Imperialism, War, and U.S. Foreign Policy: An Interview with Stephen Gowans

By Janelle Velina

Stephen Gowans is an independent writer and political analyst from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada whose main focus is on U.S. foreign policy. He is the author of the widely acclaimed book, Washington’s Long War on Syria (2017). His latest book is titled, Patriots, Traitors, and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom (2018). He also has a blog called What’s Left which can be found at

On June 15th, 2018, I had the privilege of speaking with him over the phone where we discussed imperialism and U.S. foreign policy, covering topics such as: Syria, North Korea, and the anti-war movement. Here is that interview.


Janelle Velina: A common theme that readers will find in both your books, Washington’s Long War on Syria and Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, is that you are using the past to shed light on the present — as you mentioned at the book launch for the latter. Can you expand on that?

Stephen Gowans: The conflict in Syria and the conflict in Korea are conflicts which are presented in the mass media — through which most people get their information — as conflicts that have recently begun, without historical context. So my concern in writing both books was to provide the historical context within which to situate those conflicts so that they could become more intelligible to people who have had to rely on mass media. For example: we might think that the conflict in Syria between the government and Islamist forces began in 2011, which is usually the date that marks the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring”; but that conflict has a long history which stretches back to the post-World War II period. With that, one can understand the history of these conflicts, one has the better sense of what’s going on today.

J: And ultimately, these books are about U.S. foreign policy, correct?

S: Yes, exactly. Both books are about U.S. foreign policy and that’s my focus, that’s what I write about. They’re only about Korea and Syria insofar as Korea and Syria are targets of U.S. foreign policy. So the books are really a meditation or an analysis of U.S. foreign policy, using U.S. hostilities towards Syria and U.S. hostilities towards Korea as kinds of case studies to illuminate and illustrate U.S. foreign policy: what drives it, what its objectives are, [and] who benefits from it.

J: These are two post-colonial countries with very rich histories of anti-imperialist struggles and resistance. And they are very much maligned by the West — including sections of the Western left. What has the general reaction to these books been like do you find?

S: The reaction from parts of the Western Left in particular? I mean, you’re right in pointing that out. The reaction has been negative in some parts of the Western Left — at least to the Syria book, I haven’t received yet any negative reaction to the book about Korea. But there are elements within the Left that seem to regard the Islamist uprising in Syria as being of a “progressive” nature; in fact, they probably take exception to my depicting of that as an Islamist uprising. There has long been a split in the Left between those who are uncompromisingly anti-imperialist and other parts of the Left which always seem to find a reason to collaborate or at least agree with imperialist adventures overseas.

Oil, propaganda wars, and the battle for Syria

J: Oil politics certainly do have significance in Washington’s wars on Libya, Iraq, and Syria. And so it’s easy to say that the reason for these wars is because of the oil. But it’s not that simple since there is an internal logic to Empire-building; and we both know that the U.S. doesn’t go to war or interfere in the Middle East simply because they want more oil. In your blog post titled, “Aspiring to Rule the World: US Capital and the Battle for Syria”, you mentioned,

“Since not all of the world’s oil lies in the Persian Gulf, and much of it is found in Russia and North America, the idea that Saddam Hussein could control the world’s oil supply—and threaten the economy and living standards of North Americans—is transparently false.”

Having said that, what is the real motivation behind the U.S. wanting to cut off the oil supplies of Pan-Arab states?

S: This is a popular misconception that is fostered by Western governments and states that Western governments need to have a robust presence in the Middle East in order to ensure security of oil supplies — but that’s patently false. And that it is patently false is quite evident when you consider that the top producers of oil in the world today are the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia; and the United States and Russia are both tied for the top spot. The United States has always been one of the major producers of oil in the world and not only does it have vast reserves of gas and oil in its own territory, it also has access to vast reserves of gas and oil within the territories of its allies and neighbours Canada and Mexico. In fact, Canada is the number one foreign-supplier of oil to the United States so security of oil supplies is not the reason why the United States has a robust presence in the Arab and Muslim world. The reason the United States has a robust presence in the Arab and Muslim world is to control it in order to provide profit-making opportunities not only importantly to U.S. oil reserves, but to Corporate America generally and to U.S. investors.

J: When you look back at the 2003 invasion of Iraq, opposing it was relatively easy. There were mass turnouts for the protests and, generally speaking, you didn’t see too many people demanding that Saddam be removed, regardless of what was being said about him or how demonized his country was in Western media at the time. But when you fast-forward to the 2010’s, we didn’t see those same kind of anti-war protests against the U.S.-led proxy wars on Libya and Syria. Instead, we see many of the Western left joining in on the demonization campaigns against Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al Assad, as well as cheering on the terrorist forces in these countries (these so-called “moderate rebels” that are backed by NATO). What would you say compels the Western left to support the imperialist aggression against countries like Libya and Syria?

S: I think largely because they’ve been misled. Because Western governments and Western states are very adept at manipulating public perception; and by invoking the idea of “humanitarian” intervention as the motivation for their imperialist aggression — so that they are never presented as aggressions, instead they are presented as in support of “democracy”, “liberty”, or “human rights” and what have you.

Well, certain parts of the Left claim that they see through that deception. There are some who want to see revolutions where they don’t exist; so often times, you can have uprisings — that are not in any respects “democratic” or “progressive” — which appear to certain elements of the Left as being progressive uprisings. Syria is the best example of that.

And I get that you are asking why do they support the aggressions against Syria and Libya when they were opposed to the aggression against Iraq. There are differences between these two styles of interventions. In one sense, the Iraq intervention was one that was led by Republicans, whereas the intervention in Libya and the initial intervention in Syria were led by Democrats. And I think the tendency of some people on the Left to identify with the Democrats and to be opposed to the Republicans — to oppose Republican wars but to be more forgiving of the Democratic wars, or wars of the Democratic Party rather — may be part of the explanation. The other part of the explanation was that the intervention in Iraq was a more robust one in terms of U.S. involvement. I mean, it did involve an occupation by U.S. forces and British forces and [their] allied forces; whereas the interventions in Libya and Syria (although they ended up involving the militaries of the West) did not really involve the militaries of the West in a robust way or as robust as was the case in Iraq — and I think that, too, accounts for some of the differences. Not only the Left, but people in general within the West seem to be reluctant to support interventions which involve boots-on-the-ground. And the United States takes pains to ensure that it doesn’t always have to commit boots-on-the-ground — or if there are boots-on-the-ground, it’s often done in a very limited and secretive way. For example, in the case of Syria, there wasn’t a direct U.S. military intervention until the last two years where we now have perhaps 2000 to 5000, maybe even more, U.S. soldiers occupying about one third of Syria, but it’s largely done secretively and under the radar and I think that’s done deliberately in order not to arouse the opposition of people in the United States. So I think those reasons account for some of the differences between why there was opposition to the intervention in Iraq and not any opposition to the interventions in Syria and Libya.

Also, it was easier, I think, for the U.S. state in manipulating public opinion to cite “humanitarian” reasons to justify its intervention in Libya and Syria than it could in Iraq. It did try to invoke humanitarian reasons for its intervention in Iraq [but] they weren’t as plausible as they could be in the case of Libya and Syria — which isn’t to say that there are legitimate humanitarian reasons for intervening in Libya and Syria, they were completely fabricated. But in terms of making a PR case, I think it was easier for the state to make PR cases about “humanitarian” intervention in Syria and Libya than it was in Iraq.

J: Now that you’ve mentioned it “humanitarian” interventions: we can’t talk about the war on Syria without talking about the White Helmets because they certainly help add fuel to the imperialist propaganda. They even won an Oscar last year. And they are, essentially, a ‘facelift’ for Al Qaeda as [journalist] Vanessa Beeley describes them. You don’t cover them in your previous book, but you have touched on them in your blog. Other than being a front group that gives a humanitarian facade to the U.S.-backed terrorist forces, what would you say has been their biggest function throughout the conflict?

S: Their biggest function is to manipulate public opinion, to help the project of demonizing the Syrian government. I’m always surprised that there’s even a controversy about the White Helmets because there shouldn’t be a controversy. It’s pretty simple to find out or figure out who the White Helmets are: all you have to do is go on their website and look at who funds them — they’re quite open about it, that they’re funded by Western governments. So this is hardly an independent organization. It’s only an organization, which can be readily established simply by reading mainstream newspapers, that only operates within Islamist-held territory. The fact that there’s even an iota of controversy or doubt about the White Helmets, and what their real role in Syria is, is just completely mind-boggling. It’s [White Helmets] completely a PR operation and it’s just part of that PR operation that’s been going on since 2011 of demonizing the Arab nationalist resistance to the U.S. Empire and its intent to dominate the Arab and Muslim World.

Washington’s long war on the Korean Peninsula

J: Trump had taken several U-turns with regards to the meeting with Kim Jong-Un; but in the end, they had their meeting regardless. What are your thoughts on that summit? Can we really expect the U.S. to withdraw its nuclear weapons and military bases from the Korean Peninsula and Japan?

S: The point that’s embedded in your question is a very good one, about withdrawing U.S. nuclear weapons. The public discussion about these talks assume, rather than implicitly, that when they talk about denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, they’re talking about North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons and that there are no obligations on the part of the United States. And yet, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, if it has any meaning at all, would have to mean also that the United States cannot bring nuclear weapons onto the Peninsula, it cannot fly nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable aircraft within Korean airspace, it cannot bring ballistic nuclear missile submarines within Korean waters, and that the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea must be removed. Otherwise, the phrase “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is completely meaningless or it’s simply unilateral.

Will the United States remove its 30 000 troops from South Korea and its 50 000 troops from Japan, and its other troops from Guam? This is an interesting question. If it wasn’t for Trump, one would say ‘no’ because if you look at the pattern of U.S. foreign policy, it’s pretty easy to predict what’s going to happen. But Trump is disruptive and mercurial and completely unpredictable, and he certainly must be vexing the U.S. foreign policy establishment because he simply adopts positions ‘on the spot’ which are completely inimical to longstanding U.S. foreign policy positions. What will happen is difficult to predict, but Trump won’t be around forever. When Trump goes, U.S. foreign policy will go back to its regular patterns — the ones that are driven by an objective with respect to North Korea. And that objective was articulated many years ago by the current U.S. National Security Advisor [John] Bolton who, at the time, was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control [and International Security] was asked by a New York Times reporter what U.S. policy toward North Korea is; and he strode over to a bookshelf, pulled a volume off the shelf, and threw it down on the desk and said, “That’s our policy!”. The book was titled, The End of North Korea, and that’s a fitting description of U.S. foreign policy with respect to North Korea because the United States has sought the end of North Korea since 1948 — the year North Korea was established — and its policy has always aimed in that direction. So if that is the ultimate goal of the United States, the end of North Korea, then you have to ask yourself: is the United States going to arrive at some kind of modus vivendi with North Koreans? I’m not sure it’s prepared to do that unless the North Koreans capitulate; and how they might capitulate is by agreeing to tolerate U.S. presence in South Korea, or U.S. military presence in South Korea, and agreeing to open their economy to penetration by U.S. investors and U.S. firms. But it’s difficult to tell what’s going to happen, as one of the most esteemed historians of modern Korea said when asked the same question, “what do you think is going to happen?”. He said, “[I]t’s hard to not be trying figure out what’s gone on in the past without trying to predict what’s going to happen in the future of Korea.”

J: Should we be worried that Kim Jong-Un might give into pressure as Gaddafi had mistakenly done, when he gave up Libya’s nuclear weapons?

S: It’s hard to say. There are some people who have made, I think, a pretty cogent argument that it may be the case that Kim Jong-Un is looking to become the Deng Xiaoping of Korea — to develop an economic model that resembles that of China, which would be a kind of a dirigiste economy that had markets and isn’t as open as the United States would like it to be and with the Worker’s Party [of Korea] still in control of the politics. But what kind of concessions is the North Korean leadership prepared to make is hard to say and I guess we’ll see.

J: In your latest book, you describe the South Korean military as being an extension of the Pentagon. You also address the common perception that they are this “force for peace”. Would you like to comment more on that?

S: In terms of being a “force for peace,” that’s another common view, a common misconception, that’s promoted by the U.S. state and mass media; and by contrast, they’ll describe the North Korean military as being aggressive. But when you look at the history of the two militaries, that depiction is the complete opposite of the truth. The North Korean military has never operated beyond the borders of Korea. Whereas the South Korean military was involved massively in the U.S. war on Vietnam — they contributed 300 000 soldiers to that war; they’ve also been involved in the U.S. war of aggression on Iraq and the U.S. war of aggression on Afghanistan.

Since I’ve written my book I’ve read an interesting paper on the South Korean military that I would’ve liked to have included in my book; it’s consistent with the point I make but it offers an interesting analysis. And this paper has looked at the size of the South Korean military and it has looked at the composition and the equipment it has and says, this kind of military and its size is far too large to protect or to defend South Korea. I mean, in terms of self-defense, it could be much smaller but it continues to grow every year; the South Korean military budget is 40 billion dollars per annum versus an estimated 3 to 10 billion dollars for North Korea. The South Korean military budget is growing, and the North Korean military budget isn’t growing. And the South Koreans are acquiring the kinds of weapons systems and capabilities that are more typical of force projection, or what the United States calls force projection. The argument is made that, indeed, the South Korean military is simply integrated with the United States military, and exists as a force projection for it, whose ultimate aim is to contain China. That certainly seems to be the case the United States seems to regard South Korea and the bases it has in South Korea — it has 20 bases in South Korea including 1 base called Camp Humphreys which is a new base, it’s the largest U.S. overseas military base in the world; the U.S. army refers to this base as the largest power projection platform in the Pacific and that’s the way the United States regards South Korea: as a power projection platform, an instrument of U.S. power and an instrument of U.S. force projection.

J: The Moon Jae-In administration is probably the most DPRK-friendly government we’ve seen in South Korea thus far. Kim Jong-Un has also recently seen an 84% approval rating in the South. And yet, much like his predecessors, Moon Jae-In has no command over the South Korean military. This creates quite an interesting dynamic, doesn’t it?

S: Yes, it does, and it’s kind of extraordinary. Even top U.S. military officials have noted that it is extraordinary that the South Korean executive does not have control over its own military. One U.S. general describes it as one of the most remarkable concessions of sovereignty in the world.

The South Korean military reports to a U.S. general in times of war under the control of the Pentagon, in times of war. There are always plans that so-called op-cons, or operational control, will be given to the South Koreans — I was about to say ‘given back’ but South Koreans have never had control of their military — but will be given control of their military for the first time; and these dates continue to be pushed back into the future. Moon Jae-In has complained bitterly about the fact that his own, or the South Korean military officials continue to say that they [ROK] can’t take command of the South Korean military, that it needs to be under the command of the United States. And he points out, “How can this be? Our military budget far exceeds that of North Korea and has far exceeded North Korean budget for decades. Our GDP is much larger, our population is much larger. The North Koreans do not pose a significant threat to South Korea, so how is it the case that we cannot control our own military?” U.S. officials say, well we don’t believe that the South Koreans are in the position to be able to operate their own military or to have it under their own command. So it’s kind of extraordinary that the South Korean military isn’t even under the control of the South Korean President. And that, too, speaks volumes of the South Korean military being an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. It also speaks volumes about the extent to which, or the reality, that South Korea is a puppet state.

The future of the anti-war movement

J: Lastly: for those of us who live in the imperialist nations, what would you like to see in a new anti-war movement?

S: The anti-war movement ought to be far more critical than it is. The anti-war movement ought to be far more skeptical than it is. It ought to be skeptical of claims that Western powers are intervening abroad for “humanitarian” reasons. It’s surprising (it’s astonishing) that we continue to be fooled by these claims, especially after 2003, the intervention in Iraq, an intervention that was justified on the basis of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that didn’t exist; even if they did exist, this is hardly a legitimate justification for intervention in Korea. And yet, despite the fact that this deception [Iraq’s WMD] was exposed pretty quickly, and exposed clearly, people continue to fall for similar deceptions over and over, and over. And so finally, for the anti-war movement to learn a lesson from — and it’s not only Iraq, it’s happened so many times in so many other circumstances — Yugoslavia, for example, in 1999 the NATO air war against Yugoslavia was justified on the grounds that there was this “genocide” in progress. Well, after the war, forensic scientists and specialists went to Yugoslavia, looking for the evidence that NATO told them would exist; they found no such evidence and realized that they had been deceived. So these deceptions, we can go back to war intervention-after-intervention and find deceptions that have been used to justify those interventions — and still, we don’t seem to learn. Every time an intervention happens, Western countries invent some kind of pretext for intervening; typically, the pretexts are not particularly compelling if you want to scrutinize them but we continue to be deceived and to allow ourselves to be deceived.

And we don’t have a very sophisticated understanding of the foreign policies of the United States and its allies and what drives it, what its aims are, what its goals are. Its aims have never been to promote democracy, or to promote the prosperity of other people, or to establish a so-called rule-governed international order. The goals have always been to dominate those countries in order to provide profit-making opportunities to U.S. investors and Corporate America — that sector of the United States that has enormous influence, and real accounts, in U.S. foreign policy and domestic policy as well.

J: Now that’s all the time that we have to day. Before we sign off, and for listeners who may still be new to your work, can you tell us where we could find more of your writing?

S: Yes, I write (or blog) at

J: It was great having you here today, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

S: Thank you very much!

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