Saturday, March 24, 2012


Harry Targ

U.S. Imperialism in the Beginning

Modern imperialism is intimately connected to the globalization of capitalism, the quest for enhanced military capabilities, geopolitical thinking, and ideologies of national and racial superiority. The rise of the United States empire occurred as the industrial revolution spread to North America after the civil war. Farmers began to produce agricultural surpluses requiring overseas customers, factories were built to produce iron, steel, textiles, and food products, railroads were constructed to traverse the North American continent, and financiers created large banks, trusts, and holding companies to parley agricultural and manufacturing profits into huge concentrations of cash.

Perhaps the benchmark of the U.S. emergence as an imperial power was the Spanish/Cuban/American war. The U.S. established its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, replacing the Spanish and challenging the British, and became an Asian power, crushing rebellion and planting its military in the Philippines. The empire has grown, despite resistance, to this day.
While U.S. expansion occurs wherever a vacuum of power exists, and an opportunity to formally or informally control a regime and/or territory, particular countries have had enduring salience for the U.S. Iran is such a country.

Scale of Significance for U.S. Imperialism

To help understand the attention U.S. policy-makers give some countries, it is possible to reflect on what is called here the Scale of Significance for U.S. Imperialism (SSUSI). The SSUSI has three interconnected dimensions that relate to the relative importance policy-makers give to some countries compared to others.

First, as an original motivation for expansion, economic interests are primary. Historically, United States policy has been driven by the need to secure customers for U.S. products, outlets for manufacturing investment opportunities, opportunities for financial speculation, and vital natural resources.

Second, geopolitics and military hegemony matter. Empires require ready access to regions and trouble spots all around the world. When Teddy Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Vice President, and President of the United States, articulated the first warning of the need for global power he spoke of the development of a “two-ocean” navy. The U.S., he said, must become an Atlantic and a Pacific power; thus prioritizing the projection of military power in the Western Hemisphere and Asia. If the achievement of global power was dependent upon resources drawn from everywhere, military and political hegemony in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, and parts of Africa also required attention.

Third, as the imperial project grows, certain political regimes and cultures take on particular importance for policy-makers and the American people. Foreign policy elites claim that the U.S. has a special responsibility for them. If these roles are rejected by the targeted country, the experience burns itself into the consciousness of the people. For example, Cuba was seen by U.S. rulers as far back as Thomas Jefferson as soon to be part of the United States. Cuba’s rejection of this presumption of U.S. tutelage has been a scar on the U.S. sense of itself ever since the spread of revolutionary ferment on the island.

The Danger of War With Iran Today

Reflecting on the SSUSI adds to the discussion about current United States foreign policy toward Iran. The history of U.S./Iranian relations has been long and painful. Before the dramatic United States involvement in that country, Iran’s vital oil resource had been under control of the weakening British empire. In 1901 the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum) consolidated control of much of the production, refining, and export of Iranian oil. Local oligarchs received only 16 percent of the oil revenue from the global sale of the oil.

After World War II, with a young monarch Mohammad Reza Shah serving as the Iranian ruler and Iranian masses living in poverty, Iranian nationalists mobilized to seize control of their valuable resource. Upper class nationalist Mohammed Mossadegh became Prime Minister and asserted the power of the parliament over the monarchy. The parliament voted to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

The British government enlisted the United States in 1953 to overthrow the Mossadegh regime using covert operations directed by the CIA. After Mossadegh was imprisoned and the Shah given full power to impose his will on an angry population, a new oil consortium agreement was established in 1954 which allowed five U.S. oil companies to gain a 40 percent share of Iranian oil. Anglo-Iranian would retain another 40 percent, and the rest would be given to rich Iranians.

Over the years, the Shah’s regime became the bulwark of US power in the increasingly vital Persian Gulf region. In the Nixon period, Iran was defined as a key “gendarme” state, which would serve as a surrogate western police power to oversee the region. Presumably Iran would protect the flow of Gulf oil to the United States, Europe, and Japan. By the 1970s, the Shah’s military was the fifth largest in the world.

To the great surprise of left critics of the Shah’s dictatorship, the CIA, and the Carter administration, the Shah’s regime began to crumble in the summer of 1978 as large strikes were organized by oil workers against the regime. In January, 1979 secretly organized massive street protests led by the religious community doomed the regime. As Iranian soldiers refused to fire upon street demonstrators, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, urged the president to send troops to Iran to save the U.S. regional policeman, the Shah, from overthrow. That proposal was rejected by Carter.

After jockeying for power in the post-revolutionary period, religious leaders consolidated their power over the political system. To add embarrassment to loss of economic and geopolitical control over the vital Persian Gulf region, Iranian students took 52 U.S. diplomats and military attaches hostage and held them for 444 days. In 1980 Carter authorized a military rescue effort
that failed. The bungled military operation further damaged the image of infallibility that American foreign policy elites, and the public, held about the nation’s power and destiny.

In the 1980s, to challenge Iran’s potential for becoming the hegemonic power in the Gulf, the Reagan administration sided with Iraq in the brutal war between it and Iran. In 1988, shortly before the end of the Iraq/Iran war U.S. planes shot down a civilian Iranian airliner killing 290 people aboard.

Subsequent to the ignoble history of U.S. support for the Shah’s dictatorship, militarization, the overthrow of Mossadegh, the embarrassment of the hostage taking, funding Iraq in the brutal Gulf war of the 1980s, the United States has maintained hostility to Iran despite occasional signals from the latter of a desire to establish better relations. U.S. policy has included an economic embargo, efforts to create region-wide opposition to the regime, expressions of support for a large and justifiable internal movement for democracy and secularization in the country, and encouragement, more or less, for growing Israeli threats against Iran. Given this troubled history of US/Iranian relations spanning at least 60 years, the current threats of war expressed by both Israel and the United States are not surprising.

Returning to SSUSI and Iranian Relations

As an emerging global power, United States needs for natural resources, customers for consumer and military products, investment opportunities, and outlets for energy companies grew throughout the twentieth century. One of the significant historical junctures in the transfer of economic and geopolitical power in the world from the declining British empire and the rising U.S. empire was the agreement to redistribute control of Iranian oil in 1954. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was obliged to share Iranian oil with the then five U.S. oil giants.

As U.S. oil needs and those of its friends in Europe increased, control of the Persian Gulf region and access to its oil became more vital. Furthermore, since a hostile Iran could control the Strait of Hormuz, the Iranian revolution of 1979 posed an increasing geopolitical problem for American dominance.

The impulse in 1979 to send U.S. troops to save the Shah’s regime was driven by both economics and geopolitics. It was only because other Carter advisers disagreed with the National Security Advisor on the possibility of saving the Shah that a U.S. intervention stalled in 1979. But in 1980 an Iraq/Iran war provided an opportunity, it was hoped, to weaken Iran’s potential control of the region.

Finally, the U.S. decision-makers since 1953 saw a special relationship between this country and Iran. The U.S. put the Shah in power, plied him with enormous military power, encouraged and facilitated significant cultural exchanges, and defined his regime as a junior partner in policing the region.

The rapidity of the Shah’s overthrow and the anger expressed by the Iranian people about its historic relationship to the American people communicated to the world declining U.S. power. Consequently, U.S. hostility to Iran in subsequent decades using a variety of issues including processing uranium is not surprising.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Harry Targ

“From Forrestal’s day to the present, semi-warriors have viewed democratic politics as problematic. Debate means delay. To engage in give-and-take or compromise is to forfeit clarity and suggests a lack of conviction. The effective management of national security requires specialized knowledge, a capacity for clear-eyed analysis and above all an unflinching willingness to make decisions, whatever the cost. With the advent of the semi-war, therefore, national security policy became the preserve of experts, few in number, almost always unelected, habitually operating in secret, persuading themselves that to exclude the public from such matters was to serve the public interest. After all, the people had no demonstrable “need to know.” In a time of perpetual crisis, the anointed role of the citizen was to be pliant, deferential and afraid.” (from a review of a biography of James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense by historian Andrew Bacevich in The Nation).

Andrew Bacevich reminds us that a permanent war economy has been part of the political and economic landscape of the United States at least since the end of World War II. The War Resisters League pie chart of total government spending for fiscal year 2013 indicates that 47 percent of all government spending deals with current and past military costs. Despite lower government estimates that mask true military spending, by adding the Social Security Trust Fund to total spending and regarding past military spending-- particularly veteran’s benefits-- as non-military, it is clear that roughly fifty cents of every dollar goes to war, war preparation, covert operations, and military contractors.

In addition “war support” contractors, such as KBR, have made billions of dollars in the twenty-first century from military spending. Top producers of military hardware, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing earned 11, 8, and 5 billion dollars in contracts in 2010 alone. Ostensibly non-military corporations such as BP, FedEx, Dell, Kraft, and Pepsi received hundreds of millions of dollars in defense contracts in 2010. Virtually every big corporation is to some degree on the Department of Defense payroll.

A recent data-based report, “Don’t Bank on the Bomb,” prepared by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) identified “…more than 300 banks, insurance companies, pension funds and asset managers from 30 countries that invest significantly in 20 major nuclear weapons producers.” The report examined in detail financial connections to 20 major nuclear weapons companies. These 20 included US producers of nuclear weapons components such as Bechtel, Boeing, GenCorp, General Dynamics, Honeywell, and Northrop Grumman. US financial institutions investing in the nuclear weapons producers included Abrams Bison Investments, AIG, American National Insurance Company, Fidelity, Franklin Templeton, JP Morgan Chase, New York Life, and Prudential Financial.

Because of the economic crisis which began in 2007, debate about military spending has increased. In 2010 Congressmen Barney Frank and Ron Paul initiated a study addressing needed cuts. The report prepared for them in 2010, “Debt, Deficits, and Defense,” called for across the board reductions in spending-procurement, research and development, personnel, operations and maintenance, and infrastructure--of $960 billion over the next decade. The report noted that over the last decade 65 percent of federal discretionary spending went to the military.

President Obama last January proposed more modest spending cuts of $480 billion over the next decade (reductions in projected increases not existing funding). He coupled announcement about future spending with a firm statement that the world must realize that the United States remains committed to maintaining its military superiority. The President indicated that spending reductions in the future will be tied to greater use of “special operations,” drones, and shifting existent forces from Europe to Asia.

The magnitude of military spending represents what Bacevich referred to as the permanent war economy articulated and defended by the “semi-warriors” dominating U.S. foreign policy in each administration since World War II. These semi-warriors gained influence after the Truman Administration accepted recommendations in National Security Document Number 68 (1950), which recommended that defense spending should always have priority over all other government spending. NSC 5412, approved by President Eisenhower, gave legitimacy to covert operations around the world allowing any president to “plausibly deny” any connections with such operations. Subsequently virtually each president proclaimed a doctrine--Eisenhower for the Middle East, Carter for the Persian Gulf, Reagan to rollback “the evil empire,” Clinton for “humanitarian interventions” and Bush for “preemptory attacks”-- justifying more and more military spending.

The Obama administration, through speeches and actions has constructed what might be called “the Obama Doctrine.” First, as the last remaining superpower and the beacon of hope for the world, the United States once again reserves the right and responsibility to intervene militarily to enhance human rights around the world. Second, U.S. humanitarian military interventions will be carried out from time to time with our friends. Third, new technologies such as drones will allow these interventions to occur without “boots on the ground.” They will be cheaper in financial and human cost (mostly for American troops). Finally, assassinations and covert killings have made it clear that the Obama Doctrine overrides recognized judicial proceedings and the sanctity of human life.

Since the establishment of the permanent war economy in the 1940s millions of proclaimed “enemies” have been killed and seriously injured, mostly in the Global South. Permanent physical and psychological damage has been done to U.S soldiers, predominantly poor and minorities as they too are victims of war. In addition, military spending has distorted national priorities and invested U.S. financial resources in expenditures that do not create as many jobs as investments in construction, education, or healthcare. And the permanent war economy has created a culture that celebrates violence, objectifies killing, dehumanizes enemies, and exalts super-patriotism through television, music, video games, and educational institutions.

These issues need to be more vigorously related to those raised by the grassroots campaigns that have sprung up to defend worker’s and women’s rights, oppose growing income and wealth inequality, and defense of working people’s homes from foreclosures. A long time ago in reference to the massive U.S. war in Southeast Asia and desperate needs of workers at home Dr. Martin Luther King described the fundamental connections that peace activists and all progressives must pursue: “I speak of the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam.”

Monday, March 5, 2012


Harry Targ

“The public version of Andrew was not the version I knew. I won’t miss the public version of Andrew. But the next time I’m walking down the street in New Hampshire, I will think of him, and I will wish I could run into the Andrew Breitbart who I knew.”(Lawrence O’Donnell, The Last Word, March 2, 2012, MSNBC).

Andrew Breitbart, the despicable electronic journalist of the Right, died on March 2 at the age of 43. Breitbart gained fame for producing short “documentaries” which distorted the image and activities of ACORN, a national organization of community activists. The slander of this grassroots organization led ultimately to its defunding by Congress.

Breitbart prepared and disseminated distorted footage of a speech by Georgia Rural Development Director for the Department of Agriculture Shirley Sherrod leading to her dismissal by the Obama Administration. He constructed a clumsily doctored documentary from a Labor Studies class at the University of Missouri to make it look like the instructors, one of whom was a trade union staffer, were advocating working class revolution.

Breitbart produced vicious lies about people and organizations. The harm he did to the real lives of poor and powerless people in our society in these and other instances is incalculable.

And not only did Brietbart produce venomous news accounts, he became a role model for other so-called journalists who have produced like-minded distorted reportage on venues such as Fox News. In addition, it is important to recognize that the distorted journalism that pervades Fox News can be found in the work of almost every other major media purveyor, electronic and print, in the United States. And Breitbart was a producer of this distorted journalism and an inspiration for the expansion of it throughout the profession.

So why did Lawrence O’Donnell, who generally is a principled journalist and voice of those victimized by powerful economic and political elites, memorialize Breitbart in such touching ways? And O’Donnell was not alone. Arianna Huffington and many others took the view that Breitbart, although he presented distorted information that impinged on progressive movements and policies, was passionate about his craft. Several media pundits suggested that Breitbart’s slanderous advocacy journalism, even if misplaced, was a contribution to a new journalism.

Why is it that journalists laud those who produce and disseminate news that destroys organizations and people who do good works? Why are journalists celebrated by their peers who produce news that exacerbates anti-worker, racist, and sexist attitudes and values, or more generally produces pain and suffering?

Perhaps part of the answer can be found in an analysis of news in modern society. We know that products that people produce and consume have “use value,” that is they provide some concrete and practical purpose which explains why we value them. Food is produced and consumed because we need food to survive. Beyond food, we consume many products because they provide us with comfort and pleasure.

Before the rise of capitalism, workers and peasants produced goods and services for their own use. With the rise of capitalism workers increasingly participated in the production of goods and services for sale in the marketplace. Workers produced not for use but for sale. Virtually every product became a commodity for sale.

In a system of commodity production the sales effort becomes more important than the basic value the goods hold for their producers. As capitalism unfolded over the last 200 years, the production of goods and services became more concentrated in fewer and fewer corporations and financial institutions. Huge conglomerates organized the production and distribution of goods and increasingly engaged in the process of generating demands for the wants people have in a modern society. In short, ours is a society of mass production and mass consumption. And consumers are vital to its survival and growth.

What does this analysis of the rise of our modern economy mean for journalism? It suggests that at some time in the past, images of our world and knowledge about it were produced and consumed by families and communities for their immediate needs. Over time, large media corporations were created to produce news and knowledge for dissemination among larger and larger populations. News became a commodity.

Media corporations increasingly saw the need to produce news, a commodity, which would be broadly consumed by the people. In other words news, in a world in which ten media monopolies dominate, required the selling of their product. As the media monopolies competed for customers for their commodities, appeals increased to the base desires, values, and beliefs of a population that already were shaped by racism, sexism, and animosity toward workers and the poor. Here is where skilled journalist/viral ideologues enter the picture. They applied their skills to the production of news that would entice and increase the appetite for more of the news that privileged scandal, racism, and sexism.

But what about the more rigorous, informed, and ‘professional' journalists who waxed eloquently about Breitbart’s professionalism despite some of his odious practices? Well, sad to say, virtually all media workers are engaged in the business of producing commodities for sale in the media market. So for them, the Breitbarts of the world are to be admired for their craft, if not their message and impacts on people’s lives.

In the end, the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the media, the ten media conglomerates that produce one-half of all we read, listen to, and view in news and culture, is a direct result of the fact that our economic system requires the commodification of everything, including news and culture. Andrew Breitbart was an inevitable product of this system.