Sunday, January 7, 2024

Review: Washington Bullets by Vijay Prashad

This book is a whirlwind tour through 20th- and 21st-century Washington-led initiatives to bring to heel nations that would chart their own course (socialist or non-aligned movement), establishing what has been called the US century or US hegemony. It is a lengthy list of imperialist interventions, though its more comprehensive approach to naming interventions and its concise length entail a sacrifice in the depth of analysis compared to other books in this genre, such as Bevins' The Jakarta Method (focused on Indonesia, Chile and Brazil and the "military coup" recipe), Parenti's To Kill a Nation (focused on the interplay of economic coercion, media narratives, and NATO military involvement in breaking up Yugoslavia), and Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (emphasizing the role of media in US interventions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, Bulgaria).

In a way, the title is a bit of a misnomer: where Washington bullets powered the first forays (for example, the overthrow of Guatemala's popular anti-imperialist and economic-nationalist government in 1954, or the overthrow of the democratically-elected Indonesian communist party in 1965), political and economic considerations have pushed the US to adopt alternative strategies over the last 40ish years. Economic instruments, like IMF-enforced economic "restructuring", or legal approaches to deposing an unfavourable government (like the 2019 coup in Bolivia), are easier to sell to its citizens at home and save face during diplomatic negotiations abroad. There's a mirror here in how coercion went from violent and overt to economic and less visible over time in international relations as well as economic production. Once, masters used violence to coerce their slaves. Now, labour is coerced through economic means.

The most helpful part of the book was the list of commonalities Prashad calls the "manual for regime change". These steps were as follows: (1) lobby 'public' opinion, (2) appoint the right man on the ground, (3) make sure the Generals are ready, (4) make the economy scream, (5) diplomatic isolation, (6) organize mass protests, (7) green light, (8) a study of assassination, (9) deny. Structure like this makes it easier to interpret and remember historical events. Unfortunately, once presented, the structure wasn't rigourously used to present conflicts. I think it would be really effective to go through the list for a small handful of conflicts over and over, highlighting how different aspects of this "manual" change over time as modes of coercion become less straightforwardly violent and more complexly legalistic.

A last drawback of this book is that I doubt it will change minds: those who already believe the US is imperialist will be delighted to be walked through scores of examples of its imperialism; those who believe the US is indeed highly concerned with autocratic governments in general and not just those that oppose its interests are unlikely to be convinced otherwise. Prashad breezily dances around the globe, highlighting patterns in US-led regime change, but I can imagine a resistant reader decrying "no, it wasn't like that at all!" I think a more effective tactic is to present the opposing arguments in detail and investigate their claims, demonstrating their internal inconsistency. Examples of this approach include the three books listed above, as well as Losurdo's books on liberalism, Stalin and Hegel. For this reason, I think this book is harder to recommend for a general audience, and see it as most suitable for someone new to anti-imperialist perspectives who wants a broad overview.

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