US foreign policy – ​​at the service of big capital

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By JEFFREY D. SACHS*

The US has attempted to overthrow at least 80 governments since 1947 by instigating coups d'état, assassinations, insurrections, civil unrest, election manipulation, economic sanctions and open warfare.

At first glance, US foreign policy appears to be completely irrational. The US is involved in one disastrous war after another – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ukraine and Gaza. In recent times, the US remains globally isolated in its support for Israel's genocidal actions against the Palestinians, voting against a UN General Assembly resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza, supported by 153 countries with 89% of the world's population, and with opposition only from the USA and 9 small countries with less than 1% of the world's population.

Over the past 20 years, every major US foreign policy objective has failed. The Taliban returned to power after 20 years of American occupation of Afghanistan. Post-Saddam Iraq became dependent on Iran. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remained in power despite of the CIA's efforts to overthrow him. Libya descended into a prolonged civil war after a US-led NATO mission overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. Ukraine was crushed on the battlefield by Russia in 2023 after the U.S. secretly sabotaged a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine in 2022.

Despite these notable and costly failures, one after another, the same cast of characters has remained at the helm of US foreign policy for decades, including Joe Biden, Victoria Nuland, Jake Sullivan, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell and Hillary Clinton.

What happens?

The puzzle is solved by recognizing that American foreign policy has nothing to do with the interests of the American people. It's about the interests of Washington's central political actors, who seek campaign contributions and lucrative jobs for themselves, their collaborators, and their families. In short, US foreign policy has been taken over by big business.

As a result, the American people are losing a lot. Failed wars since 2000 have cost it around 5 trillion dollars in direct expenses, or about $40.000 per family. Over the next few decades, another $2 trillion or more will be spent on veterans' care. In addition to the costs directly borne by Americans, we must also recognize the terribly high costs incurred abroad, in millions of lives lost and trillions of dollars of destruction of property and nature in war zones.

Costs continue to rise. Expenses linked to the US army in 2024 will amount to around 1,5 trillion dollars, that is, approximately 12.000 dollars per family, if we add the direct expenses of the Pentagon, the budgets of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, the budget of the Veterans Administration, the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons program, the State Department's military-related “foreign aid” (such as Israel), and other security-related budget lines. Hundreds of billions of dollars is a sum of money that goes down the drain, wasted on useless wars, military bases abroad and a totally unnecessary increase in armaments that brings the world closer to the Third World War.

However, describing these gigantic costs is also explaining the distorted “rationality” of US foreign policy. The $1,5 trillion in military spending is the scheme that continues to pay off – for the military-industrial complex and for Washington's central political actors – even as it impoverishes and endangers America and the world.

To understand the foreign policy scheme, imagine the current federal government as a multi-division business controlled by the highest bidders. The Wall Street division is managed by the Treasury. The Health Industry division is managed by the Department of Health and Human Services. The Major Oil and Coal division is managed by the Departments of Energy and the Interior. And the Foreign Policy division is managed by the White House, Pentagon and CIA.

Each division uses public power for private gain through insider deals, lubricated by corporate campaign contributions and lobbying expenses. Interestingly, the Health Industry division rivals the Foreign Policy division as a notable financial scheme. United States healthcare expenditures totaled a staggering $4,5 trillion in 2022, or about $36.000 per family, by far the highest healthcare costs in the world, while the United States ranked around 40th place among the world's nations in terms of life expectancy. A failed health policy translates into big money for the health industry, just as a failed foreign policy translates into mega-revenues for the military-industrial complex.

The Foreign Policy division is run by a small, secretive, and close-knit circle that includes senior brass from the White House, CIA, State Department, Pentagon, House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and major military contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. There are perhaps a thousand key individuals involved in setting policy. The public interest plays a reduced role.

Top foreign policy officials manage the operations of 800 U.S. overseas military bases, hundreds of billions of dollars of military contracts, and the war operations where the equipment is sent. The more wars, naturally, the more business. The privatization of foreign policy has been enormously expanded by privatization of the business of war itself, as more and more “essential” military functions are turned over to weapons manufacturers and contractors like Haliburton, Booz Allen Hamilton and CACI.

In addition to the hundreds of billions of dollars of military contracts, there are important commercial repercussions of military and CIA operations. With military bases in 80 countries around the world and CIA operations in many more, the United States plays an important, if mostly covert, role in determining who governs those countries and, therefore, in the policies that shape lucrative deals involving minerals, hydrocarbons, oil pipelines and agricultural and forestry lands.

The US has attempted to overthrow at least 80 governments since 1947, usually under the leadership of the CIA, through the instigation of coups d'état, assassinations, insurrections, civil unrest, election manipulation, economic sanctions and open warfare. (For a superb study of US regime change operations from 1947 to 1989, see the work of Lindsey O’Rourke, Covert Regime Change).

In addition to commercial interests, there are, of course, ideologues who truly believe in America's right to rule the world. The most famous case is that of Kagan family, always warlike, although its financial interests are also deeply linked to the war industry. The question of ideology is the following. The ideologues were wrong on almost every occasion and would have long since lost their pulpits in Washington if it were not for their usefulness as warmongers. Consciously or not, they serve as paid actors for the military-industrial complex.

There is a persistent drawback to this ongoing business scheme. In theory, foreign policy is pursued in the interests of the American people, although the opposite is true. (A similar contradiction applies, of course, to excessively expensive health care, government bailouts of Wall Street, oil industry perks, and other schemes.) The American people rarely support US foreign policy machinations when they occasionally hear the truth. America's wars are not fought by popular demand, but by decisions from above. Special measures are needed to keep the people away from decision-making.

The first of these measures is relentless propaganda. George Orwell nailed it 1984, when “the Party” suddenly moved the foreign enemy from Eurasia to East Asia without a word of explanation. The US does essentially the same. Who is the most serious enemy of the USA? Choose according to the season. Saddam Hussein, Taliban, Hugo Chávez, Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin, Hamas have all played the role of “Hitler” in US propaganda. White House spokesman John Kirby delivers the ad with a smile on his face, signaling that he, too, knows that what he is saying is ridiculous, if mildly amusing.

The propaganda is amplified by Washington think tanks that live off donations from military contractors and, occasionally, foreign governments that are part of U.S. fraudulent operations. Think of the Atlantic Council, CSIS, and of course the ever-popular Institute for the Study of War, brought to you by major military contractors.

The second is to hide the costs of foreign policy operations. In the 1960s, the United States government made the mistake of forcing the American people to bear the costs of the military-industrial complex, drafting young men to fight in Vietnam and increasing taxes to pay for the war. Public opinion expressed its opposition.

Since the 1970s, the government has been much smarter. The government ended conscription and turned military service into a temporary job rather than a public service, supported by Pentagon spending to recruit soldiers from lower economic strata. He also abandoned the quaint idea that public expenditure should be financed by taxes and instead shifted the military budget to deficit spending, which protects it from the popular opposition that would be unleashed if it were financed by taxes.

It has also sucked up client states like Ukraine to fight US wars on the ground, so that no American body bags spoil the US propaganda machine. Needless to say, American warlords like Sullivan, Blinken, Nuland, Schumer and McConnell remain thousands of miles away from the front lines. Death is reserved for Ukrainians. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) defended American military aid to Ukraine as money well spent because “there is not a single American service woman or man injured or lost”, somehow the good senator didn’t remember to spare the lives of the Ukrainians, who died by the hundreds of thousands in a war provoked by the USA because of NATO expansion.

This system is supported by the total subordination of the United States Congress to the business of war, to avoid any questioning of the Pentagon's exaggerated budgets and the wars instigated by the Executive Branch. Congressional subordination works as follows. First, Congressional oversight of war and peace is largely vested in the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, which largely set the overall policy of Congress (and the Pentagon budget).

Second, the military industry (Boeing, Raytheon and others) finances the campaigns of Armed Services Committee members of both parties. The military industries also spend huge sums on lobbying to provide lucrative salaries to retiring members of Congress, their staff, and their families, either directly at the military companies or at Washington lobbying firms.

Congress's foreign policy takeover is not just done by the U.S. military-industrial complex. The Israel lobby has long mastered the art of buying Congress. America's complicity with the State of apartheid of Israel and war crimes in Gaza makes no sense for U.S. national security and diplomacy, not to mention human decency. These are the fruits of the Israeli lobby's investments, which reached $30 million in campaign contributions in 2022 and which will greatly exceed this value in 2024.

When Congress reconvenes at the end of January, Biden, Kirby, Sullivan, Blinken, Nuland, Schumer, McConnell, Blumenthal and their ilk will tell us that we absolutely have to finance the lost, cruel and deceitful war in Ukraine and the ongoing massacre and ethnic cleansing in Gaza, lest we and Europe and the free world, and perhaps the solar system itself, succumb to the Russian bear, the Iranian mullahs and the Chinese Communist Party. The promoters of foreign policy disasters are not being irrational with this scaremongering. They are being deceitful and extraordinarily greedy, pursuing narrow interests to the detriment of the interests of the American people.

It is the urgent task of the American people to review a foreign policy that is so broken, corrupt and deceitful that it is burying the government in debt while pushing the world closer to nuclear Armageddon. This review must begin in 2024, rejecting any additional funding for the disastrous Ukrainian War and Israel's war crimes in Gaza. Peacemaking and diplomacy, not military spending, are the path to a U.S. foreign policy in the public interest.

*Jeffrey D. Sachs is professor of economics at Columbia University. Author, among other books, of The era of sustainable development (Current Ed.). [https://amzn.to/3t4aV3s]

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published in CommonDreams.


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