Being the World’s Only Superpower Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are. – George H. W. Bush 1
Cuba, said US District Judge James Lawrence King on December 17, 1997, “in outrageous contempt for international law and basic human rights, murdered four human beings in international airspace.” He then proceeded to award $187.6 million to the families of the Florida-based Cuban pilots who had been shot down in February 1996 by Cuban jets while on an air mission, destination Cuba. 2
(In actuality, the Cuban government had done no more than any government in the world would have done under the same circumstances. Havana regarded the planes as within Cuban airspace, of serious hostile intent, and gave the pilots explicit warning: “You are taking a risk.” Planes from the same organization had gone even further into Cuban territory on earlier occasions and had been warned by Cuba not to return.)
In November 1996, the federal government gave each of the families a down payment of $300,000 on the award, the money coming out of frozen Cuban assets. 3
Such was justice, anti-communist style.
Totally ignored by the American government, however, was Cuba’s lawsuit of May 31, 1999, filed in a Havana court demanding $181.1 billion in US compensation for death and injury suffered by Cuban citizens in four decades of “war” by Washington against Cuba. The document outlined American “aggression”, ranging from backing for armed rebel groups within Cuba and the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, to subversion attempts from the US naval base of Guant´namo and the planting of epidemics on the island.
Cuba was demanding $30 million in direct compensation for each of the 3,478 people it said were killed by US actions and $15 million each for the 2,099 injured. It was also asking $10 million each for the people killed, and $5 million each for the injured, to repay Cuban society for the costs it has had to assume on their behalf. That was “substantially less” than the amount per person fixed by US Judge King in the pilots’ case, the document pointed out.
Cuban officials delivered the papers for the suit to the US Interests Section in Havana, but the Americans refused to accept them. 4 The Cuban government then took its case to the United Nations, where it has been in the hands of the Counter-Terrorism Committee since 2001. This committee is made up of all 15 members of the Security Council, which of course includes the United States, which may account for the inaction on the matter.
On January 27, 1973, in Paris, the United States signed the “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam”. Among the principles to which the United States agreed was the one stated in Article 21: “In pursuance of its traditional policy [sic], the United States will contribute to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam [North Vietnam] and throughout Indochina.”
Five days later, President Nixon sent a message to the Prime Minister of North Vietnam in which he stipulated the following: “1) The Government of the United States of America will contribute to postwar reconstruction in North Vietnam without any political conditions. 2) Preliminary United States studies indicate that the appropriate programs for the United States contribution to postwar reconstruction will fall in the range of $3.25 billion of grant aid over 5 years.” 5
Nothing of the promised reconstruction aid was ever paid. Or ever will be.
However – deep breath here – Vietnam has been compensating the United States. In 1997 it began to pay off about $145 million in debts left by the defeated South Vietnamese government for American food and infrastructure aid. Thus, Hanoi is reimbursing the United States for part of the cost of the war waged against it. 6
How can this be? The proper legal term is “extortion”. The enforcers employed by Washington included the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Export-Import Bank, the Paris Club, and the rest of the international financial mafia. The Vietnamese were made an offer they couldn’t refuse: Pay up or subject yourself to exquisite forms of economic torture, even worse than the considerable maiming you’ve already experienced at the hands of our godfathers. 7
At the Vietnamese embassy in Washington (a small office in an office building), the First Secretary for Press Affairs, Mr. Le Dzung, told the author in 1997 that this matter, as well as Nixon’s unpaid billions, are rather emotional issues in Vietnam, but the government is powerless to change the way the world works.
Under siege by the United States and its Contra proxy army for several years, Nicaragua filed suit in 1984 in the World Court (International Court of Justice), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, located in The Hague, Netherlands, for relief from the constant onslaught, which included mining its harbors. The Court ruled in 1986 that the US was in violation of international law for a host of reasons, stated that Washington “is under a duty immediately to cease and to refrain from all such acts [of hostility]” and “is under an obligation to make reparation to the Republic of Nicaragua for all injury”.
Anticipating the suit, the Reagan administration had done the decent and right thing: It announced, on April 6, 1984, three days before Nicaragua’s filing, that the US would not recognize the World Court’s jurisdiction in matters concerning Central America for a two-year period.
Apart from the awesome arbitrariness of this proclamation, the court’s ruling of June 27, 1986 actually came after the two-year period had expired, but the United States ignored it anyway. Washington did not slow down its hostile acts against Nicaragua, nor did it ever pay a penny in reparation. 8
The April 1986 American bombing of Libya took the lives of scores of people and wounded another hundred or so. The dead included Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s young daughter; all of Qaddafi’s other seven children as well as his wife were hospitalized, suffering from shock and various injuries. A year later, 65 claims were filed with the White House and the Department of Defense under the Federal Tort Claims Act and the Foreign Claims Act, on behalf of those killed or injured. The claimants, who were asking for up to $5 million for each wrongful death, included Libyans, Greeks, Egyptians, Yugoslavs and Lebanese. 9 Before long, the number of claimants reached to about 340, but none of their claims got anywhere in the American judicial system, with the Supreme Court declining to hear the case. 10
For several years following the American invasion of 1989, with its highly destructive bombing and ground combat, many individual Panamanians tried in various ways to receive compensation for the death or injury of themselves or family members, or the wreckage of their home or business. But their legal claims and suits were met by an implacable US government. One American law firm filed claims on behalf of some 200 Panamanians (all non-combatants), under provisions of the Panama Canal treaty, first in Panama with US military officials, who rejected the claims; then in two suits filed in US courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, with each of the courts declining to hear the cases. 11
During the years 1990 to 1993, some 300 Panamanians petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) for a finding that the United States had violated many of their rights and was liable for “just compensation”. In 1993, the Commission ruled the petition “admissible”. But as of the year 2005, it was still pending as to its “merits”, which were being “studied”. 12 It should be born in mind that over the years, the United States has wielded inordinate influence in the OAS, far more than any other member. Witness Washington’s success in getting Cuba suspended from the organization in 1962 and kept out to the present time despite repeated, growing, and publicly-expressed support for Cuba’s reinstatement by other OAS members.
There was a report some years ago that a few small payments – seemingly somewhat arbitrary – had been made “on the ground” by US officials to Panamanians in Panama. But in December 1999, the State Department Press Office dealing with Panama stated that “the United States has not paid any compensation for combat-related deaths or injuries or property damage due to Operation Just Cause” (this being the not-tongue-in-cheek name given to the American invasion and bombing). 13 Some of the American aid given to Panama since 1989, the State Department added, has been used by Panama for such purposes. The State Department puts the matter thusly, it would appear, to make it clear to the world that they do not feel any guilt or responsibility for what they did to the people of Panama and will not succumb to any kind of coercion, legal or moral, to pay any compensation.
On December 20, 1999, the tenth anniversary of the American invasion, hundreds of Panamanians took to the street to demand once again that the US pay damages to civilian victims of the bombing.
The El-Shifa pharmaceutical plant had greatly raised Sudanese medicinal self-sufficiency while producing about 90 percent of the drugs used to treat the most deadly illnesses in the desperately poor country. But on August 20, 1998, the United States saw fit to send more than a dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles screaming into the plant, in an instant depriving the people of Sudan of their achievement.
Based on a covertly acquired soil sample, Washington claimed that the plant was producing chemical weapons. At the same time the US gave the world the clear impression that the factory’s owner, Saleh Idris, was a close associate of terrorists and was involved in money laundering. Washington proceeded to freeze $24 million in Idris’s London bank accounts. But the US was never able to prove any of its assertions, while every piece of evidence and every expert testimony that surfaced categorically contradicted the claim about chemical weapons. 14 The case fell apart completely, and in the meantime, Idris sued to recover his money as well as compensation for his pulverized plant.
Finally, in May 1999, the United States unfroze Idris’s accounts rather than contest his suit because they knew they had no case. However – as far as what’s publicly known – the US has yet to offer any kind of formal or official apology to Sudan or to Idris for the plant’s destruction, or for the serious harm done to his reputation, and has yet to compensate him for the loss of the plant and the loss of business; nor the plant’s employees for the loss of their jobs and income, or the ten people who were injured. The degree of Washington’s arrogance in the whole matter was stunning, from the initial act on. “Never before,” observed former CIA official Milt Bearden, “has a single soil sample prompted an act of war against a sovereign state.” 15
The American government and media had a lot of fun with an obvious piece of Iraqi propaganda – the claim that a biological warfare facility, bombed during the Gulf War in 1991, had actually been a baby food factory. But it turned out that the government of New Zealand, whose technicians had visited the site repeatedly, and various other business people from New Zealand who had had intimate contact with the factory, categorically confirmed that it had indeed been a baby food factory. The French contractor who had built the place said the same. But Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, insisted: “It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure.” 16 As to American compensation, there was none.
After the United States bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, killing three people inside the building, Washington apologized profusely to Beijing, blaming outdated maps among other problems. But this, it appears, was just a cover for the fact that the bombing wasn’t actually an accident. Two reports in The Observer of London in October and November, based on NATO and US military and intelligence sources, revealed that the embassy had been targeted after NATO discovered that it was being used to transmit Yugoslav army communications. The Chinese were doing this after NATO jets had successfully silenced the Yugoslav government’s own transmitters. 17
Over and above the military need, there may have been a political purpose served. China is clearly the principal barrier to US hegemony in Asia, if not elsewhere. The bombing of the embassy was perhaps Washington’s charming way of telling Beijing that this is only a small sample of what can happen to you if you have any ideas of resisting or competing with the American juggernaut. Being able to have a much better than usual “plausible denial” for carrying out such a bombing may have been irresistible to American leaders. The chance would never come again.
All of US/NATO’s other bombing “mistakes” in Yugoslavia were typically followed by their spokesman telling the world: “We regret the loss of life.” These same words were used by the IRA in Northern Ireland on a number of occasions over the years following one of their bombings which appeared to have struck the wrong target. But their actions were invariably called “terrorist”.
On March 10, 1999, in a talk delivered in Guatemala City, President Clinton said that US support for repressive forces in Guatemala “was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.” But the word “sorry” did not cross the president’s lips, nor did the word “apologize”, nor the word “compensation”. 18 Forty years of unholy cruelty to a people for which the United States was preeminently responsible was not worth a right word or a penny.
This was the first visit by an American president to Guatemala since Lyndon Johnson went there in 1968, during the height of the oppression by Washington’s client-state government. Johnson did not of course say that the current US policy in Guatemala was wrong, when it would have meant a lot more than Clinton saying so 31 years later. LBJ did, however, inform his audience that he had heard that Guatemala was called “the land of eternal spring”. 19
Clinton’s visit to Greece in November 1999 brought out large and fiery anti-American demonstrations, protesting the recent American bombing of Yugoslavia and the indispensable US support for the torturers par excellence of the 1967-74 Greek junta. During his one-day stop, the president found time to address a private group – “When the junta took over in 1967 here,” he told his audience, “the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interest – I should say its obligation – to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War. It is important that we acknowledge that.” National Security Council spokesman David Leavey was quick to point out that the president’s statement about the former junta was “not intended as an apology.” 20
Questions arise. How can it be that the US fought the Cold War to “support democracy” and wound up supporting not only the Greek dictators but dozens of other tyrannies? Were they all simply “wrong” actions, all “mistakes”, like in Guatemala? At what point do we conclude that a consistent sequence of “mistakes” demonstrates intended actions and policy? Moreover, if US “interests” in the Cold War “prevailed” over the cause of democracy, we must ask: What are these “interests” that are in conflict, or at least not harmonious, with democracy, these “interests” which are routinely invoked by American statesmen, but never given a proper name?
Finally, we have the words of President Clinton spoken in Uganda in March 1998:
During the cold war when we were so concerned about being in competition with the Soviet Union, very often we dealt with countries in Africa and in other parts of the world based more on how they stood in the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union than how they stood in the struggle for their own people’s aspirations to live up to the fullest of their God-given abilities. 21
What is going on here? Guatemala, Greece, Africa, other parts of the world … Was the president disowning a half-century of American foreign policy? Was he saying that the United States brought all that death, destruction, torture and suffering to the world’s multitudes for no good reason? That all we were diligently taught about the nobility of the fight against the thing called “communism” was a fraud?
We’ll never know what William Clinton really thought about these things. He may not know himself. But we do know what he did. As discussed in the Introduction and in the Interventions chapter, we know that he continued the very same kind of policies he was, in the above examples, repudiating. And some day, decades hence, another American president may acknowledge that what Clinton did in Iraq, Colombia, Mexico, Yugoslavia and elsewhere, and what George W. Bush did in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, was “wrong” or “mistaken”. But that future president, even as he utters the words, will be doing the “wrong” thing himself in one corner of the world or another. And for the same “interests”.
- Speaking as vice president in the context of the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane by an American ship, taking 290 lives, Newsweek, August 15, 1988
- Washington Post, December 18, 1987
- New York Times, November 11, 1996, p.12
- Author’s conversation with the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, DC
- “U.S. Aid to North Vietnam”, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, House Committee on International Relations, July 19, 1977, Appendix 2.
- Los Angeles Times and New York Times, March 11, 1997
- For a discussion of this maiming, see John Pilger, “Vietnam: The Final Battle”, Covert Action Quarterly (Washington, DC), #64, Spring 1998, p.54-65
- Holly Sklar, Washington’s War on Nicaragua (South End Press, Boston, 1988), p.169-70, 314
- San Francisco Chronicle, April 16, 1987, p.15
- Interview of attorney Ramsey Clark, September 7, 1999, by the author. Clark had acted on behalf of many of the claimants. See also Clark’s account in his book, “The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf” (New York, 1992), p.167-8
- Interview of attorney John Kiyonaga of Alexandria, VA, September 10, 1999; he and his brother David were the attorneys for these cases; see their op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1990; see also The Guardian (London), July 28, 1990, p. 7; San Francisco Examiner, April 26, 1992, p.4
- Interview of Elizabeth Abimershad of the IACHR-OAS in Washington, September 7, 1999 and Aurora Amezquita of the IACHR-OAS in February 2005. The case is Salas, et al. against United States of America, Case No. 10.573
- Read to the author over the phone, December 22, 1999, by the State Department’s Panama desk from an official press announcement.
- The Independent (London), February 15, 1999, p.12; Seymour Hersh, “The Missiles of August”, The New Yorker, October 12, 1998, p.34-41; New York Times, October 21, 1998, p.1 and 8
- Washington Post, July 25, 1999, p.F1. For a fuller account of this matter, see William Blum, “Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire” (2004), chapter 7
- Peacelink magazine (Hamilton, New Zealand), March 1991, p.19; Washington Post, February 8, 1991, p.1 (includes Powell remark)
- “Nato bombed Chinese deliberately”, The Observer (London), October 17, 1999; and November 28, 1999. Also see Extra! Update (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, New York), December 1999
- Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, dated March 15, 1999, p.395
- Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (GPO), 1968-69, Vol. II, p.800
- The Associated Press, dispatch from Athens, Greece, November 20, 1999, by Terence Hunt; Washington Post, November 21, 1999
- Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, March 24, 1998, p.491
This is a chapter from Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower by William Blum.