Socialist ViewPoint and analysis for working people

March 2005 • Vol 5, No. 3 •


by Stephen Gowans

From the country that brought you the Axis of Evil, Outposts of Tyranny and innumerable sanctimonious complaints about the real and imagined human rights abuses of official enemies, comes a new production of:

Truncheon-wielding U.S. soldiers in…“We Want To Be Your Back Door Men,” doing literally to assorted foreigners what successive administrations have being doing figuratively to Third World populations for decades—giving it to them up the wazoo. From Abu-Ghraib to Bagram, from Kandahar to Guantanamo, see U.S. forces “engage in widespread abuse” “taking ‘trophy photographs’ of detainees and carrying out rape and sexual humiliation.” 1

See Hussain Adbulkadr Youssouf Mustafa explain how U.S. soldiers “forcibly rammed a stick up my rectum” after he was “blindfolded, handcuffed, gagged and forced to bend down over a table by two soldiers.”2

See Wesam Abdulrahman Ahmed al-Deemawi placed in a cage and hung from a hook after being photographed in “shameful and obscene positions.”3

See prisoners forced to live in their own filth at Guantanamo Bay. See blood and cartilage explode from the nose of an Iraqi detainee as he’s hit by a baseball bat swung by an American interrogator. See all this as freedom and democracy on the march, march over Hussain, Wesam, Mustafa and other soon to be former owners of coveted oil reserves and pipeline routes.

Champions of non-proliferation

You would think the U.S. administration’s intolerance of nuclear energy in Iran and nuclear weapons in North Korea would reflect a deep opposition to nuclear proliferation. Not so. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe. “Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld…defended plans to resume studying the feasibility of an earth-penetrating nuclear warhead, saying many countries are burying targets underground and ‘we have no capability, conventional or nuclear’ to go after them.”4

Some House and Senate representatives saw this as a tad hypocritical. How can the U.S. “create a new nuclear weapon when Washington is attempting to stop other countries, such as Iran and North Korea, from having atomic weapons” they wondered.5

Well, wonder no more. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers explained helpfully, no one is actually building the weapons; they’re just studying the feasibility of building them. Big difference. It’s like this: Would you get your shorts in a knot over a bunch of guys staking out your house? It’s not like they’re “committed to moving forward” on burgling it. They’re just doing a feasibility study.

Free speech is all right…
so long as you don’t say anything someone who counts might not like

Free speech, like democracy, is something those in charge would like everyone to believe we have, even if it’s reserved for them, and tolerated for the rest of us, so long as we behave “responsibly.” Whenever, on rare occasions, elections—which are almost always stacked in favor of those who own and control the economy, and therefore can buy the outcome—produce the wrong outcome (i.e., not the one that was paid for), some reason is found to overturn or invalidate them.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once made a remark about not allowing Chileans to make irresponsible choices, after they voted for the wrong guy, the Leftist Salvador Allende. Being a can-do sort of guy, Kissinger got Allende ousted, and replaced with someone (the right-wing military dictator, Augusto Pinochet) more to the liking of the U.S. shareholders and investors whose profits where threatened by Allende’s “Marxist” ways.

Ditto free speech. Whenever someone is irresponsible enough to say something loudly enough that isn’t quite the kind of thing you would expect someone to say in polite society, can-do people mount campaigns to stifle the offender, usually by depriving the heretic of a platform.

Professors, like anyone else, can, at times, be incautious enough to say something that gets under the skin of the rich and powerful. But then, they can fall back on academic freedom. Right? Sure. Listen to Jonathan Knight, director of the American Association of University Professors’ department on academic freedom: “The right to express views does not mean that it is wise to do so.”6

Kissinger would have put it this way: The right to vote for Allende does not mean that it is wise to do so.

Garrison state

It’s common practice to refer to the DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea) as a garrison state. As descriptions go, this isn’t off the mark. The country has a military totaling about one million service personnel (though at any given time about half a million are engaged in agriculture or construction) and its 2002 defense budget of $5 billion (dwarfed by South Korea’s 2003 $14.5 billion budget) is almost one-quarter the size of its GDP (compared to 3.3 percent in the case of the U.S.)7

While accurate, the moniker “garrison state” is never intended as a compliment; quite the contrary. Outside of any context to explain why North Korea devotes a staggering amount of its GDP to defense, the impression is that Pyongyang is a kind of Nazi Berlin of the new century, building up a huge military to launch a series of military aggressions to expand its lebensraum.

This is a complete inversion of the historical reality that Korea has been the victim of aggressive military powers (Japan, the U.S.) Koreans didn’t draw an artificial dividing line at the 38th parallel to bisect their country; the U.S. did that. To say the North invaded the South—the usual claim against the DPRK as an aggressive state—is to say Koreans invaded Korea, or that attacks by the North on the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War amounted to an invasion by a foreign power. In the Korean case, the invaders were the Americans, who arrived in 1945, and have never left. (The Soviets, the first of the Allies to arrive on the Korean peninsula in the waning days of World War II, left in 1948. Unlike the Americans, they never had designs on the peninsula.8

What’s more, the silly idea that Pyongyang maintains a huge military to enable it to launch a series of military aggressions completely ignores the reality that the North’s military capabilities are laughable next to those of the South and the U.S. The North can draw on a potential military force of six million (and $5 billion of military spending) compared to the South’s 14 million (and $14.5 billion of military spending).9 And that excludes a formidable U.S. force readily available to deter an attack from the North, consisting of 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in the South, 45,000 a short distance away in Japan, U.S. bombers stationed a stone’s throw away at Guam and nuclear armed submarines capable of stealthily slipping up North Korea’s coast.

And that’s to say nothing of the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles locked on North Korean targets. (A tenet of non-proliferation, points out Bruce Cumings, an American historian who specializes in Korea, is that nuclear states should not threaten non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons.10 North Korea may or may not have nuclear devices today, but if it does, you can blame U.S. nuclear threats.) Launching an attack on the South (or on Japan or even on the U.S., as the most fanciful scenarios would have it) would be an act of sheer madness, tantamount to Pitcairn Island declaring war on Canada. It is, in the realm of rational discourse, completely out of the question.

But that doesn’t stop the scenario being put forward at every opportunity, including, indeed especially, in newspapers like the New York Times, misnamed as being sources of serious and weighty discourse. Therein the idea of North Korea as a menacing threat is bandied about as if it were an axiom that couldn’t possibly be challenged by anyone except members of the Flat Earth Society. As to the contradiction that North Korea’s meager resources couldn’t possibly make the country a threat to its neighbors let alone the U.S., there’s a handy answer, albeit based on not a jot of evidence: Kim Jong Il is insane (a replay of an earlier charge that Kim Il Sung, his father, was also insane.)

There is no basis for this, except that it is a kind of shibboleth that must be repeated if anyone is going to invite you on CNN to hold forth on North Korea, in the same way acknowledging Saddam Hussein’s hiding weapons of mass destruction was the litmus test of one’s credibility on Iraq. Kim Jong Il is called insane, because everyone in Western media circles says he is, because everyone else in Western media circles says he is, which gives you a pretty good idea where this canard came from (the same place the “indisputable” claim Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction came from.) It serves a functional purpose. It squares the circle. If you ever wondered how to resolve the contradiction that North Korea’s attacking anyone would be an act of sheer madness, now you know.

Curiously, or maybe not so curiously given the way these things work, Israel is not called a garrison state, though it is every bit as much a garrison state as North Korea, and a far more menacing one to its neighbors. Israel’s military is five times larger than that of the U.S. on a per capita basis11 and is widely believed to have 200 nuclear weapons, towering over North Korea’s few “maybe it has them, maybe it doesn’t” nuclear “devices”.

But in Israel’s case, the maintenance of a huge military is said to be necessary to deter attacks by hostile neighbors, some of which are committed to the destruction of Israel (or more accurately to the idea of Israel as an unremittingly expanding state of, for and by Jews.) According to this narrative, Israel is a garrison state because it seeks to defend itself from hostile neighbors. North Korea is a garrison state because it’s intent on military adventurism—invading the South, firing nuclear tipped missiles at Japan, and maybe even lobbing a missile or two at the U.S., just for kicks—all scenarios that have sprung from the fertile imaginations of those who get paid to justify the continuation of the five and half decades of pressure on “one of the world’s most centrally planned and isolated economies,” as the CIA puts it.

The problem with this is that it’s an inversion of reality. Israel’s formidable military, the most powerful in the Middle East, is regularly used to expand Israel’s lebensraum. North Korea, a military pipsqueak against the redoubtable forces arrayed against it, would be turned to a charcoal briquette (Colin Powell’s words) if it dared step foot beyond its borders.

What it’s always about

“China’s military might worries world leaders,” my morning newspaper warned12 betraying the U.S.-centered world view characteristic of the media in the Anglo-American stretches of the globe, where the U.S. and its allies count and everyone else belongs to the uncharted terra incognita where dangerous dragons dwell.

It’s an atavistic view, emblematic of hunter-gatherer tribes, who understand the world around them in dualistic terms: there’s us, the people, the world, and then there’s everyone else, the non-world. And so world leaders, i.e., the leaders of the U.S., accompanied, in this case, by tag-alongs from Japan and Taiwan, worry about China’s “14 consecutive years of double-digit increases in its military budget,” which has culminated in China “spending the equivalent of $65 billion annually on its military.”13

Sixty-five billion dollars? Why that’s only $435 billion less than the $500 billion the U.S. will spend this year on the Pentagon and its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan14 (and still China’s is the second largest military budget in the world, which tells you something about how much U.S. hegemony—and the U.S. economy—depends on a massive flow of dollars to the U.S. war machine.)

But the problem is that no matter how much of a skinny runt the Chinese military is compared to the U.S.’s hypertrophied, steroid-gobbling Pentagon it “could challenge the traditional U.S. dominance in the Pacific region,” according to the CIA, threatening to unravel all the lucrative gains the U.S. secured as a result of defeating Japan in the Second World War in a contest to see who would “dominate the Pacific region.”

All this talk of dominating the Pacific is really talk about who’s going to exploit the region’s riches. Japan, for example, “is increasingly worried about China’s…efforts to challenge Japanese control of huge natural-gas deposits in the East China Sea,” and is “jousting” with China “for ownership of small islands in the same waters.”

And what of a mighty China able to throw its weight around to suck the wealth out of the Pacific region, what the U.S. sought to do prior to the Second World War, did after turning Japan to rubble, and has done forever in Latin America? In other words, worry about China’s expanding military budget is worry about the U.S. and its subalterns coming out on the wrong side of a conflict over turf, resources and markets—what these things are always about.

1 “U.S. Army documents detail more abuse,” Guardian News Service, published in The Globe and Mail, February 18, 2005.

2 Ibid.

3 The Washington Post, February 17, 2005.

4 Ibid.

5 The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 11, 2005.

6 CIA World Factbook

7 Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004.

8 CIA World Factbook

9 Cumings. Within six months of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had begun planning for a post-war occupation of Korea.

10 The Globe and Mail, February 21, 2005.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 The New York Times, February 24, 2005.

14 Ibid.

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