Rationalizng U.S. Interventions
in the Third World
excerpted from the book
by Stephen Rosskamm Shalom
For at least half a century, the Soviet threat admirably served
the needs of U.S. policy-makers, providing the defining enemy
that rationalized massive military spending, constant interventions
abroad, and repression at home. With the disintegration of the
Soviet Union, the managers of the U.S. state are already trying
to concoct new rationalizations to achieve the same end.
U.S. troops did not land in Grenada or the Dominican Republic
order to save American citizens in distress. The intervention
is far better explained by the fact that the government of the
former and the constitutionalists contending for power in the
latter were both nationalistically-inclined and thus a challenge
to U.S. economic hegemony in the Caribbean. In Nicaragua, U.S.
economic interests were also challenged; and in its effort to
crush the Sandinistas, Washington resorted to terrorism and cooperated
with narcotics-traffickers. Alliances of convenience were forged
as well with drug dealers in Southeast Asia in an effort to defeat
the Vietnamese revolution.
Controlling the world's oil resources has always been a fundamental
goal of the U.S. government. In the Middle East, radical nationalist
regimes in Libya, Iran, and Iraq have threatened this control.
The United States has worked to demonize Libya (often for actions
that U.S. allies have conducted on a far larger scale), to destabilize
it, and even to attack it. Washington has also used supplies of
arms and intelligence, covert operations, and occasional military
force in order to minimize the independence of the governments
in Baghdad and Teheran. And when Saddam Hussein went too far (not
in massacring Kurds, but in threatening U.S. control over the
petroleum supplies of the Persian Gulf) enormous military force
In promoting the interests of corporate America, the U.S.
government has helped to provide markets, regardless of the social
consequences of the products sold. Weapons sales to the Shah of
Iran in the 1970s led to a regional arms race costly in human
as well as financial terms. Continuing U.S. arms sales to the
Middle East today stoke tensions in that region while boosting
the corporate balance sheets. Washington has also facilitated
the sale of tobacco and other legal but harmful products overseas.
Foreign corpses evoke little sympathy from U.S. policy-makers,
particularly when the victims are considered racial inferiors.
Jews during the holocaust, Africans in Biafra or Burundi, Asians
in Bangladesh-all were expendable to the larger interests of U.S.
foreign policy. Sometimes the United States ignored the deaths
of these Untermenschen, sometimes it collaborated with their killers,
as in Indonesia or Guatemala. When Third World people fought and
died in the Iran-Iraq war, Washington covertly armed both sides.
Lack of sentimentality for dark-skinned people has been part
of an approach to foreign policy that prizes masculine toughness
and disparages any human empathy as feminine weakness. Kissinger
called for "a tough, even abrasive foreign policy" in
the aftermath of the Vietnam War to reclaim U.S. virility. The
pounding of Cambodia in the Mayaguez affair did not save American
lives, but, in Barry Goldwater's words, showed "we still
got some balls in this country." The Reagan administration
was particularly determined to restore the U.S. reputation for
manly ruthlessness. Accordingly, Grenada was invaded, as White
House aides admitted, so that the United States wouldn't be seen
as a paper tiger. And U.S. policy-makers openly spoke of challenging
Qaddafi's "manhood" to provoke him into an act that
would give Washington a chance to "stick it to him."
Testosterone poisoning has been a long-standing ailment of U.S.
officials, who have frequently invoked military responses to problems
that were susceptible to more pacific solutions.
Militarism and interventionism have also served the political
needs of U.S. presidents. When domestic policies are routinely
pursued that reduce the living standards of the average citizen
and redistribute wealth to the rich, a distraction that can get
the public to rally 'round the flag will provide a healthy boost
to presidential approval ratings. A quagmire like Vietnam can
be an administration's undoing, but there is nothing like a short
military operation against a hopelessly outclassed opponent to
enhance a president's popularity: witness the attacks on Grenada,
Libya, Panama, or Iraq.
The recent changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe
have been dramatic and profound, but they have had a negligible
impact on the fundamental roots of U.S. foreign policy. The capitalist
system functions essentially as before, and the prevailing ideology
of racism, sexism, and heterosexism is basically intact. Thus
the social forces that have driven U.S. interventionism in the
past will continue to spawn interventions in the aftermath of
the Cold War. But the changed international environment will likely
alter the pattern of U.S. interventionism.
In the past, the Soviet Union provided radical movements in
many U.S. client states with the material support they needed
to seriously challenge the regime in power. Moscow did this not
out of a deep commitment to radical ideals, but as a way to weaken
its global adversary-the United States. (The Kremlin did not come
to the aid of even pro-Soviet Communist parties who were ruthlessly
suppressed in Turkey in the 1920s or Egypt in the 1960s or Iraq
in the 1970s, because the regimes doing the suppressing were deemed
sufficiently anti-western.') Soviet support for some of the popular
insurgencies within the U.S. empire has often meant that the local
gendarme alone has been unable to maintain the status quo. And
when U.S. economic and military aid and U.S. covert operations
have not been enough to keep down popular unrest, more direct
forms of U.S. intervention have been employed. With the demise
of the Soviet Union, there will be fewer serious threats to the
survival of repressive regimes, and thus less need for direct
On the other hand, the Soviet Union also played a role in
inhibiting U.S. interventions during the Cold War. The presence
of Soviet naval vessels off the coast of India or in the Mediterranean
or the Persian Gulf raised the specter that the landing of U.S.
Marines in some Third World country might broaden into a superpower
confrontation. During the Cold War, the Pentagon sought to achieve
military superiority over the Soviet Union at every level of the
escalatory scale as a way to maintain U.S. freedom of action (that
is, freedom to intervene). Ship-board nuclear missiles and similar
weapons systems had no real military utility in an all-out U.S.-Soviet
conflict, but they were useful for discouraging Moscow from intervening
in Washington's interventions. Nevertheless, given that U.S. military
action against a Third World nation carried with it the risk of
a wider war, there is no doubt that the existence of a powerful
Soviet Union constrained U.S. interventions. This constraint is
The Cold War served the needs of the capitalist system in
Western Europe and Japan as well as in the United States. In Europe
and Japan, the U.S.-led anti-Soviet crusade helped to undermine
the appeal of the Communist Party and the Left more generally.
More importantly, U.S. action against those who would threaten
U.S. foreign investment often also protected the investment opportunities
of Japanese and European corporations. Only the United States
had the military ability to project force globally and only the
United States had the power to deter a Soviet counter-intervention.
So the European and Japanese allies deferred to U.S. leadership
in the Cold War though they often had to go along with policies
that benefited Washington far more than themselves.
Japanese and European subordination to the United States also
reflected the global preeminence of the U.S. economy in the years
following World War II. But U. S. economic primacy has declined
since the 1960s, and the allies have grown correspondingly independent.
The final end of the Cold War coincided with the end of U.S. economic
dominance. And thus, in the new post-Cold War world, U.S. allies
in Europe and Japan will be far less willing to accept Washington's
lead. The French government, for example, recently warned the
United States not to try to rule the world. For its part, the
U. S. government understands the new international realities.
Recent Pentagon planning documents (revised into more diplomatic
language after much criticism) defined the key U.S. objective
to be preventing the emergence of a new superpower. In the Middle
East, the overall goal was to "remain the predominant outside
power in the region."
Does this mean that the United States will soon be going to
war with the Europeans or Japan? No, but nor did the Cold War
mean that the United States went to war with Moscow. Nevertheless,
conflicts of interest among the capitalist powers may well result
in different ones of them supporting opposite sides in a civil
or local war. It will be difficult to invest these conflicts with
the same level of popular backing that the global campaign against
the Soviet Union enjoyed, but economic stagnation may yet provide
fertile ground for xenophobia. Anti-Japanese racism in the United
States and Japanese racism against minority groups in the United
States reflect and add to the growing tensions.
Because the capitalist nations do have more interests in common
than did the United States and the Soviet Union, U.S. interventions
in the future are more likely to be under the guise of collective
action. The U.S.-led coalition war against Iraq in 1991 was in
some ways the archetypical case of collective action in the post-Cold
War era. But the United Nations Security Council which Washington
was able to dominate during the Gulf War situation will come under
increasing pressure to more accurately reflect the actual power
distribution, if not the population distribution, of the world.
With Germany and Japan on the Council, chat body will be less
susceptible to U.S. control. Unless Third World representation
is increased as well, the United Nations will become a front for
the interests of the rich countries in situations where the interests
of the capitalist states coincide. Where these interests do not
coincide, interventions will be undertaken on a unilateral basis,
most often by the most powerful nation: the United States.
The focus on domestic issues in the U.S. presidential campaign
may suggest that foreign policy just isn't that important anymore,
that U.S. intervention no longer matters very much. But U.S. intervention
aims to maintain the global status quo, a status quo that consigns
much of the Earth's population, mostly people of color, to poverty
and misery. The eastern gulag may be gone, but millions of people
in the western empire live in literal slavery-in such nations
as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Pakistan, India, Mauritania,
and South Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, living
standards declined in absolute terms during the decade of the
1980s. Children have been particularly victimized: in many poor
countries the average weight-for-age of those under five has been
falling, spending on education has been declining, primary school
enrollments have dropped, and child prostitution is growing.
This is suffering on a massive scale. And it is perpetuated
by the interventions on behalf of the status quo on the part of
the United States and other rich nations. An end to these interventions
will not suddenly eliminate global poverty. But it would create
the space within which popular movements throughout the world
could confront the systemic roots of that poverty.
Stopping U.S. interventionism thus constitutes a continuing
moral imperative for those in the United States concerned with
peace and social justice. The U.S. government will try to build
public support for its interventionist policies by claiming it
is defending vital resources, human rights, or Americans in distress,
or preventing weapons proliferation, terrorism, or drug-trafficking.
But, ... these are just covers for policies motivated by the dynamics
of U. S. capitalism and a racist, sexist, and heterosexist ideology.