When, so often, is heard the phrase “American empire,” I have to wonder, where is this empire at?
If, as everyone agrees apparently, America is the global hegemon, its reach is not as global as most seem to suppose. For example, there are more than six-billion people alive today. America is not a political nor economic hegemon over at least a billion of this number, people who live in China. Nor does it hold sovereignty over another billion or so individuals, those who live in India. Already, there is one-third of humanity that is not dominated by America. Still, two-thirds of billions of people is a big empire. Let’s see how it breaks down.
Nearly one-hundred and fifty million people live in Russia, and another one-hundred million or so in the former territory of the Soviet Union. One-quarter billion is not the same number as a billion, but scarcely any of this number live under American domination. Whatever the waning weakness of Russia as a world player, no one seriously suggests that its government is controlled by America.
What about Western Europe, whose societies and economies are, in general, similar to that of the U.S.? Moreover, Western European countries are more or less traditionally aligned with America. Surely this area of the world must show symptoms of being the “periphery” of the American empire. Most of Western Europe has been, for many decades, collected in the European economic union. The population of this entity now exceeds 600 million. The EEC, and then the EU, was formed with the express purpose of establishing a “common market”, one in which foreign (ie. American) goods would be prevented much access. If American hegemony exists in the economic sphere, it is difficult to see where. What about the political?
Since the Maastricht treaty, “Europe” has steadily gained greater political sovereignty over their member states, including foreign policy. Has the EU bureaucracy cow-towed to its imperator? Hardly. In terms of foreign relations, Europe has taken its own course, quite distinct from the U.S. For example, when Palestinian uber-terrorist Yasser Arafat died in Paris, his body was conducted to the airport by a military honour guard, and by the French president, Jacques Chirac. The Europeans, and in particular the French, have also been great chums with other regimes (such as Saddam’s Iraq) which were considered “rogue” by the United States.
In the 1950s and early ‘60s, it became commonplace among French intellectuals to refer to the United States as the successor to the Nazis in the occupation of France. But after 1966, when Charles De Gaulle had American bases in his country removed (this is the French president, we were told by Zbigniew Brzezinski and John Kerry, who had “no need” to examine satellite photographs of the Russian missiles in Cuba, during the “missile crisis” of 1962, as presented by the American ambassador, such was the high level of trust that then existed between France and the U.S.), the idea that France was under occupation by America, is surely ludicrous.
So we have, with China, India, Russia and its former empire, and then Western Europe also, practically half of humanity which is definitively not a part of any American empire. What about the region that was once known as Eastern Europe? Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia and the Czech republic), Albania, Roumania and Bulgaria are not very populous individually, amounting to no more than sixty million people today. There were slightly less people there in 1989, when these countries gained liberation from another empire, the Soviets.
The western Slavic peoples (along with East Germans, another 17 or so million people) would know enough about empires to stay away from the U.S., surely? But what have Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czechs and Slovaks, done in the last few years? Joined NATO, the military arm, according to some, of the American empire. Might this affiliation be coerced by the American imperialists, say through economic pressure? But each of these countries has also applied to, or joined up with, the European Union, the express purpose of which is to act as an instrument to counter American dominance. No, the Eastern Europeans joined the Western security alliance of their own volition, as their best bet against dominance by a future resurgent Russia (ie. the Russia of today).
How much of the remaining half of humanity is part of the U.S. empire? There is, of course, East Asia, home to a massive chunk of the remainder, nearly two-thirds. China is not, as we saw, subordinate to the U.S. economically or politically. Indeed, there are complaints throughout the American government and society that China’s low-cost, low-wage factories are putting Americans out of work. These same complaints were made about Japan, and then the other “Asian Tigers”, such as South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, before currency meltdowns and economic slowdown lessened the “threat” of these powers. It would make sense if Japan, a conquered country after World War II, was an unambiguous colony of the U.S. In reality, civil government was restored to the Japanese in 1951, after which the country had “Western-style” democracy for the first time.
The American military has maintained a presence in Japan since the end of the war. The Japanese government and public would rather not have them there, it is true. But no one suggests that this force is the “real power” behind the Japanese government, the domestic sovereignty of which is without question. Critics of U.S.-style imperialism are always quick to remind their audience that the American empire is a “post-modern” or “extraterritorial” entity, without precedent in history. But the American empire, goes the argument, is alike with previous empires through the enforcement of a centre-periphery “dependency”, wherein the non-hegemon countries remain undeveloped because of their dependence on the metropole. It is hard to see how this relationship applies either to Japan or to the European Union. It must be re-emphasized that Japan and most of western Europe do not have militaries capable of defending themselves from attack (the exception, of course, is France). They are completely defenceless against the U.S. military.
However, this has not meant, as in past empires, that the U.S. has presided over a campaign of economic plunder against its former enemies. Instead, Japan came to use its relationship with the U.S. to flood the latter with cheap knock-offs (as they were perceived at first) of American consumer goods, eventually coming to dominate markets in home electronics and automobiles. It was the same for the other Asian tigers, who leveraged their geopolitical positions vis-a-vis the United States in the global struggle with Russia and China, to gain privileged access to the richest market in the world. Again, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore managed to gain access to the U.S. market, usually without having to open their markets to American goods in turn, a relationship that hardly fits the description of colonialism.
American fought two conflicts in the post-World War II era in eastern Asia: Korea and Vietnam. In the former war, the Americans, the great superpower, were able to fight the armies of North Korea and China to a draw at the 38th parallel. In Vietnam, the Americans were never decisively defeated, as were the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and in fact won most of the battles in which they engaged the North Vietnamese. Even so, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regular army were continually able to rally from defeat, and return in force to challenge American troops. Arms shipments from Russia helped the cause, but unlike the confused and indifferent American soldiers, the Vietnamese were passionately determined to secure their country from foreign invaders.
Due to waning support for the war on the home front (and contrary to wisdom, support collapsed mostly among those in middle age, while younger people registered higher approval of involvement), the Americans slowly withdrew, even though by 1969-70, they had largely cleared South Vietnam of enemy soldiers. So it was that democratic pressure, in the form of letters to Congress members and Senators (Republican and Democrat alike), from concerned mothers, fathers, mayors, business leaders, veterans, retired service officers, blue-blood matrons, civil rights leaders, and other pillars of the community, forced the American empire out of a fight it was actually winning.
Vietnam has always been considered a “little” country, but today, it has 85 million people. Together with North Korea, with over 20 million people, we have another one-hundred million people who are not part of the American empire. Whatever sovereignty is exercised elsewhere in east Asia, is more than offset by the presence of almighty China in the same region. Already, the possible number of people that could be considered subjects of America, has dwindled to a substantial minority of humanity, perhaps just over a billion people (not including the population of the United States’ mainland).
Appropriately, we turn to Pacific Asia and the Antipodes. The Philippines and Indonesia are the largest countries in this vast region, with (respectively) eighty-three and 220 million people. How do these 300 million fare in their relations with the U.S.? As it happens, the Philippines was an actual colony of the United States for several decades, beginning in 1898, when the island was ceded to the U.S. by a defeated Spain. From 1899 to 1902, the American military fought a protracted guerilla insurgency similar to, but more much lethal than, what is going on in Iraq today. In the end, the rebellion was brutally crushed, killing an estimated 100,000 Filipinos. Thereafter, for several decades, the U.S. administered the Philippines as a colonial possession, until it was conquered in turn by the Japanese (MacArthur was departing the archipelago when he famously declared, “I shall return”). Return he did, but after World War II, the U.S. did not seek to reimpose colonial status on the Philippines. Independence was granted, in return (as with Japan) for the siting of two U.S. military installations.
The country went through a succession of corrupt governments for two decades, until a putative reformer, Ferdinand Marcos, was elected President in 1965. By 1972, Marcos had declared martial law, and eventually became as corrupt as his predecessors. In 1986, he was overthrown by popular demonstrations after attempting to steal an election. His successor, Cory Aquino, was the widow of an opposition leader Marcos had murdered upon his return to the Philippines in 1983. It is true that Marcos was a steadfast ally of the U.S. in its fight against international Communism (he had suspended civil freedoms to fight a Marxist insurgency). Embarrassingly, the Reagan government maintained its support of Marcos until he was literally barricaded in the Presidential Palace in Manila, from the “people power” outside. Does this mean, however, that Marcos, his predecessors and successors, were merely pawns of the American empire? Many Western critics of the U.S. would say yes, that the Philippines is an example of a country left in underdevelopment, due to its “dependency” on the U.S. However, the Philippines was granted the same favourable terms of trade with America, as were Japan and South Korea, upon the latter countries’ independence. If the Philippines has not, unlike the other two, been able to take advantage of its prospects, it has not to do with U.S. foreign or economic policy. It is a creole society, much like the colonies established by Spain and Portugal in South America and the Caribbean. An elite, consisting of natives hispanicized by conversion and intermarriage, has ruled over a mass of people, themselves divided by dialect and ethnicity, to little improvement of society as a whole. However much this situation has been exploited by the United States, America was not its cause, nor would the absence of America alleviate Filipinos’ condition.
Unlike the U.S. with the Philippines, the Dutch had no intention of granting Indonesia independence, and did so only after a bloody war, 1945-49. For the next near-twenty years, the country was ruled by Sukarno (Indonesians go by one name only), a warlord who had collaborated with the Japanese during World War II. After the war, he fought for independence from the Dutch. The story of Sukarno’s rule is complicated, but by the late 1950s, he had abolished the factious Parliament that been part of the constitution since independence. Thereafter, he became increasingly dictatorial at home, while instituting an aggressive foreign posture, threatening Malaysia, aiding guerilla movements for independence in the remaining parts of the archipelago still controlled by Europeans (Portugese Timor and the Dutch-controlled West New Guinea) and cuddling up with Moscow and Beijing.
In 1965, events transpired, the meaning (if not the significance) of which is still in dispute. That year, leaders of the Communist movement announced that, in collaboration with elements of the military, they were seizing power. Civil conflict ensued between the putschists and military factions still loyal to Sukarno. The coup failed, and as many as half a million people (mostly Communists and innocent civilians) were killed in the war and subsequent crackdown (events portrayed in the 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, with Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson). But within a couple of years, Sukarno himself was eased from power, and a new warlord, Suharto, took over, remaining as strongman until overthrown by civil rebellion in 1997 (as in the Philippines a decade earlier, after a stolen election).
It has been widely alleged that the initial Communist coup in ‘65 was a scam, a way for the reactionary faction of the military to take power. However, there seems no question that the putschists were serious in their intent to take power that year. Further, it is also suggested that American spies were deeply involved in the whole affair. Suharto, unlike Sukarno, was geopolitically pro-Western. Less successfully than Japan and South Korea, but more so than the Philippines, Suharto was able to leverage his security alliance with the U.S. to economic advantage, at least until the “meltdown” of the Asian currencies in ‘97 (another cause of Suharto’s downfall). During Suharto’s rule, Indonesia was relatively stable and prosperous for the first time.
Its reputation (and by association, that of the U.S.) was blackened by its quarter-century occupation of East Timor, the Portugese colony that was finally granted independence in 1975. Within days, the Indonesian army invaded and annexed the territory, enforcing a brutal rule that killed several hundred-thousand out of a few million Timorese. The world had pretty much forgotten about East Timor until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August, 1990. As the U.S. and its allies prepared to expel Hussein’s army, anti-war activists raised East Timor as a baton
against the war effort. The championing the Timorese, at least at first, had little to do with genuine sympathy for the occupied, as it did with arguing that invasion of sovereign territory was not necessarily a casus belli. After all, Indonesia, America’s ally, invaded a sovereign territory, and was not challenged militarily. America’s interest in Kuwait was only due to its oil — which is the only reason why anyone gives a damn about the Middle East at all.
The situation was different, of course. East Timor, unlike Kuwait, was not a sovereign country with a recognized government, as yet. As a colony, it was always claimed by Indonesia, and the conquest was an extension of that claim. There is no doubt about the injustice of the Timorese occupation. To the degree that the U.S. did not object, nor pressure, the Indonesians, to grant independence to East Timor, it shares complicity with what activists would label “cultural genocide.” The bloody denouement of this sorry chapter came in 1999, when the Timorese voted for independence (after international, and U.S., pressure was finally applied). Thereafter, military and militia loyal to Indonesia went on a rampage, killing thousands more Timorese.
But as it happens, East Timor is an awkward example in the case for the American empire. It became independent, finally, at the urging of the U.S. And the “genocide” undertaken by the Indonesia military and government was as much “religious” as “cultural” in orientation. East Timor was distinct from most of the rest of the Indonesia, for being Catholic. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world and attempted, during the occupation, to Islamicize the territory, by closing churches, arresting clergy and importing Muslims native to other parts of Indonesia. Many of the latter joined in the slaughter after the independence referendum in ‘99.
Do the anti-occupation activists now believe that the U.S. either instituted, or agreed with, the wiping out of a Christian country by a Muslim nation? John Pilger, an Australian left-wing muckraker based in London, for many years championed the cause of the Timorese. In 1994, according to Pilger’s web site, he and another journalists managed to “sneak” into East Timor, posing as travel agents. They apparently documented much of the brutality and oppression of the occupation (I’ve never seen this film), and Pilger also famously alleged that Henry Kissinger, as U.S. secretary of foreign affairs under Gerald Ford, gave approval or “permission” to the Indonesians to invade East Timor on a visit to the country shortly before the occupation began.
After 9/11, Pilger obligingly became a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy and the war against terrorists, and an advocate of the “root causes” school. In October, 2002, a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, was attacked by bombers, who killed more than two hundred people, mostly foreign tourists, most of these Pilger’s fellow countrywomen and men. Immediately, Pilger leapt to blame the war against terrorism for the deed: “Last week's atrocity in Bali, like the September 11 attacks on America, did not happen in isolation. They were products, like everything, of the past. According to George W. Bush, Tony Blair and now Australia's prime minister, John Howard, we have no right to understand them.”
But here’s Pilger’s problem. For in a recording made of Osama Bin Laden in November, 2002, the terrorist warlord stated: “Reciprocal treatment is part of justice. .... What do your governments want from their alliance with America in attacking us in Afghanistan? I mention in particular Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Australia. We warned Australia before not to join in [the war] in Afghanistan, and [against] its despicable effort to separate East Timor. It ignored the warning until it woke up to the sounds of explosions in Bali. Its government falsely claimed that they [the Australians] were not targeted.” On the Lateline programme, on the Australian Broadcasting Network, November 23, 2002, presenter Tony Jones questioned Pilger on the contradiction:
TONY JONES: Osama bin Laden, if one believes that is him on that tape, was suggesting that one of the reasons Australians were targeted in Bali was because this government, the Howard Government, had a responsibility for freeing East Timor, which plenty of people in Indonesia didn't like.
JOHN PILGER: That ‑‑ certainly as far as the Indonesian military are concerned ‑‑ that may well be true. What is not being discussed, as it should be, although I think in the 'Sydney Morning Herald' Hamish McDonald has discussed it, is the role of the Indonesian military in manipulating the extremist groups over the years.
Here we have the Australian Government now saying it's going to train against Kopassus, the special forces of East Timor, probably some of the world's greatest terrorists.
I mean, what is being achieved from all this?
TONY JONES: ... But let me just stick with Bali for a moment and the logic of what you were saying.
If Osama bin Laden is right ‑‑ if Australians were attacked because of their role in freeing East Timor ‑‑ is that something you would speak out against because whatever you think about the Howard Government, it had a direct role in allowing East Timor to become an independent country.
JOHN PILGER: Wait on, Australian troops played an admirable role in going to East Timor, there's no doubt about.
But before that ‑‑ from 1975 until 1999 ‑‑ there was a great silence in this country over East Timor when I went to film this secretly in the early '90s ‑‑ no politician, Howard especially, and certainly those among the ruling Labor Government then, gave a damn about the East Timorese.
So it's very much a very delayed embrace of East Timorese freedom.
TONY JONES: But the point is, apparently, because of that belated embrace, we've been targeted.
That's what Osama bin Laden is saying.
JOHN PILGER: We can't believe that. We can't believe all these things we're being told. The police are producing all these perfect identikit criminals that are meant to have caused the Bali atrocity. What we have to remain is sceptical. But, above all, sceptical about what our own leaders are telling us.
What we don't hear, which I find extraordinary having been to Iraq especially, is the consequences of an attack ‑‑ the human consequences. We had a report by a group of Australian doctors this week that I don't think had any publicity. They estimated something like 48,000 people would be killed in a sustained campaign in an assault on Iraq. Australia is going to be part of that. Imagine the resentment, the bitterness in that part of the world. Imagine the kind of anger.
You know, the greatest victims of terrorism in the world are Muslim peoples. Numerically, that's pretty well true.
Pilger, of course, cannot explain the contradiction, and so moves on to the manipulation and propaganda. His only excuse is, “We can’t believe that, can’t believe it’s true.” No, he cannot, if he’s to believe that East Timor is a product of American imperialism, which he surely does. Westerners were attacked for their role in East Timorese independence, when East Timor was the cause celebre of the nineties’ multicultural left. It is cognitive dissonance that has now fallen down the memory role.
The American empire does not extent its sovereignty over the 250 million Indonesians, not when, as Pilger insists, that country’s government “manipulates” extremist groups. Does the empire control far less populous Pacific neighbours, Australia and New Zealand? Certainly, left-wing spokesmen in these countries will insist their governments are under the thumb of the Americans, referring to alleged CIA manipulation of trade unions during ‘70s-era labour strife, when Australia had a socialist government. However, both Antipodean nations are independent democracies, electing left-wing governments that made populist sport of non-cooperation with the U.S. during the Cold War.
Having treated India, it is appropriate to turn to the colonial status of other countries of the Subcontinent. Pakistan, with more than a hundred and fifty million of humanity, is an ally of the U.S. in the war on terrorism. Does this make Pakistan a colony of the U.S.? In the 1970s, the country was run by the secular, anti-American Bhutto senior (whose daughter, Benizar, became prime minister in the 1990s), who was in turn overthrown in a coup (and subsequently arrested and hanged). The military strongman, Zia al-Hag, was killed in a plane crash in the 1980s, and thereafter, democracy was restored, with Benizar Bhutto succeeding to power against an Islamist opponent. She was eventually run from office in the face of massive corruption charges, with the Islamists coming to power.
Pakistan then became a booster of the fundamentalist crusade, creating and equipping the Taliban before it took power in Afghanistan, where it set up training bases for al-Qaeda. Even after the Islamists were deposed in yet another coup, lead by general Musharraf, the Pakistani secret service continued to support the Taliban, just as it is accused of sheltering Osama Bin Laden in the present day. Musharraf is, as I said, allied with the U.S. in fighting terror, but this has as much to do with the geopolitical contest with India, and the military government’s efforts to gain leverage against powerful Islamic factions inside the Pakistani state. It is, in other words, the pursuit of raison d’etat, not to do the bidding of a imperial overlord (no matter how “post-modern”) that Pakistan is an ally with the U.S. in the war on terrorism.
What about the other countries in the region, like Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka? Given the regional power exerted by India and Pakistan, not to mention China, there is hardly enough room left on the Subcontinent to insert a sheet of paper, let alone an empire. Pakistan’s neighbour Afghanistan, is often considered part of Central Asia, as well as the Middle East. It was famously where the attacks of September 11, 2001, were planned and prepared, and there has been a lot of flim-flam uttered since 9/11, with regard to the U.S. and its relationship with the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. There is, for example, the contention that the Taliban were in receipt of hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid, right up until September 11; or that Bin Laden, a former guerilla in the fight against the Soviet invasion, was a “creation of the CIA.” The first claim is true, in so far as the “U.S. aid” was emergency foodstuffs to prevent starvation after the Taliban had wrecked the Afghani economy.
And according to Steve Coll, Washington Post writer and author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (published in 2005), there is no evidence whatsoever that American intelligence “created” or even subsidized Bin Laden’s militia against the Soviets (this in spite of the title of Coll’s book, which suggests the opposite). The question of how many of those the U.S. did support in Afghanistan against the Soviets, later turned their guns on American, is unresolved. However, it is a certainty that Pakistan, in opposition to the U.S., helped create the Taliban, which gave Bin Laden safe haven.
Afghanistan borders on Iran, which for the last quarter century and more, has not been part of the American empire. Its status before 1979, when its ruling dynasty was overthrown by Shia Islamists, is a controversial part of Cold War U.S. foreign policy. The king or Shah had been a steadfast ally of the U.S. prior to his overthrow. The Americans and British had in fact helped reinstate the Shah to power in 1953, deposing a leftist Prime Minister who had nationalized the oil industry.
Thereafter, the Shah became increasingly autocratic, instituting a police state, jailing and exiling opposition critics and clerics (such as the Ayatollah Khomeini), all without opposition from the U.S. or U.K. In spite of the modernization of industry and (to a certain extent) mores under the Shah, the lack of democracy in Iran was favoured by the leading nations of the “Free World”, under the principle that the Shah was “our son of a bitch”, and thus, not their’s, the Soviets. It was feared that in Iran, as elsewhere in the developing world, the electorate would vote for pro-nationalist or pro-Soviet parties, and thus being democratic was not compulsory. But does this mean that Iran, before clerical rule, was an outpost of the U.S. empire? In other words, was the brutality of the Shah, as of the junta of South Korea before the restoration of democracy there, directly commanded by the U.S., or was it merely tolerated by Americans for geopolitical purposes? When the Shah’s regime collapsed, the Ayatollah immediately made Iran an enemy of the United States.
When the Iranians seized American diplomatic personnel as hostages later in 1979, there was nothing the U.S. could do (aside from staging an ill-fated “rescue” mission, which itself had to be rescued) but negotiate with a knife at its throat. The whole drama lasted nearly a year and a half, the utter impotency of the American empire embarrassingly evident. There were 30 or 40 million Iranians in 1979, and there are seventy million today, all of whom are not colonials of the American empire. In spite of widespread internal opposition, particularly from the majority of the population not yet born when the Islamic Revolution occurred, the clerical regime in Tehran remains in power; and again, this in spite its diplomatic and geopolitical opposition to the U.S. Indeed, as the regime is now developing nuclear weapons, it has little worry about being deposed by the U.S., as occurred to Saddam Hussein.
There is no sense in reviewing the difficulties that the United States military — the very muscle of the eight-hundred-pound gorilla — has encountered in Iraq. Although the vast majority of Iraqi Arabs have long come to despise their invaders, they do not view them as oppressors. The Iraqis have never feared the Americans: from the outset, when the U.S. military had deposed their tyrants, what did the population do almost immediately? Loot almost anything of value, right under the noses of heavily-armed troops. The U.S. military was widely condemned for simply standing by and letting this mass-looting to occur. But really, what were the soldiers to do? If everyone — men, women and children — is taking what is not their’s, are the soldiers to indiscriminately shoot everyone? The war critics would have had a field day with that, just as they did when the Marines, wisely, chose not to fire on the looting crowds. Again, critics mutter about “inadequate pre-war planning”, but what is any military to do with a population that opts to virtually dessicate its own country? It was, of course, all downhill from there, as we know. It shows that while the Americans are hated, they are scarcely feared.
It is also widely believed that Saddam Hussein was an ally of the U.S., even put in power by the Americans, before he “turned” and invaded Kuwait. The truth is that Hussein was as much, or more so, a chum of the Soviets and French (who helped him build nuclear reactors) than the Americans, if not more so. The U.S. did not in fact recognize the Hussein regime until 1984, at which time the Iraqis were in the middle of their attrition-war with the U.S. archenemy, Iran. The Americans cynically viewed Hussein as an indirect means of neutralizing Iranian power, but they also double-dealt with the Tehran regime (as with the infamous Iran-Contra scandal in 1986). Of course, when the Iraqi military invaded Kuwait in August, 1990, the U.S. did not foresee it, nor could it strongarm Hussein into pulling back, short of fighting a hot war in early 1991.
It is forgotten that, in the months preceding the counterattack against Saddam Hussein’s troops from U.S. forces based in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, the Soviet Union (which did not collapse until August, 1991) was adamantly opposed to any measures, military or otherwise, aimed at getting Hussein out of Kuwait. After all, they rightly viewed Hussein as their son-of-a-bitch, a geopolitical counterweight against the influence of the Americans in the region. Saddam Hussein himself may well have gambled that the U.S. would do nothing about the Kuwaiti invasion, due to his alliance with the Soviets (and French and Chinese). Before the decline of Soviet power, the stakes might have paid off for him, and Kuwait would now be (as Hussein envisioned it) Iraq’s nineteenth province. By 1991, however, the Red Army was in no position to beat its way out of a wet paper bag, let alone take on the U.S. military, especially to aid a thug like Hussein. In any case, it shows that, far from being a U.S. ally (let alone an American colony), Hussein-era Iraq was a true rogue state, attempting to play one superpower against the other, until he took the game too far.
Famously, Osama Bin Laden cited the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi Arabian soil, as a casus belli in his holy crusade against the Americans (Bin Laden is the Saudi-born scion of a wealthy family that originally came form Yemen). Does this mean, then, the House of Saud is merely a pawn of the U.S. empire? During 1990-91, when the U.S. was taking up position in the Saudi kingdom, ostensibly to “defend” it from further Iraqi aggression, but really to mass troops to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait, it became common knowledge for the first time that Saudi Arabia was just as “fundamentalist” as the Iranian regime, if not more so. Moreover, the Saudi government was not, unlike the Iranians, elected to office. Many war opponents at the time were outraged that the U.S. was setting out to defend a regime that was not only undemocratic, but also denied women basic rights and freedoms (such as the right to drive an automobile).
Kuwait, too, was a dynastic regime that was not much more feminist than Saudi Arabia, and these facts lent credence to the “accusation” that the U.S. was going to war for oil (as though defending accessibility to a scarce resource from a megalomaniac was in any way ignoble). This argument gained traction because Bush the elder always pitched his crusade against Saddam Hussein as an effort to “liberate” Kuwait. There is quite a big difference between securing a staple-commodity for the good of all, and preserving it for the good of oil companies, but the “pacifists” were always ready to elide the distinction, and neither Bush nor anyone else had the political guts to explain it to the population. However, after the Iraqis were expelled from Kuwait, American or other oil companies were not handed the oil riches of either Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, nor were the Kuwaitis forced to endure “American-style” democracy. Meanwhile, the American military was stationed in Saudi Arabia before and after the (second) Gulf War, where soldiers were compelled not only to drink no alcohol and read no dirty magazines, but also to refrain from practising the Christian (or any other but the Muslim) faith while on “sacred” Saudi Arabian soil. This wasn’t just the case, when American soldiers and other officials left their Saudi bases; they couldn’t do it on their bases, either. In order to attend church, drink booze, or pay for sex, American service personnel were compelled to leave Saudi Arabia and board U.S. military ships stationed in the Persian Gulf. The Americans must be the most mild-manner imperialists in history.
So we find that, during the 2nd Gulf War, the United States and its allies were defending the sort of Puritanical and feudal Islamic regimes from an Arab state that was no less undemocratic, but was also (as we were reminded ad nauseam prior to the Iraqi war) avowedly “secularist” and national-socialist, an enemy of Islamic “fundamentalism” of Osama Bin Laden. For this, the Bin Laden came to view the United States as the biggest threat to Islam.
With regard to the Saudi Arabia, both war opponents and war advocates have accused the Bush government of being too friendly with the regime there — the long-time ambassador of the House of Saud to the United States was even nicknamed “Bandar Bush”, such was the latter’s coziness to the first family. Indeed, the Bush clan, and the United States government generally, has been too amiable to such a regime as the Saudis’, by virtue of the latter’s control of vast supplies of crude oil. Fifteen of the nineteen suicide-attackers of September 11, 2001, were Saudi subjects, and several of these obtained entry to the U.S. through a special student-visa programme that waived normal security and background checks for the applicants. This programme was suspended after 9/11, but ever since, the U.S. State department (ie., the foreign-affairs ministry) has been periodically trying to get it reinstated. All this should be and has been subjected to critical scrutiny; but in any case, Saudi Arabia’s actions are not consonant with it being a colony of the U.S. To the contrary, the Saudis have subsidized the kind of “fundamentalist” religious-education at schools in their own country and throughout the globe, that is most amiable to the philosophy of Osama Bin Laden.
The controversies with regard to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, seem playful when compared to passions stirred by another Middle Eastern state, Israel. It must be said that, on the anti-imperialist left, opinion is sharply divided as to the status of the Jewish state in the American empire. Some believe that Israel is merely a pawn of the United States, a proxy state carrying out the imperialists’ mission of crushing and annihilating the “indigenous” Arabs and other non-Jews, starting with the Palestinian Arabs. Others believe differently. They argue that it is the United States that is somehow enthralled to Israel, and that “Zionists” control American foreign-policy, especially when Republicans have control of the White House and both houses of Congress (as they did up until January 2007). It is difficult to judge which is the more centrist of these two schools. One holds that Jews are committing genocide upon Arabs, at the behest of the United States, the other that Americans are committing genocide against Arabs, at the behest of “Zionists.”
It is not, in any case, my intention to examine the justice of the Israeli state as to its founding, or continuation — only to analyze the outsize place of Israel in the conceptions of American empire. If, on the one hand, the American empire is controlled by Israel, then there must be a “cabal” of Jews (sometimes joined by evangelicals) that possess a serpentine influence on the institutions of the West, in the manner described by the Elders of Zion or Joseph Goebbels. If the United States is controlling Israel, going to the other argument, then Americans are simultaneously attempting to slaughter Arabs and Muslims, whilst also “propping up” fundamentalist dynasties that are avowed enemies of Israel. This just doesn’t make sense to me, unless taking a page from the Protocols school of anti-Zionism, I could infer that Zionists control both American imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism, deploying these apparently opponent forces as needed, with the end of shielding the public from who the real powers are (certainly, some believe that “Zionists” were responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, arguing that Islamic terrorists “just couldn’t on their own have carried out such an attack”).
If the “Israeli problem” is too complex to be disposed of in two paragraphs, I should add only that the enormous antagonism directed by Westerners toward Israel, especially on the part of the Europeans, is entirely too piqued to have been inspired only by the Israeli treatment of Arabs — who are often despised in Europe itself. Especially in the frequency with which anti-Israeli voices in Europe compare Israel to Nazi Germany, there is something of an exorcism to be found in the militantly pro-Palestinian stand of so many Europeans, of the spectre of the Holocaust and their society’s complicity with it.
Time to return to our tally. Of the more than six billion people in the world, we have seen in Asia, the Pacific, and Europe, virtually no one lives as a subject of the U.S. empire. What about the remaining continents, Africa and South America? Surely in these benighted places, the vicious boot of American imperialism has left its most thorough footprints? Africa is by far the poorest continent in the world — composite photographs of the globe taken from outer space show that, during the nighttime hours, Africa is literally the dark continent. While Europe, Asia and the Americas show massive amounts of territory blotted out by city lights, Africa is by far the dimmest (except for Antarctica), paltry illumination emanating from the coast line, with massive sections of territory with no light whatsoever. Surely, there is artificial lighting all over Africa, but it is simply not concentrated enough to appear in satellite photographs. The intensity of artificial light, as seen from hundreds of miles in space, is a sure measure of the wealth of any region — the dimmer, the poorer.
So it is with Africa, which has nearly one billion people, not one soul of whom has lived as a colonial of the United States. Except for Ethiopians, virtually all Africans were colonials not long ago — of other Western powers aside from the U.S.: Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal chiefly. These powers did, in a lesser or greater measure, rigorously exploit the natural resources of the continent, essentially thieving resources from Africans for a period of nearly two centuries, until 1975, after revolution in Portugal forced the divestiture of that country’s remaining colonies, Angola and Mozambique. Until the nineteenth century, it is true, Americans exploited Africans by participating in the slave trade. However, Britain had outlawed the trade in 1804, using its powerful navy to enforce the rule on the high seas — over the objections of Arab and African potentates whose very power rested on human bondage (and which power subsequently collapsed due to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself by Britain in 1834). In fact, the British seizure of American slave-trade vessels after 1804 contributed to tensions between the two countries, eventually leading to the War of 1812-14. After the U.S. civil war, however, many American citizens and officials were anti-imperialist on principle, and viewed the colonization of Africa with a jaundiced eye (the U.S. nearly went to war with both Britain and France over the blockade of southern ports during the War Between the States).
Yet, even after decolonization, great powers have intruded upon the internal affairs of African countries: Chinese, Soviets, French, British, and Americans, too. Communist countries armed dictatorial regimes friendly to their cause, whilst the Western powers did the same, and both blocs during the Cold War also armed insurgents to destabilize regimes unfriendly to themselves. However, some African countries, belonging to the French-speaking part of the continent, exist in a semi-colonial relationship with the metropole even today. French African countries are internationally-recognized legal entities, but their actual sovereignty is severely eroded by their economic dependence upon what used to be referred to as the “franc fort”, wherein the countries’ legal tender was (de jure or not) the French franc (and now, the Euro). The French, for their part, see no trouble sending in their military to dispose of, or to “rescue”, the French African leaders they alternatively dislike or wish to support (as occurred in the Cote D’Ivore in 2003, just as the Iraqi war was getting started). The French, also coincidentally, had at the time concluded a deal in which the money from the Iraqi “oil for food” scheme, was to be traded in Euros instead of U.S. dollars.
Africa, of course, has become much poorer since decolonization, while the rest of the world has become immeasurably richer (except for most of Latin America). Is this because of the American empire? As we saw, much of African is under control of another imperator, the French (and European union). Outside of French Africa, the United States has scarcely exercised domination over the various warlords and strongmen that have controlled nearly every country on the continent. During the Cold War, several dictators simply switched sides, with kleptocrat Mobutu of Zaire, for example, becoming allies of the Soviet Union, ordering American military and intelligent officials out of the country. Similarly with Said Barre of Somalia. The American empire was likewise powerless to prevent its expulsion from Ethiopia after the Emperor Halle Selassie was overthrown by Marxist rebels in 1974, who made the country part of the Eastern bloc, turning its people to starvation after just a decade. Similar decrepitude was the rule in other African countries, such as Angola and Mozambique, which resorted to Maoist or Stalinist economics.
The present-day conflicts on the unlit continent, in some way result from the meddling of the Great Powers — those of the nineteenth century, who created the current borders without heed to ethnic and tribal lines, elevating certain minorities as taskmasters over the majority ethnic group, placing hated rivals within the bosom of the same state. But there is no evidence to suggest, had the Europeans carefully divided up their colonies by reference to ethnicity, that pacific relations between these entities would be the rule today. Instead of civil wars, there would be interstate wars. In any case, the problem with the school of thought that blames imperialism for all of Africa’s ills, is that it is countries that were never or scarcely colonized (such as Ethiopia), that are the worst off today. It is also true that the area once known as the “franc fort”, is relatively stable and prosperous compared to African countries not part of the French sphere of influence.
In Latin America, the United States has behaved as an overt imperialist. It has taken control of more than a handful of countries in central American and the Caribbean especially, and acted as a facilitator and all around good chum to various military dictators in South America, going back two centuries. After the conclusion of the Spanish war in 1898, the U.S. took control of the remaining Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. Cuba remained a colony of the U.S. until the 1940s, and Puerto Rico remains a dominion in the present day (Puerto Rican nationalists nearly killed president Truman). After World War II, the American military dispatched a Marxist regime in the Dominican Republic (in 1965), and in the 1990s actually installed a Marxist regime in Haiti. In 1989, the U.S. deposed the Panamanian thug Noriega. The U.S. even lent a couple of rusty ships and a few outboard motor-boats to Cuban exiles, who tried to depose Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. The result was Castro’s total consolidation of power. He could truthfully argue that the state was endanger of invasion, whilst depriving Cubans of their civil rights and freedoms for nearly five decades.
Dependency theory finds an even richer field to ply, in the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America, than is the case with Africa. However, the rhetoric surrounding denunciations of the American policy with regard to Cuba, is inconsistent in this regard. Since a couple of years following Castro’s seizure of power, the U.S. has imposed a complete embargo on goods from Cuba, and on investment in and trade with the Communist state. The U.S. has no official diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the trade embargo is blamed particularly for the hard times that Cubans face. However, isn’t trade precisely the mechanism by which Third World people are impoverished by their participation in the American empire? Shouldn’t Castro and the Cubans be thankful that they don’t have to engage with the Americans? Moreover, Cuba trades with all other countries in the world, often on favourable terms. Even still, Cubans face the same problems of shortage and scarcity as did the regimes of the Eastern bloc, who were lent billions by Western aid agencies and private institutions just to keep afloat.
Even so, the Americans were scarcely alone in their molestation of Latin American autonomy. Even after the pitching of the “Monroe doctrine” in the 1820s, forbidding colonization of Latin America by European powers (thereby leaving it as an American sphere of influence), the British used their naval power and the pound sterling, to strongarm and entice the creole elite of South America. In the 1860s, France actually tried to colonize Mexico, with emperor Napoleon III installing some in-law as king (who was murdered by native rebels in 1867, still sitting on his throne). The loss of Mexico led indirectly to the younger Napoleon’s downfall. In either case, the Monroe doctrine was revealed to be a mere message to Congress from a long-dead president (in spite of the agitations of the general public and legislators that the U.S. should “do something” about European meddling in their own backyard).
We find that there is nowhere in the world where the U.S. presence is not contested or even minimal, in spite of talk about America being the “only superpower”, or even a “hyper-power.” The status of the U.S. as the greatest of all powers, militarily (if no longer economically) dwarfing all others, hardly came about as a result of the ambitions of the American government or public. As recently as the 1930s, the U.S. military was no bigger than of Yugoslavia (ranking 132nd in the world, according to historian William Manchester). The U.S. became a superpower by default, because of the acts of what were greater powers, which fought two long world wars, and also engaged in the expensive business of global colonization. By any definition, the era of global U.S. dominance has been the apex of prosperity and freedom. During the Cold War, the society of the opposing superpower was the most repressive and spartan of any in the world, too.
Where command economics was attempted after decolonization, the result was complete immiseration and starvation. The countries that oppose the American empire, are invariably anti-democratic, or otherwise beholden to dangerous religious fascism (as in Iran). But such is the hatred for America among so many, not least among the American professorial and media class, is that they are willing to agitate, apologize and appeal on behalf of the most vicious dictators in the world: Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, even Slododan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.