Achin Vanaik (ed), Selling US Wars (Aris, 2007), £10.99
Selling US Wars is a collection of essays by authors such as Susan George, Walden Bello and Mike Marqusee, which challenges the arguments through which the US has sought to justify the “war on terror”. The book looks at how these justifications were constructed, analyses what lies behind them and tries to measure their impact on ordinary people. It consistently refers to economics, arguing that this is intertwined with politics, and, amid arguments about the declining importance of the nation-state, the book demonstrates how crucial the state is to capitalism.
An essay by Mariano Aguirre argues that the US and British ruling classes have deliberately confused notions of humanitarian action and imperialist intervention to serve their own interests. This has undermined the UN and the sovereignty of individual states, creating the impression that only the US can solve the world’s problems. The US’s focus on neoliberal economic policies also strengthens the idea that state sovereignty is irrelevant.
David Sogge puts a similar case in his chapter on the concept of “failed states”. Following 9/11 the neoconservatives increasingly defined states as “failing” because of the potential problems they might cause to the US. This massively expanded the area in which the US could “legitimately” intervene. Sogge focuses on the neoliberal policies that states are forced to adopt—the very policies that lead them to “fail”—citing the “Empire Lite” approach to Iraq as an example. He argues that today a “project of direct imperial rule is unaffordable”, which is why the US plan for Iraq was to have no plan. Instead the free market was left to deal with the consequences of war. The US seeks stability while pushing policies that create instability.
These policies are linked to the notion of “spreading democracy”. Phyllis Bennis demonstrates that the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan led to increased violence and insecurity, lack of access to basic resources, increased numbers of refugees and deepening divisions in the country—effects that run counter to the notion of democracy. In Iraq elections were used to give the occupation a veneer of credibility. But the US ruling class is selective about the elections it accepts, refusing, for instance, to recognise the election of Hamas in Palestine.
Bennis argues that “democracy” is sold by the US as a way to avoid future wars. However, the history of US intervention in democracies shatters this myth. Bennis concludes that the key thing determining US policy is not whether a country is “democratic”, but whether that country supports the US.
Zia Mian’s terrifying chapter looks at the history of the US obsession with nuclear weapons. He points out the hypocrisy of the US position, which attacks some states for possessing nuclear weapons while aiding others. Mian describes how the Bush administration and sections of the media linked Iraq with nuclear weapons capability. The “White House Iraq Group” was set up to “educate the public” about the “threat” posed by Iraq. The head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, admitted that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”. Mian notes that this affected US public opinion, and that the dissent within the government failed to reach the national media. In a more encouraging note, over 80 percent of the US population are in favour of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. There is a clear disparity between the goals of the US ruling class and the outlook of the population.
Mike Marqusee looks at American exceptionalism, the notion that America is somehow different from and superior to the rest of the world. America is not just a nation but an ideology—Americanism. The idea that “the US is engaged in a global mission on behalf of universal values, that US national interests coincide with the interests of humanity as a whole”, has been used to try to justify US interventions. He describes how the ruling class have returned to the idea of exceptionalism over the years, how US citizens have responded and how people in the colonised countries have fought back.
He argues that there is a tendency for the left to make dangerous concessions to American exceptionalism, with the result that “the liberals helped create the political culture in which ‘liberal’ itself eventually became a dirty word”. However, the US ruling class are not without their problems, as there is a growing unease with US unilateralism.
Overall the book provides a wealth of facts, figures and analysis useful to anti-war activists. But I suspect that readers will find the conclusions of many contributors disappointing.
There is a contradiction between the power that is assigned to the media and the actual opinions of ordinary US citizens. Marqusee claims that the media is hugely influential on public opinion, but goes on to quote various statistics showing that the US population is at odds with the government on a range of issues. For instance, 62 percent thought that the US played the role of world policeman more than it should and 57 percent felt that the US did not have the right to overthrow dictatorships. The majority opposed measures such as using threatening dogs or keeping detainees naked, rejecting “techniques formally approved by the secretary of defence”.
In places this collection regards ordinary people as invisible or dupes of the media. That this book should give such an impression when we have seen the biggest global anti-war movement in history seems strange. Besides, the media is more complex than just the mouthpiece of the ruling class—and even if it were, the ruling class has divisions within it. The book itself refers to pieces from the press which are critical of US foreign policy.
But the main shortcoming of this book is that the conclusions drawn avoid challenging the power of our rulers. Achin Vanaik’s essay ends with a plea to strengthen the International Criminal Court (ICC). Following a chapter where he has laid out the limits of the ICC, and numerous chapters where international bodies have been shown to be at the mercy of the US ruling class, the question is not, “How is this possible?”, so much as, “Why bother?” Placing our hope in organisations that ultimately uphold imperialism cannot challenge imperialism.
Similarly, Susan George, after describing how the neocons have successfully entrenched their views within the US media and mainstream political debate, suggests that left wing researchers need more funding so that they can “learn the lessons” of the right and launch their own “long march through the institutions”. The suggestion is that the ruling class dominates the debate because the left has failed to grasp how to promote its ideas, rather than that the ruling class dominate ideologically because they are the ruling class. Any response which does any less than challenge their power—economically and politically—will be inadequate.