Listen to America’s imperial proconsuls long enough and they often let slip something approaching truth — perhaps exceptionalist confession is more accurate. Take Admiral Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), with responsibility for all of Latin America. Just before the COVID-19 crisis shifted into full gear, on March 11 he testified before the House Armed Services Committee and admitted, “There will be an increase in the U.S. military presence in the hemisphere later this year.” Naturally, admiral, but why?
Well, if one can push past the standard, mindless military dialectics — i.e. “bad guys” — the admiral posits a ready justification: Russia and (most especially) China. With his early career molded in the last, triumphalist Reagan-era Cold War, Faller may be a true believer in new dichotomies that must feel like coming home for the 1983 Naval Academy graduate. Before the committee, he described China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela as “malign state actors” who constitute “a vicious circle of threats.” Faller is right about the circle, but it is his own country that produces it.
These are strange bedfellows, no matter how hard a criminally ahistorical White House and Pentagon try to sell such disparate nations as naturally allied antagonists. A few of these countries have tortured recent pasts, and three of them are several thousand miles from the very hemisphere they ostensibly contest. The truth is that it’s U.S. imperialism, intransigence, and hyper-intervention — anywhere and everywhere — that links these historically and geopolitically unnatural partners together. This holds true both in policy and imagination. In the Corona Age, the Trump team — anti-interventionist populist campaign rhetoric aside — have outed themselves as pandemic-opportunists and gleeful slaves to the “New Cold War.”
Today, Washington sets policies that consistently make mountains out of “malign” molehills, and quite literally construct the Orwellian enemies it needs. It’s hardly anything new. From Reagan’s “confederation of terrorist states” in a new “international Murder Inc.” and Bush II’s “axis of evil,” to Trump’s (or actually John Bolton’s) recent “troika of tyranny,” the utility of the nuance-absent idiom is clear: manufacture public fear, demonize opponents, and link the otherwise unlinked. Only there’s a catch: Decry a concocted connection often enough and one drives inorganic rivals into each other’s arms.
Exhibit A is East Asia. China and Russia are hardly historically simpatico. During the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet split put the lie to communism as mythical monolith and resulted in a shooting war along the immense border between them. Furthermore, Beijing — the rising regional power — won’t forever acquiesce to the archaic imperial boundaries, especially as a demographic tipping point nears whereby Russia’s scant Siberian population is overrun by Chinese migrants. And Putin knows it.
Luckily for Vlad, U.S. demonization of China and Uncle Sam’s insistence on perpetual preeminence in the Western Pacific places that impending conflict on ice as Xi Jinping seeks out Moscow as an ally of convenience. Remove the American challenge, as the East-West Center’s Denny Roy recently wrote, and “the primary strategic motivation for Sino-Russian cooperation would fade,” and relations return to “their historically more normal adversarial character.”
Back in Latin America, Washington inverts the spatial relationship, but adheres to the formula of countering — and creating — “imagined communities” of distant enemy “alliances.” Though neither Russia or China (and certainly not Iran) have any meaningful military presence, Admiral Faller sees these nefarious ghosts behind every palm tree in his area of responsibility. Their essential crime: trading with and recognizing regimes Washington doesn’t particularly care for in Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela. The SOUTHCOM chief spoke of how “Russia once again projected power in our neighborhood,” and that his “aha moment” this past year was “the extent to which China is aggressively pursuing their interests right here in our neighborhood.” (emphases added)
That’s some fascinating language. As was Faller’s reference to Chinese regional loans as “predatory financing.” Pot meet kettle! Surely, even the “company man” admiral must know that his own navy right now — as always — cruises warships through the disputed South China Sea, and that Washington has long set the gold standard in predatory loans through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Besides, even assume that, say, Russia is wrong to back what Faller had the temerity to label the “former Maduro regime,” in Venezuela, what of Washington’s support for Bolivia’s military coup-installed extremists in Bolivia, and of the right-wing strongman Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil?
Faller’s “neighborhood” fallacy illustrates an American hypocrisy without recognizable bounds. How instructive — and disturbing — it is to hear a purportedly educated four-star flag officer peddle foolish binaries and prattle on in such coarse platitudes. The ease with which this nonsense passes public and congressional muster is surely symptomatic of an obtuse U.S. militarist disease. For if the admiral counts as one of those (establishment darling) “adults” in the Trumpian room, then the republic is in even bigger trouble than many thought. Either way, it’s high time to recognize Faller and his ilk for what they usually are: staggeringly “small” thinkers without an inkling of strategic imagination.
It is, however, regarding Iran that the U.S. makes the bed for the most absurd of fellows. Trump’s withdrawal from a functioning nuclear deal, and recent off-the-rails escalations, accomplish little more than driving Tehran into Russia’s arms. Incidentally, these are decidedly unnatural friends, seeing as they fought repeated wars over the last few centuries, Moscow occupied northern Iran after World War II, and their respective contours of regional influence have long been contested.
Furthermore, it was U.S. complicity in the Saudi terror war on Yemen that deepened ties between the Houthis and a Tehran that had hardly given them much thought previously. Not only were Iranian military and religious (the two peoples actually follow different strands of Shia Islam) ties initially exaggerated, but the sequence of increased support is usually confused. Serious support from Tehran postdated the Saudi assaults.
Lastly, Trump’s seemingly self-sabotaging actions decisively empower the very hardliners in Tehran whom they purport to loathe. Rather than encourage nascent moderates like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, The Donald’s unnecessary pugnacity led to conservative legislative victories in Tehran, and so increased the popularity of the Supreme Leader that Iranian people are apt to believe the ayatollah’s insane COVID-conspiracy theories.
If the rank absurdity of today’s U.S. military posturing, and its outcomes, tend to confuse, it is important to remember that Trump’s audience is us — the public and the media that serves it — not Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, or even Ayatollah Khomeini. After all, not even Trump (I think?) believes the “harassing” Iranian speedboats in the Persian Gulf, that he just ordered the navy to “to shoot down and destroy” if they misbehave, are headed for Baltimore. Should Washington’s policies appear incoherent, and consequently near masochistic, well, that might be precisely the point, or, conversely (if unsatisfyingly), all there actually is to say about that.
If the ultimate goal, as I’m increasingly persuaded, is simply to manufacture the enemy coalitions necessary to frighten (thus discipline) the people and ensure endless profits for the military-industrial complex that funds the resultant buildup — well, then, Mr. Trump’s policies are far more lucid and effective than they’re usually credited to be.
On the other hand, if chaos and contingency reign — as they often have — in Washington, then U.S. foreign policy represents nothing less than counter-productivity incarnate. Lord only knows which is worse.