The fact that the Israel-Palestine conflict grinds on without resolution might appear to be rather strange. For many of the world’s conflicts, it is difficult even to conjure up a feasible settlement. In this case, it is not only possible, but there is near universal agreement on its basic contours: a two-state settlement along the internationally recognized (pre-June 1967) borders — with “minor and mutual modifications,” to adopt official U.S. terminology before Washington departed from the international community in the mid-1970s.
The basic principles have been accepted by virtually the entire world, including the Arab states (who go on to call for full normalization of relations), the Organization of Islamic States (including Iran), and relevant non-state actors (including Hamas). A settlement along these lines was first proposed at the U.N. Security Council in January 1976 by the major Arab states. Israel refused to attend the session. The U.S. vetoed the resolution, and did so again in 1980. The record at the General Assembly since is similar.
There was one important and revealing break in U.S.-Israeli rejectionism. After the failed Camp David agreements in 2000, President Clinton recognized that the terms he and Israel had proposed were unacceptable to any Palestinians. That December, he proposed his “parameters”: imprecise, but more forthcoming. He then stated that both sides had accepted the parameters, while expressing reservations.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001 to resolve the differences and were making considerable progress. In their final press conference, they reported that, with a little more time, they could probably have reached full agreement. Israel called off the negotiations prematurely, however, and official progress then terminated, though informal discussions at a high level continued leading to the Geneva Accord, rejected by Israel and ignored by the U.S.
A good deal has happened since, but a settlement along those lines is still not out of reach — if, of course, Washington is once again willing to accept it. Unfortunately, there is little sign of that.
Substantial mythology has been created about the entire record, but the basic facts are clear enough and quite well documented.
The U.S. and Israel have been acting in tandem to extend and deepen the occupation. In 2005, recognizing that it was pointless to subsidize a few thousand Israeli settlers in Gaza, who were appropriating substantial resources and protected by a large part of the Israeli army, the government of Ariel Sharon decided to move them to the much more valuable West Bank and Golan Heights.
Instead of carrying out the operation straightforwardly, as would have been easy enough, the government decided to stage a “national trauma,” which virtually duplicated the farce accompanying the withdrawal from the Sinai desert after the Camp David agreements of 1978-79. In each case, the withdrawal permitted the cry of “Never Again,” which meant in practice: we cannot abandon an inch of the Palestinian territories that we want to take in violation of international law. This farce played very well in the West, though it was ridiculed by more astute Israeli commentators, among them that country’s prominent sociologist the late Baruch Kimmerling.
After its formal withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel never actually relinquished its total control over the territory, often described realistically as “the world’s largest prison.” In January 2006, a few months after the withdrawal, Palestine had an election that was recognized as free and fair by international observers. Palestinians, however, voted “the wrong way,” electing Hamas. Instantly, the U.S. and Israel intensified their assault against Gazans as punishment for this misdeed. The facts and the reasoning were not concealed; rather, they were openly published alongside reverential commentary on Washington’s sincere dedication to democracy. The U.S.-backed Israeli assault against the Gazans has only been intensified since, thanks to violence and economic strangulation, increasingly savage.
Meanwhile in the West Bank, always with firm U.S. backing, Israel has been carrying forward longstanding programs to take the valuable land and resources of the Palestinians and leave them in unviable cantons, mostly out of sight. Israeli commentators frankly refer to these goals as “neocolonial.” Ariel Sharon, the main architect of the settlement programs, called these cantons “Bantustans,” though the term is misleading: South Africa needed the majority black work force, while Israel would be happy if the Palestinians disappeared, and its policies are directed to that end.
Blockading Gaza by Land and Sea
One step towards cantonization and the undermining of hopes for Palestinian national survival is the separation of Gaza from the West Bank. These hopes have been almost entirely consigned to oblivion, an atrocity to which we should not contribute by tacit consent. Israeli journalist Amira Hass, one of the leading specialists on Gaza, writes that
“the restrictions on Palestinian movement that Israel introduced in January 1991 reversed a process that had been initiated in June 1967. Back then, and for the first time since 1948, a large portion of the Palestinian people again lived in the open territory of a single country — to be sure, one that was occupied, but was nevertheless whole.… The total separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank is one of the greatest achievements of Israeli politics, whose overarching objective is to prevent a solution based on international decisions and understandings and instead dictate an arrangement based on Israel’s military superiority.…
“Since January 1991, Israel has bureaucratically and logistically merely perfected the split and the separation: not only between Palestinians in the occupied territories and their brothers in Israel, but also between the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and those in the rest of the territories and between Gazans and West Bankers/Jerusalemites. Jews live in this same piece of land within a superior and separate system of privileges, laws, services, physical infrastructure and freedom of movement.”
The leading academic specialist on Gaza, Harvard scholar Sara Roy, adds:
“Gaza is an example of a society that has been deliberately reduced to a state of abject destitution, its once productive population transformed into one of aid-dependent paupers.… Gaza’s subjection began long before Israel’s recent war against it [December 2008]. The Israeli occupation — now largely forgotten or denied by the international community — has devastated Gaza’s economy and people, especially since 2006…. After Israel’s December  assault, Gaza’s already compromised conditions have become virtually unlivable. Livelihoods, homes, and public infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed on a scale that even the Israel Defense Forces admitted was indefensible.
“In Gaza today, there is no private sector to speak of and no industry. 80 percent of Gaza’s agricultural crops were destroyed and Israel continues to snipe at farmers attempting to plant and tend fields near the well-fenced and patrolled border. Most productive activity has been extinguished.… Today, 96 percent of Gaza’s population of 1.4 million is dependent on humanitarian aid for basic needs. According to the World Food Programme, the Gaza Strip requires a minimum of 400 trucks of food every day just to meet the basic nutritional needs of the population. Yet, despite a March [22, 2009] decision by the Israeli cabinet to lift all restrictions on foodstuffs entering Gaza, only 653 trucks of food and other supplies were allowed entry during the week of May 10, at best meeting 23 percent of required need. Israel now allows only 30 to 40 commercial items to enter Gaza compared to 4,000 approved products prior to June 2006.”
It cannot be too often stressed that Israel had no credible pretext for its 2008–9 attack on Gaza, with full U.S. support and illegally using U.S. weapons. Near-universal opinion asserts the contrary, claiming that Israel was acting in self-defense. That is utterly unsustainable, in light of Israel’s flat rejection of peaceful means that were readily available, as Israel and its U.S. partner in crime knew very well. That aside, Israel’s siege of Gaza is itself an act of war, as Israel of all countries certainly recognizes, having repeatedly justified launching major wars on grounds of partial restrictions on its access to the outside world, though nothing remotely like what it has long imposed on Gaza.
One crucial element of Israel’s criminal siege, little reported, is the naval blockade. Peter Beaumont reports from Gaza that, “on its coastal littoral, Gaza’s limitations are marked by a different fence where the bars are Israeli gunboats with their huge wakes, scurrying beyond the Palestinian fishing boats and preventing them from going outside a zone imposed by the warships.” According to reports from the scene, the naval siege has been tightened steadily since 2000. Fishing boats have been driven steadily out of Gaza’s territorial waters and toward the shore by Israeli gunboats, often violently without warning and with many casualties. As a result of these naval actions, Gaza’s fishing industry has virtually collapsed; fishing is impossible near shore because of the contamination caused by Israel’s regular attacks, including the destruction of power plants and sewage facilities.
These Israeli naval attacks began shortly after the discovery by the BG (British Gas) Group of what appear to be quite sizeable natural gas fields in Gaza’s territorial waters. Industry journals report that Israel is already appropriating these Gazan resources for its own use, part of its commitment to shift its economy to natural gas. The standard industry source reports:
“Israel’s finance ministry has given the Israel Electric Corp. (IEC) approval to purchase larger quantities of natural gas from BG than originally agreed upon, according to Israeli government sources [which] said the state-owned utility would be able to negotiate for as much as 1.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas from the Marine field located off the Mediterranean coast of the Palestinian controlled Gaza Strip.
“Last year the Israeli government approved the purchase of 800 million cubic meters of gas from the field by the IEC…. Recently the Israeli government changed its policy and decided the state-owned utility could buy the entire quantity of gas from the Gaza Marine field. Previously the government had said the IEC could buy half the total amount and the remainder would be bought by private power producers.”
The pillage of what could become a major source of income for Gaza is surely known to U.S. authorities. It is only reasonable to suppose that the intention to appropriate these limited resources, either by Israel alone or together with the collaborationist Palestinian Authority, is the motive for preventing Gazan fishing boats from entering Gaza’s territorial waters.
There are some instructive precedents. In 1989, Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans signed a treaty with his Indonesian counterpart Ali Alatas granting Australia rights to the substantial oil reserves in “the Indonesian Province of East Timor.” The Indonesia-Australia Timor Gap Treaty, which offered not a crumb to the people whose oil was being stolen, “is the only legal agreement anywhere in the world that effectively recognises Indonesia’s right to rule East Timor,” the Australian press reported.
Asked about his willingness to recognize the Indonesian conquest and to rob the sole resource of the conquered territory, which had been subjected to near-genocidal slaughter by the Indonesian invader with the strong support of Australia (along with the U.S., the U.K., and some others), Evans explained that “there is no binding legal obligation not to recognise the acquisition of territory that was acquired by force,” adding that “the world is a pretty unfair place, littered with examples of acquisition by force.”
It should, then, be unproblematic for Israel to follow suit in Gaza.
A few years later, Evans became the leading figure in the campaign to introduce the concept “responsibility to protect” — known as R2P — into international law. R2P is intended to establish an international obligation to protect populations from grave crimes. Evans is the author of a major book on the subject and was co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which issued what is considered the basic document on R2P.
In an article devoted to this “idealistic effort to establish a new humanitarian principle,” the London Economist featured Evans and his “bold but passionate claim on behalf of a three-word expression which (in quite large part thanks to his efforts) now belongs to the language of diplomacy: the ‘responsibility to protect.’” The article is accompanied by a picture of Evans with the caption “Evans: a lifelong passion to protect.” His hand is pressed to his forehead in despair over the difficulties faced by his idealistic effort. The journal chose not to run a different photo that circulates in Australia, depicting Evans and Alatas exuberantly clasping their hands together as they toast the Timor Gap Treaty that they had just signed.
Though a “protected population” under international law, Gazans do not fall under the jurisdiction of the “responsibility to protect,” joining other unfortunates, in accord with the maxim of Thucydides — that the strong do as they wish, and the weak suffer as they must — which holds with its customary precision.
Obama and the Settlements
The kinds of restrictions on movement used to destroy Gaza have long been in force in the West Bank as well, less cruelly but with grim effects on life and the economy. The World Bank reports that Israel has established “a complex closure regime that restricts Palestinian access to large areas of the West Bank… The Palestinian economy has remained stagnant, largely because of the sharp downturn in Gaza and Israel’s continued restrictions on Palestinian trade and movement in the West Bank.”
The World Bank “cited Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints hindering trade and travel, as well as restrictions on Palestinian building in the West Bank, where the Western-backed government of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas holds sway.” Israel does permit — indeed encourage — a privileged existence for elites in Ramallah and sometimes elsewhere, largely relying on European funding, a traditional feature of colonial and neocolonial practice.
All of this constitutes what Israeli activist Jeff Halper calls a “matrix of control” to subdue the colonized population. These systematic programs over more than 40 years aim to establish Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s recommendation to his colleagues shortly after Israel’s 1967 conquests that we must tell the Palestinians in the territories: “We have no solution, you shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave, and we will see where this process leads.”
Turning to the second bone of contention, settlements, there is indeed a confrontation, but it is rather less dramatic than portrayed. Washington’s position was presented most strongly in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s much-quoted statement rejecting “natural growth exceptions” to the policy opposing new settlements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with President Shimon Peres and, in fact, virtually the whole Israeli political spectrum, insists on permitting “natural growth” within the areas that Israel intends to annex, complaining that the United States is backing down on George W. Bush’s authorization of such expansion within his “vision” of a Palestinian state.
Senior Netanyahu cabinet members have gone further. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz announced that “the current Israeli government will not accept in any way the freezing of legal settlement activity in Judea and Samaria.” The term “legal” in U.S.-Israeli parlance means “illegal, but authorized by the government of Israel with a wink from Washington.” In this usage, unauthorized outposts are termed “illegal,” though apart from the dictates of the powerful, they are no more illegal than the settlements granted to Israel under Bush’s “vision” and Obama’s scrupulous omission.
The Obama-Clinton “hardball” formulation is not new. It repeats the wording of the Bush administration draft of the 2003 Road Map, which stipulates that in Phase I, “Israel freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).” All sides formally accept the Road Map (modified to drop the phrase “natural growth”) — consistently overlooking the fact that Israel, with U.S. support, at once added 14 “reservations” that render it inoperable.
If Obama were at all serious about opposing settlement expansion, he could easily proceed with concrete measures by, for example, reducing U.S. aid by the amount devoted to this purpose. That would hardly be a radical or courageous move. The Bush I administration did so (reducing loan guarantees), but after the Oslo accord in 1993, President Clinton left calculations to the government of Israel. Unsurprisingly, there was “no change in the expenditures flowing to the settlements,” the Israeli press reported. “[Prime Minister] Rabin will continue not to dry out the settlements,” the report concludes. “And the Americans? They will understand.”
Obama administration officials informed the press that the Bush I measures are “not under discussion,” and that pressures will be “largely symbolic.” In short, Obama understands, just as Clinton and Bush II did.
At best, settlement expansion is a side issue, rather like the issue of “illegal outposts” — namely those that the government of Israel has not authorized. Concentration on these issues diverts attention from the fact that there are no “legal outposts” and that it is the existing settlements that are the primary problem to be faced.
The U.S. press reports that “a partial freeze has been in place for several years, but settlers have found ways around the strictures… [C]onstruction in the settlements has slowed but never stopped, continuing at an annual rate of about 1,500 to 2,000 units over the past three years. If building continues at the 2008 rate, the 46,500 units already approved will be completed in about 20 years.… If Israel built all the housing units already approved in the nation’s overall master plan for settlements, it would almost double the number of settler homes in the West Bank.” Peace Now, which monitors settlement activities, estimates further that the two largest settlements would double in size: Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim, built mainly during the Oslo years in the salients that subdivide the West Bank into cantons.
“Natural population growth” is largely a myth, Israel’s leading diplomatic correspondent, Akiva Eldar, points out, citing demographic studies by Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli, deputy military secretary to former prime minister and incumbent defense minister Ehud Barak. Settlement growth consists largely of Israeli immigrants in violation of the Geneva Conventions, assisted with generous subsidies. Much of it is in direct violation of formal government decisions, but carried out with the authorization of the government, specifically Barak, considered a dove in the Israeli spectrum.
Correspondent Jackson Diehl derides the “long-dormant Palestinian fantasy,” revived by President Abbas, “that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees.” He does not explain why refusal to participate in Israel’s illegal expansion — which, if serious, would “force Israel to make critical concessions” — would be improper interference in Israel’s democracy.
Returning to reality, all of these discussions about settlement expansion evade the most crucial issue about settlements: what the United States and Israel have already established in the West Bank. The evasion tacitly concedes that the illegal settlement programs already in place are somehow acceptable (putting aside the Golan Heights, annexed in violation of Security Council orders) — though the Bush “vision,” apparently accepted by Obama, moves from tacit to explicit support for these violations of law. What is in place already suffices to ensure that there can be no viable Palestinian self-determination. Hence, there is every indication that even on the unlikely assumption that “natural growth” will be ended, U.S.-Israeli rejectionism will persist, blocking the international consensus as before.
Subsequently, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared a 10-month suspension of new construction, with many exemptions, and entirely excluding Greater Jerusalem, where expropriation in Arab areas and construction for Jewish settlers continues at a rapid pace. Hillary Clinton praised these “unprecedented” concessions on (illegal) construction, eliciting anger and ridicule in much of the world.
It might be different if a legitimate “land swap” were under consideration, a solution approached at Taba and spelled out more fully in the Geneva Accord reached in informal high-level Israel-Palestine negotiations. The accord was presented in Geneva in October 2003, welcomed by much of the world, rejected by Israel, and ignored by the United States.
Barack Obama’s June 4, 2009, Cairo address to the Muslim world kept pretty much to his well-honed “blank slate” style — with little of substance, but presented in a personable manner that allows listeners to write on the slate what they want to hear. CNN captured its spirit in headlining a report “Obama Looks to Reach the Soul of the Muslim World.” Obama had announced the goals of his address in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “‘We have a joke around the White House,’ the president said. ‘We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East.’” The White House commitment is most welcome, but it is useful to see how it translates into practice.
Obama admonished his audience that it is easy to “point fingers… but if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”
Turning from Obama-Friedman Truth to truth, there is a third side, with a decisive role throughout: the United States. But that participant in the conflict Obama omitted. The omission is understood to be normal and appropriate, hence unmentioned: Friedman’s column is headlined “Obama Speech Aimed at Both Arabs and Israelis.” The front-page Wall Street Journal report on Obama’s speech appears under the heading “Obama Chides Israel, Arabs in His Overture to Muslims.” Other reports are the same.
The convention is understandable on the doctrinal principle that though the U.S. government sometimes makes mistakes, its intentions are by definition benign, even noble. In the world of attractive imagery, Washington has always sought desperately to be an honest broker, yearning to advance peace and justice. The doctrine trumps truth, of which there is little hint in the speech or the mainstream coverage of it.
Obama once again echoed Bush’s “vision” of two states, without saying what he meant by the phrase “Palestinian state.” His intentions were clarified not only by the crucial omissions already discussed, but also by his one explicit criticism of Israel: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” That is, Israel should live up to Phase I of the 2003 Road Map, rejected at once by Israel with tacit U.S. support, as noted — though the truth is that Obama has ruled out even steps of the Bush I variety to withdraw from participation in these crimes.
The operative words are “legitimacy” and “continued.” By omission, Obama indicates that he accepts Bush’s vision: the vast existing settlement and infrastructure projects are “legitimate,” thus ensuring that the phrase “Palestinian state” means “fried chicken.”
Always even-handed, Obama also had an admonition for the Arab states: they “must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities.” Plainly, however, it cannot be a meaningful “beginning” if Obama continues to reject its core principles: implementation of the international consensus. To do so, however, is evidently not Washington’s “responsibility” in Obama’s vision; no explanation given, no notice taken.
On democracy, Obama said that “we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election” — as in January 2006, when Washington picked the outcome with a vengeance, turning at once to severe punishment of the Palestinians because it did not like the outcome of a peaceful election, all with Obama’s apparent approval judging by his words before, and actions since, taking office.
Obama politely refrained from comment about his host, President Mubarak, one of the most brutal dictators in the region, though he has had some illuminating words about him. As he was about to board a plane to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two “moderate” Arab states, “Mr. Obama signaled that while he would mention American concerns about human rights in Egypt, he would not challenge Mr. Mubarak too sharply, because he is a ‘force for stability and good’ in the Middle East… Mr. Obama said he did not regard Mr. Mubarak as an authoritarian leader. ‘No, I tend not to use labels for folks,’ Mr. Obama said. The president noted that there had been criticism ‘of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt,’ but he also said that Mr. Mubarak had been ‘a stalwart ally, in many respects, to the United States.’”
When a politician uses the word “folks,” we should brace ourselves for the deceit, or worse, that is coming. Outside of this context, there are “people,” or often “villains,” and using labels for them is highly meritorious. Obama is right, however, not to have used the word “authoritarian,” which is far too mild a label for his friend.
Just as in the past, support for democracy, and for human rights as well, keeps to the pattern that scholarship has repeatedly discovered, correlating closely with strategic and economic objectives. There should be little difficulty in understanding why those whose eyes are not closed tight shut by rigid doctrine dismiss Obama’s yearning for human rights and democracy as a joke in bad taste.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of numerous books, including the New York Times bestsellers Hegemony or Survival and Failed States. His newest book, Hopes and Prospects, is out this week from Haymarket Books.
[Note: All material in this piece is sourced and footnoted in Noam Chomsky’s new book Hopes and Prospects.]
Copyright 2010 Noam Chomsky
A Middle East Peace That Could Happen (But Won’t)
The torture memos released by the White House elicited shock, indignation, and surprise. The shock and indignation are understandable. The surprise, less so.
For one thing, even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantanamo was a torture chamber. Why else send prisoners where they would be beyond the reach of the law — a place, incidentally, that Washington is using in violation of a treaty forced on Cuba at the point of a gun? Security reasons were, of course, alleged, but they remain hard to take seriously. The same expectations held for the Bush administration’s “black sites,” or secret prisons, and for extraordinary rendition, and they were fulfilled.
More importantly, torture has been routinely practiced from the early days of the conquest of the national territory, and continued to be used as the imperial ventures of the “infant empire” — as George Washington called the new republic — extended to the Philippines, Haiti, and elsewhere. Keep in mind as well that torture was the least of the many crimes of aggression, terror, subversion, and economic strangulation that have darkened U.S. history, much as in the case of other great powers.
Accordingly, what’s surprising is to see the reactions to the release of those Justice Department memos, even by some of the most eloquent and forthright critics of Bush malfeasance: Paul Krugman, for example, writing that we used to be “a nation of moral ideals” and never before Bush “have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for.” To say the least, that common view reflects a rather slanted version of American history.
Occasionally the conflict between “what we stand for” and “what we do” has been forthrightly addressed. One distinguished scholar who undertook the task at hand was Hans Morgenthau, a founder of realist international relations theory. In a classic study published in 1964 in the glow of Camelot, Morgenthau developed the standard view that the U.S. has a “transcendent purpose”: establishing peace and freedom at home and indeed everywhere, since “the arena within which the United States must defend and promote its purpose has become world-wide.” But as a scrupulous scholar, he also recognized that the historical record was radically inconsistent with that “transcendent purpose.”
We should not be misled by that discrepancy, advised Morgenthau; we should not “confound the abuse of reality with reality itself.” Reality is the unachieved “national purpose” revealed by “the evidence of history as our minds reflect it.” What actually happened was merely the “abuse of reality.”
The release of the torture memos led others to recognize the problem. In the New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen reviewed a new book, The Myth of American Exceptionalism, by British journalist Geoffrey Hodgson, who concludes that the U.S. is “just one great, but imperfect, country among others.” Cohen agrees that the evidence supports Hodgson’s judgment, but nonetheless regards as fundamentally mistaken Hodgson’s failure to understand that “America was born as an idea, and so it has to carry that idea forward.” The American idea is revealed in the country’s birth as a “city on a hill,” an “inspirational notion” that resides “deep in the American psyche,” and by “the distinctive spirit of American individualism and enterprise” demonstrated in the Western expansion. Hodgson’s error, it seems, is that he is keeping to “the distortions of the American idea,” “the abuse of reality.”
Let us then turn to “reality itself”: the “idea” of America from its earliest days.
“Come Over and Help Us”
The inspirational phrase “city on a hill” was coined by John Winthrop in 1630, borrowing from the Gospels, and outlining the glorious future of a new nation “ordained by God.” One year earlier his Massachusetts Bay Colony created its Great Seal. It depicted an Indian with a scroll coming out of his mouth. On that scroll are the words “Come over and help us.” The British colonists were thus pictured as benevolent humanists, responding to the pleas of the miserable natives to be rescued from their bitter pagan fate.
The Great Seal is, in fact, a graphic representation of “the idea of America,” from its birth. It should be exhumed from the depths of the psyche and displayed on the walls of every classroom. It should certainly appear in the background of all of the Kim Il-Sung-style worship of that savage murderer and torturer Ronald Reagan, who blissfully described himself as the leader of a “shining city on the hill,” while orchestrating some of the more ghastly crimes of his years in office, notoriously in Central America but elsewhere as well.
The Great Seal was an early proclamation of “humanitarian intervention,” to use the currently fashionable phrase. As has commonly been the case since, the “humanitarian intervention” led to a catastrophe for the alleged beneficiaries. The first Secretary of War, General Henry Knox, described “the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union” by means “more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru.”
Long after his own significant contributions to the process were past, John Quincy Adams deplored the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty… among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement.” The “merciless and perfidious cruelty” continued until “the West was won.” Instead of God’s judgment, the heinous sins today bring only praise for the fulfillment of the American “idea.”
The conquest and settling of the West indeed showed that “individualism and enterprise,” so praised by Roger Cohen. Settler-colonialist enterprises, the cruelest form of imperialism, commonly do. The results were hailed by the respected and influential Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in 1898. Calling for intervention in Cuba, Lodge lauded our record “of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequalled by any people in the 19th century,” and urged that it is “not to be curbed now,” as the Cubans too were pleading, in the Great Seal’s words, “come over and help us.”
Their plea was answered. The U.S. sent troops, thereby preventing Cuba’s liberation from Spain and turning it into a virtual colony, as it remained until 1959.
The “American idea” was illustrated further by the remarkable campaign, initiated by the Eisenhower administration virtually at once to restore Cuba to its proper place, after Fidel Castro entered Havana in January 1959, finally liberating the island from foreign domination, with enormous popular support, as Washington ruefully conceded. What followed was economic warfare with the clearly articulated aim of punishing the Cuban population so that they would overthrow the disobedient Castro government, invasion, the dedication of the Kennedy brothers to bringing “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba (the phrase of historian Arthur Schlesinger in his biography of Robert Kennedy, who considered that task one of his highest priorities), and other crimes continuing to the present, in defiance of virtually unanimous world opinion.
American imperialism is often traced to the takeover of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii in 1898. But that is to succumb to what historian of imperialism Bernard Porter calls “the saltwater fallacy,” the idea that conquest only becomes imperialism when it crosses saltwater. Thus, if the Mississippi had resembled the Irish Sea, Western expansion would have been imperialism. From George Washington to Henry Cabot Lodge, those engaged in the enterprise had a clearer grasp of just what they were doing.
After the success of humanitarian intervention in Cuba in 1898, the next step in the mission assigned by Providence was to confer “the blessings of liberty and civilization upon all the rescued peoples” of the Philippines (in the words of the platform of Lodge’s Republican party) — at least those who survived the murderous onslaught and widespread use of torture and other atrocities that accompanied it. These fortunate souls were left to the mercies of the U.S.-established Philippine constabulary within a newly devised model of colonial domination, relying on security forces trained and equipped for sophisticated modes of surveillance, intimidation, and violence. Similar models would be adopted in many other areas where the U.S. imposed brutal National Guards and other client forces.
The Torture Paradigm
Over the past 60 years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA’s “torture paradigm,” developed at a cost that reached $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy in his book A Question of Torture. He shows how torture methods the CIA developed from the 1950s surfaced with little change in the infamous photos at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. There is no hyperbole in the title of Jennifer Harbury’s penetrating study of the U.S. torture record: Truth, Torture, and the American Way. So it is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang’s descent into the global sewers lament that “in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way.”
None of this is to say that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did not introduce important innovations. In ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their own government-established torture chambers. As Allan Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out: “What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under U.S. patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.”
Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but “merely repositioned it,” restoring it to the American norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. “[H]is is a return to the status quo ante,” writes Nairn, “the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more U.S.-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.”
Sometimes the American engagement in torture was even more indirect. In a 1980 study, Latin Americanist Lars Schoultz found that U.S. aid “has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens,… to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights.” Broader studies by Edward Herman found the same correlation, and also suggested an explanation. Not surprisingly, U.S. aid tends to correlate with a favorable climate for business operations, commonly improved by the murder of labor and peasant organizers and human rights activists and other such actions, yielding a secondary correlation between aid and egregious violation of human rights.
These studies took place before the Reagan years, when the topic was not worth studying because the correlations were so clear.
Small wonder that President Obama advises us to look forward, not backward — a convenient doctrine for those who hold the clubs. Those who are beaten by them tend to see the world differently, much to our annoyance.
Adopting Bush’s Positions
An argument can be made that implementation of the CIA’s “torture paradigm” never violated the 1984 Torture Convention, at least as Washington interpreted it. McCoy points out that the highly sophisticated CIA paradigm developed at enormous cost in the 1950s and 1960s, based on the “KGB’s most devastating torture technique,” kept primarily to mental torture, not crude physical torture, which was considered less effective in turning people into pliant vegetables.
McCoy writes that the Reagan administration then carefully revised the International Torture Convention “with four detailed diplomatic ‘reservations’ focused on just one word in the convention’s 26-printed pages,” the word “mental.” He continues: “These intricately-constructed diplomatic reservations re-defined torture, as interpreted by the United States, to exclude sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain — the very techniques the CIA had refined at such great cost.”
When Clinton sent the UN Convention to Congress for ratification in 1994, he included the Reagan reservations. The president and Congress therefore exempted the core of the CIA torture paradigm from the U.S. interpretation of the Torture Convention; and those reservations, McCoy observes, were “reproduced verbatim in domestic legislation enacted to give legal force to the UN Convention.” That is the “political land mine” that “detonated with such phenomenal force” in the Abu Ghraib scandal and in the shameful Military Commissions Act that was passed with bipartisan support in 2006.
Bush, of course, went beyond his predecessors in authorizing prima facie violations of international law, and several of his extremist innovations were struck down by the Courts. While Obama, like Bush, eloquently affirms our unwavering commitment to international law, he seems intent on substantially reinstating the extremist Bush measures. In the important case of Boumediene v. Bush in June 2008, the Supreme Court rejected as unconstitutional the Bush administration claim that prisoners in Guantanamo are not entitled to the right of habeas corpus.
Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald reviews the aftermath. Seeking to “preserve the power to abduct people from around the world” and imprison them without due process, the Bush administration decided to ship them to the U.S. prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, treating “the Boumediene ruling, grounded in our most basic constitutional guarantees, as though it was some sort of a silly game — fly your abducted prisoners to Guantanamo and they have constitutional rights, but fly them instead to Bagram and you can disappear them forever with no judicial process.”
Obama adopted the Bush position, “filing a brief in federal court that, in two sentences, declared that it embraced the most extremist Bush theory on this issue,” arguing that prisoners flown to Bagram from anywhere in the world (in the case in question, Yemenis and Tunisians captured in Thailand and the United Arab Emirates) “can be imprisoned indefinitely with no rights of any kind — as long as they are kept in Bagram rather than Guantanamo.”
In March, however, a Bush-appointed federal judge “rejected the Bush/Obama position and held that the rationale of Boumediene applies every bit as much to Bagram as it does to Guantanamo.” The Obama administration announced that it would appeal the ruling, thus placing Obama’s Department of Justice, Greenwald concludes, “squarely to the Right of an extremely conservative, pro-executive-power, Bush 43-appointed judge on issues of executive power and due-process-less detentions,” in radical violation of Obama’s campaign promises and earlier stands.
The case of Rasul v. Rumsfeld appears to be following a similar trajectory. The plaintiffs charged that Rumsfeld and other high officials were responsible for their torture in Guantanamo, where they were sent after being captured by Uzbeki warlord Rashid Dostum. The plaintiffs claimed that they had traveled to Afghanistan to offer humanitarian relief. Dostum, a notorious thug, was then a leader of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan faction supported by Russia, Iran, India, Turkey, and the Central Asian states, and the U.S. as it attacked Afghanistan in October 2001.
Dostum turned them over to U.S. custody, allegedly for bounty money. The Bush administration sought to have the case dismissed. Recently, Obama’s Department of Justice filed a brief supporting the Bush position that government officials are not liable for torture and other violations of due process, on the grounds that the Courts had not yet clearly established the rights that prisoners enjoy.
It is also reported that the Obama administration intends to revive military commissions, one of the more severe violations of the rule of law during the Bush years. There is a reason, according to William Glaberson of the New York Times: “Officials who work on the Guantanamo issue say administration lawyers have become concerned that they would face significant obstacles to trying some terrorism suspects in federal courts. Judges might make it difficult to prosecute detainees who were subjected to brutal treatment or for prosecutors to use hearsay evidence gathered by intelligence agencies.” A serious flaw in the criminal justice system, it appears.
There is still much debate about whether torture has been effective in eliciting information — the assumption being, apparently, that if it is effective, then it may be justified. By the same argument, when Nicaragua captured U.S. pilot Eugene Hasenfuss in 1986, after shooting down his plane delivering aid to U.S.-supported Contra forces, they should not have tried him, found him guilty, and then sent him back to the U.S., as they did. Instead, they should have applied the CIA torture paradigm to try to extract information about other terrorist atrocities being planned and implemented in Washington, no small matter for a tiny, impoverished country under terrorist attack by the global superpower.
By the same standards, if the Nicaraguans had been able to capture the chief terrorism coordinator, John Negroponte, then U.S. ambassador in Honduras (later appointed as the first Director of National Intelligence, essentially counterterrorism czar, without eliciting a murmur), they should have done the same. Cuba would have been justified in acting similarly, had the Castro government been able to lay hands on the Kennedy brothers. There is no need to bring up what their victims should have done to Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and other leading terrorist commanders, whose exploits leave al-Qaeda in the dust, and who doubtless had ample information that could have prevented further “ticking bomb” attacks.
Such considerations never seem to arise in public discussion.
There is, to be sure, a response: our terrorism, even if surely terrorism, is benign, deriving as it does from the city on the hill.
Perhaps culpability would be greater, by prevailing moral standards, if it were discovered that Bush administration torture had cost American lives. That is, in fact, the conclusion drawn by Major Matthew Alexander [a pseudonym], one of the most seasoned U.S. interrogators in Iraq, who elicited “the information that led to the US military being able to locate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa’ida in Iraq,” correspondent Patrick Cockburn reports.
Alexander expresses only contempt for the Bush administration’s harsh interrogation methods: “The use of torture by the U.S.,” he believes, not only elicits no useful information but “has proved so counter-productive that it may have led to the death of as many U.S. soldiers as civilians killed in 9/11.” From hundreds of interrogations, Alexander discovered that foreign fighters came to Iraq in reaction to the abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and that they and their domestic allies turned to suicide bombing and other terrorist acts for the same reasons.
There is also mounting evidence that the torture methods Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld encouraged created terrorists. One carefully studied case is that of Abdallah al-Ajmi, who was locked up in Guantanamo on the charge of “engaging in two or three fire fights with the Northern Alliance.” He ended up in Afghanistan after having failed to reach Chechnya to fight against the Russians.
After four years of brutal treatment in Guantanamo, he was returned to Kuwait. He later found his way to Iraq and, in March 2008, drove a bomb-laden truck into an Iraqi military compound, killing himself and 13 soldiers — “the single most heinous act of violence committed by a former Guantanamo detainee,” according to the Washington Post, and according to his lawyer, the direct result of his abusive imprisonment.
All much as a reasonable person would expect.
Another standard pretext for torture is the context: the “war on terror” that Bush declared after 9/11. A crime that rendered traditional international law “quaint” and “obsolete” — so George W. Bush was advised by his legal counsel Alberto Gonzales, later appointed Attorney General. The doctrine has been widely reiterated in one form or another in commentary and analysis.
The 9/11 attack was doubtless unique in many respects. One is where the guns were pointing: typically it is in the opposite direction. In fact, it was the first attack of any consequence on the national territory of the United States since the British burned down Washington in 1814.
Another unique feature was the scale of terror perpetrated by a non-state actor.
Horrifying as it was, however, it could have been worse. Suppose that the perpetrators had bombed the White House, killed the president, and established a vicious military dictatorship that killed 50,000 to 100,000 people and tortured 700,000, set up a huge international terror center that carried out assassinations and helped impose comparable military dictatorships elsewhere, and implemented economic doctrines that so radically dismantled the economy that the state had to virtually take it over a few years later.
That would indeed have been far worse than September 11, 2001. And it happened in Salvador Allende’s Chile in what Latin Americans often call “the first 9/11” in 1973. (The numbers above were changed to per-capita U.S. equivalents, a realistic way of measuring crimes.) Responsibility for the military coup against Allende can be traced straight back to Washington. Accordingly, the otherwise quite appropriate analogy is out of consciousness here in the U.S., while the facts are consigned to the “abuse of reality” that the naïve call “history.”
It should also be recalled that Bush did not declare the “war on terror,” he re-declared it. Twenty years earlier, President Reagan’s administration came into office declaring that a centerpiece of its foreign policy would be a war on terror, “the plague of the modern age” and “a return to barbarism in our time” — to sample the fevered rhetoric of the day.
That first U.S. war on terror has also been deleted from historical consciousness, because the outcome cannot readily be incorporated into the canon: hundreds of thousands slaughtered in the ruined countries of Central America and many more elsewhere, among them an estimated 1.5 million dead in the terrorist wars sponsored in neighboring countries by Reagan’s favored ally, apartheid South Africa, which had to defend itself from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), one of the world’s “more notorious terrorist groups,” as Washington determined in 1988. In fairness, it should be added that, 20 years later, Congress voted to remove the ANC from the list of terrorist organizations, so that Mandela is now, at last, able to enter the U.S. without obtaining a waiver from the government.
The reigning doctrine of the country is sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” It is nothing of the sort. It is probably close to a universal habit among imperial powers. France was hailing its “civilizing mission” in its colonies, while the French Minister of War called for “exterminating the indigenous population” of Algeria. Britain’s nobility was a “novelty in the world,” John Stuart Mill declared, while urging that this angelic power delay no longer in completing its liberation of India.
Similarly, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Japanese militarists in the 1930s, who were bringing an “earthly paradise” to China under benign Japanese tutelage, as they carried out the rape of Nanking and their “burn all, loot all, kill all” campaigns in rural North China. History is replete with similar glorious episodes.
As long as such “exceptionalist” theses remain firmly implanted, however, the occasional revelations of the “abuse of history” often backfire, serving only to efface terrible crimes. The My Lai massacre was a mere footnote to the vastly greater atrocities of the post-Tet pacification programs, ignored while indignation in this country was largely focused on this single crime.
Watergate was doubtless criminal, but the furor over it displaced incomparably worse crimes at home and abroad, including the FBI-organized assassination of black organizer Fred Hampton as part of the infamous COINTELPRO repression, or the bombing of Cambodia, to mention just two egregious examples. Torture is hideous enough; the invasion of Iraq was a far worse crime. Quite commonly, selective atrocities have this function.
Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements.
[Note: A slightly longer version of this piece, fully footnoted, will be posted at Chomsky.info within 48 hours.]
Copyright 2009 Noam Chomsky
Why We Can’t See the Trees or the Forest
On February 13, Imad Moughniyeh, a senior commander of Hizbollah, was assassinated in Damascus. "The world is a better place without this man in it," State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said: "one way or the other he was brought to justice." Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell added that Moughniyeh has been "responsible for more deaths of Americans and Israelis than any other terrorist with the exception of Osama bin Laden."
Joy was unconstrained in Israel too, as "one of the U.S. and Israel’s most wanted men" was brought to justice, the London Financial Times reported. Under the heading, "A militant wanted the world over," an accompanying story reported that he was "superseded on the most-wanted list by Osama bin Laden" after 9/11 and so ranked only second among "the most wanted militants in the world."
The terminology is accurate enough, according to the rules of Anglo-American discourse, which defines "the world" as the political class in Washington and London (and whoever happens to agree with them on specific matters). It is common, for example, to read that "the world" fully supported George Bush when he ordered the bombing of Afghanistan. That may be true of "the world," but hardly of the world, as revealed in an international Gallup Poll after the bombing was announced. Global support was slight. In Latin America, which has some experience with U.S. behavior, support ranged from 2% in Mexico to 16% in Panama, and that support was conditional upon the culprits being identified (they still weren’t eight months later, the FBI reported), and civilian targets being spared (they were attacked at once). There was an overwhelming preference in the world for diplomatic/judicial measures, rejected out of hand by "the world."
Following the Terror Trail
In the present case, if "the world" were extended to the world, we might find some other candidates for the honor of most hated arch-criminal. It is instructive to ask why this might be true.
The Financial Times reports that most of the charges against Moughniyeh are unsubstantiated, but "one of the very few times when his involvement can be ascertained with certainty [is in] the hijacking of a TWA plane in 1985 in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed." This was one of two terrorist atrocities the led a poll of newspaper editors to select terrorism in the Middle East as the top story of 1985; the other was the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro, in which a crippled American, Leon Klinghoffer, was brutally murdered,. That reflects the judgment of "the world." It may be that the world saw matters somewhat differently.
The Achille Lauro hijacking was a retaliation for the bombing of Tunis ordered a week earlier by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. His air force killed 75 Tunisians and Palestinians with smart bombs that tore them to shreds, among other atrocities, as vividly reported from the scene by the prominent Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliouk. Washington cooperated by failing to warn its ally Tunisia that the bombers were on the way, though the Sixth Fleet and U.S. intelligence could not have been unaware of the impending attack. Secretary of State George Shultz informed Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir that Washington "had considerable sympathy for the Israeli action," which he termed "a legitimate response" to "terrorist attacks," to general approbation. A few days later, the UN Security Council unanimously denounced the bombing as an "act of armed aggression" (with the U.S. abstaining). "Aggression" is, of course, a far more serious crime than international terrorism. But giving the United States and Israel the benefit of the doubt, let us keep to the lesser charge against their leadership.
A few days after, Peres went to Washington to consult with the leading international terrorist of the day, Ronald Reagan, who denounced "the evil scourge of terrorism," again with general acclaim by "the world."
The "terrorist attacks" that Shultz and Peres offered as the pretext for the bombing of Tunis were the killings of three Israelis in Larnaca, Cyprus. The killers, as Israel conceded, had nothing to do with Tunis, though they might have had Syrian connections. Tunis was a preferable target, however. It was defenseless, unlike Damascus. And there was an extra pleasure: more exiled Palestinians could be killed there.
The Larnaca killings, in turn, were regarded as retaliation by the perpetrators: They were a response to regular Israeli hijackings in international waters in which many victims were killed — and many more kidnapped and sent to prisons in Israel, commonly to be held without charge for long periods. The most notorious of these has been the secret prison/torture chamber Facility 1391. A good deal can be learned about it from the Israeli and foreign press. Such regular Israeli crimes are, of course, known to editors of the national press in the U.S., and occasionally receive some casual mention.
Klinghoffer’s murder was properly viewed with horror, and is very famous. It was the topic of an acclaimed opera and a made-for-TV movie, as well as much shocked commentary deploring the savagery of Palestinians — "two-headed beasts" (Prime Minister Menachem Begin), "drugged roaches scurrying around in a bottle" (Chief of Staff Raful Eitan), "like grasshoppers compared to us," whose heads should be "smashed against the boulders and walls" (Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir). Or more commonly just "Araboushim," the slang counterpart of "kike" or "nigger."
Thus, after a particularly depraved display of settler-military terror and purposeful humiliation in the West Bank town of Halhul in December 1982, which disgusted even Israeli hawks, the well-known military/political analyst Yoram Peri wrote in dismay that one "task of the army today [is] to demolish the rights of innocent people just because they are Araboushim living in territories that God promised to us," a task that became far more urgent, and was carried out with far more brutality, when the Araboushim began to "raise their heads" a few years later.
We can easily assess the sincerity of the sentiments expressed about the Klinghoffer murder. It is only necessary to investigate the reaction to comparable U.S.-backed Israeli crimes. Take, for example, the murder in April 2002 of two crippled Palestinians, Kemal Zughayer and Jamal Rashid, by Israeli forces rampaging through the refugee camp of Jenin in the West Bank. Zughayer’s crushed body and the remains of his wheelchair were found by British reporters, along with the remains of the white flag he was holding when he was shot dead while seeking to flee the Israeli tanks which then drove over him, ripping his face in two and severing his arms and legs. Jamal Rashid was crushed in his wheelchair when one of Israel’s huge U.S.-supplied Caterpillar bulldozers demolished his home in Jenin with his family inside. The differential reaction, or rather non-reaction, has become so routine and so easy to explain that no further commentary is necessary.
Plainly, the 1985 Tunis bombing was a vastly more severe terrorist crime than the Achille Lauro hijacking, or the crime for which Moughniyeh’s "involvement can be ascertained with certainty" in the same year. But even the Tunis bombing had competitors for the prize for worst terrorist atrocity in the Mideast in the peak year of 1985.
One challenger was a car-bombing in Beirut right outside a mosque, timed to go off as worshippers were leaving Friday prayers. It killed 80 people and wounded 256. Most of the dead were girls and women, who had been leaving the mosque, though the ferocity of the blast "burned babies in their beds," "killed a bride buying her trousseau," and "blew away three children as they walked home from the mosque." It also "devastated the main street of the densely populated" West Beirut suburb, reported Nora Boustany three years later in the Washington Post.
The intended target had been the Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who escaped. The bombing was carried out by Reagan’s CIA and his Saudi allies, with Britain’s help, and was specifically authorized by CIA Director William Casey, according to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s account in his book Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987. Little is known beyond the bare facts, thanks to rigorous adherence to the doctrine that we do not investigate our own crimes (unless they become too prominent to suppress, and the inquiry can be limited to some low-level "bad apples" who were naturally "out of control").
A third competitor for the 1985 Mideast terrorism prize was Prime Minister Peres’ "Iron Fist" operations in southern Lebanese territories then occupied by Israel in violation of Security Council orders. The targets were what the Israeli high command called "terrorist villagers." Peres’s crimes in this case sank to new depths of "calculated brutality and arbitrary murder" in the words of a Western diplomat familiar with the area, an assessment amply supported by direct coverage. They are, however, of no interest to "the world" and therefore remain uninvestigated, in accordance with the usual conventions. We might well ask whether these crimes fall under international terrorism or the far more severe crime of aggression, but let us again give the benefit of the doubt to Israel and its backers in Washington and keep to the lesser charge.
These are a few of the thoughts that might cross the minds of people elsewhere in the world, even if not those of "the world," when considering "one of the very few times" Imad Moughniyeh was clearly implicated in a terrorist crime.
The U.S. also accuses him of responsibility for devastating double suicide truck-bomb attacks on U.S. Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Lebanon in 1983, killing 241 Marines and 58 paratroopers, as well as a prior attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63, a particularly serious blow because of a meeting there of CIA officials at the time.
The Financial Times has, however, attributed the attack on the Marine barracks to Islamic Jihad, not Hizbollah. Fawaz Gerges, one of the leading scholars on the jihadi movements and on Lebanon, has written that responsibility was taken by an "unknown group called Islamic Jihad." A voice speaking in classical Arabic called for all Americans to leave Lebanon or face death. It has been claimed that Moughniyeh was the head of Islamic Jihad at the time, but to my knowledge, evidence is sparse.
The opinion of the world has not been sampled on the subject, but it is possible that there might be some hesitancy about calling an attack on a military base in a foreign country a "terrorist attack," particularly when U.S. and French forces were carrying out heavy naval bombardments and air strikes in Lebanon, and shortly after the U.S. provided decisive support for the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which killed some 20,000 people and devastated the south, while leaving much of Beirut in ruins. It was finally called off by President Reagan when international protest became too intense to ignore after the Sabra-Shatila massacres.
In the United States, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon is regularly described as a reaction to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorist attacks on northern Israel from their Lebanese bases, making our crucial contribution to these major war crimes understandable. In the real world, the Lebanese border area had been quiet for a year, apart from repeated Israeli attacks, many of them murderous, in an effort to elicit some PLO response that could be used as a pretext for the already planned invasion. Its actual purpose was not concealed at the time by Israeli commentators and leaders: to safeguard the Israeli takeover of the occupied West Bank. It is of some interest that the sole serious error in Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid is the repetition of this propaganda concoction about PLO attacks from Lebanon being the motive for the Israeli invasion. The book was bitterly attacked, and desperate efforts were made to find some phrase that could be misinterpreted, but this glaring error — the only one — was ignored. Reasonably, since it satisfies the criterion of adhering to useful doctrinal fabrications.
Killing without Intent
Another allegation is that Moughniyeh "masterminded" the bombing of Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires on March 17, 1992, killing 29 people, in response, as the Financial Times put it, to Israel’s "assassination of former Hizbollah leader Abbas Al-Mussawi in an air attack in southern Lebanon." About the assassination, there is no need for evidence: Israel proudly took credit for it. The world might have some interest in the rest of the story. Al-Mussawi was murdered with a U.S.-supplied helicopter, well north of Israel’s illegal "security zone" in southern Lebanon. He was on his way to Sidon from the village of Jibshit, where he had spoken at the memorial for another Imam murdered by Israeli forces. The helicopter attack also killed his wife and five-year old child. Israel then employed U.S.-supplied helicopters to attack a car bringing survivors of the first attack to a hospital.
After the murder of the family, Hezbollah "changed the rules of the game," Prime Minister Rabin informed the Israeli Knesset. Previously, no rockets had been launched at Israel. Until then, the rules of the game had been that Israel could launch murderous attacks anywhere in Lebanon at will, and Hizbollah would respond only within Israeli-occupied Lebanese territory.
After the murder of its leader (and his family), Hizbollah began to respond to Israeli crimes in Lebanon by rocketing northern Israel. The latter is, of course, intolerable terror, so Rabin launched an invasion that drove some 500,000 people out of their homes and killed well over 100. The merciless Israeli attacks reached as far as northern Lebanon.
In the south, 80% of the city of Tyre fled and Nabatiye was left a "ghost town," Jibshit was about 70% destroyed according to an Israeli army spokesperson, who explained that the intent was "to destroy the village completely because of its importance to the Shi’ite population of southern Lebanon." The goal was "to wipe the villages from the face of the earth and sow destruction around them," as a senior officer of the Israeli northern command described the operation.
Jibshit may have been a particular target because it was the home of Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, kidnapped and brought to Israel several years earlier.. Obeid’s home "received a direct hit from a missile," British journalist Robert Fisk reported, "although the Israelis were presumably gunning for his wife and three children." Those who had not escaped hid in terror, wrote Mark Nicholson in the Financial Times, "because any visible movement inside or outside their houses is likely to attract the attention of Israeli artillery spotters, who… were pounding their shells repeatedly and devastatingly into selected targets." Artillery shells were hitting some villages at a rate of more than 10 rounds a minute at times.
All of this received the firm support of President Bill Clinton, who understood the need to instruct the Araboushim sternly on the "rules of the game." And Rabin emerged as another grand hero and man of peace, so different from the two-legged beasts, grasshoppers, and drugged roaches.
This is only a small sample of facts that the world might find of interest in connection with the alleged responsibility of Moughniyeh for the retaliatory terrorist act in Buenos Aires.
Other charges are that Moughniyeh helped prepare Hizbollah defenses against the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, evidently an intolerable terrorist crime by the standards of "the world," which understands that the United States and its clients must face no impediments in their just terror and aggression.
The more vulgar apologists for U.S. and Israeli crimes solemnly explain that, while Arabs purposely kill people, the U.S. and Israel, being democratic societies, do not intend to do so. Their killings are just accidental ones, hence not at the level of moral depravity of their adversaries. That was, for example, the stand of Israel’s High Court when it recently authorized severe collective punishment of the people of Gaza by depriving them of electricity (hence water, sewage disposal, and other such basics of civilized life).
The same line of defense is common with regard to some of Washington’s past peccadilloes, like the destruction in 1998 of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. The attack apparently led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, but without intent to kill them, hence not a crime on the order of intentional killing — so we are instructed by moralists who consistently suppress the response that had already been given to these vulgar efforts at self-justification.
To repeat once again, we can distinguish three categories of crimes: murder with intent, accidental killing, and murder with foreknowledge but without specific intent. Israeli and U.S. atrocities typically fall into the third category. Thus, when Israel destroys Gaza’s power supply or sets up barriers to travel in the West Bank, it does not specifically intend to murder the particular people who will die from polluted water or in ambulances that cannot reach hospitals. And when Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of the al-Shifa plant, it was obvious that it would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. Human Rights Watch immediately informed him of this, providing details; nevertheless, he and his advisers did not intend to kill specific people among those who would inevitably die when half the pharmaceutical supplies were destroyed in a poor African country that could not replenish them.
Rather, they and their apologists regarded Africans much as we do the ants we crush while walking down a street. We are aware that it is likely to happen (if we bother to think about it), but we do not intend to kill them because they are not worthy of such consideration. Needless to say, comparable attacks by Araboushim in areas inhabited by human beings would be regarded rather differently.
If, for a moment, we can adopt the perspective of the world, we might ask which criminals are "wanted the world over."
Noam Chomsky is the author of numerous best-selling political works. His latest books are Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy and What We Say Goes, a conversation book with David Barsamian, both in the American Empire Project series at Metropolitan Books. The Essential Chomsky (edited by Anthony Arnove), a collection of his writings on politics and on language from the 1950s to the present, has just been published by the New Press.
Copyright 2008 Noam Chomsky
The Most Wanted List
Neoconservative stalwart Bill Kristol recently suggested in the Weekly Standard that, in response to “Iranian aggression,” the United States should seriously consider “a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.”[i]
As Kristol certainly knows, the shoe is on the other foot. The Iranian government has been proposing negotiations for years. We now know, and he undoubtedly knows, that in 2003 the Khatami government, the moderate government, but with the approval of the hard-line clerical rulers, offered to negotiate all outstanding issues with the United States. That included nuclear issues. It also included a two-state settlement for the Israel-Palestine problem, which, as I mentioned, Iran officially supports. The Bush administration didn’t reject the negotiation offer. It didn’t even reply to it. Its response was to censure the Swiss diplomat who brought the offer.[ii]
It’s the United States that’s refusing negotiations. The big hoopla that Iran is now willing to negotiate seriously because Condoleezza Rice has shifted policy is not true.[iii] Iran’s government is not a nice one. There are all kinds of hideous things you can say about it. But the fact is, on the nuclear issue, they are the ones who offered negotiations. They are the ones who said that they would accept the two-state settlement on Israel-Palestine. But the United States is willing to “negotiate” only if Iran concedes the result of the negotiations before the negotiations begin. The negotiations are conditional on Iran stopping uranium enrichment, which it’s legally entitled to do, but which is supposed to be the goal of negotiations.[iv] So, yes, we’ll negotiate if they first concede in advance. And with a gun pointed at their heads, because we won’t withdraw the threats against Tehran. Washington has made that very clear. We continue the threats, which are a violation of the UN Charter. So, in other words, the United States is still refusing to negotiate.
The issue of enriching uranium to weapons grade is a very serious problem. The fate of the species depends on it. If such enrichment continues, we may not survive much longer. There are proposals as to how to deal with the problem. The major one comes from Mohammed ElBaradei, the highly respected head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Prize laureate. His proposal is that production of weapons-grade fissile materials be placed under international control and supervision. Anyone who wants to apply for fissile materials can apply to the IAEA for peaceful use.[v] That’s a very sensible proposal. As far as I’m aware, there is only one country in the world that has accepted it—Iran. Try to find a reference to that somewhere.
There has been an upsurge in bellicose language toward Iran. Under the UN Charter, not just the use of force but the threat of force is a breach of the Charter, correct?
That’s certainly correct. Article 2 outlaws the threat or use of force in international affairs. But the United States is an outlaw state, and it is accepted by the intellectual class here that it should be an outlaw state, so it is not subject to international law and norms. There is no criticism of this. The only criticism is that maybe these threats will get us into trouble—not that we are committing a crime.
We can say the same about the invasion of Iraq. There is a huge debate about the invasion of Iraq, but no question about whether we have a justification to do it. Of course we have an automatic justification to do it—because it’s us. We have a justification to do anything. In fact, if you look at the so-called debate about Iraq, it’s at approximately the level of a high school newspaper commenting on the local sports team. You don’t ask whether the team has a right to win, you just ask how they can win. Do we need a new coach? Do we have too many injuries? Should we try some new tactics? But not, do we have a right to win? It’s an unthinkable thought. The question whether the United States has a right to win in Iraq is unthinkable. Of course it does. Everyone is in favor of victory. The only question is whether this strategy or the other strategy will produce it.
Some of the discussion that’s going on is almost surreal. For example, a couple of days ago it was announced that Iran is opening a bank in Iraq.[vi] There was a huge furor about how this proves Iranian interference in Iraq. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Suppose Russia in the 1980s had protested because the United States was opening a bank in Afghanistan, saying, “You’re interfering with our liberation of Afghanistan.” People would have collapsed in hysterical laughter. But when we say this about Iran, it’s correct. In fact, we’ve come close to threatening that we might have a right to attack Iran if there is Iranian interference in Iraq.[vii] The comparison isn’t fair to Russia, but it’s as if the Russians had claimed the right to bomb the United States in the 1980s because we were interfering in Afghanistan, which we certainly were. We were supporting major terrorist forces in Afghanistan.
In discussions of Iran, you often hear tropes from the Munich narrative—appeasement, Hitler, Nazi Germany. You have CNN’s Glenn Beck saying, “Iran is a global threat as big as what we’ve seen since the Nazis.”[viii] Why is this story recycled so often? And why do people seemingly fall for it?
I presume the people who are producing this rhetoric fall for it. I don’t see any particular reason to think they’re lying, but it’s so utterly outlandish, it’s hard even to comment on. First of all, Munich was welcomed by the Roosevelt administration. Sumner Welles, Roosevelt’s main adviser, came back glowing with praise for what had been accomplished. They had established peace in Europe forever. The business community in the United States, and even more so in England, were fairly supportive of Hitler. After Hitler came to power, investment in Germany shot up. Now that’s all gone from history. One part of the story is true, though. If the United States and Britain had wanted to stop Hitler in 1938, they probably could have done it. There wouldn’t have been any war, but they didn’t particularly want to.
Or in 1937 or 1936?
In earlier years, almost certainly. But even as late as 1938, it probably would have still been possible to end the threat of war. By 1939, Germany was a major military power, and came very close to conquering Europe.
Iran, in stark contrast, wasn’t able to defeat Iraq in the 1980s. By now, its military force is almost nonexistent. It can barely hold the country together. Has Iran ever threatened anyone? Has it attacked anyone? It wouldn’t have the military force to do it. You can say what you like about Iran: it has a horrible government. We obviously don’t want them to have nuclear weapons. But to consider them a threat comparable to Hitler kind of reminds me of when Ronald Reagan put on his cowboy boots and declared that we have to have a national emergency because the Nicaraguan army is “just two days’ drive from Harlingen, Texas.”[ix]
No one wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. If you’re serious about this, though, there are ways of dealing with the problem sensibly. To regard Iran as a serious threat, let alone a threat comparable to Hitler, that’s to move into outer space. You can’t discuss it rationally. It’s like talking to a religious fanatic.
Benjamin Netanyahu says “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.”[x]
He has his reasons. Israel recognizes that there is a threat—namely, that Iran is a threat to its regional dominance. Israel wants to dominate the region completely, with no competing forces, and Iran might be some slight counterbalance. But it’s not a serious threat to them. From a military point of view, almost surely not. Suppose Iran had nuclear weapons. Could they use them? If there were even the slightest indication that Iran is planning to arm a missile, the country would be vaporized. The only thing they can use nuclear weapons for is as a deterrent. They can’t attack anyone with nuclear weapons unless they decide on mass suicide.
You could argue that maybe they’ll leak weapons to terrorists. That’s conceivable. But then there is a much more serious threat of that right in front of us, Pakistan, which in fact has leaked nuclear weapons.[xi] You want to worry about that? Fine. Let’s bomb Pakistan.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Commission, says he’s worried that further U.N. sanctions against Iran “is only going to lead to an escalation,” and then he dismissed as “absolutely bonkers” the idea that Israel or the U.S. might launch military attacks on Iranian nuclear sites. Such an attack “would only strengthen the hand of hard-liners” in Iran, driving its nuclear program underground.[xii]
It would almost certainly. Let’s remember what happened at Osirak, when Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear facilities in 1981. It didn’t terminate nuclear weapons development. It didn’t even accelerate it. It initiated it. The Osirak reactor was inspected within weeks after the bombing, by the chairman of Harvard’s physics department, who is a specialist in nuclear engineering. He wrote an article in the world’s leading scientific journal, Nature, in which he said that the reactor was not capable of weapons production.[xiii] From testimony that we now have from Iraqi defectors, it turns out he was apparently correct. The reactor was not intended for weapons production. But, of course, as soon as it was bombed, Saddam Hussein immediately undertook a clandestine nuclear weapons development program. So it appears from what we know that the Israeli bombing initiated Iraq’s nuclear weapons development program. Something similar could happen in Iran, too. I would be really surprised if there isn’t an office in the Pentagon that’s thinking through contingency plans about how to take over Khuzestan, the Arab region of Iran right near the Gulf, which happens to be where most of the country’s oil is, and just bomb the rest of the country to dust.
Who knows what effect that would have on the world? Hatred and fear of the United States and Israel would escalate to an immeasurable degree. It’s already huge. So, in that sense, any use of military force would be crazy. We know from polls in the region that the populations in the surrounding countries, who very much dislike Iran—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan—nevertheless by large majorities prefer a nuclear-armed Iran to any form of military action.[xiv] Though the next to last thing in the world they want is a nuclear-armed Iran, the last thing they want is military action. And what would that lead to? It’s a question of the extent to which you can control populations by force, violence, and threat. Maybe you can. It’s been done in the past. But it’s a terrible gamble.
The Bush administration accuses Iran of “meddling” in Iraq. There is no sense of irony here.
Yes, but that’s standard. During the Vietnam War, for example, when the United States was bombing North Vietnam, it happened to be bombing an internal Chinese railroad. The way the French built railroads, the internal Chinese railroads from southwest to southeast China pass through North Vietnam. When China sent in workers to rebuild the bombed railroad, that was condemned as interference in Vietnam. For us to bomb is legitimate. For them to repair their railroad that we’re bombing shows that they are aggressors, and therefore we have to think about bombing China, and so on.
These formulations have a lot of significance. If you can get people to repeat without ridicule that Iran is interfering in Iraq or that China is interfering in Vietnam, it entrenches the fundamental principle that we have a right to use violence anywhere we like and nobody has a right to deter it. No one. That’s an important principle.
[i]. William Kristol, “It’s Our War: Bush Should go to Jerusalem—and the U.S. Should Confront Iran,” Weekly Standard, 24 July 2006.
[ii]. Andrew Moravcsik, “Déjà Vu All Over Again,” Newsweek International, 15 May 2006.
[iii]. See Michael Hirsh and Maziar Bahari, “Diplo-Dancing With Iran: Rice Makes an Offer to Tehran—With Tough Conditions,” Newsweek, 12 June 2006, p. 32.
[iv]. David Usborne, “Iran Must Make First Move, Bush Tells UN Meeting,” The Independent (London), 20 September 2006, p. 28.
[v]. For details, see Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Owl Books, 2007), pp. 70–75.
[vi]. Edward Wong, “Iran Is Playing a Growing Role in Iraq Economy,” New York Times, 17 March 2007, p. A1.
[vii]. Ewen MacAskill, “US Threatens Firm Response to Iranian Meddling in Iraq,” Guardian (London), 30 January 2007, p. 15.
[viii]. Glenn Beck, “What Will Change Iran Situation?” CNN, Glenn Beck Show, 23 August 2006.
[ix]. David Maraniss, “Reagan Has a Texas-Sized Sales Job,” Washington Post, 16 March 1986, p. A1.
[x]. Andy Geller, “Bibi: Mad Mullahs Threaten ‘Another Holocaust,’ ” New York Post, 15 November 2006, p. 8.
[xi]. For background, see Chomsky, Failed States, p. 16.
[xii]. Quoted in Mark Landler and David E. Sanger, “Chief U.N. Nuclear Monitor Cites Iran Enrichment Plan,” New York Times, 27 January 2007, p. A10.
[xiii]. For details, see Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, p. 25.
[xiv]. Dan Morrison, “Persian Populist Wins Arab Embrace,” Christian Science Monitor, 21 June 2006, p. 6. U.S. Newswire, “First Public Opinion Poll in Iran’s Neighboring Countries Reveals Startling Findings on Possibility of Iranian Nuclear Arms,” 12 June 2006.
Commentary by Noam Chomsky
Unsurprisingly, George W. Bush’s announcement of a "surge" in Iraq came despite the firm opposition to any such move of Americans and the even stronger opposition of the (thoroughly irrelevant) Iraqis. It was accompanied by ominous official leaks and statements — from Washington and Baghdad — about how Iranian intervention in Iraq was aimed at disrupting our mission to gain victory, an aim which is (by definition) noble. What then followed was a solemn debate about whether serial numbers on advanced roadside bombs (IEDs) were really traceable to Iraq; and, if so, to that country’s Revolutionary Guards or to some even higher authority.
This "debate" is a typical illustration of a primary principle of sophisticated propaganda. In crude and brutal societies, the Party Line is publicly proclaimed and must be obeyed — or else. What you actually believe is your own business and of far less concern. In societies where the state has lost the capacity to control by force, the Party Line is simply presupposed; then, vigorous debate is encouraged within the limits imposed by unstated doctrinal orthodoxy. The cruder of the two systems leads, naturally enough, to disbelief; the sophisticated variant gives an impression of openness and freedom, and so far more effectively serves to instill the Party Line. It becomes beyond question, beyond thought itself, like the air we breathe.
The debate over Iranian interference in Iraq proceeds without ridicule on the assumption that the United States owns the world. We did not, for example, engage in a similar debate in the 1980s about whether the U.S. was interfering in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, and I doubt that Pravda, probably recognizing the absurdity of the situation, sank to outrage about that fact (which American officials and our media, in any case, made no effort to conceal). Perhaps the official Nazi press also featured solemn debates about whether the Allies were interfering in sovereign Vichy France, though if so, sane people would then have collapsed in ridicule.
In this case, however, even ridicule — notably absent — would not suffice, because the charges against Iran are part of a drumbeat of pronouncements meant to mobilize support for escalation in Iraq and for an attack on Iran, the "source of the problem." The world is aghast at the possibility. Even in neighboring Sunni states, no friends of Iran, majorities, when asked, favor a nuclear-armed Iran over any military action against that country. From what limited information we have, it appears that significant parts of the U.S. military and intelligence communities are opposed to such an attack, along with almost the entire world, even more so than when the Bush administration and Tony Blair’s Britain invaded Iraq, defying enormous popular opposition worldwide.
"The Iran Effect"
The results of an attack on Iran could be horrendous. After all, according to a recent study of "the Iraq effect" by terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, using government and Rand Corporation data, the Iraq invasion has already led to a seven-fold increase in terror. The "Iran effect" would probably be far more severe and long-lasting. British military historian Corelli Barnett speaks for many when he warns that "an attack on Iran would effectively launch World War III."
What are the plans of the increasingly desperate clique that narrowly holds political power in the U.S.? We cannot know. Such state planning is, of course, kept secret in the interests of "security." Review of the declassified record reveals that there is considerable merit in that claim — though only if we understand "security" to mean the security of the Bush administration against their domestic enemy, the population in whose name they act.
Even if the White House clique is not planning war, naval deployments, support for secessionist movements and acts of terror within Iran, and other provocations could easily lead to an accidental war. Congressional resolutions would not provide much of a barrier. They invariably permit "national security" exemptions, opening holes wide enough for the several aircraft-carrier battle groups soon to be in the Persian Gulf to pass through — as long as an unscrupulous leadership issues proclamations of doom (as Condoleezza Rice did with those "mushroom clouds" over American cities back in 2002). And the concocting of the sorts of incidents that "justify" such attacks is a familiar practice. Even the worst monsters feel the need for such justification and adopt the device: Hitler’s defense of innocent Germany from the "wild terror" of the Poles in 1939, after they had rejected his wise and generous proposals for peace, is but one example.
The most effective barrier to a White House decision to launch a war is the kind of organized popular opposition that frightened the political-military leadership enough in 1968 that they were reluctant to send more troops to Vietnam — fearing, we learned from the Pentagon Papers, that they might need them for civil-disorder control.
Doubtless Iran’s government merits harsh condemnation, including for its recent actions that have inflamed the crisis. It is, however, useful to ask how we would act if Iran had invaded and occupied Canada and Mexico and was arresting U.S. government representatives there on the grounds that they were resisting the Iranian occupation (called "liberation," of course). Imagine as well that Iran was deploying massive naval forces in the Caribbean and issuing credible threats to launch a wave of attacks against a vast range of sites — nuclear and otherwise — in the United States, if the U.S. government did not immediately terminate all its nuclear energy programs (and, naturally, dismantle all its nuclear weapons). Suppose that all of this happened after Iran had overthrown the government of the U.S. and installed a vicious tyrant (as the US did to Iran in 1953), then later supported a Russian invasion of the U.S. that killed millions of people (just as the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980, killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians, a figure comparable to millions of Americans). Would we watch quietly?
It is easy to understand an observation by one of Israel’s leading military historians, Martin van Creveld. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, knowing it to be defenseless, he noted, "Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy."
Surely no sane person wants Iran (or any nation) to develop nuclear weapons. A reasonable resolution of the present crisis would permit Iran to develop nuclear energy, in accord with its rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but not nuclear weapons. Is that outcome feasible? It would be, given one condition: that the U.S. and Iran were functioning democratic societies in which public opinion had a significant impact on public policy.
As it happens, this solution has overwhelming support among Iranians and Americans, who generally are in agreement on nuclear issues. The Iranian-American consensus includes the complete elimination of nuclear weapons everywhere (82% of Americans); if that cannot yet be achieved because of elite opposition, then at least a "nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East that would include both Islamic countries and Israel" (71% of Americans). Seventy-five percent of Americans prefer building better relations with Iran to threats of force. In brief, if public opinion were to have a significant influence on state policy in the U.S. and Iran, resolution of the crisis might be at hand, along with much more far-reaching solutions to the global nuclear conundrum.
Promoting Democracy — at Home
These facts suggest a possible way to prevent the current crisis from exploding, perhaps even into some version of World War III. That awesome threat might be averted by pursuing a familiar proposal: democracy promotion — this time at home, where it is badly needed. Democracy promotion at home is certainly feasible and, although we cannot carry out such a project directly in Iran, we could act to improve the prospects of the courageous reformers and oppositionists who are seeking to achieve just that. Among such figures who are, or should be, well-known, would be Saeed Hajjarian, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, and Akbar Ganji, as well as those who, as usual, remain nameless, among them labor activists about whom we hear very little; those who publish the Iranian Workers Bulletin may be a case in point.
We can best improve the prospects for democracy promotion in Iran by sharply reversing state policy here so that it reflects popular opinion. That would entail ceasing to make the regular threats that are a gift to Iranian hardliners. These are bitterly condemned by Iranians truly concerned with democracy promotion (unlike those "supporters" who flaunt democracy slogans in the West and are lauded as grand "idealists" despite their clear record of visceral hatred for democracy).
Democracy promotion in the United States could have far broader consequences. In Iraq, for instance, a firm timetable for withdrawal would be initiated at once, or very soon, in accord with the will of the overwhelming majority of Iraqis and a significant majority of Americans. Federal budget priorities would be virtually reversed. Where spending is rising, as in military supplemental bills to conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would sharply decline. Where spending is steady or declining (health, education, job training, the promotion of energy conservation and renewable energy sources, veterans benefits, funding for the UN and UN peacekeeping operations, and so on), it would sharply increase. Bush’s tax cuts for people with incomes over $200,000 a year would be immediately rescinded.
The U.S. would have adopted a national health-care system long ago, rejecting the privatized system that sports twice the per-capita costs found in similar societies and some of the worst outcomes in the industrial world. It would have rejected what is widely regarded by those who pay attention as a "fiscal train wreck" in-the-making. The U.S. would have ratified the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and undertaken still stronger measures to protect the environment. It would allow the UN to take the lead in international crises, including in Iraq. After all, according to opinion polls, since shortly after the 2003 invasion, a large majority of Americans have wanted the UN to take charge of political transformation, economic reconstruction, and civil order in that land.
If public opinion mattered, the U.S. would accept UN Charter restrictions on the use of force, contrary to a bipartisan consensus that this country, alone, has the right to resort to violence in response to potential threats, real or imagined, including threats to our access to markets and resources. The U.S. (along with others) would abandon the Security Council veto and accept majority opinion even when in opposition to it. The UN would be allowed to regulate arms sales; while the U.S. would cut back on such sales and urge other countries to do so, which would be a major contribution to reducing large-scale violence in the world. Terror would be dealt with through diplomatic and economic measures, not force, in accord with the judgment of most specialists on the topic but again in diametric opposition to present-day policy.
Furthermore, if public opinion influenced policy, the U.S. would have diplomatic relations with Cuba, benefiting the people of both countries (and, incidentally, U.S. agribusiness, energy corporations, and others), instead of standing virtually alone in the world in imposing an embargo (joined only by Israel, the Republic of Palau, and the Marshall Islands). Washington would join the broad international consensus on a two-state settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which (with Israel) it has blocked for 30 years — with scattered and temporary exceptions — and which it still blocks in word, and more importantly in deed, despite fraudulent claims of its commitment to diplomacy. The U.S. would also equalize aid to Israel and Palestine, cutting off aid to either party that rejected the international consensus.
Evidence on these matters is reviewed in my book Failed States as well as in The Foreign Policy Disconnect by Benjamin Page (with Marshall Bouton), which also provides extensive evidence that public opinion on foreign (and probably domestic) policy issues tends to be coherent and consistent over long periods. Studies of public opinion have to be regarded with caution, but they are certainly highly suggestive.
Democracy promotion at home, while no panacea, would be a useful step towards helping our own country become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international order (to adopt the term used for adversaries), instead of being an object of fear and dislike throughout much of the world. Apart from being a value in itself, functioning democracy at home holds real promise for dealing constructively with many current problems, international and domestic, including those that literally threaten the survival of our species.
Noam Chomsky is the author of Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (Metropolitan Books), just published in paperback, among many other works.
Copyright 2007 Noam Chomsky
What If Iran Had Invaded Mexico?
The editors of this blog asked Noam Chomsky to comment on Thomas Friedman’s "Land for NATO" editorial in the September 13th edition of the New York Times. The following is Mr. Chomsky’s response.
I’ve been asked for comments on Thomas Friedman’s "Land For NATO" editorial, NYT, Sept. 13, 2006.
Friedman’s main point is that the UN force in Southern Lebanon offers a possible model for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians: "Israel withdraws and the border is secured by a force that is U.N. on the outside but NATO on the inside."
Friedman’s thesis is based on two crucial tacit assumptions. The first is that “the border is secured” for Israel; the problem of security arises for Israel, not for the Palestinians and Lebanese. The second is that Israel has been willing to withdraw from the occupied territories if security is guaranteed, or would even contemplate that possibility.
The first assumption is too bizarre to discuss. Given the balance of means of violence and the record of how they have been used to crush and destroy, the fact that the issue of security can be posed in such terms – worse, conceived as self-evident — is a testimonial to imperial mentality so deeply rooted in the culture of the powerful as to be virtually invisible. But fact it is, and it is unfair to single Friedman out to illustrate this malady.
Let us then turn to the second and more specific assumption. Unless a credible argument is presented for it, Friedman’s thesis is worthless. Since he offers no argument, there is nothing to refute, but we can consider some of the obstacles that would lie in the path of presenting the missing argument.
Since the 1970s, there has been a very broad international consensus calling for a two-state settlement on the international border within the context of a general peace treaty that adopts the wording of UN 242 on recognized borders and security guarantees. Some have rejected the consensus. The leaders of the rejectionist camp have been Israel and the United States, apart from pro forma declarations undercut at once by actions. Unless the US radically shifts course and joins the rest of the world in accepting a settlement in these terms, there is no reason to expect Israel to change course. The record has been amply documented elsewhere, and there is no need to review it here.
The PLO has officially endorsed this position for decades, as have the major Arab states. Their stand was reformulated still more strongly in the 2002 Arab League proposal for normalization of relations with Israel within a two-state settlement. In 2003, Iran offered to negotiate a two-state settlement, with the endorsement of “supreme leader” Ayatollah Khamenei, who sets Iranian policy. Khamenei recently declared that Iran supports the Arab League 2002 initiative for normalization of relations with Israel; the timing suggests that it may have been a reprimand to his subordinate Ahmadinejad. Hamas has clearly indicated that it supports negotations for a settlement in these terms, and called on Israel to accept the long-term truce that Hamas had observed for a year and a half despite continuing Israeli violence and harsh repression.
Unilateral US-Israeli rejectionism is not just words, but more important, actions. US-supported Israeli settlement and infrastructure projects in the occupied territories, which undermine the prospects for such a settlement, continued steadily through the Oslo years, peaking in 2000, Clinton’s last year and Prime Minister Barak’s. With Bush-Sharon, the programs accelerated further. Sharon’s “Gaza disengagement” plan was an openly-announced West Bank expansion plan. Reduced to a disaster area by brutal Israeli occupation, Gaza was to be turned into what Israeli human rights groups call “the world’s largest prison,” where Israel would be free to carry out attacks at will, as it has done. When the US and Israel decided to punish Palestinians severely last February for voting the wrong way in a free election, Israel stepped up attacks, tightened the imprisonment, and withheld desperately needed funds it was obligated to provide, and even cut off water to the Strip, which suffers from severe water shortages. The few thousand Jewish settlers there, who had been given much of the arable land and precious water supplies and were protected by a large part of the Israeli army, were removed to other parts of the occupied territories, where Israel expanded its illegal programs of annexation, dismemberment and imprisonment, now under the cynical guise of “convergence.” Israel is annexing valuable Palestinian lands and resources (primarily water) behind its Separation Wall – now in effect an Annexation Wall — declared illegal by the World Court. US Justice Buergenthal, in a separate statement, declared the Wall to be “ipso facto” illegal insofar as it is built to protect Israeli settlements: about 80-85% of the wall. Huge infrastructure projects and settlements dismember the shrinking territories remaining to Palestinians into cantons that are virtually separated from one another and from whatever sliver of Jerusalem might be left to Palestinians – traditionally, the center of their commercial, educational, cultural and political life. The unviable cantons are imprisoned with Israeli takeover of the Jordan Valley.
Gaza and the West Bank are regarded as a unit, by the US and Israel as well. Therefore, if resistance to these programs and their implementation is legitimate in the West Bank – and it would be interesting to hear a counter-argument – then it is in Gaza too.
These programs are not designed to enhance Israeli security. The goal, scarcely concealed, is to enrich Israel and extend its regional dominance, drive the last nails into the coffin of Palestinian national rights, and safeguard the “demographic balance,” so that Israel can remain a Jewish state, not the state of its citizens. The US and Israel are surely aware that their policies create bitter resentment and hostility to Israel, hence intensify the threats to its security, just as they know that the recent destruction of Lebanon is likely to create new generations of Jihadis, as did the Iraq invasion, predictably. Israeli security would surely be enhanced by the kind of peace settlement that the US and Israel have rejected for over 30 years, with brief and rare departures.
The US-Israeli preference for expansion over security has been clear since 1971, when Israel rejected Egyptian president Sadat’s peace offer, offering nothing to the Palestinians, and in accord with official US policy. Israel considered the offer, but rejected it with US support, preferring expansion to security: at the time, primarily expansion into the northeastern Sinai, where thousands of farmers were expelled into the desert to prepare ground for the all-Jewish city of Yamit and other settlements. That was the immediate background for the 1973 war, a very close call for Israel. The pattern has continued since. It is, of course, not unique to Israel. Nor is Israel alone, or even unusual, in pleading security to mask quite different goals – a virtual reflex for systems of power that should never be accepted without critical examination.
Just to keep to the parts of the record that Friedman knows from personal experience, when he was Jerusalem correspondent for the Times 20 years ago he was reading headlines in the mainstream Hebrew press saying “Arafat indicates to Israel that he is ready to enter into direct negotiations” for political settlement, firmly rejected by Prime Minister Shimon Peres and other leading figures of both political groupings. A few days later Friedman reported Peres’s laments that there is no “peace movement” among the “Arab people” as “we have among the Jewish people,” and that the PLO “refuses to negotiate.” This charade has persisted for decades. Friedman’s latest column is just another familiar chapter.
Friedman refers correctly to the UN force in southern Lebanon. Why there, and not northern Israel? That unquestioned decision reflects power, not justice. Clearly it is Lebanon that needs a deterrent against Israeli attacks, just as Palestinians need a deterrent to Israeli violence and repression. For Lebanon, the invasion in 2006 was the fifth in 30 years, each murderous and destructive. In 2000, Israel finally accepted the Security Council demand 22 years earlier that it withdraw from Lebanon, though only partially. UNIFIL recorded almost daily violations of Lebanese territory, but not a single rocket firing from Lebanon in 6 years attributed to Hezbollah (with one possible exception, source undetermined). The Israeli invasions, including the latest one, can hardly be justified on security grounds. The most vicious was in 1982, undertaken to fend off embarrassing PLO peace proposals that were a “veritable catastrophe” for Israel, as pointed out at once by Israel’s leading academic specialist on the Palestinians, Yehoshua Porath – no dove. At the highest levels, the invasion was recognized to be a war for the West Bank. Friedman, however, preferred the Israeli propaganda version: the invasion was to protect northern Israel from Palestinian rockets. In reality, the PLO had adhered to the US-negotiated cease-fire despite extensive and often murderous Israeli violations, which appeared to be an effort to provoke some reaction that could be used as a pretext for the planned invasion. When no such pretext could be found, Israel simply invaded, killing some 15-20,000 people and destroying much of southern Lebanon and Beirut. Pretexts for the other invasions, including the latest one, collapse on the slightest examination, as has been extensively documented.
In the same column, Friedman assures us that “There was absolutely no reason for the Hezbollah attack on July 12 across the U.N.-recognized Israel-Lebanon border, in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two abducted” – five of the eight killed within Lebanon. He does not explain why he rejects the conclusions of Israeli and Lebanese commentators (cited elsewhere) that its goals were those it officially announced: exchange of prisoners and a gesture of support for Palestinians under increasingly merciless attack. The US-backed Israeli invasion sought to eliminate a Lebanon-based deterrent to possible US aggression against Iran, and to destroy Hezbollah, which offers the only meaningful support for Palestinians under Israeli attack and facing what Hebrew University sociologist Baruch Kimmerling calls “politicide.” These reasons alone provide a plausible explanation of the indiscriminate US-Israeli attack against the civilian society, which led to an astonishing 87% support for Hezbollah resistance. Reviewing Lebanese opinion in the last days of the war, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, the leading Lebanese academic specialist on Hezbollah (and no supporter of the organization) wrote that “Hizbullah’s `logic of resistance’ and deterrence has been both vindicated and demonstrated. It has stepped in to fill the huge political and military vacuum left by the state, the resistance’s ongoing counter-attacks paralysing Israel on the ground. The Lebanese reject the self- designated role that US and Israeli officials have taken on as spokespersons for the Lebanese, along with their purported favour of ridding the Lebanese, once and for all, of Hizbullah.”
Like others, Friedman regards Israel’s invasion as justified by the capture of the two soldiers on July 12, but neither he, nor anyone, has ever suggested that Israel should repeatedly have been invaded and largely destroyed in retaliation for its regular practice of kidnapping Lebanese and Palestinian civilians – a far more severe crime than capture of soldiers — holding them for many years, sometimes in secret prison/torture chambers, sometimes as hostages. This is hardly ancient history. Israel’s latest sharp escalation of its attacks in Gaza followed the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit on June 25, and was justified as retaliation for this atrocity. One day earlier, on June 24, Israeli forces kidnapped two Gaza civilians, the Muammar brothers, who have disappeared into the Israeli prison system, joining almost 1000 others held without charge – hence kidnapped. No one suggested that Israel should be invaded in retaliation for the kidnapping of the Muammar brothers on June 24 – again, a far more severe crime than the capture of a soldier. Such examples, which abound, reveal that the support for Israel’s escalated attack on Gaza and invasion of Lebanon are cynical fraud, again undermining the security pretense.
Friedman also assures us that Hezbollah attacked “claiming among its goals the liberation of Jerusalem, and using missiles provided by an Iranian regime that says Israel should be wiped off the map.” Hence “Israel had to respond resolutely.” As noted, the Iranian regime has declared its support for the Arab League plan for normalization of relations with Israel, a plan that the US and Israel do not even go so far as to reject: they dismiss it with contempt. And Friedman fails to inform us that Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has repeatedly stated that if Palestinians accept a two-state settlement, then Hezbollah, which is a Lebanese organization, will not disrupt it.
It continues the same way, following an all-too-familiar script. Whatever conclusions one draws about those participating in the torment of the region, at least they should not be based on rejection of the most crucial facts.