I have long admired Peter Dale Scott’s work on deep politics as it operates in the governing process of this country. It is easier to grasp the idea that there are a variety of undisclosed social forces that create tensions with proclaimed policy goals, if not directly undermining them, than to depict their contours. Scott manages such a depiction in relation to the provocative subject-matter of the drug trade, with the CIA working collaboratively with drug cartels and dealers in various national setting while the stated policy of the country is to wage ‘a war on drugs.’ Who sets American foreign policy? What are its goals? Is it coherent, effective, benign? Reading Scott’s book is educational in the best sense, leading even sophisticated observers of the political scene to have more adequate answers to such questions. Below is the uncut version of my review.
Although born in Canada, and usually identified as a former Canadian diplomat, Peter Dale Scott has been a vibrant presence in American cultural and political life for more than forty years. During his long career as writer and poet Scott has been influential and productive. He is the author of a series of pioneering inquiries into the hidden realities of the way the United States is governed and behaves in the world. He exposes state secrets and raises severe doubts about official versions of such transformative occurrences as the assassination of JFK and the 9/11 attacks. He has also published a profound and lyrically satisfying poetic trilogy that impressively weaves together autobiography, political commentary, and a mystical understanding of the nature and meaning of life. As well, as a long term member of the English Department at UC Berkeley, Scott gave legendary courses on epic poetry, including the work of such writers as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Dante, which probed the depths of great poets notorious for their allusiveness and obscurity.
Against such a background, it should not surprise us that when Scott deploys his talents to depict the contemporary ills of U.S. imperial geopolitics he shows little interest in mainstream debates and is preoccupied with what lies out of sight, what he provocatively calls ‘deep events’ that are in turn the work of ‘deep forces.’ His principal concern is with ‘violence from an unexplained or unauthorized force’ that result in policy outcomes incompatible with law and morality. Such conduct also directly contradicts the public official presentation of state policy and belief creating an Orwellian web of lies undermining trust between government and populace. Scott’s vision of our political predicaments, and how to escape their grip, is inherently radical. He finds little reformist potentiality in conventional politics of parties and elections, pointing to disappointment with Obama as president as illustrative. The narrative line of his argument wends its way throughout the course of the country’s history, and is even capable of being generalized beyond the United States. His wider skepticism about political life is acknowledged near the beginning of the book when he observes that “unpleasant facts, such as that all Western empires have been established through major atrocities, are conveniently suppressed” (p. 3) in the teaching of world history.
Scott disarmingly writes in an introductory note to The American War Machine that since his age is eighty-one, he expects this to be his last major political book, and if it is, then it represents a fitting culmination to his work as our leading geopolitical sleuth. The sub-title prefigures the theme of the book, which is to contend that the war in Afghanistan (and several other long lasting political conflicts) is driven by drug-connected violence that reflects the underside of American foreign policy massively executed over many years through the covert operations of the CIA. Scott is an indefatigable researcher, and to the extent that open sources permit documentation, the controversial thesis of the book is sustained by well-evidenced and lucid analysis. Underpinning Scott’s analysis is the startling insistence that the transnational network of drug connections is often directly responsible for keeping in power the most oppressive rulers around the world and works with a series of prominent banks to obtain money laundering facilities that in turn allow the funding of a variety of terrorist operations. What Scott contends so convincingly is that the deep forces of the American state that act without accountability, and are aligned with criminal and intelligence agencies here and elsewhere, are working in exactly the opposite directions from the proclaimed anti-drug and anti-terrorist priorities of the United States Government. In this fundamental respect, the war in Afghanistan, as was the case with other American wars, most spectacularly the Vietnam War, is intrinsically doomed to fail. On this basis, Scott goes so far as to assert that if the government were genuinely committed to security against terrorism or to the emergence of stability in Afghanistan, it would immediately decriminalize drugs and renounce military options in the conduct of its foreign policy toward countries of the South.
As Scott knows, much would have to happen for any of this to happen. In the meantime, Afghanistan is only the latest reminder that we as a country are trapped in a bloody maelstrom that is leading to decline from within and without. The American War Machine brilliantly explains why such a dysfunctional policy is not only endorsed in the face of repeated failure but becomes essentially irreversible through the normal give and take of politics. Only a sustained challenge by outraged citizens of the sort that finally managed to bring the Vietnam War to an end might have a chance of mounting a meaningful challenge.
Scott never claims that the global drug/CIA nexus is an all-purpose explanation of everything that has gone wrong for the United States in the world. He acknowledges that a variety of other forces are at work, including the lure of oil, alliance relations and rivalries, and the various impacts of neoliberal globalization as linked to militarism. What he does demonstrate is startling enough—that American overseas interventionism is significantly driven not by the goals of the war on drugs, but more accurately by its opposite, that is, by a lethal partnership between our government and an array of criminalized drug syndicates, warlords, and oppressive rulers. This extraordinary story, with a few rare fleeting glimpses, is being withheld from the American people by the media. With this realization in mind, Scott’s book mounts a vital Jeffersonian eye opening challenge to the citizenry of this country. It pleads with Americans to reclaim their responsibility for a governing process that is truthful and respectful of law at home and abroad. As Scott makes clear at the end of this devastating portrayal of how these deep forces work, this country is not yet a lost cause, that there remains much that is worth saving, and that despite the structural disabilities presidential leadership has managed some peace-oriented achievements as well as dirtying its hands through its disgraceful complicity with the dismayingly dark deep forces of government.
What will it take? Is it possible to overcome the stranglehold of these deep forces that are (mis)shaping America’s global role and behavior? Scott provides no program or answers, but seems to imply that only an aroused citizenry that launches a populist campaign has any hope at all of transforming the present ugly set of realities. In effect, Scott in this book gives us an opportunity to become aware of what it might mean to be responsible citizens in the twenty-first century. It is difficult for me to imagine how one can read this book with an open mind and yet continue to interpret world politics and American foreign policy though a conventional conservative or liberal optic. Above all, Scott is teaching us how to think politically, and by so doing, perhaps laying the foundations for a new politics of engagement that looks below the surface, raising new expectations of a governing process that does what it says, and lives within the constraints of law and morality.