The shadows of an empire in decline

In the Shadows of the American Century:

The Rise and Decline of US Global Power

Acclaimed historian and dissident intellectual Alfred McCoy has written a gripping new book on some of the hidden and little-known dimensions of the American state and its foreign policy. In Shadows of the American Century, McCoy offers a veritable treasure trove of facts and insights that every socialist should know. Building on nearly fifty years of research, the author reveals the impact and evolution of US programs of covert interventions, torture, surveillance, and geospatial weaponry. McCoy concludes his work with a searching reflection on how US global dominance is under threat from the meteoric rise of Chinese economic and military power.

McCoy foregrounds some hard facts on US interventions after World War II, documenting that between 1946 and 2000 Washington intervened in eighty-one national elections. In the same period, it supported around three dozen attempted military coups. During the Eisenhower administration alone, the CIA carried out 170 covert operations in forty-eight countries, followed by 163 black ops under Kennedy. Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey put the logic behind this approach bluntly in a presidential cabinet meeting: “Whatever we may choose to say in public about ideas and idealism, among ourselves we’ve got to be a great deal more practical and materialistic.”

The author’s own entry point into the covert world of American imperialism was through the study of US involvement in illicit drug trafficking. As a graduate student at Yale during the Vietnam War, McCoy investigated the opium trade in Southeast Asia. A scandal had broken out in the US military at the time, as White House surveys claimed that 34 percent of American troops in Vietnam were using heroin. McCoy conducted a painstaking study of opium trade routes and heroin production in Indochina, eventually discovering damning evidence that CIA-contracted planes were transporting opium from Northern Laos to heroin labs run by the Royal Laotian Army, bankrolled by the United States.

After narrowly surviving an ambush by CIA-backed mercenaries in the forests of northern Laos, McCoy returned stateside to find the FBI, CIA, and IRS all coordinating to stop him from publishing his research. A muckraking report by Seymour Hersh for the New York Times on the CIA’s efforts to silence McCoy allowed him to finally publish his first book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, uncensored, in 1972.

In the 1980s, American involvement in the global narcotics trade deepened dramatically. While the United States incarcerated hundreds of thousands of civilians on drug charges at home, it simultaneously facilitated the distribution of illicit drugs abroad. A 1998 CIA inspector general report by Frederick Hitz detailed the collusion between the CIA and Caribbean cocaine cartels. The CIA brokered a deal with arguably the largest cocaine trafficker in the region, Alan Hyde.

In exchange for CIA amnesty, from 1987-89 the agency used Hyde’s port in the Bay Islands off of Honduras to conduct arms shipments to the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras fighting the Sandinista government. An internal CIA directive instructed agents to prevent counternarcotic efforts against Hyde because “his connection [to the CIA] is well documented and could prove difficult in the prosecution stage.”

Meanwhile, similar operations were underway in Central Asia. Opium production became widespread in Afghanistan during the 1980s, as thousands of impoverished farmers turned to the low-cost and easily marketable crop for survival in wartime. When the US-backed mujahideen exploited the industry to build a revenue stream for weapons and supplies, opium production ballooned fast, jumping from a 100-ton harvest in 1975, to 2000 tons in 1991 and 4,600 tons in 1996.

The CIA chose to turn a blind eye, and even issued orders to the Drug Enforcement Agency not to investigate. As a result, opium production was turned into a core component of Afghan agriculture, with major political consequences for the country and broader region. Looking back on this period, then-CIA chief in Afghanistan Charles Cogan insisted, “I don’t think we need to apologize for this. There was a fallout in terms of drugs, yes. But the main objective was accomplished. The Soviets left Afghanistan.”

Much of the second part of McCoy’s book is dedicated to his research on the American use of torture overseas. He locates the first mass deployment of torture abroad in the conquest of the Philippines, where the US military fought a protracted and bloody war against nationalist rebels to colonize the country between 1899 and 1913. The US colonial army tortured thousands of independence activists to break the insurgency.

McCoy finds a parallel with US practices in Vietnam. There, torture was used as a primary weapon in Washington’s effort to destroy the national liberation movement. The torture program for Vietnam, known as the Phoenix Program, led to an astounding 46,776 extrajudicial executions.

The systematic use of torture reappeared in the US foreign arsenal in the aftermath of 9/11. Subsequent senate investigations give us a window into the conversations that took place in the Bush White House as it planned its response to the attacks. “None of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world,” President Bush argued to his commanders. “I don’t care what the international lawyers say: we are going to kick some ass.”

For the Bush administration, kicking ass meant giving the green light to the CIA to build black-site prisons around the world, while Attorney General John Ashcroft elaborated new legal constructs to try to skirt anti-torture laws. Over the following years the CIA and US military tortured thousands of people using such techniques as sight and sound deprivation, wall-slamming, waterboarding, body-chaining, rectal feeding, exposure to freezing temperatures, and stress positions.

Donald Rumsfeld quipped while arguing for longer stress position torture, “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” At Guantánamo Bay, “behavioral science consultation teams” built individually composed psychological techniques to torture prisoners. And at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, leaked photos revealed that guards leashed inmates like dogs, sexually abused them, and covered them in feces.

McCoy makes the case that the most consequential developments in the US state since the turn of the millennium have been the combined technological revolutions of digital surveillance, cyber-warfare, and unmanned, geospatial weaponry. Beginning in 2002, Congress and the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court gave the National Security Administration (NSA) free rein to construct a massive, digital surveillance system. Through projects code-named Stellar Wind and PRISM, the NSA built its capacity “to sweep up data for almost every person on the planet” by monitoring telecommunications and Internet traffic. The global Internet’s highly centralized structure allowed the NSA to harvest nearly all communications by accessing no more than 190 data hubs worldwide.

Harnessing and storing information on this scale required an enormous intelligence expansion. The heroic defection of NSA contract employee Edward Snowden as well as reporting by dozens of investigative journalists revealed that by 2010, over 850,000 people worked with security clearances for the US state, and by 2013, 107,000 of these worked in intelligence. Alongside this giant bureaucracy, the NSA constructed data centers with unprecedented capacity, most notably in Bluffdale, Utah, where storage is measured in “yottabytes,” each yottabyte equal to one trillion terabytes – “an unimaginably vast capacity when one realizes that just fifteen terabytes could store every publication in the Library of Congress.”

With NSA guidance and support, in 2009 the Defense Department built Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) at Fort Meade, with 7,000 employees. CYBERCOM’s purpose is to develop the US state’s capabilities in cyber-warfare, by preparing technologies to disarm other states’ communications and weapons systems through computer manipulation. Between 2006 and 2010, the United States successfully launched computer viruses against Iran’s nuclear program that destroyed 20 percent of its centrifuges.

Cyber-security is critical to Washington’s project of building an unmanned, aerospace weapons system to dominate the entire geosphere.  Beginning in 2009, the government allocated $55 billion annually to drone construction. “From now on, our watchword is: drones, baby, drones!” Defense Secretary Robert Gates exclaimed. By 2007, the US already had 7,000 missile-bearing and surveillance drones, including low-altitude Shadow drones, mid-altitude Reaper and Predator models, and high-altitude Global Hawks.

This arsenal has since rapidly grown. The X-37B space drones and an expanding arsenal of satellites are designed to secure the whole system with a planetary perimeter. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency monitors data from the American satellite net with an annual budget of $5 billion and 16,000 employees.

McCoy ends his book with a sustained argument that, despite all of these new capacities, the United States is losing its status as the sole global superpower due to the rise of China. The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends reports predict that the Chinese economy will overtake the United States by around 2030. The Chinese state and capitalist class are building a massive Eurasian land bridge connecting East, Central, South, and Southeast Asia with Europe and Russia via hundreds of billions of dollars worth of high-speed rail, highways, and oil pipelines. The country’s economic might has already eroded American dominance in international trade.

Although China’s military lags behind its economy, it is nonetheless set to overtake Russia as the world’s second military power and is investing over $200 billion annually in defense. China’s satellite and computer technologies have actually surpassed their American counterparts. China has more supercomputers with greater capacity than the United States.

And its recent introduction of quantum satellites, which communicate through light photons rather than radio waves, allows the Chinese state the potential for greater cyber-security. The United States and China are competing in space weaponry and technology. While Washington has built a far larger apparatus to date, China is producing millions of young, advanced scientists and engineers, as the pool of US engineers ages and declines along with its faltering education system.

Based on McCoy’s insights, we can expect that the decades to come will see heightened economic and military competition, unstable and shifting geopolitical alliances, and new forms of warfare based in cyber and aerospace conflict. The US state, meanwhile, is likely to lean heavily on its colossal surveillance and advanced weapons systems to try to prevent its decline in an increasingly multipolar and competitive political landscape.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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