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History made me do it

Stephen Gowans

when you're in trouble on the specifics, fall back on high-sounding ambiguities. Good advice if you've just led your country into war on dubious grounds, and people are awakening to the possibility that they've been misled.

So it is that when embattled British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the United States Congress (after having picked up the Congressional Gold Medal for -- one would guess -- unstinting service to the Empire) he never did address the dodgy dossiers and phony stories about Saddam picking up uranium yellow cake in Niger that everyone had been talking about for weeks. Instead, he talked about the danger of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction from rogue states.

This, of course, was nothing new. The possibility of a terrorist-WMD nexus was trotted out often as a pretext for war in the months leading up to the assault on Iraq by US and British troops, an assault amply adumbrated by Washington in numerous public record documents, from the Bush-connected The Project for a New American Century's "Rebuilding America's Defenses" ("While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein") to the president's own National Security Strategy.

But Blair had also got a whole lot more specific on the reasons Britain needed to join the US in a war to oust Saddam Hussein, presenting "sexed up" intelligence in a now infamous dossier. When public opinion remained stubbornly skeptical, despite his best efforts to scare up support (both literally and figuratively), Blair simply said he'd work all the harder to persuade Britons that premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against the innocents of Iraq was the right thing to do ("premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents" is Washington's own definition of terrorism.)

There was never any question that Blair would bend to the will of the public, which, until troops were deployed, remained opposed to war on Iraq. But there was a dictator to oust, one who did what he wanted over the objections of his people, and Blair wasn't going to let anything as trifling as the objections of his own people stop him from doing what he wanted; what, he would later say, history had compelled him to do. And so British troops backed up Washington's rank imperialism run amok.

That Blair's stated reasons for pressing the British military into service to join in the conquering of an oil rich and strategically vital country were false, was clear from the start. What made the deception plain was that Blair kept changing his reasons for going to war, which fit nicely with the US administration's practice of openly searching for a casus belli, as if they were saying, "We're not going to come right out and say in uncertain terms why we're going to go to war, but once we find something to hang this thing on, we're going to nail the bastard."

The British media watchdog MediaLens, pointed out that Blair had changed his justification for waging war six times. Initially, he said Iraq would have to be shown to have been complicit in the September 11 attacks. When complicity couldn't be shown (despite a concerted effort to do so), he cited Iraqi refusal to readmit UN weapons inspectors as a tripwire for an attack. When Saddam Hussein agreed to readmit inspectors, Blair said the discovery of undeclared Iraqi WMDs by weapons inspectors would justify war. When no evidence of banned weapons was found, Blair decided Iraq would have to be bombed because it had links to terrorist organizations. When the alleged links were called into question, Blair said Iraq had failed to be sufficiently proactive in co-operating with UN weapons inspectors. When weapons inspectors pointed to Iraq's growing cooperativeness, Blair declared Saddam Hussein to be an evil monster who needed to be ousted for moral reasons. Now, he says the attack was the right thing to do because, well, because he believes it was right the right thing to do, and, what's more, he believes this "with every fiber of instinct and conviction." Which means that in the end, when every reason you've trotted out to justify war crumbles, you can shrug your shoulders and say, "I thought it was the right thing to." And, with the conquest now a fait accompli, who cares if some malcontents think you've paltered with the truth? The job's done.

Still, Blair is staying away from specifics, concentrating instead on making the case that the threat of some countries outfitting terrorists with WMDs (even if it's only a sexed-up, contrived threat, and never real) is all the justification he needs - or ever needed -- to join Washington in whatever imperialist takeover is on the agenda. Few people seemed to have noticed the warning Blair issued in his address to Congress. "September the 11th was not an isolated event, but a tragic prologue, Iraq another act, and many further struggles will be set upon this stage before it's over." Yes, many further acts, which, one would guess, will have many different scenes: Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba. Stars and Stripes, the US military's newspaper, says the US Army alone has over 350,000 soldiers deployed in 120 countries. That number may, before the decade is out, be increased by at least four, the number of countries remaining on Washington's hit list (less Cuba, which already has US soldiers stationed on its territory, at Guantanamo Bay.) A curious person might wonder why it is that the US has stationed troops in so many countries, though the country's history, and its economic system, furnishes answers.

"I firmly believe," remarked Connecticut's Senator Orville Platt in 1894, "that when any territory outside the present territorial limits of the United States becomes necessary for our defense or essential for our commercial development, we ought to lose no time in acquiring it." Platt's importunities were largely superfluous. The United States would have lost no time anyway in acquiring what has come to be known as "America's vital interests," be it tin and tungsten in Indochina or oil in the Middle East. Capitalism, like a shark, must keep moving, and American capitalism has been very successful in moving across the face of the globe.

Thirteen years later, Woodrow Wilson, soon to become president, would utter the shark-keeper's credo. "Since trade ignores national boundaries," he said, "and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused."

Wilson, like most presidents, was an unwitting Marxist. Compare his remarks to this, from the Communist Manifesto: "The need of a constantly expanding market for [their] products chases the [manufacturer] over the whole surface of the globe. [They] must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere." The difference, of course, was that Wilson was a willing servant, and beneficiary of, the capitalist exploitation Marx and Engels deplored. But they were all pretty well agreed on the imperative that drove capitalists to batter down the doors of nations closed against them. And much of the battering, in the American case, was being done by the United States military.

Major General Smedley Butler, a 33-year veteran of the US Marine Corps. would have perceived nothing unusual in his country having troops deployed throughout the world - or of his country's governments finding reasons to launch strikes on countries whose economies had remained stubbornly resistant to becoming appendages of America's own economy. That's because Butler came to perceive his role in the country's military establishment, which nominally exists to protect the security of Americans from attack, as one of securing access to foreign markets and resources on behalf of US firms, a necessary part of the imperative that drove capitalists to "nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere," even if it meant outraging the sovereignty of unwilling nations. It was perfectly true that the US military protected Americans, if by Americans you meant "some Americans" and you were speaking of their business opportunities and investments overseas.

"I spent most of my time [in the Marines] as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers," Butler recalled. "In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism."

"I helped make for American oil interests," he explained. "I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank." And he added that he "helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street."

Call it rape, or call it enforcing stability and security. It's all the same. Clinton's Defense Secretary William Cohen preferred the higher sounding "stability." "Business follows the flag," he explained, when asked why 100,000 US troops were stationed in Europe, 40,000 were in South Korea, and tens of thousands were in the Persian Gulf region. "Where there is stability and security, there is likely to be investment."

But Cohen was simply echoing Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, and former Supreme Commander of NATO's forces in Europe, Alexander Haig. "A lot of people forget [the presence of US troops in Europe] is also the bona fide of our economic success," Haig explained. "[I]t keeps European markets open to us. If those troops weren't there, those markets would probably be more difficult to access."

And Haig was simply echoing another former General, Dwight Eisenhower. "A serious and explicit purpose of our foreign policy [is] the encouragement of a hospitable climate for [private] investment in foreign nations."

Blair, however, is never going to be so open about why he backed up Washington's resource grab in Iraq, preferring to cycle through high-sounding ambiguities to justify the striking off of renitent countries from the list of states that have yet to willingly turn over their markets, resources, and labor to American (and as a perk of toadying to Washington, British) capital. So he carries on about a new virus in the world: terrorism, whose spread must be arrested; and the "sense of justice that makes moral the love of liberty," which the United States must force on the rest on the world because "destiny put [the US] in this place in history, in this moment in time, and the task is [America's] to do." History, it seems, is something Blair knows well, for he says that hesitating to wage war on Iraq, as well as on future targets (and therefore, hesitating to blow away thousands of Iraqis for no reason other than crass commercial gain and conquest) "is something history will not forgive."

History is indeed a stern taskmaster. Especially when it goes by the name imperialism.

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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