Sean Ledwith recommends Blum’s recent book, America’s Deadliest Export, as a detailed and uncompromising critique of the hypocrisies of US foreign policy

William Blum, America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy (Zed Books 2013), 355pp.

If you only read one book about global politics this year make it this one. William Blum has put together a coruscating  set of essays that leaves the reader reeling with anger and indignation that the world’s supreme military power has got away with – and continues to get away with – a blood-soaked litany of interventions, assassinations and manipulations since World War II that has left the rest of the world cowering in its shadow. As he states at the outset, ‘the magnitude of US aggression puts it historically into a league all by itself’ (p.3). If this one does not make you feel like burning the Stars and Stripes outside the US Embassy you need to check your pulse.

Blum has collated and documented a chilling array of global machinations that builds towards an unanswerable indictment of America’s role in the world. Blum is a particularly authoritative guide to the subject as he spent some time in the heart of the beast. He is a former official at the State Department in Washington who resigned his post in 1967, in protest at US operations in Vietnam. Since then he has been an indefatigable critic of the direction and scope of American foreign policy, notably through his online newsletter, The Anti-Empire Report.

Blum achieved notoriety in the US in 2006 when Osama Bin Laden, no less, praised the perspicacity of one of his previous publications: ‘And if Bush decides to carry on with his lies and oppression, then it would be useful for you to read the book Rogue State.

Whatever his political shortcomings, this tells us that Bin Laden was at least a discerning judge of a good read. In this book, Blum talks about how this comment from Bin Laden only served to deepen the suspicion and prejudice of the mainstream US media towards his attempts to counter their blinkered world-view. Having been virtually ignored by them for years he suddenly found himself in the spotlight. However most of his interviewers were unable to comprehend the notion that Bin Laden’s antagonism to the US might actually have had some rational basis. When this was expressed to Blum, his deadpan response was: ‘Have you been in a coma the past twenty years?’ (p.284).

His viewpoint is that such is that ideological iron grip the US ruling class has over its population that many of them might as well have been in a coma when it comes to political awareness. As he puts it, ‘the American government has pulled off what must surely rank as one of the most outstanding feats of propaganda and indoctrination in all of history’ (p.9). This feat consists of persuading the bulk of US public opinion that the country’s role in the world is fundamentally benevolent. Blum’s stance is that the opposite is the case. The best way, he argues, to comprehend Washington’s actions on the global stage is with a terrifyingly simple premise: ‘The secret to understanding US foreign policy is that there is no secret. Principally, one must come to the realization that the United States strives to dominate the world, for which it is prepared to use any means necessary’ (p.1).

Blum underlines this stark statement of fact with a powerful itemisation of America’s attempts since World War II to re-orientate the political trajectory of other countries on its own terms. This includes seeking to overthrow fifty elected governments; meddling with elections in thirty countries; attempting to assassinate fifty leaders; bombing civilians in thirty countries and  (if that was not enough) seeking to thwart popular uprisings in twenty (p.1). This trail of Washington’s nefarious activities refers back to the ironic title of the book. Democracy is the last thing the US is interested in exporting. Blum argues that the US can only be compared to the Roman Empire for the scale of the suffering it has inflicted on the downtrodden of the world. He observes how an official in the Bush administration commented approvingly on Rome’s attitude to those it had crushed: ‘Let them hate so long as they fear’ (p.2).

The fundamental question of ‘Why do they hate us?’ (p.25) that Blum’s media interlocutors could not fathom is one he sets out to answer. The answer, he argues, falls into three parts. Firstly, the US categorises all those who oppose it as extremists, but most Americans do not stop to think how the behaviour of their government looks to the rest of the world:

‘What makes a million young Americans willing to travel to places like Afghanistan and Iraq to risk life and limb to kill other young people who have never done them any harm and to commit unspeakable atrocities and tortures? Is this not extreme behaviour?’ (p.28).

Secondly, the US diplomatic community likes to kid itself that antagonism from abroad is simply due to image problems that can be resolved by improved marketing. Blum scornfully describes how an inept State Department minion struggled to cope with harsh questioning about US policy at a press conference in Turkey: ‘Right, Karen, it’s all just PR, nothing of any substance to worry about your banality-filled little head about’ (p.29).

The third factor is the fallacy that Washington’s technological superiority over the rest of the world gives it the capacity to use that technology to fix any political problem. Blum notes that in 2005 the Pentagon awarded contracts worth $300 million to IT companies with a remit to improve the international perception of the US, particularly in the Muslim world. Again, he is blisteringly dismissive of this pointless waste of money. The people of the Middle East ‘have come to the bizarre conclusion that saturation bombing, invasion, occupation, destruction of homes, torture, depleted uranium, killing a hundred thousand, and daily humiliations of men, women and children do not indicate good intentions’ (p.30).

Having identified the wrong-headed thinking that dwells at the core of the US state apparatus, he charts in a brilliantly incisive but often funny way how these misconceptions have generated an unparalleled level of destruction in the key political regions of the world. The most obvious recent example of that trend, of course, is the cataclysmic US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Blum lacerates the dishonest view that flat-earthers like Blair cling to that the war was still worth it because it toppled a dictator:

‘if you went into surgery to correct a knee problem and the surgeon mistakenly amputated your entire leg, what would you think if someone then asked you: Are you glad you no longer have a knee problem? The people of Iraq no longer have a Saddam problem’ (p.60).

The shattering human cost of the invasion is charted in unsparing detail by Blum. Particularly horrifying was America’s deployment of uranium-depleted shells against the city of Fallujah in 2004. The consequences of this military technology affect not just this generation but future ones. The level of children born with heart defects after the attack was thirteen times above average. One baby was subsequently delivered with three heads, one with an eye in the middle of its forehead and one with a nose in the same place. Cases like this used to occur every couple of months in Fallujah, but by 2010 they were happening every day (p.55).  Reading this sort of horrific detail cannot help but remind us of Rosa Luxemburg’s comment about ‘socialism or barbarism’ as the choice facing humanity.

Blum also records a conversation between Bush and one of his commanders in Iraq about the same time as this war crime was being perpetrated. As the General reported a mounting level of resistance, Bush flew off the handle: ‘Kick ass! If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them!’ (p.65).

Presumably, the unborn children of Fallujah were also blocking the march to democracy. The ongoing refusal of the US ruling class, including Obama, to accept responsibility for this catastrophic war, and its determination to keep its collective head firmly in the sand, is compared by Blum to a classic story of what Jewish people call chutzpah: ‘It’s the young man who kills his parents and then asks the judge for mercy on the grounds that he’s an orphan’ (p.70).

Also in the Middle East, Blum takes a chainsaw to US policy regarding Iran. He explains how former President Ahmadinejad was lambasted in the West for his supposed comment in 2005 about wanting ‘to wipe Israel off the map’. An American professor of Farsi pointed out that the translation should more accurately have read ‘the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time’ (p.89). Needless to say the US media preferred to use the first version to the second, which has no overtones of compulsion. Blum describes how an internet search with the words ‘Israel’ and ‘off the map’ would receive the following message: ‘This search has been interrupted because it will return 3000 results’ (p.93).

Last year, even the Israelis accepted that their version of Ahmadinejad’s speech was a distortion (p.94). Behind closed doors, the leadership of the Zionist state is happy to admit the Iranian nuclear threat is non-existent. Blum reports how at closed session of the Israeli cabinet in 2007, Foreign Minister Livni said as much, and went on to criticise her boss, Prime Minister Olmert, for ‘the exaggerated use … of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fear’ (p.96). Blum discusses how the perception of Iran in the Middle East is radically different from the one we are subjected to in the West. The 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll asked respondents in six countries a question with these results: ‘Name two countries that you think pose the biggest threat to you – Israel 88%, US 77%, Algeria 10%, Iran 10%, UK 8%, China 3%, Syria 1%’ (p.101).

It would be interesting to get Cameron’s response to the suggestion that the UK is seen by many Arabs as only marginally less of a threat than Iran. The results also indicate that many people in the region share Blum’s view that the two most dangerous countries named here shared a common agenda of bellicosity and misinformation; hence his use of the term ‘USrael’ to describe the overlapping relationship between them (p.98).

Blum also applies his shibboleth-slaying style to US activities in Latin America. The author travelled to Allende’s Chile in the early 1970s because he was attracted by the attempt to construct a social infrastructure outside the capitalist orbit of the US. The lethal sabotage of this experiment by the CIA is well known but Blum recounts the interesting view of a State Department official who tried to deny the idea that the US had helped toppled Allende: ‘It would have been better had Allende served his entire term … Only then would the full discrediting of socialism have taken place. Only then would people have gotten the message that socialism doesn’t work’ (p.214).

As Blum spells out, this senior figure, an Assistant Secretary of State, let slip the real agenda of American policy in its backyard: prevent the rise of any society that might serve as a successful example of an alternative to the capitalist model (p.214). Other attempts to construct an alternative to the Washington Consensus in the region, such as Cuba and Nicaragua, are also examined by Blum, alongside illuminating descriptions of American plots to undermine them. In the former, the US has repeatedly tried to concoct an anti-Castro movement out of the dregs of the reactionaries who fled the 1959 revolution. These have all failed miserably but that has not stopped a lot of innocent people dying on the way. In 1976, an anti-Castroite militant called Orlando Bosch masterminded a bomb plot that blew a Cuban airliner out of the sky, killing all 73 people on board including an entire youth fencing team.  Where is this man now? Walking around freely in Florida. In fact, as Blum recalls, ‘In 1983 the City Commissioner declared a Dr Orlando Bosch Day’ (p.52). Of course, Blum describes how cases such as this expose the hypocrisy and double standards of America’s absurd War on Terror.

The book is jam-packed with countless other examples of US chicanery and double-dealing all over the globe, including Libya, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. The cumulative effect could be to make the reader feel powerless in the face of the leviathan of US power and perhaps despairing of ever seeing it brought down. Yet, Blum is an optimist about America’s future as he does not lose sight of the fact that within the US itself there have always been voices of dissent that refuse to be cowed by its military machine. This includes recent upsurges of resistance such as the 2011 Occupy movement, to which he pays generous tribute. An optimistic perspective should be strengthened by the recent defeat of the UK government’s attempt to join a US attack on Syria. This underlines the point that concerted mass opposition to war and imperialism does make a difference. The last page also includes an invigorating number of reflections from other great American radicals such as Chomsky and Zinn on the necessity never to give up the struggle, even when it seems futile. One of these is from IF Stone and is a salutary message for all activists engaged in campaigns that seem hopeless, not just those taking on the American Empire:

‘The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing … to go right ahead and fight, knowing you are going to lose’ (p.338).

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters