The Cloak Of Power

United States

new internationalist
issue 247 - September 1993

Illustration by CHUM McLEOD
Illustration by CHUM McLEOD
The cloak of power
The US continues to police the Third World despite the
absence of any Soviet threat. Colin Gordon reveals the spurious
way history is used to justify sending in the marines.

WAR STORIES Too often, history is to the past what astrology is to the solar system; less a serious attempt to chart paths and orbits than a search for fanciful patterns and pleasing images. Recent US foreign policy leans heavily on this kind of dubious historical justification. In part this reflects the intellectual drift of American power. Cut loose from the rhetorical moorings of the Cold War, the US has begun to throw out other anchors: Munich, Yalta, Vietnam. Too often this search for a useful past reflects a preoccupation with the proper ‘image’ and ‘credibility’ needed to justify future policy.

There is some confusion as to whether the past is being used to justify the present or vice versa. Certainly much of the ‘no more Vietnams’ chest-thumping of the past three years has been aimed less at a war being fought than at the memory of a war long lost. It’s as if victory in the Gulf might ‘prove’ that the US could have won in Vietnam.

There is also confusion over the wider lessons of the Cold War. The architects of the New World Order are confronted with an unfriendly world despite the Soviet collapse. It is just too threatening to acknowledge how little 40 years of shadow boxing with the Soviets meant for the aspirations of most of the world.

Certainly the most important use of history for the US at the moment lies in justifying intervention in a post-Cold War world. Military might may no longer be the engine of domestic growth it once was but the US increasingly sees it as a substitute for economic might – the key to holding onto Third World outposts and maintaining leverage over key trading partners. As one observer noted recently, the US has become ‘the Saudi Arabia of security’, marketing military power (instead of oil) as its singular contribution to global commerce. But if the battle for the hearts and minds of the Third World has been won, why does the US continue the fight? And if the Third World is no longer full of communist dupes why are they not left to decide their own fates?

The end of the Cold War, in this sense, is an intellectual rather than a strategic challenge. History is important to the moral and intellectual reorganization of American power. During the Gulf crisis, ‘Munich’ was constantly invoked. Anything short of war in the Gulf was equated with the notorious appeasement of fascism in the 1930s. Invoking memories of World War Two was also a way of suggesting that this was not merely a US affair, but the collective will of ‘the allies’ under American leadership.

On closer examination the Munich analogy was more suggestive than the US intended. Western powers ‘appeased’ Germany in the hope that Hitler would vent his energies in a Soviet-German war of attrition. Appeasement turned to war when a non-aggression pact with the Soviets allowed Hitler to turn west. The Soviets, as Mikhail Gorbachev noted in 1985, would certainly not forget that the West had ‘tried to manipulate the expansion of German fascism, directing it to the East’. Similarly the US spent the 1980s pursuing a bloody stalemate in the Iran-Iraq war, hoping to weaken both countries, heighten the anxieties of smaller Gulf states and guarantee an ongoing American presence. As in World War Two, moral indignation followed years of cynical and callous diplomacy.

Indeed, for all the effort to resurrect the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt, it is the aggressive imperialist Teddy Roosevelt who haunts the New World Order. In this spirit conservative historian Paul Johnson recently argued that recent Western interventions (the Falklands/Malvinas, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Somalia) simply prove the incapacity of the Third World for self-government and the necessary altruism of conventional colonialism.

Some new justification for intervening in the Third World is certainly needed – Soviet collapse, while removing a largely manageable threat in Europe, also stripped US policy in the southern hemisphere of any sense of political or intellectual order. The paradox facing the State Department’s grand theorists is that the world is a more dangerous place without the Soviets.

Examined more closely, the Americans’ peculiar sense of history is less a blank check for intervention than a means of replacing anticommunism and avoiding the risks of taking on all challenges. In early 1992 the Pentagon drafted a blueprint for the New World Order which hammered away at the importance of American power but also trod softly through the fiscal and strategic debris of American decline. ‘The US must show the leadership necessary to establish and protect a new order,’ but it ‘cannot become the world’s “policeman” by assuming responsibility for righting every wrong’ and would only address ‘selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests but those of our allies and friends’. The New World Order, in other words, catches US aspirations at a time when they vastly exceed US abilities.

This sense of limits also draws cynically and selectively on history. Debate over the Balkans, for example, has routinely stressed the region’s historical complexity and ambiguity. The former Yugoslavia, as the New York Times warned recently, is ‘a tangled tragedy’ of ‘age-old myths and grievances’ which outsiders enter ‘at their peril’. Yet American prudence in the Balkans, and the reasons given for that prudence, betray a more troubling assumption: Europe has a history and the Third World does not. The roots of conflict in Somalia or Iraq or Peru run no deeper than their first acquaintance with the United States.

It is not surprising that the US would use a sort of Time-Life history of World War Two to set the moral and practical parameters of post-Cold War policy. Historical allusions to Vietnam, however, are more complex and more cynical. Again the message is simple: the US fought in Vietnam with one hand tied behind its back. Who tied the hand there is a matter of debate, but the press, the antiwar movement and the timid militarism of the Johnson Administration are the usual suspects. In future, so the argument goes, the US should respond without hesitation and with ‘massive and decisive force’.

Again, there are holes in the historical reasoning that you could drive a SCUD launcher through. The US was not constrained in its use of military power in Vietnam. The technological fetishism in the Gulf had clear echoes of the late 1960s, when the US sought to avoid a ground war through, as one Air Force official argued, ‘the unparalleled, lavish use of airpower as a substitute for manpower’. The US lost the war despite a massive and indiscriminate show of force, at a cost which eventually crippled its own economy. Tactical comparisons between Vietnam and the Gulf are spurious at best.

The importance of the historical analogy lies more in the packaging of foreign policy than its implementation. The Gulf War was little more than a promotional trailer for the past and future of American power – witness the cynical demonization of Hussein, the carefully manufactured myth of ‘incubator atrocities’ and the eager misrepresentation of American military prowess.

The US portrayed the Gulf War as everything the Vietnam War was not: politically popular, militarily decisive and morally unambiguous. Victory, in this loose historical reasoning, meant that failure in Vietnam and the aimlessness of American policy since 1975 could be attributed to a state of mind (the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’) rather than to the limits of American power.

Image is vital in US foreign policy. In this respect, allusions to Vietnam are doubly ironic. A principal source of US arrogance and myopia in South-East Asia was the insistence that its war there was a test case of Cold War resolve. As the fighting escalated so did the importance of the ‘test’ and the implicit threat to credibility. Fascination with how the war was perceived by others pressed the US to continue the violence long after its goals in South Vietnam had been forgotten. Satirist Joseph Heller captured this reasoning perfectly: ‘If we are willing to go to war every time our vital interests are at stake, then I say we must go to war every time our vital interests are not at stake to make sure friend and foe understand we will’.

During the Cold War, the US engaged in a symbolic conflict (Vietnam) in order to prove its ability and willingness to fight other wars. Since the Cold War, the US has engaged in a series of conflicts (Panama, Iraq, Somalia) in order to erase the memory of losing a war in which it had rashly invested its prestige and credibility. The result is to repeat rather than repair past mistakes. Each emerging challenge is magnified; every crisis reflects (as George Bush suggested of the Gulf War) ‘the dependability of America’s commitment to its friends and allies’. By the 1990s this renewal of reputation, eagerly pinned to the Gulf War, lasted no longer than the post-war parades. In the end cynical appeals to the past echoed Marx’s insight: history does repeat itself, the second time as farce.

History is temporarily useful to those who wilfully misinterpret it, but genuinely useful only to those who make an effort to understand it. The historical memory of recent American foreign policy is shallow, cynical and selective. It shapes the past for present purposes, retrieving only those historical fragments which reinforce present assumptions. And sometimes it is more convenient to ignore the past altogether – in Somalia, for example, where the US helped arm the warlords of Mogadishu. Amnesia puts US policy in a better light. Unfortunately, as Aldous Huxley once observed, the fact that ‘we do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach’.

Colin Gordon teaches history at the University of British Columbia.

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