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Colonialism by modern means.

Colonialism by Modern Means

Last October, while I was in Hong Kong at a meeting of Asian lawyers and judges, the United States invaded Grenada. My colleagues at the conference, prominent men and women of moderate political persuasion, had gathered to coordinate human rights activities in their region and to discuss ways to curb the worst abuses of particular governments there. In certain respects, they were naive. They didn't understand why the United States, which they associate with the defense of democracy, was encouraging repression throughout the Pacific. They had invited me to dispel their confusion by addressing the question, Why does the United States support repressive governments in the Third World? Not an easy assignment, even without jet lag.

When we first got word of the Grenada invasion, the Asian jurists, several of whom had never heard of the island and could not find it on available maps, thought that Reagan was playing some kind of geopolitical joke on the American public: frustrated in Central America, bogged down indefinitely in the Middle East and challenged by anti-American outbursts in the Philippines, the President had feigned the invasion of Grenada. They thought it inventive of the United States to attack a nonexistent country and were prepared to applaud the Hollywood bravado that they-- not unrealistically--regarded as the substance of Reagan's Presidency. Their fantasy about the invasion wasn't much more of a distortion of reality than the American press's presentation of it.

Even some in the liberal media went along with the Administration's view that here at last was a U.S. military victory worth celebrating--as if an elephant's success at stomping an ant could be construed as proof that the mighty beast's prowess was, despite recent doubts, undiminished! The country's Wild West sensibility had been so wounded by defeat in Vietnam and humiliation in Iran that any encounter that was not an outright disaster could be presented to America as an occasion for national celebration.

When the reality of the invasion finally sank in, the conference participants' responses were harsh. People in the Third World, even conservatives, are rarely willing to weigh the pros and cons of an action with the even-tempered approach of a New York Times editorial. Superpower intervention in the Third World is almost always perceived as imperial diplomacy--a continuation of colonialism by contemporary means. In the case of Grenada, when one penetrates the various veils of justification our political leaders offered as explanations for the invasion, the underlying reality has a stark simplicity: there, at last, was a chance to prevail in the Third World. In Grenada --unlike Vietnam, El Salvador and Lebanon--America's goal of restructuring the internal politics of a Third World country could be achieved. Despite the gratitude that most people in Grenada apparently felt toward the invaders, to Third World observers it looked like one more instance of rich, powerful, white capitalists imposing their will on a poor, outgunned, pathetically weak, nonwhite nation.

Although perhaps applicable to Grenada, that generalization doesn't hold for every intervention. Even as the United States deepens its involvement in the latest Persian Gulf crisis, it is important not to identify intervention in the internal affairs of foreign states only with machinations that start on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Soviet Union is also intervening in the Third World and, assuredly, not always on the side of liberation. When its assets are threatened by popular discontent, as in Afghanistan or Ethiopia, Moscow has demonstrated that it is willing to use military force, an attitude that is fully consistent with its counterrevolutionary relations with Eastern Europe and large segments of its own population.

At the same time, one must distinguish between the Soviet and American roles in the Third World. Ever since World War II the Russians have had a natural affinity for the peoples of the Third World. Immediately after the war, Moscow had no foreign investments or privileged status to protect. It possessed no foreign bases, and it wasn't involved on any level with the colonial order.

In a way, beyond the Western Hemisphere and the Philippines, the United States also had a fairly clean slate in 1945. Even in its "backyard,' its interventions compared favorably with European colonialism. The U.S. presence was generally temporary, with the notable exception of Nicaragua, and it often produced a respite from the shocking repression of the indigenous government. The United States tolerated formal political independence in Latin America (except, of course, for Puerto Rico), which was the primary goal of national liberation struggles at the time. America's anticolonial image was further enhanced when President Truman voluntarily pulled down the Stars and Stripes in Manila in 1946. As the postwar world began to take shape, the United States was respected more than feared. Although the predominant military and economic power in the world, it remained associated with ideals such as the right to self-determination. The first generation of Third World leaders, including Ho Chi Minh, looked to the United States for ideological support and inspiration. Only after being rebuffed did they turn to the Soviet Union. (In fact, as late as 1970 children in North Vietnam were required to memorize the Declaration of Independence, at the very time American bombs were devastating their country.)

In the early postwar years the United States had a definite opportunity to side with the peoples of the Third World. Why did our leaders choose instead to join the forces of reaction? The explanation is ideological and geopolitical. U.S. leaders believed that the success of Third World nationalists jeopardized America's economic and diplomatic interests. In addition, the elite swallowed whole some questionable assumptions about international politics, especially the notion that with colonialism on the run, a power vacuum would exist. They simply assumed that non-Western countries would automatically turn Marxist-Leninist and ally themselves with the Soviet Union if they didn't become capitalistic and ally with the United States. Today that argument flies in the face of experience which shows that nonaligned nationalism dominates in Third World countries when they are left alone.

For many opinion markers in this country, however, the idea of inevitable bipolar alignment provided a pretext for maintaining political control or economic and strategic advantage. To mobilize public support for costly overseas military adventures, the true character of conflict in the Third World had to be distorted. The American public was susceptible to arguments favoring intervention to offset the Soviet challenge, particularly while "the Munich lesson' remained vivid. Lyndon Johnson and his close adviser Walt Rostow worked overtime to make the public believe Vietnam was analogous to World War II. Resisting Communist "aggression' in Vietnam, they argued, was far better than waiting until the Russians swept across the Pacific to Hawaii or California.

Following a short period of American would-licking after Vietnam, the spirit of interventionism revived. The 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo and revolutions in Iran, Nicaragua and Angola prompted alarmists in high places to begin warning of America's decline and imminent fall. As a result, the United States developed the Rapid Deployment Force, ostensibly for intervention in the Persian Gulf but available for use anywhere. The memory of Hitler having dimmed and the "loss' of Vietnam having failed to produce the predicted domino effect, the interventionist argument became more candidly imperial.

Intervention was no longer promoted merely as a necessary counter to Soviet-inspired aggression, although the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 helped American hawks immeasurably in swinging the public back to a militaristic mood. The primary rationale became the threat to Western access to oil and the need to maintain control of the sea lanes used in transporting it--an argument we have again heard in recent weeks to justify increased arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Similarly, in Central America, the main interventionist rationale has become the U.S. "strategic' interest, meaning that U.S. dominance must be maintained in the face of revolutionary challenges. To be sure, the Soviet threat has been invoked all along to drum up support and to deter opposition, but the real purpose of our policy is to reassert the primacy of American control in regions of strategic importance. This helps explain the recent promotion of the Caribbean and Central American region as a top geopolitical priority. In the last six years U.S. imports of crude and refined oil products from the Caribbean region have risen from 17 percent to 45 percent of the total, and rich deposits of several scarce strategic minerals exist in Central America.

The United States is a peculiar kind of imperial power in that it is committed to an ideological posture that disavows imperial practices and designs. Ronald Reagan routinely claims that Marxism-Leninism is the colonizing force in the hemisphere and that the anticolonial United States is balancing its own strategic imperatives against a passionate mission to promote democratic pluralism. At the same time he dogmatically insists that the left can never be the bearer of democratic values, while the right can somehow be coaxed toward moderation.

If Grenada signaled the U.S. government's renewed willingness to intervene with military force and treat the Caribbean as an American lake, the Kissinger commission's report on Central America represents a brazen ideological attempt to reinvent the Monroe Doctrine. It is appropriate that Henry Kissinger, one of the prime manipulators of the public mind, orchestrated the process that produced the so-called bipartisan report, and equally appropriate that it is dedicated to the arch-hawk, cold war liberal Henry Jackson. For the commission invoked all the discredited half-truths of the Vietnam era in its search for an acceptable rationale for intervention in Central America. Above all, it sought to pacify mainstream liberal critics in the Democratic Party by producing "a package' that wraps an essentially reactionary military approach in a thick layer of economic aid and a thin layer of human rights concerns. But the second layer is embarrassingly transparent even for true believers, given the regimes Reagan is bolstering in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and the murderers the U.S. Army is training, equipping and advising on the borders of Nicaragua. The choice in Central America is to fight the revolutionary forces by siding with rightist militarists or to withdraw from the fray. To insinuate a concern for human rights into that setting is, as conservatives correctly insist, ridiculous.

The report is full of assertions that need to be inverted to make any sense. For instance, it states, "As a nation we are certainly not opposed to indigenous reform in Central America. . . . Nor are we threatened by indigenous revolutions that use local resources and appeal to local circumstances.' How then are we to understand Kissinger's destabilization program directed at Salvador Allende's constitutionally elected government in Chile or the C.I.A.-sponsored coup against the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, neither of which is mentioned in the report? Although international law and diplomatic practice acknowledge the right of governments to get outside help if they need it to survive, the Kissinger commission's recommendations present progressive Third World governments with a cruel dilemma: go it alone and be pushed over like a feather by C.I.A.-directed covert operations, or seek help in Moscow and be treated like an illegitimate Soviet outpost in our hemisphere which can be attacked at will. That seems to be what is meant by accepting indigenous processes of reform and revolution!

Or consider this remark from the report about the situation in El Salvador: "If the shaky center collapses and the country eventually is dominated by undemocratic extremes, this will lead to increased pressures on El Salvador's neighbors.' What shaky center? Centrists in the country have long since joined the guerrillas, been killed or frightened into submission, fled abroad or embraced the rightist regime. It is a delusion or worse to suggest that a middleclass, moderate alternative exists at this stage. The pretense of preserving a democratic center (on which President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress also rested) justifies investing billions of dollars so as to avoid the triumph of extremes in a country in which only the extremes are in contention. To send large-scale economic aid or supply military equipment under such circumstances is to join the struggle on the rightwing side.

The commission argues that the Soviets "would welcome discussion about superpower spheres of influence, which would prompt Soviet assertions of primacy and the need for U.S. abstention on the Soviet periphery, in such places as Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. For the United States, however, such a concept of spheres of influence is unacceptable.' Yet the report loudly proclaims an American sphere of influence in Central America and warns Moscow to respect it. In truth, considering the threat mounted against its friends in the region, the Soviet Union has been rather timid. Despite protestations to the contrary, the United States has unabashedly exercised all the prerogatives that go with having a sphere of influence, including the right to use force Grenada-style to uphold its interests. To reserve for ourselves what we deny the Russians would be to restructure the rules of the geopolitical game in a manner Moscow is sure to resist, as we would resist similar efforts on their part. Such a double standard invites misunderstandings, provocations, even confrontations. Out of such confusion, the risks of World War III mount.

As William LeoGrande notes in the Winter 1984 issue of World Policy Journal, "The real issue in Central America [is] whether the United States is prepared to live with revolutions on its periphery, or whether it will continue to insist, as it has in the past, that Washington holds veto power over the right of Central Americans to govern themselves as they see fit.' The Kissinger commission report does its best to obscure that question because in order to create a bipartisan consensus everyone must act as if outsiders could build a moderate future for those countries by providing dollars and guns. The good political news, of course, is that the American public is not swallowing that claptrap, though Congress, lamentably, has largely gone along. Despite Reagan's surge in popularity after the invasion of Grenada, public opinion polls since then have consistently shown high levels of opposition to any U.S. military intervention (covert or overt, including maneuvers) in Central America.

There are several explanations for that opposition. To begin with, the stigma from the Vietnam experience remains. Also, the struggles in Central America are complicated. Right-wing attacks on religious leaders, priests and nuns, as well as church participation in and support for the popular movements, including that of the Sandinistas, have confused Americans. The Catholic Church in the United States opposes intervention in the 1980s as strongly as it supported it during the Vietnam War years. An even more hopeful sign is that the general public and some experts are beginning to realize that intervention doesn't work--except possibly in tiny states.

Whether we consider El Salvador or Lebanon or Afghanistan, the outcome after years of bloodshed and devastation is likely to be quite the opposite of what the imperialist state intends. (The only exceptions occur when the intervention happens to coincide with the historical tendency toward national self-assertion.) In an essary recently published in Central America: Anatomy of Conflict, Walter LaFeber asserts, "Each time the United States has attempted to intervene militarily in Central America after 1920 it has, in the long run, worsened the situation it meant to correct.' One possible explanation for such self-defeating behavior is that interveners are obsessed with the short run: to them, nothing is worse than appearing to lose, or better than appearing to win. Thus, interveners might extract a twisted lesson from a comparison between Carter's downfall during the hostage crisis in Iran and Reagan's ascent after Grenada.

American interventionism swings with the public mood and with capitalism's perceived requirements for trade, investment and resources. Throughout its history the United States has generally been expansionist, but it has periodically relinquished imperialist claims in a reaction to the excessive costs of a prior intervention. Before the end of the decade, the pendulum could swing further in the direction of showing "resolve' (Reagan re-elected) or back toward accommodation (Reagan rebuffed). International developments, especially Soviet behavior in the Third World and perceived threats to the West from successful revolutionary movements, will also play a part in shaping national policy.

At stake, ultimately, is whether we will allow the peoples of the Third World to have the political futures of their choice--revolutionary or not, Marxist-Leninist or not-- without forcing them to go through hell to get there. History is on the side of nationalism; imperial resistance, whether from the East or West, slows the process and increases the level of pain but does not reverse that fundamental tendency of our epoch.

The wider security concerns invoked to enlist public support for intervention are farfetched. We risk nuclear war in Europe by preparing to meet a Soviet challenge that is not in the making. Similarly, to suppose that Cuba or Nicaragua would dare interdict U.S. shipping or challenge U.S. power directly during an international crisis makes paranoia into foreign policy. To assume such Soviet adventurism is to imagine a recklessness in the Kremlin that has never been evident. There are no good excuses for U.S. or Soviet intervention in the Third World. Not every instance is free of moral ambiguity, but a general policy of nonintervention would reduce levels of warfare and militarism in the Third World, as well as improve overall prospects for peace and justice.
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Title Annotation:American intervention in the third world
Author:Falk, Richard
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jun 16, 1984
Previous Article:Sovieticus.
Next Article:Round two for Judge Bork.

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