06 August 2015

Kaplan's Apologia for Empire


This is an instructive but also disturbing video. One thing it clearly demonstrates is that far from being liberal, PBS is firmly wedded to the Establishment.

Robert Kaplan is actually an author I have greatly enjoyed and benefitted from. I have at least a half-dozen of his books on my shelves. That said, he's certainly not above criticism and this video represents his thinking, or at least the application of it, at its very worst.

I suppose I enjoy his mind. I like how he writes, the topics that interest him and the questions he asks, but I end up with totally different conclusions. His 1994 book 'The Coming Anarchy' really brought that home, for in that book he sets out the basic policy that he reveals in this film.

His books on the Balkans, Middle East and Africa are also worthy of criticism, but again he leaves a lot of questions open and you can interpret things differently. His writings are a healthy challenge and that's why I think they are worthwhile.

In this documentary he comes across quite clearly as something of a Neo-Conservative and his subsequent affiliation with Stratfor also makes these viewpoints and proclivities all too clear.

Kaplan believes the world is a dangerous and chaotic place and America is a bastion of stability and order. It's not just America's moral duty to spread its values and maintain a world order, but if it doesn't then the chaos will be at the doors... barbarians at the gates as it were. America has no choice but to be an Empire. She had best acknowledge it and get busy. Even though this video is from 2007, this argument was being made by Kaplan and others while the dust from the collapse of the USSR was still settling. It's unspoken but there's a good dose of PNAC present in his thinking. The Project for the New American Century was a think-tank that put forth proposals to insure American global domination in the 21st century. To my knowledge Kaplan never officially signed on to the project, but he shares the worldview.

He catches a lot of flack in how he seemingly looks down on other people and the language he uses to describe them. It comes across as American hubris. I see why people get upset with him at times in his writings. To be honest I haven't always taken it that way. Anyone who has traveled as much as he has realizes American is not the center of the universe and not everything America does is right. Yet, he does at times seem bigoted. Watching this prompted me to start re-reading his travel book on the United States that he wrote in the late 1990's. 'An Empire Wilderness' deals with the fracturing of American society, envisions its possible break-up and the effects of globalisation on our society. He discusses infrastructure, resources etc...

I must say as I've begun to re-read the book for the first time in probably ten years I find myself being a little more critical of some of his viewpoints... especially his seeming praise of suburbia and decentralised urban culture. I've come to appreciate some of the withering criticisms of someone like James Howard Kunstler when it comes to some of these questions and Kaplan while interesting strikes me as rather short-sighted in his analysis.

What disturbs me the most about this video is its reductionism, and it's a reductionism to the point of just plain dishonesty. His dilemma is a false one.

Kaplan posits that the United States is an empire, which it surely is. I think it must be argued this did not begin in 1991 or even 1945. Those dates represent escalations of the Imperial paradigm. The United States has been a continental empire since independence. It never abandoned that role. It has expanded it in several phases...  the Louisiana Purchase, sundry Indian Wars, Manifest Destiny, The Monroe Doctrine, The Mexican-American War, and it certainly took on a new impetus in the wake of the American Civil War.

The subsequent extermination and consolidation of the Plains Indians in the post Civil War period can only be labeled an imperial policy. The closing of the frontier prompted a huge leap in thinking that became manifest in the Spanish American War and its fallout. The United States was now well on its ways to acquiring hemispheric and overseas colonies.

WWI represented an internationalist escalation and expansion of US interests into Europe, and then on an unparalleled level in 1945. In 1991, America had become Rome in the superlative, not the Super-power, but the Hyper-power.

Kaplan would probably agree, but in his view, the American soldier of this new order has a task, one that some military thinkers are not overly thrilled with. The enlisted folk are imperial grunts, the officers are a new order of elites. They are diplomat-soldiers, social-workers, counterinsurgent fighters, infrastructure planners, negotiators etc...

They are agents of empire.

He supports the idea of small-scale involvement in order to keep problems from growing into large-scale conflicts.

In the video he visits, Georgia, the Philippines, Mali and Colombia and demonstrates how American forces are fulfilling this vision which he happens to believe in.

To Kaplan, it's either involvement or isolation and the latter just means that every decade American will 'have' to engage in a large war.

But this is utterly false and misleading.

The video fails to contextualize anything that's going on. It fails to reveal (in honest terms) the long history of US domination of the Philippines and what that has meant for them geo-strategically and culturally. It whitewashes the US record with record to Ferdinand Marcos and the brutalization of the Filipino people. Many American Imperialists don't actually believe in the universality of American values, a problematic position to take if one truly believes as Jefferson did that these rights we supposedly possess are self-evident.

Many Imperialists seem to have no problem embracing an internationalist consequentialism... 'our' values work here, but don't work other places. Since we're superior they should be willing to be subjugated and eventually hope their societies will become like ours. In the meantime we'll occupy them and put them under authoritarian regimes.

As a Christian who seeks to shape my epistemology by Scripture, I personally do not believe in the universality or self-evident nature of American values, but neither am I trying to advocate for America as some sort of paragon for the rest of the world to follow or submit to.

With regard to Mali the colonial history and the question of resources are not being treated in an honest fashion. Mali's recent history and French involvement demonstrate these factors have by no means disappeared. Mali cannot be discussed with considering its resources, namely gold as well as its history with the IMF and Western Corporations. West Africa in general cannot be discussed apart from Uranium and the oil present in Nigeria. There are resource rich states along the littoral and until recently, there have been the long simmering tensions over the questions of Algeria and especially Libya. It's not really possible to treat any country in isolation and Kaplan himself knows this. He's written about the fictitiousness of maps, especially in West Africa. Lines drawn by colonial masters do not create nations.

Kaplan just assumes the United States has the 'right' and obligation to involve itself in these countries. It reminds me of a discussion I had with a Reservist awhile back who had just spent several months in Paraguay. They were just there to bring security to the region and establish relationships with the Paraguayan government and military.

That's a big part of how the empire works.

Of course after US machinated coup attempts in Bolivia and Paraguay, the contest over natural gas drilling and the attempt to threaten and destroy Morales, I find myself less than convinced of America's moral 'right' let alone obligation.

Imperialism is simply a rationalisation of theft and murder and this video is no different. It's morally repugnant, but Kaplan wouldn't really argue with that either. His ideas about power are realistic, honest and frankly brutal. He's a lost person who understands quite clearly the idea of principled exercise of power is fool's errand.

The treatment of Colombia is especially outrageous. While the FARC wandered the well-traveled revolutionary path that blends guerilla warfare with criminality, the video wholly ignores the brutality of the US backed Bogota administrations let alone the bloody and brutal record with regard to para-military groups and what can only be described as low-grade chemical warfare, the same thing we saw in Vietnam. The US has directly and indirectly through corporate proxies supported private militias which are just a deadly and destructive as the FARC. Kaplan knows this full well but in his mind... it's just a messy world and the end justifies the means.

The treatment of Georgia was also superficial. China and Russia are thugs and enemies to be blocked.

Blocked? That's rather an outrageous thing to say as the United States is beating down their doors, encircling them and threatening them with missile systems and new bases.

I understand full well Georgia doesn't want to be dominated and there are certain neighbourhoods like the Caucasus that are tough. Little countries are caught in the middle. But it's one thing to advocate for small nations and for their governments to try and resist outside influences. It's another to provoke and move against Russia. When Putin perceived that Georgia was moving toward NATO, he took action, but how quickly American Conservatives have forgotten. Bush backed down. They justified him. If it had been Obama, the screams would have been deafening. The same thing happened with Reagan and Lebanon back in the 1980's.

Kaplan doesn't even discuss US aggression toward Russia and even if you don't agree that the United States has provoked Russia since the 1990's, to be honest you have to at least allow for the fact that the Russians as well as many others see things that way.

Altogether this was a dismal video but like I said there are lessons to be learned from it. Kaplan opened up the Balkans to me and piqued my interest back in the 1990's. Inadvertently he helped to contextualize what I was part of (as an Imperial Grunt) and yet I took away a different message. I was convinced the United States had no business being there and became convinced that I was part of NATO expansion and consolidation rather than any genuine humanitarian concern.  

He's an intelligent journalist but I'm afraid as the years pass I'm losing my respect for him. Kaplan was my teacher but I categorically reject him. In the years subsequent to this video he has turned to overt evil and openly works for the Military-Industrial Complex. No longer a journalist, he has become a propagandist for the empire.

We are idol factories and it is no surprise lost people grant their nations sacramental status. If you're an agnostic (functionally or otherwise) what other hope is there but to try and build something transcendent and self-justifying?

Here's a link to an older article referencing Kaplan and some of writings regarding the future conflict with China.