Are US war critics traitors?
On power, patriotism, and betrayal
On March 28, 2022, The New York Times published a guest essay by Peter Beinart, Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York, entitled “The Friend of Our Enemy Is Not a ‘Traitor.’” He begins the article with the observation that former Democratic representative Tulsi Gabbard and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson had been accused of treason by various media and political personalities for alleging that the United States was secretly funding biological research laboratories in Ukraine. (For the Russian view on the laboratories, see “Biological labs found in Ukraine,” March 15, 2022).
Beinart maintains that it is almost always wrong to accuse critics of U.S. foreign policy of being traitors, because they rarely are puppets of foreign powers. In the case of the critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine, Beinart notes that the criticisms are based in disillusionment with an insular foreign policy establishment that has taken the nation to disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Furthermore, he maintains such criticisms have a degree of popular appeal: “telling Americans they’re being duped by a warmongering, globalist elite can be a potent message.” Therefore, wrongly calling critics “traitors” can backfire; it can fuel paranoia and conspiracy theories. He suggests that it would be better to constructively address a “genuine problem,” namely, “the corruption and lack of accountability that plague American foreign policy.”
Is criticism of the government unpatriotic?
I would like to address the question from the vantage point of the global Left, a term I use to refer to Marxists who root their understanding of socialism in the actually existing socialist projects today in China and the Third World. And I would like to focus on criticisms of U.S. foreign policy coming not from the Right or from traditional conservatives, but from the Left.
Is criticism of the U.S. government’s foreign policy by U.S. citizens unpatriotic? From the viewpoint of the global Left, I would say that “it depends.” Insofar as the criticism is superficial, not based in a critique that explains the sources of the conflict, it does not contribute to greater understanding by the people, and it often generates greater confusion and division. Insofar as the criticism does not propose solutions or alternative directions, it contributes to a general popular feeling of hopelessness. Generating confusion, division, and hopelessness before a challenge that the nation confronts, superficial criticism indeed is unpatriotic.
We must overcome the leftist version of this superficiality, a superficial radicalism, in which the “critic” has not undertaken the difficult task of trying to understand the roots of the problem; in which the “critic” adopts the most apparently radical position, wishing to convey an image of deep conviction, or seeking to present an image of a “revolutionary.” It is a longstanding tendency of the Left, which Lenin called “the infantile disorder of ‘Left-wing’ communism.” Lenin considered, and I am in agreement, that it is the most serious enemy that the Left confronts, because it undermines possibilities for a serious critique by the Left to enter public discourse. In a time of challenge, the last thing the nation needs is individuals acting in an immature and egoistic manner, distracting the people from the task at hand, which is correct analysis in the pursuit of constructive action.
But a radical critique that gets at the root of the problem is another matter. In general, the capacity to formulate a genuinely radical critique is built on a persistent dedication to trying to understand the issue at hand by listening to and reading the understandings of others, especially those whose social context (and therefore experiential vantage point) is fundamentally different from one’s own. This must be a fundamental epistemological guideline in a culturally diverse nation and world, if we take seriously the notion that differences in understanding ought to be resolved through reason, and not on the basis of economic, political, or military power.
When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, the epistemological duty to listen to others guides us to appreciation of the fact that we ought to listen to those peoples that are at the receiving end of U.S. foreign policies, peoples from nations that have been in important ways impacted by U.S. foreign policies.
Those of us who have been listening to the voices of other peoples have become aware that there is widespread criticism in the world of U.S. policies as imperialist. When I first heard the word “imperialism" as a teenager, it came across as a moral accusation. When people in Latin America, for example, shouted their indignation about “Yankee imperialism,” I thought that they were saying that we were treating them in a form that they viewed as unjust. But the more I listened, the more I came to understand that they were not merely expressing moral indignation. They were naming policies characterized by a specific intention, which was compelling other governments to adopt economic policies that would facilitate the access of U.S. companies to markets, natural resources, and cheap labor.
The more I studied, the more I came to appreciate that scholars and intellectuals of the Third World have spent decades documenting the diverse methods that the United States has used in a sustained imperialist project, in evident violation of such widely proclaimed norms as not interfering in the affairs of other states and the rights of all nations to sovereignty. And what is more, they have documented that imperialist policies have reinforced structures established by colonialism, and that colonial structures are the foundation of the advanced economic development of the United States and Western Europe.
Listening to others does not mean accepting what they say at face value. But it does mean taking it seriously, which means investigating their validity through other sources, wherever one can find sources with a perspective relevant to the issue at hand. In the case of the issue of U.S. imperialism, during the course of twentieth century, important intellectuals and leaders of the Third World repeatedly recognized the phenomenon of U.S. imperialism as an important dimension of the neocolonial world-system, a conclusion that was shared by Marxist and leftist intellectuals of the West. Today, leaders and intellectuals of nations constructing socialism in the Third World plus China maintain that imperialism in not merely a common practice, but is a necessary component of capitalist development, a view that is confirmed by intellectuals of the global Left.
Moreover, on the basis of analysis of the characteristics of imperialism, leaders and intellectuals of nations constructing socialism in the Third World plus China maintain that neither China nor Russia are imperialist powers. China and Russia are developing in practice a form of socialism (China) or a form of capitalism (Russia) that does not require imperialism for economic development, and that, on the contrary, has designed anti-imperialist structures of economic development.
Such insights provide a perspective, from which we see, if we are listening, that Russia presents its operation in Ukraine as a defensive military action in response to years of territorial expansion by NATO and in response to NATO support of fascist, anti-Russian political parties and armed groups in Ukraine. From our perspective, we do not see the Russian claims as lacking in credibility, given all that we know about imperialism. We therefore expect the United States and/or NATO to provide reasonable justification and credible evidence that would justify their rejection of the Russian claim. The United States and NATO, however, do not do so. They expect the people to accept their claims, valid or not.
When a U.S. citizen arrives to appreciate the reasonableness of the Third World critique of U.S. imperialist policies, the duty to speak is clear. Imperialist policies contradict the principles that humanity has nearly universally proclaimed, principles that are rooted in the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century, and that continue to evolve through critiques formulated by people’s movements in all areas of the world during the last 200 years.
From such a vantage point, it is not the patriotism of the war critics that should be questioned, be they critics of the Left or the Right, but the patriotism of the political establishment and their corporate sponsors.
Has the power elite betrayed the nation?
I take the term “power elite” from the maverick Columbia University Professor of Sociology C. Wright Mills, who wrote in an important and influential 1956 book that there had emerged in American society a power elite constituted by the highest members of the executive branch of the federal government, the corporate executives of the largest U.S. corporations, and the highest members of the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mills maintained that the power elite frames issues of debate and decides questions of importance. He maintained that the Congress, the press, and academic and religious institutions play secondary roles in the decision-making process, merely reacting to a process framed and controlled by the power elite.
Mills maintained that the power elite had consolidated its power in the post-World War II era, when the United States was at the height of its global power. Dwight Eisenhower, the popular World War II general who subsequently became President, saw it emerge, and he expressed his concern in his 1960 farewell address, in which he named the “military-industrial complex.”
The emergence of the U.S. power elite as a force governing the world ought to be understood in the context of the spectacular economic ascent of the United States, which reached its culmination in the 1950s. The original accumulation of capital in the American Republic was rooted in a lucrative trading relation with slaveholders in the Caribbean Islands from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and in the U.S. South in the first half of the nineteenth century, providing the financial basis for the development of industry. The conquest of the indigenous nations of North America from 1830 to 1890 enabled an extensive territorial expansion. On this foundation of capital and land, the American Republic in the second half of the nineteenth century abandoned the Jeffersonian vision of a republic based on small agricultural producers and merchants, which could have included freed slaves; instead, it turned to the concentration of industry, forged through the unethical and legally questionable practices of the “robber barons.”
During the twentieth century, the captains of industry, driven by the logic of monopoly capitalism, led the nation toward the development of imperialist policies with respect to Latin America and the Caribbean, seeking markets for surplus manufacturing and agricultural goods. At the same time, the monopoly capitalists discovered the profitability of war during the two world wars. Following World War II, with the nation’s economy now dependent on war-related industries, the power elite directed the nation toward a permanent war economy, constructing the Cold War ideological justification. In 1980, when an economy build on war and imperialism had overreached global political and ecological limits, the power elite ignorantly led the nation toward new and more aggressive forms of imperialism and war, thus deepening sustained structural global crisis and moving the nation toward attempting to establish itself as a global military dictatorship.
In the history of the American Republic, there were critical historical moments in which the nation took decisive turns, under the direction of the political and economic elite, disdaining progressive and more constructive options. Following the abolition of slavery, it could have distributed land to the freed slaves, establishing the material foundation for a black agricultural middle class. During its territorial expansion to the West, it could have sought to develop and implement mutually beneficial treaties with the indigenous nations, enabling access of the American Republic to lands and natural resources of the West, but also providing the foundation for the economic development of the indigenous nations. Once the nation entered the stage of monopoly capitalism, it could have sought to development mutually beneficial trade relations with Latin American and Caribbean nations, provided the foundation for strong economies in all the nations of America. Following the Second World War, it could have turned to mutually beneficial trade with the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa, moving the world-system from its colonial foundation, and providing the material foundation for a more just, democratic, and sustainable world. When the signs of a structural crisis of the capitalist world-economy became evident in the 1970s, it could have turned to investment in new national industries and in supporting Third World states in the development of their economies, thus providing larger markets for the goods of the advanced economies and greater political stability to the world-system.
Consistent with this historically demonstrated absence of real leadership, the United States has during the last ten years ignored calls for cooperation and has waged unconventional war against several nations. The U.S. unconventional war against Russia in Ukraine is only one battleground in the most recent evolution in the U.S. foreign policy of aggressive imperialism. See “The new tactics of US imperialism: The US unconventional war against Russia in Ukraine,” April 8, 2022.
The American Republic has arrived to decadence, understood as a decline in economic capacities and a lack of moral direction, combined with an incapacity to constructively address the decline. Its economic productivity and competitiveness have declined, as a result of its investment in financial speculation rather than new and old forms of industry. Its prestige and influence in the world have fallen, as a result of its pursuit of aggressive imperialism. Its political system is driven by manipulative electoral campaigns, incapable of reasonable debate, let alone the formulation of constructive policies supported by consensus among the people. The arts and entertainment industry in its best moments recognizes the problem, but nonetheless reinforces negative tendencies. Journalists have been coopted; academics are at a loss; churches retreat to personal piety.
Who is responsible for this state of affairs, if not the U.S power elite? Will no one dare to call it treason?
But do not abandon hope. There are nations and intellectuals in the world who are finding the necessary road. Search for them; seek to understand them. Out of the greatest challenges come the greatest possibilities for advancement. A more just, peaceful, and prosperous world remains possible.
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