Friday, January 28, 2011

The Dirty Little Secret

An event like that which is dominating the world stage this week, i.e. the violent uprising in Egypt, ends up revealing something that most of us, and certainly the United States government, would rather keep hidden.  I speak of the dirty little secret that most Americans do not really understand. 

What is that dirty little secret?  It is the fact that since World War II, the United States has in fact not been the foremost promoter and advocate for worldwide democracy.  Rather we have done most everything we can to secure a network of client states that will serve our economic and political interests.  And those are not the same thing.

After WWII, the United States was the top dog of the world, the 'indispensible nation' as Secretary of State Madeline Albright once put it.  Every other nation, with very few exceptions (Sweden?  Switzerland?), was either conquered, destroyed, devastated (or just plain third world undeveloped) by the most destructive war in human history.  Even the Soviet Union, our war ally turned Communist enemy almost overnight, was prostrate economically in 1945, having been nearly destroyed by the German invasion of 1941.  (If you want to see a really good movie illustrating this, watch Enemy at the Gates and see how the Germans ground the Russians to dust, before they themselves were blown to pieces by the Russians.)

So what did we do?  Partly in response to a perceived Communist/Soviet threat, partly because we wanted to achieve 'unilateral global hegemony' indefinitely, but I think mostly because we desired to maintain our global economy dominance in perpetuity (in 1945, we turned out 50% of the world's economic product) we established a network of client states, allied with us, and largely controlled by us, all over the world: in Europe, in Asia and Africa, in the Middle East, in South and Central America.

In each of these country, we basically made sure that the rulers were compliant friends of ours, and we established military/intelligence relationships with each ally, along with lucrative economic arrangements (for the US and those leaders, not the people of the client states).  And we resisted any change in these governments that would threaten their compliant status.  In other words, we were not interested in promoting democracies, as our national mythology wants us to believe.  We preferred authoritarian states, with strong, dictatorial leaders dependent on us.  And whenever these leaders were threatened by populist uprisings, we would yell 'Communist!' (now we yell 'Al-Qaeda), and either send in our troops or our CIA agents to suppress the uprisings with as little or as much bloodshed or violence as it took.  (Here I would recommend the books Legacy of Ashes:The History of the CIA by NY Times reporter Tim Weiner, and Rogue State: a Guide to the World's Only Superpower by William Blum, for a plethora of evidence and examples all over the world.)

A very good recent article on this subject has been written by Prof. Andrew Bacevich of Boston University.  Here is a few paragraphs from this important piece:
In a 1948 State Department document, diplomat George F. Kennan offered this observation: "We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population." The challenge facing American policymakers, he continued, was "to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity." Here we have a description of American purposes that is far more candid than all of the rhetoric about promoting freedom and democracy, seeking world peace, or exercising global leadership.

The end of World War II found the United States in a spectacularly privileged position. Not for nothing do Americans remember the immediate postwar era as a Golden Age of middle-class prosperity. Policymakers since Kennan's time have sought to preserve that globally privileged position. The effort has been a largely futile one.

By 1950 at the latest, those policymakers (with Kennan by then a notable dissenter) had concluded that the possession and deployment of military power held the key to preserving America's exalted status. The presence of U.S. forces abroad and a demonstrated willingness to intervene, whether overtly or covertly, just about anywhere on the planet would promote stability, ensure U.S. access to markets and resources, and generally serve to enhance the country's influence in the eyes of friend and foe alike -- this was the idea, at least.

In postwar Europe and postwar Japan, this formula achieved considerable success. Elsewhere -- notably in Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, and (especially after 1980) in the so-called Greater Middle East -- it either produced mixed results or failed catastrophically. Certainly, the events of the post-9/11 era provide little reason to believe that this presence/power-projection paradigm will provide an antidote to the threat posed by violent anti-Western jihadism. If anything, adherence to it is exacerbating the problem by creating ever greater anti-American animus.
Americans are a funny lot.  We desperately want to believe that our vast military establishment, with its global network of nearly a thousand military bases, and the untold billions of dollars we have spent on it (and the intelligence establishment that grew right along with it, to this very day), is in place to secure the freedom of the world.  That's what we constantly hear and tell ourselves.  It's important to our image of ourselves.  But unfortunately, it's not true, at least in many places around this world.  While we have enjoyed unprecedented freedom as a nation, and while a few other places--such as Europe--have enjoyed that with us, and while we have often inspired the world's population with those ideals, we have also turned around and done whatever it takes to keep ourselves as the 'top dog', including destroying the beginnings of democracy in many nations over the last 65 years.

Libertarian Justin Raimundo, a fierce proponent of freedom, writes:
Just follow the money. The American taxpayers have shelled out an average $2 billion-plus per year to our Egyptian sock puppets since 1979. As for Yemen, as Warren Strobel points out, "U.S. aid to Yemen increased significantly in fiscal year 2010 to about $67 million, and is due to increase in the current fiscal year to $106 million." That’s not counting $170 million in military aid. This gravy train is undoubtedly the single largest income stream flowing into the country: Yemen, in short, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the US government. The same can fairly be said about Egypt.

In any case, the geniuses in charge of the US government are quite wrong if they think Mubarak can withstand the rising tide of protest, and the reason for their blindness isn’t hard to see. This administration seems to have forgotten the catchphrase popularized by its Clintonian predecessor: "It’s the economy, stupid." In this case, it’s the world economy, stupid: the global economic downturn that economist Nouriel Roubini – who predicted the 2008 implosion of the financial markets – says "can topple regimes." Commodity inflation means skyrocketing food prices – around two thirds of the consumer price index for emerging economies, as Roubini points out.

Roubini – and nearly every libertarian economist of the "Austrian" school – has long warned about the coming financial crisis of the West, the first seismic tremors of which we have been experiencing here in America since November 2008. But this is just the beginning: in the short term, unfunded liabilities and the interest on the national debt will account for a whopping 60 percent of GDP, and it won’t be long before it’s 100 percent. When that day comes – or, perhaps, long before it – the worldwide economic meltdown will be paying us a rather unwelcome visit, with consequences that are likely to make Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Greece look like romps in the park.

Our rulers can’t see the locomotive coming down the tracks, even though they’re standing right in its way: they still insist on the myth of "American exceptionalism," which supposedly anoints us with a special destiny and gives us the right to order the world according to our uniquely acquired position of preeminence. Yet that preeminence is increasingly being called into question by the economic facts of reality – and our own refusal to get our financial house in order. Blinded by hubris, and the habit of authority, the political class in America is no different, in essence, from its counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt: corrupt, arrogant, and used to commanding obedience, the Best and the Brightest are prisoners of their own complacency. Unable to comprehend, or sympathize with, the plight of the world’s miserable masses, encased in a bubble where the worst crisis they have to personally face is a broken chair lift at Davos, these preening Louis XIVs and Marie Antoinettes are in for a rude shock.

What we are in for, finally, is a radical realignment of power, a vast shift that will break up the political landscape of every country on earth and shatter all the old assumptions. That old Chinese fortune-cookie curse, "May you live in interesting times," is about to come true.
I think Raimundo is probably correct. Those old days of America's global dominance and unparalleled prosperity are just about over. Our economy is now in sharp decline, while those of many other, previously underdeveloped nations such as China, India, and Brazil, are growing. Furthermore, with the internet, mobile phones, and related technological developments producing Facebook and Twitter and other communication marvels, the world's people are no longer going to put up with dictators and oppression. They want freedom and prosperity too.

So hang on to your seats, because the next few days (weeks, years, and decades) are going to be a very interesting ride!!

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