a Democratic Congresswoman who represents Southern California. Asked whether being married to a Congresswoman might represent a conflict of interest, he replied: ‘We’ve been married for over 30 years. I’ve never told her how to run the government and she’s never told me how to run the business. That’s absolutely fundamental to us.’”

(Last fall, in the midst of the health care debate it was disclosed in Indiana that the wife of retiring Senator Evan Bayh was a board member of the health insurance giant Wellpoint and that she made over $200,000 in fees and stock options for her work. Bayh’s legislative aide said that the Senator and Susan Bayh never spoke about the health care issue at home).

Just a superficial comparison of the political agendas of the two Southern California legislators, Maxine Waters and Jane Harman, indicate that the former has been a leader in opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Harman has been more tied to homeland security advocacy and support for Israel. On economic issues, Waters has been an advocate for expanding economic stimulus policies, increasing housing and community development support, empowering women and youth, and promoting green jobs and other policies of relevance to the poor and minorities. Harman has identified with the “Blue Dog Blueprint for Fiscal Reform” a plan that prioritizes budget balancing and deficit reduction over human needs. She also identifies with the New Democrats call for “a robust market-based approach to address our nation’s energy needs.”

We Must Respond

The right-wing and their allies in both political parties are engaging in a campaign at all levels of society to destroy the prospects of building a progressive agenda. Most of the media-print, electronic, and internet-for whatever reasons, are co-conspirators. AND this campaign clearly is targeting the interests of workers, African-Americans, people of color in general, and women. Progressives must join the struggle to save the progressive agenda wherever political activity takes place.