“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For proof of this axiom, we need only look at the foreign policy pursued by the U.S. government since the end of World War II.
The United States emerged from World War II militarily victorious but politically deformed. Instead of a republic, it was now a superpower with military and economic capabilities previously unimagined. In place of a constitutional government of limited powers and official accountability was a national-security regime of executive orders, the CIA, and plausible deniability. Instead of “no entangling alliances,” the U.S. government not only entered such alliances but created and fostered them—the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954, and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), originally known as the Middle East Treaty Organization, in 1955. Instead of respecting the sovereignty of other nations, Washington subscribed to the messianic ideology of American Exceptionalism, the belief that the United States is politically and morally superior to other countries and, therefore, entitled to intervene in their domestic affairs.
Such vast powers exercised as a moral imperative unencumbered by constitution-al restraints were intoxicating to American politicians and to their corporate sponsors, who quickly sought to exploit them in the ensuing Cold War with the Soviet Union to impose their preferences and prejudices upon the rest of the world.
Arguably, not since the Lincoln regime had the federal government usurped so much power or imbibed such a messianic doctrine. This shaped its foreign policy, which occasionally has been conducted less by diplomacy than by selective political assassinations. Here, again, Lincoln provided a precedent.
By February 1864, Lincoln’s attempt to defeat the Confederacy—first, by starving and bombarding Southern civilians and, later, by striving to foment a race war in the South—had failed. With antiwar sentiment growing and a presidential election looming in November, Lincoln desperately needed a major military victory. To that end, he authorized a cavalry raid on Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy.
Led by Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, the raid’s ostensible goal was to rescue 1,500 Union officers incarcerated in Richmond and another 10,000 rank-and-file soldiers imprisoned on nearby Belle Isle. Taking part in this raid was Col. Ulric Dahlgren, son of Lincoln’s close friend Rear Adm. John Dahlgren.
The raid, which began as a comedy of errors, ended as a military fiasco. Among those killed by Confederate defenders was Colonel Dahlgren, on whose body was found an order describing the true purpose of the raid—“the city [Richmond] must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and cabinet killed.” (While supporters of Lincoln, past and present, have naturally attempted to dismiss the Dahlgren order as a Confederate forgery, the investigations of historian Stephen Sears, author of Controversies & Commanders: Dispatches From the Army of the Potomac (Houghton Mifflin) suggest that the document is authentic.)
Such an act would be entirely consistent with how Lincoln waged his war against the South. It is more than likely that an increasingly desperate and despondent Lincoln sought his reelection in the political assassination of his Confederate counterpart.
The precedent Lincoln established was adopted by the U.S. government during the Cold War. Executing political assassinations is the responsibility of the CIA under the supervision of an oversight committee called the Special Group, located in the Old Executive Office Building.
The permanent members of the Special Group—the national security advisor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the deputy secretary of defense, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, and the director of central intelligence—underscore the fact that political assassinations are foreign-policy directives, not operations by rogue agents. To ensure plausible deniability, the CIA often employs citizens of the targeted regime, frequently military officers, to perform the actual assassinations.
There are two types of political assassinations. One is the classic assassination of a head of state or a charismatic political leader Washington considers a threat to American interests. There is a long list of those whom the U.S. government allegedly has assassinated or planned to: Allende of Chile; Caamano of the Dominican Republic; Castro of Cuba; Cho Enlai of China; De Gaulle of France; d’Escoto of Nicaragua; Diem of South Vietnam; Dlimi of Morocco; Duvalier of Haiti; Fadlallah of Lebanon; Figueres of Costa Rica; Guevara of Cuba; Hussein of Iraq; Kassem of Iraq; Khadaffi of Libya; Kim Il Sung of North Korea; Khomeini of Iran; Kim Koo of South Korea; Lumumba of the Congo; Makarios of Cyprus; Manley of Jamaica; Milosevic of Yugoslavia; Mossadegh of Iran; Mujibur of Bangladesh; Nasser of Egypt; Nehru of India; Noriega of Panama; Recto of the Philippines; Schneider of Chile; Sihanouk of Cambodia; Sukarno of Indonesia; Torres of Bolivia; Torrijos of Panama; Trujillo of the Dominican Republic; and a number of political figures in West Germany.
The other type of political assassination is collective assassination. These are reigns of terror in which thousands presumed to be a threat to American interests are killed or “disappear.” Two of the earliest and most notorious examples occurred in Southeast Asia in the 1960’s and 70’s.
After the Communist Party of Indonesia allegedly attempted a coup d’etat in 1965, the CIA provided the Indonesian military with a list of names of “communist” leaders and sympathizers to be assassinated. When it was over, between 250,000 and one million people had been killed.
Two years later, the CIA established the “Phoenix Program” in South Vietnam. Devised to neutralize local support for the Viet Cong, this program resulted in the deaths or kidnappings of between 20,000 and 80,000 South Vietnamese.
In 1976, a belated and ultimately futile attempt was made to end foreign policy by assassination. As a result of the 1975 Senate investigation into covert operations by the CIA and the subsequent public outcry over the Senate’s findings, President Gerald R. Ford signed an executive order prohibiting future political assassinations by the U.S. government.
Even though Presidents Carter and Reagan reaffirmed this prohibition in subsequent executive orders, by the end of the 1970’s, Washington was sponsoring assassinations once again with “Operation Condor” in South America. Unlike with the Phoenix Program, the CIA did not directly administer Operation Condor, although the U.S. government did provide needed intelligence and funds. The operation covered most of the continent—in particular, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—and was a transnational undertaking, whereby the military regimes of South America collaborated to kidnap or kill their respective opponents living in exile. Its geographic scope extended well beyond South America, reaching Italy and, eventually, the United States, where Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean foreign minister to the assassinated Allende, was assassinated in downtown Washington, D.C.
The success of Operation Condor in countering Soviet influence in South America ensured the subsequent application of this foreign-policy “model” to Central America during the 1980’s.
A few years later, the Cold War had ended—and, with it, the justification given by Washington for conducting foreign policy by assassination. But the assassinations continued. Victory in the Cold War had only bolstered America’s messianic complex. Washington no longer simply claimed a moral right to intervene in the domestic affairs of other countries. In the New World Order, it now asserted a right to “benevolent global hegemony.”
The United States proceeded to exercise this “benevolence” in Bosnia, Haiti, Iraq, Kosovo, and Somalia with assassinations, individual and collective. While the executive orders prohibiting the U.S. government from engaging in assassinations never prevented Washington from commissioning them, they did impose some restraint because of the fear of exposure and censure. Whatever restraint existed, however, perished with the victims in the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Now, there are calls for the ban to be repealed. To win the “War on Terrorism,” some argue, the U.S. government must officially adopt assassination as the law of the land. Assassination is no longer to be denied, but demanded. No longer should it be the exception, but the rule. Not the last resort, but the first. Under such a law, the rule of law itself will be assassinated. The accused is presumed guilty. Hearsay replaces evidence; torture replaces interrogation; and assassination replaces the need for a trial.
However emotionally satisfying this might be for Washington and even for the American public, such a policy will have unintended consequences—what the CIA calls “blowback.” It will destabilize the United States and its New World Order, by proliferating further political assassinations. Washington’s assassination of foreign “terrorists” will provoke the assassination of Americans in retaliation, while other governments will seize the opportunity to assassinate political opponents by branding them “terrorists.” The consequences will be more wars, harsher dictatorships, and international turmoil.
There will be repercussions for American citizens as well, since Washington arbitrarily decides who is a “terrorist” and what constitutes “support” for terrorism. For instance, Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization, but the Al Qaeda-supported Kosovo Liberation Army is not. Ending sanctions on Iraq is “support” for terrorism; arming Indonesia is not.
If the U.S. government can assassinate foreign opponents by demonizing them as “terrorists” or supporters of terrorism, what is to prevent Washington from employing this tactic against domestic opponents? Waco and Ruby Ridge have already proved that Washington is capable of assassinating U.S. citizens. Constitutional rights are under attack, and political dissent is being denounced as “treason,” while the U.S. government actively fosters paranoia that our fellow citizens are clandestine terrorists.
The process Lincoln began is now complete. The United States is no longer a republic but an empire, abroad and at home. The fate of past empires from Athens to the Soviet Union should be a warning. Absolute power does more than corrupt absolutely; absolute power ultimately destroys the very government that wields it.