The Reasoned Review

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Recently, I spoke with an old friend who just started working for an extremely influential financial firm. She was one of my dearest acquaintances for many years, and one of the few people I can honestly say had no character deficiencies. She always seemed destined for greatness; she graduated as valedictorian and president of her class, fiercely intelligent, matriculated at Harvard, and possessed a wit and humility not often seen these days. No one doubted that her life would be a resounding success.

We reminisced for some time, and then our conversation shifted (at my forcing, I admit), to the influence of finance on the US government and its foreign policy. I pointed out particularly that the share of our financial sector in GDP has jumped from 3% to 30% in the last few decades; that AIG, Citigroup, et. al. heavily financed the Obama campaign; that many of our government leaders (notoriously Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner) are still actively involved in the financial industry, and that this has grave implications for representative democracy. I also outlined the role of finance in setting up “free market” dictatorships in the third-world, and its general responsibility in creating poverty abroad. She conceded that these were all “problems” and “valid criticisms” of how the US conducted itself during the latter half of the 20th century, but urged me to consider the benign aspects of our foreign policy. When I suggested our foreign policy amounts to empire, she vociferously denied it.

Now I should repeat that this was no ordinary specimen of humanity, but truly one of its finest models. A regular person might deny our empire – it is intentionally not publicized, and they likely work at a job whose effects are not evident – but she was steeped in politics, economy, and history. She belonged to the organization that essentially leads our empire. From the top of my head I listed ten countries where we had installed leaders, assassinated them, funded massacres, or merely caused economic ruin: Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973, the Iran-Iraq war (both sides of which we funded), the Guatemalan civil war (more than a million dead over a thirty-year period by our equipment), Suharto in Indonesia (who, after we installed him, invaded East Timor under our auspices and killed half a million), 30-year dictator Mobutu in Africa, (whose departure sparked a horrific civil war which continues to this day), the dire poverty imposed upon Mexico via NAFTA, Argentina’s “dirty war” (again conducted on our behalf), our support of dictator after dictator (most recently Musharraf) in Pakistan, and IMF control of Poland, South Africa, Eastern Europe, the aforementioned nations, and many, many more.

In countries such as Vietnam and Korea we flattened villages, set fire to thatched huts, and blanketed their crops with industrial pesticide. We personally killed hundreds of thousands in Iraq alone. In Pakistan we kill on the order of 50 villagers per month via our “drone” attacks.

She did not deny these things were true, but she refused to believe they constituted a system of policy. The wars, massacres, dictatorships, etc., were identified as “problems” (but then you can’t expect not to have problems!), “valid criticisms” (those too will always exist!), or merely “good points”.

When Errol Morris was deciding on a title for his documentary about Abu Gharib, he considered the two standard interpretations of that sordid prison-camp: “A Few Rotten Apples” or “Standard Operating Procedure”. These reflected the views that either the torture conducted at those prisons were the work of “a few rotten apples” and not systemic policy, or that they constituted a deeper problem – that such actions were “Standard Operating Procedure” and this was no isolated case. The distinction was important back when we briefly entertained the notion of inditing Rumsfeld for war crimes. If the tortures at Abu Gharib were just a “mistake”, the work of a few rogues, no indictment could follow. But if they truly represented policy, if they were merely the froth on a vast sea of similar actions, then it would not be enough just to indict Bush and co. – our whole history would have to be reconsidered.  Morris ultimately decided upon the latter for the title of his documentary (“Standard Operating Procedure” – I would recommend it), though the press and the establishment it represents evidently has decided on the former interpretation.

And so, Abu Gharib became a microcosm for our overall conversation. Either the wars we financed, the dictators we supported for decades, and the poverty we imposed through the Washington Consensus model are isolated instances (“unfortunate mistakes”, as my friend called it), or they constitute a deliberate, continuous policy of military and civil subjugation with the aim of stealing these countries’ resources. She refused to believe this was true, though given the scope of our actions, the length of time at which we conducted them, and their horrifying, uniform results, I don’t see how she could. She provided a clue, however, in attributing those actions to “Capitalism” (the ideology, with a capital C, not the general idea of trade), and by strongly hinting a stance of moral relativism – though when I called it that, she politely denied it. Still, she was hesitant to use the word “evil” to describe bloody civil wars and imposed dictatorships in the name of this ideology, and stated at one point that “institutions are not subject to morality” (I think I later made her recant that)

Moral relativism is at the heart of almost everything one would call evil (or, if you object to that phrase, “undesirable”).  Concentration camps, war, massacres, and so forth can only occur when you believe there is something higher than everyday morality, something more important.  Ideologies make great use of this effect – at an advanced stage they supersede traditional ethics, and in essence become the only morality. Thus most Nazis felt that murder was OK if the victims happened to be Jewish or Slavic,  the Soviets believed that mass arrests and torture were fine if they happened to be “enemies of the people”, and the US government has no problem with poverty, starvation, dictatorship, or war, so long as they occur in countries already under our influence.


Written by pavanvan

August 9, 2009 at 7:23 pm

Posted in Economy, Policy, War

Tagged with , , , , , ,

3 Responses

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  1. i like this article.

    sounds like an average Pavan conversation in which during friendly conversation one party learns of their logical shortcomings, many times both parties become aware.

    while reading this my mind kept wandering to the purpose of conversation, then really to the purpose of anything when things become a matter of defending personal position. then i thought of Gandhi and how upon seeing a poor naked woman washing her only pair of clothes in a river he decided that he would start a revolution by owning only (i cannot recall if it was one or two pairs of clothes). my point being that once he saw injustice he acted upon it instead of rationalizing its existence which now is considered a psychological defense mechanism.

    i like your style son.


    August 10, 2009 at 8:25 pm

  2. I concur that the policies are systemic and deliberate, that the U.S. is an active empire building/maintaining geopolitical entity, but the underlying point that you make is only half true. Yes, empire (American, Soviet, Sino) is terrible, but empire (American, Soviet, Sino) is inevitable. It is hard to find any period of human history not marked by warfare, conflict, and one territory/geopolitical unit/nation state attempting to exert influence over another (from Babylon, Persia, Athens, Rome, Paris, London, Moscow, Washington).

    Of course American foreign policy is a cauldron of half-truths, alienation, hypocrisy, oppression and force, but the sad truth is that so is everyone else’s. We have Iraq/Afganistan/Israel/South America, ETC., China has Tibet, Moscow has Georgia and Chechnya, Iran has Syria and Palestine, India has Pakistan and vice versa (and so on…). In short, everyone is guilty, and if the U.S. wasn’t exerting “influence” (whatever the hell that means) it would be done by some sort of Sino-Russo balance of power with India throwing its weight around wherever it could.

    I don’t say this to exonerate the U.S. or to defend it, because I won’t and it can’t, but all the sins you point out of U.S. foreign policy are equally true of every other powerful/developed/modern nation in the world. We just have more power so we have more instances where our policy results in war, injustice, and oppression.

    My point, then, is not that you are wrong, but you’ve only told half the story. The implication of the piece is that if the U.S. would stop doing what it is doing, peace would somehow prevail, or at a minimum if the U.S. exercised its power in a different (more moral) way there would be more peace and justice in the world. I beg to differ. If the U.S. exercised its power differently, it would lose the power to influence and in the void created there would be an equally (or worse) brutal, unjust, oppressive regime to take its place.

    That is tragic, and sadly to date we as a species have not been able to come up with a political arrangement that isolates these forces and tendencies. The sins you point are, then, not merely America’s but humanity’s generally. There are simply too few people in the world who want peace and justice for peace and justice to prevail.

    From this framework, it is no wonder that moral relativism prevails because there is no way to be morally objective in the face of geopolitical realities. The tendencies of the geopolitical world, in fact are bigger than the U.S. and far more powerful than the U.S., and the U.S. cannot defeat the prevailing regime, it can only play the game as outlined.

    In full disclosure, I admit I’m a cog in the U.S. machine, and am deeply invested in the power of the U.S. However, I’m neither investment banker or government official, but a member of the equally absurd industrial-legal complex.


    August 11, 2009 at 4:56 pm

  3. Sir:

    I wish first to thank you for your well-written, cogent reply. Would that more of us would take the time to digest our thoughts and express them as fluidly as you have! However I must register a few objections to your lines of reasoning.

    First, I’d point out a couple attribution errors in your response. Iran does not “have” Syria and Palestine – we do, or did. Ask the Gazans where Israel got weapons for its 2009 offensive. Ask Syria who dropped bombs upon them on October 26th, 2008. Ask Lebanon who assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

    Likewise with Pakistan. India does not have nearly the claim to Pakistani destabilization as the US does, with continuous support of military dictatorship since 1954. Who gave Musharraf $10 Billon dollars and F-16 fighters?

    “Influence” is a euphemism for “control”. That’s what it means. Either by overt aggression or covert CIA operations, all of the aforementioned countries found themselves under US control, wherein they were forced to enact policies contrary to the welfare of their own citizens. Who does the IMF truly support?

    In your argument I caught strong whiffs of the “everyone does it” philosophy. Often this is given a perfume of legitimacy with the phrase “human nature”. If you can convince yourself a particular style of behavior (violence, aggression, greed, etc.) is intrinsic to the human condition, then it provides its own justification. Its sister is the famous “if we don’t, someone else will” line.

    You may be interested to know that this was precisely the line of reasoning the 20th century totalitarians used to justify their actions, the Soviets espousing “historical necessity”, and the Nazis appealing to Europe’s history of Antisemitism.

    The German case is brilliantly outlined in Hannah Arendt’s study, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. There, she argued against the idea that Nazi antisemitism was the product of long-standing European tradition. If, as she says, you can convince people that throughout history all societies have persecuted Jews, then no justification need be given to present persecution.

    Similarly, if one argues, as you do, that “human nature” is by its nature violent, then violence needs no further explanation and can be conducted as wantonly as one wishes. In essence, such thinking constitutes its own moral relativism. You see how dangerous that is.

    And no, all the “sins” I outline are not true of “every other powerful/developed nation”. You should consider what you mean by “developed”. In no other instance has a nation displayed such callous disregard for the value of life, such grand designs for world hegemony, starting with the Native Americans and continuing to Iraq and beyond.

    Obviously I am not naive enough to think that if the US were to adopt less murderous policy that world peace would immediately follow. But surely you concede it is a step? It is too much to say for sure that a “more brutal” force would move in to take our place, but even supposing that were true: do we not have a responsibility at least not to actively cause misery on such a grand scale? We may not be able to “defeat the prevailing regime” (if you ask me, we are said regime), but must we exploit it so ruthlessly?

    Is money the only morality?

    Again, I would like to point you to my next post, which throws doubt upon the argument that there has been no time in history without war. Unfortunately we don’t have close to the sufficient knowledge to make such a claim. How much do you know about American society in the year 478? I know next to nothing. The Europeans who came here in the 17th century saw to it that very little trace of this land’s previous cultures would remain.


    August 11, 2009 at 11:42 pm

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