Losing the American "Near Abroad"

What if the Cold War turned out to be a loser/loser contest?

| Mon May 2, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

Of the two superpowers that faced each other down in an almost half-century-long Cold War, one -- the United States -- emerged victorious, alone in the world, economically powerful, militarily dominant; the other, never the stronger of the two, limped off, its empire shattered and scattered, its people impoverished and desperate, its military a shell of its former self. This is a story we all know, and more or less accept. Winner/loser, victor/vanquished. It makes sense. That's the way we expect matches, competitions, struggles, wars to end.

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But what if, as I've suggested recently, the Cold War turned out to be a loser/loser contest? That may seem counterintuitive. In regards to the U.S., it would have been considered laughable not so long ago, except to a few scholars of imperial decline like Immanuel Wallerstein, and yet it may be an increasingly plausible thought.

Let me start, however, with the obvious loser of the Cold War, and with the semi-secret -- or at least not particularly well covered -- tale of how the victorious U.S. superpower attempted to finish off its former rival, the Russian remnant of the USSR and its last outlying regions of control, its "near abroad."

By the 1980s, the USSR was an overstretched empire -- economically worse than shaky, its military overblown, its money going down an imperial rat hole -- and then, of course, there was Afghanistan. (Anything already sound a little familiar here?) Afghanistan was Russia's Vietnam, exactly as several American administrations wanted it to be -- the difference being that Vietnam was a resounding regional defeat for us; while Afghanistan was a politically and economically empire-shattering defeat for the Soviet Union.

After the Berlin Wall came down, U.S. administrations, especially the present one, poured money (direct and indirect), effort, and planning into the penetration of, and stripping away of, Russia's "near abroad." By now, the old Baltic SSRs of the former Soviet Union have entered NATO (and American jets fly missions over them); Romania and Bulgaria are readying themselves for possible future American bases; Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan have all had at least semi-democratic revolutions (Orange, Rose, and Tulip), lead by oppositions at least partly funded (in all sorts of complex ways) and organized through the good offices of the U.S. government and allied foundations (using "methods [that] have matured into a template for winning other people's elections"). The U.S. now has military bases in the former Central Asian SSRs of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and may conceivably already have more military bases (and missions) in the far-flung imperial regions of the former USSR than do the Russians. (It's not even a contest if you throw in Afghanistan.) Our Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her confirmation hearings, tossed the last remaining western edge of the old Soviet Union, the "democratic" dictatorship of Belarus into her new list of "outposts of tyranny."

When it comes to Russia, the Bush administration has moved U.S. policy from the Cold War position of "containment" to the Cold-Warrior dream-state of "roll back." And despite the President's friendly invocations of "Vladimir" in his press conferences and elsewhere, administration officials undoubtedly yearn for, or are even aiming for, "regime change" in Putin's Russia. In the meantime, Russia's "near abroad" has been largely stripped away under the banner of the administration's latest crusader slogan -- distinctly it's most user-friendly one -- "democracy." Though it's certainly been a selling slogan, as Jonathan Schell has pointed out, the administration's enlistment of "democracy" (as well as the genuine democratic urges of peoples all around the rim of the old Soviet Union) in its drive for global domination has also been a corrupting one.

In all of this, the Cold War's "winner" has been highly successful in at least one aspect of its global imperial mission: penetrating previously off-limits regions of the former imperial foe, setting up its own military outposts there, and supporting whatever new Bush-friendly (or NATO-friendly) regimes emerged. Unsurprisingly, this has been especially true in regions capable of contributing to nailing down control over the Middle Eastern (and Caspian) oil heartlands of the planet.

There are, however, limits to such a strategy. Two of them are Russian in nature. The first is that, at a time when (despite recent dips) oil and natural gas prices are on the long-term rise, the Russians sit on significant reserves of both, which translate into power reserves in every sense. But Putin's regime sits on another kind of "power reserve" as well. However unmentioned these days, this reserve -- the second limit -- effectively constrains American action in the world. Militarily, Russia may be only a shadow of the former USSR, but it still has a world-ending supply of nuclear weapons. While no longer a global superpower, in this single arena it remains just that -- no small matter at a time when, defying all odds, nuclear weapons have become the global coin of the realm, more so perhaps than in the old two-superpower universe.

A third limit on American power is only now coming into sight: the beginning of the formation of regional power blocs (not necessarily military in nature) in opposition to the lone superpower's various goals. While Greater Europe, still in formation, represents one of these blocs; and some greater Asian combination another (as was indicated by the surprising, if tentative, recent détente between China and India as well as the shaky proto-military alliance between Russia and China); perhaps the least expected and commented upon of these blocs lies far closer to home, consisting of a growing set of left-leaning democracies in Latin America determined to pursue their own collective interests whatever the Bush administration has in mind.

Coup-making in Our Backyard

The key to these developments lies in Iraq -- or rather in the Bush administration's 2001 decision that ultimate global power and its own fate lay in the Middle East. If Afghanistan was the USSR's Vietnam (only worse in its effects), Iraq may prove the American Afghanistan (even without an oppositional superpower funding the insurgency in that country). The greatest gamble of the Bush administration -- made up of the greatest gamblers in our history since Jefferson Davis's secessionists -- was certainly its "regime change" leap, under the guise of the Global War on Terror, via cruise missiles and tanks, into the occupation of Iraq.

With no end in sight, the draining Iraq War has already trumped much of the rest of the Bush administration's aggressive foreign policy (especially in Asia) and has left the administration thoroughly distracted when it comes to whole regions of the world. As Chris Nelson of the Washington-insider Nelson Report put matters this week:

"All this by way of saying that we can now see even more clearly than before the import of Secretary of State Condi Rice's extraordinary interview last week in the Wall Street Journal. The former Soviet expert repeatedly made clear that the entire focus of Bush Administration policy is and will continue to be on the Middle East. All responsibility for coming up with a solution to the North Korea problem Rice cheerfully consigned to China."

The war in Iraq has also left the Middle East increasingly destabilized; oil prices on the rise; the dollar undermined; and the U.S. military desperately overstretched, if not incapable of dealing with other major global challenges. No wonder the President clutched the hand of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah the other day down in Crawford. He needs whatever help he can get.

This, in turn, has opened a remarkable space for experimentation and change in, of all places, the little attended to "near abroad" of the winning superpower -- a space Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has recently been playing with for all he's worth. A former military man with his own shadowy past of coup d'états, Chavez, the twice elected and popular president of Venezuela, is the sort of figure that American administrations once dealt with decisively. But Chavez, who finds himself in control of the third largest source of U.S. imported oil (to the tune of 15% of all our oil imports, almost as much as Saudi Arabia), has in the last months managed to: make energy deals with super-competitor China and super-hated Iran (Hey, that's our energy!); form a thumb-your-nose informal economic alliance with super-hated Cuban leader Fidel Castro, part of an attempt to create an alternative to the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas (from which Cuba is excluded); buy arms from Russia and Spain; threaten to cut off Venezuelan oil supplies to the U.S. if his government should be endangered or blockaded by Washington; and last week -- in the ultimate insult to the Bush administration (for whom foreign policy and military policy are almost the same thing) -- throw the U.S. military out of Venezuela.

That this happened without evident retaliation was a milestone of some sort; for Chavez suddenly broke off military-to-military relations, just about the only kind the Bush administration ever promotes, and threw out "a small group of U.S. officers who were teaching and studying in Venezuela," accusing them of encouraging plots against his government. He also ended joint military exercises, suspended all military exchanges, and even threatened to try any American military officer found spying in Venezuelan courts.

As background to this ongoing imbroglio: In April 2002, Venezuelan military officials and business leaders launched a coup d'état against Chavez, forcing his government out of power for 47 hours. During those hours, as Marc Cooper of the Nation has written, "[a]lthough the coup was denounced by nineteen Latin American heads of state as a violation of democratic principles, the Bush Administration publicly countenanced the military takeover." (After the coup collapsed, President Bush stated that he hoped Chavez had "learned his lesson.") The U.S. government initially denied that it had had any role in, or knew anything about, the coup before it took place. Documents soon came to light, however, showing that, at a minimum, the U.S. intelligence community was "getting a steady stream of reports on planning for this coup" and that these had been distributed at high levels in the Bush administration.

Soon after the coup collapsed, the reliable Ed Vulliamy of the British Observer reported that the "failed coup in Venezuela was closely tied to senior officials in the US government, The Observer has established. They have long histories in the [Central American] 'dirty wars' of the 1980s, and links to death squads working in Central America at that time." These figures included Otto Reich and Elliot Abrams. Reich, once U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and a key Bush administration policy-maker on Latin America, reportedly met with the coup plotters over many months.

There is now an acceptable formula for describing what the U.S. did in Venezuela, which can be found regularly in press accounts, as in a recent New York Times piece (U.S. Considers Toughening Stance Toward Venezuela) by reporter Juan Forero: "…the United States tacitly supported a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Chavez in April 2002." Here's another version from Ray Suarez of PBS's Newshour: "[E]lements in the U.S. Government, in the Bush administration, knew that there was a coup under way in Venezuela, and did not rise to support the current government."

Given the history of the United States in Latin America, when a coup occurs in a situation like this, it should really be assumed that the U.S. government was involved in plotting it, not just "tacitly supporting" it. (A decade or three from now, when it no longer matters, we'll undoubtedly have the documentation on this one.) In any case, in the wake of the "botched coup" meant to overthrow the elected government of Venezuela, the U.S., according to a Newsday investigation, began "pumping money into Venezuela immediately… creating a new ‘Office of Transition Initiatives' in Caracas" to distribute funds to those opposed to Chavez. For instance, the "civic group" run by Corina Machado, who signed the decree designed by the coup plotters "that would fleetingly transform the fragile democracy into a dictatorship... was awarded tens of thousands of American tax dollars from two major U.S. agencies -- The National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The funds were used partly to encourage voter participation in a subsequent effort to oust Chavez, this time through a recall referendum."

Late this March, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, soon to be on his way to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan, toured Latin America denouncing Chavez's government -- as did Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week. As Rice hopped from country to country in our near abroad, she called for a "free and completely democratic Venezuela." In addition, Forero tells us:

"While, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela veers toward greater confrontation with Washington, the Bush administration is weighing a tougher approach, including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his leftist government, American officials say."

It's the Ukrainian approach, but against a democracy. What's at stake, as Forero's article (egregiously anti-Chavez in tone) makes clear, is oil. "The United States, said [a high-ranking Republican aide on Capitol Hill who works on Latin America policy], is particularly concerned because Venezuela is one of four top providers of foreign oil to the United States. ‘You can't write him off,' the aide said of Mr. Chávez. ‘He's sitting on an energy source that's critical to us.'"

The American Near Abroad Peels Away

Still, the escalating tussle with Venezuela is but the tip of the near-abroad iceberg. Just last week, for example, with Secretary of State Rice in Latin America and lobbying hard, the Organization of American States elected a Chilean socialist, Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza -- the very candidate she had lobbied against (until the last second) -- to be its secretary general. "It is the first time in the organization's history," reports Larry Rohter of the New York Times, "that a candidate initially opposed by the United States will lead the 34-member regional group." As a candidate, Insulza "not only favored steps to bring Cuba back into the organization but also had the support of Mr. Chávez." Call it a sign of changing times.

Perhaps a greater sign of those changing times was the fact that, on their separate trips across the continent, both Rumsfeld and Rice made clear attempts to back up a crescendo of warnings about and threats against Chavez with some communal action -- and failed dismally. As Rohter put it,

"Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited South America last month in what was seen as an effort to stitch together an anti-Chávez coalition, but got nowhere. Ms. Rice came to the region this week with much the same mission and received the same chilly reception from governments for whom the principles of nonintervention and sovereignty are nearly sacred."

Or take the response of Brazilian Defense Minister Jose Alencar in a press conference with Rumsfeld in late March. Just after Rumsfeld questioned Chavez's motives in buying 100,000 AK-47's from Russia (" I can't imagine what's going to happen to 100,000 AK-47s. I can't imagine why Venezuela needs 100, 000 AK-47s."), Alencar was asked by a reporter if he was "concerned about Chavez." His response was:

"Brazil has always defended and will continue defending the self-determination of the different peoples and non-intervention in the affairs of other countries. Obviously, here in Brazil, which is a country historically pacific (peaceful), obviously we would like to increasingly deepen our diplomatic and trade relations with our countries, with the objective of achieving the common good."

In diplomatic-speak, that meant: Back off, Don.

Let's try to put this in context: Unlike in areas bordering Russia and in the Middle East, the United States has put no money into a "Latin Spring," and yet it's happened anyway. We may, in fact, already be at the very start of something like a Latin Summer. Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico -- the largest countries in the region -- are all now democracies; and all but Mexico are led by socialists or independent-minded leaders. This trend hasn't been restricted to the more economically powerful countries in the region either. It has taken hold from Uruguay to Ecuador. Next year, if the leftist mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is elected president, Mexico will put a stunning cap on the process. Two-thirds of Latin America is now considered left-leaning.

Latin America, of course, has long been thought of as the imperial backyard of the United States. From the 1950s through the 1970s, from Guatemala to Argentina, Brazil to Chile, we encouraged, funded, organized, and sometimes (as in Guatemala and Chile) led or all but led military takeovers of democracies. As it happened, the militaries of those countries, with their carefully nurtured ties to the U.S. military, proved far easier to topple than the one-party, one-leader system that has ruled Cuba through a forty-odd year American siege. In those decades, throughout the region, our representatives (ordinarily from the CIA) taught the local police and military torture techniques of an Abu-Ghraib variety, backed regimes renowned for disappearances, and generally helped impose a blanket of draconian rule on the continent in the name of anti-communism.

In the 1980s, with the help of a number of people who are now household names, including new intelligence "tsar" John Negroponte, the Reagan administration repeated the process in Central America, supporting death squads, military killers, and right-wing thugs in a counter-revolutionary terror. We poured multimillions into this process; later invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada and then Panama; and finally worked hard to impose an impoverishing economic system ("neoliberalism") on the continent in the 1990s.

Leaving the Imperial Orbit

Given all this, it's remarkable what the Bush administration can't do today in its own backyard. It can't fully isolate Cuba; it can't create a regional "coalition of the willing" against Venezuela; it can't simply impose its version of economics on the continent; it can't stop a number of countries in the region from making energy deals of one sort or another with China, Iran, India, and other potential energy competitors. (And if, for a moment, you were to glance north, rather than south, you might notice that it was recently unable to impose its pet boondoggle, the Star Wars anti-missile system, on our recalcitrant northern neighbor. Another small sign of the times.)

There is perhaps no area of the world where the Bush administration has been less successful in fostering the military-to-military relations that are seen are crucial to its plans. Part of this has been due to its tunnel-vision unilateralism. In an attempt to prevent U.S. soldiers or officials from ever ending up in a foreign or international court on any kind of war crimes charges, it sent the American Service Members Protection Act (ASPA) winging through Congress. This "prohibits U.S. security assistance funds and most military cooperation unless a country rejects the U.N.-backed ICC [International Criminal Court] or signs a bilateral immunity agreement with the United States." It then pursued such agreements with just about every nation on the planet. As it happens, 11 of the nations that have ratified the ICC agreement and refused to grant the United States bilateral immunity are in Latin America. Another sign of the times. As Pamela Hess, UPI's Pentagon correspondent, put the matter:

[E]xcept for Colombia and Argentina, all the major countries of South America are on the ASPA black list: Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil. Prior to the passage of the ASPA, the major South American players had nearly 700 officers in training in U.S. military schools under the International Military Education and Training program. That number is essentially down to zero, say U.S. Southern Command sources. ‘We have lost access to a whole generation of military officers,' a Southern Command source told UPI.

"‘Extra-hemispheric actors are filling the void left by restricted U.S. military engagement with partner nations. We now risk losing contact and interoperatibility with a generation of military classmates in many nations of the region, including several leading countries,' [Southern Command chief Gen. Bantz Craddock told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.]. The void left by the United States after ASPA is increasingly being filled by China, Craddock warned."

More striking yet has been the rise of a new kind of "people power" -- a term we usually associate with Soviet-controlled Poland or the Marcos-controlled Philippines -- throughout Latin America. It could most recently be observed in Ecuador, where popular demonstrations drove the Bush-administration-backed President, Lucio Gutiérrez, who had only recently illegally dissolved the Supreme Court, out of the country; and again, only a week ago, in Mexico City where an estimated 1.2 million people turned out in a "silent march" to support Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, that city's left-wing mayor and the country's leading candidate for president in next year's election, after Vincente Fox's ruling party had tried to railroad him out of the race and into jail on a trumped-up charge. As Danna Harman of the Christian Science Monitor wrote of the march (People power rattling politics of Latin America), while discussing "the weakening of authoritarian regimes [in Latin America] and the growing self-assurance of the people -- including, in the case in Bolivia, the indigenous":

"Chalk up another victory for Latin American people power. In the 1990s, what politicians feared most was apathy. But lately, Latin Americans from Mexico City to Quito, Ecuador -- much like the citizens of Ukraine and Lebanon -- have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers.

Harold Meyerson, writing in the Washington Post in mid-April on earlier Mexican protests over Obrador, commented (Greetings from Mexistan):

"Apparently, there are several kinds of capital city rallies. There are those in Kiev, where multitudes turned out to protest the subversion of a national election and the attempted murder of the opposition leader. There are those in Beirut, where people gathered to protest the murder of an opposition leader and to demand self-determination. These were outpourings that our government encouraged.

"And there was the one last Thursday in Mexico City, where 300,000 protesters filled the Zocalo… And what was the response of our government?... Did we tell the crowds gathered in the Zocalo that America walks at their side?

"Not quite. While Condi Rice waxes eloquent about our concern for democratic rights in Central Asia and the Middle East, the most the Bush administration has managed to say about democracy in the unimaginably faraway land of Mexico has been the comment of a State Department spokesman that this is an internal Mexican affair. Democracy may be all well and good, but Lopez Obrador is just not Bush's kind of guy. As mayor of Mexico City, he's increased public pensions to the elderly and spent heavily on public works and the accompanying job creation. He's criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement as a boon for the corporate sector and a bust for Mexican workers..."

As it turned out, the Mexican people didn't need George Bush's funding or organizational support; nor, it seems, did any other manifestation of "people power" to our south. For what we have been seeing throughout Latin America -- as along Russia's border -- has been a serial revolt in country after country against the Cold War world and the imperial orders it imposed on its near abroads. Once upon a time, an American administration would have put such revolts down serially, using the CIA, military to military relations, economic power, and aid of various sorts; but, though events in Latin America are finally making the Bush administration sit up and take note, its ability to act is more limited than usual. After all, Iraq is proving a black hole for American power and something of a graveyard for the administration's global ambitions and energies -- giving new meaning to that old Vietnam-era word "quagmire. "

There can be little question that, in the superpower-funded revolt of the Russian near-abroad and the unsupported revolt of the American near-abroad, you find similar impulses. When imperial power anywhere begins to crumble, it naturally creates space for local and regional experiments in new kinds of power relations. Unfortunately, all our covert (and less than covert) help in "organizing" democracy movements from Ukraine and Georgia to Kyrgyzstan and Belarus gives our leaders the feeling, I fear, that they are actually creating democracies by manipulation in someone else's near abroad.

My own guess is that, given crumbling Russian power and the space it's left open, democracy movements would have developed apace (as in Latin America), even had our help never been offered. Of course when our leaders come across "people power" that has developed without their imprimatur (not always a pretty sight) -- whether in the form of brutal struggles for national sovereignty (as in Iraq) or in their democratic form in Latin America -- they are invariably caught off guard and generally appalled. But it's only in looking at these forms of popular power – whether violent or peaceful – that you can see the genuine strangeness of what may turn out to be our loser/loser superpower world.

No one should, of course, underestimate the power of an empire to, as George Lucas might say, "strike back." And yet, let's hold out hope of a sort against empire and its plans for domination. Despite our recent emphasis in "the homeland" on security and borders, what are borders really? What are they actually capable of keeping out? It's strange sometimes how permeable walls and borders prove. As Paul Woodward, the canny editor of the War in Context website wrote recently:

"People power's a fine thing for shaking up Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but as it spreads to the Americas, it could be coming uncomfortably close to home. What if people power caught on in the United States? What if accountability was being demanded not just from governments in Kiev and Beirut but also those in London and Washington? The bread and circuses approach to democracy has so far been an effective guarantor of political apathy across America, but what if Americans in large numbers were to one day wake up from their political slumber and demand that they too deserve a truly representative government?"

What if, indeed. What if we all began slipping out of the imperial orbit?

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.

[Special thanks go to Nick Turse for his invaluable research assistance.]

Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.