War Crimes... Wait We Mean "Foreign Policy..." Explained in Six Sad Books
What's happening in Gaza has happened before, many times.
The U.S. has toppled 55 democratically elected governments around the world. We'll come back to that in a minute.
I didn't grow up in an alternative household.
My parents are conservative working class. I wasn't exposed to ideas about the world outside of the mainstream. When I left home at 18 to pursue an undergraduate degree in American studies, I believed the US was exclusively a positive force for good in the world.
When I was 19, the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq.
It just so happened that as the ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Baghdad began, I was reading books as part of my degree course that critiqued US foreign policy from a non-mainstream perspective.
This wasn’t the history I’d been sold.
As the bombs fell on Iraq, it felt like I was watching the collapse of my worldview in real time. After my undergrad degree, I decided to study for a masters in the history of international relations. Then, as now, I only ever wanted to understand why things are the way they are.
Twenty years on, as US-made missiles once again rain onto civilian populations, I remain as desperate as ever to make sense of the world. The first thing that has to be said about Israel’s war on Gaza – a fact that our politicians and media are desperate to obscure – is that nothing began on October 7th. Hamas’s attack was the spur for the most brutal round of Israeli violence against the Palestinians in decades.
It was, however, just another round in a long, one-sided fight.
History, it turns out, does in fact exist.
But often our elites don’t want you to know this.
A phenomenon I’ve seen time and again this last month is what I would call causality denial – the denial that events precede events. Politicians and the media are always quick and eager to proclaim that terrorism is a surprise, a bolt from the blue. In their telling, events simply arise from nowhere. We saw it very clearly after the Hamas attack.
Causality denial was on full show.
No context. Just terrorism.
The magic word used for decades to hypnotize us into an unthinking state. This is not to hand-wave away non-state violence. But it is necessary to understand how the ruling class so often employs the word terrorism to obscure deep historical context.
The most basic and uncontroversial idea – that things happen for a reason – suddenly becomes taboo when the subject is one that media and politicians don’t want us to examine too closely.
Actions all of a sudden do not beget reactions. The past does not inform the present. Terrorism happens because ‘they’ hate our freedom. Our democracy. Our religion. Yet conversely, when the US and its allies want to do violence, our politicians and the media are then desperate for us to see the full and obvious context!
Suddenly, actions DO beget reactions. And these reactions are of course justified and pure of motive. We must invade Afghanistan, we must invade Iraq, we must invade Gaza. And we must do it for self-defence and in defence of freedom, values and ideals. It's a childish narrative that belongs only in a marvel comic: bad guys attack good guys and good guys respond because values.
So what is the truth? The truth is that western countries have strategic interests and often these interests coincide with supporting murderous governments, groups and dictatorships.
Israel today is one of those governments. As is Saudi Arabia. As were the governments of Iran and Chile in the past.
Six books help tell a different story to the marvel comic book version of US and western foreign policy that our media and governments want us to believe.
The first is The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins.
From 1965 to 1966, at the height of the Cold War, up to one million civilians were slaughtered and another million herded into concentration camps by Indonesia's president Suharto, who accused them of being communists. These atrocities, including mass rape and torture, occurred with the full knowledge and backing of the US and the west, who saw Suharto as a barrier against the spread of left-wing ideologies in South East Asia. The CIA would regularly hand over lists of suspected communist party members to Suharto’s military. The world’s fourth-largest country by size, its communist party was behind only Russia’s and China’s in size and influence.
Wiping out communism via genocide in Indonesia was a central US foreign policy goal. One astonishing fact about western support for Suharto is how long it went on for – he only resigned in 1998 (by then a billionaire several times over). The Clinton administration pursued close ties with Suharto and his brutal armed forces right until the end.
William Blum’s book Killing Hope was a flashbang to my 20-year-old brain. A compendium of US-supported coups from Albania to Iran, Greece to Costa Rica, and everywhere in between, Blum documents the 55 mostly democratically-elected governments the US has helped topple since the Second World War. Chile stands out, a country that elected socialist Salvador Allende in 1969, only to be plunged into a right-wing dictatorship four years later. Allende’s crimes in the eyes of the US were many, not least the nationalisation of its copper mines alongside 150 of the largest companies in the country.
Unclassified documents reveal the CIA supported the opposition and had full advanced knowledge of the military coup undertaken in September 1973. Allende shot himself in the head rather than be taken prisoner as the military closed in around the presidential palace. The ensuing fifteen-year dictatorship of military general Augusto Pinochet saw thousands of political opponents, many young students, murdered or disappeared. The CIA made many of Pinochet's officers into paid contacts of the CIA and US military.
Joe Biden said recently the US is the most powerful country in the history of the world. He’s probably right.
Certainly from a military perspective...
The US has 750 military bases in at least 80 countries around the world. In the Middle East, these bases have been a key antagonising factor in making the US a target for terrorism.
The explicitly stated goal of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda was to get US bases out of the Middle East after their permanent establishment following the first Gulf War in 1991. This strategy culminated in 9/11, the plan being to force the US to over-react, drag it into regional conflicts which would incite religious wars and lead to the creation of an Islamic caliphate. The region would then be free of US influence, and of the sheiks and Arab rulers that did their dirty work. It was briefly, partly successful. Al Qaeda, of course, having gone from an ally in the late 80s to a sworn enemy less than 15 years later.
Written after the failure of the Arab Spring, Christopher Davidson’s book The Secret Struggle for the Middle East includes this history of western support for Al Qaeda, and shows, using archives and official cables, how the British and Americans have often forged relationships with Islamic militant groups, usually as a ploy against Arab nationalists and democrats who threatened western control of Middle Eastern oil.
“The US needed to ensure that weak governments were emplaced that could serve the west - so we see throughout the 20th century, strategies used by the US to stop nationalist governments, nationalist fronts and halted the rise of democratic governments.”
A famous example is the overthrow of the secular Iranian leader Mohammad Mosaddegh.
After Mosaddegh won power in 1951 he nationalised Iran’s oil fields, so MI6 and the CIA plotted his overthrow. In 1953, with US and British support, the religious rule of the Shah of Iran was reimposed, Mosaddegh was ousted, and Iran signed over control of 40% of its oil to US and British oil companies.
Moving to the 21st century, Davidson shows how western policy in the Middle East, including the invasion of Iraq and support for countries like Saudi Arabia, led to the rise of ISIS and jihadist militant groups.
“The primary blame for not only the failure of the Arab Spring, but also the dramatic and well-funded rise of Islamic extremist organizations since the late twentieth century – including the deadly al-Qaeda and now the blood curdling ’Islamic State’ – must rest with the long-running policies of successive imperial and ’advanced capitalist’ administrations and their ongoing manipulations of an elaborate network of powerful national and transnational actors across both the Arab and Islamic worlds.”
One of the most important books documenting how US and western policy works is by a former president who was on the receiving end of western regime change. Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, wrote Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, while he was president and before he was deposed in a CIA-aided coup. Nkrumah was Ghana’s prime minister when it was still a British colony, and then its first president as an independent country. He writes that when formerly colonised countries win independence, colonising nations shift tactics from colonialism to neo-colonialism:
"Without a qualm it dispenses with its flags, and claims that it is 'giving' independence to its former subjects, to be followed by 'aid' for their development. Under cover of such phrases, however, it devises innumerable ways to accomplish objectives formerly achieved by naked colonialism.”
Nkrumah explains how countries are required by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to “submit their policies and plans for review and (must) accepting agency supervision of their use of loans.”
“These agreements give western countries the right to meddle in internal finances, including currency and foreign exchange, to lower trade barriers in favour of the donor country goods and capital; to protect the interests of private investments….they force the recipient to supply raw materials to the donor and to buy goods from the donor nation.”
Nkrumah peeled back the veil on the exploitative agreements with the global south that persist to this day. Global South countries are now trillions in debt to the west and spend around 16% of their revenues on debt repayments every year.
No list of books about western foreign policy would be complete without Noam Chomsky. In Hegemony or Survival, Chomsky mashes up Blum and Nkrumah to show how US foreign policy is not undertaken for values or ideals but for interests, ultimately to maintain its position as the world’s singular empire and the ability to dictate the neo-colonialism Krumah wrote about. Chomsky seeks answers for why the US arouses anger, and finds history not far away.
“A well-known Egyptian academic traces hostility towards the US to its support for every possible anti-democratic government in the Arab-Islamic world. When we hear American officials speaking of freedom, democracy and such values, they make terms like these sound obscene.”
An honourable mention goes to Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. In it, Scahill shows how covert US missions expanded during the so-called War on Terror, including targeted killings, secret prisons and the massive expansion of drone warfare outside of the scope of Congressional approval. He shows how these operations are often done on the word of the president, with Obama a key figure in ratcheting up the US’s secret killing programme during his time in power. This book was made into a documentary, which makes its content very accessible.
As we watch the west supply the missiles and the political support for a government composed of extremists and declared fascists to massacre thousands of civilians, this reading list shows us we are not witnessing an historical aberration. It is fully consistent with western foreign policy over the last eighty years.
What are the reasons this time? Regional geopolitical interest, as ever, with the Islamists of Iran now the enemy. Oil and gas, as ever. A racism that sees brown lives as worthless, as ever. A deeply embedded group of lobbyists responsible for billions of dollars. And historical guilt for the most murderous part of the 20th century on top.
This consistency with the past, should not, however, be a reason to feel defeated by dismay.
The consistency should be the reason to speak up more loudly than ever.
To educate and to protest.
To let our governments know we see them.
To continue to say: not in our name.