Monday, 20 June 2011

Alex von Tunzelmann, Red Heat : American Foreign Policy as it was and may always be

This second book by Alex von Tunzlemann, like her first (Indian Summer) is well written, fascinating, troubling and - this time round - chilling. It basically tells the story of how through the 1950s and 1960s, America screwed up over Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti and in doing so ensured that life in the last two of those countries remained nasty, brutal and short. In Haiti's case, it has never recovered from the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier.

The US repeatedly sided with the worst actors in the Caribbean's tragedy - the murderous regimes of Batista, Trujillo and Duvalier; it made policy on the back of pathetically inadequate intelligence-gathering and analysis; and it never managed to get to the position where the left hand knew what the right was doing. It's scary.

Von Tunzlemann doesn't link past to present in more than a minimal fashion, but it's not hard to expand from her history into contemporary politics.

The obsession with the Communist Threat blinkered and distorted information gathering, analysis and policy. Worse, bad practices such as appointing ambassadors for political services (and donations) rendered rather than their diplomatic skills meant that some of them actively distorted reports to Washington as they cosied up to dictators and furthered their own personal interests.

Today, obsession with the Terrorist Threat - Al Qaeda and all the rest - has been marked with more or less identical failings, of which George W Bush's desperate need to believe Saddam Hussein in bed with Osama bin Laden is just one example. Bush's taste for appointing cronies to positions for which they had no qualificatins or talent condemned (among other things) the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to dismal failure (chronicled in such works as Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran)

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, an out of control and morally blank CIA did enormous harm. Von Tunzlemann chronicles it working with organised crime syndicates, pouring money into subversive groups lacking any popular support, plotting criminal acts aimed against the USA itself (and potentialy involving civilian deaths) with the aim of blaming them on Castro, all the time unperturbed by the horrific tortures practised, often personally, by its favoured friends.

That legacy of the CIA is still with us. It led - for example only - to Colin Powell going to the General Assembly of the United Nations with a cock and bull slide show about Iraq's mobile WMD capacity - all of it made up for the occasion with the help of an unreliable "informant", the now notorious "Curveball".

Goodness knows what the CIA is up to today in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and a host of other countries. Of only one thing we can be sure, it is unlikely to bring increased personal security or economic well-being to ordinary citizens of those blighted countries.

The world described in Red Heat is unremittingly masculine. Women have only bit parts. The men chomp on cigars, shoot from the hip, are insufferably vain when they are not paranoid and megalomaniac, demand that women service them (JFK), and so on and so forth. Maybe the only change fifty years on is that there is Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.

One other - perhaps smaller - thing. The Kennedy brothers - JFK and Robert - come out of this book very badly even though von Tunzelmann does not aim at that. Neither appears to have been fit for high office, any more than Johnson or Nixon. Both appear to have been without guiding principles, political or moral. JFK took crucial decisions under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Robert was prepared to contemplate murder and mayhem in pursuit of impulsively-chosen goals. Both appear to have had some links to organised crime. Perhaps it is not so surprising that they were both assassinated.

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