Intervention: Whose Gain? Whose
Strong Empire, Weak Republic,
A Dreadful Success
excerpted from the book
The Brutal Realities of U.S. Global
by Michael Parenti
City Lights Books, 1995, paper
Intervention: Whose Gain? Whose Pain?
Today, the United States is the foremost
proponent of recolonization and leading antagonist of revolutionary
change throughout the world. Emerging from World War II relatively
unscathed and superior to all other industrial countries in wealth,
productive capacity, and armed might, the United States became
the prime purveyor and guardian of global capitalism. Judging
by the size of its financial investments and military force, judging
by every imperialist standard except direct colonization, the
U.S. empire is the most formidable in history, far greater than
Great Britain in the nineteenth century or Rome during antiquity.
A Global Military Empire
The exercise of US. power is intended
to preserve not only the international capitalist system but U.S.
hegemony of that system. The Pentagon's "Defense Planning
Guidance" draft (1992) urges the United States to continue
to dominate the international system by "discouraging the
advanced industrialized nations from challenging our leadership
or even aspiring to a larger global or regional role." By
maintaining this dominance, the Pentagon analysts assert, the
United States can ensure "a market-oriented zone of peace
and prosperity that encompasses more than two-thirds of the world's
Since World War II, the U.S. government has given over $200 billion
in military aid to train, equip, and subsidize more than 2.3 million
troops and internal security forces in some eighty countries,
the purpose being not to defend them from outside invasions but
to protect ruling oligarchs and multinational corporate investors
from the dangers of domestic anticapitalist insurgency. Among
the recipients have been some of the most notorious military autocracies
in history, countries that have tortured, killed, or otherwise
maltreated large numbers of their citizens because of their dissenting
political views, as in Turkey, Zaire, Chad, Pakistan, Morocco,
Indonesia, Honduras, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, Cuba
(under Batista), Nicaragua (under Somoza), Iran (under the Shah),
the Philippines (under Marcos), and Portugal (under Salazar).
U.S. leaders profess a dedication to democracy.
Yet over the past five decades, democratically elected reformist
governments in Guatemala, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Brazil,
Chile, Uruguay, Syria, Indonesia (under Sukarno), Greece, Argentina,
Bolivia, Haiti, and numerous other nations were overthrown by
procapitalist militaries that were funded and aided by the U.S.
national security state.
The U.S. national security state has participated
in covert actions or proxy mercenary wars against revolutionary
governments in Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Portugal, Nicaragua,
Cambodia, East Timor, Western Sahara, and elsewhere, usually with
dreadful devastation and loss of life for the indigenous populations.
Hostile actions also have been directed against reformist governments
in Egypt, Lebanon, Peru, Iran, Syria, Zaire, Jamaica, South Yemen,
the Fiji Islands, and elsewhere.
Since World War II, U.S. forces have directly
invaded or launched aerial attacks against Vietnam, the Dominican
Republic, North Korea, Laos, Cambodia, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama,
Libya, Iraq, (_and Somalia, sowing varying degrees of death and
An important goal of U.S. policy is to make the world safe for
the Fortune 500 and its global system of capital accumulation.
Governments that strive for any kind of economic independence
or any sort of populist redistributive politics, that attempt
to take some of their economic surplus and apply it to not-for-profit
services that benefit the people-such governments are the ones
most likely to feel the wrath of U.S. intervention or invasion.
The designated "enemy" can be
a reformist, populist, military government as in Panama under
Torrijo (and even under Noriega), Egypt under Nasser, Peru under
Velasco, and Portugal after Salazar; a Christian socialist government
as in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas; a social democracy as in
Chile under Allende, Jamaica under Manley, Greece under Papandreou,
and the Dominican Republic under Bosch; a Marxist-Leninist government
as in Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea; an Islamic revolutionary
order as in Libya under Qaddafi; or even a conservative militarist
regime as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, if it should get out of
line on oil prices f and oil quotas.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, large
U.S. investments in Central America and the Caribbean brought
frequent military intercession, protracted war, prolonged occupation,
or even direct territorial acquisition, as with Hawaii, Puerto
Rico, and the Panama Canal Zone. The investments were often in
the natural resources of the country: sugar, tobacco, cotton,
and precious metals. In large part, the interventions in the Gulf
in 1991 ... were respectively to protect profits and oil prospects.
There is the overall commitment to safeguarding the global class
system, keeping the world's land, labor, natural resources, and
markets accessible to transnational investors. More important
than particular holdings is the whole process of investment and
profit. To defend that process the imperialist state thwarts and
crushes those popular movements that attempt any kind of redistributive
politics, sending a message to them and others that if they try
to better themselves by infringing upon the prerogatives of corporate
capital, they will pay a severe price.
Reagan's invasion of Grenada served notice to all other Caribbean
countries that this was the fate that awaited any nation that
sought to get out from under its client-state status. So the invaders
put an end to the New Jewel Movement's revolutionary programs
for land reform, health care, education, and cooperatives. Today,
with its unemployment at new heights and its poverty at new depths,
Grenada is once again firmly bound to the free market world. Everyone
else in the region indeed has taken note.
Washington's embargo against Cuba is shutting out U.S. business
from billions of dollars of attractive investment and trade opportunities.
From this it is mistakenly concluded that U.S. policy is not propelled
by economic interests. In fact, it demonstrates just the opposite,
an unwillingness to tolerate those states that try to free themselves
from the global capitalist system.
U.S. leaders must convince the American people that the immense
costs of empire are necessary for their security and survival.
For years we were told that the great danger we faced was "the
World Communist Menace with its headquarters in Moscow."
The public accepted a crushing tax burden to win the superpower
arms race and "contain Soviet aggression wherever it might
arise." Since the demise of the USSR, our political leaders
have been warning us that the world is full of other dangerous
adversaries, who apparently had been previously overlooked.
When Washington says "our" interests must be protected
abroad, we might question whether all of us are represented by
the goals pursued. Far-off countries, previously unknown to most
Americans, suddenly become vital to "our" interests.
To protect "our" oil in the Middle East and "our"
resources and "our" markets elsewhere, our sons and
daughters have to participate in overseas military ventures, and
our taxes are needed to finance these ventures.
The next time "our" oil in the
Middle East is in jeopardy, we might remember that relatively
few of us own oil stock. Yet even portfolio-deprived Americans
are presumed to have a common interest with Exxon and Mobil because
they live in an economy dependent on oil. It is assumed that if
the people of other lands wrested control of their oil away from
the big U.S. companies, they would refuse to sell it to us. Supposedly
they would prefer to drive us into the arms of competing producers
and themselves into ruination, denying themselves the billions
of dollars they might earn on the North American market.
In fact, nations that acquire control
of their own resources do not act so strangely. Cuba, Vietnam,
North Korea, Libya, and others would be happy to have access to
markets in this country, selling at prices equal to or lower than
those offered by the giant multinationals. So when Third World
peoples, through nationalization, revolution, or both, reclaim
the oil in their own land, or the copper, tin, sugar, or other
resources, it does not hurt the interests of the U.S. working
populace. But it certainly hurts the multinational conglomerates
that once profited so handsomely from these enterprises.
The governments of imperial nations may spend more than they take
in, but the people who reap the benefits are not the same ones
who foot the bill. As Thorstein Velbin pointed out in The Theory
of the Business Enterprise (1904), the gains of empire flow into
the hands of the privileged business class while the costs are
extracted from "the industry of the rest of the people."
The transnationals monopolize the private returns of empire while
carrying little, if any, of the public cost. The expenditures
needed in the way of armaments and aid to make the world safe
for General Motors, General Dynamics, General Electric, and all
the other generals are paid by the U.S. government, that is, by
... the cost of a particular U.S. intervention must be measured
not against the value of U.S. investments in the country involved
but against the value of the world investment system. It has been
noted that the cost of apprehending a bank robber may occasionally
exceed the sum that is stolen. But if robbers were allowed to
go their way, this would encourage others to follow suit and would
put the entire banking system in jeopardy.
At stake in these various wars of suppression,
then, is not just the investments in any one country but the security
of the whole international system of finance capital. No country
is allowed to pursue an independent course of self-development.
None is permitted to go unpunished and undeterred. None should
serve as an inspiration or source of material support to other
nations that might want to pursue a politico-economic path other
than the maldevelopment offered by global capitalism.
Once war comes, especially with the promise of a quick and easy
victory, some individuals suspend all critical judgment and respond
on cue like mindless superpatriots.
The CIA alone owns outright over 1 200 newspapers, magazines,
wire services, and publishing houses in countries throughout the
U.S. government-funded agencies like the
National Endowment for Democracy and the Agency for International
Development, along with the Ford Foundation and other such organizations,
help maintain Third World universities, providing money for academic
programs, social science institutes, research, student scholarships,
and textbooks supportive of a free market ideological perspective.
Right-wing Christian missionary agencies preach political quiescence
and anticommunism to native populations. The AFL-CIO's American
Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), with ample State
Department funding, has actively infiltrated Third World labor
organizations or built compliant unions that are more anticommunist
than proworker. AIFLD graduates have been linked to coups and
counterinsurgency work in various countries. Similar AFL-CIO undertakings
operate in Africa and Asia.
Strong Empire, Weak Republic
Multinationals do not have to pay U.S. taxes on profits made in
other countries until these profits are repatriated to the USA-if
ever they are. Taxes paid to a host country are treated as tax
credits rather than mere deductions here at home. In other words,
$1 million paid to a foreign country in taxes or even oil royalties
is not treated as a deduction of taxable income by the IRS (which
might save the company $100,000 or so in stateside taxes), but
is written off from the final taxes the company has to pay, saving
it an entire $1 million in payments.
In addition, multinationals can juggle
the books between their various foreign subsidiaries, showing
low profits in a high-tax country and high profits in a low-tax
country, thereby avoiding at least $20 billion a year in US. taxes.
The billions that corporations escape
paying because of their overseas shelters must be made up by the
rest of us. Additional billions of our tax dollars go into aid
programs to governments that maintain the cheap labor markets
that lure away American jobs. U.S. foreign aid seldom trickles
down to the poor people of the recipient countries. In fact, much
of it is military aid that is likely to be used to suppress dissent
among the poor.
We have heard much about the "refugees from communism";
we might think a moment about the refugees from capitalism. Driven
off their lands, large numbers of impoverished Latinos and other
Third Worlders have been compelled to flee into economic exile,
coming to the United States, many of them illegally, to compete
with U.S. workers for entry-level jobs. Because of their illegal
status and vulnerability to deportation, undocumented workers
are least likely to unionize and least able to fight for improvements
in work conditions.
For years the herbicides, pesticides, and hazardous pharmaceuticals
that were banned in this country have been sold by their producers
to Third World nations where regulations are weaker or nonexistent.
(In 1981, President Reagan repealed an executive order signed
by President Carter that would have forced exporters of such products
to notify the recipient nation that the commodity was banned in
For decades, over one hundred nuclear weapons plants have been
pouring radioactive waste into the air, soil, groundwater, and
rivers. The military is the single biggest consumer of fuel in
this country and the greatest polluter, contaminating the environment
with hundreds of thousands of tons of heavy metals, solvents,
lubricants, PCBs, plutonium, iridium, fuel runoffs. and other
The military creates over 90 percent of our radioactive waste
and stockpiles thousands of tons of lethal biochemical agents.
There are some 21,000 contaminated sites on military bases and
at nuclear weapons plants.
The empire increasingly impoverishes the republic. Operational
costs of global militarism may become so onerous as to undermine
the society that sustains them, such as has been the case with
empires in the past. Americans pay dearly for "our"
global military apparatus. The spending binge that the Pentagon
has been on for decades, especially the last fourteen years or
so, has created record deficits and a runaway national debt, making
the United States the largest debtor nation in the world. The
government is required to borrow more and more to pay the growing
interest on a debt that is owed to rich creditors at home and
Between 1948 and 1994, the federal government
spent almost $11 trillion on its military-more than the cumulative
monetary value of all human-made wealth in the United States.
The current Pentagon budget plus the military projects of the
Energy Department and NASA, foreign military aid, veterans' benefits,
and interest paid on past military debt comes to almost $500 billion
a year. The annual Pentagon budget is more than the gross national
product of almost every country in the world.
Most of our domestic financial woes can be ascribed to military
spending. The enormous scale of that spending is sometimes hard
to grasp. The cost of building one aircraft carrier could feed
several million of the poorest, hungriest children in America
for ten years. Greater sums have been budgeted for the development
of the Navy's submarine rescue vehicle than for occupational safety,
public libraries, and daycare centers combined. The cost of military
aircraft components and ammunition kept in storage by the Pentagon
is greater than the combined federal spending on pollution control,
conservation, community development, housing, occupational safety,
and mass transportation. The total expenses of the legislative
and judicial branches and all the regulatory commissions combined
constitute less than 1 percent of the Pentagon's yearly budget.
industries, and other areas of concentrated military investment.
r Because of the disproportionate amount spent on the military,
Americans must endure the neglect of environmental needs, the
financial insolvency and decay of our cities, the deterioration
of our transportation, education, and health care systems, and
the devastating effects of underemployment upon millions of households
and hundreds of communities. In addition, there are the frightful
social and psychological costs, the discouragement and decline
of public morale, the anger and suffering of the poor and the
not-so-poor, the militarization and violence of popular culture,
and the application of increasingly authoritarian solutions to
our social ills. Poverty can be found in the rich industrial nations
as well as in the Third World. In the richest of them all, the
United States, the number of people below the poverty level grew
in the last dozen years from twenty-four million to almost thirty-five
million, according to the government's own figures, which many
consider to be underestimations, thus making the poor the fastest
growing social group in the USA, rivaled only by the dramatic
growth of millionaires and billionaires.
In recent years, tuberculosis-a disease
of poverty-has made a big comeback. The House Select Committee
on Hunger found that kwashiorkor and marasmus diseases, caused
by severe protein and calorie deficiencies and usually seen only
in Third World countries, could now be found in the United States,
along with a rise in infant mortality in poor areas.
Those regions within the United States
that serve as surplus labor reserves or "internal colonies,"
such as Appalachia, poor Latino and African American communities,
Inuit Alaska, and Native-American Indian communities, manifest
the symptoms of Third World colonization, including chronic underemployment,
hunger, inadequate income, low levels of education, inferior or
nonexistent human services, absentee ownership, and extraction
of profits from the indigenous community. In addition, the loss
of skilled, good-paying manufacturing jobs, traditionally held
by white males, has taken a toll of working-class white communities
So when we talk of "rich nations"
and "poor nations" we must not forget that there are
millions of poor in the rich nations and thousands of rich in
the poor ones.
... propagandists dismiss criticisms of U.S. imperialism as manifestations
of a "Hate America" or "Blame America" syndrome.
But when we voice our disapproval of militarism, violent interventions,
and other particular policies, we are not attacking our nation
and its people; rather we are maintaining that we deserve something
better than the policies that currently violate the interests
of people at home and abroad.
A Dreadful Success
U.S. foreign policy has been remarkably successful in undermining
popular revolutions and buttressing conservative capitalist regimes
in every region of the world.
Many Americans recognize that politicians lie ... they loudly
proclaim a dedication to the people while quietly serving powerful
One repeatedly hears that U.S. leaders oppose communist countries
because they lack political democracy. But ... successive administrations
in Washington have supported some of the most repressive regimes
in the world, ones that regularly have indulged in mass arrests,
assassination, torture, and intimidation. In addition, Washington
has supported some of the worst right-wing counterrevolutionary
rebel cutthroats: Savimbi's UNITA in Angola, RENAMO in Mozambique,
the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and in the 1980s even the Pol Pot
lunatics who waged war against socialist Cambodia.
Consider the case of Cuba. We are asked
to believe that decades of U.S. hostility toward Cuba-including
embargo, sabotage, and invasion-have been motivated by a distaste
for the autocratic nature of the Castro government and a concern
for the freedoms of the Cuban people. Whence this sudden urge
to "restore" Cuban liberty? In the decades before the
Cuban Revolution of 1959, successive U.S. administrations backed
a brutally repressive autocracy headed by General Fulgencio Batista.
The significant but unspoken difference was that Batista was a
comprador leader who left Cuba wide open to U.S. capital penetration.
In contrast, Fidel Castro did away with private corporate control
of the economy, nationalized U.S. holdings, and renovated the
class structure in a more collectivized and egalitarian mode.
That is what made him so insufferable.
... capitalism is much more comfortable with fascism than with
... the question of foreign aid. It is misleading to say that
the United States, as a nation, gives aid to this or that country.
A nation as such does not give aid to another nation as such.
More precisely, the common citizens of our country, through their
taxes, give to the privileged elites of another country. As someone
once said: foreign aid is when the poor people of a rich country
give money to the rich people of a poor country. The transference
is across class lines as well as national lines, representing
an upward redistribution of income.
... the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Conference,
and the Trilateral Commission, all corporate-dominated, elite
policymaking bodies ...
... military spending happens to be one of the greatest sources
of domestic capita accumulation. represents a form of public expenditure
that business likes. When the government spends funds on the not-for-profit
sector of the economy such as the postal service, publicly-owned
railroads, or affordable homes and public hospitals-it demonstrates
how the public can create goods, services, and jobs and expand
the tax base, without need of private investor gain. Such spending
competes with the private market.
In contrast, missiles and aircraft carriers
constitute a form of public expenditure that does not compete
with the civilian market. A defense contract is like any other
business contract, only better. The taxpayers' money covers all
production risks. Unlike a refrigerator manufacturer who has to
worry about selling his refrigerators, a weapons manufacturer
has a product that already has been contracted, complete with
guaranteed cost overruns. In addition, the government picks up
most of the research and development costs.
Defense spending opens up an area of demand
that is potentially limitless. How much military security or supremacy
is enough? There are always new weapons that can be developed.
The entire arms industry has a built-in obsolescence. Not long
after a multibillion-dollar weapons system is produced, technological
advances make it obsolete and in need of updating or replacement.
Furthermore, most military contracts are
awarded without competitive bidding, so arms manufacturers pretty
much get the price they ask for. Hence, the temptation is to develop
weapons and supplies that are ever more elaborate and costly-and
therefore ever more profitable. Such products are not necessarily
the most efficient or sensible. Many perform poorly. But poor
performance has its own rewards in the form of additional allocations
to get weapons to work the way they should.
In sum, defense contractors enjoy a rate
of return substantially higher than what is usually available
on the civilian market. No wonder corporate leaders are in no
hurry to cut military spending. What they have is a limitless,
low-risk, high-profit, multibillion-dollar cornucopia. Arms spending
bolsters the entire capitalist system, even as it impoverishes
the not-for-profit public sector. These, then, are the two basic
reasons why the United States assiduously remains an armed superpower
even though lacking the pretext of an opposing superpower: First,
a massive military establishment is needed to keep the world safe
for global capital accumulation. Second, a massive ) military
itself is a direct source of immense capital accumulation .
Michael Parenti page