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ISR Issue 49, SeptemberOctober 2006
R E V I E W S
The wrong allies against U.S. war
CHALLENGING EMPIRE: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power
Olive Branch Press, 2005
286 pages $18
Review by DAVID RAPKIN
THE ANTIWAR movement, which showed such promise on the eve of Bush's war in Iraq, has temporarily lost its way in a swamp of lesser-evilism. United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), for better or worse the leading antiwar organization in the U.S., has largely retreated into the role of tailing the Democratic Party, despite the Democrats' bloody partnership with the Republicans in prosecuting this and every other recent U.S. war.
All the more refreshing, therefore, to read Phyllis Bennis's Challenging Empire and find that rather than gloss over the role the Democrats are playing in foreign policy, the book contains mountains of damning dirt proving their leading role in the imperial project. This, despite Bennis's close ties to UFPJ and her uncritical stance toward the group's leadership.
While this contradiction between her own conclusions and her political allegiances structures her analysis, and ultimately renders the book theoretically confused and paradoxical, Bennis does provide a very useful history of our new movement and some great analysis of the machinations of imperialism. And despite her fundamentally flawed analysis of the UN-she treats it as a potential leading antiwar force while at the same time showing that it is irrevocably manipulated by U.S. imperialism-she reveals some crucial behind-the-scenes truths about how the UN operates.
Any honest analysis of the Democrats' role in shaping a unilateralist U.S. policy needs to take a serious look at the Clinton presidency. After all, it was Clinton who paved the way for what so many on the Left see as a completely new right-wing “Bush agenda.” At one level, Bennis is great at unmasking Clinton for his seamless introduction of Bush-style unilateralism years before 9-11, under the guise of what Clinton called “assertive multilateralism.”
Bennis carefully exposes Clinton's “humanitarian interventions,” calling them a “disguise” for “unilateral militarism.” She rightly charges Clinton with “forcing the UN to provide a multilateral cover” for U.S. go-it-alone policies, and argues that Clinton made these lies about “coalitions” and saving Bosnian women “a U.S. habit” long before Bush stole his first election.
Yet strangely, Bennis fudges her own sharp analysis to serve some need to blame Clinton less than Bush-if not to let him off the hook, then certainly to provide some cover for her comrades who prefer the Hillary Clintons and Diane Feinsteins of the world to good old-fashioned street organizing.
“What would change with the Bush administration,” Bennis tells us, “would be that Washington's solitary decision-making…would be asserted as a point of pride rather than implemented in the shadows.” Later Bennis concedes that these “differences may have reflected more style than substance,” but then, incredibly, goes on to describe this stylistic difference as a “major indicator of a new U.S. view of its role in the world.” She describes the Bush administration's “public pride in its assertion of unilateral U.S. power” as “a far cry from Clinton's determination to appear as an international actor.”
Ultimately, while Bennis provides a careful dissection of the economic interests behind imperialism, her proposed solutions to the problem of imperialism deviate very far indeed from Marx's conception of the working class as the “gravedigger” of capitalism. Her central argument is that we can fight U.S. imperialism not only with “people's movements for peace and justice,” but by relying equally on “governments throughout the world opposed to U.S. empire” and a “strengthened and supported United Nations.”
To be sure, Bennis is far too sophisticated a student of foreign policy to naively suggest that other governments, whether France or Angola, could ever be consistent movement allies. But by sharply (and implausibly) contrasting the Bush administration's “grudging and dismissive approach to the UN” with Clinton's “instrumentalist view,” Bennis makes it clear that she sees the UN, “other governments,” and even the U.S. presidency as constantly contested terrain, terrain that could be won, or “taken back,” by the antiwar movement.
Which way forward? For Bennis,
no one of those three sectors of global society-people, governments, or the UN-can alone successfully defy the US unilateralism and militarism. But when joined, all of those forces together make up the astonishing movement toward a new internationalism that today forms the global challenge to Washington's drive toward empire.It's hard to believe she's serious, especially after reading her own book!
Read Bennis's book for a blow-by-blow description of how the U.S. renders the UN its puppet. Read and learn from the comprehensive chronicle of events far and wide in our antiwar movement. And, perhaps surprisingly, read this book to find a hard-hitting critique of many Democrats and their central role in prosecuting the U.S. imperial project.
And sadly, read this book to find out how far a very well-informed, very angry, experienced, and thoughtful antiwar writer has to stray from what ought to be her own solid conclusions in order to help salvage and apologize for a moribund series of alliances with the Democrats.