America: A Beacon, Not a Policeman       America: a Beacon, not  an Empire

AMERICA IS NOT ROME----Why the United States Can't be the World's Policeman

Americans Against World Empire, Inc Homepage


Original Version published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama

WHY THE UNITED STATES CAN'T BE A WORLD                     POLICEMAN    (with updates)                       

+ (Addendum for our Foreign Readers "How to Understand and Influence American Foreign Policy"--Alvanians vs. Serbs as an example-- See below)

by Jon Basil Utley

Republican interventionists, led by the Neo-conservatives,  along with many would-be imperialists of the political left, have recently criticized "isolationists of the right" for opposing the American attempt to become a world empire.

What these critics don't understand is that America can never be what they want it to be. The United States is institutionally incapable of running an empire or even being an effective world policeman. Our military interventions will always be inconclusive, inconsistent and hypocritical.

In our constitutional government, foreign policy is not made by a few Úlites as it was in the British or Roman Empires. In England, the franchise was limited to property owners and a few percentage points of the population. Both Britain and Rome had a single, all-powerful legislature.

For America, the written Constitution, and even more so, the Bill of Rights (neither of which constrained the British nor Roman governments) are designed specifically for preserving freedom. This is done by dispersing political power, thus restraining the centralization necessary for foreign military ventures.

The U.S. system works for self-defense, but is woeful for any sustained, non-vital foreign military interventions. Our democracy is designed so that those who "care" control foreign policy. Because most Americans don't "care," those who do are usually promoting specific, sectarian, and short-term interests. Once upon a time it was corporations such as United Fruit or Standard Oil, or the New York banks, which dominated foreign policy. Today corporate interests come second to television focused atrocities and domestic pressure groups.

Media Wars

It is primarily television, often directed by skillful public relations, which selects the victims of the moment. American goodwill then creates a groundswell for intervention, which usually ends up causing more misery and chaos. Clinton's bombing of Serbia left an inconclusive, festering mess in the Balkans, as well as an economic disaster because of blockaded Danube River traffic. It frightened the Russians about NATO/U.S. intentions and stimulated other nations, including China to update their weaponry. The end was far more deaths and instability than if America had not intervened militarily in the first place.

   An earlier example of TV terror was the story of 20 babies being thrown out lof incubators in a Kuwait hospital by the Iraqi invaders.  It was a lie, but it helped get us to attack Iraq. Now there are a half million dead children as a consequence of our bombing agricultural, sanitation and electric generation facilities and following it with economic blockade which disallows imports for reconstruction or even chlorine to purify drinking water.  Generals aren't paid or trained to think about post-war consequences; they're only concern is to "win."

A smaller example is Haiti. First Washington decimated its peoples' livelihood with economic sanctions, and then invaded. Today Haitians are worse off than before the intervention and more dependent upon U.S. aid. Remember when Haiti was a prime supplier of baseball gloves and equipment before the embargo? It's fledgling industry never recovered from the embargo and now other countries' suppliers have replaced it. In Panama too America invaded and killed to pluck out a President and put him in a Florida jail, ostensibly because of drug smuggling, which now thrives there more even than before.

When television tires of a subject, America forgets about it, and walks away, either abandoning its mission (Haiti, Panama, Somalia) or locking up the losing nation in a blockade leaving its people in utmost misery (Iraq and Serbia). As former President Jimmy Carter put it:

The approach the United States has taken recently has been to devise a solution that best suits its own purposes--- recruit at least tacit support in which ever forum it can best influence, provide the dominant military force, present an ultimatum to recalcitrant parties and then take punitive action against the entire nation to force compliance. The often tragic result of this final decision is that already oppressed citizens suffer (even more)..."

Yet observes the New Republic, "this (American) Monster is more like an elephant --bumbling rather than bloodthirsty, oblivious rather than fierce." Witness, for example, America's bombing of Serbia's Danube River bridges (done against French opposition). This has caused billions of dollars of losses to the struggling Balkan and Black Sea nations, which use barges for bulk transport. Eastern Europe's major river transport is paralyzed, yet it's barely reported in America's press and Washington even tried to prevent rebuilding of the bridges.

Empire and the Rule of Law

A policeman can be effective in two ways. One, as a fair arbiter who inspires trust and respect and follows a consistent rule of law, as did Rome and England in their heyday. Secondly, as a feared oppressor of the neighborhood ruling by terror, force and blackmail. This second way is very, very expensive and inefficient. America can't be a "fair" policeman because of the way our foreign policies are made, so more and more of the world sees us as the "Rogue Superpower," as a Chicago Tribune article put it.

Washington's foreign policy reeks with hypocrisy. We destroyed Serbia for refusing to grant de facto independence to Kosovo and because of its suppression of Albanian insurrection (the mass expulsion of Albanians is now proven to have begun only after American bombing started). But we subsidize Turkey while it killed 37,000 Kurds, including bombing them in Iraq, and removing them from their homes just as the Serbs did to Albanians. America destroyed Iraq for invading Kuwait, a former province, and now demands that Iraq be defenseless against its neighbors whom America arms to the teeth. In Africa we've stood by while millions have been murdered.

Foreign nations can't trust Washington--because it's impossible for Washington to be trustworthy. We decry accused election irregularities in Latin America, but are silent about dictatorship in Saudi Arabia and other oil producing states. The list is endless. We pity the Chechens, but try to starve the Serbs by blockade.

Furthermore, Washington attacked Serbia in fundamental violation of international law. Articles 2(4) and (7) on the UN Charter prohibit interventions in the domestic jurisdiction of any country and the use of force by one state against the another. The Geneva Convention prohibits targeting non-military targets (e.g. a cigarette factory). The Nuremberg Code forbids starting a war and attacking a sovereign nation that was innocent of any aggression. The NATO Treaty, Articles 1 and 7, declare it a defensive organization only committed to force if one of its members is attacked.

International law, like most law, although it circumscribes the rich and powerful, is generally for their benefit by codifying rules for the protection of establishment power and property. It is President Clinton who has now undermined it for the foreseeable future, replacing efforts to establish a rule of law, imperfect as it may be, with brute force. "A backlash may be brewing, but it is brought on my America's tendency to treat international norms and treaties as though they should apply to everyone but itself," wrote Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment.

Already there are consequences. As Ivan Eland of CATO has written,

About 40 percent of terrorist attacks perpetrated worldwide have been directed at U.S. targets. It is unusual for a country with friendly neighbors and no civil war or insurrection to be such a prominent target for terrorists. We should first ask what motivates terrorists, state-sponsored and independent, to target the United States..... The U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, (headed by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman) answered the question somewhat more honestly than others in the foreign policy establishment: 'Much of the world will resent and oppose us, if not for the simple fact of our pre-eminence, then for the fact that others often perceive the United States as exercising its power with arrogance and self-absorption...States, terrorists, and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.'

Foreign Policy Driven by Domestic Politics

NATO expansion was proposed during the last Presidential election primarily to gain votes among Americans of Polish and other central European ancestry, particularly in key mid-Western states. The expansion violated tacit agreements with Russia for its withdrawal from Eastern Europe and did tremendous damage to the pro-democracy forces inside Russia. It was the "crowning humiliation" for Russia, said Charles Fairbanks of Johns Hopkins' Nitze School.

The Armenian American lobby brought about a law which makes it illegal to send even relief supplies to Azerbaijan which is the key nation for Caspian oil; our Cuba policy is controlled by Cuban Americans in Miami; we invaded Haiti to satisfy the Black Caucus in Congress; Albanian and Croatian descended Americans paid for major public relations efforts to demonize Serbs (less adept and organized to present their positions) and so on. The current furor to defend Taiwan doesn't come from nowhere. The Taiwan government "funds at least 10 lobbying operations in Washington...the most public of these is $4.5 million for Cassidy and Associates which recently lobbied Congress for passage of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act." (The Washington Post, March 23, 2000)

The Washington Times (February 25) reports how Indian immigrants, grown wealthy from the computer business, have helped tilt Washington away from its traditional favoring of Pakistan. Only the Latin Americans (other than Cubans) are not yet organized into foreign interests' lobbies, but already some Mexican American leaders are calling on their brethren to emulate other ethnic lobbies. This problem of foreign policy was well described in US News, "Multicultural Foreign Policy in Washington---The ship of state is more likely to be tugged by US ethnic groups than by foreign money." And now there is television, as Henry Kissinger wrote, "Vigorous and competitive media have compounded the tendency for foreign policy to become a subdivision of domestic politics." The American political system simply has little defense against single interest foreign policy lobbies pressing for "their" agenda in Congress against an amorphous "general will."

The pressures were well explained in the recent furor about returning the Cuban boy, Elian. "You know that if you kick the Cuba issue, you're going to have a bad day," said former representative David Skaggs (D-Colo.), who clashed with the hard line on Havana, and paid for it with lost funding for his district. "Other than to about 10 members, it doesn't matter that much. [But] when there are a few people who will die for the issue, and nobody else gets anywhere close to that, they can have their way."

It's also cheap to influence foreign policy, only a few million dollars a year will work wonders, again because it's just not very important.

Even America's Allies Fear Washington

Even nations that try to do everything Washington demands can find it casually trampling their interests with barely a thought., an excellent intelligence service, writes:


"The sheer size of American interests creates a management problem in which avoiding devastating outcomes for other nations is impossible - even if this was the American goal, which it is frequently not. Policy makers at the center can't possibly oversee the range of issues being dealt with. The opportunity for interests inside and outside the United States to manipulate the decision-making process at the microscopic level is enormous. While the central thrust of policy is manageable, the micro level is easily manipulated. The result is a seemingly random set of policies that make it impossible for many countries to find a stable, safe standpoint in their relations with the United States.

"With isolated resistance and accommodation being difficult for many to exercise, the natural result is coalition-building, designed to constrain the United States. This is not a simple process and doesn't operate in a straight line. As the optimal outcome, most nations want a shift in U.S. policy. It is difficult to even get American attention on most policy issues relevant to weaker nations, let alone to generate sufficient threats to motivate the United States to shift its policies. The virtue of anti-American coalition-building is not that it builds a coalition, but that it increases the probability of attracting American attention and generating sufficient threats to force favorable policy shifts in Washington.

"Thus, most countries move into anti-U.S. coalitions less out of a desire to confront the United States than out of a desire to reach accommodation with it. For example, the Russians and Chinese both engaged in anti-American coalition building with each other less out of a desire to confront the United States than out of a desire to extract concessions. To some extent this process works. But the range of demands placed on the United States makes universal, or even frequent, accommodation impossible."

The recent growing rapprochement between Russia and Germany can similarly be explained as a consequence of America's roughshod policies in the Balkans and Iraq. Equally in South America the above happened just weeks ago when Washington tried to get the Organization of American States to put on economic sanctions against Peru. That nation had been doing almost everything Washington wanted, particularly cooperating in the "drug war." But domestic politics pushed for demanding Peru's release of a captured American terrorist and questions about a local TV station's ownership. The other Latin nations all voted against Washington except for Costa Rica.

America Can't be Trusted

Graveyards are littered all over the world with partisans who believed America's call and then were left abandoned. Most recently this happened in Kurdish and Shiite Iraq. After Iraq's defeat in 1991, Washington called upon the people of Iraq to overthrow Saddam, but then abandoned them, mainly the Kurds and Shiites in the South, to be crushed by Saddam's Guard. But it began long ago with the Hungarians' uprising in 1956, called for by America and then abandoned to slaughter. The Cubans at the Bay of Pigs were originally promised air support, which was than withdrawn when they were already at sea going in to attack. In Viet Nam there were abandoned South Vietnamese, and so on.  Typically, a main Israeli argument for having its massive military establishment is that it dare not rely on Washington.

America Can't Mount Insurrections

Mounting or supporting insurrections has been equally bumbling. Efforts to mount one against Saddam in Kurdistan by the CIA were detailed in Newsweek. It describes the conflicting laws in Washington forbidding assassinations of foreign leaders, millions of dollars disappearing into unknown pockets, the abandonment of pro-U.S. guerrillas and their families, the calling off of attacks at the last minute, and then the FBI investigating the CIA's personnel. This makes Washington's efforts at undercover and guerrilla warfare look incompetent and dangerous to foreign allies. America has tremendous strengths, but mounting secret operations in foreign nations isn't one of them.

America Can't Keep Secrets

Then there's the problem of military secrets flowing to foreign nations. We've never been able to avoid it for long. America's strength is its openness and its recruitment of the best brains from the whole world. All our great scientific advances leaned heavily on immigrants (the atom bomb itself came from German Jewish scientists and today most Ph.D. candidates in the hard sciences are immigrants). Yet all these, now mainly Chinese and Indians, naturally also have some old allegiances and ideologies as well to the nations from which they came.    Then there is the openness of American society, where habits of secrecy are very difficult to maintain.  At the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) one communist spy, Ames, was able to obtain the names of all the secret agents in Russia in the 1980's.  These were then all killed.  Even just an occasional moviegoer knows that spying involves never letting one person know more than a few names. 

    A major consequence is that potential spies and foreign spy agencies don't trust the CIA.  Even besides its many immigrants' dual loyalties, Americans can't keep secrets, much less so now with the Internet. That's another reason why our safest foreign policy is in not making so many enemies.  As an aside today, commercial aircraft fly over the CIA on the approach to Washington.  It looks to have nearly as many parked cars as the nearby Pentagon. 

America Can't Take Casualties

Elliot Abrams, President of the ETHICS AND PUBLIC POLICY CENTER, puts it well: "...a superpower willing to bomb but not to fight, willing to inflict a tremendous amount of pain on others to avoid the slightest risks to itself, under a leadership more sensitive to poll data than to the moral considerations involved in deciding which wars are just---that is a picture that should repel us."  The recent landing of a surveillance plane in China was because the pilot's first orders were not to risk the lives of his crew.  The lives of the crew was more important than the consequences of delivering to China some of America's top electronic secret warfare technology.  And then the crew were given medals.   Communists used to kill soldiers who had surrendered.   In Afghanistan today and still in Kosovo, American troops mostly stay in armed compounds, rarely daring to go out in the field without massive numbers and waiting airpower flying above.  Other nations troops (Afghans and Australians in Afghanistan, for example) are enlisted (or paid) to do the high risk missions.     

    A major difference with Rome and England which had ready sources of soldiers able to take casualties.   Rome's wars brought in slaves and cheap labor which displaced the peasantry.   These then, without other work, became the bulwark of the Roman Army.  In England it was the Enclosure Laws, allowing fencing, which drove peasants off the land and into the Army and Navy.  Contrariwise, the primary concern of American soldiers garrisoned in trouble spots is to avoid any confrontation which might result in even a single casualty.   America might resolve this by hiring foreign mercenaries, but most Americans oppose such a blatant move towards empire.

America Can't Plan Ahead

There's always been the absence of post-war planning. America, when it goes to war, thinks only of "winning," never about what to do afterwards. The classic answer was by former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney during the First Iraq war when he answered at a press conference, "Well, we haven't thought much about what to do afterwards." With World War II our post war "policy" objective was mainly to deliver East Europe and Manchuria (China's industrial heartland) to Soviet communist occupation. With World War I, we helped destroy Europe and then walked away. Usually, as in Korea and Vietnam, policy was simply to return to the status quo. With Iraq, Americans weren't asked if they wanted policies leading to the starvation of half a million children.  Rather, they just forgot about it.

America's Legal System is Hostile to Empire

Another great weakness, since Clinton, is a "newly hostile legal system," according to a recent article in Foreign Affairs ("The Bullied Pulpit," Jan, 2000.) The Supreme Court in 1997 in the Paula Jones case cleared the way for private suits against sitting Presidents. We are just beginning to find out what this can mean. American hypocrisy "on the world stage," argues Foreign Affairs, "Has everything to do with the weak executive." Also the recent American supported arrests of foreign leaders, such as Pinochet in England, set the precedent for foreign nations to arrest American leaders and soldiers for "war crimes" as determined in their courts. The can of worms has only just been opened on this front and already there are howls from Congress that Americans must be treated differently. Now there's a new threat.  Courts have ordered tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in awards against foreign governments which didn't even defend themselves (arguing that the courts have no legal jurisdiction).  This complicates any negotiations with Iran and other states for future trade and diplomatic relations.  Turkey was now terrified (and threatened to cut off American use of its air bases to bomb Iraq), because of a nearly passed Congressional resolution about its Armenian Massacre after World War I, because it would open up Turkish assets to Holocaust type lawsuits for billions of dollars in reparations.  And so on.  Hardly a way to run an empire.

Losing Our Freedoms

Finally, world empire means tremendous stresses within America and vast new government intrusions upon our privacy and freedom. As foreign terrorists and homegrown ones tried to retaliate against our military actions overseas, Washington would clamp down draconian police measures upon all the rest of us. Every computer, every telephone, every mailbox would be subject to government surveillance and reporting. Even without a major terrorist event the Clinton Crime Bill of 1994, supported by Washington's establishment Republicans, proposed gutting the 4th Amendment to allow warrantless searches and seizures in anybody's home by federal or even state police. The proposed law was (barely) stopped by the "Freshmen" Republicans and "old" Liberals. But efforts continue. Congress has now granted the FBI new and extraordinary wiretapping laws.

In February 1999, Defense Secretary William Cohen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Americans might have to surrender some civil rights in order to gain more security in the fight against domestic terrorism. "We need greater intelligence and that means not only foreign-gathered intelligence but here at home," Cohen said. "That is going to put us on a collision course with rights of privacy. It's something that democracies have got to come to grips with -- how much are we going to demand of our intelligence agencies and how much are we willing to give up in the way of intrusion into our lives? That is a tradeoff that is going to have to come."  Leaders of both Parties in Washington push for more and more police powers and curtailment of Americans' freedoms as a cost of America's world empire.

Already lawmakers are considering legislation that would enhance the use of military forces in domestic law enforcement capacities. The FY 2000 Defense Authorization Bill, passed by the House, includes provisions that would provide local law enforcement agencies increased access to military assets without necessarily having to compensate the Pentagon for their use. Another law currently proposed by Senator Hatch's Senate Judiciary Committee would allow federal police into anybody's home to search their computers and papers without a warrant or even notice after the fact. It's been discovered and opposed by Representative Barr of Georgia and activist Paul Weyrich.

And, of course, there are the costs, hundreds of billions for military and police forces. Just the Persian Gulf fleet and Air Force cost $50 billion a year.

In conclusion, the greatest cost of world empire to America would be the loss of our own freedoms even without terrorist actions. As economist Ludwig Von Mises argued, "Liberty and empire are incompatible. A government powerful enough to wage aggressive war on foreign peoples will also aggress against its own people."

To preserve our own freedoms and best serve the rest of the world, our foreign policy should be non-interventionist, non-threatening, and non-militaristic. The whole world yearns to copy our prosperity and freedom; young people everywhere yearn to be like Americans (except when we bomb or starve them).    Reaganomics' free market ideas conquered the world. With economic strength and a politics of fairness and non-intervention we can prosper and keep our freedom. We don't need an empire and empire won't bring us security. America is simply incapable of any other consistent foreign policy.  America should be a beacon, because it effectively can't be a policeman.

* * * * *

Mr. Utley is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, studied languages in Europe, and lived 15 years in South America. He was a foreign correspondent in South America for Knight/Ridder newspapers.  He has served on the Board of Directors or Advisory Boards of many conservative organizations including Accuracy in Media, Council for Inter-American Security, Conservative Caucus, etc. 

See also MISES.ORG ON EMPIRE and the best book on this subject, The Costs of War.


Addendum for our many Foreign Readers--How to Understand American Foreign Policy

Points to Remember About American Government

1)    We are a Republic.  Government is divided between President, Congress and Courts.  The system was designed to preserve liberty, not to run an empire.  Never underestimate the power of Congress.  I remember long ago, as a foreign correspondent in South America, how nationals would say, "But Kissinger (the Secretary of State) promised us......"  I'd always try to explain that he didn't have authority to promise, that Congress had to approve and pay for everything.  We also do not have a Prime Minister or Parliamentary system, so that often the President and Congress can disagree and fight each other (unlike England).

2)    The President has very limited powers inside the country, but internationally he is free to make war at any time upon any nation.  This is a tremendous temptation for any President who has politicl troubles at home.  Later on Congress must approve payment and it nearly always does.

3)    Americans are all very busy , I repeat middle class Americans are busy, busy, time is their most valuable product.  Polictically they are preoccupied with domestic, national problems.  They don't care about foreign policy, unless American soldiers are dying somewhere.

4)     Foreign policy is made by (1) domestic, usually ethnic, pressure groups, (2) by TV images and TV's "talking heads" and (3) by business interests (if they don't conflict with the first two).  It is articulated by THINK TANKS.  A good example is that about the furor over the Cuban boy, Elian, and the Miami Cubans efforts to keep him in America.  The WASHINGTON POST, 2/22/00, reported,

"You know that if you kick the Cuba issue, you're going to have a bad day," said former representative David Skaggs (D-Colo.), who clashed with the hard line on Havana, and paid for it with lost funding for his district. "Other than to about 10 members, it doesn't matter that much. [But] when there are a few people who will die for the issue, and nobody else gets anywhere close to that, they can have their way."

     A more detailed example is provided by a WASHINGTON POST report on the Armenian lobby and relations with Turkey.

5)    Corruption in Washington has grown greatly during the last 10 years.  It's also not very expensive in view of the potential gains, witness the recent ENRON case where it got favorable laws and regulations passed for only a two million dollars a year of "donations."   TV advertising costs for any Congressman to get re-elected are so high that nearly all of them constantly need large amounts of  money.  In that sense we are already becoming more like Rome, which became very corrupted as its empie grew.  Bribing Congressmen is done today by giving to their campaign re-election funds (unlike in 3rd world where many are just paid directly in cash).  FBI and CIA functionaries are not usually corrupt, because they are often dedicated and well paid.  However, in the drug enforcement arena, there is obviously much corruption, judging from the large scale of imports.  See Also about Taiwan's efforts to influence foreign policy.

6)  THINK TANKS have replaced the foreign policy establishment in promoting foreign policy agendas.   The North Eastern elites who used to run it no longer do.   It's Washington Think Tanks which make today's foreign policy. They have the personnel and money to print up their papers, distribute them to Congressmen and Journalists, and get on the TV talk shows to promote them.  The studies of an Ambassador or multi-national executive with a lifetime of overseas experience are often just relgated to filing cabinets.

Think tanks are susceptible to where their donations come from.  They are run by bright Washington "policy wonks" most of whom barely speak a single foreign language and have little international education beyond possibly some time in England.  (take a look at their biographies--American Enterprise Institute, the hot bed of neo-conservatism is typical)

7)    Americans are good natured and willing to listen to and support the underdog, provided the position is presented by someone who understands American culture and relates to Americans in ways they understand.  This means someone either born here or with American education.   Any nation without good public relations in America, or at least a sold, organized ethnic lobby, is much more likely to get bombed, or become subject to trade sanctions.

8)    Many years ago as a foreign correspondent in Peru I got to know the Algerian Ambassador..   I said to him, "For the price of one MIG (they were buying scores from Russia) you guys could buy some public relations in America to explain your case in the media."  "What, "he replied, "send money to America after we were exploited by the imperialists for so many years? Never, Never."  That explains much 3rd world psychology. Power there comes from family and contacts and "the barrel of a gun," as Mao Tse-Tung used to say.   Public opinion doesn't much matter.  More recently we saw the Serbs incapable of presenting their side while American educated Albanians successfully "sold" their case.

    With the Balkan war the old style, polite and heavy  Yugoslav Ambassador came across on TV as just a government bureaucrat ("apparatchik"),  while the KLA guerrillas used Albanian Americans and well paid expert promoters, who understood how to pitch ideas to Americans. It should be noted that American Serbs never had a public relations (PR) operation in Washington compared to Albanians and Croats who did.  The consequences of a bad press have had dire consequences for Serbia.  Foreign nations under threat of American attack should choose their Ambassadors primarily on the basis above or otherwise keep the Ambassadors away from the Media and give a high title to their "Media Person."   The main function of an Ambassador. is to deal with the outside world and that today means media.  Anyone else can cost their nation's destruction.  Good relations with other nations diplomats is irrelevant today.  Equally, good PR can get all sorts of benefits and money too. The Kuwaitis, for example, were excellent at it which helped them get America to go to war for them.  See page Iraq War I.


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