An Open letter to President-Elect Barack Obama

Climbing up on my soapbox this morning.

Over the course of the post World War II arc of history, the United States has engaged in a large number of overseas interventions. Some have taken the form of open and armed activity within the borders of other, generally Third World countries, such as Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, Panama, Lebanon, and others. Generally, not exclusively, these have been carried out under the auspices of the United Nations. Others have taken darker forms…be it propping up a dictator where that dictator is known to support the US v. rival interests (Marcos in the Philippines, Hussein during the Regan era, etc.), or supplying aid and other forms of covert assistance to areas of gray morality where public policy might suffer in the face of such a public revelation. US intervention in said third world countries creates a cause and effect cycle – both the visible (the intervention leads to alterations in the overall world opinion of the US, and this in turn shapes US foreign policy) and the invisible which, historically, U.S. Policy-makers seem to have an implicit misunderstanding of. (Politicians in general seem to be unable to grasp the basic principals of cause and effect – more specifically how one ‘effect’ in turn becomes a ’cause’ to something else later in history and likely very far removed geographically.) At times it almost seems a matter of policy-making bodies applying the old saw that ‘a tree falling in the forest makes no noise without a witness’; q.v. if it happens when the US isn’t watching then it doesn’t really exist. The government of the last eight years has told us repeatedly that some Middle Easterners hate the U.S. only because of our ‘freedom’ and ‘prosperity.’ (Which is so offensive and inaccurate as to be insulting to anyone standing on the same side of the Atlantic as the speaker. Say, me for instance. Let alone those being referred to.) Missing from this “explanation” is the historical context of the U.S. role in the Middle East, and for that matter the rest of the world. Obviously, a small but growing consensus seems to find that much of the United States’ current turmoil here and abroad can be traced to prior actions during earlier US administrations. Even conservative think tanks know that (at least) “a strong correlation exists between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against he United States.”
The cycle of activity, starts with Intervention. According to the Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy (vol. II), international law defines intervention as “…unsolicited interference by one state in the affairs of another; non-intervention I the avoidance of such interference.” The U.S. acts upon a third world country, taking an active hand in its internal affairs. This can take many forms, but at heart, the definition of Intervention for our purposes involves the US taking activity to alter the internal composition of another country. This could be accomplished economically, militarily or socially. The next stage is Reaction. This is when the country being acted upon reacts to US action – this can be positive, negative, or – as is usually the case, a varied combination of both. The final aspect is Feedback. Feedback when the third world country in question takes action after the intervention that has an impact on decisions made here in the US, either in relation to itself or to the affairs of another country.
It is in the nebulous gray zone after Feedback that directly affects Foreign Policy. Most recently, this cause and effect relation can be seen in how the US deals with international terrorism. Ivan Eland said “Although the Defense Science Board noted a historical correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States, the board apparently believed the conclusion to be so obvious that it did not publish detailed data to support it.”
And this from 1998, well before 9/11. The Bush Administration and it’s cronies in both parties haven’t wanted anyone to see this however, as anyone with two clues to bang together can take this and look at US Foreign policy and recognize we’ve set ourselves up for at least another 20 years of being the antichrist to the extremist groups of the world. (If they villify us the worst thing we can do is prove them right. It makes their agenda seem plausible.) The evidence for this cycle is there, but sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. Most often the US response to the Feedback phase of the cycle is just that – playing right into it. This is the ultimate result of an interventionist US Foreign Policy that this country has propagated since the end of the second world war.
A classic example of this cycle is the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in which the U.S. recaptured a role of intervention activity that it had enjoyed before the Second World War. Cuban exiles, having fled Fidel Castro’s communist seizure of that island, were trained and directed to assault the country in the early days of the Kennedy administration. The revolution occurred in 1959, at the close of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential administration, who went on to approve a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) project to train and arm 2,000 such Cuban exiles. Two years later, despite his own misgivings on the matter, President Kennedy approved the project. Instead of triggering a mass uprising against Castro, the exiles were annihilated by Castro’s forces, seasoned by three years of revolutionary fighting. This increased Castro’s image at home (where he ‘defended the borders from imperialist aggressors’), tarnished Kennedy’s -at that point- unblemished record as a diplomat and negotiator, and drove a firm wedge between the US and the leadership of the Soviet Union, miring both countries much deeper into the Cold War.
But now, nineteen years after the end of the Cold War, repercussions are *still* felt. Relations between the U.S. and Cuba are still largely non-existent, and any attempt at such borders on fallacy. The fact that the Bay of Pigs invasion polarized much of central and South American opinion *against* the US seems to have gone unnoticed.
The United States, historically, was founded on its freedom to keep itself separate from the remainder of the western world (during the antebellum era). After the American Civil War however this changed – in the first half of the 20th century we repeatedly sent Marines to “protectorates” such as Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, many of which resulted in losses of life amongst civilians as well as combatants. When the US intervenes, it does so based on it’s own interests and seldom the interest of the country suffering the intervention.
With the vast dearth of technological and military supremacy enjoyed by the United States, it is ever increasingly tempting for a given administration to seek military options where it comes to intervention. Overt military action, historically, has for the most part been carried out under the auspices of the United Nations. The Korean Conflict, and the 1991 Gulf War in which the US most certainly played a dominant role. Not to be forgotten, however, are the interventions where the US played a participatory but not necessarily dominant UN role – the stationing of marines in Beirut, Lebanon from 1982 – 1983, and air and ground force participation in the campaigns in the former Yugoslavia from 1992 – 2000.
The conflict on the Korean Peninsula, contrary to public opinion, occurred only under pressure from then President Harry B. Truman, who already had an American naval group in Korean waters when he forced the vote in the UN on intervention there, taking advantage of the absence of the Soviet delagtor to the UN. Truman was acting on the idea of Containment (that is, trying to keep subversive communist elements from spreading from one nation to the other). As in later conflicts, the US provided nearly all of the personnel and arms for the ‘police action’ – and in so doing, dominated the proceedings there. Early and succinct victories were dashed however, when communist China volunteered 200,000 troops to communist North Korea – producing a stalemate for two years, until the US and by default, the UN, withdrew armed conflict from the region. (Conlin 893) An armistice, or ceasefire, and *not* a formal peace, ended the conflict, thus explaining why fifty years later, US soldiers still serve duty along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
In 1958, marines were deployed to put down revolution in Lebanon even as Iraq threatened invasion of Kuwait (sound familiar?) – A threat which was forestalled by the threat of nuclear weapons release by the United States. A relatively obscure fact, but a very large precedent insofar as affecting local (especially Arabic) opinion against the US, which was still in the habit of defending monarchial governments against freedom seeking revolutionaries at this point – all under the idea of Containment of the ‘communist menace.’
In the post cold war era, the UN seems even fonder of interventionist activity. At the Emerging from Conflict Conference, “The group agreed that since the end of the Cold War there has been a paradigm shift favoring the use of military intervention into humanitarian crises – spearheaded by the United Nations and by nongovernmental organizations, both of whom support the notion of rights without borders.”
Yugoslavia, a nation formed initially in the aftermath of the Second World War as part of the Warsaw Pact/NATO cold war, broke up in 1992. The previous multiethnic nation splintered into warring factions. Increasing US dominance and influence over the initially NATO directed UN activity (which itself is thought by many to have been used to justify the post Cold War continued existence of the NATO organization) led to a naval blockade until 1994 of the emergent nations of Serbia and Montenegro. Bosnia, also a former part of Yugoslavia, was subjected to maintenance of a no fly zone and periodic bombing by jets that patrolled during the civil war. US forces carried out further bombing campaigns against the Serbians and at least twice shot down jets. When the NATO occupation force enabled Albanians to move back into the region, US forces did little or nothing to prevent similar atrocities against Serb and other (non-Albanian) citizens. The US was viewed as a biased player, even by the Serbian democratic opposition that overthrew Milosevic the following year. Bombing and missiles were used as part of massive NATO air strikes after Serbia declined to withdraw from Kosovo, only muddying the waters further.
Other instances of intervention activity under the aegis of the United Nations include actions in Somalia, where from 1992 – 1994, US soldiers and naval elements contributed to a UN occupation force. Somalia was entrenched in a famine intensified civil war. Perceived as a ‘humanitarian’ action, the US deployment to Somalia involved bombing by US aircraft, raids against one Mogadishu faction, and bias in favor of one single faction. The US has a tendency to take one faction in a conflict instead of remaining neutral, creating a power-over situation in that faction’s subsequent dealings with the United States. This ideological constant of siding with one particular of a number of warring factions under the auspices of “fair and humanitarian” assistance was later to be repeated in Bosnia. (Other instances of US involvement with UN intervention activities include the Gulf War of 1991 and the subsequent occupations and control from later that year up until 2001, and actions in Beirut Lebanon from 1982 – 1983.) The remainder of US interventions, carried out alone or with allies, but not under official UN backing or request, fall into two categories – covert, or secret, activities, and then public ones. Instances of covert activity would include the Iran – contra activity of the Regan era, which in brief included Nicaragua, Iran, hostages, arms, money and multiple violations of both American and International law, the 1973 Chilie CIA commando operation to back a coup, thus ousting a democratically elected president.
Add to the list DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) involvement with the would be nation-state of Kurdistan during the prepatory stages of the first Gulf War. Allegedly, the Kurdish people were promised a political state of their own with US support in exchange for assistance in the coming conflict. The Kurdish people, a distinct cultural and linguistic with at least 20 million people comprising it, may be the largest nation without a political state of their own in the world. The 20th century saw this minority bounced between Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey following the First World War, until they were formally integrated into what became the basis for an Iraqi government in 1958. For most of the time since, however, these people have been engaged in bloody conflict with the remaining cultural factions within Iraq. The UN attempted to set aside a Kurdish neutrality zone in the 1994 aftermath of the Gulf War – which once breached, has elicited reprisal only from the United States and Turkey.
The Vietnam Conflict, despite one of countless errors in its popular perception, was most assuredly *not* an action of the United Nations. In short, the United States graduated from only marginal support of the ostensibly non-communist but very corrupt government of south Vietnam in order to staunch the growth of communist north Vietnam…both of which emerged less than a decade previous after violent resistance to French colonial rule was finally ended. Very quickly, as more support and US military involvement was poured into that small nation, the Vietcong (or VC – the government of north Vietnam) stepped up it’s almost exclusively guerilla war against the south – targeting American installations and symbols of American power with each increase of visible involvement. Very quickly, as the war ground on, VC began making use of neighboring countries fairly unguarded borders with South Vietnam as methods of entry and exodus. This led to expansion (and illegal under International Law, much as such incursioins into Syria and Pakistan are now) of US military forces into two neighboring countries.
The Vietnam conflict spread to Cambodia from 1969 – 1975. A very brief communist uprising in 1967 contributed to North Vietnamese regulars and some guerilla activity moving through Cambodian controlled land to stage raids in South Vietnam. The US forces began action in Cambodia in 1969, clearing the way for the communist rebels to gain further support to oust the country’s leadership a year later. Involving both land, air, and naval elements, the US presence sufficiently weakened the country, allowing the Khmer Rouge rebels new fanatical leaders to rise to power and then seize the country in 1975, leaving a wake of atrocity rivaled only by the Holocaust at that time. Between the massed bombing and troop movements, the US contributed to a mass period of starvation and political chaos. Likewise, in 1971, the US began a command operation into Laos which culminated in a massive bombing campaign for the next two years. The Kingdom of Laos fell like the proverbial house of cards – not to be replaced with an actual government until 1975 with the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. Ironically, the socialist party that became the nucleus of this government was the direct result of North Vietnamese military victories in Cambodia and Laos in April of 1974.

Regardless of the overt or covert nature of these operations, a number of similarities begin to emerge under some scrutiny. In every case, these activities have remained secret or are explained to the american people as ‘defending freedom and democracy, protecting the rights and lives of civillian populations’ or words to that effect. Nearly all of them in fact defended dictatorships controlled by pro-US allies. Further, the US always quite visible calls violence by its opponents as ‘terrorism,’ ‘atrocities against civilians,’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ but minimizes or defends the same actions by the US or its allies.” (Say, Israel.)
Finally, the conventional wisdom (e.g. official position) on terrorism has always been been that terrorism emerged during the cold war as a successful (in a geopolitical sense) means to circumvent the “bloc system” exemplified by NATO and the Soviet dominated Warsaw Pact. Yet nearly two decades after the end of the cold war, the United States is ‘called upon’ frequently to respond to international causes and deploy forces around the world. Like Batman, the US creates terrorism by repeatedly creating the circumstances ideal for terrorist ideologies to grow and thus invites attack simply because of its presence. Without Batman, there would be no Joker.
In the Sudan in 1998, the US struck hard and fast with bombings of chemical factories by Clinton to get back at Bin Laden? – Pharmaceutical plants alleged to be terrorist owned or controlled sources of nerve gas. In the aftermath of these “counter-attacks” President William Clinton said “Americans are targets of terrorism in part because we have unique leadership responsibilities in the world, because we act to advance peace and democracy, and because we stand united against terrorism.” (Read: Because they hate freedom and democracy. IT’s the same line of nonsense.) In the end, cause and effect remains in the eye of the beholder. Military and political action within the eminent domain of another country will have at least as many perspectives as there are people affected by it, both here and abroad, but unless some fundamental rethinking of US foreign policy occurs at the most basic level, the cycle that has emerged in the last 65 years will remain unchecked.

Mr. President-Elect, this is the legacy of (at least) 65 years of U.S. foreign policy. You can change this. You can render unto the world a new era wherein we really don’t do these things. Close our illegal prisons, stop illegal warfare. Let’s live up to the ideals that this country ostensibly champions. (Call me an idealist. I dare you.) In eight days….

We will be watching, and waiting.

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~ by Auntie Ranty on January 12, 2009.

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