Saturday, 28 February 2015

Noam Chomsky

I've finally taken the time to read an actual complete book by Noam Chomsky, as opposed to reading the odd article or hearing snippets on the radio.  Chomsky is now 86 and has been publishing books and articles on a bewildering array of subjects for the past 50 years.  What took me so long?

By profession Chomsky is a linguist, often referred to as the "father of modern linguistics".  I'm not very interested in linguistics but he is more widely famous as a political activist and as America's most prominent anarchist.  Ever since the Vietnam War he has provided a steady stream of dissident commentary on US politics and particularly on its international affairs.

Anyhow, I may be slow but I get there in the end.  I've just finished reading Hopes and Prospects, an interlinked set of essays published in 2010 and dealing with various aspects of US foreign policy.

The book revolves around two simple maxims.  The first, from Adam Smith, suggests that "'merchants and manufacturers' were 'the principal architects' of state policy and made sure that their own interests 'were most peculiarly attended to' however 'grievous' the effects on others".  The second is from the Greek historian Thucydides who suggested that "the strong do as they wish and the weak suffer as they must".

The book illustrates these two maxims in essays dealing with the history of American foreign policy in South and Central America, the Middle East and other parts of the globe.  The breadth of his knowledge is truly amazing and he puts it all on show, flitting from subject to subject as one thought leads to another.  The result is that the essays often turn into rants - but enlightening and thought provoking ones.

Through this wealth of detail are some simple and consistent messages.  The first is that American democracy is dysfunctional.  The political system is controlled by corporate interests and politicians do the bidding of these corporations at the expense of the majority of the population.  This can be seen in the way corporate profits soar while wages stagnate, in the way welfare recipients have to account for every dollar while banks receive huge bailouts without even the most basic accountability, in the way health policy enriches insurance companies while delivering poor quality and expensive health care.  It is also shown in the way politicians of both sides are consistently to the right of the vast majority of the population.

This same dynamic filters over into America's foreign policy.  Throughout its history, the US has justified its intervention in other countries with a kind of special pleading, suggesting that the US is the "light on the hill" bringing hope to common people around the world.  It's interventions in other countries are cast as "democracy promotion".

The truth could not be more opposite.  From Wilson to Obama, US foreign policy has protected US corporate interests at the expense of the peoples in whose countries they intervene.  He dwells at length on Chile where in what he calls the "first 9/11" on the 11th of September 1973 the US supported the overthrow of elected socialist President Salvador Allende in favour of a brutal military junta headed by Auguste Pinochet.  In 1991 they supported a similar event in Haiti, where after decades of dictatorship the radical priest Jean-Baptiste Aristide was elected as President and allowed to last less than a year.  And so it goes in Bolivia, Grenada, Guatemala and many other countries in South and Central America.

Despite this, Chomsky sees signs of hope.  The Chavez regime in Venezuela, still intact when he wrote, had managed to survive US pressure and take control of its own oil reserves, pursuing an independent socialist path and providing a rallying point for its neighbours.

The Middle East has followed a similar pattern, with US support for a series of brutal dictatorships in various countries, but in this case the situation is a lot more complex and US policy much more confused.

In Israel/Palestine matters are simple - support Israel in whatever it does.  This means that despite the rhetoric about "free and fair elections", when the Palestinians elected a Hamas regime in 2006 the US and Israel refused to recognise the result or deal with the victors, forcing the Palestinians to accept the continuation of the Fatah regime they had just rejected and causing the effective separation of Gaza and the West Bank.  Meanwhile, Israel is free to plunder Palestinian land at will.

Other interventions, however, have proved more problematic.  In the 1980s, in order to undermine the Soviet-sponsored regime in Afghanistan, the CIA funded and trained militia groups including the Taliban and what became Al Qaeda.  Also in the 1980s they supported the Baathist regime of  Saddam Hussein in Iraq to keep the Iranians in check.  They even supported the Iraqi nuclear program, providing advice and equipment.

The trouble with ruthless dictators and extremist militias is that they just won't do as they're told.  As a result, the US has moved to Plan B in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  First destroy the economy through sanctions, to the point of mass starvation and denial of medical supplies which kill hundreds of thousands of people.  Then invade the country with the aid of alternative militias and warlords (you can always find some pretext), set up a weak central government in place of the dictatorship and allow the country to be divided between rival factions, each with its little territory and sphere of influence.

The result will be terrible for the local population as we have seen in Iraq over the past year (Chomsky predicted something along these lines) but favours US economic interests who are able to control Iraq's vast oil fields and run a gas pipeline through Afghanistan without Russian interference.  US oil companies, and American energy security, must be protected whatever the cost to local populations or to American taxpayers.

There's much more where this came from, but I don't need to go on.  Reading this as an Australian is more than a little disturbing.  On the one hand, it is hardly possible for an Australian to be immersed in American politics the way Chomsky has been for the past half century.  Yet this story is also our own - not so much in South America, where Australia has little involvement, but certainly in the Middle East.  Where the US goes, Australia is among the first to follow.  We followed the US into Korea and Indo-China, helped invade Afghanistan and Iraq, backed the American line on Israel and Palestine.  For the past two decades we have gradually moved our health system away from the successful European model and towards the dysfunctional American approach.  Like the US, our own government is in thrall to big corporations (often the same ones, plus a few of our own) and out of step with its own people on a wide range of issues.

Apart from the injustice of these measures and the suffering they cause around the world, there is a warning here for us.  We make ourselves a target for terrorists, including those who have come here as refugees and then feel betrayed by the actions of their adopted country.  But we should not be too sure of the quid pro quo.  The story of American diplomacy over the past century suggests that America will always act in its own interests.  Its allies will be called "friends" when they are useful, but can be quickly cast off or converted into enemies when they become inconvenient, or begin to show too much independence.

Is such fickle friendship worth it?  Is it enough to justify our complicity in the suffering of millions, in the destruction of whole countries?  I think not.

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