PETRAS ESSAYS IN ENGLISH

September 10, 2002

How the empire works: The second track

James Petras

Introduction

In the past year U.S. empire building has largely focused on military conquest, threats of regional wars and a massive enlargement of clandestine military and intelligence operations. Particularly since the war and occupation of Afghanistan, the imminent attack on Iraq and the failed military coup in Venezuela, the military track in U.S. policy has been foremost in public debate. However, U.S. policy operates on two tracks, the military and the political-diplomatic to expand and consolidate imperial power. Even today while the media and pundits focus on U.S. war preparations, on an everyday basis on many of the crucial issues of the day, U.S. diplomats, intelligence operatives and agency heads are active in intimidating, bribing, and pressuring would- be adversaries into accepting and collaborating with U.S. imperialism or at the least refraining from criticizing it. Numerous cases come to mind in recent days. To sabotage the operation of the International Court of Justice, which the U.S. opposed, Washington diplomats have successfully pressured a number of countries into signing bilateral agreements providing impunity to U.S. soldiers in their country. The list includes Rumania, Argentina, Colombia, England (and of course Israel, which jumped at the chance to gain impunity for its war criminals) and the list is lengthening.

U.S. diplomats were able to prevent the EU and other member states from passing any significant resolutions on any major problems including fossil fuel targets, global warming, and poverty reduction at the Johannesburg global meeting. In relation to recent adverse decisions by the World Trade Organization concerning U.S. trade practices, trade officials and diplomats have threatened European and other diplomats with dire consequences if they actually implement WTO approved sanctions. The Europeans have refrained from implementing the ruling. It is clear that empire building operates on two inter-related tracks in which political and economic threats are used to subordinate allied competitors as well as clients always backed by military power and military force or threats against perceived adversaries.

The political-diplomatic track is also used to co-opt and/or constrain opposition within client countries, particularly an opposition which has converted from a popular insurgency to legal electoralist politics. The process by which the diplomatic channel operates to silence or limit legal opposition is evident in a recent international conference organized to discuss and debate Plan Colombia and U.S. Policy and its implications for Latin America. The conference took place in El Salvador, July 20-22, 2001 and was sponsored by the Philosophy Department of the University of El Salvador and was scheduled to occur at a conference hall at the University.

The Operation of the Diplomatic Channel

One of the principle aims of overseas U.S. political offices at the Embassy is to convert opposition political leaders into allies of Washington. The techniques include convincing them to turn from mass-based direct action (whether armed or civil) to electoral politics. The embassy offers these leaders legality for separation from the mass struggles for basic socio-economic changes. With legality and institutional commitments, the opposition politicians are vulnerable to further Embassy pressures to avoid direct attacks on U.S. policy.

In countering opposition, the Embassy utilizes its local and overseas political assets to bolster the political position of Washington – thus avoiding direct confrontation and making it appear that the debate is between national or regional adversaries.

In our case study of U.S. diplomatic intervention to undermine the conference in El Salvador, Embassy officials combined several of the above-mentioned techniques to undermine the effectiveness of the conference.

Contrary to Washington propaganda it is more concerned with political manipulation to impose uniformity in support of Washington's political line then in the free and open debate of ideas.

This essay draws on an extended memorandum (to be referred to as the MEMO in the text) issued form the U.S. embassy in El Salvador in July 2001 secured via the Freedom of Information Act.

The first point to make is that the Embassy characterized the event as an organized propaganda exercise despite the academic setting and the presence of several prominent Nobel Prize recipients (Jose Saromago and Adolfo Perez Esquivel), the President of the World Council of Churches (Bishop Pagura from Argentina), the then President of the Algerian Parliament (Ahmed Ben Bella) and two well-known Professors from Mexico and the U.S. – Heinz Dieterich and James Petras. The sponsors included the Forabundo Marti National Liberation (FMLN) party, the main opposition party and a host of local foundations and U.S. NGOs.

According to the memo, an Embassy political offices (Poloff) "spoke frankly and forcefully… to FMLN members that the press release (critical of the U.S.) was inflammatory rhetoric and there would be two serious costs if the conference proceeded in this fashion". Among the serious costs to the FMLN, Poloff mentioned that the "FMLN would damage its own image, showing that it preferred outdated U.S.- basking to responsible discussion of serious issues". Putting the FMLN official (Eugenion Chicus, the FMLN advisor for foreign affairs committee in the legislature on the defensive, the latter noted that the FMLN could not control what other participants said. Poloff insisted that "as an organizer the FMLN showed responsibility expressed" and he went o to warn "if it did not distance itself from inflammatory rhetoric, it tacitly associated itself with those comments".

Several important issues are raised by this memo. First that the Embassy clearly threatens a political party with reprisals – serious costs – which implies a reversion to illegality since the embassy official claims that its image (as a legal electoral party) was damaged by reverting to outdated U.S.-bashing (a reference to the anti-imperialist politics of the FMLN when it represented the popular insurgency.

The Embassy's use of violent, hyperbolic rhetoric to refer to the dissenting views of the Nobel Prize winners, bishop and academics as a means of discrediting the conference is a technique designed to remind the FMLN that a condition for U.S. tolerance is that it desist from systematic criticism of U.S. empire building.

U.S. strategy was based on pressuring the FMLN to drop the critical orientation of the conference and to operate with the parameters dictated by the embassy.

Washington's claim to favor a responsible discussion of serious issues is a simple propaganda ploy, appealing to the FMLN legislative advisers non-confrontational style as a minority in the Salvadorian congress. In reality the Embassy he designed its own strategy to counter the conference and its coverage by the major news network. The embassy went to work to recruit "friendly" Colombian journalists and politicians to "ensure that the U.S. point of view is articulated"(memo). The strategy was to find respectable Colombian journalists and a "reasonable voice from the left" in El Salvador to the U.S. to meet with officials form the government and writers from right-wing think tanks, to provide them with the arguments then presumably bring them back to El Salvador to counter the conference. Among the persons who would influence the respectable Colombian journalist listed as Eduardo Torres anchor on three television channels and columnist for the conservative Colombian daily El Diaric de Hoy – was one Francisco Santos, one of the owners of Bogota's largest daily newspaper El Tiempo, who the U.S. Embassy assumed would present the U.S. point of view. Whether Santos was an asset of U.S. intelligence is not clear, but today he is the Vice President of Colombia under President Uribe – past and present organizer of paramilitary death squads.

The Embassy's search for a "reasonable voice from the Left" is a common ploy, in which individuals with some background on the Left and some mild criticisms of the existing order are co-opted to do the dirty work of discrediting prestigious critics as those invited to the conference. Using their self-proclaimed credentials as "human rights" activists they spend most of their time attacking the Left and praising the rhetorical concerns of Washington. Their views are amplified: as the memo states "we could follow up with telepress conferences between journalists and public and private sector Colombian specialists. In addition Post (an embassy operative) will make sure that media and interested contacts" are informed.

Conclusion

The Embassy was not successful in preventing the meeting, but it did pressure the University to cancel the use of the University meeting hall at the last minute and limiting media coverage beyond the several hundred that attended the meeting.

The two-track strategy is evidently an important component of empire building. In the El Salvadorian context, it included Track 1, the military intervention of the 1980s and the killing of over 75,000 Salvadorians, followed by Track 2, the so-called peace accords, the legalization of the FMLN and the pressure and co-optation tactics. The two-track strategy relies heavily on "personal contacts", threats to rescind legal status and ambassadorial "goodwill", and in some cases the co-optation of reasonable Leftists, who have access to the media and who can be used to discredit the Left.

The challenge for the Left is to focus their opposition on both tracks: to oppose militarization as well as the diplomatic-political intimidation and co-optation. The Left must reject the imperial rhetoric that labels "anti-imperialism" as "out-moded", that speaks of reasonable concerns for human rights while engaging in a worldwide campaign to violate them. Empire-building is an integral process which combines violence and diplomacy, repression and co-optation – there are not "good diplomats" and "bad militarist" they work in tandem, as a term promoting the same imperial goals: they are not on parallel tracks – the two tracks converge in a world where the voices of resistance are silenced by violence and "reasonable voices from the Left.