Imperial Presidency




I

t
goes without saying that what happens in the U.S. has an enormous
impact on the rest of the world—and conversely: what happens
in the rest of the world cannot fail to have an impact on the U.S.,
in several ways. First, it sets constraints on what even the most
powerful state can do. Second, it influences the domestic U.S. component
of “the second superpower,” as the


New
York Times

ruefully described world public opinion after the
huge protests before the Iraq invasion. Those protests were a critically
important historical event, not only because of their unprecedented
scale, but also because it was the first time in hundreds of years
of the history of Europe and its North American offshoots that a
war was massively protested even before it was officially launched. 


We
may recall, by comparison, the war against South Vietnam launched
by JFK in 1962, brutal and barbaric from the outset: bombing, chemical
warfare to destroy food crops so as to starve out the civilian support
for the indigenous resistance, programs to drive millions of people
to virtual concentration camps or urban slums to eliminate its popular
base. By the time protests reached a substantial scale, the highly
respected and quite hawkish Vietnam specialist and military historian
Bernard Fall wondered whether “Viet-Nam as a cultural and historic
entity” would escape “extinction” as “the countryside
literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever
unleashed on an area of this size”—particularly South
Vietnam, always the main target of the U.S. assault. When protest
did finally develop, many years too late, it was mostly directed
against the peripheral crimes: the extension of the war against
the South to the rest of Indochina—hideous crimes, but lesser
ones. 


It’s
quite important to remember how much the world has changed since
then. As almost always, not as a result of gifts from benevolent
leaders, but through deeply committed popular struggle, far too
late in developing, but ultimately effective. One consequence was
that the U.S. government could not declare a national emergency,
which should have been healthy for the economy, as during World
War II when public support was very high. Johnson had to fight a
“guns-and-butter” war, buying off an unwilling population,
harming the economy, ultimately leading the business classes to
turn against the war as too costly, after the Tet Offensive of January
1968 showed that it would go on a long time. There were also concerns
among U.S. elites about rising social and political consciousness
stimulated by the activism of the 1960s, much of it reaction to
the miserable crimes in Indochina, then at last arousing popular
indignation. We learn from the last sections of the

Pentagon
Papers

that after the Tet offensive, the military command was
reluctant to agree to the president’s call for further troop
deployments, wanting to be sure that “sufficient forces would
still be available for civil disorder control” in the U.S.,
and fearing that escalation might run the risk of “provoking
a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” 


The
Reagan administration assumed that the problem of an independent,
aroused population had been overcome and apparently planned to follow
the Kennedy model of the early 1960s in Central America. But they
backed off in the face of unanticipated public protest, turning
instead to “clandestine war” employing murderous security
forces and a huge international terror network. The consequences
were terrible, but not as bad as B-52s and mass murder operations
of the kind that were peaking when John Kerry was deep in the Mekong
Delta in the South, by then largely devastated. The popular reaction
to even the “clandestine war,” so called, broke entirely
new ground. The solidarity movements for Central America, now in
many parts of the world, are again something new in Western history.



State
managers cannot fail to pay attention to such matters. Routinely,
a newly elected president requests an intelligence evaluation of
the world situation. In 1989, when Bush I took office, a part was
leaked. It warned that when attacking “much weaker enemies”—the
only sensible target—the U.S. must win “decisively and
rapidly.” Delay might “undercut political support,”
recognized to be thin, a great change since the Kennedy-Johnson
years when the attack on Indochina, while never popular, aroused
little reaction for many years. 


The
world is pretty awful today, but it is far better than yesterday,
not only with regard to unwillingness to tolerate aggression, but
also in many other ways, which we now tend to take for granted.
There are very important lessons here, which should always be uppermost
in our minds—for the same reason they are suppressed in the
elite culture. 



W

ithout
forgetting the very significant progress towards more civilized
societies in past years, and the reasons for it, let’s focus
nevertheless on the notions of imperial sovereignty now being crafted.
It is not surprising that as the population becomes more civilized,
power systems become more extreme in their efforts to control the
“great beast” (as the Founding Fathers called the people).
And the great beast is indeed frightening.  


The
conception of presidential sovereignty crafted by the statist reactionaries
of the Bush administration is so extreme that it has drawn unprecedented
criticism in the most sober and respected establishment circles.
These ideas were transmitted to the president by the newly appointed
attorney-general, Alberto Gonzales—who is depicted as a moderate
in the press. They are discussed by the respected constitutional
law professor Sanford Levinson in the summer 2004 issue of

Daedalus

,
the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Levinson
writes that the conception is based on the principle, “There
exists no norm that is applicable to chaos.” The quote, Levinson
comments, is from Carl Schmitt, the leading German philosopher of
law during the Nazi period, who Levinson describes as “the
true éminence grise of the Bush administration.” The Administration,
advised by Gonzales, has articulated “a view of presidential
authority that is all too close to the power that Schmitt was willing
to accord his own Führer,” Levinson writes. 


One
rarely hears such words from the heart of the establishment. 


The
same issue of the journal carries an article by two prominent strategic
analysts on the “transformation of the military,” a central
component of the new doctrines of imperial sovereignty: the rapid
expansion of offensive weaponry, including militari- zation of space,
and other measures designed to place the entire world at risk of
instant annihilation. These have already elicited the anticipated
reactions by Russia and recently China. The analysts conclude that
these U.S. programs may lead to “ultimate doom.” They
express their hope that a coalition of peace-loving states will
coalesce as a counter to U.S. militarism and aggressiveness, led
by China. We’ve come to a pretty pass when such sentiments
are voiced in sober respectable circles not given to hyperbole. 


Going
back to Gonzales, he transmitted to the president the conclusions
of the Justice Department that the president has the authority to
rescind the Geneva Conventions—the supreme law of the land,
the foundation of modern international humanitarian law. Gonzales,
who was then Bush’s legal counsel, advised him that this would
be a good idea because rescinding the Conventions “substantially
reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution [of administration
officials] under the War Crimes Act” of 1996, which carries
the death penalty for “grave breaches” of Geneva Conventions. 


We
can see on today’s front pages why the Justice Department was
right to be concerned that the president and his advisers might
be subject to the death penalty under the laws passed by the Republican
Congress in 1996—and under the principles of the Nuremberg
Tribunal, if anyone took them seriously. 


In
early November, the

NY Times

featured a front-page story
reporting the conquest of the Falluja General Hospital. It reported,
“Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by
armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops
tied their hands behind their backs.” An accompanying photograph
depicted the scene. That was presented as an important achievement.
“The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda
weapon for the militants: Falluja General Hospital, with its stream
of reports of civilian casualties.” These “inflated”
figures—inflated because our Leader so declares—were “inflaming
opinion throughout the country” and the region, driving up
“the political costs of the conflict.” The word “conflict”
is a common euphemism for U.S. aggression, as when we read on the
same pages that the U.S. must now rebuild “what the conflict
just destroyed”: just “the conflict,” with no agent,
like a hurricane.






L

et’s
go back to the


NYT

picture and story about the closing of the “propaganda weapon.”
There are some relevant documents, including the Geneva Conventions,
which state: “Fixed establishments and mobile medical units
of the Medical Service may in no circumstances be attacked, but
shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to
the conflict.” So page one of the world’s leading newspaper
is cheerfully depicting war crimes for which the political leadership
could be sentenced to death under U.S. law. 


The
world’s greatest newspaper also tells us that the U.S. military
“achieved nearly all their objectives well ahead of schedule,”
leaving “much of the city in smoking ruins.” But it was
not a complete success. There is little evidence of dead “packrats”
in their “warrens” or the streets, which remains “an
enduring mystery.” The embedded reporters did find a body of
a dead woman, though it is “not known whether she was an Iraqi
or a foreigner,” apparently the only question that comes to
mind. 


The
front-page account quotes a Marine commander who says, “It
ought to go down in the history books.” Perhaps it should.
If so, we know on just what page of history it will go down and
who will be right beside it, along with those who praise or, for
that matter, even tolerate it. At least, we know that if we are
capable of honesty. 


One
might mention at least some of the recent counterparts that immediately
come to mind, like the Russian destruction of Grozny ten years ago,
a city of about the same size; or Srebrenica, almost universally
described as “genocide” in the West. In that case, as
we know in detail from a Dutch government report and other sources,
the Muslim enclave in Serb territory, inadequately protected, was
used as a base for attacks against Serb villages and, when the anticipated
reaction took place, it was horrendous. The Serbs drove out all
but military age men and then moved in to kill them. There are differences
with Falluja. Women and children were not bombed out of Srebrenica,
but trucked out and there will be no extensive efforts to exhume
the last corpse of the packrats in their warrens in Falluja. There
are other differences, arguably unfair to the Serbs. 


It
could be argued that all this is irrelevant. The Nuremberg Tribunal,
spelling out the UN Charter, declared that initiation of a war of
aggression is “the supreme international crime differing only
from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated
evil of the whole.” Hence the war crimes in Falluja and Abu
Ghraib, the doubling of acute malnutrition among children since
the invasion (now at the level of Burundi, far higher than Haiti
or Uganda), and all the rest of the atrocities. Those judged to
have played any role in the supreme crime—for example, the
German Foreign Minister—were sentenced to death by hanging.
The Tokyo Tribunal was far more severe. 


There
is a very important book on the topic by Canadian international
lawyer Michael Mandel, who reviews in convincing detail how the
powerful are self-immunized from international law. 


In
fact, the Nuremberg Tribunal established this principle. To bring
the Nazi criminals to justice, it was necessary to devise definitions
of “war crime” and “crime against humanity.”
How this was done is explained by Telford Taylor, chief counsel
for the prosecution and a distinguished international lawyer and
historian: “Since both sides [in World War II] had played the
terrible game of urban destruction—the Allies far more successfully—there
was no basis for criminal charges against Germans or Japanese, and
in fact no such charges were brought…. Aerial bombardment had
been used so extensively and ruthlessly on the Allied side as well
as the Axis side that neither at Nuremberg nor Tokyo was the issue
made a part of the trials.” 


The
operative definition of “crime” is: “Crime that you
carried out, but we did not.” To underscore the fact, Nazi
war criminals were absolved if the defense could show that their
U.S. counterparts carried out the same crimes.  Taylor concludes
that “to punish the foe—especially the vanquished foe—for
conduct in which the enforcer nation has engaged, would be so grossly
inequitable as to discredit the laws themselves.” That is correct,
but the operative definition also discredits the laws themselves,
along with all subsequent tribunals. Taylor provides this background
as part of his explanation of why U.S. bombing in Vietnam was not
a war crime. His argument is plausible, further discrediting the
laws themselves.





 Some
of the subsequent judicial inquiries are discredited in perhaps
even more extreme ways, such as the

Yugoslavia vs. NATO

case
adjudicated by the International Court of Justice.   The
U.S. was excused, correctly, on the basis of its argument that it
is not subject to the jurisdiction of the Court in this case. The
reason is that when the U.S. finally signed the Genocide Convention
(which is at issue here) after 40 years, it did so with a reservation
stating that it is not applicable to the United States. 


In
an outraged comment on the efforts of Justice Department lawyers
to demonstrate that the president has the right to authorize torture,
Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh said, “The notion that the
president has the constitutional power to permit torture is like
saying he has the constitutional power to commit genocide.”
The president’s legal advisers, and the new attorney-general,
should have little difficulty arguing that the president does indeed
have that right—if the second superpower permits him to exercise
it. 


The
sacred doctrine of self-immunization is sure to hold for the trial
of Saddam Hussein, if it is ever held. We see that every time Bush,
Blair, and other worthies in government and commentary lament over
the terrible crimes of Saddam Hussein, always bravely omitting the
words: “with our help, because we did not care.” Surely
no tribunal will be permitted to address the fact that U.S. presidents
from Kennedy until today, along with French presidents and British
prime ministers, and Western businesses, have been complicit in
Saddam’s crimes, sometimes in horrendous ways, including current
incumbents and their mentors. In setting up the Saddam tribunal,
the State Department consulted U.S. legal expert professor Charif
Bassiouni, recently quoted as saying: “All efforts are being
made to have a tribunal whose judiciary is not independent but controlled,
and by controlled I mean that the political manipulators of the
tribunal have to make sure the U.S. and other western powers are
not brought in cause. This makes it look like victor’s vengeance:
it makes it seem targeted, selected, unfair. It’s a subterfuge.”
We hardly need to be told. 


The
pretext for U.S.-UK aggression in Iraq is what is called the right
of “anticipatory self-defense,” now sometimes called “preemptive
war” in a perversion of that concept. The right of anticipatory
self-defense was affirmed officially in the Bush administration
National Security Strategy of September 2002, declaring Washington’s
right to resort to force to eliminate any potential challenge to
its global dominance. The NSS was widely criticized among the foreign
policy elite, beginning with an article in the main establishment
journal

Foreign Affairs

, warning that “the new imperial
grand strategy” could be very dangerous. Criticism continued,
again at an unprecedented level, but on narrow grounds—not
that the doctrine itself was wrong, but rather its style and manner
of presentation. Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
summed the criticism up accurately, also in

FA

. She pointed
out that every president has such a doctrine in his back pocket,
but it is foolish to smash people in the face with it and to implement
it in a manner that will infuriate even allies. That is threatening
to U.S. interests and therefore wrong. 


Albright
knew, of course, that Clinton had a similar doctrine. The Clinton
doctrine advocated “unilateral use of military power”
to defend vital interests, such as “ensuring uninhibited access
to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources,” without
even the pretexts that Bush and Blair devised. Taken literally,
the Clinton doctrine is more expansive than Bush’s NSS. But
the more expansive Clinton doctrine was barely even reported. It
was presented with the right style and implemented less brazenly. 


Henry
Kissinger described the Bush doctrine as “revolutionary,”
pointing out that it undermines the 17th century Westphalian system
of international order and of course the UN Charter and international
law. He approved of the doctrine, but with reservations about style
and tactics and with a crucial qualification: it cannot be “a
universal principle available to every nation.” Rather, the
right of aggression must be reserved to the U.S., perhaps delegated
to chosen clients. We must forcefully reject the principle of universality—that
we apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others, more stringent
ones if we are serious. Kissinger is to be praised for his honesty
in forthrightly articulating prevailing doctrine, usually concealed
in professions of virtuous intent and tortured legalisms. He understands
his educated audience. As he doubtless expected, there was no reaction.





His
understanding of his audience was illustrated again, rather dramatically,
last May, when Kissinger-Nixon tapes were released, over Kissinger’s
strong objections. There was a report in the world’s leading
newspaper. It mentioned, in passing, the orders to bomb Cambodia
that Kissinger transmitted from Nixon to the military commanders.
In Kissinger’s words, “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia.
Anything that flies on anything that moves.” It is rare for
a call for horrendous war crimes—what we would not hesitate
to call “genocide” if others were responsible—to
be so stark and explicit. It would be interesting to see if there
is anything like it in archival records. The publication elicited
no reaction, refuting Dean Koh. Apparently, it is taken for granted
in the elite culture that the president and his National Security
adviser do have the right to order genocide. 


Imagine
the reaction if the prosecutors at the Milosevic Tribunal could
find anything remotely similar. They would be overjoyed, the trial
would be over, Milosevic would receive several life sentences, the
death penalty if the Tribunal adhered to U.S. law.  But that
is them, not us. 



T

he
principle of universality is the most elementary of moral truisms.
It is the foundation of “just


war

theory” and of every system of morality deserving of anything
but contempt. Rejection of such moral truisms is so deeply rooted
in the intellectual culture as to be invisible. To illustrate again
how deeply entrenched it is, let’s return to the principle
of “anticipatory self-defense,” adopted as legitimate
by both political organizations in the U.S. and across virtually
the entire spectrum of articulate opinion, apart from the usual
margins. The principle has some immediate corollaries. If the U.S.
is granted the right of “anticipatory self-defense” against
terror, then, certainly, Cuba, Nicaragua, and a host of others have
long been entitled to carry out terrorist acts within the U.S. because
there is no doubt of its involvement in very serious terrorist attacks
against them, extensively documented in impeccable sources and,
in the case of Nicaragua, even condemned by the World Court and
the Security Council (in two resolutions that the U.S. vetoed, with
Britain loyally abstaining). The conclusion that Cuba and Nicaragua,
among many others, have long had the right to carry out terrorist
atrocities in the U.S. is of course utterly outrageous and advocated
by no one. Thanks to our self-determined immunity from moral truisms,
there is no fear that anyone will draw the outrageous conclusions. 


There
are still more outrageous ones. No one, for example, celebrates
Pearl Harbor day by applauding the fascist leaders of Imperial Japan.
But by our standards, the bombing of military bases in the U.S.
colonies of Hawaii and the Philippines seems rather innocuous. The
Japanese leaders knew that B-17 Flying Fortresses were coming off
the Boeing production lines and were surely familiar with the public
discussions in the U.S. explaining how they could be used to incinerate
Japan’s wooden cities in a war of extermination, flying from
Hawaiian and Philippine bases—“to burn out the industrial
heart of the Empire with fire-bombing attacks on the teeming bamboo
ant heaps,” as retired Air Force General Chennault recommended
in 1940, a proposal that “simply delighted” President
Roosevelt. That’s a far more powerful justification for anticipatory
self-defense than anything conjured up by Bush-Blair and their associates—and
accepted, with tactical reservations, throughout the mainstream
of articulate opinion. 


Examples
can be enumerated virtually at random. To add one last one, consider
the most recent act of NATO aggression prior to the U.S.-UK invasion
of Iraq: the bombing of Serbia in 1999. The justification is supposed
to be that there were no diplomatic options and that it was necessary
to stop ongoing genocide. It is not hard to evaluate these claims. 


As
for diplomatic options, when the bombing began, there were two proposals
on the table, a NATO and a Serbian proposal. After 78 days of bombing
a compromise was reached between them—formally at least. It
was immediately undermined by NATO. All of this quickly vanished
into the mists of unacceptable history, to the limited extent that
it was ever reported. 


What
about ongoing genocide—to use the term that appeared hundreds
of times in the press as NATO geared up for war?  That is unusually
easy to investigate. There are two major documentary studies by
the State Department, offered to justify the bombing, along with
extensive documentary records from the OSCE, NATO, and other Western
sources, and a detailed British Parliamentary Inquiry. All agree
on the basic facts: the atrocities followed the bombing, they were
not its cause. Furthermore, that was predicted by the NATO command,
as General Wesley Clark informed the press right away and confirmed
in more detail in his memoirs. The Milosevic indictment, issued
during the bombing—surely as a propaganda weapon, despite implausible
denials—and relying on U.S.-UK intelligence as announced at
once, yields the same conclusion: virtually all the charges are
post-bombing.  Such annoyances are handled quite easily. The
Western documentation is commonly expunged in the media and even
scholarship. The chronology is regularly reversed, so that the anticipated
consequences of the bombing are transmuted into its cause.





There
were indeed pre-bombing atrocities: about 2,000 were killed in the
year before the March 1999 bombing, according to Western sources.
The British, the most hawkish element of the coalition, made the
astonishing claim—hard to believe just on the basis of the
balance of forces—that until January 1999 most of the killings
were by the Albanian KLA guerrillas attacking civilians and soldiers
in cross-border raids in the hope of eliciting a harsh Serbian response
that could be used for propaganda purposes in the West, as they
candidly reported, apparently with CIA support in the last months.
Western sources indicate no substantial change until the bombing
was announced and the monitors withdrawn a few days before the March
bombing.  In one of the few works of scholarship that even
mentions the unusually rich documentary record, Nicholas Wheeler
concludes that 500 of the 2,000 were killed by Serbs. He supports
the bombing on the grounds that there would have been worse Serbian
atrocities had NATO not bombed, eliciting the anticipated crimes.
That’s the most serious scholarly work. The press, and much
of scholarship, chose the easier path of ignoring Western documentation
and reversing the chronology. 



I

t
is all too easy to continue. But the—unpleasantly consistent—record
leaves open a crucial question: how does the “great beast”
react, the domestic U.S. component of the second superpower? The
conventional answer is that the population approves of all of this,
as just shown by the election of George Bush. But as is often the
case, a closer look is helpful. 


Each
candidate received about 30 percent of the electoral vote, Bush
a bit more, Kerry a bit less. General voting patterns were close
to the 2000 elections; almost the same “red” and “blue”
states, in the conventional metaphor. A few percent shift in vote
would have meant that Kerry would be in the White House. Neither
outcome could tell us much of any significance about the mood of
the country, even of voters. Issues of substance were as usual kept
out of the campaign or presented so obscurely that few could understand. 


It
is important to bear in mind that political campaigns are designed
by the same people who sell toothpaste and cars. Their professional
concern in their regular vocation is not to provide information.
Their goal, rather, is deceit. But deceit is quite expensive: complex
graphics showing the car with a sexy actor or a sports hero or climbing
a sheer cliff or some other device to project an image that might
deceive the consumer into buying this car instead of the virtually
identical one produced by a competitor. The same is true of elections,
run by the same public relations industry.  The goal is to
project images, and deceive the public into accepting them, while
sidelining issues—for good reasons. 


The
population seems to grasp the nature of the performance. Right before
the 2000 elections, about 75 percent regarded it as virtually meaningless,
some game involving rich contributors, party managers, and candidates
who are trained to project images that conceal issues, but might
pick up some votes. This is probably why the “stolen election”
was an elite concern that did not seem to arouse much public interest;
if elections have about as much significance as flipping a coin
to pick the King, who cares if the coin was biased? 


Right
before the 2004 election, about 10 percent of voters said their
choice would based on the candidate’s “agendas/ideas/platforms/goals”;
6 percent for Bush voters, 13 percent for Kerry voters. For the
rest, the choice would be based on what the industry calls “qualities”
and “values.” Does the candidate project the image of
a strong leader, the kind of guy you’d like to meet in a bar,
someone who really cares about you and is just like you? It wouldn’t
be surprising to learn that Bush is carefully trained to say “nucular”
and “misunderestimate” and the other silliness that intellectuals
like to ridicule. That’s probably about as real as the ranch
constructed for him and the rest of the folksy manner. After all,
it wouldn’t do to present him as a spoiled frat boy from Yale
who became rich and powerful thanks to his rich and powerful connections.
Rather, the imagery has to be an ordinary guy just like us, who’ll
protect us, and who shares our “moral values,” more so
than the windsurfing goose-hunter who can be accused of faking his
medals. 


Bush
received a large majority among voters who said they were concerned
primarily with “moral values” and “terrorism.”
We learn all we have to know about the moral values of the Administration
by reading the pages of the business press the day after the election,
describing the “euphoria” in board rooms—not because
CEOs are opposed to gay marriage. Or by observing the principle,
hardly concealed, that the very serious costs incurred by the Bush
planners, in their dedicated service to power and wealth, are to
be transferred to our children and grandchildren, including fiscal
costs, environmental destruction, and perhaps “ultimate doom.”
These are the moral values, loud and clear. 


The
commitment of Bush planners to “defense against terrorism”
is illustrated most dramatically, perhaps, by their decision to
escalate the threat of terror, as had been predicted even by their
own intelligence agencies, not because they enjoy terrorist attacks
against U.S. citizens, but because it is, plainly, a low priority
for them—surely as compared with such goals as establishing
secure military bases in a dependent client state at the heart of
the world’s energy resources, recognized since World War II
as the “most strategically important area of the world,”
“a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest
material prizes in world history.” It is critically important
to ensure that “profits beyond the dreams of avarice”—to
quote a leading history of the oil industry—flow in the right
directions, i.e., to U.S. energy corporations, the Treasury Department,
U.S. high tech (militarized) industry, huge construction firms,
and so on. Even more important is the stupendous strategic power.
Having a firm hand on the spigot guarantees “veto power”
over rivals, as George Kennan pointed out over 50 years ago. In
the same vein, Zbigniew Brzezinski recently wrote that control over
Iraq gives the U.S. “critical leverage” over European
and Asian economies, a major concern of planners since World War
II.





Rivals
are to keep to their “regional responsibilities” within
the “overall framework of order” managed by the U.S.,
as Kissinger instructed them in his “Year of Europe” address
30 years ago. That is even more urgent today, as the major rivals
threaten to move in an independent course, maybe even united. The
EU and China became each other’s leading trading partners in
2004 and those ties are becoming tighter, including the world’s
second largest economy, Japan. Critical leverage is more important
than ever for world control in the tripolar world that has been
evolving for over 30 years. In comparison, the threat of terror
is a minor consideration—though the threat is known to be awesome.
Long before 9/11 it was understood that, sooner or later, the Jihadist
terror organized by the U.S. and its allies in the 1980s was likely
to combine with WMDs, with horrifying consequences. 


Notice
that the crucial issue with regard to Middle East oil—about
two-thirds of estimated world resources, and unusually easy to extract—is
control, not access. U.S. policies towards the Middle East were
the same when it was a net exporter of oil and remain the same today
when U.S. intelligence projects that the U.S. will rely on more
stable Atlantic Basin resources.   Policies would be likely
to be about the same if the U.S. were to switch to renewable energy.
The need to control the “stupendous source of strategic power”
and to gain “profits beyond the dreams of avarice” would
remain. Jockeying over Central Asia and pipeline routes reflects
similar concerns. 


There
are plenty of other illustrations of the same ranking of priorities.
To mention one, the Treasury Department has a bureau (OFAC, Office
of Foreign Assets Control) that is assigned the task of investigating
suspicious financial transfers, a crucial component of the “war
on terror.” OFAC has 120 employees. Last April, the White House
informed Congress that four are assigned to tracking the finances
of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, while almost two dozen are
dedicated to enforcing the embargo against Cuba—incidentally,
declared illegal by every relevant international organization, even
the usually compliant Organization of American States. From 1990
to 2003, OFAC informed Congress, there were 93 terrorism-related
investigations with $9,000 in fines; and 11,000 Cuba-related investigations
with $8 million in fines. 


Why
should the Treasury Department devote vastly more energy to strangling
Cuba than to the war on terror? The basic reasons were explained
in secret documents 40 years ago, when the Kennedy administration
sought to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba, as
historian (and Kennedy confidante) Arthur Schlesinger recounted
in his biography of Robert Kennedy, who ran the terror operations
as his highest priority. State Department planners warned that the
“very existence” of the Castro regime is “successful
defiance” of U.S. policies going back 150 years, to the Monroe
Doctrine; no Russians, but intolerable defiance of the master of
the hemisphere. Furthermore, this successful defiance encourages
others, who might be infected by the “Castro idea of taking
matters into their own hands,” Schlesinger had warned incoming
President Kennedy, summarizing the report of the President’s
Latin American mission. These dangers are particularly grave, Schlesinger
elaborated, when “the distribution of land and other forms
of national wealth greatly favors the propertied classes…and
the poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban
revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living.”





Let’s
return to the great beast. U.S. public opinion is studied with great
care and depth. Studies released right before the election showed
that those planning to vote for Bush assumed that the Republican
Party shared their views, even though the Party explicitly rejected
them. Pretty much the same was true of Kerry supporters. The major
concerns of Kerry supporters were economy and health care and they
assumed that he shared their views on these matters, just as Bush
voters assumed, with comparable justification, that Republicans
shared their views. 


In
brief, those who bothered to vote mostly accepted the imagery concocted
by the PR industry, which had only the vaguest resemblance to reality.
That’s apart from the more wealthy who tend to vote their class
interests.  


What
about actual public attitudes? Again, right before the election,
major studies were released reporting them—and we see right
away why it is a good idea to base elections on deceit, very much
as in the fake markets of the doctrinal system. Here are a few examples:
A considerable majority believe that the U.S. should accept the
jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court;
sign the Kyoto protocols; allow the UN to take the lead in international
crises (including security, reconstruction, and political transition
in Iraq); rely on diplomatic and economic measures more than military
ones in the “war on terror,” and use force only if there
is “strong evidence that the country is in imminent danger
of being attacked,” thus rejecting the bipartisan consensus
on “pre-emptive war” and adopting a rather conventional
interpretation of the UN Charter. A majority even favor giving up
the Security Council veto. 


Overwhelming
majorities favor expansion of purely domestic programs: primarily
health care (80 percent), but also aid to education and Social Security.
Similar results have long been found in these studies, carried out
by the most reputable organizations that monitor public opinion.
In other mainstream polls, about 80 percent favor guaranteed health
care even if it would raise taxes—a national health care system
is likely to reduce expenses considerably, avoiding the heavy costs
of bureaucracy, supervision, paperwork, etc., some of the factors
that render the U.S. privatized system the most inefficient in the
industrial world. Public opinion has been similar for a long time,
with numbers varying depending on how questions are asked. The facts
are sometimes discussed in the press, with public preferences noted,
but dismissed as “politically impossible.” That happened
again on the eve of the 2004 elections. A few days before (October
31), the

NY Times

reported, “There is so little political
support for government intervention in the health care market in
the United States that Senator John Kerry took pains in a recent
presidential debate to say that his plan for expanding access to
health insurance would not create a new government program”—what
the majority want, so it appears. But it is politically impossible
and there is too little political support, meaning that the insurance
companies, HMOs, pharmaceutical industries, Wall Street, etc., are
opposed. 


It
is notable that these views are held by people in virtual isolation.
Their preferences do not enter into the political campaigns and
only marginally into articulate opinion in media and journals. The
same extends to other domains and raises important questions about
a “democratic deficit” in the world’s most important
state, to adopt the phrase we use for others. 


What
would the results of the election have been if the parties, either
of them, had been willing to articulate people’s concerns on
the issues they regard as vitally important? Or if these issues
could enter into public discussion within the mainstream? We can
only speculate about that, but we do know that it does not happen
and that the facts are scarcely even reported. It seems reasonable
to suppose that fear of the great beast is rather deep. 


The
operative concept of democracy is revealed very clearly in other
ways as well. Perhaps the most extraordinary was the distinction
between Old and New Europe in the run-up to the Iraq war. The criterion
for membership was so clear that it took real discipline to miss
it. Old Europe—the bad guys—were the governments that
took the same stand as the large majority of the population. New
Europe—the exciting hope for a democratic future—were
the Churchillian leaders like Berlusconi and Aznar who disregarded
even larger majorities of the population and submissively took their
orders from Crawford, Texas. The most dramatic case was Turkey,
where, to everyone’s surprise, the government actually followed
the will of 95 percent of the population. The official administration
moderate, Colin Powell, immediately announced harsh punishment for
this crime. Turkey was bitterly condemned in the national press
for lacking “democratic credentials.” The most extreme
example was Paul Wolfowitz, who berated the Turkish military for
not compelling the government to follow Washington’s orders
and demanded that they apologize and publicly recognize that the
goal of a properly functioning democracy is to help the U.S.





In
other ways, too, the operative concept of democracy is scarcely
concealed. The lead think-piece in the

NY Times

on the death
of Yasser Arafat opened by saying, “The post-Arafat era will
be the latest test of a quintessentially American article of faith:
that elections provide legitimacy even to the frailest institutions.”
In the final paragraph, on the continuation page, we read that Washington
“resisted new national elections among the Palestinians”
because Arafat would win and gain “a fresher mandate”
and elections “might help give credibility and authority to
Hamas” as well. In other words, democracy is fine if the results
come out the right way; otherwise, to the flames. 


To
take just one crucial current example, a year ago, after other pretexts
for invading Iraq had collapsed, Bush’s speech writers had
to come up with something to replace them. They settled on what
the liberal press calls “the president’s messianic vision
to bring democracy” to Iraq, the Middle East, the whole world.
The reactions were intriguing. They ranged from rapturous acclaim
for the vision, which proved that this was the most noble war in
history (David Ignatius, veteran

Washington Post

correspondent)
to critics who agreed that the vision was noble and inspiring, but
might be beyond our reach because Iraqi culture is just not ready
for such progress towards our civilized values. We have to temper
the messianic idealism of Bush and Blair with some sober realism,
the

London Financial Times

advised. 


The
interesting fact is that it was presupposed uncritically across
the spectrum that the messianic vision must be the goal of the invasion,
not this silly business about WMDs and al-Qaeda, no longer credible
to elite opinion. What is the evidence that the U.S. and Britain
are guided by the messianic vision? There is indeed a single piece
of evidence: our leaders proclaimed it. What more could be needed? 


There
is one sector of opinion that had a different view: the Iraqis.
Just as the messianic vision was unveiled in Washington to reverent
applause, a U.S.-run poll of Baghdadis was released. Some agreed
with the near-unanimous stand of Western elite opinion that the
goal of the invasion was to bring democracy to Iraq. One percent.
Five percent thought the goal was to help Iraqis. The majority assumed
the obvious: the U.S. wants to control Iraq’s resources and
use its base there to reorganize the region in its interest. Baghdadis
agree that there is a problem of cultural backwardness: in the West,
not in Iraq. Actually, their views were more nuanced. Though 1 percent
believed that the goal of the invasion was to bring democracy, about
half felt that the U.S. wanted democracy, but would not allow Iraqis
to run their democracy “without U.S. pressure and influence.”
They understand the quintessentially American faith very well, perhaps
because it was the quintessentially British faith while Britain’s
boot was on their necks. They don’t have to know the history
of Wilsonian idealism or Britain’s noble counterpart or France’s
civilizing mission or the even more exalted vision of Japanese fascists
and many others—probably also close to a historical universal.
Their own experience is enough. 


At
the outset, I mentioned the notable successes of popular struggles
in the past decades, very clear if we think about it a little, but
rarely discussed, for reasons that are not hard to discern. Both
recent history and public attitudes suggest some straightforward
strategies for short-term activism on the part of those who don’t
want to wait for China to save us from “ultimate doom.”
We enjoy great privilege and freedom, remarkable by comparative
and historical standards. That legacy was not granted from above,
it was won by dedicated struggle, which does not reduce to pushing
a lever every few years. We can abandon that legacy and take the
easy way of pessimism—everything is hopeless, so I’ll
quit. Or we can make use of that legacy to work to create—in
part re-create—the basis for a functioning democratic culture
in which the public plays some role in determining policies, not
only in the political arena from which it is largely excluded, but
also in the crucial economic arena, from which it is excluded in
principle. 


These
are hardly radical ideas. They were articulated clearly, for example,
by the leading 20th century social philosopher in the U.S., John
Dewey, who pointed out that until “industrial feudalism”
is replaced by “industrial democracy,” politics will remain
“the shadow cast by big business over society.” Dewey
was as “American as apple pie,” in the familiar phrase.
He was in fact drawing from a long tradition of thought and action
that had developed independently in working class culture from the
origins of the industrial revolution. Such ideas remain just below
the surface and can become a living part of our societies, cultures,
and institutions. But like other victories for justice and freedom
over the centuries, that will not happen by itself. One of the clearest
lessons of history, including recent history, is that rights are
not granted; they are won. The rest is up to us.



 





Noam Chomsky
is a social critic, and author of numerous articles and books, including
Hegemony or Survival? (Owl/Metropolitan Books, 2003) and




Pirates
and Emperors, Old and New (South End Press, 2002). This article is
based on a talk in Toronto, November 21, 2004, sponsored by Canadian
Dimensions magazine