April 21, 2011
Barack Obama campaigned for president on a promise to end the war in Iraq and “finish the job against al Qaeda in Afghanistan.” More than two years after he took the oath of office, American forces remain in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of eliminating two wars, he has lunged into a third in Libya. How is it that a nation that spends more on war (or, as it is officially called, “defense”) than all other countries in the list of the world’s top ten military spenders combined is not winning the battles in two Third World countries? With such a record, why is it stumbling blithely into a third? An old journalistic rule of thumb is to follow the money. Yes, Virginia, there are countries that go to war for money.
The United States teaches its children that it is the great exception to most rules. Thus, its leaders are too noble to risk lives for anything as base as lucre. No president would send American Marines into a country such as Haiti merely to collect a debt for a private bank—unless he happened to be Woodrow Wilson. In December 1914, Wilson dispatched Marines to Port-au-Prince, where they looted two strongboxes containing $500,000 from the National Bank of Haiti and delivered them to New York City Bank. That kind of debt collection may well have inspired young Alphonse Capone to launch his career among Chicago’s Italian immigrants. In 1915, a Marine major won the Congressional Medal of Honor for an engagement in which at least 50 Haitians lost their lives at a cost to the US of one wounded Marine. In 1935, Smedley Butler, by then a retired general, regretted a military career that made him the most decorated Marine of his time:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.
Where is the money in Libya? When France and Britain decided to back those who seemed likely to seize power in Libya, they had every reason to expect the grateful victors would award oil concessions to British and French companies. Imagine for a moment that their motives were pure: protecting civilians. Yep, just like they are not protecting them in Yemen, Bahrain, Gaza, and Syria.
Oil concessions to European companies don’t sit well in the boardrooms of generous petroleum-sector benefactors to American presidential campaigns. Could that be a factor for Saint Barack and his humanitarian interventionists Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power? No, this was all about saving the Libyans, whom they had never considered in the years since the US took Colonel Gaddafi back into the community of spruced-up world leaders. Hillary is now acting outraged that Gaddafi has used cluster bombs on civilian areas in Misurata. When reporters informed Mrs. Clinton about the bombs, she answered:
That is worrying information. And it is one of the reasons the fight in Misurata is so difficult, because it’s at close quarters, it’s in amongst urban areas and it poses a lot of challenges to both NATO and to the opposition.
When Israel dropped cluster bombs on civilian areas in Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, the US reaction was as swift as it was exemplary: It replaced them. Let us hope it does not follow that precedent with Colonel Gaddafi, although the arms merchants would not object. Money is there to be made with every shot fired, every house leveled, and every peasant blown away. It matters little whether those firing the weapons are Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq or Israelis in Gaza and Lebanon. Rockets, mortar rounds, artillery shells, and bullets must be replaced, whether in Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq. The battlefield is the great backdrop for advertisers. After the 1982 Falklands War, during which Argentina took out the destroyer HMS Sheffield with French-made Exocet missiles, the British journal Jane’s Defence Weekly accepted ads from Exocet’s makers lauding a product that had been proven in combat—proven, that is, to kill British sailors. Anyone who has attended the air shows at Farnborough, Paris, or Dubai knows that the salesmen whose weapons have turned the tide of battle have a soft sell.
In George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara, a pious character named Charles Lomax tries to rationalize industrialist Andrew Undershaft’s mercenary arms dealing with a justification that a public-relations firm might use for Lockheed or General Dynamics:
Well, the more destructive war becomes, the sooner it will be abolished, eh?
Undershaft, as candid about his profession as Smedley Butler was about his, doesn’t play along:
No, Mr. Lomax, I am obliged to you for making the usual excuse for my trade; but I am not ashamed of it. I am not one of those men who keep their morals and their business in watertight compartments. All the spare money my trade rivals spend on hospitals, cathedrals and other receptacles for conscience money, I devote to experiments and researches in improved methods of destroying life and property. I have always done so; and I always shall.
One imagines that Dick Cheney, his fellow sutlers at Halliburton, and the heavies from General Electric speak this frankly at the country club when there are no preachers or journalists around. So fire away, boys. Every shot leveled at a Libyan soldier, an Afghan fighter, or an Iraqi troublemaker has to be replaced. Every new weapons shipment is another notch upward on the share price. And for all the weapons the US fires, it can sell more to the Israelis, Saudis, and Bahrainis.
There used to be an American arms embargo on the entire Middle East. Starting on December 5, 1947, the US banned all weapons sales to the countries that would be involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The embargo remained in force under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and was not rescinded until Levi Eshkol persuaded Lyndon Johnson to sell Israel some Patton tanks and Skyhawk fighter jets in 1964. Why not give it a try again? No Middle Eastern country uses its weapons wisely or for self-defense. The Arab states deploy them to keep their people down, and Israel uses them to hang onto the West Bank.
If I may mangle Bob Dylan’s lyric from his “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “And you know something’s happening, and you do know what it is, don’t you, Mr. Jones?”