By Jake Lynch
• “Free elections and free markets” represent “the single sustainable model for national success”. So declared the US National Security Strategy published by the Administration of George W Bush in 2002. It’s a document better known for the novelty of its proposed variation on the traditional UN provision for the legal use of force: the concept of pre-emptive self-defence.
You don’t have to join many dots to infer that countries which deviate from this path of righteousness risk being regarded as security threats, and, the document continues: “As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed”.
Is it heresy against free-market fundamentalism that has put one regime after another in the firing line, in the period since? Even before Bush took office, the US and allies went to war over Kosovo, in ‘Operation Allied Force’, the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, on a prospectus – the Rambouillet Accord – whose fourth chapter, on economic issues, begins with the bald statement: “The economy of Kosovo shall function according to free market principles”.
The senior military officer in charge of that campaign, General Wesley Clark – then Supreme Allied Commander, Europe – later met up with an old subordinate, now in a desk job at the Pentagon, who told him the plan after the 9/11 attacks was to “take out 7 countries in 5 years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan & Iran” (1).
On being told the information was classified, Clark ordered his source not to show him the offending memo.
Today, Somalia still grapples with multiple indices of deprivation, with a state that is barely capable of fulfilling basic functions; Sudan is split, with the new state of South Sudan mired in civil war, while Iraq and Libya have been reduced to rubble. US-allied Saudi Arabia has been a prime mover in a failed but destructive campaign to overthrow President Assad in Syria, and is now threatening Lebanon.
President Trump wasted no time, after taking office, in aligning his White House with Riyadh in an aggressive new campaign against the Iranians, purporting to see Tehran’s malign influence behind all the problems of the region.
It’s become a commonplace in foreign policy circles in troop-supplying countries to lament the lack of a ‘plan’ for the countries – such as Iraq and Libya – whose ruling authorities were easy to displace, but altogether more difficult to replace.
The Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s participation in the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein complains that the government of then Prime Minister Tony Blair “failed to take account of the magnitude of the task of stabilising, administering and reconstructing Iraq”.
To varying degrees, all the states on the list shown (or ‘not shown’) to General Clark were constructed in the first place, then stabilised and administered, by gathering the proceeds from their natural resources and investing them publicly. Not having free markets, they were places where capital met with barriers to its further accumulation.
Now, some of those barriers have been removed.
Naomi Klein writes about post-invasion Iraq as an example of “disaster capitalism”, with the economic policies imposed by the Coalition Provisional Authority “making the entire affected area a flat–tax free-enterprise zone”. The Bush Administration did indeed have a plan, she goes on: “to lay out as much honey as possible, then sit back and wait for the flies” (2).
When the US corporate giant, General Electric, this year picked up $1.4 billion worth of honey in the shape of a contract to rebuild Iraq’s electricity industry, that was a plan coming to fruition. A ‘defense contractor’ with over four billion dollars a year in arms sales, GE is also an active contributor – through individual donors and Political Action Committees – to parties and candidates, and a cornerstone of the Washington lobbying industry.
Through the period covered by the invasion of Iraq, it also owned the NBC Television network, thus giving it a direct means of influencing public opinion, at a time when the studios were knee-deep in retired generals.
As the late Danny Schechter, the New York film-maker, media activist and “news dissector” memorably observed, TV newsrooms packaged and promoted the Iraq invasion as a product: they were not so much “telling” as “selling”.
Are these observations leading to a putative grand conspiracy, involving multiple individuals in different domains – industry, military, politics and media – scheming in secret to propel us into war, come what may, in order to make money? This is where we reach for the concepts furnished by social science to locate political agency not in the words and deeds of identifiable actors – the ‘behavioural’ – but instead as a generative force that is stored in, and activated from, systems and structures.
A signature contribution here is that of Johan Galtung, the “structural violence” that keeps invisible barriers in place, abrogating human potential. Then, there is no power that is exercised without a set of aims and objectives, Michel Foucault tells us, in The Power of Sexuality; but that does not mean we should look for “the headquarters that presides over its rationality”.
In English, at about the same time, Stephen Lukes was writing about a “third dimension” of power, beyond the behavioural and even hidden agendas, in which “the bias of the system can be mobilized, recreated and reinforced in ways that are neither consciously chosen nor the intended result of particular individuals’ choices”.
Later, the communications scholar Manuel Castells added an elegant embellishment, the “network society”, in which identifiable “flows of power” induce less “social determination” than the “power of flows” around influential networks.
The reason we keep having wars, in short, is that we have built a war system.
Taken together, President Dwight D Eisenhower warned, in a valedictory radio address to the American people on leaving the Oval Office way back in 1961, the sheer gravitational pull of mighty armed forces and a vast arms industry will exert “unwarranted influence… whether sought or unsought”; unless constrained by “an alert and active citizenry”.
Today’s menaces lurk in, and strike from, unregulated spaces: the labyrinth of tax avoidance revealed by the Paradise Papers; the proliferating fake news on Facebook.
Arms industries are another such space. The UK Serious Fraud Office investigation into bribery and corruption in the notorious Al Yamamah arms deal between British Aerospace and the Saudi government was dropped, not for a want of evidence against the suspects but because the Saudis threatened to cut off intelligence-sharing.
The American anti-missile shields now being deployed in both east Asia and eastern Europe had so many budget overruns that a new “spiral accounting” system had to be devised in order to justify the cost.
British- and American-supplied weapons are being used to pound Yemen and its civilian population to ruin, with humanitarian concerns deflected by platitudes designed solely to prolong the window for profit.
What to do?
In Britain, the world’s second biggest arms dealer after the US, at least the official Opposition is now led by someone who ‘gets it’: Jeremy Corbyn, chair of the Stop the War Coalition through the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. If and when Labour take office, the list of priorities will be long indeed.
But it should include regulating and reducing the supply of weapons. As Corbyn has explicitly recognised, Britain’s participation in the wars of the 21st century has put its own people at greater risk. After a terrorist from the Libyan community in south Manchester killed 21 concert-goers in the city earlier this year, he used a speech to emphasise “the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home”.
A revival of UK Labour’s original approach to international relations would also be welcome.
In the first leaflet the party published, after adopting its constitution in 1918, the Fabian thinker, Sidney Webb, repudiated “all forms of Imperialism”, recognising that this entailed acceptance of “the right of each people to live its own life, and to make its own specific contribution to the world in its own way”.
The neoconservative project, rampaging round the world looking for non-believers to convert to the cause of free elections and free markets, has pitched us into a series of profit-fuelled wars, making our world more dangerous.
It’s time for Britain to quit those networks, and to urge others to follow.
1. See Wesley Clark here.
2. See Naomi Klein “Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of neo-con utopia”.
Originally published at Transcend Media Service here.