February 2012, Week 3


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Wed, 15 Feb 2012 20:40:08 -0500
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The Imperial Way
American Decline in Perspective, Part 2

By Noam Chomsky
February 15, 2012

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"

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

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

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

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

Quite the contrary. Both threats are ominous, and

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor emeritus in the MIT
Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is the
author of numerous best-selling political works. His
latest books are Making the Future: Occupations,
Intervention, Empire, and Resistance, The Essential
Chomsky (edited by Anthony Arnove), a collection of his
writings on politics and on language from the 1950s to
the present, Gaza in Crisis, with Ilan Pappé, and Hopes
and Prospects, also available as an audiobook. To listen
to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in
which Chomsky offers an anatomy of American defeats in
the Greater Middle East, click here, or download it to
your iPod here.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us
on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Noam Chomsky


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