What Price American Primacy?

by Stephen Gowans

January 14, 2002


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What price are Americans willing to pay to preserve the world as it is, with the US as the sole superpower and the country's preeminence unchallenged? Americans, for the most part, have accepted a few thousand dead Afghans as an acceptable price to hunt down Osama bin Laden and members of his al-Qaeda network. Over a million Iraqis dead from sanctions is considered an acceptable price to bottle up Saddam Hussein. "We think it's worth it," said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. So, would it be any surprise if Washington decided a few thousand American lives was an acceptable price to preserve America's primacy?

Marc Herold, a University of New Hampshire economics professor who has been monitoring press reports from around the world, estimates that almost 4,000 Afghan civilians have been killed by US bombs, to mid-December.

"Civilian casualties? That's not news," explodes a US media grandee, a transparent rationalization for burying a story that tarnishes America's good guy image. "Civilian casualties are a normal part of war." So too are car crashes a normal part of highway driving. So why is my newspaper littered with endless stories about traffic fatalities?

Herold says, "US officials again have demonstrated their ability to manage the news and the US media have shown their willingness to be managed." Stenographers for those in power, as one critic puts it.

Human Rights Watch, a virtual front for the US State Department, and, alternately, George Soros's Open Society Foundation, dismisses Herold's estimates, and his thoughts. Somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 civilians have died, says HRW, and the only reason the US media isn't paying more attention is because the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the rebuilding of Afghanistan have crowded the news agenda. A vaguely plausible explanation on the surface, but a nanosecond of reflection breaks the bonds on fettered reason. How does the foreign press manage to fit stories of civilian casualties into the same crowded news agenda? Are they more efficient? Or is it that it's only the US media's sense of national do-goodism that's at stake? The foreign press, with less invested emotionally in the military campaign, can afford to be a little more dispassionate.

"Times have changed. We're at war, now," says the gate keeper of one normally critical Web site, to justify the filtering of views that may shake blind, unthinking support of the "commander in chief," America's own version of "Il Duce." Wasn't it Mussolini who ordered the bombing of a desperately poor country (Ethiopia), and then crowed about his great military victory?

HRW's job is to establish its credentials by mildly criticizing the government, so that it can let Washington off the hook for big crimes, while masquerading as an impartial NGO. After NATO bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days in the spring of 1999, HRW reported 500 civilian deaths, a ridiculously low estimate considering the scope of the bombing campaign, and lower than anyone else's estimate.

Five hundred. That's not too bad, against the 100,000 dead in Kosovo, a number that, under scrutiny, was later to shrink faster than icicles in a Chinook. One-hundred thousand became 10,000, then 2,000, then "We can't find the bodies; they must be cleverly hidden." In the end, HRW let NATO off the hook for civilian deaths, with an admonition to be more careful.

Treating Washington with kid gloves may have just a little to do with the fact that the US foreign policy establishment is as firmly tethered to the New York-based organization as a puppeteer's strings are to a marionette. Did you ever wonder who pays for HRW's expensive and professional Web site? A gaggle of directors with links that snake through the State Department and Washington's propaganda arm, Radio Free Europe, offers a clue. Another clue: Speculator George Soros is known as HRW's financier. (See Paul Treanor's, Who is behind Human Rights Watch?)

A Force for Good in the World?

Whenever the media want to assuage inchoate concern about dropping high explosives on starving Afghans they make some off the cuff remark about how the excesses of the Taliban have been blessedly expunged by a few daisy cutters, the slaughter of prisoners of war, and the obliteration of whole Afghan villages. Hell, that's a bargain to see soccer being played again at the Kabul stadium, in place of the regular beheadings and amputations. I'd give my life for that, wouldn't you?

That's why when the same kind of ugly, theocratic behavior flourishes in the lap of US allies, it either has to go unremarked upon, or be relegated, as this Jan. 2 squib was, to filler, to be squeezed between ads for men's underwear and stories about the latest millinery fashions in Upper Volta.

"Riyadh. A man who gunned down a fellow Saudi was beheaded yesterday in the city of Najran, raising the number of executions to seven in the first two weeks of the year. At least 113 executions were announced in the country in 2000.

Saudi Arabia applies a strict version of the sharia laws of Islam, imposing the death penalty on people found guilty of murder, rape, apostasy, armed robbery, drug trafficking and repeated drug use." (1)

Did you catch that? Stray from the true faith, and the religious authorities will see to it that your head strays from your neck. If it wasn't for oil, and geopolitics, the Saudis wouldn't be so cuddly. Come to think of it, if it wasn't for oil, and geopolitics, the Taliban, none too different from the Saudi monarchy, wouldn't be so rebarbative.

Ah, but the Taliban weren't always so. Like Noriega and Saddam Hussein and, yes, even Osama bin Laden, they were Washington's guys once, sort of. That is, when it appeared the Taliban would accept its role as vassal, without protest. Back then, the State Department was perfectly willing to live with Mullah Omar and his band of zealots and opportunists as another repressive, theocratic regime, "just like Saudi Arabia." But fundamentalist Islam's most notorious Cyclops mis-stepped. He flirted with ideas above his designated station as head of a dependent elite of a subject country. That, if he's ever captured alive, may get him shipped to Guantanamo Bay (the US military base in Cuba where Washington plans to hold Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners), to face trial for, what? Telling the American empire to piss off? If so, he should consider himself lucky. For the same crime, Bill Clinton sought to make former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic's brief acquaintance with a cruise missile courteously delivered through Milosevic's bedroom window one spring night almost three years ago. Of course, the meeting would be ever so brief. Milosevic was sleeping elsewhere on the appointed night, showing, once again, his contempt for his betters in imperial Washington. Missing his own execution -- the effrontery! He sleeps now, when his jailers turn off his lights, in his own version of Gauntanamo Bay - a UN prison in the Netherlands. The charge sheet reads: Genocide, expulsion, murder, cover for the real charge: resisting the New World Order.

At times when the optics are not so delicate, exposés of Saudi Arabia pop up, though only now and then, like the occasional acne pimple on a twenty-something that reminds her puberty was not so far off. Except these eruptions remind us the truth can still be glimpsed, every once in a while, though only when it doesn't threaten to undermine Washington's pursuit of Pinky and the Brain's unrelieved obsession – taking over the world.

"Secrecy and fear permeate every aspect of the state structure in Saudi Arabia. There are no political parties, no elections, no independent legislature, no trade unions, no Bar Association, no independent judiciary, no independent human rights organizations. There is strict censorship of media within the country and strict control of access to the Internet, satellite television and other forms of communication with the outside world.

Anyone living in Saudi Arabia who criticizes this system is harshly punished.

Torture is endemic...Executions, flogging and amputations are imposed and carried out with total disregard for the most basic international fair trial standards.

Saudi Arabia has one of the highest executions rates in the world....Most of those who are executed are beheaded in public." (2)

And you thought the Taliban was bad. Now that the Pentagon has obliterated a benighted, misogynist, medieval, intolerant, theocratic regime, when will it turn its attention to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Islamists who have thrown the Balkans into chaos -- also benighted, misogynist, medieval, intolerant, theocratic? Since all of them are firmly ensconced in the White House's good books for helping, or at least, not getting in the way of, Washington's illimitable imperial ambitions, who knows? Maybe never.

Dealing with Insubordinate Vassals

Washington criticizes one-party states for totalitarianism. Disliked governments that win multi-party elections are accused of election fraud. Milosevic was accused of stealing an election two weeks before the first voters went to the polls. He was ousted in a coup that saw the Empire's sponsored and paid for "pro-democracy" forces take over the reins of power. "Coup" and "pro-democracy." Kind of reminds you of "oxy" and "moron." Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, branded "the last European dictator," is said to win elections because he cheats. Neither Milosevic nor Lukashenko are as enamoured of the free-market, privatization policies that US investors so richly desire, and that people so richly suffer from, as Washington would like. Nor are they entirely on board Washington's plans to surpass Hitler's imperial designs. They're paying the price. Already the witches and warlocks at Langley are hunched over their cauldron, cooking up a story about Belarus being Islamist terrorism's main arms supplier. (3) That contradicts the words of Snake, a terrorist operating in Macedonia under the flag of the bin Laden-connected NLA. (4) "God bless America and Canada too for all they have provided to us," he told Canadian journalist Scott Taylor. Snake and his comrades brandish arms marked "Made in the USA." (5)

On the other hand, leaders who aren't so renitent and are willing to let the US juggernaut roll over them, can buy votes, stuff ballot boxes, miscount, and get up to all sorts of mischief without a peep of protest from Washington. It's how well you serve US interests that counts. Not what kind of government you have. Or whether you cheat. Leaders Washington can't do much about because their country is too large to easily subordinate get let off the hook, too.

"Last year, a six-month investigation by a Moscow newspaper found evidence of large-scale fraud in (Russian president) Vladimir Putin's presidental-election victory. It concluded that Russian officials had used tactics such as ballot-stuffing, vote-buying, bribery and administrative pressure, and it said at least 2.2 million votes had been falsified – enough to ensure that Mr. Putin captured a first-round victory." (6)

That's more than Lukashenko and Milosevic were accused of, and both men are regularly decried as "dictators," "autocrats," and "strongmen." US Senator Jesse Helms is sponsoring a bill that would see Belarus slapped with sanctions, on top of funnelling $30 million in aid to Lukashenko's opponents. (7) Imagine China funnelling campaign money to the Democrats. (Oh yeah, that's illegal.) And the US ambassador to Belarus openly talks of organizing Lukashenko's ouster. So why does none of this apply to Putin? You'd think he was the Teflon man. Months before Putin was to bomb Grozny, the Chechen capital, a civil war raged in the Serb province of Kosovo. US president Bill Clinton sprang to the Russian president's defense, invoking Lincoln and the Civil War. Putting down a violent secession is only what Lincoln did, Clinton assured us. Milosevic, on the other hand, who hadn't bombed Kosovo's capital, Pristina, (that would be left to NATO), was struggling with what turned out to be a terrorist campaign carried out by the KLA, an ugly Islamist organization the US State Department had condemned for drug running and connections to Osama bin Laden (before being rehabilitated overnight into freedom fighters against ethnic oppression, just in time for NATO to kick-off its campaign of terror over Belgrade). Milosevic was tarred as a hate-filled monster and ethnic cleanser. There would be no comparisons to Lincoln for him. Only a war crimes indictment from a tribunal controlled by war criminals.

Now, Boris Berzovsky, one of the oligarchs who plundered assets once collectively owned by Russians -- that is, before Russia's hasty descent into Third World poverty, courtesy of Washington's and the IMF's "economic reform" programs -- says, "the Russian secret services are the masterminds behind a series of violent events that led to Mr. Putin's rise in 1999, including deadly apartment bombings and a Chechen rebel attack on a neighboring region." (8) Berzovsky isn't the first to make these allegations. And the entire story that links Chechen terrorists to the bombings has more holes than a colander. Chechen guerillas denied responsibility for the attacks, even though they had been quite happy to own up to other attacks. And Sergei Stepashin, who served briefly as prime minister, said the Chechen campaign had been planned six months in advance of the terrorist bombings.

Sound familiar?

Let's see. Afghanistan has immense geostrategic significance. The presumed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks repeatedly denies responsibility. And this:

"A former Pakistani diplomat told the BBC that the US was planning military action against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban," before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The wider objective...would be to topple the Taliban regime and install a transitional government of moderate Afghans in its place....Mr. Naik (the Pakistani diplomat) was told that Washington would launch its operations from bases in Tajikistan, where American advisors were already in place."

That was reported on Sept. 18, by the BBC. As prophesy, it's not too bad.

And The Village Voice, in its January 8th edition, says, "Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié write in their book, Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth, that the Bush administration went so far as to consider waging war against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban last summer."

"If true, Mr. Berezovsky's allegations (about Russian security services masterminding the Moscow apartment bombings) suggest that the Russian authorities were willing to kill their own citizens," says The Globe and Mail. Couldn't it also be said, "If true, Mr. Naik's allegations suggest US authorities may have engineered the Sept. 11 attacks to provide a pretext for the pre-planned attack on Afghanistan; US authorities may have been willing to kill their own citizens?" George W. Bush's refusal to accept the Taliban's offer to turn over bin Laden to a third country in return for seeing the evidence against the Saudi exile hardly helps refute the thesis (nor, admittedly, does it prove it.) But have US authorities any more respect for human life than Russian authorities have, that uttering these words is so indefensible? Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Korea. Indonesia. Three million dead in Indochina. Costa Rica. El Salvador. Nicaragua. Panama. Two hundred thousand dead in the Gulf War. Over a million dead from sanctions against Iraq. Thousands killed in the 1999 NATO attack on Yugoslavia. Four thousand Afghan civilians dead, and more to come. Hardly a record that points to American leaders having much respect for foreign lives. Over 50,000 American GIs perishing in Vietnam, in an ugly, vicious, inhumane war, to advance US geostrategic goals, hardly affirms Washington's respect for American lives, either. "Our government is the greatest purveyor of violence on the planet," said civil rights leader Martin Luther King, in 1967. Sadly, nothing has changed.

Dealing with Aspirants to a Larger Global Role

Washington's war on Afghanistan has provided the grounds for establishing a US military presence in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to say nothing of Afghanistan. And don't expect the presence to be temporary. Foreign deployed US troops are like cockroaches: once you've got them, it's next to impossible to get rid of them. Ask the Koreans, or people in the Balkans, or the Cubans, who've had to put up with a US military presence at Guantanamo Bay for a century, or the Saudis for that matter, and not the monarchy, but the subject people to whom al-Qaeda, with its mission of driving the American military out of the Middle East, appeals. William Arkin, writing in The Los Angeles Times, points out that "from Bulgaria and Uzbekistan, Kuwait and beyond, more than 60,000 US military are stationed in these forward bases." The Guardian, on January 10, said, "The US military build-up in the former Soviet republics of central Asia is raising fears in Moscow that Washington is exploiting the Afghan war to establish a permanent, armed foothold in the region."

From a geostrategic perspective, establishing a military footprint in Central Asia makes sense. US primacy rests in no small measure on its military primacy. And protecting its position as the world's lone superpower means holding Russia and China in check. Blocking the two Asian giants from subordinating their energy rich Central Asian neighbours must figure prominently in the foreign policy deliberations of a country intent on maintaining its hegemony.

In June, Russia and China drew four Central Asian countries -- Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- into the Shanghai cooperation organization. The purpose of the organization? "To foster world multi-polarization," said China's Jiang Zemin. In other words, to thwart US primacy. At about the same time, Pentagon planners were busily at work organizing their Central Asia intervention, with Afghanistan as the focal point. Today, with US troops in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the Shanghai co-operation organization is a wreck, and Russia's and China's plans for multilateralism lie in pieces. America's primacy remains undiluted.

There's no question that Sept. 11 smoothed the way for American foreign policy wonks to project US military power into Central Asia, thereby bringing the Shanghai cooperation organization, either by design or incidentally, down in a heap. The only question is, was Sept. 11 a serendipity, handing the Pentagon a reason to intervene in Central Asia, or did elite Washington follow the old aphorism: winners create their own chances? The reply to the charge that Sept. 11 was contrived by a US foreign policy establishment looking for a casus belli, much as it's alleged the Moscow apartment bombings imputed to Chechens was contrived by the Russian government to justify war on Chechnya, is that "Washington would never kill its own citizens," a view that betrays a naive, and trusting, simplicity, one not extended when considering the lengths foreign, especially non-Western governments, are capable of going to; as we've seen, that the Kremlin would murder Russian citizens to advance Russia's own strategic aims is not considered unthinkable. But what price would the inhabitants of the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon consider too high to preserve US primacy? China growing stronger, challenging US interests in Southeast Asia. Russia, recovering its might, to one day match the influence of the old Soviet Union. Is that the kind of world the US foreign policy establishment wants? Against the dangers of an emerging China and a revivified Russia, the death of fewer than 4,000 US civilians must seem a trifle to those engaged in preserving America's role as the world's "indispensable" nation. Far more lives have been sacrificed on the altar of promoting American primacy in the world, in the past. Far more, sad to say, will yet.



1.  Globe and Mail, January 2, 2001  (back)
2.  Globe and Mail, April 17, 2000  (back)
3.  Mark Lenzi and Jakob Lemke, Belarus seen as top supplier of arms to Moslem extremists, DPA, January, 5, 2002  (back)
4.  See The Washington Times, June 22, 2001  (back)
5.  Scott Taylor, "Macedonia's Civil War: 'Made in the USA'," August 20, 2001, http://www.antiwar.com/orig/taylor1.html  (back)
6.  Globe and Mail, January 1, 2001  (back)
7.  Radio Free Europe. Dec. 25, 2001  (back)
8.  Globe and Mail, January 1, 2002  (back)



       Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2002. All rights reserved.

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Published January 14, 2002
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