February 2012, Week 3


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Wed, 15 Feb 2012 20:39:32 -0500
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Tomgram: Noam Chomsky, Hegemony and Its Dilemmas

Posted by Noam Chomsky	 at 9:41am, February 14, 2012.

Back in May 2007, I stumbled across online sketches at
the website of a Kansas architectural firm hired to
build a monster U.S. embassy-cum-citadel-cum-Greater-
Middle-Eastern command center on 104 acres in the middle
of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.  They offered an artist's
impressions of what the place would look like -- a giant
self-sufficient compound both prosaic (think malls or
housing projects) and opulent (a giant pool, tennis
courts, a recreation center).

Struck by the fact that the U.S. government was intent
on building the largest embassy ever in the planet's oil
heartlands, I wrote a piece, "The Mother Ship Lands in
Iraq" about those plans and offered a little tour of the
project via those crude drawings.  From TomDispatch,
they then began to run around the Internet and soon a
panicky State Department had declared a "security
breach" and forced the firm to pull the sketches off its

Now, more than five years later, we have the first
public photos of the embassy -- a pool, basketball
court, tennis courts, and food court to die for -- just
as the news has arrived that the vast boondoggle of a
place, built for three-quarters of a billion of your tax
dollars, with a $6 billion State Department budget this
year and its own mercenary air force, is about to get
its staff of 16,000 slashed.  In a Washington Post piece
on the subject, Senator Patrick Leahy is quoted as
saying: "I've been in embassies all over the world, and
you come to this place and you're like: `Whoa. Wow.' All
of a sudden you've got something so completely out of
scale to anything, you have to wonder, what were they
thinking when they first built it?"

The answer is: in 2004, when planning for this white
elephant of embassies first began, the Bush
administration was still dreaming of a Washington-
enforced Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and
saw it as its western command post.  Now, of course, the
vast American mega-bases in Iraq with their multiple bus
routes, giant PXes, Pizza Huts, Cinnabons, and Burger
Kings, where American troops were to be garrisoned on
the "Korean model" for decades to come, are so many
ghost towns, fading American ziggurats in Mesopotamia.
Similarly, those embassy photos seem like snapshots from
Pompeii just as the ash was beginning to fall.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the news is similarly dismal
with drawdowns and withdrawals suddenly the order of the
day.  Something's changing.  It feels tectonic.
Certainly, we're receiving another set of signs that
American imperial plans on the Eurasian mainland have
crashed and burned and that the U.S. is now regrouping
and heading "offshore."

What a moment then for Noam Chomsky to weigh in on the
subject of American decline.  (His earlier TomDispatch
post "Who Owns the World?" might be considered a
companion piece to this one.)  For him, a TomDispatch
first: a two-day, back-to-back two-parter on imperial
hegemony and its discontents. (To catch 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.) Tom

"Losing" the World
American Decline in Perspective, Part 1
By Noam Chomsky

Significant anniversaries are solemnly commemorated --
Japan's attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor,
for example.  Others are ignored, and we can often learn
valuable lessons from them about what is likely to lie
ahead.  Right now, in fact.

At the moment, we are failing to commemorate the 50th
anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's decision to
launch the most destructive and murderous act of
aggression of the post-World War II period: the invasion
of South Vietnam, later all of Indochina, leaving
millions dead and four countries devastated, with
casualties still mounting from the long-term effects of
drenching South Vietnam with some of the most lethal
carcinogens known, undertaken to destroy ground cover
and food crops.

The prime target was South Vietnam.  The aggression
later spread to the North, then to the remote peasant
society of northern Laos, and finally to rural Cambodia,
which was bombed at the stunning level of all allied air
operations in the Pacific region during World War II,
including the two atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki.  In this, Henry Kissinger's orders were being
carried out -- "anything that flies on anything that
moves" -- a call for genocide that is rare in the
historical record.  Little of this is remembered.  Most
was scarcely known beyond narrow circles of activists.

When the invasion was launched 50 years ago, concern was
so slight that there were few efforts at justification,
hardly more than the president's impassioned plea that
"we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and
ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert
means for expanding its sphere of influence" and if the
conspiracy achieves its ends in Laos and Vietnam, "the
gates will be opened wide."

Elsewhere, he warned further that "the complacent, the
self-indulgent, the soft societies are about to be swept
away with the debris of history [and] only the strong...
can possibly survive," in this case reflecting on the
failure of U.S. aggression and terror to crush Cuban

By the time protest began to mount half a dozen years
later, the respected Vietnam specialist and military
historian Bernard Fall, no dove, forecast that "Vietnam
as a cultural and historic entity. is threatened with
extinction...[as]...the countryside literally dies under
the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed
on an area of this size." He was again referring to
South Vietnam.

When the war ended eight horrendous years later,
mainstream opinion was divided between those who
described the war as a "noble cause" that could have
been won with more dedication, and at the opposite
extreme, the critics, to whom it was "a mistake" that
proved too costly.  By 1977, President Carter aroused
little notice when he explained that we owe Vietnam "no
debt" because "the destruction was mutual."

There are important lessons in all this for today, even
apart from another reminder that only the weak and
defeated are called to account for their crimes.  One
lesson is that to understand what is happening we should
attend not only to critical events of the real world,
often dismissed from history, but also to what leaders
and elite opinion believe, however tinged with fantasy.
Another lesson is that alongside the flights of fancy
concocted to terrify and mobilize the public (and
perhaps believed by some who are trapped in their own
rhetoric), there is also geostrategic planning based on
principles that are rational and stable over long
periods because they are rooted in stable institutions
and their concerns.  That is true in the case of Vietnam
as well.  I will return to that, only stressing here
that the persistent factors in state action are
generally well concealed.

The Iraq war is an instructive case.  It was marketed to
a terrified public on the usual grounds of self-defense
against an awesome threat to survival: the "single
question," George W. Bush and Tony Blair declared, was
whether Saddam Hussein would end his programs of
developing weapons of mass destruction.   When the
single question received the wrong answer, government
rhetoric shifted effortlessly to our "yearning for
democracy," and educated opinion duly followed course;
all routine.

Later, as the scale of the U.S. defeat in Iraq was
becoming difficult to suppress, the government quietly
conceded what had been clear all along.  In 2007-2008,
the administration officially announced that a final
settlement must grant the U.S. military bases and the
right of combat operations, and must privilege U.S.
investors in the rich energy system -- demands later
reluctantly abandoned in the face of Iraqi resistance.
And all well kept from the general population.

Gauging American Decline

With such lessons in mind, it is useful to look at what
is highlighted in the major journals of policy and
opinion today.  Let us keep to the most prestigious of
the establishment journals, Foreign Affairs.  The
headline blaring on the cover of the December 2011 issue
reads in bold face: "Is America Over?"

The title article calls for "retrenchment" in the
"humanitarian missions" abroad that are consuming the
country's wealth, so as to arrest the American decline
that is a major theme of international affairs
discourse, usually accompanied by the corollary that
power is shifting to the East, to China and (maybe)

The lead articles are on Israel-Palestine.  The first,
by two high Israeli officials, is entitled "The Problem
is Palestinian Rejection": the conflict cannot be
resolved because Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel
as a Jewish state -- thereby conforming to standard
diplomatic practice: states are recognized, but not
privileged sectors within them.  The demand is hardly
more than a new device to deter the threat of political
settlement that would undermine Israel's expansionist

The opposing position, defended by an American
professor, is entitled "The Problem Is the Occupation."
The subtitle reads "How the Occupation is Destroying the
Nation." Which nation?  Israel, of course.  The paired
articles appear under the heading "Israel under Siege."

The January 2012 issue features yet another call to bomb
Iran now, before it is too late.  Warning of "the
dangers of deterrence," the author suggests that
"skeptics of military action fail to appreciate the true
danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to U.S.
interests in the Middle East and beyond. And their grim
forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the
disease -- that is, that the consequences of a U.S.
assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those
of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. But that is a
faulty assumption. The truth is that a military strike
intended to destroy Iran's nuclear program, if managed
carefully, could spare the region and the world a very
real threat and dramatically improve the long-term
national security of the United States."

Others argue that the costs would be too high, and at
the extremes some even point out that an attack would
violate international law -- as does the stand of the
moderates, who regularly deliver threats of violence, in
violation of the U.N. Charter.

Let us review these dominant concerns in turn.

American decline is real, though the apocalyptic vision
reflects the familiar ruling class perception that
anything short of total control amounts to total
disaster.  Despite the piteous laments, the U.S. remains
the world dominant power by a large margin, and no
competitor is in sight, not only in the military
dimension, in which of course the U.S. reigns supreme.

China and India have recorded rapid (though highly
inegalitarian) growth, but remain very poor countries,
with enormous internal problems not faced by the West.
China is the world's major manufacturing center, but
largely as an assembly plant for the advanced industrial
powers on its periphery and for western multinationals.
That is likely to change over time.  Manufacturing
regularly provides the basis for innovation, often
breakthroughs, as is now sometimes happening in China.
One example that has impressed western specialists is
China's takeover of the growing global solar panel
market, not on the basis of cheap labor but by
coordinated planning and, increasingly, innovation.

But the problems China faces are serious. Some are
demographic, reviewed in Science, the leading U.S.
science weekly. The study shows that mortality sharply
decreased in China during the Maoist years, "mainly a
result of economic development and improvements in
education and health services, especially the public
hygiene movement that resulted in a sharp drop in
mortality from infectious diseases." This progress ended
with the initiation of the capitalist reforms 30 years
ago, and the death rate has since increased.

Furthermore, China's recent economic growth has relied
substantially on a "demographic bonus," a very large
working-age population. "But the window for harvesting
this bonus may close soon," with a "profound impact on
development":  "Excess cheap labor supply, which is one
of the major factors driving China's economic miracle,
will no longer be available."

Demography is only one of many serious problems ahead.
For India, the problems are far more severe.

Not all prominent voices foresee American decline.
Among international media, there is none more serious
and responsible than the London Financial Times.  It
recently devoted a full page to the optimistic
expectation that new technology for extracting North
American fossil fuels might allow the U.S. to become
energy independent, hence to retain its global hegemony
for a century.  There is no mention of the kind of world
the U.S. would rule in this happy event, but not for
lack of evidence.

At about the same time, the International Energy Agency
reported that, with rapidly increasing carbon emissions
from fossil fuel use, the limit of safety will be
reached by 2017 if the world continues on its present
course. "The door is closing," the IEA chief economist
said, and very soon it "will be closed forever."

Shortly before the U.S. Department of Energy reported
the most recent carbon dioxide emissions figures, which
"jumped by the biggest amount on record" to a level
higher than the worst-case scenario anticipated by the
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  That came
as no surprise to many scientists, including the MIT
program on climate change, which for years has warned
that the IPCC predictions are too conservative.

Such critics of the IPCC predictions receive virtually
no public attention, unlike the fringe of denialists who
are supported by the corporate sector, along with huge
propaganda campaigns that have driven Americans off the
international spectrum in dismissal of the threats.
Business support also translates directly to political
power.  Denialism is part of the catechism that must be
intoned by Republican candidates in the farcical
election campaign now in progress, and in Congress they
are powerful enough to abort even efforts to inquire
into the effects of global warming, let alone do
anything serious about it.

In brief, American decline can perhaps be stemmed if we
abandon hope for decent survival, prospects that are all
too real given the balance of forces in the world.

"Losing" China and Vietnam

Putting such unpleasant thoughts aside, a close look at
American decline shows that China indeed plays a large
role, as it has for 60 years.  The decline that now
elicits such concern is not a recent phenomenon.  It
traces back to the end of World War II, when the U.S.
had half the world's wealth and incomparable security
and global reach.  Planners were naturally well aware of
the enormous disparity of power, and intended to keep it
that way.

The basic viewpoint was outlined with admirable
frankness in a major state paper of 1948 (PPS 23).  The
author was one of the architects of the New World Order
of the day, the chair of the State Department Policy
Planning Staff, the respected statesman and scholar
George Kennan, a moderate dove within the planning
spectrum.  He observed that the central policy goal was
to maintain the "position of disparity" that separated
our enormous wealth from the poverty of others.  To
achieve that goal, he advised, "We should cease to talk
about vague and... unreal objectives such as human
rights, the raising of the living standards, and
democratization," and must "deal in straight power
concepts," not "hampered by idealistic slogans" about
"altruism and world-benefaction."

Kennan was referring specifically to Asia, but the
observations generalize, with exceptions, for
participants in the U.S.-run global system.  It was well
understood that the "idealistic slogans" were to be
displayed prominently when addressing others, including
the intellectual classes, who were expected to
promulgate them.

The plans that Kennan helped formulate and implement
took for granted that the U.S. would control the Western
Hemisphere, the Far East, the former British empire
(including the incomparable energy resources of the
Middle East), and as much of Eurasia as possible,
crucially its commercial and industrial centers.  These
were not unrealistic objectives, given the distribution
of power.  But decline set in at once.

In 1949, China declared independence, an event known in
Western discourse as "the loss of China" -- in the U.S.,
with bitter recriminations and conflict over who was
responsible for that loss.  The terminology is
revealing.  It is only possible to lose something that
one owns.  The tacit assumption was that the U.S. owned
China, by right, along with most of the rest of the
world, much as postwar planners assumed.

The "loss of China" was the first major step in
"America's decline." It had major policy consequences.
One was the immediate decision to support France's
effort to reconquer its former colony of Indochina, so
that it, too, would not be "lost."

Indochina itself was not a major concern, despite claims
about its rich resources by President Eisenhower and
others.  Rather, the concern was the "domino theory,"
which is often ridiculed when dominoes don't fall, but
remains a leading principle of policy because it is
quite rational.  To adopt Henry Kissinger's version, a
region that falls out of control can become a "virus"
that will "spread contagion," inducing others to follow
the same path.

In the case of Vietnam, the concern was that the virus
of independent development might infect Indonesia, which
really does have rich resources.  And that might lead
Japan -- the "superdomino" as it was called by the
prominent Asia historian John Dower -- to "accommodate"
to an independent Asia as its technological and
industrial center in a system that would escape the
reach of U.S. power.  That would mean, in effect, that
the U.S. had lost the Pacific phase of World War II,
fought to prevent Japan's attempt to establish such a
New Order in Asia.

The way to deal with such a problem is clear: destroy
the virus and "inoculate" those who might be infected.
In the Vietnam case, the rational choice was to destroy
any hope of successful independent development and to
impose brutal dictatorships in the surrounding regions.
Those tasks were successfully carried out -- though
history has its own cunning, and something similar to
what was feared has since been developing in East Asia,
much to Washington's dismay.

The most important victory of the Indochina wars was in
1965, when a U.S.-backed military coup in Indonesia led
by General Suharto carried out massive crimes that were
compared by the CIA to those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
The "staggering mass slaughter," as the New York Times
described it, was reported accurately across the
mainstream, and with unrestrained euphoria.

It was "a gleam of light in Asia," as the noted liberal
commentator James Reston wrote in the Times.  The coup
ended the threat of democracy by demolishing the mass-
based political party of the poor, established a
dictatorship that went on to compile one of the worst
human rights records in the world, and threw the riches
of the country open to western investors.  Small wonder
that, after many other horrors, including the near-
genocidal invasion of East Timor, Suharto was welcomed
by the Clinton administration in 1995 as "our kind of

Years after the great events of 1965, Kennedy-Johnson
National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy reflected that
it would have been wise to end the Vietnam war at that
time, with the "virus" virtually destroyed and the
primary domino solidly in place, buttressed by other
U.S.-backed dictatorships throughout the region.

Similar procedures have been routinely followed
elsewhere.  Kissinger was referring specifically to the
threat of socialist democracy in Chile.  That threat was
ended on another forgotten date, what Latin Americans
call "the first 9/11," which in violence and bitter
effects far exceeded the 9/11 commemorated in the West.
A vicious dictatorship was imposed in Chile, one part of
a plague of brutal repression that spread through Latin
America, reaching Central America under Reagan.  Viruses
have aroused deep concern elsewhere as well, including
the Middle East, where the threat of secular nationalism
has often concerned British and U.S. planners, inducing
them to support radical Islamic fundamentalism to
counter it.

The Concentration of Wealth and American Decline

Despite such victories, American decline continued.  By
1970, U.S. share of world wealth had dropped to about
25%, roughly where it remains, still colossal but far
below the end of World War II.  By then, the industrial
world was "tripolar": US-based North America, German-
based Europe, and East Asia, already the most dynamic
industrial region, at the time Japan-based, but by now
including the former Japanese colonies Taiwan and South
Korea, and more recently China.

At about that time, American decline entered a new
phase: conscious self-inflicted decline.  From the
1970s, there has been a significant change in the U.S.
economy, as planners, private and state, shifted it
toward financialization and the offshoring of
production, driven in part by the declining rate of
profit in domestic manufacturing.  These decisions
initiated a vicious cycle in which wealth became highly
concentrated (dramatically so in the top 0.1% of the
population), yielding concentration of political power,
hence legislation to carry the cycle further: taxation
and other fiscal policies, deregulation, changes in the
rules of corporate governance allowing huge gains for
executives, and so on.

Meanwhile, for the majority, real wages largely
stagnated, and people were able to get by only by
sharply increased workloads (far beyond Europe),
unsustainable debt, and repeated bubbles since the
Reagan years, creating paper wealth that inevitably
disappeared when they burst (and the perpetrators were
bailed out by the taxpayer).  In parallel, the political
system has been increasingly shredded as both parties
are driven deeper into corporate pockets with the
escalating cost of elections, the Republicans to the
level of farce, the Democrats (now largely the former
"moderate Republicans") not far behind.

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, which
has been the major source of reputable data on these
developments for years, is entitled Failure by Design.
The phrase "by design" is accurate.  Other choices were
certainly possible.  And as the study points out, the
"failure" is class-based.  There is no failure for the
designers.  Far from it.  Rather, the policies are a
failure for the large majority, the 99% in the imagery
of the Occupy movements -- and for the country, which
has declined and will continue to do so under these

One factor is the offshoring of manufacturing.  As the
solar panel example mentioned earlier illustrates,
manufacturing capacity provides the basis and stimulus
for innovation leading to higher stages of
sophistication in production, design, and invention.
That, too, is being outsourced, not a problem for the
"money mandarins" who increasingly design policy, but a
serious problem for working people and the middle
classes, and a real disaster for the most oppressed,
African Americans, who have never escaped the legacy of
slavery and its ugly aftermath, and whose meager wealth
virtually disappeared after the collapse of the housing
bubble in 2008, setting off the most recent financial
crisis, the worst so far.

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.

[Note: Part 2 of Noam Chomsky's discussion of American
decline, "The Imperial Way," will be posted at
TomDispatch tomorrow.]

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

Copyright 2012 Noam Chomsky


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