Joseph Nye’s ‘Right Way’

Joseph Nye’s ‘The Right Way to Trim,’ published in the New York Times (August 4, 2011) offered his perspective on cutting the US’ massive defence budget.  There is no real detail or actual plans, nothing that would convince us that Nye is doing anything other than aiming to protect his slice of the very large pie — largely related to his celebrated ‘soft power’: a supposedly benign aspect of US foreign policy, more commonly termed propaganda and subversion.  Largely the essay strays into making some peculiar observations based on his neo-Liberal reading of history: the essay seems designed to be misinterpreted.  Below we quote from the article with some added commentary.

The article begins by suggesting that the US’ trillions in cuts will not imperil the US’ national security, but that deeper cuts could.  Let us leave aside the implications of that (i.e. another indication of a ridiculously inflated budget).  Nye argues that George W. Bush nearly doubled the defense budget following his two wars, and that the country could easily return to the 1990’s figures that are already planned for 2023.  Largely arguing a fait accompli, Nye, an advocate of exploiting ‘soft power’ (a euphemism for all manner of activities but a lucrative career opportunity for Nye) lets slip a facet of this power in his description of role of the US (emphasis added):

But it is not enough to tinker with the defense budget. We also need to rethink how we use our military power. Unlike the state of affairs during the cold war, the United States and its allies today account for over 70 percent of world military expenditure. The No. 1 power no longer has to patrol every boundary and seek to police every country. Opponents of defense cuts are raising the specter of isolationism and the weakening of American power. But there is a middle way.

So although it does feel free to ‘police’ the World — and the US is not an empire, you understand — it can now become blasé about its holy calling as the World’s policeman.  What does he mean by this — would we not be better talking about ‘secret policeman’ or holy warriors or the World’s waterboarders?  What is normally presented under euphemisms as ‘democracy building,’ is here uncharacteristically presented rather nakedly as ‘policing,’ but with no reference to the practical outworking of this in proxy wars in Africa, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the various forms or subversion of governments, assassinations, torture camps and so on, that have continued through the years in a cycle of exposure and denial.  These were odd forms of behaviour for a policeforce — but not for the type of secret police force normally associated with the Soviet Union, not for what are also called ‘death squads.’  But this type of outlook is not specific to the Nye, let us look specifically at what he says and his line of reasoning.  Following on from this Nye has it that:

At the height of the cold war, President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided against direct military intervention on the side of the French in Vietnam in 1954 because he was convinced that it was more important to preserve the strength of the American economy.

This is an extraordinary statement, and entirely un-sourced, and of course the US eventually fought the same battles in the same places that the French did.  The Iranian coup of 1953 is normally held up as the ‘success’ that led Eisenhower to sanction the Guatemalan coup d’état of 1954 — what impressed Eisenhower was the influence of covert subversion and its marked contrast, in terms of expense and casualties, to ground invasions.  Or so it seemed.  For any reading of the US’ financing of the French in Indo-China should pay attention to Daniel Ellesberg’s account of events, and also that US involvement here was denied until the lies and cover-ups exploded along with such other covert operations such as the bay of Pigs invasion.  But the point here is: Eisenhower’s indirect military intervention (soft power) was to lead to one of the US’ biggest military quagmires that flew in the face of what the hidden hand tactic was supposed to produce.  Even Robert McNamara is at a loss now to justify the Vietnam war.  But not, seemingly for Nye, he simply does not observe this: clearly Eisenhower’s penchant for covert subversion led to what it had intended to avoid, but for Nye:

Today, such a strategy would avoid involvement of ground forces in major wars in Asia or in other poor countries. While it will take time to extricate ourselves from Mr. Bush’s post-9/11 strategy, we must start, as the National Security Strategy of 2010 states, “by recognizing that our strength and influence abroad begins with the steps we take at home.” Eisenhower could have said that — and no one could accuse Ike of being an isolationist.

That is what the population are always told.  But how does Nye know this?  His argument is that the soft power strategy (funding others as proxies) does not lead to open war and will not in the present day—how does he know?  What people did accuse ‘Ike’ of was a perplexing naivite— he didn’t study Pericles, he read comic books; he was appointed to an overseeing position in Columbia University because they confused him with a noted academic, as President he left warning of a the very Military-Industrial conglomerate he had helped assemble.  But our argument is not with the old soldier of World War II.  Nye just refuses to give up on his belief that ‘soft power’ and the atrocities of war are unrelated — soft power is presented as the palliative, the solution (as expensively formulated by arm chair Trojans like him).  The Suez crisis, was the UK’s venture into this area of covert operations, but it unravelled and became a complete and utter national disgrace, the way these projects tend to do once found out. This is what else Nye has to say:

Counterinsurgency is attractive as a military tactic but it should not lead us into a strategy of nation-building in places where we do not have the capacity to engineer change.

‘Should not’ is no consolation to the dead if the military tactic fails, as they so often do — ‘the enemy of a perfect plan is a perfect plan’ — what if counterinsurgency does lead to unforeseen consequencies.  Here we have two terms: Counterinsurgency and nation-building which are weapons in the soft power armory: assassinations could be said to be part of both of them — systematically so as with Operation Phoenix in Vietnam (much the same people and tactics were undertaken in Iraq).  Nye qualifies his assertion here by saying:

The maxim of avoiding major land wars in poor countries does not mean withdrawing our military presence from places like Japan and South Korea, or ending military assistance to countries like Pakistan and Egypt. Some analysts call this “off-shore balancing,” but that term must mean more than just naval and air force activity. For example, in Japan and South Korea, our allies pay a significant portion of the cost for basing American troops there because they want an insurance policy in a region faced with a rising China and a volatile North Korea.

Any maxim which exists in the minds of the US’ military planners concerning undertaking or not undertaking war in poor countries is based on exploiting their natural resources or stopping others doing so — it is unclear what Nye means here, and what are the US now getting for their money in Pakistan and Egypt.  But the purpose of this confusion is for Nye to justify the US propping up the military might of dictators (more soft power) and mixing financial metaphors with military ones — much like Eisenhower’s warning of the Military-Industrial-Complex. But it is also Nye’s roundabout way of justifying the US feeling that it can, with impunity, invade anywhere to serve its own interests.  How could any one believe that in all cases this will not prove problematic: such is the hubris of empire.  Here military, financial and political domains merge — and might is right (emphasis added):

Over the course of this century, Asia will return to its historic status, with more than half of the world’s population and half of the world’s economic output. America must be present there. Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks, and American military power provides that framework. Military security is to order as oxygen is to breathing: underappreciated until it becomes scarce. That is why the new bipartisan Congressional commission must provide the revenues that allow America to continue to play this vital role while avoiding the trap of overly ambitious nation-building.

Ultimately this is lobbying for funding the types of liberal think tanks, policy institutes, magazines, educational establishments and fora that Nye inhabits, and, who’s work feeds into the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).  Since the 1980s, along with other agencies, the NED performs the type of activity that the Central Intelligence Agency performed with such infamy that association with it became a international embarrassment and disgrace — and who’s activities are normalised by the aforementioned think tanks and so on.  But what is the nature of the presence Nye alludes to — does he know, can he predict?  What this military security often yields is just that: an entirely unwanted military security state where people vanish in the middle of the night.  Nye  is studiously oblivious to counter-readings of US history to the point that we end up feeling that we should remind him that the US was beaten militarily by Vietnam, and similarly kicked out of the Lebanon, and that its activities in Afghanistan in the late 1970s goaded the Soviets to invade so that they would have their own Vietnam, and the nightmare of terrorism that its proxy support for extremist forces produced — this is the side of ‘soft power’ that Nye just ignores: the blow back.

The only historical reference Nye cites is the neo-Liberal, British historian Niall Ferguson, ‘an enthusiast for empire,’ that perversely exculpates the US for its empire building because of the ill-thought through mess and crackpot nature of its ambitions.  Nye’s vision comes to a conclusion with an atavistic throw back to Reagan’s perverse allusion to the Sermon on the Mount: Nye’s words of wisdom ends up as cheerleading the convoluted hypocritical insanity (or God-ordained shining example) that gave us Iran-Contra:

Americans like to promote universal values. But rather than succumbing to the temptation to intervene on the side of “the good,” we can do it best by being what Ronald Reagan called “a shining city on a hill.”

Shorn of the mountain of propaganda, showbiz and secrecy that surrounds the US’ shining image, what would we see? With his positions on Advisory board of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and the Board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Nye has been paid handsomely and set atop a pinnace to blind us with his light.  Indeed lately Nye’s names has cropped up along with a group of ‘experts’ shaping the new Libya:

A key protagonist of Western attempts to cut a deal with Gaddafi’s inner circle is his son, Saif al-Islam, the man who bought himself a PhD (on civil society and democratization) from the London School of Economics and procured visits and advice from Richard Perle, Anthony Giddens, Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, Benjamin Barber and Joseph Nye, among others, in order to “enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi.”

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