Tyranny’s Toolkit


Citigroup concedes that we live in an age of “plutonomy” and “the rest.” During the mortgage meltdown, the free market apostles of Wall Street beseech the state to intervene. No less than Princeton University declares the United States to be an oligarchy. Meanwhile French economist Thomas Piketty publishes 700 pages of data sets claiming that capitalism systematically exacerbates inequality. What was once a trickle of evidence has morphed from a freshet into a flood. Every month, it seems, new reports surface condemning the capitalist system and the fraudulent models of democracy that disguise its excesses. Disguise what Marxist professor Vijay Prashad has called the “Davos mentality” of elite capital, a reference to the annual World Economic Forum held in the rarefied air of a Swiss ski resort; presided over by global elites, the setting itself betraying the elitism of its program. One needn’t look much farther than a hotel address to divine the obvious nature of the sessions.

Earlier this year, Daniel Wickham of Left Foot Forward analyzed President Obama’s 2014 budget and discovered that the United States gives aid to countries that practice torture. Among this confection of noxious governments are Israel, Egypt, Pakistan and Uganda. Some would no doubt argue that correlation is not causality, or that in fact our aid to these serial violators of the United Nations Convention Against Torture is intended to foster the very democratic reforms that will surely stem the tide of such abuses. This was essentially the argument made by the Clinton administration when it awarded China Most Favored Nation status as a trading partner despite its myriad human rights violations. Mere interaction with the West would be ennobling enough to transform all of Asia, the argument seemed to say.

This kind of self-interested casuistry has its roots in American exceptionalism—the notion that we alone are enlightened by democratic values and, as such, are obliged to impart our values onto the world—whether they want them or not (and perhaps with a zeal bordering on the messianic). We don’t always sail into Tokyo harbor with cannonade tilted landward, as Commodore Perry did in 1854 bearing a list of grievances from President Fillmore. Today the preferred method is economic imperialism. Now the WTO and the IMF are the battering rams we employ to bring down the walls of emerging Jerichoes, of ambitious young nations hoping to forge some kind of industrial self-sufficiency. Much easier, if more nuanced, to co-opt venal leadership—and there’s always a Judas tucked away in the presidential cabinet—and persuade them to accept the supply-side economic program on which every IMF loan is conditioned and toward which every WTO expedient is aimed. (Note the “partners” of Open Ukraine, the foundation established by Ukraine’s new puppet president Arseniy Yatsenyk. They include NATO, the U.S. Department of State, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the rest of the usual suspects.)

Historical Groupthink

To inoculate oneself against this rather insidious line of reasoning, it’s helpful to have a look at some of the critical U.S. post-war planning documents. Noam Chomsky has done the necessary shovel work, unearthing a documentary record that illuminates the common—in both senses of the word—ambitions that figure so obliquely in the state-sanctioned history, and so grossly in actuality. Namely, the wish for empire. And once attained, for ever more empire, world without end.

To judge from actions rather than the odd rhetorical flourish, the purpose of U.S. foreign policy has always been power and profits, namely employing the considerable military and economic might of the nation as a revolutionary vanguard for U.S. capital. As Marx and others have long recognized, capitalists are forever in need of fresh and lucrative markets in order to boost profits. If, through endless donations and influence peddling, capital has come to control the democratic apparatus of our nominally republican state, why not use the might of the state to produce the markets you need?

President Woodrow Wilson put it plainly in his private journal, “Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down.” Likewise, “Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process.”

To that end, former Secretary of State George Kennan outlined in a Policy Planning Study of 1948 how we must shift our attitude away from compassionate or empathic mentalities toward, “dealing in straight power concepts,” and dispense with “unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization…The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

Kennan was perhaps naïve in overlooking the essential value of “idealistic slogans” in a pseudo-democratic state, the better to dupe and distract a poorly educated populace and quiet the sometimes restive conscience of the rabble. Clinton didn’t overlook this when he hailed “humanitarian intervention” in justifying wars of aggression, as well the edifying influence of trade in imparting Western values to benighted Asian nations. The Carter administration was perhaps a precedent setter for Clinton, authorizing aid to “gross violators” of human rights in Latin America on the premise that such aid would help ennoble savage South American tyrannies.

The most relevant statement by Kennan in relation to Wickham’s article comes from a briefing for Latin American ambassadors in 1950, when he acknowledged that, “we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government…It is better to have a strong regime in power than a liberal government…” Notably one that might instance a regional outbreak of independence, the worst-case scenario for Western capital seeking absolute advantage in defenseless industrial backwaters.

Foreign Aid—Abetting Rogue Behavior

In light of these policy prescriptions, is it any wonder that we privilege aid to undemocratic governments that torture their citizens? That crush unions and savagely repress democratic protest? See Colombia for a model example of the former and Bahrain for the latter.

Forget that we signed onto the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1994. We pay nominal acquiescence to international law on the best of days, and actively undermine mine typically. We only supported the establishment of the World Criminal Court with the caveat that U.S. would be exempt from any of its prosecutions, a position that essentially delegitimized the institution and ensured that war criminals (convicted in absentia) like George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush are left to live in lavish comfort, ignorant of the plight of the desolate families and mutilated peoples their policies gifted to the Middle East.

The list of aid recipients is a gag-worthy collection of pirates and thieves. Heading the list is none other than Israel, the country that ejecting 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, wiped out some 500 villages—as recent Nakba Day protests reminded discomfited Israeli hawks—and have established an apartheid state that economically strangles Gaza by denying basic needs and goods to besieged Palestinians there, and has build—in fits of fanaticism hard to fathom—more than 400 miles of apartheid walls separating precious Israeli settlers from displaced, dispossessed, and dehumanized Palestinian families. The latest farcical attempt at peace talks, this version presided over by court jester John Kerry, collapsed when it was discovered that Israel, just as negotiations got underway, authorized some 13,000 new settlements in the West Bank, on land legally but in on other sense possessed by Palestine. Meanwhile, President Benjamin Netanyahu intones on American television that, “Israelis desperately want peace.” In a different kind of desperation, the Palestinian Authority successfully pressed for a degree of recognition in the United Nations and threatened to bring charges against Israel in the World Court. President Barack Obama, abiding by the Israeli sycophancy required of all U.S. leaders, decries this development, claiming that the issues must be settled between “Israelis and Palestinians.” In the last year, both the U.N. and the Public Committee against Torture in Israel reported that Israeli military regularly subject Palestinian children to torture, sexual assault, and the delightful habit of imprisoning Palestinian youth in cages during winter. Later the report from the PCTI was amended to note that those it kept in cages were not necessarily Palestinians, a useful revision lest Israeli be perceived as having an ethnic bias. Better to be indiscriminately cruel.

A Nefarious Model of Development

Torture is the tip of the spear of repression. Unrepressed, most informed populations would resist the imposition of Israeli-style oppression or U.S.-style capitalism, the latter of which privileges Western business interests over emerging domestic industries—indeed insists on replacing domestic development with “foreign direct investment”, or FDI. Instead of producing, say, soybeans and maize for domestic consumption, cheaply grown and inexpensively consumed, Western interests, usually as a loan or trade condition, insist on the erasure of agricultural tariffs that then result in replacing domestic crops with a) a suitable export crop like Arabica coffee beans or cotton or rice, to be shipped to tony First World markets and cafes; and often b) insisting on the introduction of “sustainable” seed varieties, such as those only produced by American agribusiness like Monsanto, causing subsistence farmers to sink into debt in an effort to license those varieties—and all the weed and pest management inputs required to sustain a harvest. In the former instance, the government must take out expensive loans to import Western foodstuffs it once produced for itself. These goods are dumped on the country by Western agribusiness since they were unsalable domestically, thereby allowing Western agribusiness to collect a tidy profit from the sale, and for Western finance to collect on the compound interest from the loan extended to the developing nation in order for it to purchase the food.

Thus, while the West profits on both sides of the import-export equation, the developing country loses on both fronts. Internal development is crushed and external debts soar. Michael Chossudovsky of Global Research has excellently illustrated this model in relation to Ethiopia.

What emerging nation would accept such conditions? None but one that has been bought off at the highest levels. Add to that dire agricultural prescription a raft of additional austerities on the manner of reduced domestic subsidies and import tariffs, heightened utility costs, currency devaluation, and higher interest rates. These are recipes for misery.

Taming the Rabble

To implement the process, the IMF must find suitable quislings within the local government. They in turn must implement austerity but also move to repress the popular outrage those policies are sure to inspire. “Stability” is the byword of popular repression, and why President Obama supports a regressive military coup d’état in Egypt, as well the coup that deposed independent-minded Manuel Zelaya of Honduras. Zelaya had instituted a 60-percent minimum-wage increase in a nation with 70-percent poverty. Naturally, the business class was outraged. Not long afterward, Zelaya joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a fatal move that presaged his U.S.-backed removal. Just this week Zelaya was chased from the Honduran Parliament with tear gas after he and a group of supporters had entered unwelcome. There’s nothing quite so unsettling for an illegitimate government than to glimpse the ghost of the populist it deposed. According to the United Nations, Hondurans are now enduring a wave of repression, and the country has now become the “murder capital of the world”.

Neither of these coups evoked even a word of protest from the noble mandarins on Pennsylvania Avenue. Nor is the White House affronted by the recent putsch in Ukraine. Quite the opposite—the White House initiated it, infamously fomenting rebellion with Victoria Nuland’s “$5 billion” investment. It got what it paid for—a fascist-inflected coup that emplaced right-wing nationalists with Nazi sympathies nation’s cabinet, notably in charge of the security apparatus, among other sinecures.

Yet when a self-professed socialist like Hugo Chavez is legitimized by the ballot, ejects the IMF and declares his nation’s independence from international finance, and tackles poverty as though it were a serious issue—every alarm in the Presidio sounds. Cue the Kennedy-esque psy-ops and CIA subversion, modus operandi of Washington subterfuge.

This is all perfectly coincident with the Cold War policy of considering the establishment of a communist government in Latin America as an act of aggression. Neither communism nor terrorism is the target—it is independence that shivers the imperial spine. Point being, we ought to register astonishment only if our leading recipients of aid are not serial torturers. The time when America could be plausibly credited with good intentions is long past. The best interests of Third-World peasants are antithetical to those of corporate multinationals—at least according to the latter’s neoliberal creed. Hence aid flows to the fascist rather than the democrat, the better to line the coffers of capital through the repression of popular will, anywhere and everywhere it rears its medusan head. Indeed, this is one of the central reasons Israel receives three billion dollars annually: because the soul of Palestinian solidarity cannot be maimed, tamed, eradicated, or otherwise disappeared. And that is the eternal dilemma of neoliberalism—how to best shatter the human spirit. These are the night sweats of capital, or to borrow a phrase from Graham Greene, one of the Cold War’s best chroniclers, they are rather “…the anxieties beyond the reach of a tranquilizer.”

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire: Unmasking American Imperialism. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.

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