In brief, the Global War on Terror sledgehammer strategy has spread jihadi terror from a tiny corner of Afghanistan to much of the world, from Africa through the Levant and South Asia to Southeast Asia. It has also incited attacks in Europe and the United States. The invasion of Iraq made a substantial contribution to this process, much as intelligence agencies had predicted. Terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank estimate that the Iraq War “generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost; even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third.” Other exercises have been similarly productive.
A group of major human rights organizations — Physicians for Social Responsibility (U.S.), Physicians for Global Survival (Canada), and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Germany) — conducted a study that sought “to provide as realistic an estimate as possible of the total body count in the three main war zones [Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan] during 12 years of ‘war on terrorism,'” including an extensive review “of the major studies and data published on the numbers of victims in these countries,” along with additional information on military actions. Their “conservative estimate” is that these wars killed about 1.3 million people, a toll that “could also be in excess of 2 million.” A database search by independent researcher David Peterson in the days following the publication of the report found virtually no mention of it. Who cares?
More generally, studies carried out by the Oslo Peace Research Institute show that two-thirds of the region’s conflict fatalities were produced in originally internal disputes where outsiders imposed their solutions. In such conflicts, 98% of fatalities were produced only after outsiders had entered the domestic dispute with their military might. In Syria, the number of direct conflict fatalities more than tripled after the West initiated air strikes against the self-declared Islamic State and the CIA started its indirect military interference in the war — interference which appears to have drawn the Russians in as advanced US antitank missiles were decimating the forces of their ally Bashar al-Assad. Early indications are that Russian bombing is having the usual consequences.
The evidence reviewed by political scientist Timo Kivimäki indicates that the “protection wars [fought by ‘coalitions of the willing’] have become the main source of violence in the world, occasionally contributing over 50% of total conflict fatalities.” Furthermore, in many of these cases, including Syria, as he reviews, there were opportunities for diplomatic settlement that were ignored. That has also been true in other horrific situations, including the Balkans in the early 1990s, the first Gulf War, and of course the Indochina wars, the worst crime since World War II. In the case of Iraq the question does not even arise. There surely are some lessons here.
The general consequences of resorting to the sledgehammer against vulnerable societies comes as little surprise. William Polk’s careful study of insurgencies, Violent Politics, should be essential reading for those who want to understand today’s conflicts, and surely for planners, assuming that they care about human consequences and not merely power and domination. Polk reveals a pattern that has been replicated over and over. The invaders — perhaps professing the most benign motives — are naturally disliked by the population, who disobey them, at first in small ways, eliciting a forceful response, which increases opposition and support for resistance. The cycle of violence escalates until the invaders withdraw — or gain their ends by something that may approach genocide.
Playing by the Al-Qaeda Game Plan
Obama’s global drone assassination campaign, a remarkable innovation in global terrorism, exhibits the same patterns. By most accounts, it is generating terrorists more rapidly than it is murdering those suspected of someday intending to harm us — an impressive contribution by a constitutional lawyer on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which established the basis for the principle of presumption of innocence that is the foundation of civilized law.
Another characteristic feature of such interventions is the belief that the insurgency will be overcome by eliminating its leaders. But when such an effort succeeds, the reviled leader is regularly replaced by someone younger, more determined, more brutal, and more effective. Polk gives many examples. Military historian Andrew Cockburn has reviewed American campaigns to kill drug and then terror “kingpins” over a long period in his important study Kill Chain and found the same results. And one can expect with fair confidence that the pattern will continue.
No doubt right now U.S. strategists are seeking ways to murder the “Caliph of the Islamic State” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is a bitter rival of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The likely result of this achievement is forecast by the prominent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman, senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. He predicts that “al-Baghdadi’s death would likely pave the way for a rapprochement [with al-Qaeda] producing a combined terrorist force unprecedented in scope, size, ambition and resources.”
Polk cites a treatise on warfare by Henry Jomini, influenced by Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Spanish guerrillas, that became a textbook for generations of cadets at the West Point military academy. Jomini observed that such interventions by major powers typically result in “wars of opinion,” and nearly always “national wars,” if not at first then becoming so in the course of the struggle, by the dynamics that Polk describes. Jomini concludes that “commanders of regular armies are ill-advised to engage in such wars because they will lose them,” and even apparent successes will prove short-lived.
Careful studies of al-Qaeda and ISIS have shown that the United States and its allies are following their game plan with some precision. Their goal is to “draw the West as deeply and actively as possible into the quagmire” and “to perpetually engage and enervate the United States and the West in a series of prolonged overseas ventures” in which they will undermine their own societies, expend their resources, and increase the level of violence, setting off the dynamic that Polk reviews.
Scott Atran, one of the most insightful researchers on jihadi movements, calculates that “the 9/11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute, whereas the military and security response by the U.S. and its allies is in the order of 10 million times that figure. On a strictly cost-benefit basis, this violent movement has been wildly successful, beyond even Bin Laden’s original imagination, and is increasingly so. Herein lies the full measure of jujitsu-style asymmetric warfare. After all, who could claim that we are better off than before, or that the overall danger is declining?”
And if we continue to wield the sledgehammer, tacitly following the jihadi script, the likely effect is even more violent jihadism with broader appeal. The record, Atran advises, “should inspire a radical change in our counter-strategies.”
Al-Qaeda/ISIS are assisted by Americans who follow their directives: for example, Ted “carpet-bomb ’em” Cruz, a top Republican presidential candidate. Or, at the other end of the mainstream spectrum, the leading Middle East and international affairs columnist of the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, who in 2003 offered Washington advice on how to fight in Iraq on the Charlie Rose show: “There was what I would call the terrorism bubble… And what we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically, and, uh, take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. And there was only one way to do it… What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go? Well, suck on this. Ok. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.”
That’ll show the ragheads.
Atran and other close observers generally agree on the prescriptions. We should begin by recognizing what careful research has convincingly shown: those drawn to jihad “are longing for something in their history, in their traditions, with their heroes and their morals; and the Islamic State, however brutal and repugnant to us and even to most in the Arab-Muslim world, is speaking directly to that… What inspires the most lethal assailants today is not so much the Quran but a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends.” In fact, few of the jihadis have much of a background in Islamic texts or theology, if any.
The best strategy, Polk advises, would be “a multinational, welfare-oriented and psychologically satisfying program… that would make the hatred ISIS relies upon less virulent. The elements have been identified for us: communal needs, compensation for previous transgressions, and calls for a new beginning.” He adds, “A carefully phrased apology for past transgressions would cost little and do much.” Such a project could be carried out in refugee camps or in the “hovels and grim housing projects of the Paris banlieues,” where, Atran writes, his research team “found fairly wide tolerance or support for ISIS’s values.” And even more could be done by true dedication to diplomacy and negotiations instead of reflexive resort to violence.
Not least in significance would be an honorable response to the “refugee crisis” that was a long time in coming but surged to prominence in Europe in 2015. That would mean, at the very least, sharply increasing humanitarian relief to the camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey where miserable refugees from Syria barely survive. But the issues go well beyond, and provide a picture of the self-described “enlightened states” that is far from attractive and should be an incentive to action.
There are countries that generate refugees through massive violence, like the United States, secondarily Britain and France. Then there are countries that admit huge numbers of refugees, including those fleeing from Western violence, like Lebanon (easily the champion, per capita), Jordan, and Syria before it imploded, among others in the region. And partially overlapping, there are countries that both generate refugees and refuse to take them in, not only from the Middle East but also from the U.S. “backyard” south of the border. A strange picture, painful to contemplate.
An honest picture would trace the generation of refugees much further back into history. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk reports that one of the first videos produced by ISIS “showed a bulldozer pushing down a rampart of sand that had marked the border between Iraq and Syria. As the machine destroyed the dirt revetment, the camera panned down to a handwritten poster lying in the sand. ‘End of Sykes-Picot,’ it said.”
For the people of the region, the Sykes-Picot agreement is the very symbol of the cynicism and brutality of Western imperialism. Conspiring in secret during World War I, Britain’s Mark Sykes and France’s François Georges-Picot carved up the region into artificial states to satisfy their own imperial goals, with utter disdain for the interests of the people living there and in violation of the wartime promises issued to induce Arabs to join the Allied war effort. The agreement mirrored the practices of the European states that devastated Africa in a similar manner. It “transformed what had been relatively quiet provinces of the Ottoman Empire into some of the least stable and most internationally explosive states in the world.”
Repeated Western interventions since then in the Middle East and Africa have exacerbated the tensions, conflicts, and disruptions that have shattered the societies. The end result is a “refugee crisis” that the innocent West can scarcely endure. Germany has emerged as the conscience of Europe, at first (but no longer) admitting almost one million refugees — in one of the richest countries in the world with a population of 80 million. In contrast, the poor country of Lebanon has absorbed an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, now a quarter of its population, on top of half a million Palestinian refugees registered with the U.N. refugee agency UNRWA, mostly victims of Israeli policies.
Europe is also groaning under the burden of refugees from the countries it has devastated in Africa — not without U.S. aid, as Congolese and Angolans, among others, can testify. Europe is now seeking to bribe Turkey (with over two million Syrian refugees) to distance those fleeing the horrors of Syria from Europe’s borders, just as Obama is pressuring Mexico to keep U.S. borders free from miserable people seeking to escape the aftermath of Reagan’s GWOT along with those seeking to escape more recent disasters, including a military coup in Honduras that Obama almost alone legitimized, which created one of the worst horror chambers in the region.
Words can hardly capture the U.S. response to the Syrian refugee crisis, at least any words I can think of.
Returning to the opening question “Who rules the world?” we might also want to pose another question: “What principles and values rule the world?” That question should be foremost in the minds of the citizens of the rich and powerful states, who enjoy an unusual legacy of freedom, privilege, and opportunity thanks to the struggles of those who came before them, and who now face fateful choices as to how to respond to challenges of great human import.
The Costs of Violence
[This piece, the first of two parts, is excerpted from Noam Chomsky’s new book, Who Rules the World? Part 2 will be posted on Tuesday morning.]
When we ask “Who rules the world?” we commonly adopt the standard convention that the actors in world affairs are states, primarily the great powers, and we consider their decisions and the relations among them. That is not wrong. But we would do well to keep in mind that this level of abstraction can also be highly misleading.
States of course have complex internal structures, and the choices and decisions of the political leadership are heavily influenced by internal concentrations of power, while the general population is often marginalized. That is true even for the more democratic societies, and obviously for others. We cannot gain a realistic understanding of who rules the world while ignoring the “masters of mankind,” as Adam Smith called them: in his day, the merchants and manufacturers of England; in ours, multinational conglomerates, huge financial institutions, retail empires, and the like. Still following Smith, it is also wise to attend to the “vile maxim” to which the “masters of mankind” are dedicated: “All for ourselves and nothing for other people” — a doctrine known otherwise as bitter and incessant class war, often one-sided, much to the detriment of the people of the home country and the world.
In the contemporary global order, the institutions of the masters hold enormous power, not only in the international arena but also within their home states, on which they rely to protect their power and to provide economic support by a wide variety of means. When we consider the role of the masters of mankind, we turn to such state policy priorities of the moment as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the investor-rights agreements mislabeled “free-trade agreements” in propaganda and commentary. They are negotiated in secret, apart from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists writing the crucial details. The intention is to have them adopted in good Stalinist style with “fast track” procedures designed to block discussion and allow only the choice of yes or no (hence yes). The designers regularly do quite well, not surprisingly. People are incidental, with the consequences one might anticipate.
The Second Superpower
The neoliberal programs of the past generation have concentrated wealth and power in far fewer hands while undermining functioning democracy, but they have aroused opposition as well, most prominently in Latin America but also in the centers of global power. The European Union (EU), one of the more promising developments of the post-World War II period, has been tottering because of the harsh effect of the policies of austerity during recession, condemned even by the economists of the International Monetary Fund (if not the IMF’s political actors). Democracy has been undermined as decision making shifted to the Brussels bureaucracy, with the northern banks casting their shadow over their proceedings.
Mainstream parties have been rapidly losing members to left and to right. The executive director of the Paris-based research group EuropaNova attributes the general disenchantment to “a mood of angry impotence as the real power to shape events largely shifted from national political leaders [who, in principle at least, are subject to democratic politics] to the market, the institutions of the European Union and corporations,” quite in accord with neoliberal doctrine. Very similar processes are under way in the United States, for somewhat similar reasons, a matter of significance and concern not just for the country but, because of U.S. power, for the world.
The rising opposition to the neoliberal assault highlights another crucial aspect of the standard convention: it sets aside the public, which often fails to accept the approved role of “spectators” (rather than “participants”) assigned to it in liberal democratic theory. Such disobedience has always been of concern to the dominant classes. Just keeping to American history, George Washington regarded the common people who formed the militias that he was to command as “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people [evincing] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people.”
In Violent Politics, his masterful review of insurgencies from “the American insurgency” to contemporary Afghanistan and Iraq, William Polk concludes that General Washington “was so anxious to sideline [the fighters he despised] that he came close to losing the Revolution.” Indeed, he “might have actually done so” had France not massively intervened and “saved the Revolution,” which until then had been won by guerrillas — whom we would now call “terrorists” — while Washington’s British-style army “was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.”
A common feature of successful insurgencies, Polk records, is that once popular support dissolves after victory, the leadership suppresses the “dirty and nasty people” who actually won the war with guerrilla tactics and terror, for fear that they might challenge class privilege. The elites’ contempt for “the lower class of these people” has taken various forms throughout the years. In recent times one expression of this contempt is the call for passivity and obedience (“moderation in democracy”) by liberal internationalists reacting to the dangerous democratizing effects of the popular movements of the 1960s.
Sometimes states do choose to follow public opinion, eliciting much fury in centers of power. One dramatic case was in 2003, when the Bush administration called on Turkey to join its invasion of Iraq. Ninety-five percent of Turks opposed that course of action and, to the amazement and horror of Washington, the Turkish government adhered to their views. Turkey was bitterly condemned for this departure from responsible behavior. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, designated by the press as the “idealist-in-chief” of the administration, berated the Turkish military for permitting the malfeasance of the government and demanded an apology. Unperturbed by these and innumerable other illustrations of our fabled “yearning for democracy,” respectable commentary continued to laud President George W. Bush for his dedication to “democracy promotion,” or sometimes criticized him for his naïveté in thinking that an outside power could impose its democratic yearnings on others.
The Turkish public was not alone. Global opposition to U.S.-UK aggression was overwhelming. Support for Washington’s war plans scarcely reached 10% almost anywhere, according to international polls. Opposition sparked huge worldwide protests, in the United States as well, probably the first time in history that imperial aggression was strongly protested even before it was officially launched. On the front page of the New York Times, journalist Patrick Tyler reported that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
Unprecedented protest in the United States was a manifestation of the opposition to aggression that began decades earlier in the condemnation of the U.S. wars in Indochina, reaching a scale that was substantial and influential, even if far too late. By 1967, when the antiwar movement was becoming a significant force, military historian and Vietnam specialist Bernard Fall warned that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity… is threatened with extinction… [as] the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.”
But the antiwar movement did become a force that could not be ignored. Nor could it be ignored when Ronald Reagan came into office determined to launch an assault on Central America. His administration mimicked closely the steps John F. Kennedy had taken 20 years earlier in launching the war against South Vietnam, but had to back off because of the kind of vigorous public protest that had been lacking in the early 1960s. The assault was awful enough. The victims have yet to recover. But what happened to South Vietnam and later all of Indochina, where “the second superpower” imposed its impediments only much later in the conflict, was incomparably worse.
It is often argued that the enormous public opposition to the invasion of Iraq had no effect. That seems incorrect to me. Again, the invasion was horrifying enough, and its aftermath is utterly grotesque. Nevertheless, it could have been far worse. Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the rest of Bush’s top officials could never even contemplate the sort of measures that President Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson adopted 40 years earlier largely without protest.
Western Power Under Pressure
There is far more to say, of course, about the factors in determining state policy that are put to the side when we adopt the standard convention that states are the actors in international affairs. But with such nontrivial caveats as these, let us nevertheless adopt the convention, at least as a first approximation to reality. Then the question of who rules the world leads at once to such concerns as China’s rise to power and its challenge to the United States and “world order,” the new cold war simmering in eastern Europe, the Global War on Terror, American hegemony and American decline, and a range of similar considerations.
The challenges faced by Western power at the outset of 2016 are usefully summarized within the conventional framework by Gideon Rachman, chief foreign-affairs columnist for the London Financial Times. He begins by reviewing the Western picture of world order: “Ever since the end of the Cold War, the overwhelming power of the U.S. military has been the central fact of international politics.” This is particularly crucial in three regions: East Asia, where “the U.S. Navy has become used to treating the Pacific as an ‘American lake’”; Europe, where NATO — meaning the United States, which “accounts for a staggering three-quarters of NATO’s military spending” — “guarantees the territorial integrity of its member states”; and the Middle East, where giant U.S. naval and air bases “exist to reassure friends and to intimidate rivals.”
The problem of world order today, Rachman continues, is that “these security orders are now under challenge in all three regions” because of Russian intervention in Ukraine and Syria, and because of China turning its nearby seas from an American lake to “clearly contested water.” The fundamental question of international relations, then, is whether the United States should “accept that other major powers should have some kind of zone of influence in their neighborhoods.” Rachman thinks it should, for reasons of “diffusion of economic power around the world — combined with simple common sense.”
There are, to be sure, ways of looking at the world from different standpoints. But let us keep to these three regions, surely critically important ones.
The Challenges Today: East Asia
Beginning with the “American lake,” some eyebrows might be raised over the report in mid-December 2015 that “an American B-52 bomber on a routine mission over the South China Sea unintentionally flew within two nautical miles of an artificial island built by China, senior defense officials said, exacerbating a hotly divisive issue for Washington and Beijing.” Those familiar with the grim record of the 70 years of the nuclear weapons era will be all too aware that this is the kind of incident that has often come perilously close to igniting terminal nuclear war. One need not be a supporter of China’s provocative and aggressive actions in the South China Sea to notice that the incident did not involve a Chinese nuclear-capable bomber in the Caribbean, or off the coast of California, where China has no pretensions of establishing a “Chinese lake.” Luckily for the world.
Chinese leaders understand very well that their country’s maritime trade routes are ringed with hostile powers from Japan through the Malacca Straits and beyond, backed by overwhelming U.S. military force. Accordingly, China is proceeding to expand westward with extensive investments and careful moves toward integration. In part, these developments are within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes the Central Asian states and Russia, and soon India and Pakistan with Iran as one of the observers — a status that was denied to the United States, which was also called on to close all military bases in the region. China is constructing a modernized version of the old silk roads, with the intent not only of integrating the region under Chinese influence, but also of reaching Europe and the Middle Eastern oil-producing regions. It is pouring huge sums into creating an integrated Asian energy and commercial system, with extensive high-speed rail lines and pipelines.
One element of the program is a highway through some of the world’s tallest mountains to the new Chinese-developed port of Gwadar in Pakistan, which will protect oil shipments from potential U.S. interference. The program may also, China and Pakistan hope, spur industrial development in Pakistan, which the United States has not undertaken despite massive military aid, and might also provide an incentive for Pakistan to clamp down on domestic terrorism, a serious issue for China in western Xinjiang Province. Gwadar will be part of China’s “string of pearls,” bases being constructed in the Indian Ocean for commercial purposes but potentially also for military use, with the expectation that China might someday be able to project power as far as the Persian Gulf for the first time in the modern era.
All of these moves remain immune to Washington’s overwhelming military power, short of annihilation by nuclear war, which would destroy the United States as well.
In 2015, China also established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), with itself as the main shareholder. Fifty-six nations participated in the opening in Beijing in June, including U.S. allies Australia, Britain, and others which joined in defiance of Washington’s wishes. The United States and Japan were absent. Some analysts believe that the new bank might turn out to be a competitor to the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF and the World Bank), in which the United States holds veto power. There are also some expectations that the SCO might eventually become a counterpart to NATO.
The Challenges Today: Eastern Europe
Turning to the second region, Eastern Europe, there is a crisis brewing at the NATO-Russian border. It is no small matter. In his illuminating and judicious scholarly study of the region, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, Richard Sakwa writes — all too plausibly — that the “Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 was in effect the first of the ‘wars to stop NATO enlargement’; the Ukraine crisis of 2014 is the second. It is not clear whether humanity would survive a third.”
The West sees NATO enlargement as benign. Not surprisingly, Russia, along with much of the Global South, has a different opinion, as do some prominent Western voices. George Kennan warned early on that NATO enlargement is a “tragic mistake,” and he was joined by senior American statesmen in an open letter to the White House describing it as a “policy error of historic proportions.”
The present crisis has its origins in 1991, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were then two contrasting visions of a new security system and political economy in Eurasia. In Sakwa’s words, one vision was of a “‘Wider Europe,’ with the EU at its heart but increasingly coterminous with the Euro-Atlantic security and political community; and on the other side there [was] the idea of ‘Greater Europe,’ a vision of a continental Europe, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, that has multiple centers, including Brussels, Moscow and Ankara, but with a common purpose in overcoming the divisions that have traditionally plagued the continent.”
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the major proponent of Greater Europe, a concept that also had European roots in Gaullism and other initiatives. However, as Russia collapsed under the devastating market reforms of the 1990s, the vision faded, only to be renewed as Russia began to recover and seek a place on the world stage under Vladimir Putin who, along with his associate Dmitry Medvedev, has repeatedly “called for the geopolitical unification of all of ‘Greater Europe’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok, to create a genuine ‘strategic partnership.’”
These initiatives were “greeted with polite contempt,” Sakwa writes, regarded as “little more than a cover for the establishment of a ‘Greater Russia’ by stealth” and an effort to “drive a wedge” between North America and Western Europe. Such concerns trace back to earlier Cold War fears that Europe might become a “third force” independent of both the great and minor superpowers and moving toward closer links to the latter (as can be seen in Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and other initiatives).
The Western response to Russia’s collapse was triumphalist. It was hailed as signaling “the end of history,” the final victory of Western capitalist democracy, almost as if Russia were being instructed to revert to its pre-World War I status as a virtual economic colony of the West. NATO enlargement began at once, in violation of verbal assurances to Gorbachev that NATO forces would not move “one inch to the east” after he agreed that a unified Germany could become a NATO member — a remarkable concession, in the light of history. That discussion kept to East Germany. The possibility that NATO might expand beyond Germany was not discussed with Gorbachev, even if privately considered.
Soon, NATO did begin to move beyond, right to the borders of Russia. The general mission of NATO was officially changed to a mandate to protect “crucial infrastructure” of the global energy system, sea lanes and pipelines, giving it a global area of operations. Furthermore, under a crucial Western revision of the now widely heralded doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” sharply different from the official U.N. version, NATO may now also serve as an intervention force under U.S. command.
Of particular concern to Russia are plans to expand NATO to Ukraine. These plans were articulated explicitly at the Bucharest NATO summit of April 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership in NATO. The wording was unambiguous: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” With the “Orange Revolution” victory of pro-Western candidates in Ukraine in 2004, State Department representative Daniel Fried rushed there and “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” as a WikiLeaks report revealed.
Russia’s concerns are easily understandable. They are outlined by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer in the leading U.S. establishment journal, Foreign Affairs. He writes that “the taproot of the current crisis [over Ukraine] is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” which Putin viewed as “a direct threat to Russia’s core interests.”
“Who can blame him?” Mearsheimer asks, pointing out that “Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it.” That should not be too difficult. After all, as everyone knows, “The United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western hemisphere, much less on its borders.”
In fact, the U.S. stand is far stronger. It does not tolerate what is officially called “successful defiance” of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared (but could not yet implement) U.S. control of the hemisphere. And a small country that carries out such successful defiance may be subjected to “the terrors of the earth” and a crushing embargo — as happened to Cuba. We need not ask how the United States would have reacted had the countries of Latin America joined the Warsaw Pact, with plans for Mexico and Canada to join as well. The merest hint of the first tentative steps in that direction would have been “terminated with extreme prejudice,” to adopt CIA lingo.
As in the case of China, one does not have to regard Putin’s moves and motives favorably to understand the logic behind them, nor to grasp the importance of understanding that logic instead of issuing imprecations against it. As in the case of China, a great deal is at stake, reaching as far — literally — as questions of survival.
The Challenges Today: The Islamic World
Let us turn to the third region of major concern, the (largely) Islamic world, also the scene of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) that George W. Bush declared in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attack. To be more accurate, re-declared. The GWOT was declared by the Reagan administration when it took office, with fevered rhetoric about a “plague spread by depraved opponents of civilization itself” (as Reagan put it) and a “return to barbarism in the modern age” (the words of George Shultz, his secretary of state). The original GWOT has been quietly removed from history. It very quickly turned into a murderous and destructive terrorist war afflicting Central America, southern Africa, and the Middle East, with grim repercussions to the present, even leading to condemnation of the United States by the World Court (which Washington dismissed). In any event, it is not the right story for history, so it is gone.
The success of the Bush-Obama version of GWOT can readily be evaluated on direct inspection. When the war was declared, the terrorist targets were confined to a small corner of tribal Afghanistan. They were protected by Afghans, who mostly disliked or despised them, under the tribal code of hospitality — which baffled Americans when poor peasants refused “to turn over Osama bin Laden for the, to them, astronomical sum of $25 million.”
There are good reasons to believe that a well-constructed police action, or even serious diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban, might have placed those suspected of the 9/11 crimes in American hands for trial and sentencing. But such options were off the table. Instead, the reflexive choice was large-scale violence — not with the goal of overthrowing the Taliban (that came later) but to make clear U.S. contempt for tentative Taliban offers of the possible extradition of bin Laden. How serious these offers were we do not know, since the possibility of exploring them was never entertained. Or perhaps the United States was just intent on “trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They don’t care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose.”
That was the judgment of the highly respected anti-Taliban leader Abdul Haq, one of the many oppositionists who condemned the American bombing campaign launched in October 2001 as “a big setback” for their efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within, a goal they considered within their reach. His judgment is confirmed by Richard A. Clarke, who was chairman of the Counterterrorism Security Group at the White House under President George W. Bush when the plans to attack Afghanistan were made. As Clarke describes the meeting, when informed that the attack would violate international law, “the President yelled in the narrow conference room, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.'” The attack was also bitterly opposed by the major aid organizations working in Afghanistan, who warned that millions were on the verge of starvation and that the consequences might be horrendous.
The consequences for poor Afghanistan years later need hardly be reviewed.
The next target of the sledgehammer was Iraq. The U.S.-UK invasion, utterly without credible pretext, is the major crime of the twenty-first century. The invasion led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people in a country where the civilian society had already been devastated by American and British sanctions that were regarded as “genocidal” by the two distinguished international diplomats who administered them, and resigned in protest for this reason. The invasion also generated millions of refugees, largely destroyed the country, and instigated a sectarian conflict that is now tearing apart Iraq and the entire region. It is an astonishing fact about our intellectual and moral culture that in informed and enlightened circles it can be called, blandly, “the liberation of Iraq.”
Pentagon and British Ministry of Defense polls found that only 3% of Iraqis regarded the U.S. security role in their neighborhood as legitimate, less than 1% believed that “coalition” (U.S.-UK) forces were good for their security, 80% opposed the presence of coalition forces in the country, and a majority supported attacks on coalition troops. Afghanistan has been destroyed beyond the possibility of reliable polling, but there are indications that something similar may be true there as well. Particularly in Iraq the United States suffered a severe defeat, abandoning its official war aims, and leaving the country under the influence of the sole victor, Iran.
The sledgehammer was also wielded elsewhere, notably in Libya, where the three traditional imperial powers (Britain, France, and the United States) procured Security Council resolution 1973 and instantly violated it, becoming the air force of the rebels. The effect was to undercut the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated settlement; sharply increase casualties (by at least a factor of 10, according to political scientist Alan Kuperman); leave Libya in ruins, in the hands of warring militias; and, more recently, to provide the Islamic State with a base that it can use to spread terror beyond. Quite sensible diplomatic proposals by the African Union, accepted in principle by Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, were ignored by the imperial triumvirate, as Africa specialist Alex de Waal reviews. A huge flow of weapons and jihadis has spread terror and violence from West Africa (now the champion for terrorist murders) to the Levant, while the NATO attack also sent a flood of refugees from Africa to Europe.
Yet another triumph of “humanitarian intervention,” and, as the long and often ghastly record reveals, not an unusual one, going back to its modern origins four centuries ago.
Copyright 2016 Noam Chomsky
American Power Under Challenge
Throughout the world there is great relief and optimism about the nuclear deal reached in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 nations, the five veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. Most of the world apparently shares the assessment of the U.S. Arms Control Association that “the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action establishes a strong and effective formula for blocking all of the pathways by which Iran could acquire material for nuclear weapons for more than a generation and a verification system to promptly detect and deter possible efforts by Iran to covertly pursue nuclear weapons that will last indefinitely.”
There are, however, striking exceptions to the general enthusiasm: the United States and its closest regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. One consequence of this is that U.S. corporations, much to their chagrin, are prevented from flocking to Tehran along with their European counterparts. Prominent sectors of U.S. power and opinion share the stand of the two regional allies and so are in a state of virtual hysteria over “the Iranian threat.” Sober commentary in the United States, pretty much across the spectrum, declares that country to be “the gravest threat to world peace.” Even supporters of the agreement here are wary, given the exceptional gravity of that threat. After all, how can we trust the Iranians with their terrible record of aggression, violence, disruption, and deceit?
Opposition within the political class is so strong that public opinion has shifted quickly from significant support for the deal to an even split. Republicans are almost unanimously opposed to the agreement. The current Republican primaries illustrate the proclaimed reasons. Senator Ted Cruz, considered one of the intellectuals among the crowded field of presidential candidates, warns that Iran may still be able to produce nuclear weapons and could someday use one to set off an Electro Magnetic Pulse that “would take down the electrical grid of the entire eastern seaboard” of the United States, killing “tens of millions of Americans.”
The two most likely winners, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, are battling over whether to bomb Iranimmediately after being elected or after the first Cabinet meeting. The one candidate with some foreign policy experience, Lindsey Graham, describesthe deal as “a death sentence for the state of Israel,” which will certainly come as a surprise to Israeli intelligence and strategic analysts — and which Graham knows to be utter nonsense, raising immediate questions about actual motives.
Keep in mind that the Republicans long ago abandoned the pretense of functioning as a normal congressional party. They have, as respected conservative political commentator Norman Ornstein of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute observed, become a “radical insurgency” that scarcely seeks to participate in normal congressional politics.
Since the days of President Ronald Reagan, the party leadership has plunged so far into the pockets of the very rich and the corporate sector that they can attract votes only by mobilizing parts of the population that have not previously been an organized political force. Among them are extremist evangelical Christians, now probably a majority of Republican voters; remnants of the former slave-holding states; nativists who are terrified that “they” are taking our white Christian Anglo-Saxon country away from us; and others who turn the Republican primaries into spectacles remote from the mainstream of modern society — though not from the mainstream of the most powerful country in world history.
The departure from global standards, however, goes far beyond the bounds of the Republican radical insurgency. Across the spectrum, there is, for instance, general agreement with the “pragmatic” conclusion of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Vienna deal does not “prevent the United States from striking Iranian facilities if officials decide that it is cheating on the agreement,” even though a unilateral military strike is “far less likely” if Iran behaves.
Former Clinton and Obama Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross typically recommends that “Iran must have no doubts that if we see it moving towards a weapon, that would trigger the use of force” even after the termination of the deal, when Iran is theoretically free to do what it wants. In fact, the existence of a termination point 15 years hence is, he adds, "the greatest single problem with the agreement." He also suggests that the U.S. provide Israel with specially outfitted B-52 bombers and bunker-busting bombs to protect itself before that terrifying date arrives.
“The Greatest Threat”
Opponents of the nuclear deal charge that it does not go far enough. Some supporters agree, holding that “if the Vienna deal is to mean anything, the whole of the Middle East must rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.” The author of those words, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif, added that “Iran, in its national capacity and as current chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement [the governments of the large majority of the world’s population], is prepared to work with the international community to achieve these goals, knowing full well that, along the way, it will probably run into many hurdles raised by the skeptics of peace and diplomacy.” Iran has signed “a historic nuclear deal,” he continues, and now it is the turn of Israel, “the holdout.”
Israel, of course, is one of the three nuclear powers, along with India and Pakistan, whose weapons programs have been abetted by the United States and that refuse to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Zarif was referring to the regular five-year NPT review conference, which ended in failure in April when the U.S. (joined by Canada and Great Britain) once again blocked efforts to move toward a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East. Such efforts have been led by Egypt and other Arab states for 20 years. As Jayantha Dhanapala and Sergio Duarte, leading figures in the promotion of such efforts at the NPT and other U.N. agencies,observe in “Is There a Future for the NPT?,” an article in the journal of the Arms Control Association: “The successful adoption in 1995 of the resolution on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East was the main element of a package that permitted the indefinite extension of the NPT.” The NPT, in turn, is the most important arms control treaty of all. If it were adhered to, it could end the scourge of nuclear weapons.
Repeatedly, implementation of the resolution has been blocked by the U.S., most recently by President Obama in 2010 and again in 2015, as Dhanapala and Duarte point out, “on behalf of a state that is not a party to the NPT and is widely believed to be the only one in the region possessing nuclear weapons” — a polite and understated reference to Israel. This failure, they hope, “will not be the coup de grâce to the two longstanding NPT objectives of accelerated progress on nuclear disarmament and establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.”
A nuclear-weapons-free Middle East would be a straightforward way to address whatever threat Iran allegedly poses, but a great deal more is at stake in Washington’s continuing sabotage of the effort in order to protect its Israeli client. After all, this is not the only case in which opportunities to end the alleged Iranian threat have been undermined by Washington, raising further questions about just what is actually at stake.
In considering this matter, it is instructive to examine both the unspoken assumptions in the situation and the questions that are rarely asked. Let us consider a few of these assumptions, beginning with the most serious: that Iran is the gravest threat to world peace.
In the U.S., it is a virtual cliché among high officials and commentators that Iran wins that grim prize. There is also a world outside the U.S. and although its views are not reported in the mainstream here, perhaps they are of some interest. According to the leading western polling agencies (WIN/Gallup International), the prize for “greatest threat” is won by the United States. The rest of the world regards it as the gravest threat to world peace by a large margin. In second place, far below, is Pakistan, its ranking probably inflated by the Indian vote. Iran is ranked below those two, along with China, Israel, North Korea, and Afghanistan.
“The World’s Leading Supporter of Terrorism”
Turning to the next obvious question, what in fact is the Iranian threat? Why, for example, are Israel and Saudi Arabia trembling in fear over that country? Whatever the threat is, it can hardly be military. Years ago, U.S. intelligence informed Congress that Iran has very low military expenditures by the standards of the region and that its strategic doctrines are defensive — designed, that is, to deter aggression. The U.S. intelligence community has also reported that it has no evidence Iran is pursuing an actual nuclear weapons program and that “Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.”
The authoritative SIPRI review of global armaments ranks the U.S., as usual, way in the lead in military expenditures. China comes in second with about one-third of U.S. expenditures. Far below are Russia and Saudi Arabia, which are nonetheless well above any western European state. Iran isscarcely mentioned. Full details are provided in an April report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which finds “a conclusive case that the Arab Gulf states have… an overwhelming advantage of Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms.”
Iran’s military spending, for instance, is a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s and far below even the spending of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Altogether, the Gulf Cooperation Council states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – outspend Iran on arms by a factor of eight, an imbalance that goes back decades. The CSIS report adds: “The Arab Gulf states have acquired and are acquiring some of the most advanced and effective weapons in the world [while] Iran has essentially been forced to live in the past, often relying on systems originally delivered at the time of the Shah.” In other words, they are virtually obsolete. When it comes to Israel, of course, the imbalance is even greater. Possessing the most advanced U.S. weaponry and a virtual offshore military base for the global superpower, it also has a huge stock of nuclear weapons.
To be sure, Israel faces the “existential threat” of Iranian pronouncements: Supreme Leader Khamenei and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously threatened it with destruction. Except that they didn’t – and if they had, it would be of little moment. Ahmadinejad, for instance, predicted that “under God’s grace [the Zionist regime] will be wiped off the map.” In other words, he hoped that regime change would someday take place. Even that falls far short of the direct calls in both Washington and Tel Aviv for regime change in Iran, not to speak of the actions taken to implement regime change. These, of course, go back to the actual “regime change” of 1953, when the U.S. and Britain organized a military coup to overthrow Iran’s parliamentary government and install the dictatorship of the Shah, who proceeded to amass one of the worst human rights records on the planet.
These crimes were certainly known to readers of the reports of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, but not to readers of the U.S. press, which has devoted plenty of space to Iranian human rights violations — but only since 1979 when the Shah’s regime was overthrown. (To check the facts on this, read The U.S. Press and Iran, a carefully documented study by Mansour Farhang and William Dorman.)
None of this is a departure from the norm. The United States, as is well known, holds the world championship title in regime change and Israel is no laggard either. The most destructive of its invasions of Lebanon in 1982 was explicitly aimed at regime change, as well as at securing its hold on the occupied territories. The pretexts offered were thin indeed and collapsed at once. That, too, is not unusual and pretty much independent of the nature of the society — from the laments in the Declaration of Independence about the “merciless Indian savages” to Hitler’s defense of Germany from the “wild terror” of the Poles.
No serious analyst believes that Iran would ever use, or even threaten to use, a nuclear weapon if it had one, and so face instant destruction. There is, however, real concern that a nuclear weapon might fall into jihadi hands — not thanks to Iran, but via U.S. ally Pakistan. In the journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, two leading Pakistani nuclear scientists, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian, write that increasing fears of “militants seizing nuclear weapons or materials and unleashing nuclear terrorism [have led to]… the creation of a dedicated force of over 20,000 troops to guard nuclear facilities. There is no reason to assume, however, that this force would be immune to the problems associated with the units guarding regular military facilities,” which have frequently suffered attacks with “insider help.” In brief, the problem is real, just displaced to Iran thanks to fantasies concocted for other reasons.
Other concerns about the Iranian threat include its role as “the world’s leading supporter of terrorism,” which primarily refers to its support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Both of those movements emerged in resistance to U.S.-backed Israeli violence and aggression, which vastly exceeds anything attributed to these villains, let alone the normal practice of the hegemonic power whose global drone assassination campaign alone dominates (and helps to foster) international terrorism.
Those two villainous Iranian clients also share the crime of winning the popular vote in the only free elections in the Arab world. Hezbollah is guilty of the even more heinous crime of compelling Israel to withdraw from its occupation of southern Lebanon, which took place in violation of U.N. Security Council orders dating back decades and involved an illegal regime of terror and sometimes extreme violence. Whatever one thinks of Hezbollah, Hamas, or other beneficiaries of Iranian support, Iran hardly ranks high in support of terror worldwide.
Another concern, voiced at the U.N. by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, is the “instability that Iran fuels beyond its nuclear program.” The U.S. will continue to scrutinize this misbehavior, she declared. In that, she echoed the assurance Defense Secretary Ashton Carter offered while standing on Israel’s northern border that “we will continue to help Israel counter Iran’s malign influence” in supporting Hezbollah, and that the U.S. reserves the right to use military force against Iran as it deems appropriate.
The way Iran “fuels instability” can be seen particularly dramatically in Iraq where, among other crimes, it alone at once came to the aid of Kurds defending themselves from the invasion of Islamic State militants, even as it is building a $2.5 billion power plant in the southern port city of Basra to try to bring electrical power back to the level reached before the 2003 invasion. Ambassador Power’s usage is, however, standard: Thanks to that invasion, hundreds of thousands were killed and millions of refugees generated, barbarous acts of torture were committed — Iraqis have compared the destruction to the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century — leaving Iraq the unhappiest country in the world according to WIN/Gallup polls. Meanwhile, sectarian conflict was ignited, tearing the region to shreds and laying the basis for the creation of the monstrosity that is ISIS. And all of that is called “stabilization.”
Only Iran’s shameful actions, however, “fuel instability.” The standard usage sometimes reaches levels that are almost surreal, as when liberal commentator James Chace, former editor of Foreign Affairs, explained that the U.S. sought to “destabilize a freely elected Marxist government in Chile” because “we were determined to seek stability” under the Pinochet dictatorship.
Others are outraged that Washington should negotiate at all with a “contemptible” regime like Iran’s with its horrifying human rights record and urge instead that we pursue “an American-sponsored alliance between Israel and the Sunni states.” So writes Leon Wieseltier, contributing editor to the venerable liberal journal the Atlantic, who can barely conceal his visceral hatred for all things Iranian. With a straight face, this respected liberal intellectual recommends that Saudi Arabia, which makes Iran look like a virtual paradise, and Israel, with its vicious crimes in Gaza and elsewhere, should ally to teach that country good behavior. Perhaps the recommendation is not entirely unreasonable when we consider the human rights records of the regimes the U.S. has imposed and supported throughout the world.
Though the Iranian government is no doubt a threat to its own people, it regrettably breaks no records in this regard, not descending to the level of favored U.S. allies. That, however, cannot be the concern of Washington, and surely not Tel Aviv or Riyadh.
It might also be useful to recall — surely Iranians do — that not a day has passed since 1953 in which the U.S. was not harming Iranians. After all, as soon as they overthrew the hated U.S.-imposed regime of the Shah in 1979, Washington put its support behind Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who would, in 1980, launch a murderous assault on their country. President Reagan went so far as to deny Saddam’s major crime, his chemical warfare assault on Iraq’s Kurdish population, which he blamed on Iran instead. When Saddam was tried for crimes under U.S. auspices, that horrendous crime, as well as others in which the U.S. was complicit, was carefully excluded from the charges, which were restricted to one of his minor crimes, the murder of 148 Shi’ites in 1982, a footnote to his gruesome record.
Saddam was such a valued friend of Washington that he was even granted a privilege otherwise accorded only to Israel. In 1987, his forces were allowed to attack a U.S. naval vessel, the USS Stark, with impunity, killing 37 crewmen. (Israel had acted similarly in its 1967 attack on the USS Liberty.) Iran pretty much conceded defeat shortly after, when the U.S. launched Operation Praying Mantis against Iranian ships and oil platforms in Iranian territorial waters. That operation culminated when the USS Vincennes, under no credible threat, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in Iranian airspace, with 290 killed — and the subsequent granting of a Legion of Merit award to the commander of the Vincennes for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” and for maintaining a “calm and professional atmosphere” during the period when the attack on the airliner took place. Comments philosopher Thill Raghu, “We can only stand in awe of such display of American exceptionalism!”
After the war ended, the U.S. continued to support Saddam Hussein, Iran’s primary enemy. President George H.W. Bush even invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in weapons production, an extremely serious threat to Iran. Sanctions against that country were intensified, including against foreign firms dealing with it, and actions were initiated to bar it from the international financial system.
In recent years the hostility has extended to sabotage, the murder of nuclear scientists (presumably by Israel), and cyberwar, openly proclaimed with pride. The Pentagon regards cyberwar as an act of war, justifying a military response, as does NATO, which affirmed in September 2014 that cyber attacks may trigger the collective defense obligations of the NATO powers — when we are the target that is, not the perpetrators.
“The Prime Rogue State”
It is only fair to add that there have been breaks in this pattern. President George W. Bush, for example, offered several significant gifts to Iran by destroying its major enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. He even placed Iran’s Iraqi enemy under its influence after the U.S. defeat, which was so severe that Washington had to abandon its officially declared goals of establishing permanent military bases (“enduring camps”) and ensuring that U.S. corporations would have privileged access to Iraq’s vast oil resources.
Do Iranian leaders intend to develop nuclear weapons today? We can decide for ourselves how credible their denials are, but that they had such intentions in the past is beyond question. After all, it was asserted openly on the highest authority and foreign journalists were informed that Iran would develop nuclear weapons “certainly, and sooner than one thinks.” The father of Iran’s nuclear energy program and former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization was confident that the leadership’s plan “was to build a nuclear bomb.” The CIA also reported that it had “no doubt” Iran would develop nuclear weapons if neighboring countries did (as they have).
All of this was, of course, under the Shah, the “highest authority” just quoted and at a time when top U.S. officials — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Henry Kissinger, among others — were urging him to proceed with his nuclear programs and pressuring universities to accommodate these efforts. Under such pressures, my own university, MIT, made a deal with the Shah to admit Iranian students to the nuclear engineering program in return for grants he offered and over the strong objections of the student body, but with comparably strong faculty support (in a meeting that older faculty will doubtless remember well).
Asked later why he supported such programs under the Shah but opposed them more recently, Kissinger responded honestly that Iran was an ally then.
Putting aside absurdities, what is the real threat of Iran that inspires such fear and fury? A natural place to turn for an answer is, again, U.S. intelligence. Recall its analysis that Iran poses no military threat, that its strategic doctrines are defensive, and that its nuclear programs (with no effort to produce bombs, as far as can be determined) are “a central part of its deterrent strategy.”
Who, then, would be concerned by an Iranian deterrent? The answer is plain: the rogue states that rampage in the region and do not want to tolerate any impediment to their reliance on aggression and violence. In the lead in this regard are the U.S. and Israel, with Saudi Arabia trying its best to join the club with its invasion of Bahrain (to support the crushing of a reform movement there) and now its murderous assault on Yemen, accelerating a growing humanitarian catastrophe in that country.
For the United States, the characterization is familiar. Fifteen years ago, the prominent political analyst Samuel Huntington, professor of the science of government at Harvard, warned in the establishment journal Foreign Affairsthat for much of the world the U.S. was “becoming the rogue superpower… the single greatest external threat to their societies.” Shortly after, his words were echoed by Robert Jervis, the president of the American Political Science Association: “In the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the United States.” As we have seen, global opinion supports this judgment by a substantial margin.
Furthermore, the mantle is worn with pride. That is the clear meaning of the insistence of the political class that the U.S. reserves the right to resort to force if it unilaterally determines that Iran is violating some commitment. This policy is of long standing, especially for liberal Democrats, and by no means restricted to Iran. The Clinton Doctrine, for instance, confirmed that the U.S. was entitled to resort to the “unilateral use of military power” even to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources,” let alone alleged “security” or “humanitarian” concerns. Adherence to various versions of this doctrine has been well confirmed in practice, as need hardly be discussed among people willing to look at the facts of current history.
These are among the critical matters that should be the focus of attention in analyzing the nuclear deal at Vienna, whether it stands or is sabotaged by Congress, as it may well be.
Noam Chomsky is institute professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A TomDispatch regular, among his recent books are Hegemony or Survival, Failed States, Power Systems, Hopes and Prospects, and Masters of Mankind. Haymarket Books recently reissued twelve of his classic books in new editions. His website is www.chomsky.info.
Copyright 2015 Noam Chomsky
“The Iranian Threat”
On August 26th, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) both accepted a ceasefire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza that left 2,100 Palestinians dead and vast landscapes of destruction behind. The agreement calls for an end to military action by both Israel and Hamas, as well as an easing of the Israeli siege that has strangled Gaza for many years.
This is, however, just the most recent of a series of ceasefire agreements reached after each of Israel's periodic escalations of its unremitting assault on Gaza. Throughout this period, the terms of these agreements remain essentially the same. The regular pattern is for Israel, then, to disregard whatever agreement is in place, while Hamas observes it — as Israel has officially recognized — until a sharp increase in Israeli violence elicits a Hamas response, followed by even fiercer brutality. These escalations, which amount to shooting fish in a pond, are called "mowing the lawn" in Israeli parlance. The most recent was more accurately described as "removing the topsoil" by a senior U.S. military officer, appalled by the practices of the self-described "most moral army in the world."
The first of this series was the Agreement on Movement and Access Between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in November 2005. It called for "a crossing between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah for the export of goods and the transit of people, continuous operation of crossings between Israel and Gaza for the import/export of goods, and the transit of people, reduction of obstacles to movement within the West Bank, bus and truck convoys between the West Bank and Gaza, the building of a seaport in Gaza, [and the] re-opening of the airport in Gaza" that Israeli bombing had demolished.
That agreement was reached shortly after Israel withdrew its settlers and military forces from Gaza. The motive for the disengagement was explained by Dov Weissglass, a confidant of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was in charge of negotiating and implementing it. "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process," Weissglass informed the Israeli press. "And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders, and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a [U.S.] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress." True enough.
"The disengagement is actually formaldehyde," Weissglass added. "It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians." Israeli hawks also recognized that instead of investing substantial resources in maintaining a few thousand settlers in illegal communities in devastated Gaza, it made more sense to transfer them to illegal subsidized communities in areas of the West Bank that Israel intended to keep.
The disengagement was depicted as a noble effort to pursue peace, but the reality was quite different. Israel never relinquished control of Gaza and is, accordingly, recognized as the occupying power by the United Nations, the U.S., and other states (Israel apart, of course). In their comprehensive history of Israeli settlement in the occupied territories, Israeli scholars Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar describe what actually happened when that country disengaged: the ruined territory was not released "for even a single day from Israel's military grip or from the price of the occupation that the inhabitants pay every day." After the disengagement, "Israel left behind scorched earth, devastated services, and people with neither a present nor a future. The settlements were destroyed in an ungenerous move by an unenlightened occupier, which in fact continues to control the territory and kill and harass its inhabitants by means of its formidable military might."
Operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense
Israel soon had a pretext for violating the November Agreement more severely. In January 2006, the Palestinians committed a serious crime. They voted "the wrong way" in carefully monitored free elections, placing the parliament in the hands of Hamas. Israel and the United States immediately imposed harsh sanctions, telling the world very clearly what they mean by "democracy promotion." Europe, to its shame, went along as well.
The U.S. and Israel soon began planning a military coup to overthrow the unacceptable elected government, a familiar procedure. When Hamas pre-empted the coup in 2007, the siege of Gaza became far more severe, along with regular Israeli military attacks. Voting the wrong way in a free election was bad enough, but preempting a U.S.-planned military coup proved to be an unpardonable offense.
A new ceasefire agreement was reached in June 2008. It again called for opening the border crossings to "allow the transfer of all goods that were banned and restricted to go into Gaza." Israel formally agreed to this, but immediately announced that it would not abide by the agreement and open the borders until Hamas released Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas.
Israel itself has a long history of kidnapping civilians in Lebanon and on the high seas and holding them for lengthy periods without credible charge, sometimes as hostages. Of course, imprisoning civilians on dubious charges, or none, is a regular practice in the territories Israel controls. But the standard western distinction between people and "unpeople" (in Orwell's useful phrase) renders all this insignificant.
Israel not only maintained the siege in violation of the June 2008 ceasefire agreement but did so with extreme rigor, even preventing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which cares for the huge number of official refugees in Gaza, from replenishing its stocks.
On November 4th, while the media were focused on the U.S. presidential election, Israeli troops entered Gaza and killed half a dozen Hamas militants. That elicited a Hamas missile response and an exchange of fire. (All the deaths were Palestinian.) In late December, Hamas offered to renew the ceasefire. Israel considered the offer, but rejected it, preferring instead to launch Operation Cast Lead, a three-week incursion of the full power of the Israeli military into the Gaza strip, resulting in shocking atrocities well documented by international and Israeli human rights organizations.
On January 8, 2009, while Cast Lead was in full fury, the U.N. Security Council passed a unanimous resolution (with the U.S. abstaining) calling for "an immediate ceasefire leading to a full Israeli withdrawal, unimpeded provision through Gaza of food, fuel, and medical treatment, and intensified international arrangements to prevent arms and ammunition smuggling."
A new ceasefire agreement was indeed reached, but the terms, similar to the previous ones, were again never observed and broke down completely with the next major mowing-the-lawn episode in November 2012, Operation Pillar of Defense. What happened in the interim can be illustrated by the casualty figures from January 2012 to the launching of that operation: one Israeli was killed by fire from Gaza while 78 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire.
The first act of Operation Pillar of Defense was the murder of Ahmed Jabari, a high official of the military wing of Hamas. Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Israel's leading newspaper Haaretz, described Jabari as Israel's "subcontractor" in Gaza, who enforced relative quiet there for more than five years. As always, there was a pretext for the assassination, but the likely reason was provided by Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin. He had been involved in direct negotiations with Jabari for years and reported that, hours before he was assassinated, Jabari "received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the ceasefire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip."
There is a long record of Israeli actions designed to deter the threat of a diplomatic settlement. After this exercise of mowing the lawn, a ceasefire agreement was reached yet again. Repeating the now-standard terms, it called for a cessation of military action by both sides and the effective ending of the siege of Gaza with Israel "opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents' free movements and targeting residents in border areas."
What happened next was reviewed by Nathan Thrall, senior Middle East analyst of the International Crisis Group. Israeli intelligence recognized that Hamas was observing the terms of the ceasefire. "Israel,” Thrall wrote, “therefore saw little incentive in upholding its end of the deal. In the three months following the ceasefire, its forces made regular incursions into Gaza, strafed Palestinian farmers and those collecting scrap and rubble across the border, and fired at boats, preventing fishermen from accessing the majority of Gaza's waters." In other words, the siege never ended. "Crossings were repeatedly shut. So-called buffer zones inside Gaza [from which Palestinians are barred, and which include a third or more of the strip’s limited arable land] were reinstated. Imports declined, exports were blocked, and fewer Gazans were given exit permits to Israel and the West Bank."
Operation Protective Edge
So matters continued until April 2014, when an important event took place. The two major Palestinian groupings, Gaza-based Hamas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank signed a unity agreement. Hamas made major concessions. The unity government contained none of its members or allies. In substantial measure, as Nathan Thrall observes, Hamas turned over governance of Gaza to the PA. Several thousand PA security forces were sent there and the PA placed its guards at borders and crossings, with no reciprocal positions for Hamas in the West Bank security apparatus. Finally, the unity government accepted the three conditions that Washington and the European Union had long demanded: non-violence, adherence to past agreements, and the recognition of Israel.
Israel was infuriated. Its government declared at once that it would refuse to deal with the unity government and cancelled negotiations. Its fury mounted when the U.S., along with most of the world, signaled support for the unity government.
There are good reasons why Israel opposes the unification of Palestinians. One is that the Hamas-Fatah conflict has provided a useful pretext for refusing to engage in serious negotiations. How can one negotiate with a divided entity? More significantly, for more than 20 years, Israel has been committed to separating Gaza from the West Bank in violation of the Oslo Accords it signed in 1993, which declare Gaza and the West Bank to be an inseparable territorial unity.
A look at a map explains the rationale. Separated from Gaza, any West Bank enclaves left to Palestinians have no access to the outside world. They are contained by two hostile powers, Israel and Jordan, both close U.S. allies — and contrary to illusions, the U.S. is very far from a neutral "honest broker."
Furthermore, Israel has been systematically taking over the Jordan Valley, driving out Palestinians, establishing settlements, sinking wells, and otherwise ensuring that the region — about one-third of the West Bank, with much of its arable land — will ultimately be integrated into Israel along with the other regions that country is taking over. Hence remaining Palestinian cantons will be completely imprisoned. Unification with Gaza would interfere with these plans, which trace back to the early days of the occupation and have had steady support from the major political blocs, including figures usually portrayed as doves like former president Shimon Peres, who was one of the architects of settlement deep in the West Bank.
As usual, a pretext was needed to move on to the next escalation. Such an occasion arose when three Israeli boys from the settler community in the West Bank were brutally murdered. The Israeli government evidently quickly realized that they were dead, but pretended otherwise, which provided the opportunity to launch a "rescue operation" — actually a rampage primarily targeting Hamas. The Netanyahu government has claimed from the start that it knew Hamas was responsible, but has made no effort to present evidence.
One of Israel's leading authorities on Hamas, Shlomi Eldar, reported almost at once that the killers very likely came from a dissident clan in Hebron that has long been a thorn in the side of the Hamas leadership. He added, "I'm sure they didn't get any green light from the leadership of Hamas, they just thought it was the right time to act."
The Israeli police have since been searching for and arresting members of the clan, still claiming, without evidence, that they are "Hamas terrorists." On September 2nd, Haaretz reported that, after very intensive interrogations, the Israeli security services concluded the abduction of the teenagers "was carried out by an independent cell" with no known direct links to Hamas.
The 18-day rampage by the Israeli Defense Forces succeeded in undermining the feared unity government. According to Israeli military sources, its soldiers arrested 419 Palestinians, including 335 affiliated with Hamas, and killed six, while searching thousands of locations and confiscating $350,000. Israel also conducted dozens of attacks in Gaza, killing five Hamas members on July 7th.
Hamas finally reacted with its first rockets in 18 months, Israeli officials reported, providing Israel with the pretext to launch Operation Protective Edge on July 8th. The 50-day assault proved the most extreme exercise in mowing the lawn — so far.
Operation [Still to Be Named]
Israel is in a fine position today to reverse its decades-old policy of separating Gaza from the West Bank in violation of its solemn agreements and to observe a major ceasefire agreement for the first time. At least temporarily, the threat of democracy in neighboring Egypt has been diminished, and the brutal Egyptian military dictatorship of General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is a welcome ally for Israel in maintaining control over Gaza.
The Palestinian unity government, as noted earlier, is placing the U.S.-trained forces of the Palestinian Authority in control of Gaza’s borders, and governance may be shifting into the hands of the PA, which depends on Israel for its survival, as well as for its finances. Israel might feel that its takeover of Palestinian territory in the West Bank has proceeded so far that there is little to fear from some limited form of autonomy for the enclaves that remain to Palestinians.
There is also some truth to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's observation: "Many elements in the region understand today that, in the struggle in which they are threatened, Israel is not an enemy but a partner." Akiva Eldar, Israel's leading diplomatic correspondent, adds, however, that "all those ‘many elements in the region’ also understand that there is no brave and comprehensive diplomatic move on the horizon without an agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and a just, agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem." That is not on Israel's agenda, he points out, and is in fact in direct conflict with the 1999 electoral program of the governing Likud coalition, never rescinded, which "flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river."
Some knowledgeable Israeli commentators, notably columnist Danny Rubinstein, believe that Israel is poised to reverse course and relax its stranglehold on Gaza.
The record of these past years suggests otherwise and the first signs are not auspicious. As Operation Protective Edge ended, Israel announced its largest appropriation of West Bank land in 30 years, almost 1,000 acres. Israel Radio reported that the takeover was in response to the killing of the three Jewish teenagers by "Hamas militants." A Palestinian boy was burned to death in retaliation for the murder, but no Israeli land was handed to Palestinians, nor was there any reaction when an Israeli soldier murdered 10-year-old Khalil Anati on a quiet street in a refugee camp near Hebron on August 10th, while the most moral army in the world was smashing Gaza to bits, and then drove away in his jeep as the child bled to death.
Anati was one the 23 Palestinians (including three children) killed by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank during the Gaza onslaught, according to U.N. statistics, along with more than 2,000 wounded, 38% by live fire. "None of those killed were endangering soldiers' lives," Israeli journalist Gideon Levy reported. To none of this is there any reaction, just as there was no reaction while Israel killed, on average, more than two Palestinian children a week for the past 14 years. Unpeople, after all.
It is commonly claimed on all sides that, if the two-state settlement is dead as a result of Israel's takeover of Palestinian lands, then the outcome will be one state West of the Jordan. Some Palestinians welcome this outcome, anticipating that they can then conduct a civil rights struggle for equal rights on the model of South Africa under apartheid. Many Israeli commentators warn that the resulting "demographic problem" of more Arab than Jewish births and diminishing Jewish immigration will undermine their hope for a "democratic Jewish state."
But these widespread beliefs are dubious.
The realistic alternative to a two-state settlement is that Israel will continue to carry forward the plans it has been implementing for years, taking over whatever is of value to it in the West Bank, while avoiding Palestinian population concentrations and removing Palestinians from the areas it is integrating into Israel. That should avoid the dreaded "demographic problem."
The areas being integrated into Israel include a vastly expanded Greater Jerusalem, the area within the illegal "Separation Wall," corridors cutting through the regions to the East, and will probably also encompass the Jordan Valley. Gaza will likely remain under its usual harsh siege, separated from the West Bank. And the Syrian Golan Heights — like Jerusalem, annexed in violation of Security Council orders — will quietly become part of Greater Israel. In the meantime, West Bank Palestinians will be contained in unviable cantons, with special accommodation for elites in standard neocolonial style.
These basic policies have been underway since the 1967 conquest, following a principle enunciated by then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, one of the Israeli leaders most sympathetic to the Palestinians. He informed his cabinet colleagues that they should tell Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, "We have no solution, you shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave, and we will see where this process leads."
The suggestion was natural within the overriding conception articulated in 1972 by future president Haim Herzog: "I do not deny the Palestinians a place or stand or opinion on every matter… But certainly I am not prepared to consider them as partners in any respect in a land that has been consecrated in the hands of our nation for thousands of years. For the Jews of this land there cannot be any partner." Dayan also called for Israel’s "permanent rule" ("memshelet keva") over the occupied territories. When Netanyahu expresses the same stand today, he is not breaking new ground.
Like other states, Israel pleads "security" as justification for its aggressive and violent actions. But knowledgeable Israelis know better. Their recognition of reality was articulated clearly in 1972 by Air Force Commander (and later president) Ezer Weizmann. He explained that there would be no security problem if Israel were to accept the international call to withdraw from the territories it conquered in 1967, but the country would not then be able to "exist according to the scale, spirit, and quality she now embodies."
For a century, the Zionist colonization of Palestine has proceeded primarily on the pragmatic principle of the quiet establishment of facts on the ground, which the world was to ultimately come to accept. It has been a highly successful policy. There is every reason to expect it to persist as long as the United States provides the necessary military, economic, diplomatic, and ideological support. For those concerned with the rights of the brutalized Palestinians, there can be no higher priority than working to change U.S. policies, not an idle dream by any means.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among his recent books are Hegemony or Survival, Failed States, Power Systems, Occupy, and Hopes and Prospects. His latest book, Masters of Mankind, will be published this week by Haymarket Books, which is also reissuing 12 of his classic books in new editions over the coming year. His work is regularly posted at TomDispatch.com. His website is www.chomsky.info.
Copyright 2014 Noam Chomsky
Ceasefires in Which Violations Never Cease
If some extraterrestrial species were compiling a history of Homo sapiens, they might well break their calendar into two eras: BNW (before nuclear weapons) and NWE (the nuclear weapons era). The latter era, of course, opened on August 6, 1945, the first day of the countdown to what may be the inglorious end of this strange species, which attained the intelligence to discover the effective means to destroy itself, but — so the evidence suggests — not the moral and intellectual capacity to control its worst instincts.
Day one of the NWE was marked by the “success” of Little Boy, a simple atomic bomb. On day four, Nagasaki experienced the technological triumph of Fat Man, a more sophisticated design. Five days later came what the official Air Force history calls the “grand finale,” a 1,000-plane raid — no mean logistical achievement — attacking Japan’s cities and killing many thousands of people, with leaflets falling among the bombs reading “Japan has surrendered.” Truman announced that surrender before the last B-29 returned to its base.
Those were the auspicious opening days of the NWE. As we now enter its 70th year, we should be contemplating with wonder that we have survived. We can only guess how many years remain.
Some reflections on these grim prospects were offered by General Lee Butler, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which controls nuclear weapons and strategy. Twenty years ago, he wrote that we had so far survived the NWE “by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”
Reflecting on his long career in developing nuclear weapons strategies and organizing the forces to implement them efficiently, he described himself ruefully as having been “among the most avid of these keepers of the faith in nuclear weapons.” But, he continued, he had come to realize that it was now his “burden to declare with all of the conviction I can muster that in my judgment they served us extremely ill.” And he asked, “By what authority do succeeding generations of leaders in the nuclear-weapons states usurp the power to dictate the odds of continued life on our planet? Most urgently, why does such breathtaking audacity persist at a moment when we should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our commitment to abolish its most deadly manifestations?”
He termed the U.S. strategic plan of 1960 that called for an automated all-out strike on the Communist world “the single most absurd and irresponsible document I have ever reviewed in my life.” Its Soviet counterpart was probably even more insane. But it is important to bear in mind that there are competitors, not least among them the easy acceptance of extraordinary threats to survival.
Survival in the Early Cold War Years
According to received doctrine in scholarship and general intellectual discourse, the prime goal of state policy is “national security.” There is ample evidence, however, that the doctrine of national security does not encompass the security of the population. The record reveals that, for instance, the threat of instant destruction by nuclear weapons has not ranked high among the concerns of planners. That much was demonstrated early on, and remains true to the present moment.
In the early days of the NWE, the U.S. was overwhelmingly powerful and enjoyed remarkable security: it controlled the hemisphere, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the opposite sides of those oceans as well. Long before World War II, it had already become by far the richest country in the world, with incomparable advantages. Its economy boomed during the war, while other industrial societies were devastated or severely weakened. By the opening of the new era, the U.S. possessed about half of total world wealth and an even greater percentage of its manufacturing capacity.
There was, however, a potential threat: intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. That threat was discussed in the standard scholarly study of nuclear policies, carried out with access to high-level sources — Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years by McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies.
Bundy wrote that “the timely development of ballistic missiles during the Eisenhower administration is one of the best achievements of those eight years. Yet it is well to begin with a recognition that both the United States and the Soviet Union might be in much less nuclear danger today if [those] missiles had never been developed.” He then added an instructive comment: “I am aware of no serious contemporary proposal, in or out of either government, that ballistic missiles should somehow be banned by agreement.” In short, there was apparently no thought of trying to prevent the sole serious threat to the U.S., the threat of utter destruction in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Could that threat have been taken off the table? We cannot, of course, be sure, but it was hardly inconceivable. The Russians, far behind in industrial development and technological sophistication, were in a far more threatening environment. Hence, they were significantly more vulnerable to such weapons systems than the U.S. There might have been opportunities to explore these possibilities, but in the extraordinary hysteria of the day they could hardly have even been perceived. And that hysteria was indeed extraordinary. An examination of the rhetoric of central official documents of that moment like National Security Council Paper NSC-68 remains quite shocking, even discounting Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s injunction that it is necessary to be “clearer than truth.”
One indication of possible opportunities to blunt the threat was a remarkable proposal by Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin in 1952, offering to allow Germany to be unified with free elections on the condition that it would not then join a hostile military alliance. That was hardly an extreme condition in light of the history of the past half-century during which Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia twice, exacting a terrible toll.
Stalin’s proposal was taken seriously by the respected political commentator James Warburg, but otherwise mostly ignored or ridiculed at the time. Recent scholarship has begun to take a different view. The bitterly anti-Communist Soviet scholar Adam Ulam has taken the status of Stalin’s proposal to be an “unresolved mystery.” Washington “wasted little effort in flatly rejecting Moscow’s initiative,” he has written, on grounds that “were embarrassingly unconvincing.” The political, scholarly, and general intellectual failure left open “the basic question,” Ulam added: “Was Stalin genuinely ready to sacrifice the newly created German Democratic Republic (GDR) on the altar of real democracy,” with consequences for world peace and for American security that could have been enormous?
Reviewing recent research in Soviet archives, one of the most respected Cold War scholars, Melvyn Leffler, has observed that many scholars were surprised to discover “[Lavrenti] Beria — the sinister, brutal head of the [Russian] secret police — propos[ed] that the Kremlin offer the West a deal on the unification and neutralization of Germany,” agreeing “to sacrifice the East German communist regime to reduce East-West tensions” and improve internal political and economic conditions in Russia — opportunities that were squandered in favor of securing German participation in NATO.
Under the circumstances, it is not impossible that agreements might then have been reached that would have protected the security of the American population from the gravest threat on the horizon. But that possibility apparently was not considered, a striking indication of how slight a role authentic security plays in state policy.
The Cuban Missile Crisis and Beyond
That conclusion was underscored repeatedly in the years that followed. When Nikita Khrushchev took control in Russia in 1953 after Stalin’s death, he recognized that the USSR could not compete militarily with the U.S., the richest and most powerful country in history, with incomparable advantages. If it ever hoped to escape its economic backwardness and the devastating effect of the last world war, it would need to reverse the arms race.
Accordingly, Khrushchev proposed sharp mutual reductions in offensive weapons. The incoming Kennedy administration considered the offer and rejected it, instead turning to rapid military expansion, even though it was already far in the lead. The late Kenneth Waltz, supported by other strategic analysts with close connections to U.S. intelligence, wrote then that the Kennedy administration “undertook the largest strategic and conventional peace-time military build-up the world has yet seen… even as Khrushchev was trying at once to carry through a major reduction in the conventional forces and to follow a strategy of minimum deterrence, and we did so even though the balance of strategic weapons greatly favored the United States.” Again, harming national security while enhancing state power.
U.S. intelligence verified that huge cuts had indeed been made in active Soviet military forces, both in terms of aircraft and manpower. In 1963, Khrushchev again called for new reductions. As a gesture, he withdrew troops from East Germany and called on Washington to reciprocate. That call, too, was rejected. William Kaufmann, a former top Pentagon aide and leading analyst of security issues, described the U.S. failure to respond to Khrushchev’s initiatives as, in career terms, “the one regret I have.”
The Soviet reaction to the U.S. build-up of those years was to place nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962 to try to redress the balance at least slightly. The move was also motivated in part by Kennedy’s terrorist campaign against Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which was scheduled to lead to invasion that very month, as Russia and Cuba may have known. The ensuing “missile crisis” was “the most dangerous moment in history,” in the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s adviser and confidant.
As the crisis peaked in late October, Kennedy received a secret letter from Khrushchev offering to end it by simultaneous public withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The latter were obsolete missiles, already ordered withdrawn by the Kennedy administration because they were being replaced by far more lethal Polaris submarines to be stationed in the Mediterranean.
Kennedy’s subjective estimate at that moment was that if he refused the Soviet premier’s offer, there was a 33% to 50% probability of nuclear war — a war that, as President Eisenhower had warned, would have destroyed the northern hemisphere. Kennedy nonetheless refused Khrushchev’s proposal for public withdrawal of the missiles from Cuba and Turkey; only the withdrawal from Cuba could be public, so as to protect the U.S. right to place missiles on Russia’s borders or anywhere else it chose.
It is hard to think of a more horrendous decision in history — and for this, he is still highly praised for his cool courage and statesmanship.
Ten years later, in the last days of the 1973 Israel-Arab war, Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser to President Nixon, called a nuclear alert. The purpose was to warn the Russians not to interfere with his delicate diplomatic maneuvers designed to ensure an Israeli victory, but of a limited sort so that the U.S. would still be in control of the region unilaterally. And the maneuvers were indeed delicate. The U.S. and Russia had jointly imposed a cease-fire, but Kissinger secretly informed the Israelis that they could ignore it. Hence the need for the nuclear alert to frighten the Russians away. The security of Americans had its usual status.
Ten years later, the Reagan administration launched operations to probe Russian air defenses by simulating air and naval attacks and a high-level nuclear alert that the Russians were intended to detect. These actions were undertaken at a very tense moment. Washington was deploying Pershing II strategic missiles in Europe with a five-minute flight time to Moscow. President Reagan had also announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) program, which the Russians understood to be effectively a first-strike weapon, a standard interpretation of missile defense on all sides. And other tensions were rising.
Naturally, these actions caused great alarm in Russia, which, unlike the U.S., was quite vulnerable and had repeatedly been invaded and virtually destroyed. That led to a major war scare in 1983. Newly released archives reveal that the danger was even more severe than historians had previously assumed. A CIA study entitled “The War Scare Was for Real” concluded that U.S. intelligence may have underestimated Russian concerns and the threat of a Russian preventative nuclear strike. The exercises “almost became a prelude to a preventative nuclear strike,” according to an account in the Journal of Strategic Studies.
It was even more dangerous than that, as we learned last September, when the BBC reported that right in the midst of these world-threatening developments, Russia’s early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States, sending its nuclear system onto the highest-level alert. The protocol for the Soviet military was to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own. Fortunately, the officer on duty, Stanislav Petrov, decided to disobey orders and not report the warnings to his superiors. He received an official reprimand. And thanks to his dereliction of duty, we’re still alive to talk about it.
The security of the population was no more a high priority for Reagan administration planners than for their predecessors. And so it continues to the present, even putting aside the numerous near-catastrophic nuclear accidents that occurred over the years, many reviewed in Eric Schlosser’s chilling study Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. In other words, it is hard to contest General Butler’s conclusions.
Survival in the Post-Cold War Era
The record of post-Cold War actions and doctrines is hardly reassuring either. Every self-respecting president has to have a doctrine. The Clinton Doctrine was encapsulated in the slogan “multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must.” In congressional testimony, the phrase “when we must” was explained more fully: the U.S. is entitled to resort to “unilateral use of military power” to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.” Meanwhile, STRATCOM in the Clinton era produced an important study entitled “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence,” issued well after the Soviet Union had collapsed and Clinton was extending President George H.W. Bush’s program of expanding NATO to the east in violation of promises to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev — with reverberations to the present.
That STRATCOM study was concerned with “the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era.” A central conclusion: that the U.S. must maintain the right to launch a first strike, even against non-nuclear states. Furthermore, nuclear weapons must always be at the ready because they “cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict.” They were, that is, constantly being used, just as you’re using a gun if you aim but don’t fire one while robbing a store (a point that Daniel Ellsberg has repeatedly stressed). STRATCOM went on to advise that “planners should not be too rational about determining… what the opponent values the most.” Everything should simply be targeted. “[I]t hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed… That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project.” It is “beneficial [for our strategic posture] if some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control,’” thus posing a constant threat of nuclear attack — a severe violation of the U.N. Charter, if anyone cares.
Not much here about the noble goals constantly proclaimed — or for that matter the obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to make “good faith” efforts to eliminate this scourge of the earth. What resounds, rather, is an adaptation of Hilaire Belloc’s famous couplet about the Maxim gun (to quote the great African historian Chinweizu):
“Whatever happens, we have got,
The Atom Bomb, and they have not.”
After Clinton came, of course, George W. Bush, whose broad endorsement of preventative war easily encompassed Japan’s attack in December 1941 on military bases in two U.S. overseas possessions, at a time when Japanese militarists were well aware that B-17 Flying Fortresses were being rushed off assembly lines and deployed to those bases with the intent “to burn out the industrial heart of the Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps of Honshu and Kyushu.” That was how the prewar plans were described by their architect, Air Force General Claire Chennault, with the enthusiastic approval of President Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall.
Then comes Barack Obama, with pleasant words about working to abolish nuclear weapons — combined with plans to spend $1 trillion on the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the next 30 years, a percentage of the military budget “comparable to spending for procurement of new strategic systems in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan,” according to a study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Obama has also not hesitated to play with fire for political gain. Take for example the capture and assassination of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs. Obama brought it up with pride in an important speech on national security in May 2013. It was widely covered, but one crucial paragraph was ignored.
Obama hailed the operation but added that it could not be the norm. The reason, he said, was that the risks “were immense.” The SEALs might have been “embroiled in an extended firefight.” Even though, by luck, that didn’t happen, “the cost to our relationship with Pakistan and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory was… severe.”
Let us now add a few details. The SEALs were ordered to fight their way out if apprehended. They would not have been left to their fate if “embroiled in an extended firefight.” The full force of the U.S. military would have been used to extricate them. Pakistan has a powerful, well-trained military, highly protective of state sovereignty. It also has nuclear weapons, and Pakistani specialists are concerned about the possible penetration of their nuclear security system by jihadi elements. It is also no secret that the population has been embittered and radicalized by Washington’s drone terror campaign and other policies.
While the SEALs were still in the bin Laden compound, Pakistani Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was informed of the raid and ordered the military “to confront any unidentified aircraft,” which he assumed would be from India. Meanwhile in Kabul, U.S. war commander General David Petraeus ordered “warplanes to respond” if the Pakistanis “scrambled their fighter jets.” As Obama said, by luck the worst didn’t happen, though it could have been quite ugly. But the risks were faced without noticeable concern. Or subsequent comment.
As General Butler observed, it is a near miracle that we have escaped destruction so far, and the longer we tempt fate, the less likely it is that we can hope for divine intervention to perpetuate the miracle.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among his recent books are Hegemony or Survival, Failed States, Power Systems, Occupy, and Hopes and Prospects. His latest book, Masters of Mankind, will be published soon by Haymarket Books, which is also reissuing twelve of his classic books in new editions over the coming year. His website is www.chomsky.info.
Copyright 2014 Noam Chomsky
How Many Minutes to Midnight?
The question of how foreign policy is determined is a crucial one in world affairs. In these comments, I can only provide a few hints as to how I think the subject can be productively explored, keeping to the United States for several reasons. First, the U.S. is unmatched in its global significance and impact. Second, it is an unusually open society, possibly uniquely so, which means we know more about it. Finally, it is plainly the most important case for Americans, who are able to influence policy choices in the U.S. — and indeed for others, insofar as their actions can influence such choices. The general principles, however, extend to the other major powers, and well beyond.
There is a “received standard version,” common to academic scholarship, government pronouncements, and public discourse. It holds that the prime commitment of governments is to ensure security, and that the primary concern of the U.S. and its allies since 1945 was the Russian threat.
There are a number of ways to evaluate the doctrine. One obvious question to ask is: What happened when the Russian threat disappeared in 1989? Answer: everything continued much as before.
The U.S. immediately invaded Panama, killing probably thousands of people and installing a client regime. This was routine practice in U.S.-dominated domains — but in this case not quite as routine. For first time, a major foreign policy act was not justified by an alleged Russian threat.
Instead, a series of fraudulent pretexts for the invasion were concocted that collapse instantly on examination. The media chimed in enthusiastically, lauding the magnificent achievement of defeating Panama, unconcerned that the pretexts were ludicrous, that the act itself was a radical violation of international law, and that it was bitterly condemned elsewhere, most harshly in Latin America. Also ignored was the U.S. veto of a unanimous Security Council resolution condemning crimes by U.S. troops during the invasion, with Britain alone abstaining.
All routine. And all forgotten (which is also routine).
From El Salvador to the Russian Border
The administration of George H.W. Bush issued a new national security policy and defense budget in reaction to the collapse of the global enemy. It was pretty much the same as before, although with new pretexts. It was, it turned out, necessary to maintain a military establishment almost as great as the rest of the world combined and far more advanced in technological sophistication — but not for defense against the now-nonexistent Soviet Union. Rather, the excuse now was the growing “technological sophistication” of Third World powers. Disciplined intellectuals understood that it would have been improper to collapse in ridicule, so they maintained a proper silence.
The U.S., the new programs insisted, must maintain its “defense industrial base.” The phrase is a euphemism, referring to high-tech industry generally, which relies heavily on extensive state intervention for research and development, often under Pentagon cover, in what economists continue to call the U.S. “free-market economy.”
One of the most interesting provisions of the new plans had to do with the Middle East. There, it was declared, Washington must maintain intervention forces targeting a crucial region where the major problems “could not have been laid at the Kremlin’s door.” Contrary to 50 years of deceit, it was quietly conceded that the main concern was not the Russians, but rather what is called “radical nationalism,” meaning independent nationalism not under U.S. control.
All of this has evident bearing on the standard version, but it passed unnoticed — or perhaps, therefore it passed unnoticed.
Other important events took place immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ending the Cold War. One was in El Salvador, the leading recipient of U.S. military aid — apart from Israel-Egypt, a separate category — and with one of the worst human rights records anywhere. That is a familiar and very close correlation.
The Salvadoran high command ordered the Atlacatl Brigade to invade the Jesuit University and murder six leading Latin American intellectuals, all Jesuit priests, including the rector, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, and any witnesses, meaning their housekeeper and her daughter. The Brigade had just returned from advanced counterinsurgency training at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and had already left a bloody trail of thousands of the usual victims in the course of the U.S.-run state terror campaign in El Salvador, one part of a broader terror and torture campaign throughout the region. All routine. Ignored and virtually forgotten in the United States and by its allies, again routine. But it tells us a lot about the factors that drive policy, if we care to look at the real world.
Another important event took place in Europe. Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to allow the unification of Germany and its membership in NATO, a hostile military alliance. In the light of recent history, this was a most astonishing concession. There was a quid pro quo. President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker agreed that NATO would not expand “one inch to the East,” meaning into East Germany. Instantly, they expanded NATO to East Germany.
Gorbachev was naturally outraged, but when he complained, he was instructed by Washington that this had only been a verbal promise, a gentleman’s agreement, hence without force. If he was naïve enough to accept the word of American leaders, it was his problem.
All of this, too, was routine, as was the silent acceptance and approval of the expansion of NATO in the U.S. and the West generally. President Bill Clinton then expanded NATO further, right up to Russia’s borders. Today, the world faces a serious crisis that is in no small measure a result of these policies.
The Appeal of Plundering the Poor
Another source of evidence is the declassified historical record. It contains revealing accounts of the actual motives of state policy. The story is rich and complex, but a few persistent themes play a dominant role. One was articulated clearly at a western hemispheric conference called by the U.S. in Mexico in February 1945 where Washington imposed “An Economic Charter of the Americas” designed to eliminate economic nationalism “in all its forms.” There was one unspoken condition. Economic nationalism would be fine for the U.S. whose economy relies heavily on massive state intervention.
The elimination of economic nationalism for others stood in sharp conflict with the Latin American stand of that moment, which State Department officials described as “the philosophy of the New Nationalism [that] embraces policies designed to bring about a broader distribution of wealth and to raise the standard of living of the masses.” As U.S. policy analysts added, “Latin Americans are convinced that the first beneficiaries of the development of a country’s resources should be the people of that country.”
That, of course, will not do. Washington understands that the “first beneficiaries” should be U.S. investors, while Latin America fulfills its service function. It should not, as both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations would make clear, undergo “excessive industrial development” that might infringe on U.S. interests. Thus Brazil could produce low-quality steel that U.S. corporations did not want to bother with, but it would be “excessive,” were it to compete with U.S. firms.
Similar concerns resonate throughout the post-World War II period. The global system that was to be dominated by the U.S. was threatened by what internal documents call “radical and nationalistic regimes” that respond to popular pressures for independent development. That was the concern that motivated the overthrow of the parliamentary governments of Iran and Guatemala in 1953 and 1954, as well as numerous others. In the case of Iran, a major concern was the potential impact of Iranian independence on Egypt, then in turmoil over British colonial practice. In Guatemala, apart from the crime of the new democracy in empowering the peasant majority and infringing on possessions of the United Fruit Company — already offensive enough — Washington’s concern was labor unrest and popular mobilization in neighboring U.S.-backed dictatorships.
In both cases the consequences reach to the present. Literally not a day has passed since 1953 when the U.S. has not been torturing the people of Iran. Guatemala remains one of the world’s worst horror chambers. To this day, Mayans are fleeing from the effects of near-genocidal government military campaigns in the highlands backed by President Ronald Reagan and his top officials. As the country director of Oxfam, a Guatemalan doctor, reported recently,
“There is a dramatic deterioration of the political, social, and economic context. Attacks against Human Rights defenders have increased 300% during the last year. There is a clear evidence of a very well organized strategy by the private sector and Army. Both have captured the government in order to keep the status quo and to impose the extraction economic model, pushing away dramatically indigenous peoples from their own land, due to the mining industry, African Palm and sugar cane plantations. In addition the social movement defending their land and rights has been criminalized, many leaders are in jail, and many others have been killed.”
Nothing is known about this in the United States and the very obvious cause of it remains suppressed.
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explained quite clearly the dilemma that the U.S. faced. They complained that the Communists had an unfair advantage. They were able to “appeal directly to the masses” and “get control of mass movements, something we have no capacity to duplicate. The poor people are the ones they appeal to and they have always wanted to plunder the rich.”
That causes problems. The U.S. somehow finds it difficult to appeal to the poor with its doctrine that the rich should plunder the poor.
The Cuban Example
A clear illustration of the general pattern was Cuba, when it finally gained independence in 1959. Within months, military attacks on the island began. Shortly after, the Eisenhower administration made a secret decision to overthrow the government. John F. Kennedy then became president. He intended to devote more attention to Latin America and so, on taking office, he created a study group to develop policies headed by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, who summarized its conclusions for the incoming president.
As Schlesinger explained, threatening in an independent Cuba was “the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own hands.” It was an idea that unfortunately appealed to the mass of the population in Latin America where “the distribution of land and other forms of national wealth greatly favors the propertied classes, and the poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living.” Again, Washington’s usual dilemma.
As the CIA explained, “The extensive influence of ‘Castroism’ is not a function of Cuban power… Castro’s shadow looms large because social and economic conditions throughout Latin America invite opposition to ruling authority and encourage agitation for radical change,” for which his Cuba provides a model. Kennedy feared that Russian aid might make Cuba a “showcase” for development, giving the Soviets the upper hand throughout Latin America.
The State Department Policy Planning Council warned that “the primary danger we face in Castro is… in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon the leftist movement in many Latin American countries… The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the U.S., a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half” — that is, since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, when the U.S. declared its intention of dominating the hemisphere.
The immediate goal at the time was to conquer Cuba, but that could not be achieved because of the power of the British enemy. Still, that grand strategist John Quincy Adams, the intellectual father of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny, informed his colleagues that over time Cuba would fall into our hands by “the laws of political gravitation,” as an apple falls from the tree. In brief, U.S. power would increase and Britain’s would decline.
In 1898, Adams’s prognosis was realized. The U.S. invaded Cuba in the guise of liberating it. In fact, it prevented the island’s liberation from Spain and turned it into a “virtual colony” to quote historians Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. Cuba remained so until January 1959, when it gained independence. Since that time it has been subjected to major U.S. terrorist wars, primarily during the Kennedy years, and economic strangulation. Not because of the Russians.
The pretense all along was that we were defending ourselves from the Russian threat — an absurd explanation that generally went unchallenged. A simple test of the thesis is what happened when any conceivable Russian threat disappeared. U.S. policy toward Cuba became even harsher, spearheaded by liberal Democrats, including Bill Clinton, who outflanked Bush from the right in the 1992 election. On the face of it, these events should have considerable bearing on the validity of the doctrinal framework for discussion of foreign policy and the factors that drive it. Once again, however, the impact was slight.
The Virus of Nationalism
To borrow Henry Kissinger’s terminology, independent nationalism is a “virus” that might “spread contagion.” Kissinger was referring to Salvador Allende’s Chile. The virus was the idea that there might be a parliamentary path towards some kind of socialist democracy. The way to deal with such a threat is to destroy the virus and to inoculate those who might be infected, typically by imposing murderous national security states. That was achieved in the case of Chile, but it is important to recognize that the thinking holds worldwide.
It was, for example, the reasoning behind the decision to oppose Vietnamese nationalism in the early 1950s and support France’s effort to reconquer its former colony. It was feared that independent Vietnamese nationalism might be a virus that would spread contagion to the surrounding regions, including resource-rich Indonesia. That might even have led Japan — called the “superdomino” by Asia scholar John Dower — to become the industrial and commercial center of an independent new order of the kind imperial Japan had so recently fought to establish. That, in turn, would have meant that the U.S. had lost the Pacific war, not an option to be considered in 1950. The remedy was clear — and largely achieved. Vietnam was virtually destroyed and ringed by military dictatorships that kept the “virus” from spreading contagion.
In retrospect, Kennedy-Johnson National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy reflected that Washington should have ended the Vietnam War in 1965, when the Suharto dictatorship was installed in Indonesia, with enormous massacres that the CIA compared to the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. These were, however, greeted with unconstrained euphoria in the U.S. and the West generally because the “staggering bloodbath,” as the press cheerfully described it, ended any threat of contagion and opened Indonesia’s rich resources to western exploitation. After that, the war to destroy Vietnam was superfluous, as Bundy recognized in retrospect.
The same was true in Latin America in the same years: one virus after another was viciously attacked and either destroyed or weakened to the point of bare survival. From the early 1960s, a plague of repression was imposed on the continent that had no precedent in the violent history of the hemisphere, extending to Central America in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, a matter that there should be no need to review.
Much the same was true in the Middle East. The unique U.S. relations with Israel were established in their current form in 1967, when Israel delivered a smashing blow to Egypt, the center of secular Arab nationalism. By doing so, it protected U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, then engaged in military conflict with Egypt in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, of course, is the most extreme radical fundamentalist Islamic state, and also a missionary state, expending huge sums to establish its Wahhabi-Salafi doctrines beyond its borders. It is worth remembering that the U.S., like England before it, has tended to support radical fundamentalist Islam in opposition to secular nationalism, which has usually been perceived as posing more of a threat of independence and contagion.
The Value of Secrecy
There is much more to say, but the historical record demonstrates very clearly that the standard doctrine has little merit. Security in the normal sense is not a prominent factor in policy formation.
To repeat, in the normal sense. But in evaluating the standard doctrine we have to ask what is actually meant by “security”: security for whom?
One answer is: security for state power. There are many illustrations. Take a current one. In May, the U.S. agreed to support a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Syria, but with a proviso: there could be no inquiry into possible war crimes by Israel. Or by Washington, though it was really unnecessary to add that last condition. The U.S. is uniquely self-immunized from the international legal system. In fact, there is even congressional legislation authorizing the president to use armed force to “rescue” any American brought to the Hague for trial — the “Netherlands Invasion Act,” as it is sometimes called in Europe. That once again illustrates the importance of protecting the security of state power.
But protecting it from whom? There is, in fact, a strong case to be made that a prime concern of government is the security of state power from the population. As those who have spent time rummaging through archives should be aware, government secrecy is rarely motivated by a genuine for security, but it definitely does serve to keep the population in the dark. And for good reasons, which were lucidly explained by the prominent liberal scholar and government adviser Samuel Huntington, the professor of the science of government at Harvard University. In his words: “The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”
He wrote that in 1981, when the Cold War was again heating up, and he explained further that “you may have to sell [intervention or other military action] in such a way as to create the misimpression that it is the Soviet Union that you are fighting. That is what the United States has been doing ever since the Truman Doctrine.”
These simple truths are rarely acknowledged, but they provide insight into state power and policy, with reverberations to the present moment.
State power has to be protected from its domestic enemy; in sharp contrast, the population is not secure from state power. A striking current illustration is the radical attack on the Constitution by the Obama administration’s massive surveillance program. It is, of course, justified by “national security.” That is routine for virtually all actions of all states and so carries little information.
When the NSA’s surveillance program was exposed by Edward Snowden’s revelations, high officials claimed that it had prevented 54 terrorist acts. On inquiry, that was whittled down to a dozen. A high-level government panel then discovered that there was actually only one case: someone had sent $8,500 to Somalia. That was the total yield of the huge assault on the Constitution and, of course, on others throughout the world.
Britain’s attitude is interesting. In 2007, the British government called on Washington’s colossal spy agency “to analyze and retain any British citizens’ mobile phone and fax numbers, emails, and IP addresses swept up by its dragnet,” the Guardian reported. That is a useful indication of the relative significance, in government eyes, of the privacy of its own citizens and of Washington’s demands.
Another concern is security for private power. One current illustration is the huge trade agreements now being negotiated, the Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic pacts. These are being negotiated in secret — but not completely in secret. They are not secret from the hundreds of corporate lawyers who are drawing up the detailed provisions. It is not hard to guess what the results will be, and the few leaks about them suggest that the expectations are accurate. Like NAFTA and other such pacts, these are not free trade agreements. In fact, they are not even trade agreements, but primarily investor rights agreements.
Again, secrecy is critically important to protect the primary domestic constituency of the governments involved, the corporate sector.
The Final Century of Human Civilization?
There are other examples too numerous to mention, facts that are well-established and would be taught in elementary schools in free societies.
There is, in other words, ample evidence that securing state power from the domestic population and securing concentrated private power are driving forces in policy formation. Of course, it is not quite that simple. There are interesting cases, some quite current, where these commitments conflict, but consider this a good first approximation and radically opposed to the received standard doctrine.
Let us turn to another question: What about the security of the population? It is easy to demonstrate that this is a marginal concern of policy planners. Take two prominent current examples, global warming and nuclear weapons. As any literate person is doubtless aware, these are dire threats to the security of the population. Turning to state policy, we find that it is committed to accelerating each of those threats — in the interests of the primary concerns, protection of state power and of the concentrated private power that largely determines state policy.
Consider global warming. There is now much exuberance in the United States about “100 years of energy independence” as we become “the Saudi Arabia of the next century” — perhaps the final century of human civilization if current policies persist.
That illustrates very clearly the nature of the concern for security, certainly not for the population. It also illustrates the moral calculus of contemporary Anglo-American state capitalism: the fate of our grandchildren counts as nothing when compared with the imperative of higher profits tomorrow.
These conclusions are fortified by a closer look at the propaganda system. There is a huge public relations campaign in the U.S., organized quite openly by Big Energy and the business world, to try to convince the public that global warming is either unreal or not a result of human activity. And it has had some impact. The U.S. ranks lower than other countries in public concern about global warming and the results are stratified: among Republicans, the party more fully dedicated to the interests of wealth and corporate power, it ranks far lower than the global norm.
The current issue of the premier journal of media criticism, the Columbia Journalism Review, has an interesting article on this subject, attributing this outcome to the media doctrine of “fair and balanced.” In other words, if a journal publishes an opinion piece reflecting the conclusions of 97% of scientists, it must also run a counter-piece expressing the viewpoint of the energy corporations.
That indeed is what happens, but there certainly is no “fair and balanced” doctrine. Thus, if a journal runs an opinion piece denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin for the criminal act of taking over the Crimea, it surely does not have to run a piece pointing out that, while the act is indeed criminal, Russia has a far stronger case today than the U.S. did more than a century ago in taking over southeastern Cuba, including the country’s major port — and rejecting the Cuban demand since independence to have it returned. And the same is true of many other cases. The actual media doctrine is “fair and balanced” when the concerns of concentrated private power are involved, but surely not elsewhere.
On the issue of nuclear weapons, the record is similarly interesting — and frightening. It reveals very clearly that, from the earliest days, the security of the population was a non-issue, and remains so. There is no time here to run through the shocking record, but there is little doubt that it strongly supports the lament of General Lee Butler, the last commander of the Strategic Air Command, which was armed with nuclear weapons. In his words, we have so far survived the nuclear age “by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.” And we can hardly count on continued divine intervention as policymakers play roulette with the fate of the species in pursuit of the driving factors in policy formation.
As we are all surely aware, we now face the most ominous decisions in human history. There are many problems that must be addressed, but two are overwhelming in their significance: environmental destruction and nuclear war. For the first time in history, we face the possibility of destroying the prospects for decent existence — and not in the distant future. For this reason alone, it is imperative to sweep away the ideological clouds and face honestly and realistically the question of how policy decisions are made, and what we can do to alter them before it is too late.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among his recent books are Hegemony or Survival, Failed States, Power Systems, Occupy, and Hopes and Prospects. His latest book, Masters of Mankind, will be published soon by Haymarket Books, which is also reissuing twelve of his classic books in new editions over the coming year. His website is www.chomsky.info.
Copyright 2014 Noam Chomsky
What is the future likely to bring? A reasonable stance might be to try to look at the human species from the outside. So imagine that you’re an extraterrestrial observer who is trying to figure out what’s happening here or, for that matter, imagine you’re an historian 100 years from now — assuming there are any historians 100 years from now, which is not obvious — and you’re looking back at what’s happening today. You’d see something quite remarkable.
For the first time in the history of the human species, we have clearly developed the capacity to destroy ourselves. That’s been true since 1945. It’s now being finally recognized that there are more long-term processes like environmental destruction leading in the same direction, maybe not to total destruction, but at least to the destruction of the capacity for a decent existence.
And there are other dangers like pandemics, which have to do with globalization and interaction. So there are processes underway and institutions right in place, like nuclear weapons systems, which could lead to a serious blow to, or maybe the termination of, an organized existence.
How to Destroy a Planet Without Really Trying
The question is: What are people doing about it? None of this is a secret. It’s all perfectly open. In fact, you have to make an effort not to see it.
There have been a range of reactions. There are those who are trying hard to do something about these threats, and others who are acting to escalate them. If you look at who they are, this future historian or extraterrestrial observer would see something strange indeed. Trying to mitigate or overcome these threats are the least developed societies, the indigenous populations, or the remnants of them, tribal societies and first nations in Canada. They’re not talking about nuclear war but environmental disaster, and they’re really trying to do something about it.
In fact, all over the world — Australia, India, South America — there are battles going on, sometimes wars. In India, it’s a major war over direct environmental destruction, with tribal societies trying to resist resource extraction operations that are extremely harmful locally, but also in their general consequences. In societies where indigenous populations have an influence, many are taking a strong stand. The strongest of any country with regard to global warming is in Bolivia, which has an indigenous majority and constitutional requirements that protect the “rights of nature.”
Ecuador, which also has a large indigenous population, is the only oil exporter I know of where the government is seeking aid to help keep that oil in the ground, instead of producing and exporting it — and the ground is where it ought to be.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died recently and was the object of mockery, insult, and hatred throughout the Western world, attended a session of the U.N. General Assembly a few years ago where he elicited all sorts of ridicule for calling George W. Bush a devil. He also gave a speech there that was quite interesting. Of course, Venezuela is a major oil producer. Oil is practically their whole gross domestic product. In that speech, he warned of the dangers of the overuse of fossil fuels and urged producer and consumer countries to get together and try to work out ways to reduce fossil fuel use. That was pretty amazing on the part of an oil producer. You know, he was part Indian, of indigenous background. Unlike the funny things he did, this aspect of his actions at the U.N. was never even reported.
So, at one extreme you have indigenous, tribal societies trying to stem the race to disaster. At the other extreme, the richest, most powerful societies in world history, like the United States and Canada, are racing full-speed ahead to destroy the environment as quickly as possible. Unlike Ecuador, and indigenous societies throughout the world, they want to extract every drop of hydrocarbons from the ground with all possible speed.
Both political parties, President Obama, the media, and the international press seem to be looking forward with great enthusiasm to what they call “a century of energy independence” for the United States. Energy independence is an almost meaningless concept, but put that aside. What they mean is: we’ll have a century in which to maximize the use of fossil fuels and contribute to destroying the world.
And that’s pretty much the case everywhere. Admittedly, when it comes to alternative energy development, Europe is doing something. Meanwhile, the United States, the richest and most powerful country in world history, is the only nation among perhaps 100 relevant ones that doesn’t have a national policy for restricting the use of fossil fuels, that doesn’t even have renewable energy targets. It’s not because the population doesn’t want it. Americans are pretty close to the international norm in their concern about global warming. It’s institutional structures that block change. Business interests don’t want it and they’re overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one.
So that’s what the future historian — if there is one — would see. He might also read today’s scientific journals. Just about every one you open has a more dire prediction than the last.
“The Most Dangerous Moment in History”
The other issue is nuclear war. It’s been known for a long time that if there were to be a first strike by a major power, even with no retaliation, it would probably destroy civilization just because of the nuclear-winter consequences that would follow. You can read about it in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It’s well understood. So the danger has always been a lot worse than we thought it was.
We’ve just passed the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was called “the most dangerous moment in history” by historian Arthur Schlesinger, President John F. Kennedy’s advisor. Which it was. It was a very close call, and not the only time either. In some ways, however, the worst aspect of these grim events is that the lessons haven’t been learned.
What happened in the missile crisis in October 1962 has been prettified to make it look as if acts of courage and thoughtfulness abounded. The truth is that the whole episode was almost insane. There was a point, as the missile crisis was reaching its peak, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy offering to settle it by a public announcement of a withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and U.S. missiles from Turkey. Actually, Kennedy hadn’t even known that the U.S. had missiles in Turkey at the time. They were being withdrawn anyway, because they were being replaced by more lethal Polaris nuclear submarines, which were invulnerable.
So that was the offer. Kennedy and his advisors considered it — and rejected it. At the time, Kennedy himself was estimating the likelihood of nuclear war at a third to a half. So Kennedy was willing to accept a very high risk of massive destruction in order to establish the principle that we — and only we — have the right to offensive missiles beyond our borders, in fact anywhere we like, no matter what the risk to others — and to ourselves, if matters fall out of control. We have that right, but no one else does.
Kennedy did, however, accept a secret agreement to withdraw the missiles the U.S. was already withdrawing, as long as it was never made public. Khrushchev, in other words, had to openly withdraw the Russian missiles while the U.S. secretly withdrew its obsolete ones; that is, Khrushchev had to be humiliated and Kennedy had to maintain his macho image. He’s greatly praised for this: courage and coolness under threat, and so on. The horror of his decisions is not even mentioned — try to find it on the record.
And to add a little more, a couple of months before the crisis blew up the United States had sent missiles with nuclear warheads to Okinawa. These were aimed at China during a period of great regional tension.
Well, who cares? We have the right to do anything we want anywhere in the world. That was one grim lesson from that era, but there were others to come.
Ten years after that, in 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called a high-level nuclear alert. It was his way of warning the Russians not to interfere in the ongoing Israel-Arab war and, in particular, not to interfere after he had informed the Israelis that they could violate a ceasefire the U.S. and Russia had just agreed upon. Fortunately, nothing happened.
Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan was in office. Soon after he entered the White House, he and his advisors had the Air Force start penetrating Russian air space to try to elicit information about Russian warning systems, Operation Able Archer. Essentially, these were mock attacks. The Russians were uncertain, some high-level officials fearing that this was a step towards a real first strike. Fortunately, they didn’t react, though it was a close call. And it goes on like that.
What to Make of the Iranian and North Korean Nuclear Crises
At the moment, the nuclear issue is regularly on front pages in the cases of North Korea and Iran. There are ways to deal with these ongoing crises. Maybe they wouldn’t work, but at least you could try. They are, however, not even being considered, not even reported.
Take the case of Iran, which is considered in the West — not in the Arab world, not in Asia — the gravest threat to world peace. It’s a Western obsession, and it’s interesting to look into the reasons for it, but I’ll put that aside here. Is there a way to deal with the supposed gravest threat to world peace? Actually there are quite a few. One way, a pretty sensible one, was proposed a couple of months ago at a meeting of the non-aligned countries in Tehran. In fact, they were just reiterating a proposal that’s been around for decades, pressed particularly by Egypt, and has been approved by the U.N. General Assembly.
The proposal is to move toward establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. That wouldn’t be the answer to everything, but it would be a pretty significant step forward. And there were ways to proceed. Under U.N. auspices, there was to be an international conference in Finland last December to try to implement plans to move toward this. What happened?
You won’t read about it in the newspapers because it wasn’t reported — only in specialist journals. In early November, Iran agreed to attend the meeting. A couple of days later Obama cancelled the meeting, saying the time wasn’t right. The European Parliament issued a statement calling for it to continue, as did the Arab states. Nothing resulted. So we’ll move toward ever-harsher sanctions against the Iranian population — it doesn’t hurt the regime — and maybe war. Who knows what will happen?
In Northeast Asia, it’s the same sort of thing. North Korea may be the craziest country in the world. It’s certainly a good competitor for that title. But it does make sense to try to figure out what’s in the minds of people when they’re acting in crazy ways. Why would they behave the way they do? Just imagine ourselves in their situation. Imagine what it meant in the Korean War years of the early 1950s for your country to be totally leveled, everything destroyed by a huge superpower, which furthermore was gloating about what it was doing. Imagine the imprint that would leave behind.
Bear in mind that the North Korean leadership is likely to have read the public military journals of this superpower at that time explaining that, since everything else in North Korea had been destroyed, the air force was sent to destroy North Korea’s dams, huge dams that controlled the water supply — a war crime, by the way, for which people were hanged in Nuremberg. And these official journals were talking excitedly about how wonderful it was to see the water pouring down, digging out the valleys, and the Asians scurrying around trying to survive. The journals were exulting in what this meant to those “Asians,” horrors beyond our imagination. It meant the destruction of their rice crop, which in turn meant starvation and death. How magnificent! It’s not in our memory, but it’s in their memory.
Let’s turn to the present. There’s an interesting recent history. In 1993, Israel and North Korea were moving towards an agreement in which North Korea would stop sending any missiles or military technology to the Middle East and Israel would recognize that country. President Clinton intervened and blocked it. Shortly after that, in retaliation, North Korea carried out a minor missile test. The U.S. and North Korea did then reach a framework agreement in 1994 that halted its nuclear work and was more or less honored by both sides. When George W. Bush came into office, North Korea had maybe one nuclear weapon and verifiably wasn’t producing any more.
Bush immediately launched his aggressive militarism, threatening North Korea — “axis of evil” and all that — so North Korea got back to work on its nuclear program. By the time Bush left office, they had eight to 10 nuclear weapons and a missile system, another great neocon achievement. In between, other things happened. In 2005, the U.S. and North Korea actually reached an agreement in which North Korea was to end all nuclear weapons and missile development. In return, the West, but mainly the United States, was to provide a light-water reactor for its medical needs and end aggressive statements. They would then form a nonaggression pact and move toward accommodation.
It was pretty promising, but almost immediately Bush undermined it. He withdrew the offer of the light-water reactor and initiated programs to compel banks to stop handling any North Korean transactions, even perfectly legal ones. The North Koreans reacted by reviving their nuclear weapons program. And that’s the way it’s been going.
It’s well known. You can read it in straight, mainstream American scholarship. What they say is: it’s a pretty crazy regime, but it’s also following a kind of tit-for-tat policy. You make a hostile gesture and we’ll respond with some crazy gesture of our own. You make an accommodating gesture and we’ll reciprocate in some way.
Lately, for instance, there have been South Korean-U.S. military exercises on the Korean peninsula which, from the North’s point of view, have got to look threatening. We’d think they were threatening if they were going on in Canada and aimed at us. In the course of these, the most advanced bombers in history, Stealth B-2s and B-52s, are carrying out simulated nuclear bombing attacks right on North Korea’s borders.
This surely sets off alarm bells from the past. They remember that past, so they’re reacting in a very aggressive, extreme way. Well, what comes to the West from all this is how crazy and how awful the North Korean leaders are. Yes, they are. But that’s hardly the whole story, and this is the way the world is going.
It’s not that there are no alternatives. The alternatives just aren’t being taken. That’s dangerous. So if you ask what the world is going to look like, it’s not a pretty picture. Unless people do something about it. We always can.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of numerous best-selling political works, including Hopes and Prospects, Making the Future, and most recently (with interviewer David Barsamian), Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books).
[Note: This piece was adapted (with the help of Noam Chomsky) from an online video interview done by the website What, which is dedicated to integrating knowledge from different fields with the aim of encouraging the balance between the individual, society, and the environment.]
Copyright 2013 Noam Chomsky
[This post is adapted from “Uprisings,” a chapter in Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire, Noam Chomsky’s new interview book with David Barsamian (with thanks to the publisher, Metropolitan Books). The questions are Barsamian’s, the answers Chomsky’s.]
Does the United States still have the same level of control over the energy resources of the Middle East as it once had?
The major energy-producing countries are still firmly under the control of the Western-backed dictatorships. So, actually, the progress made by the Arab Spring is limited, but it’s not insignificant. The Western-controlled dictatorial system is eroding. In fact, it’s been eroding for some time. So, for example, if you go back 50 years, the energy resources — the main concern of U.S. planners — have been mostly nationalized. There are constantly attempts to reverse that, but they have not succeeded.
Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example. To everyone except a dedicated ideologue, it was pretty obvious that we invaded Iraq not because of our love of democracy but because it’s maybe the second- or third-largest source of oil in the world, and is right in the middle of the major energy-producing region. You’re not supposed to say this. It’s considered a conspiracy theory.
The United States was seriously defeated in Iraq by Iraqi nationalism — mostly by nonviolent resistance. The United States could kill the insurgents, but they couldn’t deal with half a million people demonstrating in the streets. Step by step, Iraq was able to dismantle the controls put in place by the occupying forces. By November 2007, it was becoming pretty clear that it was going to be very hard to reach U.S. goals. And at that point, interestingly, those goals were explicitly stated. So in November 2007 the Bush II administration came out with an official declaration about what any future arrangement with Iraq would have to be. It had two major requirements: one, that the United States must be free to carry out combat operations from its military bases, which it will retain; and two, “encouraging the flow of foreign investments to Iraq, especially American investments.” In January 2008, Bush made this clear in one of his signing statements. A couple of months later, in the face of Iraqi resistance, the United States had to give that up. Control of Iraq is now disappearing before their eyes.
Iraq was an attempt to reinstitute by force something like the old system of control, but it was beaten back. In general, I think, U.S. policies remain constant, going back to the Second World War. But the capacity to implement them is declining.
Declining because of economic weakness?
Partly because the world is just becoming more diverse. It has more diverse power centers. At the end of the Second World War, the United States was absolutely at the peak of its power. It had half the world’s wealth and every one of its competitors was seriously damaged or destroyed. It had a position of unimaginable security and developed plans to essentially run the world — not unrealistically at the time.
This was called “Grand Area” planning?
Yes. Right after the Second World War, George Kennan, head of the U.S. State Department policy planning staff, and others sketched out the details, and then they were implemented. What’s happening now in the Middle East and North Africa, to an extent, and in South America substantially goes all the way back to the late 1940s. The first major successful resistance to U.S. hegemony was in 1949. That’s when an event took place, which, interestingly, is called “the loss of China.” It’s a very interesting phrase, never challenged. There was a lot of discussion about who is responsible for the loss of China. It became a huge domestic issue. But it’s a very interesting phrase. You can only lose something if you own it. It was just taken for granted: we possess China — and if they move toward independence, we’ve lost China. Later came concerns about “the loss of Latin America,” “the loss of the Middle East,” “the loss of” certain countries, all based on the premise that we own the world and anything that weakens our control is a loss to us and we wonder how to recover it.
On the other hand, the capacity to preserve control has sharply declined. By 1970, the world was already what was called tripolar economically, with a U.S.-based North American industrial center, a German-based European center, roughly comparable in size, and a Japan-based East Asian center, which was then the most dynamic growth region in the world. Since then, the global economic order has become much more diverse. So it’s harder to carry out our policies, but the underlying principles have not changed much.
Take the Clinton doctrine. The Clinton doctrine was that the United States is entitled to resort to unilateral force to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.” That goes beyond anything that George W. Bush said. But it was quiet and it wasn’t arrogant and abrasive, so it didn’t cause much of an uproar. The belief in that entitlement continues right to the present. It’s also part of the intellectual culture.
Right after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, amid all the cheers and applause, there were a few critical comments questioning the legality of the act. Centuries ago, there used to be something called presumption of innocence. If you apprehend a suspect, he’s a suspect until proven guilty. He should be brought to trial. It’s a core part of American law. You can trace it back to Magna Carta. So there were a couple of voices saying maybe we shouldn’t throw out the whole basis of Anglo-American law. That led to a lot of very angry and infuriated reactions, but the most interesting ones were, as usual, on the left liberal end of the spectrum. Matthew Yglesias, a well-known and highly respected left liberal commentator, wrote an article in which he ridiculed these views. He said they’re “amazingly naive,” silly. Then he expressed the reason. He said that “one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers.” Of course, he didn’t mean Norway. He meant the United States. So the principle on which the international system is based is that the United States is entitled to use force at will. To talk about the United States violating international law or something like that is amazingly naive, completely silly. Incidentally, I was the target of those remarks, and I’m happy to confess my guilt. I do think that Magna Carta and international law are worth paying some attention to.
I merely mention that to illustrate that in the intellectual culture, even at what’s called the left liberal end of the political spectrum, the core principles haven’t changed very much. But the capacity to implement them has been sharply reduced. That’s why you get all this talk about American decline. Take a look at the year-end issue of Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal. Its big front-page cover asks, in bold face, “Is America Over?” It’s a standard complaint of those who believe they should have everything. If you believe you should have everything and anything gets away from you, it’s a tragedy, the world is collapsing. So is America over? A long time ago we “lost” China, we’ve lost Southeast Asia, we’ve lost South America. Maybe we’ll lose the Middle East and North African countries. Is America over? It’s a kind of paranoia, but it’s the paranoia of the superrich and the superpowerful. If you don’t have everything, it’s a disaster.
The New York Times describes the “defining policy quandary of the Arab Spring: how to square contradictory American impulses that include support for democratic change, a desire for stability, and wariness of Islamists who have become a potent political force.” The Times identifies three U.S. goals. What do you make of them?
Two of them are accurate. The United States is in favor of stability. But you have to remember what stability means. Stability means conformity to U.S. orders. So, for example, one of the charges against Iran, the big foreign policy threat, is that it is destabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. How? By trying to expand its influence into neighboring countries. On the other hand, we “stabilize” countries when we invade them and destroy them.
I’ve occasionally quoted one of my favorite illustrations of this, which is from a well-known, very good liberal foreign policy analyst, James Chace, a former editor of Foreign Affairs. Writing about the overthrow of the Salvador Allende regime and the imposition of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1973, he said that we had to “destabilize” Chile in the interests of “stability.” That’s not perceived to be a contradiction — and it isn’t. We had to destroy the parliamentary system in order to gain stability, meaning that they do what we say. So yes, we are in favor of stability in this technical sense.
Concern about political Islam is just like concern about any independent development. Anything that’s independent you have to have concern about because it might undermine you. In fact, it’s a little ironic, because traditionally the United States and Britain have by and large strongly supported radical Islamic fundamentalism, not political Islam, as a force to block secular nationalism, the real concern. So, for example, Saudi Arabia is the most extreme fundamentalist state in the world, a radical Islamic state. It has a missionary zeal, is spreading radical Islam to Pakistan, funding terror. But it’s the bastion of U.S. and British policy. They’ve consistently supported it against the threat of secular nationalism from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Abd al-Karim Qasim’s Iraq, among many others. But they don’t like political Islam because it might become independent.
The first of the three points, our yearning for democracy, that’s about on the level of Joseph Stalin talking about the Russian commitment to freedom, democracy, and liberty for the world. It’s the kind of statement you laugh about when you hear it from commissars or Iranian clerics, but you nod politely and maybe even with awe when you hear it from their Western counterparts.
If you look at the record, the yearning for democracy is a bad joke. That’s even recognized by leading scholars, though they don’t put it this way. One of the major scholars on so-called democracy promotion is Thomas Carothers, who is pretty conservative and highly regarded — a neo-Reaganite, not a flaming liberal. He worked in Reagan’s State Department and has several books reviewing the course of democracy promotion, which he takes very seriously. He says, yes, this is a deep-seated American ideal, but it has a funny history. The history is that every U.S. administration is “schizophrenic.” They support democracy only if it conforms to certain strategic and economic interests. He describes this as a strange pathology, as if the United States needed psychiatric treatment or something. Of course, there’s another interpretation, but one that can’t come to mind if you’re a well-educated, properly behaved intellectual.
Within several months of the toppling of [President Hosni] Mubarak in Egypt, he was in the dock facing criminal charges and prosecution. It’s inconceivable that U.S. leaders will ever be held to account for their crimes in Iraq or beyond. Is that going to change anytime soon?
That’s basically the Yglesias principle: the very foundation of the international order is that the United States has the right to use violence at will. So how can you charge anybody?
And no one else has that right.
Of course not. Well, maybe our clients do. If Israel invades Lebanon and kills a thousand people and destroys half the country, okay, that’s all right. It’s interesting. Barack Obama was a senator before he was president. He didn’t do much as a senator, but he did a couple of things, including one he was particularly proud of. In fact, if you looked at his website before the primaries, he highlighted the fact that, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, he cosponsored a Senate resolution demanding that the United States do nothing to impede Israel’s military actions until they had achieved their objectives and censuring Iran and Syria because they were supporting resistance to Israel’s destruction of southern Lebanon, incidentally, for the fifth time in 25 years. So they inherit the right. Other clients do, too.
But the rights really reside in Washington. That’s what it means to own the world. It’s like the air you breathe. You can’t question it. The main founder of contemporary IR [international relations] theory, Hans Morgenthau, was really quite a decent person, one of the very few political scientists and international affairs specialists to criticize the Vietnam War on moral, not tactical, grounds. Very rare. He wrote a book called The Purpose of American Politics. You already know what’s coming. Other countries don’t have purposes. The purpose of America, on the other hand, is “transcendent”: to bring freedom and justice to the rest of the world. But he’s a good scholar, like Carothers. So he went through the record. He said, when you study the record, it looks as if the United States hasn’t lived up to its transcendent purpose. But then he says, to criticize our transcendent purpose “is to fall into the error of atheism, which denies the validity of religion on similar grounds” — which is a good comparison. It’s a deeply entrenched religious belief. It’s so deep that it’s going to be hard to disentangle it. And if anyone questions that, it leads to near hysteria and often to charges of anti-Americanism or “hating America” — interesting concepts that don’t exist in democratic societies, only in totalitarian societies and here, where they’re just taken for granted.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of numerous best-selling political works, including recently Hopes and Prospects and Making the Future. This piece is adapted from the chapter “Uprisings” in his newest book (with interviewer David Barsamian), Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books).
Excerpted from Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire, published this month by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2013 by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian. All rights reserved.