BOOK REVIEW The loose supercannon The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World,
by Gabriel Kolko
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Reviewed by Allen Quicke
Stand back. The trickle of books that attempt to analyze "what is wrong" with
the administration of US President George W Bush is about to become a torrent.
Scriveners from throughout the US mainstream media - the very media that were
once Bush's cheerleaders and helped smooth his road to disaster - are
sharpening their pencils (unfortunately not their wits) to stick them into
Bush. (Exempt Bush's new press secretary, Tony "We Report, You Decide" Snow,
who is sticking with his "Decider".) With Bush's approval rating at 32%, the
"analysts" no doubt figure
that they have a potential readership of 68% of Americans.
Almost all of these books are going to miss the point. And for the few that do
get it, it's a point that is probably just too painful for
Americans, both leaders and citizens, to accept. The point, in fact, has been
staring them in the face for decades, and if they haven't got it yet, they will
not get it until it is too late to make a difference.
Gabriel Kolko, of York University, Toronto, is one who does get it, and to his
credit he is not one of those jumping onto the Bush critics' bandwagon. He is
not even a Bush critic per se. His field is US foreign policy in the
20th and 21st centuries, and his critiques have been in print since the 1970s.
The Age of War provides an overview of US foreign policy after World War
II, with the first half of the book summarizing the latter part of the 20th
century and the lead-up to September 11, 2001, and the second half examining
subsequent developments and the Bush administration's role in them.
Such ambition is both the strength and weakness of The Age of War. Its
strength is that it tackles the crucial task of placing September 11 and
subsequent developments within the broad context of post-World War II US
foreign policy. Its weakness is that, given its vast ambit, the book is
surprisingly thin. Perhaps this is excusable - the author makes clear that
other books, including his own, have dealt in detail with contemporary US
foreign policy, and that this is not his task here.
Unfortunately, this reduces The Age of War to something of a polemic:
the reader must take much of what Kolko asserts on trust (or read the "other
books"), and this particular reader regrets that the author did not tackle the
subject in rather more depth. I hope he intends to do so in future, because its
importance cannot be overstated. It has shaped the world as we know it and will
continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Given its polemical nature, many of the book's conclusions lack detailed
factual backup and are therefore all too easy to dismiss. Readers are already
familiar with many of the formulations, and Bush supporters and
neo-conservatives have their rebuttals - not least of which is to denounce the
ravings of lunatic leftist liberals - at their fingertips.
In a grossly oversimplified form, one of Kolko's major themes is this (I
apologize in advance because there is much more to the book):
Since World War II the United States has been increasingly willing to use its
military might to impose its will on the world. But it is not sure exactly what
its will is, and it has never evolved a workable doctrine that specifies its
global role and how and when
force should be used to achieve its ends. The result is haphazard
foreign-policy decisions and ill-conceived military adventures embarked on
without an understanding of local conditions and in utter disregard of possible
consequences. Besides, Kolko argues, military means seldom if ever achieve the
desired political ends. Still, the US goes in, with massive firepower, its
smart bombs thinking overtime and its superweapons primed, only to find more
often than not that its awesome arsenal is utterly unsuited for the job at
hand. Thus it gets sucked in to prolonged, escalating conflicts such as Vietnam
and Iraq, and its original intentions are forgotten as it fights on simply to
avoid defeat and humiliation - in other words, to protect its credibility as a
superpower. The massive human, social and economic damage that it inflicts in
the process serves to destabilize regions and create enemies that the US did
not have before.
Add to this "shock and awe" the increasing economic inequalities abetted by the
US-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and you have the
ingredients for anti-American terrorism: desperate people with no other
recourse, economically on the brink and having been on the receiving end of US
If some of this sounds familiar, it's because it is standard anti-American
fare. Yet the iteration of the facts behind such assertions is instructive.
Let's look at some of them, starting with a very abbreviated list of
better-known US military interventions since 1950 (a similar list would have
served Kolko's argument well, yet it is missing from the book).
A fuller list, such as one provided byZNet,
numbers at least 60 US military and/or covert interventions since 1950,
excluding shows of naval/air strength, covert action and/or the use of proxy
forces where the United States did not have command, and US pilots flying
foreign warplanes. Instances in which the US has used proxy forces and/or
covert action for regime change, for propping up "friendly" rulers, or to fight
communism include scores of countries around the globe: Angola, Cuba,
Venezuela, Indonesia, the Philippines, Namibia, Iran in 1953, Afghanistan in
the 1980s, Iran again in 2006, to name just a very few.
And all this for what? As Kolko writes, everywhere it has intervened,
militarily, covertly, or by providing funding, arms and training for "friendly"
repressive regimes and their state-terrorist organs, the US has created
enemies. Hardly anywhere has Washington's desired political outcome been
achieved, despite - or because of - the staggering human, social and financial
costs. In many cases, all the US has achieved has been stalemate (eg, Korea),
defeat (eg, Vietnam), or blowback (eg, from its onetime proxy in Afghanistan,
Osama bin Laden). In other cases it has set in motion unforeseen and
uncontrollable developments (eg, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia). The US
itself is at greater risk than ever, as it discovered in 2001 when war came to
its shores. Its enemies are now far more diverse than they were during the Cold
War. They are harder to identify, let alone attack, and threats and potential
threats to the US are harder to see and foresee.
The world too, writes Kolko, is at least as dangerous today as it has ever
been. The semblance of stability provided by the superpower standoff of the
Cold War has vanished. Armies wield increasingly potent conventional weapons,
many of them provided by the United States - as of 2004, the US accounted for
34% of the world's arms market, and was exporting to about 140 countries.
Nuclear weapons have proliferated, and many countries without them have the
ability to build them if they wish to do so: this too is a legacy of the United
States' "victory" in the Cold War, as countries seek a nuclear deterrent to the
world's lone, rampaging superpower.
And as the US State Department reported last week, about 11,000 terrorist
attacks occurred around the world last year, in which more than 14,600 people
were killed - a sharp increase in attacks and fatalities over 2004, with Iraq
accounting for most of the increase. So much for almost five years of "war on
terror". But there is a very big caveat here. The State Department has yet
again changed its definition of "terrorist attack", and the 2005 figures for
the first time include attacks against Iraqi civilians. This is the second
consecutive year that the counting rules have been changed, so attempts to
compare year-on-year numbers are ill-advised.
These changing definitions of terrorism account for the odd look of the
accompanying graph. Nevertheless, an overall trend - an increase in terrorism
fatalities over the past 11 years - is unmistakable. I have used fatalities
rather than number of attacks for the purpose of this graph, because the latter
is extremely misleading - in some years, more than half the number of
"terrorist attacks" were bombings of a Colombian pipeline by an obscure rebel
outfit. (Strange, is it not, how a pipeline can be a victim of terrorism but
Iraqi civilians may not, depending on the whim of the State Department? How can
they fight a "global war on terror" if they haven't been able to decide what
The US has not learned anything from 55 years of foreign-policy debacles. Even
now, at the same time it is enmeshed in the very trap it laid for the Soviets
in Afghanistan, and is bogged down in Iraq in a replay of Vietnam, it is
rattling sabers at Iran. One reason Kolko gives for the United States' failing
to heed what history is telling it is that its wealth and military power enable
it to continue making the same mistakes - though not indefinitely. It also has
a massive military-industrial empire to which it is beholden for domestic
political reasons. Kolko has much to say on the latter subject, including the
need of successive US administrations to play the fear card to justify
staggering military budgets (the pet anti-ballistic-missile shield project has
cost US$70 billion to develop, and will cost another $60 billion to deploy -
and it does not even work).
How does the Bush administration rate in the foreign-policy-debacle stakes? As
the above list shows, and as Kolko points out, Bush's record of military
intervention is no better or worse than those of his predecessors, both
Republican and Democrat. In fairness, many of the problems the US is facing
today are a legacy of the bungles of previous presidencies. And Bush's military
doctrines - preemption, for example - have been features of US foreign policy
throughout the past century. It's just that Bush is so much more in-your-face
about it - or is it?
Not quite, says Kolko. America's leaders are increasingly dangerous as their
ambitions soar ever higher. Their weapons are more potent, but so are those of
their enemies and their nuclear-armed fair-weather friends who may be future
enemies. They are backed by, and in some cases are members of, powerful
religious constituencies - not exactly what is needed to make sober
foreign-policy decisions. And they have more power to do as they please, with
fewer checks and balances - they can dissemble and still receive bipartisan
support from a docile, shell-shocked Congress and a tame press. Well, at least
the latter is starting to change, as I mentioned earlier: the "get Bush"
bandwagon is gaining momentum. But that, as I mentioned too, is to miss the
Bush will be the fall guy for America's latest mess - indeed, he's already
being tipped for the title of America's worst-ever president. But all Americans
need to reassess their country's role in the world, both for the world's and
America's own sake. If they don't, America's long addiction to military force
as a way of remaking the world to suit itself will slowly but surely ruin it,
and this writer, for one, does not want that to happen.
It's hard to be sanguine, though. Judging by the letters that many Americans
write to Asia Times Online, a startling number of them go along with Henry
Kissinger's remarkable assertion (in Does America Need a Foreign Policy?)
that moral purpose motivated every US war of the 20th century. An even more
startling number subscribe to the belief that the US only intervenes overseas
in response to the pleadings of weak-kneed, lily-livered foreigners for the
United States to sort out their problems and do the dirty work of putting the
world to rights - as if US access to raw materials and markets had nothing to
do with it. (Listen carefully ... which countries do you hear calling for an
attack on Iran?)
The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World, by Gabriel Kolko.
Publisher: Lynne Rienner Publishers (February 28, 2006). ISBN: 1588264394.
Paperback, 199 pages. Price: US$19.95.