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The Old American Century: Twenty Years of Realist Foreign Policy

By       Message Kenneth Anderson     Permalink
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The Old American Century: Twenty Years of Realist Foreign Policy _____________________ With the release of the Iraq Study Group report, which has almost everyone expressing various degrees of chagrin, the "realists" have moved back onto the stage of American foreign policy. But who are these people and why are they called realists? What is so real about what they advocate, both for the current debacle in Iraq and the larger venture of American-led globalism? Perhaps the most glaring omission in the current discussions surrounding the ISG, portrayed as it is as a gathering of foreign policy sages from a halcyon era, is any mention of the atrocities and wars that these so-called realists have fomented around the globe and in particular the Middle East.
***
In the context of US foreign policy, the term "realist" has come to describe a prominent group of policy wonks comprising the likes of Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Baker and Jeane Kirkpatrick. The theoretical underpinnings of this loosely affiliated group, all of whom have held high seat in American government, stemmed from the likes of George Kennan and Nicholas Spykman, respectively the "father" and "godfather" of containment. Pragmatically, the realists stuck to this script by supporting brutal albeit palatable, i.e. right wing, dictators, conducting covert operations and illegal arms dealing, and fueling wars, insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, all while keeping US forces out of harm's way. For decades, the Middle East has seen these tools employed in any number of arenas, though the focus has been primarily on Iraq and Iran, two countries the United States government wanted to regain some control over after having lost their gendarmerie when the Shah was deposed and Tehran fell to the Islamic Revolution. Vietnam was a turning point in US foreign policy. After that imperialist disaster, it was recognized that the American people would have a reduced tolerance for protracted war in far away places when there was little evidentiary need for it. This was recognised as especially true when whatever evidence that might have been presented later proved to be wilfully manufactured. (The blame-Americans-first crowd howled -- still do -- that Vietnam was winnable and all we would have had to do was go in, full-force. It would become a theme among the right wing that, had it not been for a weak-kneed American public, we would have won Vietnam! Whoever "we" were, it apparently did not include the traitors who were the citizens of the country. Little America had let down the big America by being sickened and outraged by that war-by-lie.) No, there would be no more protracted guerrilla wars in which US troops would be dying and the media were there to pass along that gruesome information. If war was deemed necessary, it would need to be either short, sharp and swift or silent; US troop casualties would need to be kept to a minimum. The Weinberger Doctrine, and the subsequent Powell Doctrine of Overwhelming Force, were direct outgrowths of the "lessons learned" from Vietnam. These doctrines, the products of two members of the "realist" camp, would disavow the use of US troops for nation building and peacekeeping missions and this philosophy was clearly on display in the first Gulf War. However, as with the prescription for overwhelming force, the moratorium on nation building would also be repudiated -- at the behest of his neoconservative advisers -- by George W. Bush, as his administration embarked upon the illegal invasion of Iraq. Neither peacekeeping nor nation building were goals of the realists. Despite Reagan's initial statement that US policy in Lebanon would not change, any such mission became entirely proscribed after the 1983 barracks bombing in Lebanon. In an act of realist restraint, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger would abort plans for a revenge attack on Iranian postiions at Baalbek. Nonetheless, for 20 years prior to the current Bush presidency, realist foreign policy in the Middle East was directed toward the ruin of regionally strong nations, vis-à-vis Iraq and Iran. After several decades of US and British dominance over Iranian and Iraqi oil supplies, both countries had nationalized their petroleum industries, Iraq in 1972 and Iran once again after the ouster of Pahlavi. The Iranian mullahs even had the temerity to reduce oil production according to a then new oil conservation policy. While Hussein was an autocrat, he was a secular one. Though Hussein was bent on continuing and expanding upon Gamal Nasser's pan-Arab Nationalism, dealing with the despot would be seen by the realists as the decidedly better option, considering the animosity the newly-minted Islamic Republic of Iran had toward American interests. Fortunately for the Reagan administration, Hussein became president of Iraq mere months before the Shah would meet his ignominious end and the Ayatollah Khomeini, someone with whom Hussein shared a bitter enmity, assumed leadership of Iran. With the mutual antipathy of the two leaders setting the stage -- Hussein wanting to establish Iraq as the regional Arab power and Khomeini seeking to export an Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East -- the realists pounced upon the opportunity to reduce both regimes and their respective societies to rubble. Almost immediately after Khomeini came to power, Iraq began agitating for war with Iran and doing so with the encouragement of the White House. After initial Iraqi success in the Iran-Iraq war, Iran began a push-back and, in 1982, was meeting with some success itself. The realists in the Reagan administration viewed this development dimly. In fact, Reagan was so adamant that Iraq not loose the war, he decided that the United States "would do whatever was necessary and legal to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran" and Reagan himself issued a National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) that was designed to aid Iraq by covertly supplying Baghdad with illegal arms via the CIA. Then CIA director William Casey and former Iraq Study Group member and current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, "authorized, approved and assisted" the delivery of cluster bombs to Iraq.
CIA Director Casey personally spearheaded the effort to ensure that Iraq had sufficient military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to avoid losing the Iran-Iraq war.
While the Reagan administration certainly went to some considerable lengths to do "whatever was necessary," the subsequent Iran-Contra scandal would demonstrate that legality was not an overriding concern for the foreign policy realists. Not unlike the current administration, legality was viewed as merely an impediment to getting things done, something that required the use of "other means." The Iran-Contra scandal laid out the kind of covert machinations that the realists had decided would be the best way to conduct US foreign policy. With the United States actively supplying Iraq with economic aid, arms and intelligence -- including satellite imagery of Iranian ground forces -- during the Iran-Iraq war, Reagan administration officials simultaneously conducted the entirely illegal covert sale of arms to Tehran and funnelled that money into Central American death squads. The realists involved in this extra-legal gambit included George H.W. Bush, Robert Gates, Caspar Weinberger and the much-laureled man of our current day, Colin Powell, who personally ordered the delivery of 4000 TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran. But to what end did such seeming cross-purposes serve? Why channel weapons to both sides of the war when there exists an ostensibly clear favourite? As indicated earlier, neither Hussein nor Khomeini were seen by the White House as being entirely friendly toward US interests; Khomeini being decidedly less so. In the long term, both regimes would need to be dispatched, or as Henry Kissinger would succinctly elucidate during the Iran-Contra hearings, "We wanted them to kill each other." Which they did, in great numbers. With the aid of US weapons, including sales of various biological and chemical agents, an estimated 1 million casualties resulted during what has been described as the longest war of the 20th century. The war, as was surreptitiously intended by the Reagan administration realists, destroyed large portions of both the Iranian and Iraqi civilian infrastructure, which stalled economic development and placed those countries in significant debt. It would be this debt that would lead Hussein to invade yet another country, Kuwait, after provocations by that petroleum regime. After the Iran-Iraq war, Hussein was $75 billion in arrears, $14 billion of it owed to Kuwait. The Crimes of the Gulf War [The following discussion is based upon charges, evidence and transcripts of testimony presented to the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal regarding United States War Crimes against Iraq, the report of which is available from Maisonneuve Press, P.O. Box 2980, Washington, D.C. 20013, and The Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal, 36 East 12th Street, New York, NY 10003. Members of the G.H.W. Bush administration, including but not limited to, George Bush, James Baker, Richard Cheney, William Webster, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Colin Powell, were charged with 19 counts of Crimes Against Peace, War Crimes, and Crimes against Humanity in violation of the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions and the Constitution of the United States. They were found guilty in absentia on all counts.] Shortly after George H. W. Bush moved into the Oval Office -- his dour band of realists in tow -- the CIA directed Kuwait to begin over producing oil, violating OPEC production agreements, in order to keep the price of oil artificially low. A memorandum documenting conversations between then CIA director William Webster and Kuwait's chief of security was presented at an Arab summit in August of 1990.
We agreed with the American side that it was important to take advantage of the deteriorating economic situation in Iraq in order to put pressure on that country's government to delineate our common border. The Central Intelligence Agency gave us its view of appropriate means of pressure, saying that broad cooperation should be initiated between us on condition that such activities be coordinated at a high level.
Kuwait's foreign minister reportedly fainted at the sight of this document. Kuwait's intentional over production infuriated Hussein, who was desperate for higher oil prices after the war. Iraq was losing some $6-7 billion a year in revenue due to the glut of oil on the market. Furthermore, Kuwait moved oil rigs near the Iraq border and began slant drilling into Iraqi oil fields. Once this program of agitation began, the Pentagon, under the direction of General Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf, conducted a series of computerized war games specifically targeting Iraqi armoured divisions while the White House displayed no interest in the increasingly hostile dispute between Iraq and Kuwait, something that was sure to boil over. In the last meeting between then US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, and Saddam Hussein, Glaspie indicated that Washington's position in the dispute was entirely neutral. But deliveries of food to war torn Iraq were inexplicably cut-off in spring of 1990, causing shortages that now seem entirely designed to provoke an hostile reaction. Naturally enough and still being hoodwinked, Hussein launched his invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, which was widely denounced by both the UN Security Council and the Arab League. Economic sanctions against Iraq were quickly enacted and many of these resolutions were garnered by the Bush administration through various incentives such as arms, debt forgiveness ($7 billion for Egypt) or threats of economic retaliation. Yemen, which opposed the US, lost millions in foreign aid. The Bush administration claimed that the biggest concern at the time was an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, for which there was little evidence despite Pentagon claims that Iraqi forces were massing on the Saudi border. Soviet and commercial satellite imagery showed no Iraqi forces on the Saudi border and while the Pentagon persisted in its claim, it refused to release any countervailing satellite imagery of its own. For five months, more than 500,000 US troops moved into Saudi territory. All of this was planned well in advance of Iraq's invasion, and General Schwarzkopf would later refer to "eighteen months of planning" in anticipation of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. In an effort to assuage concerns about a war that appeared inevitable -- which it was for the White House -- a disinformation campaign was launched designed to portray Iraqi forces as beyond barbaric. Bush would repeatedly cite known false reports that premature babies were being torn out of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals. But it was only after this propaganda percolated through the public sphere for sometime, that the conditions would be deemed ripe for attack. And it was then that the massacre would begin. Bombardment of Iraq began on January 16, 1991, timed for the evening news broadcasts at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The continuous air assault -- over 100,000 sorties comprising 88,000 tons of bombs -- lasted for forty-two days and during that time, a vast array of civilian infrastructure was targeted and destroyed, including water treatment and sewage systems, water supplies, power generation, telephone and radio networks, food processing plants, irrigation, railroads, bridges. This was not by accident and carried with it the specific intent of destroying modern civilian life in Iraq. After the war, UNICEF reported that Iraq was in "near apocalyptic condition." It is estimated that 125,000 civilians were killed during this realist campaign, run by the book according to the Powell Doctrine. But this was only the prelude to the assault that began once Iraqi forces had been cut-off from supplies of food and water. Despite Hussein agreeing to a Soviet-backed cease-fire proposal and Hussein's orders for Iraqi troops to withdraw from Kuwait, US forces would decimate the retreating -- fleeing -- army, which at that point was a hapless band of haggard and hungry men trying to get out of the way of the advancing American army. They did not get out of the way. But this was not how the retreat was portrayed by George Bush or the media, which echoed Bush's declaration that the Iraqi was not retreating -- such a claim was a "cruel hoax" -- but was fighting and being repelled by US forces. In fact, while in full retreat, Iraqi soldiers would be mowed down during what was called a "turkey shoot." Justifying this atrocity and often promulgated were the oil field fires, which the Bush administration claimed Iraqi forces had set as they retreated from Kuwait. Images of the fires, and repeated statements that Iraqi forces had been responsible flooded news reports. But it is now believed that US aircraft, using various incendiary explosives, including napalm and FAE (fuel air explosive) bombs, were actually responsible for most the oil well fires -- traces of napalm were found at various drill sites. Some of the fires resulted from US forces actually using these illegal weapons on Iraqi forces but more generally, most of the fires appeared to be the result of a PR campaign designed to further indict Iraqi forces as despicable maniacs. But this media meme had been established to enable and warrant the wholesale slaughter of Iraq's retreating army. Highways of Death In compliance with UN Resolution 660, Iraqi forces began their withdrawal from Kuwait on February 26, 1991. Saddam Hussein announced this on Baghdad radio the same day and eye witnesses in Kuwait confirmed that Iraqi forces were leaving that afternoon. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that US forces would not attack Iraqi forces in retreat. However, it was the position of the White House that Iraqi forces were not retreating and George Bush insisted that "there was no evidence to suggest the Iraqi army is withdrawing. In fact, Iraqi units are continuing to fight." He further promised to continue prosecuting the war. But what ensued could not, by any stretch, be considered "war." On two stretches of road leading out of Kuwait, large convoys comprising some 2000 vehicles were attacked by US aircraft, which initially destroyed vehicles at the front and rear of the columns. Once the traffic jam was created, US airplanes bombed and strafed every vehicle with impunity. One pilot would describe it as "shooting fish in a barrel."
There for 60 miles every vehicle was strafed or bombed, every windshield is shattered, every tank is burned, every truck is riddled with shell fragments. No survivors are known or likely. The cabs of trucks were bombed so much that they were pushed into the ground, and it's impossible to see if they contain drivers or not. Windshields were melted away, and huge tanks were reduced to shrapnel.
While there were some survivors, General Schwarzkopf estimated that 100,000 Iraqi soldiers had been eliminated. Schwarzkopf later wondered, "How long the world would stand by and watch the United States pound the living hell out of Iraq...." Long enough for yet another episode of merciless extermination to unfold. In an event that would become known as the "bulldozer assault," two brigades of the US Army 1st Infantry, using combat earth movers, consciously buried alive an unknown number of Iraqi soldiers in the desert sand. The US military claimed that the soldiers were defending the "Saddam Line," really just a trench in the dirt, though this claim, as with all claims about any war emanating from the White House and the Pentagon, is highly questionable. Before getting their story straight, one US commander at the time place the number buried in the thousands while another said the number was only one to two hundred.* Unguided by any measure of moral rectitude or rule of war, the realist aim in slaughtering retreating Iraqi forces on the highways of death was the complete annihilation of any and all Iraqi military capacity. This is crucial, of course, if one's goal is continued military and economic dominance of the country, a goal few doubted was ultimately at stake and entirely achievable now that the systematic destruction of the military and economic infrastructure of Iraq had taken place. The realists' agenda, however, was not yet complete. Severe economic sanctions described by UN Resolution 661, which had already been coerced by the White House, would impose yet more uncountable deaths in the decade subsequent to the first Gulf War.
***
At their most ruinous height, the draconian economic sanctions imposed on Iraq would be implicated in the deaths of several hundred thousand children, as well as the sick and elderly, over the several years before the Oil for Food program began in late 1997. Harsh restrictions on medical supplies, food, water treatment chemicals and other necessities would be collaterally imposed under the rubric of "dual use," the American position being that such goods could be weaponized. At its peak, the death rate was estimated to be about 5,000 civilians per month, mostly children, the elderly and infirm, a number that is considerably higher than the even the worst months of carnage seen in Iraq today. This was a "price" then Secretary of State and contemptible realist, Madeline Albright, asserted was "worth it." Just what "it" was remained unstated, though the implication was clear enough: removal of Saddam Hussein through the decimation of civil society in Iraq. It was believed that, despite the immense hardship inflicted on the Iraqi people by the sanctions, it would be this suffering that would lead Iraqis to depose Hussein; a fantasy under the guise of "realist" foreign policy. After having been "bombed back to the stone age," Iraq remained unable to rebuild even its most basic infrastructure, such as water treatment plants. Disease was rampant, and many of the deaths were attributed to cholera and dysentery. In 1998, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, Denis Halliday, resigned, saying, "I don't want to administer a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide." The death toll of the sanctions, the final program of the realist agenda before George Bush became president and invaded Iraq, is estimated to be 1.5 million people. And all of this devastation was wrought without a single US military casualty. This was the realist path toward domination in the Middle East.
***
In the decades preceding the current invasion of Iraq, realist foreign policy in the Middle East produced some remarkably horrifying atrocities. The realist part of that, of course, is that much of this was done and kept outside the glare of daily media coverage. Covert operations, UN coercion and bribery, illegal arms dealing, war crimes and "shock and awe" under the cover of darkness, all were conducted as extra-legal enterprises, only to be discovered later. As the wisdom goes, it is easier to get forgiveness than permission. Indeed, the first Gulf War was so swift that almost no one had a chance to witness it before the US military had finished the job. Though the after effects, such as the Highway of Death, remain as testament to some of this policy, attention to much of what has been crafted in the name of US interests has so faded, the established narrative regarding the realists and the neoconservatives actually portrays the likes of James Baker and George H. W. Bush as the wise and kindly men of a bygone and benevolent era. Nothing could be further from the truth. They have agitated for and encouraged war and conducted their own, which along with devastating economic sanctions, have produce millions of dead. The neoconservatives are still well down in the body count. But what the realists never did was mess up the Middle East to the point that Iraqi oil production and distribution was seriously threatened or place Iran in a position of power, which it certainly is now. Baker and the rest of the realists may have doubted the outcome, but they did not oppose Bush's invasion. Any doubts would have stemmed from Bush's disregard for the Powell doctrine and the obvious need to keep US troops out of an extended, bloody conflict. He did not do that. Moreover, after recurring deployments, stop-loss orders, 25,000 casualties and dismal recruiting levels, as in the aftermath of Vietnam, the US military is now at its lowest level of readiness since that time. Bush has broken the military, just as that earlier insane war did. The realists did not like that. Bush's invasion also produced something that was entirely expected by the realists, because they had already considered an invasion of Iraq. It was not going to have a beneficial outcome, as George Bush Sr. and Brent Scowcroft would tell us in 1998:
Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream . . . and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. . . . We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect rule Iraq. . . . There was no viable 'exit strategy' we could see. . . . Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different -- and perhaps barren -- outcome.
We are now well beyond a "perhaps barren outcome." There is no foreseeable outcome that not entirely bleak and there is certainly none envisioned by Bush. Perhaps he thinks things will just get better one day and he is willing to wait until that day comes. This is why the realists felt a need to step in. Bush had no intention of altering course, and still doesn't, even as his misadventure in international illegality continues its now out of control eruption. Robert Gates, a member of Baker's ISG panel and now Secretary of Defense, is someone thought to be the signal that Bush was ready to change his tack. As an un-indicted co-conspirator in Iran-Contra, Gates certainly has a realist track record, but it remains to be seen just what kind of effect he will bring to this White House. Given Bush's current state of intransigence, he may have no effect at all. Some have considered that the Iraq Study Group report is mere political cover for Bush, which may be true to some degree, but this seems to ignore the genuine concern the realists have for the region. And given how Bush has blithely dismissed most or all of the recommendations, whatever political shelter the report may have offered has been likewise dispatched. The true realist concern lies in one seminal fact: the Middle East is where the oil is. But with the violence rampant throughout Iraq, oil is going to be hard to come by when the pumps and the drillers are getting shot and blown up. Along with breaking the military, this also, was a too serious breach of the trust. With the Pentagon now seriously considering troop increases, The Surge, and that Condoleezza Rice has said she does not want to talk with Iran or Syria, it is clear that Bush is not considering the ISG recommendations. While there seems to be a revolt around him and that it seems impossible to believe that Bush can continue to ignore it all, we know that he is perfectly capable of ignoring the advice of anyone presenting perspectives that fail to comport with his particular view of things. At this point, it is not at all clear whether Bush listens to much of anything. Though the Iraqis seem willing to oblige a couple of the ISG recommendations regarding the new oil law, this is scant help to the realist agenda if the oil is made inaccessible by the civil war. And if Iraq becomes a Shi'ite state with close ties to Iran, which is almost what it is right now despite the bloodshed, then the realists will have a very difficult time on their hands, which is probably why the ISG is encouraging talks with Iran and Syria right now. But who knows, maybe such an outcome would make our government consider the unused avenue of becoming a good, international neighbour rather than a covertly operating, murderous regime. But after decades of always siding with confrontation, aggression and war, such a happy fantasy will remain just that. It is indeed a dark, dark place we have entered with the Bush administration that the band of nefarious, mercenary realists are now viewed as the great statesmen of the day. The realists and the history of their brutalizing agenda have been granted a pass on their dreadful legacy. There are two reasons for this. One is that the United States, firmly enthralled by the myth of its own exceptionalism and greatly abetted in this by the vehicle of a compliant media, has long sported an intentional desire to remain ignorant of it own true history. And two, because the current gang of murderous fantasy-landers appear to be so much worse. _____________________________________ * It should be noted that the magnitude of the numbers of casualties, both military and civilian, were highly disputed by US officials, which is often the case when horrifying slaughter has taken place. We need only observe the current administration and Pentagon positions regarding the number of casualties in Iraq today. Independent observers place the Iraqi death toll at least an order of magnitude larger than anything the Pentagon will admit, even as they insist that they "don't do" body counts. Fifteen years after the carnage, there is now de facto acceptance of US military reports regarding the number of Iraqi casualties; relief for the American conscience that the killing was not too horrific -- only tens of thousands and not hundreds of thousands. In fact, a Washington Post story of March 11, 1991, entitled, U.S. Scrambles to Shape View of Highway of Death, should demonstrate sufficiently that there was a concerted effort by the Pentagon and the White House to discredit any reports of US action in the Gulf War that did not comport with the Pentagon's official version of those events. Indeed, the new ISG report has cited a concerted effort on the part of this Pentagon to systematically under-report violent episodes in Iraq by an order of magnitude.

 

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An astronomer who has worked on a number of NASA projects, Ken lives in Baltimore, where he devotes his scientific training to observations and inferences about current affairs, politics and the media. He authors Shockfront and The Bonehead (more...)
 

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