Surrogates of Empire

It has long been obvious, to anyone who would look, that US foreign policy is not about democracy and freedom, it is about power.  The conjunction of the Middle Eastern uprisings and Wikileaks’ release of US diplomatic cables has laid bare the fact and means of US “influence” over its de facto empire.  That influence is exercised through loyal “subordinate elites” who are, in the words of Alfred W. McCoy and Brett Reilly, “a motley collection of autocrats, aristocrats, and uniformed thugs”.

The formula is simple enough, refined for centuries by the British and others: identify those in a country’s elite who are happy to accommodate the empire’s interests in return for furthering their own wealth and power.  Such people evidently are not hard to find, judging by the illicit fortunes routinely “discovered” when they lose power.  Marcos of the Philippines, Suharto of Indonesia and Mubarak of Egypt are only a few of a long line.  It may be that some of these people don’t actually give a damn about their own people, but it is more likely they think their country’s fortunes are coincident with their own.  This is the usual delusion of the rich, and the underpinning of the current neoliberal world order.

McCoy and Reilly recount the US’s desperation after World War II, when several European empires were disintegrating and around 100 new nations emerged, many of them, understandably, with a strong nationalist sentiment and an inclination to play the Soviet Union and the US against each other.  To the paranoid of the US elite, this was intolerable, and so we had the Cold War

Throughout the Cold War the US favoured as surrogates military autocrats in Latin America, aristocrats across the Middle East, and a mixture of democrats and dictators in Asia.  If any of them faltered, then military coups tended to be the fall-back, so we got the Shah of Iran in 1953, Suharto in Indonesia in 1965 and Pinochet in Chile in 1973.  In a recent post I quoted John Pilger:

As the Washington historian William Blum has documented, since 1945, the US has destroyed or subverted more than 50 governments, many of them democracies, and used mass murderers like Suharto, Mobutu and Pinochet to dominate by proxy.  In the Middle East, every dictatorship and pseudo-monarchy has been sustained by America.

It now turns out the US has often hedged its bets and given covert support to some dissidents.  In Egypt, it was giving covert support to anti-Mubarak activists even as it showered Mubarak and his military with billions.

Diplomacy is always conducted in code.  One of the key words is “interests”.  In 2008 the US Embassy in Cairo confided that Mubarak was suffocating democracy and human rights, but counselled that Mubarak should be treated gently because “we would not like to contemplate complications for US regional interests should the U.S.-Egyptian bond be seriously weakened.”  The “interests” involved are the wealth and power of the US, as manifest in the wealth and power of US individuals and corporations.

John Stewart on The Daily Show parodies the statements of the last eight US presidents vowing to make the US independent of oil imports.  Why have these eight presidents not done what they have been vowing since 1974?  Because actually that would have gone against the “US interests” the diplomats have been referring to all this time.  I mean the oil companies.  It would obviously be in the interests of the US people to reduce dependence on foreign oil.  That might, just for example, have avoided two invasions of Iraq and a giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the associated costs in young lives and tax-payers’ money, not to mention the health of the planet that supports us.  No, US “interests” does not refer to the people of the US, it refers to the rich and powerful in the US.

Australia’s Prime Minister recently visited the US, and delivered one of the most cloying, obsequious speeches imaginable.  Why would she do such a thing?  Was she representing the interests of the people of her nation, an independent country standing proud on the international stage?  Perhaps not.

Many Australians have probably wondered what went on behind the scenes in the lead up to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975.  Did the US threaten consequences unless he was removed?  We don’t know, but the problem is far more pervasive than the Whitlam dismissal.  Connect the dots.  What happens to Labor leaders when they get near The Lodge?  Mark Latham, as leader of the Opposition, sensibly observed that George W. Bush was the most dangerous man in the world.  Shortly after, campaigning to make himself Prime Minister, he wrapped himself in the Stars and Stripes and proclaimed his admiration for the US.

One wonders if, whenever a Labor leader gets close to power, someone explains to them about “interests”, and also how those “interests” directly impinge on the Labor leader’s interests, which are to get in power and stay there.  So they sell their soul, and their country’s people, and become one of the chain of surrogates dedicated to maintaining the empire.

It might be the US Ambassador who does the explaining, but it doesn’t have to be.  It could as easily be a senior civil servant, or the Chairman of BHP-Billiton (now a foreign company), or Rupert Murdoch (now a foreigner).  It could even come as a flash of insight into “reality”, under the duress of being so close to the levers of power.

However it happens, it is a spineless betrayal, because they then lie about what they are doing.  If they had the guts to say “I am being pressured into this”, you could at least respect them for still knowing what our interests are, but they just lie and pretend they’re acting in our interests.  But then, it’s not only foreign “interests” they are serving, at our expense.

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2 thoughts on “Surrogates of Empire

  1. Tone

    Geoff: Yes, the flag incident made Latham look like a sycophant, which Gillard certainly played naturally in Washington. However, I’d like to point out the following regarding Latham and the flag, ‘The Latham Diaries’, p253:

    “Rudd and I then had a good meeting with US Ambassador Tom Schieffer. It was an attempt to close down the Alliance issue; I tried to charm the Texan with my knowledge of Landslide Lyndon Johnson, after which we did a press conference in the Caucus room. Unbeknown to me, Malinda Wink from the press office thought it was a good idea to place an American flag behind the podium. I didn’t notice it as I walked into the room, too busy concentrating on my notes, and only found out about it as I was walking out, when Rudd said, ‘What was that American flag doing there?’

    During the press conference, Dennis Shanahan from ‘The Australian’ asked me: ‘Mr Latham, aren’t you just wrapping yourself in the American flag?’ I fobbed him off. If he had asked why I was standing in front of an American flag, I would not have known what he was talking about. Disaster narrowly averted on day two of my leadership. Poor staff work can kill me in this new role.”

    And there remain uncertainties about Rudd’s destabilisation (beyond his polling) given the Wikileaks exposure of Mark Arbib, who helped engineer Rudd’s downfall, as a US protected source. Latham makes it clear in the book Rudd was one of the pro-Alliance men, but it may be that when Rudd was PM he treated that Alliance on his terms, and Wikileaks also revealed disparaging remarks made by US officials about Rudd in US cables. Maybe he wasn’t a pushover regarding defending Australian interests?

    Gillard is likely a much softer touch on such matters than Rudd, who regards himself as foreign policy professional and is certainly experienced. As for Latham, we will never know…

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