Number 444 December 22, 2009

This Week: The Empire Series Continues

"Quote" of the Week
What is an Empire? Not What it Used to Be
Informal Empire: The Case of Honduras


What is an empire, and what is imperialism? I believe that most of us are clinging to an outdated definition, one that doesn't help us understand what is going on in the post-Cold War, post-9/11, 21st-Century world in which we live. This misunderstanding of the nature of the beast is a big obstacle to building an effective movement that can begin to redirect the enormous power of the United States away from perpetuating a culture of endless war and toward building a life-affirming and peaceful society.

This third installment of the Nygaard Notes Empire Series focuses on the definition of Empire, and offers a little case study of how Empire works these days. Iraq and Afghanistan are the examples of Empire that some people are thinking about since the Bush occupations began, but I think Honduras is an illustration of how Empire is more likely to work in the 21st Century. See what you think.

Happy Solstice!



"Quote" of the Week:

An Excuse To Occupy

After President Obama's December 1st speech on Afghanistan, the Christian Science Monitor ran a story headlined, "Obama's Afghanistan Speech: How it Sounded to Afghans." Reporter Ben Arnoldy began his story by quoting one Afghan who says that the U.S. is already spending so much money and has so much power that "if they wanted they could destroy the Taliban" without any further escalation. The "Quote" of the week, though, is Arnoldy's fleeting mention of a more sinister explanation for U.S. behavior in Afghanistan than we are typically allowed to consider in this country. It was in the third paragraph, which reads:

"Across ethnic lines, Afghans interviewed in Kabul have concluded that foreign troops must not be working hard, or perhaps prefer to have an excuse to occupy."


What is an Empire? Not What it Used to Be

An empire, in the traditional definition, is "a territory of greater extent than a kingdom." Or, "a group of countries ruled by a single person, government or country." It usually refers to nation-states and their individual leaders—kings, emperors, presidents, and the like—as in the case of the British Empire, which was understood to be the territories under the control of the British king, or government, but which did not include England itself.

Illinois University history professor Paul Schroeder says that "Empire means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from and alien to it."

Those are pretty individualistic definitions. Michael Doyle, in his 1986 book Empires, introduced a hint of systems thinking when he said on page 45 that: "Empire is a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society. It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, by economic, social, or cultural dependence. Imperialism," he adds, "is simply the process or policy of establishing or maintaining an empire."

The Nygaard Definition of Empire: Global, Informal

In the conventional understanding of Empire, all the powerful countries had one (an empire, that is) and "nearly all the world's territories could be parceled out and the entire world map could be coded in European colors: red for British territory, blue for French, green for Portuguese, and so forth." Those are the words of scholars Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, writing in their influential book Empire.

The nature of Empire has changed, however. As Hardt and Negri quite eloquently put it, "The distinct national colors of the imperialist map of the world have merged and blended in the imperial global rainbow." I think that's not only poetic, but quite accurate.

Like Hardt and Negri, I think that modern Empire is simultaneously less formal and more global than the traditional definition would have it. Less formal, in the sense that the structure of Empire is nowadays characterized not by literal rule by a viceroy or similar governor, but instead by ideology and latent power. That is, rather than maintaining a direct and overt governance, as the British did in India (for example), today's Empire relies on a general acceptance of, if not the legitimacy of the Imperial Order, at least the inevitability of that order. Countries that wish to "get along" with "the international community" must give evidence of their acceptance of the rules of the game. Or else. The acceptance of the rules is the ideology. The "or else" is the latent power. (Which will certainly become actual use of military force if need be.

The Bush/Obama approach in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be based on a more traditional idea of Empire—the actual use of military power—but most of the rest of the former Imperialist countries (in Europe and Japan, primarily) seem to have other ideas, which is why it is so difficult to maintain what President Obama calls the "broad coalition" carrying out the occupations of those two countries.

When I say that Empire in the 21st Century is a global phenomenon, I am referring to the fact that there are established global trade and financial patterns that work to direct wealth and resources in certain directions, serving the interests of certain people at the expense of others. So, for example, people in India no longer pay taxes directly to England (as used to be the case with the salt tax, for example), but instead now work in the factories and offices of corporations, with the profits leaving the country, destination Europe and the USA. And this happens all over the world, with "legions of hungry college grads in India, China, and the Philippines willing to work twice as hard [as U.S. graduates] for one-fifth the pay," as Business Week recently put it.

Along the way, local elites get their share of the loot, and perhaps also get some direct support from the U.S. in their attempts to stay in power. Witness the survival of the Zardari government in Pakistan, which is "effectively run by the US Ambassador Anne W. Patterson," according to the British-Pakistani historian and novelist Tariq Ali, despite "the intense hatred for him in Pakistan." Or the taking of office in Afghanistan by the U.S. choice, Hamid Karzai. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, explained how it works to the NY Times on November 5th: "Karzai is corrupt, O.K., but "he is our guy" [so] "We have to legitimize him." Kouchner said that this is necessary, as the Times put it, "if NATO has any chance to consolidate Afghanistan and then leave it."

To decode what Kouchner is saying, to "consolidate" is to have in place a government which fully accepts the legitimacy of the Imperial Order so that the Empire doesn't have to spend so much money directly running things. Other terms for "consolidate" include "stabilize," "pacify," and "succeed." As when Obama reassures us that "we are successfully leaving Iraq to its people."

Looked at another way, 21st-Century Empire relies less on force and more on what might be called market forces. If a leader comes to power who is not "our guy" and attempts to "opt out" of the system—by raising the price of the country's raw materials, say, or by attempting to elevate the interests of the country's citizens above the interests of the transnational corporations that operate in the country—a vast array of international financial bodies will instantly inflict punishment, major corporations will threaten to withdraw their investments, and "the international community" will ponder sanctions or worse. We might see a coup—witness Honduras, June 2009—but it's a last resort.

And that's the modern Empire: Something called "the international community," or NATO, or the Security Council, decides who is "our guy," and then attempts to prop him up until the Imperial Order is "consolidated." If it requires massive electoral fraud, or ongoing occupation, or "regime change," or some other way of making sure that "our guy" is in charge, then that's what must be done. The meaning of "success"—in Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever—is this very consolidation: The demands of Empire are non-negotiable.

The U.S. in its post-9/11 paranoid phase continues to attempt to recreate formal Empire in Iraq and now Afghanistan. Bush called it "nation-building" and Obama says he wants to "increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region," but whatever it's called, it's not at all certain it will work. While the world's attention is centered on the two occupied countries, there's a test occurring elsewhere right now that may set the precedent for how the 21st-Century Empire deals with misbehavior in the subordinate nations. Let's have a look at Honduras.


Informal Empire: The Case of Honduras

It was on June 28th that the democratically-elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was deposed in a military coup d'etat led by Honduran Gen. Romeo Vasquez. The coup d'etat was the first in Central America in over a quarter century, and was immediately condemned by the European Union, the United Nations, the Organization of American States and all of Honduras' immediate national neighbors, according to a June 30th report by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!. It was also condemned by the United States, but there were doubts as to how serious the condemnation really was. As a headline in the Washington Post put it, "U.S. Condemns Honduran Coup; Still, Administration Steps Lightly." Lightly, indeed.

Not only did the U.S. refuse to characterize the ouster as a "coup," which would have triggered an immediate suspension of U.S. aid, but there are other tidbits of information about U.S. connections to the ouster that together tell a tale of informal Empire at work.

The New York Times headlined its story on the coup, "Honduran Army Ousts President Allied to Chavez." Get it? Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is the most-recognizable official enemy of the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere, so such a headline serves to set a tone. As Conn Hallinan of Foreign Policy in Focus put it in an August 6th column, "The story most U.S. readers are getting about the coup is that Zelaya—an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez—was deposed because he tried to change the constitution to keep himself in power." Not only is that false, but much of the truth that might support a different interpretation of the recent events remains largely unreported in the U.S.

When Zelaya was elected in 2005 it was barely noted in this country. Honduras was, according to the CIA, "the second poorest country in Central America [and] has an extraordinarily unequal distribution of income and high unemployment." As long as this status quo was maintained, why would anyone in the U.S. care about who is the president? It was in this context that Zelaya began to pursue policies to address these issues. What did he do? Among other things, he abolished fees for primary education, expanded programs of childhood immunizations, brought electricity to more homes in both urban and rural areas, and raised the production of basic food grains from 650,000 tons per year to 950,000 tons. One of his most clear-cut reforms was to raise the Honduran minimum wage by sixty percent. Overall, the Zelaya government estimated that its programs had lowered the poverty level from 46% of the population in 2005 to 36% in 2008. Those things may sound good to you and me, but they don't sound good to everyone.

The Nicaragua Network (from which the above list of policies comes) notes that the increase in the minimum wage, in particular, "angered the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise and the National Industrialists' Association." Also angered were a couple of corporations that will be familiar to most U.S. readers: Chiquita Brands and Dole Foods. (A lot of Honduran bananas and pineapples are sold by these behemoths.) Chiquita, especially, "complained that the new regulations would cut into company profits, requiring the firm to spend more on costs than in Costa Rica," according to Nikolas Kozloff, author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Chiquita didn't just grumble; it "sought help and appealed to the Honduran National Business Council, known by its Spanish acronym COHEP" which was also "unhappy about Zelaya's minimum wage measure."

Lobbying The Empire

Chiquita has a history of working to change the governments of countries if they threaten its operations. Back when it was known as United Fruit, according to Kozloff, it "supported the CIA-backed 1954 military coup against President Jacobo Arbenz, a reformer who had carried out a land reform package." And "Later in 1961, United Fruit lent its ships to CIA-backed Cuban exiles who sought to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs."

Starting in 2007, Chiquita began using the services of the international lobbying firm Covington and Burling, paying out at least $70,000 in fees to that company (so far). Covington is well-connected in Washington, and it's a bipartisan power that they wield. In 2003, Covington announced a "global strategic alliance" with Kissinger McLarty Associates. That's Henry Kissinger, the Republican former Secretary of State, and Mack McLarty, who was Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

Other Covington connections include hardline Republican John Bolton, Ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush II administration, who worked with Covington from 1974 to 1981. John Negroponte is a Covington Vice Chairman. Negroponte gained fame as U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 1981-1985, where he "played a significant role in assisting the U.S.-backed Contra rebels intent on overthrowing the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua," as Kozloff reminds us. Negroponte was also the first national intelligence director under Bush II, and served as ambassador to Iraq in 2004-05. He likes to be where the action is.

Another Covington associate, until last December, was Eric Holder. Holder was paid more than $2 million per year by Covington to do things like, for instance, representing Chiquita Brands! In 2007, in a case where Chiquita pleaded guilty to charges of paying protection money to Colombian death squads, Holder got Chiquita off with "a slap on the wrist," and no Chiquita official was indicted. Eric Holder is now the Attorney General of the United States, the nation's chief law enforcement officer.

Chiquita's not the only one playing the lobbying game in Washington. A July 21st Associated Press story reported that "The soldiers, politicians and businessmen who ousted left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya are taking their battle from Honduras into the U.S. political arena, waging a lobbying campaign to paint themselves as a bulwark against ‘dictatorship' and ‘communism.' Appealing to free trade supporters, they hope to nudge the Obama administration away from its threat to impose sanctions on the impoverished country, where export-assembly factories are dominated by U.S. firms and investors."

The NY Times reported on July 12th that "One powerful Latin American business council [that would be the "ultraconservative" Business Council of Latin America, or CEAL] hired Lanny J. Davis, who has served as President Clinton's personal lawyer and who campaigned for Mrs. Clinton for president." Yet another Clinton associate, Bennett Ratcliff, has been working with Davis, and also working extremely closely with the coup regime. Ratcliff not only worked on Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign, but his partner in the PR/lobbying firm Vander Ark/Ratcliff, is a close associate of Arne Duncan, Obama's Education Secretary. This web is woven of many strands.

Beyond Lobbying

Corporate leaders know that, while lobbying may be effective in "nudging" political leaders, there is also the pesky matter of popular support for the elected president which, if widely known, might balance against the work of their hired nudgers. (New word: "Nudgers"!) Thus we often see lobbying in a close embrace with its evil twin, Public Relations, as evidenced in a September 27th report in the Washington insider newspaper The Hill: "Business leaders in Honduras have hired a variety of firms, such as Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and Vision Americas, to lobby in support of the de facto government and say the ouster of Zelaya was just."

In addition to corporate lobbying, The Hill goes on to say that "The de facto government of Honduras that ousted President Manuel Zelaya has hired a well-known public relations firm to bolster its image in Washington." The contract, with the firm Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates, comes to more than $290,000 (a lot of money in the second poorest country in Central America.) Chlopak, says The Hill, "will reach out to Capitol Hill aides to improve the image of the de facto government [and] will also reach out to opinion leaders and media outlets." The phrase "opinion leaders and media outlets" gives a hint of the synergistic relationship between lobbying and public relations, respectively: Lobbying aims at decision-makers, while Public Relations aims at the minds and emotions of the public that elects them.

Inside Honduras, popular resistance to the coup remains poorly-known, as a July 4 story in the Los Angeles Times tells us, saying that "Honduran newspapers and television, most of which are controlled by a few big businessmen, give lavish coverage to demonstrations against Zelaya and in favor of the man Congress named to replace him, Roberto Micheletti." Meanwhile, "Pro-Zelaya rallies get scant mention and the accounts usually focus on ‘vandalism'—the painting of slogans." So the picture emerges of an unpopular president who probably deserved to be deposed, and this is the tone US journalists seem to have internalized.

The structure of the corporate media thus assures mostly Empire-friendly coverage, but that does not preclude the use of official repression to assure that the people of Honduras (and the world) remain confused about post-coup realities. A November 10th letter to President Obama from more than 300 opposition candidates in Honduras stated that "the conditions for the free exercise of freedom of speech ... are worse than they have been at any point in the past 28 years: at least 27 media stations have been prohibited from reporting freely, 2 have been temporarily closed—only reopened through international pressure—26 journalists have reported being attacked or threatened by the repressive forces, and the National Commission of Telecommunications (CONATEL) has introduced a policy that limits freedom of the press."

An Intricate Web

That's a long list of official lobbying and Public Relations moves by the coup-makers and their allies, but there's more.

I began this piece by saying that the coup was led by Honduran Gen. Romeo Vasquez. It's worth noting that Vasquez is an alumnus of the United States' School of the Americas. Mark Weisbrot, in an op-ed piece in the LA Times, notes that "The school is best known for producing Latin American officers who have committed major human rights abuses, including military coups."

Senator John McCain is the chair of the International Republican Institute (IRI), which has been heavily involved in Honduras in recent years. "IRI is well known for its role in the April 2002 coup d'etat against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and its funding and strategic advising of the principal organizations involved in the ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide of Haiti in 2004," reports Venezuelan-American attorney and author Eva Golinger. Golinger notes that "In both cases, IRI funded and/or trained and advised political parties and groups that were implicated in the violent, undemocratic overthrow of democratically elected presidents." And here, again, is IRI, spending over a million dollars on "good government" programs throughout Latin America, including Honduras over the past couple of years.

I've been talking about long-term destabilization and post-coup legitimization of the would-be president. I haven't seen any evidence of direct U.S. involvement in the June 28th coup in Honduras, but it's not surprising that many in Central and South America are speculating that the U.S. has its fingerprints all over it. Even the New York Times, hardly an opposition newspaper, ran a headline on June 30th which acknowledged that some suspicion may be in order: "In Honduras Coup, Ghosts of Past U.S. Policies," read the headline.

"Past policies," indeed! Here are some countries in the Western hemisphere in which the United States has intervened since WW II to destabilize, change governments, support coups d'etat, or otherwise obstruct democracy: Guatemala, Costa Rica, Haiti, Ecuador, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Bolivia, Jamaica, Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guyana (then British Guiana), Venezuela, Chile, Nicaragua, Cuba. I probably missed some. And now we have a coup d'etat in Honduras, and the "ghosts" of those interventions are being seen by many, including your author.

My point here is not to "prove" U.S. involvement in the recent coup in Honduras. It is to point to some patterns and relationships and facts that, together, open the door to an explanation of the coup d'etat in Honduras that is equally plausible, or more plausible, than the explanation that is almost universally accepted by consumers of the news in this country. Not only is this alternative explanation more plausible, but it places the coup in the context of Empire, an informal Empire that doesn't directly send in the Marines, as "past policies" would have it (they're busy in Asia at the moment), but instead weaves an Imperial Web of great power and little accountability.

Canadian activist Karine Walsh, writing in Dissident Voice on August 29th, reminds us in this vein that "the coup in Honduras was not only directed against President Manuel Zelaya and the Honduran people, but it especially targeted the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean which had chosen [like Honduras] to join ALBA [Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas] which is a proposed alternative to the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas, differing from the latter in that it advocates a socially-oriented trade block rather than one strictly based on the logic of deregulated profit maximization."

Walsh quotes Arnold August, Montreal author and expert on Cuban democracy, saying that "The military coup d'état that took place in Honduras was sort of a threat, an indication from Washington that even if power has changed hands, even if we have a new face there, the empire still considers Latin America, Central America and the Caribbean to be areas that should be dominated by the United States."

The modern Empire is informal and global, but receives crucial leadership and resources from the United States. How can such a nation, which claims to be a democracy, act so un-democratically in the world? How can such a nation lead an Empire that dominates sovereign peoples, tolerates (or sponsors) coups, and punishes foreign leaders for charting an independent course? Somehow, the people who elect the leaders of the Empire must be brought to see all of this as right and just, or at least necessary. Does someone actually tell us to think this way? If not, how do we get such ideas? That's what I hope to discuss in the next issue of the Notes. Stay tuned.