Noam Chomsky: The Decline of American Empire (Part 2)
The principles of imperial domination have undergone little change, but the capacity to implement them has markedly declined.
To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here. The following article is part 2 of Noam Chomsky’s series on American decline at home and abroad. Part 1 is here.
In the years of conscious, self-inflicted decline at home, “losses” continued to mount elsewhere. In the past decade, for the first time in 500 years, South America has taken successful steps to free itself from western domination, another serious loss. The region has moved towards integration, and has begun to address some of the terrible internal problems of societies ruled by mostly Europeanized elites, tiny islands of extreme wealth in a sea of misery. They have also rid themselves of all U.S. military bases and of IMF controls. A newly formed organization, CELAC, includes all countries of the hemisphere apart from the U.S. and Canada. If it actually functions, that would be another step in American decline, in this case in what has always been regarded as “the backyard.”
Even more serious would be the loss of the MENA countries — Middle East/North Africa — which have been regarded by planners since the 1940s as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” Control of MENA energy reserves would yield “substantial control of the world,” in the words of the influential Roosevelt advisor A.A. Berle.
To be sure, if the projections of a century of U.S. energy independence based on North American energy resources turn out to be realistic, the significance of controlling MENA would decline somewhat, though probably not by much: the main concern has always been control more than access. However, the likely consequences to the planet’s equilibrium are so ominous that discussion may be largely an academic exercise.
The Arab Spring, another development of historic importance, might portend at least a partial “loss” of MENA. The US and its allies have tried hard to prevent that outcome — so far, with considerable success. Their policy towards the popular uprisings has kept closely to the standard guidelines: support the forces most amenable to U.S. influence and control.
Favored dictators are supported as long as they can maintain control (as in the major oil states). When that is no longer possible, then discard them and try to restore the old regime as fully as possible (as in Tunisia and Egypt). The general pattern is familiar: Somoza, Marcos, Duvalier, Mobutu, Suharto, and many others. In one case, Libya, the three traditional imperial powers intervened by force to participate in a rebellion to overthrow a mercurial and unreliable dictator, opening the way, it is expected, to more efficient control over Libya’s rich resources (oil primarily, but also water, of particular interest to French corporations), to a possible base for the U.S. Africa Command (so far restricted to Germany), and to the reversal of growing Chinese penetration. As far as policy goes, there have been few surprises.
Crucially, it is important to reduce the threat of functioning democracy, in which popular opinion will significantly influence policy. That again is routine, and quite understandable. A look at the studies of public opinion undertaken by U.S. polling agencies in the MENA countries easily explains the western fear of authentic democracy, in which public opinion will significantly influence policy.
Israel and the Republican Party
Similar considerations carry over directly to the second major concern addressed in the issue of Foreign Affairs cited in part one of this piece: the Israel-Palestine conflict. Fear of democracy could hardly be more clearly exhibited than in this case. In January 2006, an election took place in Palestine, pronounced free and fair by international monitors. The instant reaction of the U.S. (and of course Israel), with Europe following along politely, was to impose harsh penalties on Palestinians for voting the wrong way.
That is no innovation. It is quite in accord with the general and unsurprising principle recognized by mainstream scholarship: the U.S. supports democracy if, and only if, the outcomes accord with its strategic and economic objectives, the rueful conclusion of neo-Reaganite Thomas Carothers, the most careful and respected scholarly analyst of “democracy promotion” initiatives.
More broadly, for 35 years the U.S. has led the rejectionist camp on Israel-Palestine, blocking an international consensus calling for a political settlement in terms too well known to require repetition. The western mantra is that Israel seeks negotiations without preconditions, while the Palestinians refuse. The opposite is more accurate. The U.S. and Israel demand strict preconditions, which are, furthermore, designed to ensure that negotiations will lead either to Palestinian capitulation on crucial issues, or nowhere.
The first precondition is that the negotiations must be supervised by Washington, which makes about as much sense as demanding that Iran supervise the negotiation of Sunni-Shia conflicts in Iraq. Serious negotiations would have to be under the auspices of some neutral party, preferably one that commands some international respect, perhaps Brazil. The negotiations would seek to resolve the conflicts between the two antagonists: the U.S.-Israel on one side, most of the world on the other.
The second precondition is that Israel must be free to expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank. Theoretically, the U.S. opposes these actions, but with a very light tap on the wrist, while continuing to provide economic, diplomatic, and military support. When the U.S. does have some limited objections, it very easily bars the actions, as in the case of the E-1 project linking Greater Jerusalem to the town of Ma’aleh Adumim, virtually bisecting the West Bank, a very high priority for Israeli planners (across the spectrum), but raising some objections in Washington, so that Israel has had to resort to devious measures to chip away at the project.
The pretense of opposition reached the level of farce last February when Obama vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for implementation of official U.S. policy (also adding the uncontroversial observation that the settlements themselves are illegal, quite apart from expansion). Since that time there has been little talk about ending settlement expansion, which continues, with studied provocation.
Thus, as Israeli and Palestinian representatives prepared to meet in Jordan in January 2011, Israel announced new construction in Pisgat Ze’ev and Har Homa, West Bank areas that it has declared to be within the greatly expanded area of Jerusalem, annexed, settled, and constructed as Israel’s capital, all in violation of direct Security Council orders. Other moves carry forward the grander design of separating whatever West Bank enclaves will be left to Palestinian administration from the cultural, commercial, political center of Palestinian life in the former Jerusalem.
It is understandable that Palestinian rights should be marginalized in U.S. policy and discourse. Palestinians have no wealth or power. They offer virtually nothing to U.S. policy concerns; in fact, they have negative value, as a nuisance that stirs up “the Arab street.”
Israel, in contrast, is a valuable ally. It is a rich society with a sophisticated, largely militarized high-tech industry. For decades, it has been a highly valued military and strategic ally, particularly since 1967, when it performed a great service to the U.S. and its Saudi ally by destroying the Nasserite “virus,” establishing the “special relationship” with Washington in the form that has persisted since. It is also a growing center for U.S. high-tech investment. In fact, high tech and particularly military industries in the two countries are closely linked.
Apart from such elementary considerations of great power politics as these, there are cultural factors that should not be ignored. Christian Zionism in Britain and the U.S. long preceded Jewish Zionism, and has been a significant elite phenomenon with clear policy implications (including the Balfour Declaration, which drew from it). When General Allenby conquered Jerusalem during World War I, he was hailed in the American press as Richard the Lion-Hearted, who had at last won the Crusades and driven the pagans out of the Holy Land.
The next step was for the Chosen People to return to the land promised to them by the Lord. Articulating a common elite view, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes described Jewish colonization of Palestine as an achievement “without comparison in the history of the human race.” Such attitudes find their place easily within the Providentialist doctrines that have been a strong element in popular and elite culture since the country’s origins: the belief that God has a plan for the world and the U.S. is carrying it forward under divine guidance, as articulated by a long list of leading figures.
Moreover, evangelical Christianity is a major popular force in the U.S. Further toward the extremes, End Times evangelical Christianity also has enormous popular outreach, invigorated by the establishment of Israel in 1948, revitalized even more by the conquest of the rest of Palestine in 1967 — all signs that End Times and the Second Coming are approaching.
These forces have become particularly significant since the Reagan years, as the Republicans have abandoned the pretense of being a political party in the traditional sense, while devoting themselves in virtual lockstep uniformity to servicing a tiny percentage of the super-rich and the corporate sector. However, the small constituency that is primarily served by the reconstructed party cannot provide votes, so they have to turn elsewhere.
The only choice is to mobilize tendencies that have always been present, though rarely as an organized political force: primarily nativists trembling in fear and hatred, and religious elements that are extremists by international standards but not in the U.S. One outcome is reverence for alleged Biblical prophecies, hence not only support for Israel and its conquests and expansion, but passionate love for Israel, another core part of the catechism that must be intoned by Republican candidates — with Democrats, again, not too far behind.
These factors aside, it should not be forgotten that the “Anglosphere” — Britain and its offshoots — consists of settler-colonial societies, which rose on the ashes of indigenous populations, suppressed or virtually exterminated. Past practices must have been basically correct, in the U.S. case even ordained by Divine Providence. Accordingly there is often an intuitive sympathy for the children of Israel when they follow a similar course. But primarily, geostrategic and economic interests prevail, and policy is not graven in stone.
The Iranian “Threat” and the Nuclear Issue
Let us turn finally to the third of the leading issues addressed in the establishment journals cited earlier, the “threat of Iran.” Among elites and the political class this is generally taken to be the primary threat to world order — though not among populations. In Europe, polls show that Israel is regarded as the leading threat to peace. In the MENA countries, that status is shared with the U.S., to the extent that in Egypt, on the eve of the Tahrir Square uprising, 80% felt that the region would be more secure if Iran had nuclear weapons. The same polls found that only 10% regard Iran as a threat — unlike the ruling dictators, who have their own concerns.
In the United States, before the massive propaganda campaigns of the past few years, a majority of the population agreed with most of the world that, as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has a right to carry out uranium enrichment. And even today, a large majority favors peaceful means for dealing with Iran. There is even strong opposition to military engagement if Iran and Israel are at war. Only a quarter regard Iran as an important concern for the U.S. altogether. But it is not unusual for there to be a gap, often a chasm, dividing public opinion and policy.
Why exactly is Iran regarded as such a colossal threat? The question is rarely discussed, but it is not hard to find a serious answer — though not, as usual, in the fevered pronouncements. The most authoritative answer is provided by the Pentagon and the intelligence services in their regular reports to Congress on global security. They report that Iran does not pose a military threat. Its military spending is very low even by the standards of the region, minuscule of course in comparison with the U.S.
Iran has little capacity to deploy force. Its strategic doctrines are defensive, designed to deter invasion long enough for diplomacy to set it. If Iran is developing nuclear weapons capability, they report, that would be part of its deterrence strategy. No serious analyst believes that the ruling clerics are eager to see their country and possessions vaporized, the immediate consequence of their coming even close to initiating a nuclear war. And it is hardly necessary to spell out the reasons why any Iranian leadership would be concerned with deterrence, under existing circumstances.
The regime is doubtless a serious threat to much of its own population — and regrettably, is hardly unique on that score. But the primary threat to the U.S. and Israel is that Iran might deter their free exercise of violence. A further threat is that the Iranians clearly seek to extend their influence to neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, and beyond as well. Those “illegitimate” acts are called “destabilizing” (or worse). In contrast, forceful imposition of U.S. influence halfway around the world contributes to “stability” and order, in accord with traditional doctrine about who owns the world.
It makes very good sense to try to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear weapons states, including the three that have refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty — Israel, India, and Pakistan, all of which have been assisted in developing nuclear weapons by the U.S., and are still being assisted by them. It is not impossible to approach that goal by peaceful diplomatic means. One approach, which enjoys overwhelming international support, is to undertake meaningful steps towards establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, including Iran and Israel (and applying as well to U.S. forces deployed there), better still extending to South Asia.
Support for such efforts is so strong that the Obama administration has been compelled to formally agree, but with reservations: crucially, that Israel’s nuclear program must not be placed under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Association, and that no state (meaning the U.S.) should be required to release information about “Israeli nuclear facilities and activities, including information pertaining to previous nuclear transfers to Israel.” Obama also accepts Israel’s position that any such proposal must be conditional on a comprehensive peace settlement, which the U.S. and Israel can continue to delay indefinitely.
This survey comes nowhere near being exhaustive, needless to say. Among major topics not addressed is the shift of U.S. military policy towards the Asia-Pacific region, with new additions to the huge military base system underway right now, in Jeju Island off South Korea and Northwest Australia, all elements of the policy of “containment of China.” Closely related is the issue of U.S. bases in Okinawa, bitterly opposed by the population for many years, and a continual crisis in U.S.-Tokyo-Okinawa relations.
Revealing how little fundamental assumptions have changed, U.S. strategic analysts describe the result of China’s military programs as a “classic ‘security dilemma,’ whereby military programs and national strategies deemed defensive by their planners are viewed as threatening by the other side,” writes Paul Godwin of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The security dilemma arises over control of the seas off China’s coasts. The U.S. regards its policies of controlling these waters as “defensive,” while China regards them as threatening; correspondingly, China regards its actions in nearby areas as “defensive” while the U.S. regards them as threatening. No such debate is even imaginable concerning U.S. coastal waters. This “classic security dilemma” makes sense, again, on the assumption that the U.S. has a right to control most of the world, and that U.S. security requires something approaching absolute global control.
While the principles of imperial domination have undergone little change, the capacity to implement them has markedly declined as power has become more broadly distributed in a diversifying world. Consequences are many. It is, however, very important to bear in mind that — unfortunately — none lifts the two dark clouds that hover over all consideration of global order: nuclear war and environmental catastrophe, both literally threatening the decent survival of the species.
Quite the contrary. Both threats are ominous, and increasing.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published in November.