Empirically speaking: Review of “Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN”

By Robert Jensen

Published in Texas Observer · March, 2001

[This article was published in the print edition of the Texas Observer, March 30, 2001, pp. 20-21.]

review of
Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN
Phyllis Bennis
Olive Branch Press/Interlink Publishing Group
341 pages. $18.95 (paper).

When George W. ordered U.S. jets to bomb targets around Baghdad last month, he showed contempt not only for the lives of innocent Iraqis and world opinion in general, but also for the United Nations. Neither the U.S. attacks nor the concept of “no-fly zones” have ever been authorized by the U.N. Security Council. The Feb. 16 strikes on targets outside those zones are a clear violation of international law—as was the bombing inside the zones that took place during the Clinton administration.

While the United States falsely claims U.N. authorization for these raids, U.S. officials fail to inform the United Nations of their plans. When Secretary of State Colin Powell met with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan two days before the Feb. 16 bombings, Powell forgot to mention the bombing plans.

It appears that W. learned his foreign-policy manners from his daddy. In one of the most telling anecdotes in the updated edition of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN, Phyllis Bennis describes how the UN Security Council diplomats learned about the start of the 1991 bombing when a security guard interrupted their meeting to tell them that CNN was broadcasting the beginning of the war. The diplomats ran through the building searching for television sets so they could know what was being done in their name.

First published in 1996, Calling the Shots provides a concise history of the UN and first-rate reporting on the U.S. threats and bribes that allowed it to use the international body as a cover for the 1991 Gulf War. The revised edition adds a cogent critique of the U.S./NATO attack on Yugoslavia and a final chapter, “The Laws of Empire and the UN’s New Internationalism.” Unlike most foreign policy analysts who feel the need to tiptoe around unpleasant truths about the United States, Bennis is clear and uncompromising: The United States’ version of “the laws of empire” has left the world “largely under the thumb of a strategically unchallenged United States” in which little progress on social and economic justice issues in the global South can be made. The key problem with the U.N. lies with the U.S., which manipulates and/or ignores the U.N.

In a recent interview, Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, expanded on some of her key points.

Overall, should we expect any change in foreign policy in the Bush administration? Are Rice, Powell, and Rumsfeld likely to undertake significant shifts from the Clinton policy?

I think there will be lots of changes in emphasis, but the fundamental nature of U.S. foreign policy—the view of the United States as a superpower accountable to no one and with the right to intervene pretty much at will—remains unchanged. There is certainly a much more explicitly unilateralist streak in the Bush coterie. Condoleeza Rice has said specifically that she views “humanitarian” goals as WAY secondary to the primary goal of defending “U.S.” national interests. So when you combine that vantage point with the definition of U.S. national interests referring only to whatever those in power in Washington say it is, we’ve got a serious problem.

In terms of military interventions, you have a lethal combination of Rice essentially rejecting participation in multilateral peacekeeping because it’s “only” humanitarian, combined with Gen. Colin Powell’s doctrine calling for maximum force whenever force is to be used. Powell might be a bit of a restraining influence on some of the old-school Cold Warrior types like Paul Wolfowitz and his ilk, who never saw an assertion of national sovereignty they weren’t ready to overthrow.

CheneyBush has taken a clear stand that U.S. interests lie with oil access, oil prices and shoring up ties with the oil sheikhdoms—not with the “softer” touchy-feely Israel-Palestine side of things. I think they’re likely to let that conflict stew for a while, turning their eyes (and unfortunately their guns and military aid funds) on Iraq. Powell said in his book that he doesn’t think sanctions can work against a government of Iraq; now he says that “energizing” the sanctions is his first priority. The only glimmer of hope I see, and it’s really faint, is the possibility that the increased focus on the Gulf will perhaps mean less automatic rejection of new political initiatives on the Israel-Palestine front from other political actors—Europe, maybe even the UN

People often talk about foreign policy as being either isolationist or interventionist? Is that the right way to understand U.S. foreign policy?

All the major forces within the U.S. foreign policy establishment are interventionists of one sort or another. None of them, with the exception of a very extreme fringe, are real isolationists. What we see is a division between what we might call the unilateralists and the multilateralists—those who think the U.S. should have the right, the power, and the political will to intervene on its own, based on its own decisions solely, versus those who think that U.S. intervention is just fine and dandy, but should be done under cover of involvement of multilateral organizations—in the past usually the United Nations, but these days much more frequently NATO.

Recently we have seen the United States describe military interventions as “humanitarian.” How seriously do you take that?

I think we should understand so-called humanitarian intervention as U.S. intervention which claims a humanitarian justification but is not humanitarian in motivation. Instead of our government honestly saying it will intervene to prove our superpower status or to help an allied government, it now says it must intervene because of human-rights violations.

The problem is that while the human-rights violations are often severe, the kind of interventions offered as the only possible solution are routinely ones that are military and that themselves violate human rights.The most recent example is the war in Kosovo. The human-rights violations against Kosovars were real, but the U.S. refused to let any serious work be done by the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Nothing was tried until—in the U.S. judgment—it was too late for anything but a massive NATO bombardment.

If humanitarian motives aren’t behind U.S. policy, what are the motive forces?

The main trajectory of U.S. foreign policy after World War II had to do with access to and control of strategic resources, strategic locations in the context of the Cold War. And there was a longstanding effort to ensure that newly independent countries did not choose a political and economic direction that challenged U.S. political and economic hegemony around the world.

Through the 1990s, beginning with the Gulf War, we see a shift. The Cold War was over, and there were people who put forward the idea of a peace dividend. Remember that? It didn’t last very long. The idea was that this was a time to denuclearize the U.S. military, to bring home the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops around the world, to decommission the battleships and to use the money saved for rebuilding schools in the inner cities, fixing roads, dealing with poverty in the United States.

But that was clearly not the view of people in power in Washington, who saw instead…the United States as the sole superpower. How do you communicate that to the rest of the world? You go to war, and that is what the Gulf War was fundamentally about. There were issues of control of oil and oil profits, and the strategic relationship with Israel—all were important regional factors. But the U.S. also was looking for a convenient pretext to show the world, through a war, that it remained a superpower.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a breach of international law, but it was a regional crisis that could have been resolved regionally. It also wasn’t the first time a Middle East country had invaded and occupied another country, [as evidenced by] Israel’s occupations. And in none of those cases did the U.S. feel compelled to bring the world to war in a global conflagration. But it coincided with the U.S. search for a pretext for going to war. So, Operation Desert Storm was launched against a country that up until a few days before the invasion of Kuwait had been an ally of the United States. That’s the irony; Saddam Hussein and his government had gotten political, financial, diplomatic and military support from the United States for years, even though he was no less a tyrant and had used poison gas against his own Kurdish population and the Iranians in war.

How do 10 years of economic sanctions against Iraq fit into this?

One goal of the sanctions is to prove to the world that the U.S. is the hyperpower. Virtually every other country except Britain opposes them, but those countries are afraid to challenge the U.S. I don’t think anyone in Washington really believes the economic sanctions are strategically useful. The problem today, 10 years after they were imposed, is that political capital invested by the United States in the sanctions regime as the way to get rid of Saddam Hussein is so great that it’s difficult to back away.

You talk about the United States as an empire. Why use that term?

There are many kinds of empires, and they change with history, but it means at the core a power with global reach and few checks on that power. The law of empire, with the Greeks or the Romans or the British, was about imposing its dictates on the rest of world without holding itself accountable. Now it’s Washington’s turn. For example, over the past couple of years the notion of international law has taken on a new significance in the world, as we saw with the attempt to prosecute Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet and the creation of the International Criminal Court. But in all these cases, we see the United States standing aside, or exempting itself from international law. We expect others to accept a ban on landmines that we don’t accept for ourselves.

What do we do about that? I think the answer is in internationalism and the United Nations. Today the United Nations faces serious threats—U.S. domination, made worse by the refusal to pay its full dues. The UN’s financial crisis is giving corporations new influence over the UN and some of its most important agencies. We need an international mobilization aimed at defending the United Nations.

Is it possible to imagine a challenge to the United States? If so, from whom?

Right now there is no significant challenge to the United States, and no country can do it alone. That challenge is going to have to come from a grouping of countries, North and South.

At the moment, there is one big rogue state in the world, and that is the United States, which uses its power too quickly, too harshly, and against civilian populations that stand innocent of wrongdoing. It will take an international coalition to change that.