2 January 2004
By Tapani Lausti
Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival : America's Quest for Global Dominance. Metropolitan Books 2003.
According to international polls, more people than ever before are worried about the US role in the world. The recklessness of US foreign policy has become more and more evident. For many decades Noam Chomsky to the fury of many mainstream commentators has painstakingly explained the immoral and dangerous nature of Washington's international behaviour. In his latest book, Chomsky quotes numerous expert analyses and official documents to show that the danger created by the latest arms buildup "has reached the level of a threat to human survival" (p. 231).
Tirelessly studying important official and unofficial sources is one of Chomsky's many fortes. Many journalists who accuse Chomsky of a single-mindedly negative view of American motives and intentions seem to ignore the fact that he bases his conclusions on openly and clearly stated policies.
Thus British columnist Johann Hari wrote recently of Chomsky's book: "The problem with his work, however, derives from the way that Chomsky imputes to US history (since at least Harry Truman) an underlying, undeviating imperialist essence. It is, in his telling, entirely rapacious and malign. In fact, US foreign policy has been complex and contradictory, sometimes benign and sometimes utterly wicked, according to the whims of strategic interest and public opinion. Chomsky cannot admit that ambivalence." ("USA: bully or beacon?", The Independent, 21 November 2003)
Certainly Chomsky would admit to some complexity in US foreign policy and neither would he dispute that much of it is contradictory. But reading Chomsky's quotes from official sources it is difficult to see any benign intention, even if sometimes dangerous policies can trigger positive outcomes. The imperalist essence is there without any attempt to hide it. Of course, the US media has a long tradition of keeping these things hidden from the majority of Americans.
Hari writes that "the US had full-spectrum dominance over Western Europe and Japan for four decades, and democracy flourished there as never before. [Chomsky] refuses to admit that US foreign policy can evolve and change, or that it can be used to promote democracy as well as tyranny."
Chomsky has never denied that Washington supports capitalist democracy when it coincides with its own interests. What he has pointed out is that the US government has always reserved the right to break international law and push the UN aside if laws and institutions hamper its effort to maintain global dominance. This has always been stated clearly. It is true that George W. Bush has taken this attitude to ever more dangerous heights by declaring "the right to resort to force to eliminate any perceived challenge to US global hegemony, which is to be permanent". (quote on p. 3)
Hari supported enthusiastically the US/UK invasion of Iraq. In his confused understanding of the world he does not grasp the seriousness of Chomsky's quote from international law specialist Richard Falk who finds it "inescapable" that the Iraq war was a "Crime against Peace of the sort for which surviving German leaders were indicted, prosecuted, and punished at the Nuremberg trials." (p. 13)
Exposing Washington's lies about its motives in attacking Iraq is easy and many commentators have been doing it. Chomsky, in his inimitable way, puts everything in its real historical context. He underlines the recklessness of Washington's way of weighing risks: "The war with Iraq was undertaken with the recognition that it might well lead to proliferation of WMD and terror, risks considered insignificant compared with the prospect of gaining control over Iraq, firmly establishing the norm of preventive war, and strengthening the hold on domestic power." (p. 121)
Together with many other anti-war writers, Chomsky has been mocked for getting wrong some predictions of worst-case scenarios. This accusation makes him understandably angry. He writes: "One always hopes that worst-case scenarios will not materialize, and every effort should always be dedicated to that end. But exactly as in the case of Khrushchev's dispatch of missiles to Cuba, which could have led to nuclear war but didn't, it is the range of likely possibilities that determines the evaluation of policy choices that are made, at least for those capable of entertaining elementary moral standards." (p. 129)
The chapter on Cuba gives us a frightening glimpse of earlier US recklessness. The terrorist campaign against Cuba was coloured by extreme ideological fury. The Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 was authorised in an atmosphere of "hysteria" over Cuba in the White House, as Robert McNamara later put it. Chomsky adds: "Kennedy was aware that allies 'think that we're slightly demented' on the subject of Cuba, a perception that persists to the present." (p. 82)
Washington's perception of the Cuban "threat" was treated with contempt by most Latin Americans. In 1961 the Mexican ambassador rejected Kennedy's attempt to organise collective action against Cuba on the grounds that "if we publicly declare that Cuba is a threat to our security, forty million Mexicans will die of laughing." (p. 87)
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