The Truth Behind US Foreign Policy
Violence for Power and Profit
by Henry Rosemont, Jr.
Resist newsletter, July / August 1999
When looked at only superficially, US foreign policy since
the end of the Cold War has seemed directionless at best, inconsistent
at the worst. Why do we celebrate the Chinese government one moment,
berate it the next? Why did we intervene in Somalia, but not Rwanda?
Why Panama but not Colombia, Iraq but not Iran, Kosovo but not
Kurdistan? A closer examination of those policies, however, going
back to the end of World War II and even before, reveals a very
definite and consistent pattern, but one that is painful for American
citizens to reflect upon deeply because of the brutalities committed
in our names.
The US has intervened well over 100 times in the internal
affairs of other nation states since 1945. The rhetoric has been
that we have done so largely to preserve or restore freedom and
democracy, or for purely humanitarian reasons. The reality has
been that our policies have not done so, but on the contrary,
have been consistently designed and implemented to further the
interests of US (now largely transnational) corporations, and
the elites both at home and abroad who profit from corporate depredations.
These policies- often illegal, always unjust-have been enormously
successful, so long as we ignore the incalculable suffering endured
by tens of millions of innocent peoples the world over as the
price paid for "success."
Results of Intervention
Lest this claim be dismissed at the outset as too strong,
attempt the following: from among our 100-plus interventions,
try to find one in which the great majority of the people in the
affected states were not far worse off after than before the intervention.
Where have freedom and democracy been strengthened rather than
stifled? Where have the "humanitarian" efforts been
Certainly not in those countries where we saw to the overthrow
of democratically elected governments-e.g., Iran, 1953; Guatemala,
1954; Chile, 1973-and installed reactionary royalty and murderous
military in their stead: the Shah, right-wing generals, and Augusto
Pinochet. And surely no sane person would maintain that even in
those countries whose governments we sought to replace which were
not democratically elected were their peoples in any way better
off for our efforts, including such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba,
These examples are only among the more well-known cases of
US actions contributing directly to unspeakable horrors being
visited on millions of innocent people, most of them poor. However,
in order to comprehend the full extent of US responsibility for
human suffering through its foreign policies, it is necessary
to see that intervention can take many forms.
Forms of US Intervention
For example, the US government did not directly attempt to
destabilize the Indonesian government of President Sukarno in
1965 (although we did try seven years earlier). But we made it
clear to General Suharto and his fellow thugs how much we appreciated
their hard-line stance against the Indonesian Communist Party
(PKI), which was legally contesting elections. And after Suharto's
thugs overthrew Sukarno themselves, the US supplied them not only
with much weaponry, but also the names of suspected PKI members
compiled by our intelligence sources, which insured that the blood-bath
which ensued after the coup would destroy the PKI and other progressive
organizations once for all. By even the most conservative estimates,
Suharto's regime slaughtered more than 500,000 people (mostly
This, too, is intervention. And we did it again in Indonesia
a decade later, when we let Suharto know that we had no objection
to his invading East Timor after the Portuguese withdrew from
their former colony. The invasion probably couldn't have wrought
the havoc it did on the Timorese people without, again, the weaponry
(and training in how to use it) supplied to the Indonesian army
by the US
Indonesia is by no means a solitary case of this more covert
type of intervention; we have engaged in it everywhere from Italy
and Greece to Afghanistan to the Congo (opposing Lumumba) and
Angola (supporting Savimbi). Covert intervention has been the
norm in our dealings with Latin American countries since World
War II (before then we simply invaded them when we didn't approve
of their governments).
Moreover, this second type of intervention is ongoing: the
Colombian government is murdering its citizens by the thousands
with US support, which we also supply to the Turks in their"
ethnic cleansing" campaigns against the Kurds. The effect
in both cases is profound, especially the latter, in which 80%
of Turkey's armaments have "Made in the USA" stamped
on them. These weapons have been used to destroy more than 3,500
Kurd villages and displace at least 2.5 million people since 1991-
roughly seven times the numbers estimated for Kosovo.
Direct and Indirect Killing
It is important for activists to appreciate the difference
between the invasive and the covert forms of intervention. In
order to aid the Kosovars being slaughtered by the murderous Serb
regime, we must ourselves directly engage in slaughter. On the
other hand, to aid the Kurds being massacred by the murderous
Turk regime we must work to have our government stop aiding and
abetting the even greater slaughter (which is very different from
A third pattern of US foreign policy which may legitimately
be considered interventionist is the systematic attempt to isolate
"rogue states" when other efforts are unsuccessful,
inconvenient or potentially embarrassing. After more direct actions
in Cuba failed to topple the Castro government (the Bay of Pigs
invasion, CIA Mafia attempts to assassinate him, etc.), the economic
sanctions were strengthened and enforced with a vengeance, continuing
to this day.
In Vietnam, not only did we renege on Kissinger's promise
to help rebuild the country after the war, we placed enormous
diplomatic and economic pressures on all countries outside the
Soviet bloc not to do so either. We continue to isolate Iraq (coupled
with occasional bombings of the country in the "no-fly"
zones). The manifold miseries accompanying these sanctions obviously
fall disproportionately on the civilian peoples in the affected
countries, especially the poor, the children, the sick, and the
elderly. What is humanitarian about such policies? How do they
promote freedom and democracy?
Betting on the Wrong Sides
Against this indictment, apologists for the foreign policy
establishment will allow that some mistakes were made, of course,
but that our motives were pure. "We meant well," they
insist, "but simply supported the wrong side at times."
Such apologies appeal to us as a way to assuage our consciences,
because the alternative suggests that we should feel a profound
sense of shame for the atrocities committed in our name.
But it is anger and not shame that is called for. The record
shows fairly clearly that we have always supported the "wrong
side," and worse, much evidence was available at the time
of intervention to suggest support for the other side-which simultaneously
shows the extent to which apologies for US foreign policies necessitated
a great suppression of information, even greater distortion of
the "facts," and much outright Iying to the American
For example, the liberation of the "Pentagon Papers"
by Daniel Ellsberg created a stir largely because they showed
the CIA had done its intelligence-gathering job well in Vietnam,
making clear to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that:
1) the Diem and Thieu governments, and ARVN military-which we
supported to the bitter end-were hopelessly corrupt and brutal;
2) the National Liberation Front (NLF) leadership and cadres (the
Viet Cong) were much less corrupt, and were indigenous South Vietnamese,
not infiltrators from the North; 3) the NLF enjoyed twice the
support as the ARVN (roughly 25% to 12%, with the remaining two-thirds
of the people in the best tradition of ancient peasant wisdom
seeing all governments simply as tax collectors; and 4) there
was no evidence linking the NLF or the North to China.
If genuinely motivated by good will then, the US might have
developed a policy of actively supporting the NLF, providing it
with the food, medicines, books, walking tractors, fertilizers,
building materials and much else that neither the North, nor China,
nor the Soviet Union could provide, and in that way assist the
NLF in promoting the economic development of South Vietnam. Instead
we destroyed the NLF, making the occupation of the entire country
by Northern forces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Well over two million
Vietnamese (by US estimates) died in the process, along with 58,000
US troops; elements of Agent Orange and land mines continue to
plague the country a quarter of a century later.
The Nicaraguan Example
There are numerous other examples of where history would read
very differently today had we not supported "the wrong side"-Greece
in 1947, China two years later, Cuba a decade after that, etc.
but one more recent case can stand duty for many.
During the early 1980s, Oxfam praised the Sandinista government
for the support and assistance it gave the organization in its
humanitarian relief efforts in Nicaragua. Amnesty International
described some human rights abuses there, but noted that they
were far fewer in number and ferocity than in any other Central
American country at the time, save Costa Rica. And the unremitting
repression of the three decades-long Somoza regime which the Sandinistas
overthrew was admitted on all sides.
Yet when the issue of Nicaragua came before the US Congress,
the only question for discussion was whether or not to continue
supporting the Contras which had been initiated by the Reagan
administration. That is to say, out of 535 members of the US Congress,
not one asked: why don't we support the Sandinistas (as the Nicaraguan
people did in the 1984 elections)? Instead of supporting the democratically
elected government, we continued to supply the Contras covertly,
pumped money into the later elections sufficient to defeat the
Sandinistas, and since then have altogether ignored the Nicaraguan
peoples whose lives are now the most miserable in all of Central
These examples are not intended to suggest that the many insurgent
groups the US has violently opposed since World War II were composed
solely of saints; clearly they were not. Rather the examples are
intended to show, first, that the preponderance of evidence available
at the times of intervention suggested those insurgent groups
were far more worthy of humanitarian support than their opponents
(whom we did support). The examples also raise a troubling question:
how much less authoritarian might these groups have subsequently
been had we supported, rather than endeavored to subvert, them?
The Wages of War
This all-too-hurried sketch of US foreign policy could be
elaborated at length, but should suffice to generate great suspicion
about all stated reasons for US intervention abroad, past and
present. However, all that has been (minimally) argued thus far
is that the stated reasons are almost uniformly false; what are
the real reasons for our manifold interventions?
These reasons will of course be many and varied, depending
on the details of time and place, but they will share the goals
of enhancing US corporate interests, or at the minimum, blocking
real or imagined threats to these interests. Before turning to
specific examples, it might be useful to consider the relationship
between the corporations and the government for a moment.
The globalization of the world's economies is currently too
often being described as eliminating nation states in favor of
the untrammeled power of transnational companies, and this is
highly misleading; these companies, especially the US-owned ones,
would collapse in months, if not weeks, without the active support
of the US government.
To be sure, the recently shelved (but not forgotten) Multilateral
Agreement on Investment would weaken considerably the governments
of nation-states, but only in one area: the regulation of commerce.
The MAI would surely restrict the ability of governments to check
capital flight, restrict currency trading, enact minimum wage
and environmental protection laws, and much else that might impede
the flow of profits. All of these measures are of course threats
to equality, justice, and democracy, and progressives should be
vigilant in looking for the return of the MAI, and struggle against
it when it again rears its ugly head.
But this is the only area in which the corporations wish an
emasculated government. Without a bloated military budget, not
only would Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Grumman, Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin
be in trouble, but the automobile companies as well, plus the
oil companies, the majority of hi-tech firms, and the major suppliers
of all these firms.
And the corporations need much more. Profits would be much
lower if they had to build and maintain the roads, electric, water,
and sewage lines to their plants, run a public transportation
system for their workers (or customers), and so on, and were not
consistently the recipients of tax breaks.
At the international level, US corporations need the government
to ensure that target countries are "safe for investment"
(no movements for freedom and democracy), that loans will be repaid,
contracts kept, and international law respected (but only when
it is useful to do so). It is also the task of the US government
to create and maintain markets overseas for US goods, and to protect
the corporations from genuine competition from abroad whenever
it is feasible to do so.
Finally, the US government must remain on constant standby
to rescue US corporations when their mismanagement becomes conspicuous,
from consistently subsidizing agribusiness, to the Chrysler bailout,
to a bill currently before the House to provide a $1.5 billion
loan guarantee to steel corporations that are not competitive
with Japan or Taiwan, even though the wage differential is slight
(and in the case of Japan, favors the US).
Seen in this light, it can be said that no one knows whether
the "free market" could work in the US, for it has never
been practiced; corporations have needed the active intervention
of the government since industrialization began. Different corporations
may have somewhat different interests at times, and hence vie
to influence governmental policies. What remains of American manufacturing,
for example, in coordination with the AFL-CIO, must press the
Clinton administration for an international minimum wage law;
the likes of Nike, Mattel, and Wal-Mart must press equally hard
against it. But the overall point remains: all corporations want,
and desperately need, massive government activity in order to
Kosovo and Serbia
Returning now more directly to foreign policy, we may examine
the most recent interventionist action of the US government, the
bombing of Kosovo and Serbia. At first blush it would appear that
this is a counterexample to the claims of foreign policy solely
serving corporate economic interests, for Serbian and Kosovar
markets are negligible; they manufacture nothing that competes
well with US or European goods; no large oil reserves are there,
and the strategic importance of the area seems minimal.
The historical precedents enumerated above should generate
skepticism that we might have intervened for humanitarian principles,
but even if they are ignored, surely the government did not act
on behalf of the suffering Albanian Kosovars, for if so, at the
least it would not have informed their killers in advance that
we would only oppose them from a minimum altitude of 15,000 feet.
Moreover, that the Kosovars would suffer much more after the bombing
began was, according to military intelligence, "predictable."
And so it was. By the time the accords were signed, at least
700,000 Kosovars had died, been wounded, or displaced by the Milosevic
gang of killers and NATO. The bombing itself killed at least 1,200
civilians and 5,000 Serbian soldiers. The agreements reached were
worse for the Kosovars than the earlier Rambouillet Accords, and
in the end, there is precious little left in Kosovo to await the
return of its citizens. As one reporter on the scene noted, "Large
areas of Mitrovica and Pristina, two Kosovar cities, look like
a cross between Kristallnacht and the blitzkrieg. What wasn't
burned and looted by Serbian soldiers and para-militaries in those
nights of fury after March 24 has been seen to by the NATO bombs."
Aims of Kosovo Intervention
NATO bombs" move us closer to the aims of the intervention.
The first aim was to ignore the United Nations and thus diminish
its power. This will cause resentment on the part of virtually
all member states, and severely strain relations with Russia and
China; a small price for the US to pay, however, for weakening
the organization, because a strong UN would clearly place constraints
on the ability of the world's sole superpower to do whatever it
wished, wherever and whenever it wished to. (If we wanted a strong
UN, we would pay our back dues, increase our dues, and stop vetoing
so many measures in the Security Council).
NATO, on the other hand, was an entirely different matter.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, no credible threat to the
security of Western Europe or the United States remained. But
ending the alliance would be disastrous for a number of reasons.
First, it would in all probability result in a call to reduce
significantly the US military budget, which transnational corporations
can't allow to happen (see above).
Equally important, the US dominates NATO, and it is one of
our major entries into European affairs. A solid European Union
might not be so compliant with US policies as the government would
wish; they might even become a more independent competitive economic
bloc, and worse, endorse and support genuine development in the
poorer nations of the world (per capita, the citizens of the Scandinavian
countries give thirty times as much in development aid as their
Hence NATO had to have something to do to celebrate its semi-centennial,
and with much fanfare they did it in Kosovo. They certainly weren't
about to do anything in Turkey, despite the parallelisms between
the Kurds and the Kosovars. Turkey is itself a member of NATO,
provides a splendid counterweight to an uppity Iran (and Iraq),
and, again, is the recipient of great stores of US-made weaponry.
Hence the propaganda ministry-a.k.a. the standard media-had to
keep the plight of the Kosovars on page one for months and ignore
completely what was, and is, being done to the Kurds.
In much the same way, other US interventionist actions-from
the overt occupation of parts of Somalia to the more subtle support
for Barak against Netanyahu in the recent Israeli elections can
be seen to be neither directionless nor inconsistent, so long
as it is borne in mind that major corporations need a very strong
US government abroad no less than at home which can be relied
upon to serve their interests. (Despite seeming inconsistencies,
even our policies toward China are not an exception to this generalization,
but the analysis thereof would be a lengthy one).
Need for Hope and Action
To conclude, once media propaganda and academic apologia are
set aside, the history of US foreign policy can be seen for what
it is: an almost unremitting catalogue of horrors for a great
many millions of the world's peoples.
But the catalogue must be read with hope, and a commitment
to struggle for fundamental change, not as a counsel of despair,
or to generate feelings of helplessness. Hope, because the historical
record shows that despite our strong and consistent support for
the Batistas, Diems, Pinochets, and Suhartos of this world, insurgent
groups committed to justice arose, and successfully challenged
them in several instances. And surely similar insurgencies against
US-supported authoritarian governments will rise again, because
the thirst for justice and freedom is unquenchable.
It thus behooves all US citizens of good will to champion
neither violent intervention in other countries nor some form
of "neo-isolationism," but rather to struggle for fundamental
changes in the three interventionist patterns of our foreign policy.
This struggle is necessary for two reasons. First, until change
comes about the US budget will continue to be tilted heavily toward
the military, rather than in support of the millions among us
who do not live the American dream, but a nightmare: with fully
a fifth of our children growing up in dire poverty, we do not
need to spend money for cluster-bombs to rain on Kosovo, or anywhere
Second, the peoples of the world who currently endure the
suffering caused by US foreign policies can only look to us to
alleviate their misery. With the collapse of the Soviet Union,
and a currently weak UN, the only possible check on US brutality
lies with its own citizenry. Unlike a great many others who struggle
for justice and freedom, US citizens can change their government
without having to put their lives at stake in an armed uprising.
The odds are long, but it can be done, and much of the world must
depend on us to do it.
In this spirit, it is perhaps appropriate to end by quoting
from the first Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority, which went
forth 32 years ago, inspiring a great many readers of this publication,
as well as their parents and older friends. Active struggle for
fundamental change must be undertaken until such time as "the
US ceases to be a terror in the politics among nations."
Now, more than ever, is the time to Resist.
Henry Rosemont, Jr., is a member of Resist s Board of Directors
and teaches at St. Mary s College of Maryland.