The doctrine of preventive war plus unconventional war
The aggressive face of imperialism in decadence
In my July 9, commentary, I discussed the turn of the corporate elite to aggression against the Third World, violating the necessary constraints that imperialism had imposed on itself, indicating a transition to a decadent stage of imperialism (“Neoliberalism and the U.S. turn to naked imperialism: The sustained structural crisis of the capitalist world-economy”). The July 9 commentary focused on the economic dimension of the turn to aggressive imperialism. Today, I address its military dimension, with the understanding that the economic and military dimensions are interrelated.
Since the 1960s, the U.S. percentage of global production and commerce has declined, while its arms industry and military forces has remained far ahead of other core nations. As a result, the United States has utilized direct military force to obtain objectives that it could no longer attain through economic and diplomatic means.
The USA had turned following World War II to the development of a permanent war economy, justified by the false ideological construction of the Cold War. Nevertheless, from the period 1946 to 1963, the United States pursued its imperialist goals with respect to Latin America without resorting to direct military intervention, in accordance with the “Good Neighbor” policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The governments of Latin America and their national bourgeois sponsors were conceded political and economic space, necessary for the maintenance of political stability. It was a neocolonial world order with a democratic face. (See “The façade of defending democracy: US Imperialism and the military-industrial complex, 1933 to 1964,” June 29, 2021).
But a more aggressive militarism soon would destroy the façade of democracy. The Johnson Administration, facing leftist insurgencies in Latin America, felt compelled by political events to send troops for brief periods to Panama in 1964 and the Dominican Republic in 1965. This was followed by the U.S. military escalation in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, which violated a central precept of the neocolonial world order, namely, that the government in the neocolony must assume responsibility for social control, so that it appears to be a sovereign nation. The role of the core power is to provide military and economic support, but it cannot send military troops, except briefly in emergency situations. Such protocols are necessary for maintaining the legitimacy and political stability of the neocolonial world-system.
The 1995 memoir of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara makes clear that the fateful decision to escalate was led by a misreading of developments in Southeast Asia, in which the emergence of national liberation governments and movements in Southeast Asia was interpreted as the spreading menace of communism. With this myopic Cold War perspective, the Johnson Administration could not begin to imagine a way to represent U.S. interests in accordance with the procedures of the neocolonial world order; or even less, to imagine a more just and democratic world order, in which the USA would formulate its interests in a form that recognized the interests of each of the nations of the region, in accordance with the widely accepted principle of the equal sovereignty of nations.
The failure of the Vietnam War profoundly affected the people of the United States, who were influenced by the “Vietnam Syndrome,” a reluctance to send U.S. troops to fight in foreign lands. Taking this popular reluctance into account, the United States returned to the policy of no direct military intervention in Latin America. The administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford used less direct forms of interference. They provided strategic and political support to coups d’état in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. And they provided economic and military assistance to governments that were participating in the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in opposition to anti-imperialist popular movements in Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, and Uruguay. During and after the Vietnam War, the U.S. government sought to attain its imperialist goals in Latin America without provoking the opposition of the people of the United States, which required avoiding sustained military involvement.
In the 1980s, with the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, and with the national liberation front advancing in El Salvador, the Reagan Administration adopted a policy of “low-intensity warfare,” seeking to escalate U.S. military presence but avoiding direct military intervention. The strategy involved extensive military support for the government of El Salvador, seeking to constrain the insurgency; and military support for Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries based in Honduras, with the intention of destabilizing and overthrowing the progressive government of Daniel Ortega. The policies of the Reagan Administration in Central America were functional in attaining imperialist goals without provoking the divisive political conflicts of the late 1960s, although a popular movement in opposition to policies in Central America, with the active participation of aging 1960s peaceniks, did emerge.
At the same, the Reagan Administration was oriented to sending troops in situations in which objectives could be quickly attained, before popular opposition in the USA could be mobilized. In 1983, the Reagan administration launched a military invasion of the small Caribbean Island nation of Grenada and deposed the progressive government of the New Jewel Movement, demonized for its relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union. The tiny island nation was occupied quickly, and the troops were soon withdrawn. Similarly, the USA bombed Libya in 1986, following a demonizing propaganda campaign directed against Muammar Muhammad al-Qaddafi, which included false claims that the government of Libya was responsible for a terrorist act in West Berlin. Since 1969, Qaddafi had directed a revolutionary government that sought economic and social development and the establishment of structures of popular participation under the guidance of Gaddafi’s philosophy, a synthesis of Islam with revolutionary nationalism and socialism.
The demonizing of the governments of Nicaragua, Grenada, and Libya in order to justify direct military action or low-intensity warfare constituted what Noam Chomsky has called the first war on terrorism. These nations were presented falsely as threats to the peace and security of their regions and to the national security of the USA. In fact, they were threats to the USA only in the sense that they sought an autonomous road to social and economic development, in opposition to the political and economic interests of the USA. Their examples, if followed by others, were threats to the established structures of the neocolonial world-system and to the nations that benefitted from these structures.
In 1989, the administration of George H.W. Bush launched a military invasion of Panama. The invasion was justified on the grounds of President Manuel Noriega’s involvement with drug trafficking, and it was part of the Bush administration’s renewal of the “war on drugs,” initially declared in the early years of the Reagan administration. Civilian neighborhoods were bombed, and thousands were killed. Noriega was captured quickly and taken to Florida, where he was imprisoned for crimes mostly committed while he was on the CIA payroll. The U.S. military action in Panama represents a continuation of the disregard for the legitimating structures of the neocolonial world-system, and it was a second war against a weak state in order to overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome” and re-establish popular acceptance for foreign wars.
Thus, during the 1980s, a fundamental change in the nation is beginning to become visible. The USA is no longer a dominant neocolonial power able to exercise military restraint in order to maintain a democratic façade. It now has now become a declining power, with its economic capacity and its international prestige in decline. However, with a strong military capacity intact, it is now taking the initial steps toward maintaining its global power through military means.
In 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration launched a war against Iraq, which was the first war of aggression in order to directly attain specific economic objectives since the U.S. invasion of Nicaragua in 1926, before the nation ascended to neocolonial hegemony. Iraq had invaded Kuwait in 1990, seeking to acquire strategic islands and oil fields that had been in dispute since British colonial officials had established an arbitrary boundary between Iraq and Kuwait. Saddam Hussein believed that the USA, with whom he had been allied during the 1980s, was signaling permission for the invasion. But in fact, the USA had good reason to be opposed to the invasion, because it threatened U.S. access to oil. Kuwait and neighboring Saudi Arabia together had control of 40% of the world’s known oil reserves, and both governments were solidly in alliance with the USA and U.S. interests. In contrast, Hussein was not necessarily an ally that could be controlled. The Bush administration was able to put together an effective alliance of nations for the invasion, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and it attained support from the United Nations. Following a massive bombing campaign, the USA launched the invasion, and it pushed the Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 100 hours. Although seen by many of the American people as a demonstration of power, the first Iraq War was made necessary by the American decline; in the heyday of its hegemony, the USA would have attained its objectives through economic and/or diplomatic means.
The Clinton administration continued the U.S. policy of direct military action, albeit through U.S. control of NATO. “Humanitarian intervention” emerged as a new ideological justification of U.S. military action in pursuit of its political and economic interests. The new ideological manipulation was most clearly evident in the cases of Bosnia, bombed in 1995, and Kosovo, where the USA launched a massive bombing campaign in 1999. The U.S. intervention in Kosovo was described as conducted for the benefit of the people of the region, who allegedly were victims of an “ethnic cleansing” campaign carried out by the government of Serbia. However, the U.S. bombing preceded the ethnic cleansing campaign and other atrocities, and it was the U.S.-backed Albanian guerrillas who did most of the killing. The real motive of the military actions of 1995 and 1999 was to preempt threats to U.S. economic interests and to sustain American primacy in the region.
In the 1990s, a number of conservative think tanks financed by international corporations reformulated the conservatism of Reaganism, seeking to adapt to changes at the end of the century, including the end of the Cold War. The neoconservatives sought to reverse the decline of U.S. hegemony. They envisioned the establishment through any means necessary, including military force, of the American concept of democracy and of American civilization as the universal world standard. Accordingly, they favored expansion of military expenditures and the maintenance of U.S. military dominance. They sought to convert popular insecurity resulting from the structural crisis of the world-system and from the U.S. hegemonic decline into a social fear that would generate support for militarist policies. They envisioned strategies of creating enemies and threats in order to establish pretexts for military action. It was a vision that had little in common with U.S. foreign policy of the 1950s, when the United States was at the zenith of its power, which sought control through economic and diplomatic means, with military intervention being used a last resort. A number of prominent neoconservatives supported the candidacy of George W. Bush, some of whom became members of his cabinet when he assumed the presidency in 2001.
The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 provided an opportunity for the neoconservatives to more aggressively pursue their vision. In 2002, Bush announced a doctrine of “preventive war,” justifying U.S. military invasion against any country that has the potential capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. Inasmuch as potentiality is a loose guideline, the declaration in effect proclaims that the USA has the right of aggression in defense of its political and economic interests. It sets aside internationally accepted standards concerning the legal and moral use of force by states, thus making irrelevant international institutions that have been developed since the end of World War II. Inasmuch as the USA, as the hegemonic neocolonial power of that historic moment, had played a prominent role in the development of these international institutions, ignoring them signaled an abandonment of its own established protocols of imperialist neocolonial domination.
In accordance with the preventive war doctrine, the Bush II administration launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and expanded U.S. global military presence. A significant increase in military spending occurred. As all the world knows, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continued under the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as does continuously increasing military expenditures.
The long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not provoke the kind of popular resistance that was caused by the Vietnam War, because the military draft had been eliminated, and because the number of casualties was much lower. Nevertheless, the long wars influenced popular consciousness, and there emerged a reaction to “endless wars,” and a skepticism with respect to their officially declared goals of “defending democracy.” Which is to say that the democratic façade has been exposed. Indeed, the U.S. movie industry produces widely distributed cultural products that emphasize the physical and psychological damage of the Iraq war on American soldiers. We are a long way from Hollywood’s celebration of the allied victory in World War II in the 1950s and early 1960s.
With mixed results with respect to the endless wars in the Middle East, the U.S. corporate elite and the political establishment could not expand its project of military invasion and regime change to recalcitrant socialist and progressive governments in Latin America. So it has launched in Latin America an “unconventional war,” which I discussed with respect to Cuba in my July 16 commentary, “The US unconventional war against Cuba.” As described in a manual of the U.S. Army, the unconventional war strives to topple governments without the direct use of Armed Forces personnel, using instead paid civilian actors who operate from the United States and in the targeted country. In the unconventional war, states are attacked in a variety of ways: economic blockades; financial and ideological support for opposition political parties and organizations; financing fascist gangs and destabilizing activities; enlisting the support of international organizations; and ideological attacks through the mainstream media and the social media. U.S. naval forces have presence in the region, constituting a continuous threat of direct military interventions. But ideally, they would not be directly committed; and if used, their presence would be short-term. In recent years, the targeted nations in this unconventional war have included Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. On the global scene, targeted nations of the U.S. unconventional war have included China, Russia, Iran, and Syria.
Fidel proclaimed that we are in the midst of a Third World War, a conflict between imperialism and its victims. On the one side are those who aggressively defend the privileges of power and wealth that are ensured by the structures of the neocolonial world system. And on the other side are the neocolonized, who seek to transform world-system structures, who discern from their neocolonial situation that the neocolonial world-system is not sustainable and that humanity needs a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system that protects the sovereignty of all nations.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel retook this concept of Fidel, in his address to the Eighteenth Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2019. Díaz-Canel observed that “the Third World War . . . is the war without a starting date nor an estimated date for its end, that beginning years ago bloodied noble and peaceful nations, with the arms of imperial armies, mercenary soldiers, and terrorists, disguised as liberators combating terrorism or defending democracy, freedom, or human rights.” Never before have such lies been perpetuated with “a terrible cost for the immense majority of humanity, to promote the interests of a minority. In the twenty-first century, threats and aggressions of diverse kinds rain on sovereign governments that deny to serve the hegemonic power.”
The United States of America is no longer the hegemonic core power that it was in the 1950s. It is a declining economic power with continuing military dominance, prepared to use military force in defense of its interests, insofar as it can attain the support of its people, and turning to unconventional war when it cannot. The application or threat of military force combined with ideological distortions and fictions is and will continue to be modus operandi of the USA, taking into account its weakened economy, its strong military, its control of the media of information, its weak political culture, and the limited consciousness of its people.
To effectively oppose imperialism in its stage of decadence, we the people of the United States must develop structures for the generation of historical, political, and global consciousness among our people. We should follow the example of the American revolutionaries in the 1770s, who wrote and distributed pamphlets for the elevation of the political consciousness of the people. We should dedicate ourselves to this consciousness-raising work, so that our people can be aware that the nations and peoples of the Third World are calling for an alternative world-system, based on the development of mutually beneficial trade and respect for the sovereignty of nations. So that our people can understand the unsustainability of a world rooted in competing imperialisms; and the necessary alternative road of cooperation that seeks a more just and politically stable world-system. So that the people of the United States can be aware that the peoples of the world are ready and prepared to ally with us in the construction of a more just, democratic, and sustainable world.
The aggressive imperialism of the United States, in both its economic and military dimensions, has consistently and increasingly exposed the democratic façade of the neocolonial world-system (and representative democracy) since 1964, enabling the people of the United States to see beyond the façade. I am unable to forget a panel discussion on the Vietnam War in an overcrowded hall at Penn State in 1967, organized jointly by the leftist Students for a Democratic Society and the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, in which numerous graduate and undergraduate students took the floor to explain U.S. imperialist policies throughout the world. Unfortunately, the unfolding anti-war movement was unable to establish this dignified example as the norm. Moreover, following the end of the war, organizations dedicated to the education of the people to discuss the true meaning of democracy at home and abroad were of limited reach, even though various historic events ought to have functioned as a stimulus to the elevation of popular consciousness. From the 1960s to the present, the movements for the just causes have failed to attain a mature understanding among the people, a necessary foundation for national consensus and national purpose.
Today, with the nation experiencing a profound crisis of division and confusion, the possibility for a sustained and politically mature social movement again presents itself. Responding to this challenge is the duty of all patriotic citizens, whether they identify with the ideological left or right, both of which have shown themselves to be too limited in understanding to effectively respond to the challenge.
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