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Imperial follies

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

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In its current perceptions of the Third World, Washington continues to rely on notions of national security and cultural imperialism.

THERE are two ways of looking at the Cold War. One is through the prism of great power rivalry, with the two great powers of the bipolar world, the Soviet Union and the United States, competing for clients, influence and resources, not only in Europe, but across the Third World. The second is to see the Cold War as a struggle between imperialism the political, economic and cultural hold of former colonial powers on their former colonies and national self-determination of sovereign peoples of developing countries for control over the latter's resources, destinies and allies.

The title of Hahn and Heiss' book, Empire and Revolution, suggests the chronicling of the latter struggle. In fact, this book claims to go beyond the traditional diplomatic history approach by concentrating on other factors to explain the role of the U.S. in the developing world during the Cold War, such as race, gender and culture (but never class, a significant omission). The other three themes discussed in the book are how the U.S.' Third World policies often led to blowback; how the U.S. responded to Third World countries' attempts to assert themselves; and, finally, the covert operations of the Central Intelligence Agency in countries where such Third World nationalism directly challenged imperialism.

Dual challenges

In my opinion, decolonisation in the developing world threw up a new challenge for former imperial powers and the emerging imperial power, the U.S. These powers had not only to counter the appeal of the Soviet Union to the Third World as a war-shattered economy that became a great industrial power in the span of a mere decade, but also to prevent radical secular nationalism and/or communism from taking hold in the Third World, inspired by possible aid from the Soviet Union. These dual challenges form the subject of various case studies in this book, from Asia to Africa and Latin America during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

The book is interesting not only because it reveals the various responses of the people of the Third World (and their leaders) to the U.S.' attempts to check and quarantine them during a particular era, but also because it examines how far the U.S. was willing to use extreme methods to achieve its goals of thwarting revolutionary upheavals: from sending Marines to Beirut in 1958 to funding mercenaries in the Congo. Of course, one is also struck by how the conflict between empire and revolution is still present in our midst, whether it is the U.S.-supported military coup in 2002 that briefly toppled oil-rich Venezuela's socialist President, Hugo Chavez, or the more successful coups that sent Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to their African and Latin American exiles, in 2004 and 2009 respectively. All three leaders had been democratically elected.

The first part of the book uses the trope of national security and counter-revolution to demonstrate that the situations which the U.S. faced in Lebanon (1958), in the Caribbean (1958-63), the Congo (1964-65) and Vietnam (1950-68) had gone far too much out of hand for the U.S., and intervention was a way to preserve national security interests and stability in those countries. The U.S. administration claimed that it intervened in Lebanon and Vietnam to shore up its credibility with its Western allies and client regimes in the Third World which looked up to the U.S. as their benefactor and preserver. However, in both countries, the issues at stake were related to Arab nationalism and Vietnamese sovereignty, much more than a threat from communism.

Nationalistic aspirations in the Third World often they still do couched themselves in radical, social democratic terms that had nothing to do with communism or communist parties. In Lebanon, Arab nationalism, specifically Nasserism, became a powerful vehicle to express the Lebanese people's desire to get rid of the dictatorial Camille Chamoun, who was not only undemocratic but hostile to the Arab nationalistic project and was therefore seen as an American-Israeli puppet. The Lebanese Communist Party played a much less prominent role in the national life of the country then (today it is bested only by Hizbollah). The Eisenhower administration helped Chamoun rig the elections to get rid of the nationalistic virus. When the time came for Chamoun to ease out and pave the way for the nationalists to take over, the precedent for a future blowback (in the form of the 1985 bombing of a military barracks which forced U.S. Marines out of Lebanon) was set.

In Vietnam, the U.S. again showed a remarkable inability to distinguish between peasant nationalism and communism. It is true that Ho Chi Minh was the founder of the Vietnamese Workers Party and a communist to boot, but as Robert Buzzanco shows in this collection of essays, he was too much of a Vietnamese nationalist to depend on either China or the Soviet Union for long. The war became a struggle to rid the country of foreign occupation, the best evidence of which was the artificial division of the country into the North and South. Yet the U.S. interests in prolonging the invasion of Vietnam were not only to fill the vacuum created by the departing French but also to assure Japan and Europe of stability by providing them with a captive market in a U.S.-liberated Vietnam.

After 1949, with the Maoist victory in China, the U.S. wanted to use Vietnam as a buffer from which to contain China, similar to the plans it had for Indonesia (where a radical social democrat, Sukarno, was in power, helped by a communist party that was the third largest in the world) and Malaysia (where a devastating guerilla war was led by communists against the British). It plainly did not want the control of Vietnamese resources to go to sympathisers of China, but refused to understand how communism became a means for Vietnamese opposition to foreign occupation and search for sovereignty. This mistake ultimately brought the U.S. a great defeat in Vietnam. In Indonesia, it sponsored Asia's worst dictator, Suharto, who destroyed the Communist Party of Indonesia, in a move green-lighted by it.

In Latin America, a whole tradition of U.S. interference existed even before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 (the occupations of Haiti and Cuba, annexation of Mexican territories and Puerto Rico and Hawaii come to mind). In a region that the U.S. regarded as its Caribbean lake, it had sponsored puppet regimes or dictators in order to achieve economic dominance for its multinational corporations throughout the 20th century. One of the more unpleasant dictators, the original our son of a bitch sponsored by the U.S., happened to be Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.

John F. Kennedy had an interesting approach to Trujillo, and, by extension, to the rest of Latin America, then in the throes of several national liberation and resistance movements against similar cold-blooded dictators. It can be summarised by a quote cited in Stephen G. Rabe's chapter: There are three possibilities in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can't renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third (page 48).

The extent to which this doctrine took care of U.S. national security concerns in Latin America became obvious when a decent democratic regime did emerge, not in the Dominican Republic but in neighbouring Venezuela in the election of Romulo Betancourt, an arch-foe of Trujillo, while a Castro regime also came to power but not in Santo Domingo, rather in Santiago de Cuba, in the form of Fidel Castro, who triumphed over another U.S.-client dictator by means of a spectacular guerilla resistance movement.

Betancourt was equally opposed to right-wing dictatorship and left-wing revolution and was therefore reluctant to be seen as a Washington client. Washington, on the other hand, wanted him to support it unconditionally on opposing the Cuban Revolution while understanding and accommodating U.S. concerns in supporting a tyrant in the Dominican Republic. Interestingly, Washington's insistence on seeing a communist threat where none existed (Dominican Republic) and on not seeing one where it actually did (Cuba) led to a foreign policy debacle when Fidel Castro toppled dictator Batista in 1959 and Dominican exiles murdered Trujillo in 1961. The response of other Latin American nations was more discerning, for they refused to toe Washington's line on the former.

Meanwhile, when the social democratic regime of Juan Bosch, which had won elections in the Dominican Republic post-Trujillo, was later toppled in another military coup, Washington willingly sacrificed democracy there for its self-serving interests, while waiting for Betancourt's successor to be confirmed so it could give its blessings to the new Dominican junta. Washington's double standards in Latin America not only led to further challenges to its preferred method of doing business in Latin America, that is, military dictatorship, but lost it the goodwill of many potential allies such as Betancourt.

In Africa, in the case of the Congo, the threat to U.S. interests was more hazy. Popular Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in 1965 with the full knowledge of the U.S. and the complicity of the United Nations. This unleashed an armed struggle by Lumumba's supporters. The Soviet Union had refused to support a besieged Lumumba before he was executed, and the military aid it now gave to the Lumumbists was too little to actually be a concern to policy-planners in Washington. So, what was the reason for the U.S. involvement in the Congo?

Contrary to its claims that the rebels were communists, Piero Gleijeses displays convincingly that they did not have a concrete socio-political programme beyond vague notions of nationalism. In my opinion, U.S. interference in the Congo had more to do with the country's fabulous wealth of mineral resources (gold, diamond, copper, bauxite, cobalt and uranium) rather than national security. That is why when mercenary warlords such as Tshombe failed to do Washington's job properly, it later supported a direct military takeover by the Congolese army under General Mobutu, later to be known as Mobutu Sese Seko, whose long reign of terror in Kinshasa makes white racists like Conrad's eternal Kurtz more palatable in comparison.

The Congo's riches continue to attract foreign powers that bleed the country dry even today, and this is most evident in the assassination of Che Guevara's ex-comrade and former Congolese President, Laurent Kabila, who was an ardent African nationalist in Lumumba's vein. Despite the fact that the U.S.-orchestrated operation of funding South African mercenaries was carried off at little cost, it later inaugurated a long night of terror in the Congo under Mobutu, which still does not seem like abating.

If national security and counter-insurgency was a very obvious way to channel events in the Third World in Washington's favour, cultural intervention provided a subtle if not more helpful method to understand the demonised Other'. One of the more innocuous ways was the establishment of the Peace Corps, later much mimicked in other countries because of its success, but nevertheless operating in a world of bipolar rivalry; its objectives ranged from the projection of soft power of the U.S. to winning allies at home and abroad to functioning as an eye turned towards the newly decolonising nations of the Third World.

According to Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, the Peace Corps became a more attractive way for citizens across the world to show solidarity with the people of the newly decolonised Third World in the absence of any other such spectacular effort. However, at the level of the state, other efforts were under way to shape cultural responses in order to understand peoples and cultures that proved too resistant or intransigent for the intervention of Western imperialism, in this book's case Iran and India. There were crucial struggles under way in both countries for resistance against imperialism and control over resources in the 1950s, not surprisingly assisted by large Left presences.

When the Premier of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, made it clear that he would rather bargain with the U.S. than give wholesale control of Iranian oil to British multinational corporations, the CIA plotted a coup to remove him from power and enhance the power of its client, the Shah of Iran. Creating the image of a wily Oriental who was not cultured enough to understand his own good which consisted in giving control of oil to Western interests no doubt helped pave the way for the coup. Similarly in India the country's desire for non-alignment so soon after being freed from colonial control was misunderstood as an emotional weakness and inadequacy a throwback to old Oriental stereotypes about India.

The West has historically never tolerated democracy in oil-producing countries, a phenomenon theorised as a resource curse or Dutch disease in economists' elegant but ahistoric jargon: a simple fact one can verify by looking at the landscape of the oil-producers of West Asia (including occupied Iraq) and Africa and the aforementioned events in Venezuela in 2002. India has been more fortunate since the democratic tradition has held greater sway in the country than in either Iran or Pakistan, though the situation now, with the India-U.S. nuclear pact, has made the earlier demonisations unnecessary. Most Iranians trace the roots of the current Iranian-American animosity to the U.S. decision to topple Mossadegh in 1953.

One cannot say the same about the influence of Israel in American politics; the former employed an ingenious propaganda strategy through its labour organisation, the Histradut, which had powerful links with its U.S. counterpart, the AFL-CIO. Such propaganda helped secure American backing for Israeli security needs at the cost of the Arabs, specifically pushing President Harry Truman for a drastic change in the arms policy in favour of Israel (page 164). The role of the Histradut in swaying American public opinion in favour of Israel anticipated the birth of the modern Israeli lobby, cleverly managed by its spin doctors in the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) today.

The third section of the book looks at strategies of economic development promoted by Washington to win the allegiance of elites in the Third World. The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s formed a particularly fertile era for growth- and development-inspired theorists, chief among them Walt Rostow and Samuel Huntington, who believed that given strong authoritarian, preferably pro-U.S. regimes, buttressed by aid (again preferably U.S.), economic progress for the developing world was just around the corner. Nelson Rockefeller, scion of one of America's wealthiest families, attempted to bring such misplaced idealism to his investments in Venezuela, hoping to wean that country's elite from the social democratic nationalism that had by then infected most of Latin America.

Betancourt attempted to placate both the Right and the Left by maintaining an ambiguous policy on courting Rockefeller. But what he as well as the latter refused to understand was that they were totally out of sync with the nationalistic mood of the Venezuelan masses for whom Rockefeller signified nothing more than gringo imperialism. However, the Venezuelan elite's reluctance to give control of the country's oil to the multinational corporations led the military to mount a coup against Betancourt's successor, Romulo Gallegos, which was tacitly supported by Washington.

The roots of Washington's current policy towards Chavez's Venezuela can be understood by this early example of lack of tolerance for democracy in oil-producing states like Venezuela. While it took a military coup in Venezuela to safeguard the interests of the country's rich and the multinational corporations, in South-East Asia, the U.S. encouraged a different approach to playing by the rules of the game, by fostering in the region what economists like to call the developmental state or nanny state. Nick Cullathers does not hide his admiration for the Taiwanese example so created, which supposedly married British socialism and Meiji-era reformism to produce a Cold War economic miracle.

Yet, as the writer also notes, the U.S. attempt to bankroll a successful Asian example to counter the appeal of Maoist China produced a highly militarised state. Not discussed is the fact that much of the Taiwanese economic success was a result of billions of dollars in aid by the U.S. and subsidies by Japan, at the cost of tremendous human rights abuses against the regime's political opponents, a distinction Taiwan shares with Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and South Korea during the same period. The value of Taiwan as a national security state to be armed to the teeth and pressed into service as a future mercenary against the threat of communist China cannot be overstated; it was in this context that Taiwan's economic development took place without any deep structural changes in the distribution of resources save for a timid land reform.

National security, culture and economic development then appear to be the three ways which U.S. imperialism relied on, and continues to rely on, to achieve its strategic objectives, either by neutralising the threat of popular Third World leaders who demand sovereign control over their resources for their people or arming states such as Israel and Taiwan (not to mention conservative Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf countries and conservative Latin American states like Colombia) to act as regional proxies to maintain stability. And where culture can play the role of a soft mercenary in bridging the gap between Us and Them to suit imperial requirements, all the better.

Arabs at the receiving end

No people have been more at the wrong end of U.S. foreign policy than the Arabs in the post-1945 world in general, and specifically after the partition of Palestine and the birth of Israel in 1948. The two other books under review, H.W. Brands' The Specter of Neutralism and Peter Hahn's Caught in the Middle East, dwell on the roots of U.S. policy in West Asia, especially the Arab part of it, until the 1960s. The U.S. administrations of Truman and Eisenhower, focussed at in the two volumes, regarded the Zionist state as a key pillar in maintaining stability in West Asia, in alliance with conservative Arab states.

According to Hahn, the U.S.' West Asia policy was built on the twin pillars of security and stability, both being code words for protection of the Zionist state, and the stability of right-wing Arab regimes in guaranteeing an unlimited supply of cheap oil to the West, a geographical fact recognised by the Tripartite Declaration of 1950. In maintaining these policies, pressing concerns like justice for the Palestinian cause were largely sacrificed, until the emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser, leader of the 1952 revolution in Egypt and the first Arab leader to challenge the status quo by challenging American security as Washington defined it (Brands, page 224).

Realising the malignant and infectious neutralism of Nasser, the Eisenhower administration first attempted to buy him off by offering him military and economic aid. Brands refers to Nasser's regime as a military dictatorship though evidence suggests that he was not only the most popular leader in Egypt's history but by far the most popular in the Arab world at the time. This is further strengthened by the fact that Egypt attained an astonishing cultural renaissance under Nasser. The other cultural extreme was reached by the British when they labelled Nasser the Hitler on the Nile, a sobriquet which was unmatched until Saddam Hussein became the new Hitler on the Euphrates. Perhaps more deserving, and willing, candidates for it would have been the Pahlavi Shahs of Iran, who like the Nazi dictator were great admirers of Aryan nationalist theories.

The failure of all subsequent attempts on Washington's part to build up amenable Arab leaders as alternatives to Nasser by investing in often quixotic figures like Iraq's Nuri al-Said, Saudi Arabia's King Saud and Tunisia's Bourguiba is a testament to this. Brands' contention that Nasser turned to the Left after being rebuffed by the U.S. on arms and aid (pages 247-248) is simply not true. He fails to understand the roots of Arab nationalism, which came to be defined as much by the Palestinian cause as by the Arab masses' demand for control over their own resources.

The Anglo-French-Israeli attack on the Suez Canal and the canal's subsequent nationalisation proved the ineffectiveness of the American strategy to make an oil-centric, Israel-centric foreign policy for West Asia. Brands rightly says that had the U.S. correctly understood the call emanating from Bandung in 1955, it would have had warmer relations with states like Egypt. The 1958 revolution in Iraq severely impaired the vision of the U.S. for West Asia, with the loss of its third I' (read eye) in the region (the other two being Iran and Israel), and showed the bankruptcy of perceiving the popular demand for Arab socialism/nationalism solely in terms of national security and counter-revolution.

Role of culture

Douglas Little takes the story of U.S. intervention in the region from the 1960s onwards, from where Hahn and Brands leave off. Unlike Hahn and Brands, he seriously considers the role of culture, specifically Orientalism, in shaping the Western read American perception of the Arab world.

Following the rise of Nasser and the end of the British empire, the Eisenhower doctrine was automatically neutralised, leaving the U.S. to rely on two oil-rich but unsavoury Muslim allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Iran (along with Israel) to buttress the stability and security of U.S. interests in West Asia. The Carter doctrine momentarily faltered with the Iranian revolution and the loss of a major ally in the region, but was quickly energised by covert aid to the Afghan mujahideen as per the Reagan doctrine.

While General Colin Powell and President Bill Clinton succeeded for a time with a policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq, the two old American eyes of the Baghdad Pact (by now thoroughly jaundiced) and the only two West Asian states that had arsenals and armies large enough to pose a threat to Israel. George Bush discovered in 2001 that combating Al Qaeda offered a good excuse to dismantle Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad; in the past he had been a loyal client for years. What one finds irritating is Little's consistent reference to National Geographic as his preferred prism to perceive the Arabs as well as his approving citation of former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban's statement that Arabs have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity (page 268). As if Israel were not the only state in the region armed with nuclear weapons a state that can boast the largest number of violations of United Nations rules, the world's only state with as yet undeclared borders, the only state in the region to have gone to war consistently since 1948 and conquered more land than any of its neighbours, buttressed with the greatest amount of U.S. aid annually.

The Oslo accords broke the back of Palestinian attempts to create a viable state free from Israeli control; what has actually been created is a series of disjointed and isolated Bantustans, forever at the mercy of Israel. Little does not discuss this accord in any great detail, perhaps more out of embarrassment at the sad reality of the truth than amnesia.

He correctly defines the U.S. occupation of Iraq as an equation of Oil+Israel+Orientalism (page 308) meant to replace the red threat of communism with the green one of Islamo-fascism' by exporting democracy to the Arab-Muslim world. In doing so, the modern occupiers have become the direct successors of Lord Cromer, Lord Kitchener and George Gordon, who also occupied sovereign Arab states ostensibly to teach the Arabs a lesson or two in democracy.

Little has a valuable last chapter on Orientalism at the End of the American Century where he talks about the increasing reliance of Washington on such spurious West Asia specialists as Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes and Raphael Patai, who have written books explaining the Arab mind and society to the West. To the growing list, one must also add native informants such as Fouad Ajami, Kanan Makiya and Azar Nafisi, all otherwise intelligent people who spent a considerable amount of time selling war in the corridors of power in Washington. As a corrective, some names that can be mentioned are the late Edward Said, Maxime Rodinson, Rashid Khalidi and Hamid Dabashi, whose work consistently challenges the stereotypes and shibboleths peddled by these servants of power.

In the final analysis, then, the lesson to be drawn is that unfortunately, in its current perceptions of the Third World and the hopes and wishes of its people, Washington continues to rely on notions of national security and cultural imperialism, the twin historical baggages it has carried in its long history of intervention there, whether in Afghanistan and Iraq, or in Latin America.

I am not sure if a dose of Mark Twain, as Little advises us, could seriously cure such imperial hubris and amnesia. In fact, one wishes, to paraphrase Spinoza: neither to laugh nor cry, but to understand.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 27, 2010.)

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