On “Failed States” August 25, 2006 CounterSpin
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0:58 Q: A healthy skeptical press accords a requirement for a decent democracy, but when news outlets do as much to obscure as they do to inform, what does it say about the state of democratic affairs? In his new book, Noam Chomsky makes the argument that while the term “Failed state” is most often applied to countries on their receiving in UN-US backed military action or various reforms, the United States in many respects meets the definition of a “Failed State.” Joining us now is Noam Chomsky, long-time activist, professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT and the author of numerous books. His latest is “Failed States: the Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy.” Noam Chomsky, welcome back to CounterSpin. (Chomsky: Glad to be with you again.)
Now, at least one of the failed states references to need titled is the United States. You drew the line between deteriorating democratic institutions here at home and the promotion of democracy abroad. This was, of course, one of the secondary rationales for the Iraq war that other states in the Middle East would take a lesson from Iraq, we’d see this Arab Spring and so on. This was celebrated in the press at the time as this bold new idea, but you noted in the book that at least in terms of official rhetoric, this is certainly nothing new.
Chomsky: Not only that’s nothing new, but the timing is interesting. As the invasion proceeded, there was the usual boilerplate about democracy, this kind of constant, nobody has paid any attention to it. But the democracy promotion became the sort of mantra. Months later, the United States went to war, as Bush and Powell and others stressed, on the basis of what they called the single question: will Saddam Hussein give up his Weapons of Mass Destruction? Well, the single question was answered within a few months the wrong way, and then there was some various efforts to try to conjure up another reason for the war. And it turned out by about August-September that year, that the real reason was what the press called George Bush’s “messianic mission” to bring democracy to Iraq, the Middle East and the world and so on.
And the press, and the scholarship too to a large extent, immediately jumped on the bandwagon. By a couple of months later in November, Bush gave a speech at the anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, in which he proclaimed his vision for democracy. Immediately you had arousing applause for this idealistic war, the Iraq war, it was the most noble war in history, the chief correspondent of Washington Post reported and so on. And then scholarship went along too. In fact, I started discussion on the democracy promotion by just reviewing the major scholarly articles on Bush Doctrine and so on. Every one of them starts with an encomium to Bush’s “magnificent” and “reviving Wilsonian Idealism”etc, etc. But the timing itself tells you that it’s just the comical fraud. But when you look at the record, it becomes even more obvious, which I have two chapters there just going through the record, the past record, the present record, the current record, right up to today.
There’s not a particle of evidence indicating support for democracy except under one condition. And that condition is ruefully recognized by the leading scholar advocate of democracy promotion:Thomas Carothers, who has written several books on it. He’s neo-Reaganite, he was in the Reagan State Department working on democracy promotion. He’s a great enthusiast for it, written major books on it, now head of the democracy and law project of the Carnegie Endowment. The most recent book which I quoted was- went up to 2004.
And his conclusion throughout is that the US does indeed promote democracy and always has, but if and only if it is in accordance with US strategic and economic interests. And if you look through the details as he records them accurately, he’s a good scholar, becomes even clear. There’s no exception to this. Democracy’s fine if it comes out the right way, otherwise you have to destroy it. And since, I won’t go on, but since that time it’s been the same.
Take, the most obvious current example, in Palestine. There was an election--free election, everyone recognized it was free--last January. And the Palestinians voted the wrong way. How did the US react? Instantly, within days, by declaring that the Unite States would punish the people in Palestine for voting the wrong way. And they proceeded to do so. Economic strangulation, sharp step-up in Israeli attacks, refusing to pay legally required funding that Israel collect for the Palestinians and so on. That’s the reaction to a free election, if you don’t like the result.
On the other hand, if you can kind of arrange on election so that the right man wins, maybe at the point of a gun, and does what it tells you to do, it’s fine. So there’s nothing wrong with Saudi Arabia, which is the oldest and the most valued US ally in the region and the most extreme fundamentalist tyrannies maybe in the world. By comparison, Iran looks like a democratic heaven, but that’s ok. I mean we make a few noises about, maybe they should put that into consultative council or something, but there was no effort to do anything about it, because they do what they’re told to do, what we want them to do, and so it continues. The end, conclusion, is that the evidence that dedication to the principle that the US is involved in democracy promotion and that Bush is pursuing his messianic mission, that’s close to 100% in the press, even in scholarship with few exceptions. It’s just a kind of like a principled logic or arithmetic like 2+2=4. That’s true. Look at the evidence for it. It turns out that the evidence consists, almost entirely, of pronouncements by the leaders.
Q: You didn’t note, or you know you didn’t in your book that the New York Times did the same after the death of Yasar Arafat, acknowledging that elections, if they turn out the wrong way or a problem, Tim Russert did recently on “Meet the Press.” Nonetheless, the idea of democracy promotion is still very powerful in the press. You have a small section in the book about deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. When he left the administration, he was going to the World Bank to renew his long-standing commitment to democratic values (Chomsky: And human rights.) and human rights. This idea of promoting democracy as a strategic goal is treated seriously when we talk about Israel and Lebanon. There are front page story in every major newspaper about whether this Bush Doctrine is faltering. Why is it so powerful, do you think?
Chomsky: It’s powerful because the principle is if the “Dear Leader” speaks, we respond by just taking it for granted that it is the truth. That’s why I made comparison with North Korea. Let’s take, say Paul Wolfowitz, whom the Washington Post described as “the idealist-in-chief” in charge of promoting democracy worldwide, making that’s what he made the most noble war in history. Well, yes, he was actually kicked out of Washington because he was an embarrassment and sent off to the World Bank. And there was article after article just like what you said, praising him for his dedication to democracy, a development of his duty and the World Bank is going to eliminate corruption and so on.
Not a word about his record, actually he has the record. One of the most extraordinary examples of illustration of real hatred for democracy which was so suppressed and forgotten, is the distinction -- it was made between, Rumsfeld’s distinction--between Old and New Europe, which was all the rage, right leading up to the war. What was the distinction? Old Europe where the governments went along with a large majority of their population and refuse to participate in war, that’s Old Europe: Bad guys. And New Europe, the hope for democracy where leaders overruled an even larger majority of the population and as if they were from Crawford, Texas.
The most extreme case was Aznar in Spain. He was such a great democrat, but he was invited to the summit where later on Blair and Bush announced the war, at that time with the support of 2% of the population.
Let’s go back to Wolfowitz. One country described as everyone here too, was Turkey. The Turkish government actually took the position which accorded with the will of 95% of its population. Well, they were bitterly denounced by Collin Powell, by everyone, there was sanction, threatend. But the most extreme was Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz publicly berated the Turkish Military for permitting the government to go along with the will of 95% of the population. And he ordered them to apologize to Washington and to recognize that their job is to help America. That’s his dedication to democracy.
And there’s more. He was the most enthusiastic supporter for General Suharto. He had been ambassador to Indonesia, where he defended him constantly. And he actually continued to defend even after he’d been overthrown by the population and sort of tossed on the shelf by like virtually everyone else. When he was appointed, there were inquiries in Indonesia as to what his record was there. And it was clear. An Indonesian activist said that he never did anything to help them at all, he had nothing to say about human rights, he had no interest in democracy, he was interested in supporting investment. His whole record is support for brutal violence, corruption, antagonism to democracy and human rights but it doesn’t matter. He is “the idealist in chief,” directing democracy promotion, making the Iraq war the most noble war in history.
Q: Noam Chomsky, in order to present Paul Wolfowitz as an idealist and an advocate for human rights, you have to conceal a lot of inconvenient truths. Your book “Failed States” is full of case studies that speak to the role of the press in keeping uncomfortable fact from the public view. You cited the uproar of the UN oil-food program in Iraq, which effectively diverted attention away from a more serious fraud carried out by the occupying coalition, provisional authority. I wonder if you could comment on that.
Chomsky: Yes, they are all examples of… I mean take say the corruption. There were charges, you know, very emphatic charges that UN corruption was the greatest fraud in history, so on and so forth. $20 billion were unaccounted for. When the dust settled, it turned out that, yes, there was plenty of money missing, most of it, illegal transfers of oil to US allies--Turkey and Jordan-- with the approval of the United States. When the Volcker commission finished it up, it turned out that the most severe charge was that one UN employee, Benon Sevan had, I think, $150,000 unaccounted for, he had attributed to an aunt in Cyprus. Maybe it was true, maybe it wasn’t. And there were rumors that maybe or maybe not Kofi Annan had talked to someone at the party who might have employed his son, and that’s where it came down to.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, US officials in charge were piling up massive information about tens of billions of dollars of corruption carried out by US corporations and others working for the coalition provisional authority, which itself was apparently robbing people blind. In comparison, with what they found about the UN, this is mountainous. That was reported pretty well in England, I should say, but from US government sources, nothing, obscured. And finally it’s sort of filtered away into the US press but kind of usual way, you know in back pages, sort of a few bad guys and so on. Meanwhile, the charges against the UN, they stuck even after they were completely exploded. You just can’t pick up an issue by newspaper without seeing examples.
Let’s take right now: the US-Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the sharp escalation of Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip. A couple of weeks earlier, they were blamed on the outrageous crime of capture of soldiers. On June 25th, Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, to huge outrage, a sharp escalation of attacks against Gaza and a number of killed. One index went from 36 killed in June to over 170 killed in July, enthusiastic support for it because of this outrageous capture.
The same in Lebanon, Hezbollah committed an outrageous act of aggression, captured two Israeli soldiers, can’t tolerate that, you have to destroy half the country. I mean there’s pure cynicism in the media and you know it.
Take Gaza. One day before the capture of Gilad Shalit, Israeli Forces kidnapped two Gaza civilians, sent them off to the Israeli prison system where they conjoined hundreds of others, close to a thousand also kidnapped and imprisoned without charge, often Lebanese. Was there any reaction? Did anyone say look, we have to invade Israel? No, a few dismissive notices. It was known, I mean it was mentioned here and there but dismissed, insignificant and forgotten. Kidnapping civilians is a far more serious crime than capture of soldiers.
Take Lebanon. I mean for years, decades in fact, Israel has had a regular practice of kidnapping Lebanese. There were hundreds of them in Israeli prisons sometimes in secret prisons. Many killed. It’s known, again you find brutal15:54( ) dealing here and there. Did anyone call for invasion of Israel? Or Attack on Israel? Well, it’s a total, cynical fraud, the US and Britain and most of the West just doesn’t care about even kidnapping civilians, killing of them as long as it’s done by our side. If it’s done by them, it’s an outrageous crime, we have to invade the country and destroy it.
Just take a look at the coverage. David Peterson did an immediate search. I don’t know the exact numbers but he said overwhelming emphasis on the capture of soldier. There’s nothing, barely anything, where the few who did this here and there mentioning, but not following up the much worse crime of kidnapping civilians. That was dramatically obvious in June, when it was one day before they captured Gilad Shalit, mentioned and forgotten. Well, that’s in front of our eyes at the moment. You literally can’t open the newspaper without finding more example.
Q: How about half of the book deals with domestic politics? You know, several times that American public opinion is vigorously documented and dissected and opinion in poll is often done by news outlets and that, then report the findings on those polls. But some of the more interesting findings are just discarded. Tell us about this gap between elite political culture and popular opinion. You read it and you’d think if there were a commentator in the mainstream media who advocated what apparently are the majority positions, if the polls are correct, that person would be considered off the charts to the left.
Chomsky: Take, say the federal budget. The last one available at the time of the book was February 2005, when the Federal budget was announced. And immediately after that, the leading polling agencies in the country, a very respected program on international policy attitudes. They did a careful study on which they interviewed people on what they thought the budget should be. Well, that was the inverse to the budget. Where the federal budget went up, people wanted it to go down. The Military Spending, extra spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, all going up when the public wanted it to do down. The overwhelming majority incidentally where funding was going down, the public wanted it to go up, again by overwhelming majorities, social spending, health, education, veteran’s benefits, renewable energies, support for the United Nations and so on. In fact it’s kind like a mirror image. Well, that’s important news. Again my friend David Peterson did a search for me. Not one mentioned, you couldn’t find a single newspaper that mentioned it. Sometimes you see things aren’t mentioned are sometimes even more revealing.
Say, the last presidential debate(2004). The last presidential debate was devoted to domestic issues. And there was an accurate report in the New York Times next day. It pointed out that John Kerry never brought up any government role in the health system. And the reason he didn’t bring it up is because it has so little political support. Well, in fact it has the support of a very large majority of the population, not just the government involvement, but the government takeover of the system, very large support usually around two thirds. That’s been going for years. Well, “it has no political support,” only a large majority of the population. Well, that’s understandable.
A political support for the New York Times and John Kerry and others means support of the pharmaceutical corporations, Insurance industry, Wall Street and so on. That’s “political support.” The population is irrelevant. Not in the sense they are lying. I mean they’re using the term “political support” in a sense that they take for granted support of concentrated, private power. That’s "political support." The population is irrelevant. Healthcare is not a small issue. If you look at the polls over the years, it’s commonly ranked as the most important, almost the most important domestic issue, because the system is crashing, it’s out of control, it’s twice the per capita the cost as other industrial societies. Some of the worst outcomes, are getting worse.
Here incidentally, comes another media scam. This constant talk about the fiscal train wreck that’s coming up because of entitlements with the baby-boomers retiring, we get this huge entitlement crisis. So, we have to somehow deal with a crisis caused by Medicare-Medicaid and social security. Well, the three are interesting, there’s no crisis about social security. In most some minor tinkering with the system would suffice. But Medicare and Medicaid, yeah they’re going out of control. It’s not because of fault of Medicare and Medicaid. It’s the fault of the privatized health system.
So, the real problem with entitlements is that the privatized health system is the most inefficient in industrial world by a large measure. People complain about it and no one eliminate it. That’s the crisis. Not social security. They want to get rid of social security for other reasons. Social security is a system that benefits the poor, not the rich. So like, you know I’m a retired college professor. OK, I get social security but as compared with pension, it didn’t amount too much. The same is true with other professionals and so on.
On the other hand, for the majority of the population, social security is something they rely on for survival. Well, it follows right away that social security has to be eliminated. It’s not serving domestic, political power, namely the wealthy. On the other hand, take the health system. Again, for people of professionals, what they in my… people in my income bracket, it is a terrific health care system. You get everything you want, best in the world. A large percentage of population can’t even pay the minimum cost. I’m not talking about the uninsured. So it’s the system that works for the rich and it’s a catastrophe for the majority. So therefore, we have to leave it alone. I mean you know, there’s more complexity even in this. But at the first approximation, this is very close. Do you see that any where? No. What you see is, there’s a terrible problem of entitlement we have to reform social security, leave the medical system alone.
Q: Now finally, in the little bit of time we have left, there’s certainly a great deal of talk about polarization in the country. One gets the sense from the kind of liberal end of the mainstream media discussion that the current White House policies, a number of issues represent significant break with traditional US goals whether it be foreign policy, domestic policy and so on. The New York Times ran a whole story recently about the vast differences between George W. Bush and his father on the Mideast, for example. Your book suggested the certain type of continuity, in fact over some of these very different administrations.
Chomsky: Oh, there’s enormous continuity. In fact, there’s a lot of protest about the Bush Doctrine. But take a look at the Clinton Doctrine, it was literally more extreme. So the Clinton Doctrine was that the US has the right to use military force to protect its access to markets and resources. That’s more extreme than Bush, who had at least said that you have to have some kind of pretext.
But Clinton did it a kind of quietly, and not brazenly, and his policy more and less worked. The criticism of Bush, it’s true. I mean they are at radical extreme but they are in a narrow spectrum. They are arrogant and incompetent, there’s real authoritarian streak, they’re going to control everything, they’re harming the interests of the wealthy and the powerful people. Yes, there’s plenty of criticism. This criticism of Bush, because he’s creating catastrophe in every way you looked. Created catastrophe in Iraq, just created another one in Lebanon, he’s seriously increased the risk of terror. Domestic policies, you don’t even have to mention. So yeah there’s string of catastrophes harming the interests of the rich and powerful sectors of the population. So, you have unprecedented criticism on the Bush administration from the right in the mainstream. That’s been true since almost the beginning, increasing after every catastrophe. And on the other hand, are their policies very different?
Let’s take the Middle East policies of his father who was considered a great moderate, critical of Israel, honest broker, etc. What was his position on Israel? Well, we know it, we can read.
In December 1989, they came out with what was called “the Baker Plan.” James Baker was Secretary of State, “the Bush-Baker plan” on Israel and Palestine. It’s the most extremist anti-Palestinians plan yet proposed by an American President. The wording was that there can be “no additional Palestinian state” between Israel and Jordan, meaning no Palestinian state because Jordan already is a Palestinian state. Second, the fate of the Occupied Territories has to be settled in accord with the guidelines of the State of Israel. Then came a call for free election with most of the educated classes are imprisoned without charge and so on. And Baker then said well the Palestinians can enter into these negotiations but only if they accord with the guidelines just stated: no Palestinian state, the policies have to be fixed in accordance with the guidelines of the State of Israel. That’s the Baker Plan, which in fact he didn’t invent. It was just an affirmation of the plan proposed by the Israeli government a few months earlier. The Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir coalition government had produced the plan in those words and Baker simply endorsed it. Why did they do it? Well, because a few months earlier, the Palestine National Council had formally approved of a two-state settlement in accord with the international consensus, broad international consensus that the US has blocked for 30 years. So, the Israeli government including Shimon Peres, a great dove, came out with its statement there’d never be an additional Palestinian state in addition to Jordan and so on. And Bush and Baker endorsed it. That’s the most extreme position yet taken by the American administration. Do you read that anywhere?