excerpted from the book

Freeing the World to Death

essays on the american empire

by William Blum

Common Courage Press, 2005, paper

Former president Jimmy Carter:

We sent Marines into Lebanon and you only have to go to Lebanon, to Syria or to Jordan to witness first-hand the intense hatred among many people for the United States because we bombed and shelled and unmercifully killed totally innocent villagers-women and children and farmers and housewives-in those villages around Beirut .... As a result of that ...we became kind of a Satan in the minds of those who are deeply resentful. That is what precipitated the taking of our hostages and that is what has precipitated some of the terrorist attacks.'

Secretary of State Colin Powell, writing of what preceded the 1983 attack on the US Marine barracks in Lebanon:

The USS New Jersey started hurling 16-inch shells into the mountains above Beirut, in World War II style, as if we were softening up the beaches on some Pacific atoll prior to an invasion. What we tend to overlook in such situations is that other people will react much as we would.'

The ensuing terrorist attack against US Marine barracks in Lebanon took the lives of 241 American military personnel.


What does American foreign policy have in common with Mae West? There's the story told about the Hollywood sexpot showing off her luxurious home to someone. "My goodness, what a gorgeous home you have," exclaimed the visitor. And Mae West replied: "Goodness had nothing to do with it."

Which is what I try to make people understand about American foreign policy. The greatest myth concerning those policies, the conviction that most often makes it a formidable task for people like myself to get Americans to accept certain ideas, is the deeply-held belief that no matter what the United States does abroad, no matter how bad it may look, no matter what horror may result, the American government means well. American leaders may make mistakes, they may blunder, they may even on the odd occasion cause more harm than good, but they do mean well. Their intentions are always honorable. Of that Americans are certain. They genuinely wonder why the rest of the world can't see how kind and generous and self-sacrificing America has been. Even many people who take part in the anti-war movement have a hard time shaking off some of this mindset; they think, or would like to think, that the government just needs to be prodded back to its normal benevolent self. Frances Fitzgerald, in her study of American history textbooks, observed that According to these books, the United States had been a kind of Salvation Army to the rest of the world: throughout history, it had done little but dispense benefits to poor, ignorant, and diseased countries .... the United States always acted in a disinterested fashion, always from the highest of motives; it gave, never took."

Amongst developed nations, the United States is easily the most religious, more so even than most Third World countries, and many American citizens look upon their country in an almost sacred manner... chosen people, divine purpose, Manifest Destiny, missionaries; while its enemies dwell in the other realm, of the devil, "evil empire", "axis of evil". Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York at the time of the September 11, 2001 attack, delivered his farewell speech in a church close to the site of Ground Zero, declaring: "Abraham Lincoln used to say that... The test of your Americanism is as how much you believed in America. Because we are like a religion really-secular religion."

A question that continually intrigues and perplexes those who long for the world to make sense and have feelings is this: Do American leaders really believe the utterances that emanate from their mouths? When the words "god" and "prayer" are regularly invoked in their talks, while American Hellfire missiles are sent screaming into a city center or a village marketplace teeming with life ...when they carry on endlessly about democracy and freedom, while American soldiers are smashing down doors, dragging off the men, humiliating the women, traumatizing the children... when they proclaim the liberation of a people and the bringing forth of a better life, while vast quantities of American depleted uranium are exploding into a fine vapor which will poison the air, the soil, the blood, and the genes forever...

Do American leaders personally dwell on these contradictions? Do they even see them as contradictions? What emotional mechanism allows them to make peace with what they do so as to be able to live with themselves?

We'll never know for sure what their moral intuition whispers when they're sitting alone at midnight, but whatever it is, for them to have reached their high positions they had to resolve any ethical dilemmas long before, learning to summon up some comfortable dogma about "the greater good" or, as Theodore Roosevelt put it:

It is indeed a warped, perverse, and silly morality which would forbid a course of conquest that has turned whole continents into the seats of mighty and flourishing civilized nations. All men of sane and wholesome thought must dismiss with impatient contempt the plea that these continents should be reserved for the use of scattered savage tribes, whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beasts with whom they hold joint ownership.

If American leaders sincerely believe what they tell the world about the purity of America's motives, it can be justly maintained that they are as fanatic and as fundamentalist as 4 Osama Bin Laden and his ilk. Can you argue with an Islamic fundamentalist about the morality of what he advocates? He'll insist that Allah is on his side, you're Satan, and you hate Islam. Can you argue with George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or their acolytes about the morality of their policies? They'll insist that the Lord is on their side, you're soft on terrorism, and you hate America. We can say that the United States runs the world like the Taliban ran Afghanistan. Cuba is dealt with like a woman caught outside not wearing her burkha. Horrific sanctions are imposed on Iraq in the manner of banning music, dancing, and kite-flying in Kabul. Jean-Bertrand Aristide is banished from Haiti like the religious police whipping a man whose beard is not the right length.

For some Americans, belief in the nobility of US foreign policy may have taken a kick in the stomach by the release of the photos in the spring of 2004 showing abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners, but for most a lifetime of inculcated loyalty, faith, and conviction does not crumble without a great deal of resistance. Such people should be asked this question: "What would the United States have to do in its foreign policy that would cause you to forsake your basic belief and support of it? In other words, what for you would be too much?" Most likely, whatever dreadfulness they might think of, the United States has already done it. More than once. Probably in their own lifetime. And well documented in an easily available publication.

As hateful as the acts depicted in the photos were, the publicizing of them was to be welcomed if it could rally world opinion against United States behavior; if there is no military force capable of beating back the American behemoth, moral condemnation does at least slow it down from time to time. Let the hooded, wired, and faceless man of Abu Ghraib, with arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, become a symbol of, and inspiration for, resistance to American imperialism.

Bush administration officials, like George W. and War Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, looked the American people squarely in the eye and in their most heartfelt-sounding voice told them that the abuse of the detainees in Iraq was completely inappropriate, un-American, and would not be tolerated. But the abuses had been going on for more than a year, complained about regularly by the International Red Cross, Amnesty International, and other human rights groups, and nothing had been done except, after ten months, an investigation, not for public consumption; and when the military learned that CBS had photos of the abuses and was preparing to show them on TV, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff personally asked the station to hold off, which CBS did until, faced with being scooped, they presented the photos to a shocked America. Thus, for over a year, the imperial mafia could engage in their usual rationalizations, whatever they may be, before they were forced to go public with the appropriate platitudes.

This is written in June 2004, in the midst of the United States presidential election campaign. Millions of Americans, regardless of what they think of the Democratic Party candidate, are determined to vote for Anyone But Bush, so loathsome and repellent have the man and his policies become for them. They are convinced that the Bush administration is virtually unique in the manner in which it relates to the world; that no previous American government has ever exhibited such hubris, deceit, and secrecy; such murderous destruction, violation of international law, and disregard of world opinion.

They are mistaken. All this wickedness has been exhibited before, regularly; if not packed quite as densely in one administration as under Bush, then certainly abundant enough to reap the abhorrence of millions at home and abroad. From Truman's atom bomb and manipulation of the UN that spawned bloody American warfare in Korea, to Clinton's war crimes in Yugoslavia and vicious assaults upon the people of Somalia; from Kennedy's attempts to strangle the Cuban revolution and his abandonment of democracy in the Dominican Republic, to Ford's giving the okay to Indonesia's genocide against East Timor and his support of the instigation of the horrific Angola civil war; from Eisenhower's overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran, Guatemala and the Congo and his unprincipled policies which led to the disaster known as Vietnam, to Reagan's tragic Afghanistan venture and unprovoked invasion of Grenada.

When the United Nations overwhelmingly voted its disapproval of the Grenada invasion, President Reagan responded: "One hundred nations in the UN have not agreed with us on just about everything that's come before them where we're involved, and it didn't upset my breakfast at all." George W. couldn't have said it better.

For those who think the United States has been unconscionably brutal to detainees in Iraq, here's how the US handled them during Vietnam: "Two Vietcong prisoners were interrogated on an airplane flying toward Saigon. The first refused to answer questions and was thrown out of the airplane at 3,000 feet. The second immediately answered all the questions. But he, too, was thrown out."

It would be difficult to find a remark made today by an American official about Iraq-illogical, arrogant, stupid, lying, Orwellian, overblown, just plain wrong-which doesn't have any number of precedents during the Vietnam War period, that constantly had those opposed to that war shaking their heads or rolling their eyes.

Here is President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966: "The exercise of power in this century has meant for all of us in the United States not arrogance but agony. We have used our power not willingly and recklessly ever, but always reluctantly and with L. restraint."

Richard Nixon, waiting in the wings, 1965: "Victory for the Vietcong. . would mean ultimately the destruction of freedom of speech for all men for all time not only in Asia but in (... the United States as well."

Walt Rostow, State Department, Chairman, Policy Planning Council, 1965: "The other side is near collapse. In my opinion, victory is very near ....You've got to see the latest charts. I've got them right here. The charts are very good .... Victory is very near."

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, 1967: "I believe that Vietnam will be marked as the place where the family of man has gained the time it needed to finally break through to a new era of hope and human development and justice. This is the chance we have. This is our great adventure-and a wonderful one it is."

And on a day in July 1965, Arthur Sylvester, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs told American journalists that they had patriotic duty to disseminate only information that made the United States look good. When one of the newsmen exclaimed, "Surely, Arthur, you don't expect the American press to be handmaidens of government," Sylvester responded, "That's exactly what I expect." Sylvester then /(replied to another question with: "Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you're stupid. Did you hear that?-stupid."

This last of course does at least have the virtue of honesty.

Does anything done by the Bush administration compare to Operation Gladio? From 1947 until 1990, when it was publicly exposed, Gladio was essentially a CIA/NATO/M16 operation in conjunction with other intelligence agencies and an assortment of the vilest of right-wing thugs and terrorists. It ran wild in virtually every country of Western Europe, kidnapping and/or assassinating political leaders, exploding bombs in trains and public squares with many hundreds of dead and wounded, shooting up supermarkets with many casualties, trying to overthrow governments... all with impunity, protected by the most powerful military and political forces in the world. Even today, the beast may still be breathing. Since the inception of the Freedom of Information Act in the 1970s, the CIA has regularly refused requests concerning the US/NATO role in Gladio, refusing not only individual researchers and the National Security Archive-the private research organization in Washington with a remarkable record of obtaining US government documents-but some of the governments involved, including Italy and Austria. Gladio is one of the CIA's family jewels, to be guarded as such.

The rationale behind it was your standard cold-war paranoia/propaganda: There's a good chance the Russians will launch an unprovoked invasion of Western Europe. And if they defeated the Western armies and forced them to flee, certain people had to remain behind to harass the Russians with guerrilla warfare and sabotage, and act as liaisons with those abroad. The "stay-behinds" would be provided with funds, weapons, communication equipment and training exercises.

As matters turned out, in the complete absence of any Russian invasion, the operation was used almost exclusively to inflict political and lethal damage upon the European Left, be it individuals, movements or governments, and heighten the public's fear of "communism". To that end, violent actions like those referred to above were made to appear to be the work of the Left.

Neither did the Bush administration invent the American Empire and its schoolyard-bully behavior. An Empire can be defined as a state that has overwhelming superiority in military, economic and political power, and uses those powers to influence the internal and external behavior of other states to accommodate the empire's needs. This imperial power intrinsically includes the ability to overthrow or otherwise punish those governments which seek to thwart the empire's desires.

Does this not aptly describe the power and policies of American foreign policy for many decades, for a century, before the Bush administration came to be? It was long said in Latin America that the United States could instigate or discourage a coup with "a frown". In 1965 it was reported that the military coup ousting Dominican Republic President Juan Bosch went into action "as soon as they got a wink from the U.S. Pentagon." As long ago as 1902, Colombia's Ambassador to the US, José Vicente Concha, writing about the pressure put on him by the United States regarding the building of the Panama Canal, said: "This uncle of ours can settle it all with a single crunch of his jaws."

Frown, wink, crunch of jaws... and if facial actions didn't do the job, then a carefully chosen word or two, or money without end, or weapons of the chemical dust would. The reader is directed to chapter 15 for a list of 35 governments overthrown by the United States following World War II but prior to the Bush administration, in addition to 19 other serious attempts at regime change in the same period which didn't succeed.

Here are the words of former US Senator William Fulbright

The causes of the malady are not entirely clear but its recurrence is one of the uniformities of history: power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations-to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image.

Fulbright wrote those words about the Lyndon B. Johnson administration in 1966, not the George W. Bush administration in 2004.

Since the early 19th century, when the first European settlers began arriving in what was to become the western states of the United States of America, this has been an imperial nation, a conquering nation; annihilation of natives, acquisition, expansion, a society made safe for the freest of enterprise; belief in American "exceptionalism", a people providentially exempted from the dark side of human nature; all this in the American blood, the nation's myths, its songs, its national character.

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823, gave fair warning: "The American continents.., are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers .... we should consider an attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety." Add a word about "terrorists" and it could have been penned by Condoleezza Rice. The door was of course left open to hemispheric colonization or neo-colonization by the United States.

In the war with Mexico, beginning in 1846, the US went yet further; not simply colonization, but the wholesale incorporation of half of Mexico into the new Yankee land; a war that excited Congress, which approved it overwhelmingly with minimal discussion, and the American people, who rallied and rushed to volunteer for the splendid expedition. In December 1845, the editor of a New York daily had written of "our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us."

By the end of the century, when grandiose North American growth opportunities were thinning and new markets were needed, Washington heeded the siren's call to become a player in the global scene. Using the pretext that Spain was responsible for the blowing up of the USS Maine, it went to war and replaced the Spanish as the colonial power in the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, and devised a special status for Cuba.

In the summer of 1898, a vigorous struggle began in the United States between imperialists and anti-imperialists concerning the Philippines and its people who were fighting against the American plan to subjugate them. Talk of empire, of the United States assuming a leading role in world politics, was a heady intoxicant that few could resist. The future liberal Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., declared "I confess to pleasure in hearing some rattling jingo talk after the self-righteous and preaching discourse" of the anti-imperialists.

The stage was now set for what Time magazine publisher Henry Luce was later to call The American Century. Looking at it from the perspective of the consequences of American foreign policy, it was a century of wide-ranging domination and cruelty. A study by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, "Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-1945", shows 65 such instances from 1900 to 1945, to which books by this author add, for the period 1945 to 2000, about eighty other very serious US interventions-military, economic, and/or diplomatic-into the affairs of foreign countries.

What most of the countries on the receiving end of 20th century American imperialism had in common was their attempt to establish a society that offered an alternative to the capitalist model. In the eyes of Washington, this was the ultimate heresy, as it remains today. Such an endeavor had to be crushed, by any means necessary, lest it wind up serving as an example for others. Other targeted countries, while retaining free enterprise to one degree or another, were reluctant to allow the needs of American corporations to dictate their society's priorities; i.e., they were unwilling to permit the WTO/IMF/World Bank/free-trade beast to stomp in and privatize and sell the country's social assets to multinationals, to deregulate, erase their border, drive local industries and farmers into destitution, trash social services and safety nets, develop a cheap labor force, cheap raw materials, and a market for corporate goods, and put people in prison so prices could be free... by now a painfully familiar syndrome known as "globalization", merely the latest transmutation of imperialism, the natural extension of capitalist growth and control; for some years ago, while we were all busy leading our little daily lives, a handful of corporations came along, and step by step, unannounced, purchased the world, then hung a sign out saying "Open for business", and have since then, understandably, insisted on exercising the rights of ownership. Globalization is nothing less than the recolonization of the underdeveloped world.

One of the problems in dealing with fanatics is their fanaticism.

It may be that George W. Bush's being held in such low esteem and producing visceral disgust in countless people owes as much to his character defects as to his policies, for the man comes off as woefully crass, uninformed, incurious, and inarticulate; as well as programmed, insufferably religious, dishonest, and remarkably insensitive-in the very midst of the burgeoning scandal about US military torture and sexual abuse of prisoners in Iraq, for example, Bush could bring himself to tell an audience: "The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power .... Because we acted, torture rooms are closed, rape rooms no longer exist."

What has distinguished the Bush administration's foreign policy from that of its predecessors has been its unabashed and conspicuously overt expressions of its imperial ambitions. They flaunt it, publicly and proudly declaring their intention-nay, their God-inspired right and obligation-to remake the world and dominate space; "full-spectrum dominance", a term coined by the military shortly before Bush came to office, well captures the Bush administration's style and ambition. The neo-conservatives who form the ideological backbone of the administration have not hesitated to put their dominance master plans into print on a regular basis, beginning with their now-famous (1992 Defense Planning Guidance draft: "we must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role," and continuing through the National Security Strategy, of 2002 "To forestall or prevent... hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."

"Preemptive" military action is an example of what the post-World War II International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany called "a war of aggression"; the invasion of Poland was a case in point.

We must make clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the war, but that they started it. And we must not allow ourselves to be drawn into a trial of the causes of the war, for our position is that no grievances or policies will justify resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy.

Thus spoke Supreme Court Justice Robert L. Jackson Chief US Prosecutor at the Tribunal, on August j1 1945.

On October 1 of the following year [1946], the Tribunal handed down its judgment: "To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

The bombing and invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by the Bush administration are wars of aggression and international crimes, but legally and morally no worse than many other US bombings and invasions, such as against Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Cuba, Grenada, Panama, and Yugoslavia.

"In politics, as on the sickbed, people toss from one side to the other, thinking they will be more comfortable." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

An Amtrak train on its way to Washington was stopped in Cumberland, Md., for several hours and searched yesterday after passengers reported that two men of 'Middle Eastern descent' were acting suspiciously, the FBI said.

We've been reading similar stories for three years now, involving trains, planes, buses, anywhere, anytime. In between we have Alerts Orange and Red, scary bioterrorism exercises, security precautions for major events reaching the outlandish proportions of a Hollywood thriller, and a host of other gross disruptions, inconveniences, and absurdities. We take our shoes off, empty our pockets, drop our pants, show our picture ID, show it again 20 feet away, whatever some bored hired hand gets a kick out of demanding, don't even think about making a joke. Much worse than any of this of course happens regularly to people all over the country, many of whom are imprisoned, without charges, without hope.

How long will this indignity to persons and the Constitution go on? Why, as long as the War on Terrorism goes on. And how long will the War on Terrorism go on? As long as there are anti-American terrorists out there of course. And how long will there be anti-American terrorists out there? Well, as long as the War on Terrorism and the rest of US foreign policy continue serving as factories for mass producing anti-American terrorists and laboratories for cultivating the terrorism virus.

Freeing the World to Death

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