Harry Targ : The Evolving Techniques of Empire

Image from ccsd.org.

Techniques of empire:
What is new and what is the same old stuff?

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / August 31, 2010

Empires past

Nations, tribes, armed members of messianic religions from time to time have engaged in conquest of others. Peoples have been slaughtered for their land, their natural resources, their mistaken beliefs. The techniques used to be simple: killing, imprisonment or enslavement, and occupation.

With the rise of capitalism as a global economic system, accumulated resources were used to create modern instruments of war — guns, ships, pollutants, and poisons. As Marx claimed long ago, capitalism was of necessity a global system so nation-states created in the era of economic modernity were compelled to pursue exploitable labor (particularly slaves), natural resources, market opportunities, and investment sites everywhere. Mercenary armies were created to conquer people and land and fight against the mercenary armies of other capitalist countries.

The British empire (“the sun never sets on the British Empire”) was caused by and facilitated the industrial revolution. In the 1880s European imperial powers came together to divide up the African continent. After the first of two world wars in the twentieth century, wars which cost 60 million deaths, the Middle East was divided up among declining powers, Great Britain and France.

The United States joined the imperial fray in the 1890s. It took the Hawaiian Islands, fought Spain to conquer Cuba, occupied other Caribbean Islands, and crushed the independence struggle in the Philippines. Over the next 30 years the United States invaded countries in the Western Hemisphere some 25 times, often leaving U.S. Marines in place for years.

The United States and the Cold War

A variety of imperial techniques became common as the United States fought the Communist enemy during the Cold War. With the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, the first of many “intelligence agencies” was launched to interfere with the political life of countries the U.S. regarded as strategic.

CIA money was used to shape elections in democracies such as France and Italy. Money flowed to Christian Democratic Parties created to oppose Socialist campaigns. Also money found its way into anti-Communist trade union federations. This pattern of interference was replicated in Latin America as well and later in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

The United States engaged in visible campaigns to create and support military coups; the most critical being in Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s, Brazil and Indonesia in the 1960s, and Chile in the 1970s. And of course U.S. policymakers launched long and brutal wars in Korea and Vietnam leading to four million Asian deaths and 100,000 American soldiers killed.

The pursuit of U.S. empire included some modern strategies as well as conquest and subversion. President Truman, through the Marshall Plan, instituted an expensive campaign of economic and military assistance which would become a staple of U.S. Cold War policy. From the initiation of the Marshall Plan in 1948 with a modest $14 billion aid program to anti-Communist regimes in Europe through the Carter years, $235 billion was provided to selected and strategic imperial partners: first in Europe, then Asia and the Middle East.

President Kennedy contributed to the imperial tool kit; the provision of military advisors, funding for local militaries in countries threatened by revolution (such as in Central America), and training programs for military officers such as in the old School of the Americas. Economic assistance came with strings, the promotion of market-based economies, and opposition to indigenous and Communist political forces, at least as much as local political contexts would allow.

President Reagan was an imperial innovator as well. Constrained by the “Vietnam Syndrome,” public opposition to further Vietnam-style military quagmires, he established policies based upon “low intensity conflict.” Creating and funding local counterrevolutionary armies in places as varied as Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Afghanistan, the U.S. role in conflicts could be kept off the front pages of newspapers.

Civil war violence stimulated by U.S. resources would not be “low intensity” in countries where it occurred but it might be considered so in the U.S. Citizens would not learn of the critical U.S. support given to Islamic fundamentalist rebels, including Osama Bin Laden, fighting a pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan in the 1980s until quite recently.

To insure the limited visibility of U.S. global operations, and to reward political allies with government contracts, the Reagan administration dramatically expanded programs privatizing U.S. military operations. Support for the Contra war against the Nicaraguan people involved transferring public funds to private armies and using key foreign policy advisers, such as Colonel Oliver North, as conduits and organizers of networks of private sources of funding for war.

Thus began public programs to encourage and stimulate the creation of private companies that would fight America’s wars. The American people had little way of knowing how deeply involved they were in violence around the world and the danger of sinking into new Vietnams.

Roman legions. Image from Cultural Resources.

21st century techniques of empire

The world has come a long way from the days of Roman legions slogging across land pillaging and killing. The days of nineteenth century colonial rule — clumsy and arrogant with foreign occupants of land lording over exploited local workers — has changed. However, it is important to reflect on the new or more developed techniques of empire, while never forgetting that there are centuries long continuities of techniques of imperial rule.

For starters, Marc Pilisuk reports in Who Benefits From Global Violence and War: Uncovering a Destructive System that the character of war has changed over the years and centuries. Wars today are not usually between nations. Casualties of wars are overwhelmingly civilians rather than soldiers. The weapons used in wars today are more likely than in the past to temporarily or permanently damage the natural habitat as well as kill people.

Wars in recent years have been likely to be fought over natural resources. Nations and groups now are more likely to be supplied with weapons produced by a handful of corporations that specialize in the production of military supplies. These weapons are provided by a small number of nations. Finally, wars fought in modern times, the last 100 years, have caused more deaths than in any other comparable period of human history.

Pilisuk reports that since World War II 250 wars have occurred causing 50 million deaths and leaving millions homeless. (The United States participated significantly in 75 military interventions.)

Recently a number of journalistic and scholarly accounts have added to our understanding of newer techniques of empire, particularly U.S. empire.

  • Global presence. Pilisuk, Chalmers Johnson (The Sorrows of Empire) and others have estimated that the United States has over 700, perhaps 800 military installations in more than 40 countries. Some years ago the Pentagon determined that huge Cold War era military bases needed to be replaced with smaller, strategically located bases for rapid mobilization to attend to “trouble-spots” in the Global South. While forward basing in South Asia and in nations formerly part of the Soviet Union has received some attention seven new U.S. bases being established in Colombia (within striking distance of hostile Venezuela) and increased naval operations in the Caribbean have not. In addition, there are some 6,000 domestic military bases, many that anchor the economies of small towns.
  • Privatization of the U.S. military. David Isenberg (“Private Military Contractors and U.S. Grand Strategy,” PRIO, Oslo, 2009) refers to “…the U.S. government’s huge and growing reliance on private contractors” which “…constitutes an attempt to circumvent or evade public skepticism about the United States’ self-appointed role as global policemen.” While PMCs provide many services, such as combat, consulting, training armies, and military support, their combat presence in the two major wars of the 21st century, Afghanistan and Iraq, has generated the most, if limited, public attention. Isenberg says that between 1950 and 1989 PMCs participated in 15 conflicts in other countries and from 1990 to 2000 another 80. PMCs were employed in civil wars such as in Angola, Sierre Leone, and the Balkans.

    A recent Washington Post investigation compiled a data base, “Top Secret America,” “that found 1,931 intelligence contracting firms” doing top secret work “for 1,271 government organizations at over 10,000 sites.” TSA indicates that 90 percent of the intelligence work is done by 110 contractors. Defense department spokespersons and legislators claim that the United States needs to continue allocating billions of dollars to private contractors to maintain military performance levels that are minimally acceptable.

The X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle. Artist’s rendering from Defense Industry Daily.

  • Unmanned aerial vehicles. Nick Turse (The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives) describes the introduction of unmanned aerial weapons in the 1990s and their current weaponry of choice for the White House and others who prefer antiseptic and bloodless (on our side) technologies to eliminate enemies. New predator drones can be programmed to fly over distant lands and target enemies for unstoppable air strikes. Drones have been increasingly popular as weapons in fighting enemies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

    Connecting drone strikes to assassination teams and other war-making techniques, Shane, Mazzetti, and Worth, (“Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” The New York Times, August 16, 2010) refers to shadow wars against terrorist targets. “In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.”

  • Assassinations. The United States has initiated campaigns to identify and assassinate presumed enemies. CIA operatives and private contractors join teams of army specialists under the Joint Special Operations Command (13,000 assassination commandos around the world) to kill foreigners alleged to be affiliated with terrorist groups. These targets can include U.S. citizens living abroad who have been deemed to be terrorist collaborators. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States, through Latin American military personnel trained at the School of the Americas, has long supported assassination programs that now seem to be “globalized,” that is administered everywhere.

    Fred Branfman (Alternet, August 24, 2010) starkly describes the assassination policy: “The truth that many Americans find hard to take is that mass U.S. assassination on a scale unequaled in world history lies at the heart of America’s military strategy in the Muslim world, a policy both illegal and never seriously debated by Congress or the American people.”

  • Missionary humanitarian interventions. While most techniques of empire involve the direct use of violence, public and private organizations expand the presence of empire through so-called “humanitarian assistance.” While the work of the missionary has often followed the flag, never has such activism impacted so heavily on global politics as today.

    For example, The New York Times (July 6, 2010) reported that Christian evangelical groups have transferred substantial amounts of funds to Jewish settlements in occupied territories of the West Bank. Furthermore, fundraising for settlements that stand in the way of the creation of a Palestinian state receive tax exemptions. The newspaper reports on “…at least 40 American groups that have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last decade.”

    The newspaper correctly points out that so-called “humanitarian” and tax deductible donations to entities in other countries tied to U.S. foreign policy are not new. But, the article suggests that donations to the settler movement are special “because of the centrality of the settlement issue in the current talks and the fact that Washington has consistently refused to allow Israel to spend American government aid in the settlements. Tax breaks for the donations remain largely unchallenged, and unexamined by the American government.”

What is new about imperial policies

While the general character of imperial policies remains the same, whether the empire is Rome, Japan, Germany, France, Great Britain, or the United States, changes in technology, the state system, ideology, and tactical thinking have had their effects.

First, imperial rule has become truly global. From bases in far-off places to unmanned drones flying over literally millions of targets everywhere, empires operate with no constraints based on geography.

Second, the military has become big business. Private corporations assume a greater share of Department of Defense budgets. Private companies now clean up and cook for the troops, train foreign soldiers, assassinate assumed terrorist enemies, and fight small wars with almost no visibility to publics.

Third, the United States is moving toward fighting wars without soldiers on the ground. Enemies can be identified by computer and military technologists can then push the right buttons to kill the unfortunate targets. Killing has become antiseptic. Killers can say goodbye to the kids in the morning, drive to work, push some buttons, drive home and spend the evening with the family. Meanwhile thousands of miles away there are mourners crying over those just assassinated.

Fourth, empires, at least the U.S. empire, can kill with impunity. Targets labeled terrorist can be eliminated by unmanned space weapons, specially trained assassination teams, or average foot soldiers.

Finally, empires can expand and change the destiny of peoples through so-called “humanitarian assistance.” Local goals, good or bad, are furthered by the large financial resources that special interests can bring to other countries.

Empires have had a long and ugly history. Because of technology, economics, and ideology new techniques of empire have been added to the old. The struggle against all empires must continue.

[Harry Tarq is a professor in American Studies who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

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2 Responses to Harry Targ : The Evolving Techniques of Empire

  1. Pollyanna says:

    Harry — in case folks want to follow up on one part of your report, the Rag Blog has given extensive coverage to US military deployment and construction in Colombia and its costs to US taxpayers.

  2. Here are a couple other changes.
    1. Bush added optional “preventive” wars
    2. With Petraeus, we have battlefield Ceasars more important than those above them
    3. Bush’s two wars are the beginning of what is essentially endless war. Note that Pentagon budget almost doubnled under Bush. There is an incentive for endless war.
    4. Pentagon doctrine changed.

    Powell tried to move to rare and quick wars. Then there was its child, shock and awe,. which did not work. After defeat of 2006, we moved back to an updated Vietnam era counter insurgency with differences. Asian mud is gone and there is now emphasis on winning hearts and minds while assassinating the bad guys. But built in is the notion that global CounterInsurgency is endless.

    No one questioned the changes. Obama hesitantly tries to limit them but is losing the battle.

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