Western Elite’s War Against the Third World
An urgent global problem is containment of the United States and its principal client state in the Middle East

By Edward S. Herman

The Cold War was primarily a war against the Third World, to contain the thrust toward independence and the pursuit of non-elite interests in the former colonial areas that followed World War II, with its damaging affects on colonialism and euphoric rhetoric about the Four Freedoms (which included “Freedom from Want”). The Soviet Union was an extremely convenient nominal target in this war, as its alleged global objectives could be used as a cover for the real target—the threatening of Third World independence movements. In retrospect, it is now crystal clear that it was the United States, not the Soviet Union, that had serious and expansive global objectives that were developed and pressed during and after the Great War. These objectives were implemented long before the 1990-1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, through military conquest, subversion, the support of proxy military forces, the establishment of a global network of military bases and military alliances such as NATO and SEATO, and the efforts of the U.S.-dominated IMF, World Bank, and other global institutions. The Soviet stance throughout the Cold War was almost entirely defensive, and its impact globally was limited to some modest degree of constraint—the de facto “containment”—on the real imperialism and the real terror network. However, its alleged threat of world conquest was a major aid to the propaganda machinery of the conquistador forces, providing the phony basis for organizing the mechanisms of imperialism (the CIA and U.S. military establishment, NATO, SEATO, etc., and the international financial institutions) and justifying a host of direct and proxy wars and subversive operations—real expansionism—as responses to the mythical threat of communist world conquest.

Take Guatemala as a microcosm and illustration of the difference between the rhetoric and reality. The United States organized the overthrow of the social democratic government of Guatemala in 1954 under the cover of an allegedly urgent Communist threat that was completely phony. (As in the case of the Nicaraguan [Sandinista] threat in the 1980s and Saddam Hussein’s threat in 2002, the small neighbors of the U.S. targets were more frightened of the imminent U.S. aggression than of the threat from the target.) Documents in the Guatemalan government’s files studied in the post-overthrow years indicated that the Soviet Union had “made no significant or even material investment in the Arbenz regime” (investigator Ronald Schneider), and, preoccupied with its internal problems, had little interest in Central America. Communists had a very marginal role in the Guatemalan government and were in no way in control. This was almost surely known to U.S. officials as they waxed hysterical over “Soviet aggression” by proxy in Central America and the great threat of this tiny, poor, and virtually disarmed state.

But there was a problem in getting rid of a government that was too democratic, too responsive to the needs of the Guatemalan people, encroaching on the privileges of El Pulpo (United Fruit), and another one of those “threats of a good example” and excessively independent and “nationalistic” governments that the United States has long found intolerable. It would have been hard to justify intervention on the grounds of the Guatemalan government’s democratic character and concern for its own people, so how handy that the Soviet menace was available as an excuse. And how handy that the New York Times would swallow the claim that the Communists had literally taken over Guatemala (e.g., Sidney Gruson, “How Communists Won Control of Guatemala,” NYT, March 1, 1953) and that the press in general performed as unrestrained war propagandists. In the classic language of United Fruit’s PR person, Thomas McCann, “It is difficult to make a convincing case for manipulation of the press when the victims prove so eager for the experience.” Fifty years later studies of the performance of the current batch of media lapdogs show that there is nothing new under the sun as regards their willingness and even eagerness to serve the imperial project.

The Soviet presence and its challenge both in rhetoric and as a development model to Third World countries was almost surely a factor in the Western elite’s grudging acceptance of the growth of worker organizations and the building of welfare states that served the general population. The death of the Soviet Union diminished that incentive and source of pressure, as well as the containment that the Soviet Union had provided. Without that containment, with the euphoria of a surging triumphalism, with U.S. and allied economic, military, and political power now able to break down Third World barriers to investment and trade, with the improving technologies of transportation and communication making corporate globalization and outsourcing easier, and with labor in a steadily weakening position in both bargaining power and the political arena, the stage was set for a new global class war.

Arguably, these developments, several of which were well under way before the fall of the Soviet Union, have given new life to Marx’s theory of capitalist development. The improving possibilities of globalization have extended the “reserve army of labor” from individual countries to virtually the entire globe, and the wider global markets and accelerated pressure for increasing financial returns have made capital more ruthless and more willing to abandon communities and workers and take advantage of more investor-friendly conditions elsewhere. Capital’s greater political power and the absence of any socialist challenge have made the stripping down of welfare state protections more practicable. The move is toward that purer capitalism that Marx envisaged in Das Kapital.

The use of military force and the cultivation of patriotism and fear have played a major role in these developments. The military establishment and the CIA’s subversive activities have helped bring into power a string of military and other client regimes that stifled nationalist and populist challenges and provided the desired subordination to U.S. guidance—an open door to foreign investment, and a “favorable climate of investment” (i.e., a very “flexible” labor market, low corporate taxes, national treatment of foreign investment, unrestricted repatriation of profits, etc.) Classic cases were Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965-66), the Philippines (1972), Chile (1973), Nicaragua (1981-1990), and Yugoslavia (1992-1999). At the same time, military force and subversion, along with boycotts and other forms of economic warfare, were extremely important in weakening economically and forcing the defensive militarization of regimes in which alternative paths to development were being tried and which these damaging external forces helped to abort (e.g., Vietnam, Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua).

Militarization and the ready resort to force has had the great additional advantage of creating a moral environment of “false consciousness” at home whereby patriotism and fear of manufactured enemies serve to divert the citizenry from “reality” to “security.” As Thorstein Veblen pointed out back in 1904, “national politics,” and specifically an “aggressive national policy,” is “the largest and most promising factor of cultural discipline” in an advanced business society, as it “directs the popular interest to other nobler, institutionally less hazardous matters than the unequal distribution of wealth or of creature comforts” (The Theory of Business Enterprise).

So the “aggressive national policy”—the forward strategy outlined in recent National Security doctrinal statements—has complementary functions: to expand power abroad, creating new opportunities and privileges for domestic business (including the weapons industry), and to contain and even roll back democracy at home, helped by pushing front and center the “nobler, less institutionally hazardous matters” like crushing the infidels and terrorists and by cultivating fear and using it to justify repression. This facilitates the ripoffs, upward redistribution of income, and more ruthless exploitation of the environment, that can be ignored in the face of existential crises, which, insofar as they have any trace of validity, are mainly blowbacks from the aggressive national policy itself.

David Harvey frames these developments as a part of a process of reasserting and consolidating class power (e.g., as in the United States and Mexico) or establishing it de novo (as in Russia and China). This is implemented by imposing the conditions of neoliberalism and carrying out its various modes of dispossession (see his The New Imperialism, 2003, and A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 2005). Neolib- eralism is an ideology and policy that features commodification of everything, the takeover of the commons by market operators, the privatization of all public utilities—including water, transportation, and telecommunication—as well as social welfare provision, public institutions (universities, prisons), and even warfare (mercenaries in Iraq now outnumber military personnel). It rolls back regulatory protections of labor and the environment and strips away rights to state pensions, welfare, and national health care. It uses the credit system and periodic financial crises to drain income and transfer assets from the weak to the strong, partly by bailouts of the latter in the interest of “stability.”

“All of these processes amount to the transfer of assets from the public and popular realms to the private and class-privileged domain.” They also mark a breakdown of society as a community with any real solidarity. Under the pretense of a newly liberated individualism, vast numbers are isolated and made vulnerable to the abuses and exploitation of the powerful. When this process was enforced by a brutal military regime in Brazil in the 1960s, the indigenous Catholic Church published dramatic papers on “The Cry of the People” and “The Marginalization of a People” featuring the negative human effects of enforced “atomization.” Today, as Harvey writes, “the figure of ‘the disposable worker’ emerges as prototypical upon the world stage” and increasing attention is now given to the emergence across the globe of massive slums populated with peasants driven off the land along with the urban dispossessed, urban human dumps growing at the rate of some 25 million humans a year.

Externally, dispossession is more frequently associated with conquest and the seizure or establishment of privileged access to valuable assets (often resources like oil, cultivable land, forests, or mines). Here, also, dispossession takes the form of intensified labor exploitation, the transfer of tax burdens away from the elite to the marginalized, the reduction of government services to the latter, credit dependency and prioritizing the payment of interest and principal on foreign debt, and peasant dispossession via a reduction in government subsidies and protection of indigenous rights along with the opening of markets to foreign subsidized exports. Vast numbers may also be dispossessed when the elite wants to “renew” with upscale housing or industrial parks in areas inhabited by the poor or cleanse in anticipation of Olympic games or “develop” via dam construction, which in India has displaced more than 30 million people. There are also periodic dispossessions via financial crises and devaluations—with foreign creditors bailed out, indigenous wages slashed amid soaring unemployment, asset prices dropping enabling foreign vultures to buy them cheaply, and the beleaguered victim country put into a further state of dependency and rule in accord with foreign elite interests.

Harvey has extended discussions of dispossession processes in Mexico, China, Russia, and Iraq. In the case of Iraq, the United States and UK went in on fabricated grounds seeking an easy victory, bases, and privileged access to Iraq’s large oil reserves, but ran into unexpected difficulties. It is enlightening to see how quickly the invader imposed a neoliberal system on Iraq, even while claiming to be “liberating” the victim country whose population was of course not consulted on the desirability of the new economic regime. It is also interesting to see how unwilling the political elite of the invaders is to call it quits without any further dispossession payoff; how insistent they are that “Iraq” prove itself worthy of the U.S.’s noble sacrifices on behalf of its liberation with the passage of an oil law that will serve the oil majors. The invasion-occupation had other advantages: weapons producers and contractors like Halliburton have made out like bandits because they are bandits; under war conditions even more direct raids on the Treasury have been possible; and the war-makers have been able to freely loot Iraq’s cash, assets, and revenues from oil sales. Thus, both the U.S. taxpayers and the Iraqi people have been robbed in this multi-leveled case of dispossession.


Another very important case of dispossession, not dealt with by Harvey, is Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians. There was of course the huge ethnic cleansing of 1947-1948, but ever since then there has been a further slow process, within the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel, but then accelerated in the occupied territories from 1967 to the present. One thing that makes this case important is its straightforward character of ethnic cleansing of a weak group by one that is better organized and very well armed, with large areas of land simply taken away (stolen) from the weaker party in favor of the “chosen people.” It is striking that this has been done in the face of clear legal prohibitions in the form of international agreements (notably, the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel and the United States are signatories), court decisions (including the Inernational Court’s decision on the apartheid wall), and scores of UN Security Council and other rulings, and also in the face of a Western moral code and enlightenment values that theoretically ought to prevent and/or remedy such crude and racist abuses. But they go on even today with active support of the West. This is a testimony to the power of rationalization and the ability of the pro-Israel lobby to enforce a remarkable double standard in which some ethnic cleansings are harshly condemned and elicit allegedly morality-based actions (including wars and special tribunals) and others are approved and given generous aid.

The Israel-Palestine case is especially important because the violence of the ethnic cleansing state is applied by a Western imposed and supported entity against a non-Western people, and is almost ideally suited to create resentment among a wide swath of humanity who can plainly see the double standard at work and identify with the Palestinians, often because they have their own basis of resentment at Western policies affecting them. We are talking now of numbers that run into the low billions.

The West has not only been able to rationalize Israel’s long, blatant, cruel, and systematic ethnic cleansing, in a miracle of self-deception it has been able to make Israel a victim, merely defending itself and “retaliating” against Palestinian “terror.” How this explains the steady encroachments on Palestinian land and water is not clear, and why the killing of Palestinians at a ratio of 25 or more to 1 until the second intifada (when it fell to perhaps 3 to 1)—and why civilian deaths from aerial bombardment, “targeted assassinations,” and the lavish use of modern weaponry in civilian areas—does not make Israel a terrorist state, can also only be explained by sheer bias. This word usage and inversion was predicted back in 1967 by French president Charles de Gaulle, who stated after the 1967 war that Israel “is organizing, on the territories which it has taken, an occupation which cannot work without oppression, repression and expulsions—and if there appears resistance to this it will in turn be called ‘terrorism.’”

The other side of the Orwellian inversion is the West’s ability to ignore the fact that the illegal occupation and systematic ethnic cleansing is itself terrorism—wholesale and primary—and the crucial source of Palestinian retail terrorism. There were no Palestinian suicide bombings until the second intidafa, after decades of Palestinian efforts to obtain relief from the steady dispossession process that was demolishing their homes, pushing them off their land, stealing their water, and treating them like untermenschen. In reality, it has been the Palestinians who are “retaliating,” weakly, to Western supported state terrorism in the form of a brutal, racist-based, ethnic cleansing.

But it is the pitiful giants of the West, including the U.S. and Israel, who are suffering from an unprovoked outburst from “Islamo-fascism.” In reality, across-the- board the “clash of civilizations” is Western provoked: we can observe no Islamic society invading, occupying, actively subverting, and ethnically cleansing Western societies, whereas the United States is intruding everywhere, protecting its “security“ with bases and periodic invasions and bombing raids in all corners of the earth. It invaded and occupied distant Iraq in the interest of its “security” supposedly threatened by Iraqi weapons; it bombs Somalia and underwrites an invasion of that country by Ethiopia as part of its supposed “war on terror,” which it pursues in steady violation of international law; it funds and protects Israel’s ethnic cleansing and its 2006 attack on Lebanon, again in violation of international law.

The urgent global problem is containment of the United States and its principal client state in the Middle East, given the death of the Soviet barrier, and the aim of the U.S. elite to create its own preferred reality everywhere, and to provide unlimited support for Israel to do the same. Right now the over-armed U.S. mafia is threatening to attack still another target in the Middle East, Iran, unless it chooses to go first for Pakistan, where radical Islamic forces earlier encouraged by the mafia took strong root. The U.S. public voted against the mafia in the 2006 election, but that has not interfered with its plans and it may feel that broadening its violence will enhance its political position as the public rallies behind its leader in time of war. We can only hope that further mafia stumbling and greater blows from the resistance in Iraq and elsewhere prevent the mafia from producing “end times” before its exit from the stage.

Z Magazine Sept. 2007