The Council is a private organization with a chairman (for years David Rockefeller, who remains the honorary chairman) and board members (typically billionaires or near billionaires) and approximately 5,000 members, who are selected by the board. The raison d’être of the organization is to bring together intellectuals, prominent business people, leading members of the media, state officials, and top military leaders, into an exclusive club which formulates foreign policy recommendations and promotes them to the public and government. The Council’s interlocks with the US state are extensive. Beginning with the Carter Administration and moving forward to the Obama Administration, Shoup found that 80 percent of the key cabinet positions, which he defined as State, Defense, Treasury, National Security Adviser, and US Ambassador to the UN, were filled by Council members. Presidents (George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton) and vice-presidents (George H.W. Bush and Richard Cheney) were members at the time they were elected to these posts. One president, Carter, became a member after leaving the presidency.
The table below shows how many current Council members have filled key positions in the US state. They were usually members of the Council beforethey were appointed to these posts:
Secretary of Treasury, 10
National Security Adviser, 10
US Ambassador to the United Nations, 9
Secretary of State, 8
Secretary of Defense, 8
CIA Director, 8
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, 4
Head of the Federal Reserve, 4
World Bank President, 3
Director of National Intelligence, 2
Director of the National Security Agency, 1
Seventeen key current and former members of Obama’s administration are members of the billionaire-directed private club: James Jones Jr. (national security adviser); Thomas Donilon (national security adviser); Susan Rice (national security adviser, US ambassador to the UN); Timothy Geithner (treasury); Jack Lew (treasury); Robert Gates (defense); Chuck Hagel (defense); Ashton Carter (defense); David Petraeus (CIA); Robert Zoellick (World Bank); Janet Napolitano (homeland security); John Bryson (commerce); Penny Pritzker (commerce); Ernest Moniz (energy); Sylvia Burwell (health and human services); Mary Jo White (securities and exchange); and Michael Froman (US trade representative.) John Kerry, while not a Council member, is married to near billionaire Teresa Heinz Kerry, who is.
On top of placing its members in key state positions, the Council also directly influences policy by dominating external advisory boards established to advise the secretaries of state and defense and the director of the CIA. The Foreign Affairs Policy Board acts “to provide the Secretary of State, the Deputy Secretaries of State, and the Director of Policy Planning with independent, informed advice and opinion concerning matters of U.S. foreign policy.” It consists of 20 advisers, 18 of whom belong to the Council as members. The Defense Policy Board provides “the Secretary of Defense, Deputy Secretary of Defense and the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy with independent, informed advice and opinion concerning major matters of defense policy.” Fourteen of its 22 members belong to the Council. On September 10, 2009 then CIA Director Leon Panetta announced the establishment of an external advisory board of “distinguished men and women” who would visit CIA headquarters “periodically and offer their views on managing [the CIA] and its relationships with key customers, partners, and the public.” Ten of the 14 advisers Panetta named to the board—the majority—were Council on Foreign Relations members.
The Council is interlocked with other influential foreign policy-related organizations, including the Trilateral Commission (an international version of the Council, reaching beyond the United States to include counterparts in Canada, Western Europe, and Japan), Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group.
Human Right Watch’s co-chair Joel Motley; vice-chair John Studzinski (global head of the investment firm Blackstone); board member Michael Gellert; executive director Kenneth Roth; and deputy executive director Carol Bogert, are all members of The Council on Foreign Relations. A major source of funding comes from Council member George Soros’ Open Society Institute.
The International Crisis Group has extensive overlaps with the Council. ICG Chairman Emeritus, George J. Mitchell, is a Council member, as are the following trustees: Mort Abramowitz; Samuel Berger; Wesley Clark; Thomas R. Pickering; Olympia Snowe; George Soros; and Lawrence Summers. Council members who serve as senior ICG advisers include Zbigniew Brzezinski; Stanley Fischer; Carla Hills; Swanee Hunt; James V. Kimsey and Jessica T. Mathews. Soros and Rockefeller are major sources of funding.
The Council membership includes an assortment of billionaires and prominent business people, including Peter Ackerman (supporter of non-violent overthrow movements and head of the CIA-interlocked Freedom House); Bruce Kovner; Henry R. Kravis; Penny Pritzker; David M. Rubenstein; Frederick W. Smith; George Soros; Leonard A. Lauder; Mortimer B. Zuckerman; Eric E. Schmidt; Stephen Schwarzman; John Paulson; Lloyd Blankfein; Edgar Bronfman Jr.; Jamie Dimon; Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.; and a number of Rockefellers, a Roosevelt, and members of other wealthy families. It also includes a media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, and prominent journalists: Tom Brokaw; Leslie H. Gelb; Robert W. Kagan; Charles Krauthammer; Nicholas D. Kristof; Lewis H. Lapham; Judith Miller; Peggy Noonan; Walter Pincus; John Podhoretz; Dan Rather; David E. Sanger; Diane Sawyer; George Stephanopoulos; and Barbara Walters. Not only does the Council place its members in key positions in the state and in influential civil society organizations, it also co-opts leading media figures to promote the Council’s views to the public.
Antipathy to Public Ownership
Significantly, every country in which the United States has intervened militarily either directly or through proxies, or threatened militarily, since WWII has had a largely publicly owned economy in which the state has played a decisive role, or has had a democratized economy where productive assets have been redistributed from private (usually foreign) investors to workers and farmers, and in which room for US banks, US corporations and US investors to exploit the countries’ land, labor, markets and resources has been limited, if not altogether prohibited. These include the Soviet Union and its allied socialist countries; China; North Korea; Nicaragua; Yugoslavia; Iraq; Libya; Iran; and now Syria. We might expect that a foreign policy dominated by a wealthy investor class would have this character. It would react to the restrictions of communists, socialists and economic nationalists on US profit-making as obstacles to overcome, even at great cost to the lives of others. For example, asked in 1996 about a UN estimate that US-led sanctions had killed 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five, then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright (a Council member) told 60 Minutes that “It’s a hard choice, but I think, we think, it’s worth it.”  Italian philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo has pointed out that the Clinton administration’s murder through sanctions-related hunger and disease of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis is a crime far in excess of any of which Soviet leader Joseph Stalin can been accused, since the deaths attributed to Stalin were the consequences of decisions he took as defensive responses to a permanent state of emergency the USSR faced during his years in power, including the aggressions of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and the Cold War, aggressions which threatened the very existence of the Soviet Union. By contrast, the United States faced no security threat from Iraq. Even so, then US president Bill Clinton chose to sacrifice the lives of numberless Iraqis in pursuit of the foreign policy goal of establishing US hegemony in the Middle East to facilitate the accumulation of capital by his country’s economic elite.  If Stalin is portrayed as a monster, then by what greater category of monster must we describe Clinton, or for that matter, George W. Bush, leader of the trumped-up 2003 war on Iraq? It is one thing to take decisions which lead to innumerable deaths in response to significant threats against one’s country, and quite another to kill numberless people in the absence of a threat in pursuit of foreign policy goals related to the profit-making interests of bankers, investors and oil companies.
US Foreign Policy Goals in Syria
We need not tarry too long on the idea that the intervention of the United States and its allies in the struggle in Syria is motivated in any way by considerations of human rights and democracy, since (a) the United States counts as its principal allies in the Middle East, despotic regimes whose disdain for human rights as elemental as the right of women to drive automobiles (in the case of Saudi Arabia) knows no parallel, and yet Washington is perfectly comfortable to dote on these anti-democratic monarchies, emirates and dictatorships, selling them arms, establishing military bases on their territory and protecting them against condemnation in international forums and from the opposition of democratic forces at home; and (b) these same tyrannies are the major supporters, along with the United States, of barbaric, sectarian Sunni jihadists who have butchered their way across Syria for the last four years. When their attacks are directed at Syrians, the brutality of these sectarian fanatics is mechanically noted then passed over quickly by the Western news media, in contrast to the copious coverage afforded to equivalent butchery aimed at Western targets. Hence, the ISIS attack in November of 2015 in Paris was given wide-ranging coverage and elevated to an event of earth-shattering proportions, while similar attacks carried out almost daily in Syria and Iraq, and in Syria by “rebels”, including the non-ISIS Sunni Islamists dubbed “moderates” by the US government, are largely ignored. For example, in August 2013, ISIS, the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist fanatics slaughtered more than 200 Alawite villagers, and at the same time kidnapped more than 100 women and children.  There was no Western media-orchestrated outpouring of grief for these victims of Sunni Islamist terrorism.
There is a confluence of factors that seem to have conduced to making the Syrian government a target for US-sponsored regime change through militant Sunni Islamist proxies, but two appear to be primary.
The first is the status of the Syrian government as the last bastion of Arab nationalism. Arab nationalism threatens the ability of the US corporate class to draw a Himalaya of profits from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, the traditional range of the Arab nation. Instead of a free flow of profits to the United States, facilitated by Arab kings and emirs who have no legitimacy with their own people and rely on Washington’s support to continue their despotic rule, the proceeds of the sale of the region’s petroleum resources would be used for the region’s own internal development, if Arab nationalist aspirations were brought to fruition. The carriers of the Arab nationalist contagion must, from the point of view of US foreign policy planners, be eradicated.
The second is the existence in Syria of a major role for the state in the ownership and control of the economy. The idea of state control of industry and enterprise is an anathema to the US foreign policy establishment, as well we would expect it to be, given the enormous influence of bankers, investors and major corporations in Washington, in no small measure exercised through The Council on Foreign Relations. US capital is looking for places to export to and invest in. It is no accident that one of the first tasks undertaken by the dictator Washington initially installed in Iraq in 2003, L. Paul Bremer (not surprisingly, a member of the Council), was to remove most restrictions which the toppled Arab nationalist government in Baghdad had imposed on US investors and exporters. Tariffs and duties were abolished; scores of Iraqi enterprises were put on the auction block; much of the economy was opened to foreign investment; foreign investors were allowed to repatriate 100 percent of their profits; and a 15 percent flat tax was established. 
Likewise, much of the growing US hostility to China, signaled in the Obama’s administration’s military pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, and the Council’s call for Washington to “balance the rise of China” (which is to say eclipse its economic growth), is based on opposition to the significant role the Chinese Communist Party plays in China’s economy. Saying that Washington is opposed to state economic control is another way of saying that the US foreign policy establishment bristles at restrictions which prevent US investors and businesses from fully realizing the profit potential of Chinese land, labor, resources, and markets. US investors, US business people and US bankers want China as a wonderful source of profits, an aspiration that fails to comport fully with China’s own development strategy.
Similarly Damascus’s significant management of Syria’s economy at the expense of US investors and US corporations has very likely been a major consideration (among others) behind the decision taken by the big business-dominated US foreign policy establishment to attempt to engineer the ouster of Assad’s Arab nationalist government.
It is said that countries have interests, not friends, but is there any democratic or geographically legitimate sense in which they have economic interests on someone else’s territory? Only imperialists have economic interests beyond their own borders, enforced through threat and coercion, and that US state officials regularly invoke the phrase “our vital interests” in other countries in order to justify interventions is a measure of how unabashedly imperialist US foreign policy is. The vital interests the United States claims to have in the Middle East, Asia and Europe are no more valid than the vital interests Nazi Germany claimed to have in Europe, fascist Italy claimed to have in Africa, Imperial Japan claimed to have in East Asia, and Britain claimed to have in Asia and Africa.
An analysis of who exercises sway over public policy making in Washington leads to an inescapable conclusion: US foreign policy has a class content. It is that of bankers, investors and major shareholders of the United States’ key corporations who, through instrumental and functional mechanisms, dominate US public affairs. This class has an interest in unimpeded access to the land, labor, resources and markets of the entire world (and beyond ) for purposes of making itself ever wealthier. For this reason, US foreign policy is, and has always been, hostile to the threat posed by the economic self-determination of foreign populations which aspire to control their own wealth-producing assets for their own purposes. This is no less true in connection with Syria, whose government represents the last bastion of an Arab nationalism which is against US corporate control of the Arab heartland, and which plays a significant role in the country’s economic affairs at the expense of private US investors. By contrast with the imperialist character of US foreign policy, the thinking of the Syrian president is democratic and geographically valid: “Syria,” he has said, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.”  US foreign policy seeks to turn this on its head. In the view of US foreign policy planners, Syria ought to be a US client state which colludes in making the Syrian people work for the economic interests of a parasitic elite of billionaires, wealthy investors, and major shareholders who sit atop US society and aspire to sit atop the entire world.
1. Amy Harder and Colleen McCain Nelson, “Obama administration rejects Keystone XL pipeline, citing climate concerns,” The Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2015.
2. Juan Forero, “Center of gravity in oil world shifts to America,” The Washington Post, May 25, 2012.
3. Juliet Eilperin, “Canadian government overhauling environmental rules to aid oil extraction,” The Washington Post, June 3, 2012.
4. Benoit Faucon and Keith Johnson, “U.S. redraws world oil map,” The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2012.
5. Clifford Kraus and Eric Lipton, “U.S. inches toward goal of energy independence,” The New York Times, March 22, 2012.
6. Daniel Yergin, “Who will rule the oil market?” The New York Times, January 23, 2015.
7. Albert Szymanski, The Logic of Imperialism, Praeger, 1983, p. 167.
8. Szymanksi (1983), p. 166.
9. Bernard Lewis, “Rethinking the Middle East, Foreign Affairs,” September 1, 1992.
10. Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014, Monthly Review Press, 2015, p. 215.
11. Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, Holt, 2005, p. 99.
12. Szymanksi (1983), p. 165.
14. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Internet Groups, and Average Citizens”, Perspectives in Politics, Fall, 2014.
15. Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen and Karen Yourish, “The families funding the 2016 presidential election,” The New York Times, October 10, 2015.
17. Transcript of audio file containing lecture by Albert Szymanski. The audio file is no longer available on the internet.
18. 60 Minutes, May 12, 1996.
19. Domenico Losurdo, “Flight from history? The communist movement between self-criticism and self-contempt,” Nature, Society and Thought, 2000, 1393): 457-514.
20. Sam Dagher and Raja Abdulrahim, “Russian fighter jet downed in region with diverse mix of rebel groups,” The Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2015.
21. Shoup, p. 220.
The bill, which can be found on the US Congress website, reads: Sec. 202) This bill directs the President, acting through appropriate federal agencies, to: ….promote the right of U.S. commercial entities to explore outer space and utilize space resources, in accordance with such obligations, free from harmful interference, and to transfer or sell such resources.