Bad Apples in a Bad Barrel

When Washington set out to pave the way for a full-scale invasion of Iraq, it did so by pointing to Baghdad’s failure to fully comply with UN Resolutions. The Baghdad regime, declared US President George W. Bush, was defying the UN. You would think the US had never scorned the world body itself, had never dismissed it as irrelevant. In the end, Washington, its faithful British lapdog in tow, would attack Iraq without a UN imprimatur, as it had attacked Afghanistan without UN approval, and as a preceding administration had attacked Yugoslavia without a UN blessing (though, being Democratic, that administration, according to the mythology of the US Left, was less enamored of the use of force, more committed to international bodies, and less zealous in pursuing imperialist goals.) Some called it hypocrisy, the US insisting other countries follow the rules, while it exempted itself and its strategic allies, principally Israel. And so it was. But it was also more than that. It was Washington setting itself up as the world’s de facto government, and since only a small part of the world got to vote for the government, it was effectively a global dictatorship. And when what drove the global dictatorship was taken into account, it was clear it was a global dictatorship of US capital.

The latest phase of what has been over a decade-long war on Iraq, has somehow been deemed unworthy by the largest part of the US Left of the blessings given other attacks. The bombing and invasion of Afghanistan were seen as justifiable, because “the Taliban was harboring terrorists,” or was said by the Left to be justifiable, because that’s what most Americans believed, and the Left wanted to build bridges to the larger community. An outstanding characteristic of all progressive movements, observed Paul Sweezy once, is the gradual bartering away of principles for respectability and votes [1].

But the war on Afghanistan had left tens of thousands who had nothing to do with the Taliban or al-Qaeda dead or homeless. Since the ostensible object of the attack was to bring bin Laden to book, the implication is that slaughter is justifiable to capture, or kill, a single man. Americans who bless the attack on Afghanistan, would think it unconscionable to wipe out a large part of LA to kill or capture a drug kingpin, but slaughter, in the service of US foreign policy, seems to be judged by entirely different standards.

It’s not widely known that the United States itself harbors terrorists, those who’ve carried out attacks on Cuba for political reasons [2]. Since US governments share the terrorists’ politics, and abhor Cuba’s, this terrorism is deemed acceptable, even praiseworthy, and, above all else, is given some other name than “terrorism.” It is, instead, a fight for freedom and democracy, a battle against tyranny. But if you follow the logic, Cuba is perfectly justified in carrying out assaults on US territory as part of a war on terrorism. Follow the logic further, and the US is a “failed” state for knowingly providing a base from which terrorists can operate. The designation “failed,” a rather transparent pretext for a take over, works both ways in theory; in practice, never.

The 78-day air war on Yugoslavia was also blessed by large parts of the Western Left, even though NATO deliberately bypassed the UN, knowing it would never receive UN Security Council approval. It could be said that before invading Iraq at least the Bush administration tried, at the urging of Tony Blair, to bring the UN on board. Clinton didn’t bother.

A civil war had raged in Kosovo between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian militants who sought independence, and as later events would suggest, who also sought an ethnically pure Kosovo, cleansed of Serbs, Jews and Roma. Atrocities were committed by both sides, resulting, to the point NATO began its attack, in some 2,000 deaths. But NATO alleged the atrocities on the Serb side weren’t haphazard and unorganized, but were systematic, deliberate, and ordered by Yugoslavia’s then president, Slobodan Milosevic.

Today, Carla del Ponte, the lead prosecutor in the blatantly political NATO-backed tribunal that’s trying Milosevic on war crimes and genocide charges, admits she has failed to produce a smoking gun showing that Milosevic methodically sought to purge ethnic Albanians from Kosovo [3]. But ever since Serb forces agreed to quit Kosovo, and NATO forces arrived, thousands have been driven from their homes. This time, Serbs, Roma and Jews. The West dismisses the pogroms as regrettable, but understandable. Aggrieved ethnic Albanians, it’s said, are taking revenge for the atrocities of the Milosevic era. But that doesn’t explain why other ethnic groups are being targeted.

And there have been two other developments of significance. The remnants of Serbia’s socialist economy have been dismantled, with grim consequences for the lives of Serbs, but happy consequences for Western capital. The Serbs sink deeper into poverty and economic insecurity, following in the path of Russians and Eastern Europeans, whose march from communism to capitalism has been marked by economic decline, the recrudescence of disease and diminished life spans. And the US has built a giant military base in Kosovo, in the path of an important planned pipeline route.

Soon after 9/11, Washington got down to spreading the fiction of banned weapons in Iraq. There was no doubt, we were assured, that Baghdad was harboring them. Were vials of nasty bio-weapons hidden in empty shoe boxes secreted in Saddam’s closet, ready to be deployed in 45 minutes? No claim was too far-fetched, too comical, too ridiculous. Saddam’s arsenal, the story went, was vast and frightening, a Pandora’s box of mayhem and destruction that whispered alluringly to Islamic terrorists bent on destroying the United States for its freedoms and democracy. Al Qaeda, suggested Washington, hadn’t declared war on the United States for abetting Israel’s brutalities against the Palestinians, for being as much as Tel Aviv a part of the project of ethnically cleansing Palestine to enlarge a Jewish homeland, already built on the wreck of Palestinian lives and homes. Nor was the siege of Iraq by US forces, a decade-long strangulation that left over a million dead, at issue. No, it was America’s freedoms and democracy, the President declared, that drove a band of aggrieved Arabs, mostly Saudis, to pilot commercial aircraft into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. No claim was too far-fetched, too comical, too ridiculous.

What is this freedom that Islamic militants detest so much? Is it freedom of Americans to travel to Cuba? Is it freedom from fear of being ruined by illness because health insurance is unaffordable? Is it freedom to march, and demonstrate, and be ignored (or in US-occupied Iraq to march and demonstrate and be gunned down)? Is it freedom to make a choice in an election, between two parties committed to the same goals and values?

The US media doesn’t like to dwell too long on the reasons other people are hostile to the US. Hostility is to be understood to spring from irrationality and misunderstanding, not legitimate grievances. North Korea’s arming itself with nuclear weapons is attributed to the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il’s alleged insanity, not to the US escalating military pressure, sanctions, and psychological warfare against the country. Palestinian militants are said to be animated by irrational anti-Semitism, not by resentment over their brutal, inhumane and exploitative treatment at the hands of Israelis, or their being denied basic rights, or of being asked uniquely to relinquish rights guaranteed to others. And bin Laden is to be understood as the incarnation of pure evil, his behavior inspired by a malice that has sprung fully formed, and inexplicably, from religious fanaticism. These stories, like so much else about political discourse in the US, are childish and arrant nonsense.

That Saddam had banned weapons was never believable from the start, and it’s astonishing that so many, including those who present themselves as astute critics of the media, and of the lies governments tell to justify wars of conquest, were gulled. Iraq had been effectively disarmed before the Clinton administration withdrew UN weapons inspectors, who, it turned out, were the US spies Baghdad complained they were. Crippled by sanctions, bedeviled by almost daily bombing attacks, it would have been impossible for Baghdad to reconstitute its weapons program. Small wonder the weapons were never found.

So what is to justify the invasion, and now, the occupation — freedom and democracy? Since Iraqis aren’t free, and the US isn’t too keen on elections – not yet, anyway, until Washington can be pretty sure of the outcome – some other justification must be found.

Human rights? Saddam Hussein’s regime was a notorious human rights abuser. But the United States – despite regularly denying foreigners the right to existence, despite running a concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, despite conducting a human rights horror show at the Abu Ghraib prison, despite dismissing the Geneva Conventions as quaint [4] – styles itself a champion of human rights, helped along in its ridiculous claim by Human Rights Watch, whose advocacy director says the biggest victim of the prisoner abuse scandal is the US itself, whose status as a champion of human rights will be cynically impugned by human rights abusers everywhere [5].

It seems, however, that every pretext Washington presses into service to continue to occupy Iraq, must eventually dissolve, this time thanks to the shutter bugs who decided it wasn’t good enough to humiliate Iraqi prisoners — the humiliation had to be photographed, as well. Poor Donald Rumsfeld. You’d think the world was out to show that everything he says is nonsense. First he said there were weapons of mass destruction. There weren’t. Next he said American troops would be welcome as liberators. Not anymore. Then he promised the whole situation would take a turn for the better once Saddam Hussein’s sons were killed. It didn’t. The capture of Saddam was hailed as a major triumph. It changed nothing. (Incidentally, Noam Chomsky claimed the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein [6]. Not surprisingly, his prediction hasn’t been borne out.) And now the champions of human rights, who would wipe away the stain of Saddam Hussein’s deplorable human rights abuses, turn out to be human rights abusers themselves (as they were all along.) Rumsfeld probably wishes he was still at Searle, making Metamucil.

It behooves us to take a step back every now and then to look at the forest. Why have US governments, Democrat and Republican, been so fixated on toppling the Baathist government? This hasn’t been a short-term obsession. The Gulf War inaugurated the effort to smash a secular, advanced Middle Eastern country, which invested its oil wealth in its own internal development, rather than shipping it off to the US as the Saudis do. Was it because Iraq’s economy was largely state-owned, and those parts of it that weren’t, were owned by nationals or other Arabs by fiat of the state; that is, was it because it wasn’t owned by US companies and investors? We can be sure this hardly accorded with the wishes of US governments. Washington, no matter who is in power, has always predicated its foreign policy on the expansion of US export and investment opportunities overseas. Economies closed to US capital have consistently been targets for US policy makers, even before Woodrow Wilson declared in 1907 that “the sovereignty of unwilling nations [must] be outraged” in order that “no useful corner of the world…be overlooked or left unused” for US business [7]. Significantly, the presumptive Democrat presidential candidate, John Kerry, pays obeisance to Wilson’s foreign policy, along with that of Truman (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and Kennedy (Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs.) Kerry would, as president, as much as Wilson and every other occupant of the White House, Democrat or Republican, outrage the sovereignty of foreign countries that close their doors to ownership by US capital. That this will happen is guaranteed, not by the predilections or inner urges of members of the cabinet; it is a law of capitalism, as coercive as gravity. The question for Left voters in the US is whether they want to back a candidate who will pursue a foreign policy as unreservedly imperialist, and firmly committed to outraging the sovereignty of foreign countries, as that George W. Bush will pursue.

From this perspective, it should come as no surprise that now that Washington has swept the Baathists from power, its functionaries are laboring diligently to replace the legal basis the Baathists put in place for a state-owned economy and indigenous ownership with one that throws the door wide open to US capital and to that of countries that supported the US invasion [8]. It has always happened that the inherent drive to expand markets for the export of goods, services and capital has brought the US into conflict with countries that are rivals for the same foreign markets, and with those that seek to erect barriers within which to pursue a course of internal development. For US policy makers, countries that indiginze their economies are threats; they deny opportunities to US capital, and threaten to become models for other developing countries. Left to develop in peace, outside the imperialist orbit, they become a contagion, threatening to spread. Without opportunities for foreign expansion, capitalist economies would soon be plunged into major crises. It is for this reason that the US will go to great lengths, from buying foreign elections, to imposing blockades, to war and invasion, to topple regimes that pursue internal development outside the imperialist logic.

The reason over a million Iraqis have been killed by US-led wars, bombing campaigns, sanctions, and occupation, have nothing whatever to do with Saddam Hussein’s failings. It has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, that much being obvious now and easily deduced prior to the invasion, or with a desire to liberate Iraqis from dictatorship, who have instead been liberated from their electricity, their telephones, their jobs, their security, their dignity and, for many, from their lives. It has nothing to do with bringing a free press to Iraq. The US occupation authority shut down Moqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper, and, in light of the evidence of systematic abuse, humiliation and torture of prisoners by US soldiers, it would be preposterous to say the US is in Iraq to safeguard human rights. The US is in Iraq because US foreign policy is implacably hostile to state- and indiginously-owned economies, and because it seeks to secure Iraq as a market for the export of US goods, services and capital.

Curiously, there’s hardly ever anything said about this on the Left, which, for the most part, is moralistic and reconciled to capitalism, and hardly recognizes a systemic dimension to US foreign policy. It is enough these days for Leftists to simply deplore wars of conquest, and to speak indignantly of sweatshops and conspicuous exploitation, but rarely do answers to the question, Why do these things happen? go beyond human frailties. Wars of conquest are said to be caused by hawks who want to enlarge their power and the prestige of their nation. The implication: if you don’t want war, vote for someone who doesn’t seem to be warlike (or as warlike as the other major candidate.) Sweatshops are said to spring up because some people are greedy. The implication: if you deplore sweatshops, pressure corporations to be less greedy. This gives rise to the absurd spectacle of filmmaker Michael Moore imploring Nike chairman Phil Knight to be a nice guy and set up an athletic shoe factory in Flint, Michigan. How long would a plant that doesn’t pay sweatshop wages last? Equally absurd was Moore’s backing Wesley Clark, a war criminal, for president, because Clark seemed to Moore to be less warlike than George W. Bush. The absurdity is magnified by the reality that not only would US foreign policy not be guided by different goals were Clark president, but that Clark, a retired general who would bang his fist on his desk demanding more violence from the bombing campaign he oversaw on Yugoslavia in 1999 [9] is clearly not less warlike than Bush. Even Moore’s latest film, Fahrenheit 9/11 — which lays blame for the invasion of Iraq on the greed of the Bush family — is more of the same. It’s forgotten that regime change became official policy of the US government in 1998, during the Clinton administration, and that Washington has been bent to the task of extinguishing Iraq as a threatening counterexample for some time.

Rarely is it said, and certainly never in the mainstream Left, that wars of conquest, sweatshops and exploitation are inevitable outcomes of capitalism. Instead, all deplorable conditions are attributed to bad apples, the barrel in which the apples are stored either being assumed to be good, or irrelevant. Which means the Left is hardly Left in the sense of seeking to alter conditions that engender deplorable outcomes like wars of conquest and exploitation, and is simply comprised of the equivalent of Sunday School teachers who believe that if only people in power can be pressured to make the right moral choices the world can be a beautiful place. The evidence of the failure of this approach is all around us. The biggest stride the Left can take is to stop talking of bad apples, and to start talking of a bad barrel, and how to replace it.

STEPHEN GOWANS is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached at:

1. Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian Political Economy, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1970. p. 352.

2. See for example, “Cuba 1959 to 1980’s: The Unforgivable Revolution,” in William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II, Common Courage Press, 1995.

3. “At Halfway Point of Milosevic Trial, Prosecutor Is Confident,” New York Times, March 1, 2004.

4. “U.S. wants quick handover of its prisons in Iraq,” Reuters, May 18, 2004.

5. “U.S. Releases Human Rights Report Delayed After Abuse Scandal,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2004.

6. “Interview With Noam Chomsky about US Warplans,” August 29, 2002, ZNet.”

7. Wilson in Micheal Parenti, Against Empire, City Light Books, San Francisco, 1995, p.40.

8. “U.S. Companies Put Little Capital into Iraq,” The Washington Post, May 15, 2004.

9. Washington Post, September, 21, 1999 cited in William Blum, “Our next savior? Grand illusions about Wesley Clark,” September 24, 2003, CounterPunch.