Noam Chomsky: Why it’s over for America
An inability to protect its citizens. The belief that it is above the law. A lack of democracy. Three defining characteristics of the ‘failed state’. And that, says Noam Chomsky, is exactly what the US is becoming. In an exclusive extract from his devastating new book, America’s leading thinker explains how his country lost its way
Published: 30 May 2006
The selection of issues that should rank high on the agenda of concern for human welfare and rights is, naturally, a subjective matter. But there are a few choices that seem unavoidable, because they bear so directly on the prospects for decent survival. Among them are at least these three: nuclear war, environmental disaster, and the fact that the government of the world’s leading power is acting in ways that increase the likelihood of these catastrophes. It is important to stress the government, because the population, not surprisingly, does not agree.
That brings up a fourth issue that should deeply concern Americans, and the world: the sharp divide between public opinion and public policy, one of the reasons for the fear, which cannot casually be put aside, that, as Gar Alperowitz puts it in America Beyond Capitalism, “the American ‘system’ as a whole is in real trouble – that it is heading in a direction that spells the end of its historic values [of] equality, liberty, and meaningful democracy”.
The “system” is coming to have some of the features of failed states, to adopt a currently fashionable notion that is conventionally applied to states regarded as potential threats to our security (like Iraq) or as needing our intervention to rescue the population from severe internal threats (like Haiti). Though the concept is recognised to be, according to the journal Foreign Affairs, “frustratingly imprecise”, some of the primary characteristics of failed states can be identified. One is their inability or unwillingness to protect their citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction. Another is their tendency to regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law, and hence free to carry out aggression and violence. And if they have democratic forms, they suffer from a serious “democratic deficit” that deprives their formal democratic institutions of real substance.
Among the hardest tasks that anyone can undertake, and one of the most important, is to look honestly in the mirror. If we allow ourselves to do so, we should have little difficulty in finding the characteristics of “failed states” right at home.
No one familiar with history should be surprised that the growing democratic deficit in the United States is accompanied by declaration of messianic missions to bring democracy to a suffering world. Declarations of noble intent by systems of power are rarely complete fabrication, and the same is true in this case. Under some conditions, forms of democracy are indeed acceptable. Abroad, as the leading scholar-advocate of “democracy promotion” concludes, we find a “strong line of continuity”: democracy is acceptable if and only if it is consistent with strategic and economic interests (Thomas Carothers). In modified form, the doctrine holds at home as well.
The basic dilemma facing policymakers is sometimes candidly recognised at the dovish liberal extreme of the spectrum, for example, by Robert Pastor, President Carter’s national security adviser for Latin America. He explained why the administration had to support the murderous and corrupt Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and, when that proved impossible, to try at least to maintain the US-trained National Guard even as it was massacring the population “with a brutality a nation usually reserves for its enemy”, killing some 40,000 people. The reason was the familiar one: “The United States did not want to control Nicaragua or the other nations of the region, but it also did not want developments to get out of control. It wanted Nicaraguans to act independently, except when doing so would affect US interests adversely.”
Similar dilemmas faced Bush administration planners after their invasion of Iraq. They want Iraqis “to act independently, except when doing so would affect US interests adversely”. Iraq must therefore be sovereign and democratic, but within limits. It must somehow be constructed as an obedient client state, much in the manner of the traditional order in Central America. At a general level, the pattern is familiar, reaching to the opposite extreme of institutional structures. The Kremlin was able to maintain satellites that were run by domestic political and military forces, with the iron fist poised. Germany was able to do much the same in occupied Europe even while it was at war, as did fascist Japan in Man-churia (its Manchukuo). Fascist Italy achieved similar results in North Africa while carrying out virtual genocide that in no way harmed its favourable image in the West and possibly inspired Hitler. Traditional imperial and neocolonial systems illustrate many variations on similar themes.
To achieve the traditional goals in Iraq has proven to be surprisingly difficult, despite unusually favourable circumstances. The dilemma of combining a measure of independence with firm control arose in a stark form not long after the invasion, as mass non-violent resistance compelled the invaders to accept far more Iraqi initiative than they had anticipated. The outcome even evoked the nightmarish prospect of a more or less democratic and sovereign Iraq taking its place in a loose Shiite alliance comprising Iran, Shiite Iraq, and possibly the nearby Shiite-dominated regions of Saudi Arabia, controlling most of the world’s oil and independent of Washington.
The situation could get worse. Iran might give up on hopes that Europe could become independent of the United States, and turn eastward. Highly relevant background is discussed by Selig Harrison, a leading specialist on these topics. “The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the European Union were based on a bargain that the EU, held back by the US, has failed to honour,” Harrison observes.
“The bargain was that Iran would suspend uranium enrichment, and the EU would undertake security guarantees. The language of the joint declaration was “unambiguous. ‘A mutually acceptable agreement,’ it said, would not only provide ‘objective guarantees’ that Iran’s nuclear programme is ‘exclusively for peaceful purposes’ but would ‘equally provide firm commitments on security issues.’”
The phrase “security issues” is a thinly veiled reference to the threats by the United States and Israel to bomb Iran, and preparations to do so. The model regularly adduced is Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, which appears to have initiated Saddam’s nuclear weapons programs, another demonstration that violence tends to elicit violence. Any attempt to execute similar plans against Iran could lead to immediate violence, as is surely understood in Washington. During a visit to Tehran, the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr warned that his militia would defend Iran in the case of any attack, “one of the strongest signs yet”, the Washington Post reported, “that Iraq could become a battleground in any Western conflict with Iran, raising the spectre of Iraqi Shiite militias – or perhaps even the US-trained Shiite-dominated military – taking on American troops here in sympathy with Iran.” The Sadrist bloc, which registered substantial gains in the December 2005 elections, may soon become the most powerful single political force in Iraq. It is consciously pursuing the model of other successful Islamist groups, such as Hamas in Palestine, combining strong resistance to military occupation with grassroots social organising and service to the poor.
Washington’s unwillingness to allow regional security issues to be considered is nothing new. It has also arisen repeatedly in the confrontation with Iraq. In the background is the matter of Israeli nuclear weapons, a topic that Washington bars from international consideration. Beyond that lurks what Harrison rightly describes as “the central problem facing the global non-proliferation regime”: the failure of the nuclear states to live up to their nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligation “to phase out their own nuclear weapons” – and, in Washington’s case, formal rejection of the obligation.
Unlike Europe, China refuses to be intimidated by Washington, a primary reason for the growing fear of China on the part of US planners. Much of Iran’s oil already goes to China, and China is providing Iran with weapons, presumably considered a deterrent to US threats. Still more uncomfortable for Washington is the fact that, according to the Financial Times, “the Sino-Saudi relationship has developed dramatically”, including Chinese military aid to Saudi Arabia and gas exploration rights for China. By 2005, Saudi Arabia provided about 17 per cent of China’s oil imports. Chinese and Saudi oil companies have signed deals for drilling and construction of a huge refinery (with Exxon Mobil as a partner). A January 2006 visit by Saudi king Abdullah to Beijing was expected to lead to a Sino-Saudi memorandum of understanding calling for “increased cooperation and investment between the two countries in oil, natural gas, and minerals”.
Indian analyst Aijaz Ahmad observes that Iran could “emerge as the virtual linchpin in the making, over the next decade or so, of what China and Russia have come to regard as an absolutely indispensable Asian Energy Security Grid, for breaking Western control of the world’s energy supplies and securing the great industrial revolution of Asia”. South Korea and southeast Asian countries are likely to join, possibly Japan as well. A crucial question is how India will react. It rejected US pressures to withdraw from an oil pipeline deal with Iran. On the other hand, India joined the United States and the EU in voting for an anti-Iranian resolution at the IAEA, joining also in their hypocrisy, since India rejects the NPT regime to which Iran, so far, appears to be largely conforming. Ahmad reports that India may have secretly reversed its stand under Iranian threats to terminate a $20bn gas deal. Washington later warned India that its “nuclear deal with the US could be ditched” if India did not go along with US demands, eliciting a sharp rejoinder from the Indian foreign ministry and an evasive tempering of the warning by the US embassy.
The prospect that Europe and Asia might move toward greater independence has seriously troubled US planners since World War II, and concerns have significantly increased as the tripolar order has continued to evolve, along with new south-south interactions and rapidly growing EU engagement with China.
US intelligence has projected that the United States, while controlling Middle East oil for the traditional reasons, will itself rely mainly on more stable Atlantic Basin resources (West Africa, western hemisphere). Control of Middle East oil is now far from a sure thing, and these expectations are also threatened by developments in the western hemisphere, accelerated by Bush administration policies that have left the United States remarkably isolated in the global arena. The Bush administration has even succeeded in alienating Canada, an impressive feat.
Canada’s minister of natural resources said that within a few years one quarter of the oil that Canada now sends to the United States may go to China instead. In a further blow to Washington’s energy policies, the leading oil exporter in the hemisphere, Venezuela, has forged probably the closest relations with China of any Latin American country, and is planning to sell increasing amounts of oil to China as part of its effort to reduce dependence on the openly hostile US government. Latin America as a whole is increasing trade and other relations with China, with some setbacks, but likely expansion, in particular for raw materials exporters like Brazil and Chile.
Meanwhile, Cuba-Venezuela relations are becoming very close, each relying on its comparative advantage. Venezuela is providing low-cost oil while in return Cuba organises literacy and health programs, sending thousands of highly skilled professionals, teachers, and doctors, who work in the poorest and most neglected areas, as they do elsewhere in the Third World. Cuba-Venezuela projects are extending to the Caribbean countries, where Cuban doctors are providing healthcare to thousands of people with Venezuelan funding. Operation Miracle, as it is called, is described by Jamaica’s ambassador to Cuba as “an example of integration and south-south cooperation”, and is generating great enthusiasm among the poor majority. Cuban medical assistance is also being welcomed elsewhere. One of the most horrendous tragedies of recent years was the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. In addition to the huge toll, unknown numbers of survivors have to face brutal winter weather with little shelter, food, or medical assistance. One has to turn to the South Asian press to read that “Cuba has provided the largest contingent of doctors and paramedics to Pakistan”, paying all the costs (perhaps with Venezuelan funding), and that President Musharraf expressed his “deep gratitude” for the “spirit and compassion” of the Cuban medical teams.
Some analysts have suggested that Cuba and Venezuela might even unite, a step towards further integration of Latin America in a bloc that is more independent from the United States. Venezuela has joined Mercosur, the South American customs union, a move described by Argentine president Nestor Kirchner as “a milestone” in the development of this trading bloc, and welcomed as opening “a new chapter in our integration” by Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Independent experts say that “adding Venezuela to the bloc furthers its geopolitical vision of eventually spreading Mercosur to the rest of the region”.
At a meeting to mark Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez said, “We cannot allow this to be purely an economic project, one for the elites and for the transnational companies,” a not very oblique reference to the US-sponsored “Free Trade Agreement for the Americas”, which has aroused strong public opposition. Venezuela also supplied Argentina with fuel oil to help stave off an energy crisis, and bought almost a third of Argentine debt issued in 2005, one element of a region-wide effort to free the countries from the control of the US-dominated IMF after two decades of disastrous effects of conformity to its rules. The IMF has “acted towards our country as a promoter and a vehicle of policies that caused poverty and pain among the Argentine people”, President Kirchner said in announcing his decision to pay almost $1 trillion to rid itself of the IMF forever. Radically violating IMF rules, Argentina enjoyed a substantial recovery from the disaster left by IMF policies.
Steps toward independent regional integration advanced further with the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia in December 2005, the first president from the indigenous majority. Morales moved quickly to reach energy accords with Venezuela.
Though Central America was largely disciplined by Reaganite violence and terror, the rest of the hemisphere is falling out of control, particularly from Venezuela to Argentina, which was the poster child of the IMF and the Treasury Department until its economy collapsed under the policies they imposed. Much of the region has left-centre governments. The indigenous populations have become much more active and influential, particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador, both major energy producers, where they either want oil and gas to be domestically controlled or, in some cases, oppose production altogether. Many indigenous people apparently do not see any reason why their lives, societies, and cultures should be disrupted or destroyed so that New Yorkers can sit in SUVs in traffic gridlock. Some are even calling for an “Indian nation” in South America. Meanwhile the economic integration that is under way is reversing patterns that trace back to the Spanish conquests, with Latin American elites and economies linked to the imperial powers but not to one another. Along with growing south-south interaction on a broader scale, these developments are strongly influenced by popular organisations that are coming together in the unprecedented international global justice movements, ludicrously called “anti-globalisation” because they favour globalisation that privileges the interests of people, not investors and financial institutions. For many reasons, the system of US global dominance is fragile, even apart from the damage inflicted by Bush planners.
One consequence is that the Bush administration’s pursuit of the traditional policies of deterring democracy faces new obstacles. It is no longer as easy as before to resort to military coups and international terrorism to overthrow democratically elected governments, as Bush planners learnt ruefully in 2002 in Venezuela. The “strong line of continuity” must be pursued in other ways, for the most part. In Iraq, as we have seen, mass nonviolent resistance compelled Washington and London to permit the elections they had sought to evade. The subsequent effort to subvert the elections by providing substantial advantages to the administration’s favourite candidate, and expelling the independent media, also failed. Washington faces further problems. The Iraqi labor movement is making considerable progress despite the opposition of the occupation authorities. The situation is rather like Europe and Japan after World War II, when a primary goal of the United States and United Kingdom was to undermine independent labour movements – as at home, for similar reasons: organised labour contributes in essential ways to functioning democracy with popular engagement. Many of the measures adopted at that time – withholding food, supporting fascist police – are no longer available. Nor is it possible today to rely on the labour bureaucracy of the American Institute for Free Labor Development to help undermine unions. Today, some American unions are supporting Iraqi workers, just as they do in Colombia, where more union activists are murdered than anywhere in the world. At least the unions now receive support from the United Steelworkers of America and others, while Washington continues to provide enormous funding for the government, which bears a large part of the responsibility.
The problem of elections arose in Palestine much in the way it did in Iraq. As already discussed, the Bush administration refused to permit elections until the death of Yasser Arafat, aware that the wrong man would win. After his death, the administration agreed to permit elections, expecting the victory of its favoured Palestinian Authority candidates. To promote this outcome, Washington resorted to much the same modes of subversion as in Iraq, and often before. Washington used the US Agency for International Development as an “invisible conduit” in an effort to “increase the popularity of the Palestinian Authority on the eve of crucial elections in which the governing party faces a serious challenge from the radical Islamic group Hamas” (Washington Post), spending almost $2m “on dozens of quick projects before elections this week to bolster the governing Fatah faction’s image with voters” (New York Times). In the United States, or any Western country, even a hint of such foreign interference would destroy a candidate, but deeply rooted imperial mentality legitimates such routine measures elsewhere. However, the attempt to subvert the elections again resoundingly failed.
The US and Israeli governments now have to adjust to dealing somehow with a radical Islamic party that approaches their traditional rejectionist stance, though not entirely, at least if Hamas really does mean to agree to an indefinite truce on the international border as its leaders state. The US and Israel, in contrast, insist that Israel must take over substantial parts of the West Bank (and the forgotten Golan Heights). Hamas’s refusal to accept Israel’s “right to exist” mirrors the refusal of Washington and Jerusalem to accept Palestine’s “right to exist” – a concept unknown in international affairs; Mexico accepts the existence of the United States but not its abstract “right to exist” on almost half of Mexico, acquired by conquest. Hamas’s formal commitment to “destroy Israel” places it on a par with the United States and Israel, which vowed formally that there could be no “additional Palestinian state” (in addition to Jordan) until they relaxed their extreme rejectionist stand partially in the past few years, in the manner already reviewed. Although Hamas has not said so, it would come as no great surprise if Hamas were to agree that Jews may remain in scattered areas in the present Israel, while Palestine constructs huge settlement and infrastructure projects to take over the valuable land and resources, effectively breaking Israel up into unviable cantons, virtually separated from one another and from some small part of Jerusalem where Jews would also be allowed to remain. And they might agree to call the fragments “a state”. If such proposals were made, we would – rightly – regard them as virtually a reversion to Nazism, a fact that might elicit some thoughts. If such proposals were made, Hamas’s position would be essentially like that of the United States and Israel for the past five years, after they came to tolerate some impoverished form of “statehood”. It is fair to describe Hamas as radical, extremist, and violent, and as a serious threat to peace and a just political settlement. But the organisation is hardly alone in this stance.
Elsewhere traditional means of undermining democracy have succeeded. In Haiti, the Bush administration’s favourite “democracy-building group, the International Republican Institute”, worked assiduously to promote the opposition to President Aristide, helped by the withholding of desperately needed aid on grounds that were dubious at best. When it seemed that Aristide would probably win any genuine election, Washington and the opposition chose to withdraw, a standard device to discredit elections that are going to come out the wrong way: Nicaragua in 1984 and Venezuela in December 2005 are examples that should be familiar. Then followed a military coup, expulsion of the president, and a reign of terror and violence vastly exceeding anything under the elected government.
The persistence of the strong line of continuity to the present again reveals that the United States is very much like other powerful states. It pursues the strategic and economic interests of dominant sectors of the domestic population, to the accompaniment of rhetorical flourishes about its dedication to the highest values. That is practically a historical universal, and the reason why sensible people pay scant attention to declarations of noble intent by leaders, or accolades by their followers.
One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: “They present solutions, but I don’t like them.” In addition to the proposals that should be familiar about dealing with the crises that reach to the level of survival, a few simple suggestions for the United States have already been mentioned: 1) accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court; 2) sign and carry forward the Kyoto protocols; 3) let the UN take the lead in international crises; 4) rely on diplomatic and economic measures rather than military ones in confronting terror; 5) keep to the traditional interpretation of the UN Charter; 6) give up the Security Council veto and have “a decent respect for the opinion of mankind,” as the Declaration of Independence advises, even if power centres disagree; 7) cut back sharply on military spending and sharply increase social spending. For people who believe in democracy, these are very conservative suggestions: they appear to be the opinions of the majority of the US population, in most cases the overwhelming majority. They are in radical opposition to public policy. To be sure, we cannot be very confident about the state of public opinion on such matters because of another feature of the democratic deficit: the topics scarcely enter into public discussion and the basic facts are little known. In a highly atomised society, the public is therefore largely deprived of the opportunity to form considered opinions.
Another conservative suggestion is that facts, logic, and elementary moral principles should matter. Those who take the trouble to adhere to that suggestion will soon be led to abandon a good part of familiar doctrine, though it is surely much easier to repeat self-serving mantras. Such simple truths carry us some distance toward developing more specific and detailed answers. More important, they open the way to implement them, opportun- ities that are readily within our grasp if we can free ourselves from the shackles of doctrine and imposed illusion.
Though it is natural for doctrinal systems to seek to induce pessimism, hopelessness, and despair, reality is different. There has been substantial progress in the unending quest for justice and freedom in recent years, leaving a legacy that can be carried forward from a higher plane than before. Opportunities for education and organising abound. As in the past, rights are not likely to be granted by benevolent authorities, or won by intermittent actions – attending a few demonstrations or pushing a lever in the personalised quadrennial extravaganzas that are depicted as “democratic politics”. As always in the past, the tasks require dedicated day-by-day engagement to create – in part recreate – the basis for a functioning democratic culture in which the public plays some role in determining policies, not only in the political arena, from which it is largely excluded, but also in the crucial economic arena, from which it is excluded in principle. There are many ways to promote democracy at home, carrying it to new dimensions. Opportunities are ample, and failure to grasp them is likely to have ominous repercussions: for the country, for the world, and for future generations.
This is an edited extract from Failed States by Noam Chomsky (Hamish Hamilton).