Stealth Imperialism

excerpted from the book


The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

by Chalmers Johnson

Henry Holt, 2000


Every now and then ... America's responsibility for its imperial policies briefly comes into public view. One such moment occurred on July 17, 1998, in Rome, when, by a margin of 120 to 7, delegates from the nations of the world voted to establish an international criminal court to bring to justice soldiers and political leaders charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. This court will differ from the International Court of Justice in The Hague in that, unlike the older court, which can settle disputes only among nations, it will have jurisdiction over individuals. As a result, efforts like those to bring Bosnian and Rwandan war criminals to justice, which today need specially constituted U.N. tribunals, will be far easier. The new court will put on trial individuals who commit or order atrocities comparable to those of the Nazis during World War II, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Hutus in Rwanda, or military governments like those of El Salvador, Argentina, Chile, Honduras, Guatemala, Burma, and Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s.

Leading democracies of the world, including Britain, Canada, Holland, France, Japan, and Germany, supported the treaty. Only Algeria, China, Israel, Libya, Qatar, Yemen, and the United States voted against it.

The terms of the treaty setting up the court specifically include as war crimes rape, forced pregnancy, torture, and the forcible recruitment of children into the military. The United States objected to including these acts within the court's jurisdiction, claiming that the court should concern itself only with genocide. The French at first joined the United States in opposing the treaty because French troops had trained the Hutu-controlled Rwandan military, which in 1993 and 1994 helped organize the massacres of some eight hundred thousand people belonging to the Tutsi tribe. France feared that its officers and men could be charged with complicity in genocide. After a clause was added to the treaty allowing signatories to exempt themselves from the court's jurisdiction for its first seven years, France said that its fears had been assuaged and agreed to sign.

This escape clause was still not enough for the United States. Its representative held that because the "world's greatest military and economic power . . . is expected" to intervene in humanitarian catastrophes wherever they occur, this "unique position" makes its personnel especially vulnerable to the mandate of an international criminal court capable of arresting and trying individuals. He did not deal with the question of whether war crimes charges against Americans might on some occasions be warranted, nor did he, of course, raise the possibility that if his country intervened less often in the affairs of other states where none of its vital interests were involved, it might avoid the possibility of even a capricious indictment.

At Nuremberg, the United States pioneered the idea of holding governmental leaders responsible for war crimes, and it is one of the few countries that has an assistant secretary of state for human rights. Its pundits and lawmakers endlessly criticize other nations for failing to meet American standards in the treatment of human beings under their jurisdiction. No country has been more active than the United States in publicizing the idea of "human rights," even if it has been notably silent in some cases, ignoring, implicitly condoning, or even endorsing acts of ~ ate terrorism by regimes with which it has been closely associated.

The American government displays one face to its own people (and its English-speaking allies) but another in areas where the support of repressive governments seems necessary to maintain American imperial dominance. Whenever this contradiction is revealed, as at Rome, Americans try to cover it up with rhetoric about the national burden of being the "indispensable nation," or what the Council on Foreign Relations calls the world's "reluctant sheriff."

Only seven months before the Rome vote, there was another moment when the nature of America's stealth imperialism was revealed. In December 1997, in Ottawa, 123 nations pledged to ban the use, production, or shipment of antipersonnel land mines. Retired American military leaders like General Norman Schwarzkopf, commanding general of allied forces in the Gulf War, have endorsed the ban, arguing that these primitive but lethal weapons have no role in modem warfare. The Clinton administration, however, bowed to military vested interests desperate to retain land mines in the American arsenal. Among other things, it insisted that land mines were needed to protect South Korea against the "North's overwhelming military advantage," itself a myth. The holdouts against this agreement were Afghanistan, China, Russia (which later reversed its position), Vietnam-and the United States. An American citizen, Jody Williams of Putney, Vermont, would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in organizing nations and various lobbying groups like the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation to work toward ending the use of this "garbage weapon"-a phrase from Robert Muller, another American and a Vietnam veteran wounded by a land mine, who set in motion the movement that resulted in the treaty. The Clinton administration felt so embarrassed by its vote that in May 1998 it convened its own Conference on Global Humanitarian Demining at the State Department in a public relations attempt to improve its image. Only twenty-one countries attended.

There are today between sixty million and one hundred million deployed land mines in some sixty countries around the world (at least ten million in Cambodia alone and another nine million in Angola). They cost on average about three dollars apiece to produce. They kill some twenty-six thousand people a year, primarily civilians in developing countries, and they have been responsible for the deaths of more people than all the weapons of mass destruction combined.

It is not just a matter of personal courage. The relationship between the civilian elite that runs this country and its powerful military has undergone a sea change since the 1950s. It is now increasingly likely that a congressman, a senator, a state department official, even a president will not have served in the military. The draft-deferment system during the Vietnam War signaled the early stages of this process, in which promising students and professionals-mainly middle- or upperclass young men-were kept out of Vietnam in the name of national security and the nation's welfare, while the poor and working-class largely fought the war. Both President Clinton and his secretary of defense William Cohen enjoyed student deferments during Vietnam (Cohen had a marital one as well), and neither served in the armed forces. In the wake of Vietnam, with the military transformed into a purely volunteer career choice, the gap between the experiences of the civilian and the military hierarchies has only widened-and with the threat of the former USSR ended, the fact is that the military has for the first time begun to slip beyond civilian control.

In 1987 ... the government created a new Special Operations Command headquartered in Tampa, Florida, and placed it under an equally new assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. The command's purpose was to consolidate and coordinate the activities of the forty-seven thousand "special forces" groups scattered across the military's complex organizational charts, including the army's Green Berets, Rangers, and covert Delta Force; the Navy's SEALS and covert Team 6; and the special operations and commando

units of the air force and the Marine Corps. One of the sponsors of this new structure was William Cohen, then a Republican senator from Maine, whose "keen interest in special operations" Washington Post reporter Dana Priest has noted "dates back decades." Some military professionals and observers discount special operations because they do not rely on traditional military subdivisions and because they cost so little money compared with carrier task forces or B-2 bombers. Their political clout, however, vastly exceeds their budgetary needs and they were in no way "downsized" after the end of the Cold War. These covert units work closely with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Programs like the ClA's efforts at an army base in Colorado and in Okinawa until 1968 to train some four hundred Tibetan exiles to fight the Chinese or the ClA's vast operations in supplying weapons to guerrillas harassing the Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s have now been turned over to the Special Operations Command.

In 1991, Congress inadvertently gave the military's special forces a green light to penetrate virtually every country on earth. It passed a law (Section 2011, Title 10) authorizing something called the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program. This allowed the Department of Defense to send special operations forces on overseas exercises with military units of other countries so long as the primary purpose of the mission was stated to be the training of our soldiers, not theirs. The law did not indicate what JCET exercises should train these troops to do, but one purpose was certainly to train them in espionage. They return from such exercises loaded with information about and photographs of the country they have visited, and with new knowledge of its military units, terrain, and potential adversaries. As of 1998 the Special Operations Command had established JCET missions in 110 countries.

The various special forces have interpreted this law as an informal invitation to train foreign military forces in numerous lethal skills, as well as to establish relationships with their officer corps aimed at bringing them on board as possible assets for future political operations. Most of this has been done without any oversight by Congress, the State Department, or ambassadors in the countries where JCET exercises have been conducted. As a series of expose articles in the Washington Post indicated in 1998, most members of the foreign policy apparatus had never even heard of JCET, and the assistant secretary of defense in charge of these special operations was noticeably vague in his answers to congressional questions about the programs.

It has only slowly come to light, for instance, that in JCET exercises Americans offered crucial training to the Turkish mountain commandos, who in their ongoing operations against their country's rebellious Kurdish population have killed at least twenty-two thousand people; that during 1998 multiple special forces operations were carried out in each of the nineteen countries of Latin America and in nine Caribbean nations; and that United States special forces units have given training in such skills as advanced sniper techniques, close-quarters combat, military operations in urban terrain, and psychological warfare operations to military units in Colombia, Rwanda, Surinam, Equatorial Guinea, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Papua New Guinea, among other nations. In each of these cases, they were acting in violation of U.S. human rights policies and sometimes of direct presidential or congressional prohibitions...

The Washington Post obtained a copy of a 1990 Department of Defense manual entitled Doctrine for Special Forces Operations, which describes the main activity of special forces on JCET missions as giving instruction in FID, or "foreign internal defense." In other words, most of the training exercises are meant to prepare foreign militaries for actions against their own populaces or rebel forces in their countries. The manual defines FID as organizing, training, advising, and assisting a foreign military establishment in order to protect its society from "subversion, lawlessness, and insurgency."

... Stripped of its euphemistic language, FID amounts to little more than instruction in state terrorism. Republican representative Christopher Smith, chairman of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, says, "Our joint exercises and training of military units-that have been charged over and over again with the gravest kind of crimes against humanity, including torture and murder-cry out for explanation." But the U.S. secretary of defense seems to be unconcerned. "In those areas where our forces conduct JCET," Secretary Cohen averred, L "they encourage democratic values and regional stability."

The IMF ... is staffed primarily with holders of Ph.D.s in economics from American universities, who are both illiterate about and contemptuous of cultures that do not conform to what they call the American way of life." They offer only "one size (or, rather, one capitalism) fits all" remedies for ailing economic institutions. The IMF has applied these over the years to countries in Latin America, Russia, and East Asia without ever achieving a single notable success.

The Pentagon's most recent route around accountability is: "privatization" of its training activities. As investigative journalist Ken Silverstein has written, "With little public knowledge or debate, the government has been dispatching private companies-most of them with tight links to the Pentagon and staffed by retired armed forces personnel-to provide military and police training to America's foreign allies." The companies involved are generally associated with the Department of Defense's Special Operations Command, which has replaced the ClA's Directorate of Operations as the main American sponsor of covert action in other countries. Nonetheless, these are privately contracted mercenaries who, by their nature, are not directly responsible to the military chain of command. In many cases, these private companies have been formed by retired special forces personnel seeking to market their military training to foreign governments, regardless of the policies of the Defense Department.

One reason privatization appeals to the Pentagon is that whatever these companies do becomes "proprietary information." The Pentagon does not even have to classify it; and as private property, information on the activities of such companies is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Given the extreme legalism of American political culture, this is sufficient to shield such companies from public scrutiny, although it would probably not protect them from the new international criminal court. Private companies are at present training the armies of Croatia and Saudi Arabia and are active in Honduras, Peru, and many other Latin American countries. Such firms also purchase weaponry from former Soviet states for distribution to groups that the U.S. government may want to arm without being accused of doing so, such as guerrillas fighting for Bosnia and in Kosovo.

... By several orders of magnitude the United States maintains the world's largest military establishment and is the world's biggest arms exporter. According to 1995 figures released by the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (whose very name is an Orwellian misnomer and which, in 1998, was absorbed by the State Department), the world spent $864 billion on military forces. Of this amount, the United States accounted for $278 billion, or 32 percent, some 3.7 times more than the then second-ranked country, Russia. The most dramatic cuts in military spending since 1987, the all-time peak year, when $1.36 trillion worth of arms passed from manufacturers to buyers, have come from Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports that in 1997 the U.S. share of global deliveries of major conventional weapons, worth about $740 billion, had grown to 43 percent whereas Russia's share was 14 percent.

In 1997, total worldwide military and arms spending was approximately one-third lower than ten years ago, at the end of the Cold War. Nonetheless, in addition to being the world leader in arms transfers, the United States continues to dominate the development of military technology. According to SIPRI, the U.S. military research and development budget was more than seven times that of second-place France. In 1997, SIPRI found that the world spent $58 billion on military R&D, of which the United States spent $37 billion. In terms of overall national military spending, the Pentagon's most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, concluded in May 1997, envisaged defense budgets in the range of $250-260 billion until the end of time-an amount vastly greater than anything that might be spent by any conceivable combination of adversaries. The defense budget for the year 2000 was $267.2 billion, plus augmentations in order to pay for the Kosovo war.

Together with NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Israel, the United States accounts for 80 percent of the world's total military spending. In 1995, the United States alone outspent Russia, China, Iraq, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Cuba combined, by a ratio of two to one; with its allies, it outstripped all potential adversaries by a ratio of four to one. If the comparison is restricted to only those countries considered regional threats by the Pentagon-the "rogue states" of Iraq, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Cuba-the United States outspent them twenty-two to one.

Interestingly enough, maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil requires about $50 billion of the annual U.S. defense budget, including maintenance of one or more carrier task forces there, protecting sea lanes, and keeping large air forces in readiness in the area. But the oil we import from the Persian Gulf costs only a fifth that amount, about $11 billion per annum. Middle Eastern oil accounts for 10 percent of U.S. consumption, 25 percent of Europe's, and half of that of Japan, which contributes in inverse proportion to maintaining a G-7 military presence there. It is not that Europe and Japan are incapable of securing their own oil supplies through commercial treaties, diplomacy, or military activity, but that America's global hegemony makes it unnecessary for them to do so.

One of the things this huge military establishment also does is sell arms to other countries, making the Pentagon a critical economic agency of the United States government. Militarily oriented products account for about a quarter of the total U.S. gross domestic product. The government employs some 6,500 people just to coordinate and administer its arms sales program in conjunction with senior officials at American embassies around the world, who spend most of their "diplomatic" careers working as arms salesmen. The Arms Export Control Act requires that the executive branch notify Congress of foreign military and construction sales directly negotiated by he Pentagon. Commercial sales valued at $14 million or more negotiated by the arms industry must also be reported. Using official Pentagon statistics, between 1990 and 1996 the combination of the three categories amounted to $97,836,821,000. From this nearly $100 billion figure must be subtracted the $3 billion a year the government offers its foreign customers to help subsidize arms purchases from the United States.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the five leading arms suppliers for the period 1993 through 1997 were the United States, Russia, England, France, and Germany, though total American sales were some $14 billion greater than those of the other four combined. SIPRI has found that the five leading arms purchasers for that period were Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Turkey, Egypt, and South Korea, each of which spent between $5 billion and $10 billion on arms over this five-year period. Japan was the second-biggest purchaser of high-tech weapons. All the leading purchasers were close American allies or clients.

Both the United States government and the world's arms dealers claim that the arms trade has declined since 1987, the benchmark year for the Cold War. However, this "decline" is based almost entirely on declining arms sales by the former Soviet bloc-and it is likely that the 1987 estimates of arms sales by the former Soviet Union were as inflated as the estimates of, for example, the Soviet naval threat during the 1980s. American arms sales in any case have actually increased in the years since the Cold War ended. By 1995, according to its own Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the United States was the source of 49 percent of global arms exports. It shipped arms of various types to some 140 countries, 90 percent of which were either not democracies or are human rights abusers.

Arms sales are ... a major cause of a developing blowback world whose price we have yet to begin to pay.

In many cases, for instance, the United States has been busily arming opponents in ongoing conflicts-Iran and Iraq, Greece and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and China and Taiwan. Saddam Hussein of Iraq, the number-one "rogue" leader of the 1990s, was during the 1980s simply an outstanding customer with an almost limitless line of credit because of his country's oil reserves. Often the purchasing country makes its purchases conditional on the transfer of technology and patents, so that it can ultimately manufacture the items for itself and others. The result is the proliferation around the world not just of weapons but of new weapons industries. On January 10, 1995, former CIA director James Woolsey told Congress that weapons sales "have the potential to significantly alter military balances, and disrupt U.S. military operations and cause significant U.S. casualties." Yet on August 27, 1998, in a typical example of the Pentagon shaping-or misshaping-foreign policy through arms sales, the Department of Defense announced the sale of several hundred missiles and antisubmarine torpedoes to Taiwan for $350 million. China naturally denounced the sale as a violation of agreements it had with the United States. The Defense Department's response was, "The proposed sale of this military equipment will not affect the basic military balance in the region." If that is true, why sell the equipment in the first place? Was it merely to enhance the balance sheets of several defense corporations to which the Pentagon is closely tied? If it is not true, why even bother to suggest that the balance of power is of any interest to the Pentagon?

In August 1996, then Secretary of Defense Perry called for an end to a decades-old ban on arms sales to Latin America on the grounds that most countries in the region were now democracies, so it is inconceivable that they would use newly purchased arms against one another. A year later, on August 1, 1997, the White House announced, "In the past decade, Latin America has changed dramatically from a region dominated by coups and military governments to one of democracy and civilian control.... Some Latin American countries are now addressing the need to modernize their militaries." The Clinton administration thereupon authorized the sale of advanced American weapons to any and all buyers south of the border (except, of course, Cuba).

In 1999, he observed, "Americans have shown great concern about the reported loss of classified nuclear secrets to the Chinese. But they should be just as outraged that their country gives away many other military secrets voluntarily, in the form of high-tech arms exports. By selling advanced weaponry throughout the world, wealthy military contractors not only weaken national security and squeeze taxpayers at home but also strengthen dictators and worsen human misery abroad."

When such contradictions are exposed, the Pentagon falls back on the argument that if it does not sell the arms to Latin America, some other country will. By analogy, Colombia might say to the United States comfortably with his wife and children in Florida.

The economic benefits of arms sales have been vastly overstated. The world's second-largest capitalist economy, Japan, does very well without them. In the late l990s, the economy of Southern California started to thrive once it finally got beyond its Cold War dependence on aerospace sales. Many of the most outspoken congressional champions of reducing the federal budget are profligate when it comes to funding arms industries in their localities, often with the expectation of what future export sales will do for their constituents. In January 1998, then House Speaker Newt Gingrich added $2.5 billion to the defense budget for more F-22s and C-130s, which even the air force did not want (or need), only because they were partly manufactured in Georgia. In June 1998, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott added the construction of another helicopter aircraft carrier (that the navy insisted it did not need) to that year's $270 billion defense appropriations bill because the ship was to be built at Pascagoula, Mississippi.

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