Catalogue of Aggression

What Can One Say in the Face of Critics Who Have Seen American Foreign Policy in Action Up Close?

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | March 2008

We had just paid the bill and reached for our coats, when a weathered woman at the next table under a thick Russian bear hat, leaned over and addressed me in English, her voice heavily accented:

"And which American racket are you part of?" I turned and stared.

"Excuse me?" I asked, bewildered.

"Is it USAID? Or UNIDO? The IMF?"

"None of them," I said, starting to get annoyed. "I’m a journalist and an academic. I’m on the faculty at Webster University."

"Ah, Webster! Same thing," she sighed, clearly feeling vindicated. "Sucking money out of all those desperate people trying to buy their way into the West. Look at you! You’re all living off the backs of the Europeans."

Europeans? The hat looked Russian – from Odessa, actually, it turned out. She worked there for an NGO, but was herself French. But that wasn’t the point, except that it allowed me to switch languages and get a little further than I might have otherwise been able to. It could have been another country, and her list of complaints was hard to dispute: America was pirating resources, she said, destabilizing progressive governments and imposing crippling free market rules on emerging economies – all in its own interest, not theirs.

"But I am no happier about all that than you are," I protested.

"Perhaps," she said. "But all of you, you picked this government; you chose it – even re-elected it a second time. That is, the ones who vote at all. Most of you don’t even bother!"

What can one say, except that this is an election year and change is in the air? The realities are hard to dispute – worse under this government, perhaps, but certainly not new.

Since 1945, the United States has embarked on 17 major military "interventions" (the Pentagon euphemism for war) around the world, almost all in support of repressive governments that would protect our access to resources and markets. Counting the embargoes and covert operations of the CIA, the number quickly multiplies to at least 70, and by some counts nearly 100. We claimed it was against communism and in defense of democracy, but that was never the real issue. We wanted control.

In the 1940s we supported fascist regimes in Italy, Greece and the Philippines over popularly-supported leftist governments. In Korea, our suppression of the progressive forces is described by writers like former state department official William Blum as leading to "a long era of corrupt, reactionary and brutal governments."

In Iran, a joint US-UK operation overthrew Prime Minister Mossadegh for seeking to nationalize the country’s only oil company, then British-owned, returning the Shah to power as a puppet dictator, where for 25 years he protected the US and UK’s shared interests.

It was a similar story in Guatemala, where progressive Jacobo Albenz had nationalized the United Fruit Company, leading to a CIA coup and 40 years of death squads, torture, kidnappings and mass executions.

In British Guyana as in Viet Nam, the U.S. fear was of a successful alternative to the American capitalist model, so that even a moderate like Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan was a threat finally ousted in 1964. In Viet Nam, Ho Chi Mihn’s initial overtures to the United States were rebuffed and the protracted disaster there destroyed a country and a culture, stripping and poisoning the landscape and leaving behind generations of genetic damage. Not to mention what we did to ourselves.

Then along with various interventions in Cambodia, Cuba and Chile, Afghanistan and El Salvador, we next overthrew liberal Georges Papandreou in Greece, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, progressive Maurice Bishop in Grenada, Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti and former U.S. collaborator Manuel Noriega in Panama.

Which brings us up to the First Gulf War in 1991, with its 40 days of relentless bombing that reduced the capital of one of the most advanced countries of the Middle East to rubble. The more recent history of Iraq we know all too well. Nothing has changed. It has always been about American corporate ascendancy and control of resources and never been about democracy. It is a history of cynicism and exploitation on a grand scale.

"It’s been a driving doctrine of U.S foreign policy since the1940s that the vast and unparalleled energy resources of the Gulf region will be effectively dominated by the United States," wrote American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky at the time, "and no independent, indigenous force will be permitted to have a substantial influence on the administration of oil production and price."

But perhaps even more remarkable is the extent to which this has been carried out behind the veil of American heroism, the myth of the United States as the defender of freedom, as the model for democracies worldwide. An American president is routinely referred to – with complete seriousness – as the Leader the Free World.

A reputation earned in World War II, and cemented by the generosity of the Marshall Plan, which set a new standard for enlightened self interest, has served as a screen for an entirely different America, one whose foreign policy was conducted largely in secret, out of sight of the majority of its citizens and out of reach even of its own politicians. This was a foreign policy conducted in the interests of American business and of free-market consumer capitalism increasingly unaccountable to the civil society at home and disconnected from the values most Americans think their country stands for.

And whatever we want to say about this gap between Americans and their government, it has, at least until recently, been real and widespread.

"I think we can be reasonably confident that if the American population had the slightest idea of what is being done in their name, they would be utterly appalled," wrote Chomsky following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001

And the rackets? Well, they seem well positioned to make sure the rules work in our geopolitical favor. The USAID describes its assistance programs as having "the twofold purpose of furthering America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world."

However many doubt the sincerity of this second objective. The fundamental problem, as pointed out by Stanford’s Sara Kramer, is that these goals are often in conflict. Often it is not in America’s national interest to promote self-sufficiency in developing countries; U.S. economic interests are often better fed by foreign dependency on US imports and loans.

"The critics of globalization accuse Western countries of hypocrisy and the critics are right," writes Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in Globalization and its Discontents, pushing poor countries to eliminate trade barriers while keeping their own, with the United States "one of the prime culprits,… ensuring that it garners a disproportionate share of the benefits at the expense of the developing world."

Which leaves me in the wine bar, with little I can possibly say. Still, the personalness of the attack startled. After all, why come after me, whom you don’t even know? And in a public place?

The woman in the black bear hat gave an exhausted, soulless laugh.

"When I hear an American voice, I want to strangle someone."

Other articles from this issue

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    Charlie Wilson’s Story: How the West (Really)Ended the Cold War
    On The Town | Valerie Crawford-Pfannhauser
  • Virtual Epitaph

    People Are Not Always as Dead as They Appear; The Perils Of Research on Open-Source Information Databases
    News | Ana Tajder
  • Path of Memory

    A Walking Tour Honoring Jewish Residents of Vienna’s 2nd District Who Died at the Hands of the Nazis
    News | Tamara Nosenko
  • Beyond Government

    News | Paul Krauskopf
  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review March 2008