Page 1 of 2 How Washington protects itself
By Noam Chomsky
The question of how foreign policy is determined is a crucial one in world affairs. In these comments, I can only provide a few hints as to how I think the subject can be productively explored, keeping to the United States for several reasons. First, the US is unmatched in its global significance and impact. Second, it is an unusually open society, possibly uniquely so, which means we know more about it. Finally, it is plainly the most important case for Americans, who are able to influence policy choices in the US - and indeed for others, insofar as their actions can influence such
choices. The general principles, however, extend to the other major powers, and well beyond.
There is a "received standard version", common to academic scholarship, government pronouncements, and public discourse. It holds that the prime commitment of governments is to ensure security, and that the primary concern of the US and its allies since 1945 was the Russian threat.
There are a number of ways to evaluate the doctrine. One obvious question to ask is: What happened when the Russian threat disappeared in 1989? Answer: everything continued much as before.
The US immediately invaded Panama, killing probably thousands of people and installing a client regime. This was routine practice in US-dominated domains - but in this case not quite as routine. For first time, a major foreign policy act was not justified by an alleged Russian threat.
Instead, a series of fraudulent pretexts for the invasion were concocted that collapse instantly on examination. The media chimed in enthusiastically, lauding the magnificent achievement of defeating Panama, unconcerned that the pretexts were ludicrous, that the act itself was a radical violation of international law, and that it was bitterly condemned elsewhere, most harshly in Latin America. Also ignored was the US veto of a unanimous Security Council resolution condemning crimes by US troops during the invasion, with Britain alone abstaining.
All routine. And all forgotten (which is also routine).
From El Salvador to the Russian border
The administration of George H W Bush issued a new national security policy and defense budget in reaction to the collapse of the global enemy. It was pretty much the same as before, although with new pretexts. It was, it turned out, necessary to maintain a military establishment almost as great as the rest of the world combined and far more advanced in technological sophistication - but not for defense against the now-nonexistent Soviet Union. Rather, the excuse now was the growing "technological sophistication" of Third World powers. Disciplined intellectuals understood that it would have been improper to collapse in ridicule, so they maintained a proper silence.
The US, the new programs insisted, must maintain its "defense industrial base". The phrase is a euphemism, referring to high-tech industry generally, which relies heavily on extensive state intervention for research and development, often under Pentagon cover, in what economists continue to call the US "free-market economy".
One of the most interesting provisions of the new plans had to do with the Middle East. There, it was declared, Washington must maintain intervention forces targeting a crucial region where the major problems "could not have been laid at the Kremlin's door". Contrary to 50 years of deceit, it was quietly conceded that the main concern was not the Russians, but rather what is called "radical nationalism", meaning independent nationalism not under US control.
All of this has evident bearing on the standard version, but it passed unnoticed - or perhaps, therefore it passed unnoticed.
Other important events took place immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ending the Cold War. One was in El Salvador, the leading recipient of US military aid - apart from Israel-Egypt, a separate category - and with one of the worst human rights records anywhere. That is a familiar and very close correlation.
The Salvadoran high command ordered the Atlacatl Brigade to invade the Jesuit University and murder six leading Latin American intellectuals, all Jesuit priests, including the rector, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, and any witnesses, meaning their housekeeper and her daughter. The Brigade had just returned from advanced counterinsurgency training at the US Army John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and had already left a bloody trail of thousands of the usual victims in the course of the US-run state terror campaign in El Salvador, one part of a broader terror and torture campaign throughout the region. All routine. Ignored and virtually forgotten in the United States and by its allies, again routine. But it tells us a lot about the factors that drive policy, if we care to look at the real world.
Another important event took place in Europe. Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to allow the unification of Germany and its membership in NATO, a hostile military alliance. In the light of recent history, this was a most astonishing concession. There was a quid pro quo. President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker agreed that NATO would not expand "one inch to the East", meaning into East Germany. Instantly, they expanded NATO to East Germany.
Gorbachev was naturally outraged, but when he complained, he was instructed by Washington that this had only been a verbal promise, a gentleman's agreement, hence without force. If he was na?ve enough to accept the word of American leaders, it was his problem.
All of this, too, was routine, as was the silent acceptance and approval of the expansion of NATO in the US and the West generally. President Bill Clinton then expanded NATO further, right up to Russia's borders. Today, the world faces a serious crisis that is in no small measure a result of these policies.
The appeal of plundering the poor
Another source of evidence is the declassified historical record. It contains revealing accounts of the actual motives of state policy. The story is rich and complex, but a few persistent themes play a dominant role. One was articulated clearly at a western hemispheric conference called by the US in Mexico in February 1945 where Washington imposed "An Economic Charter of the Americas" designed to eliminate economic nationalism "in all its forms". There was one unspoken condition. Economic nationalism would be fine for the US whose economy relies heavily on massive state intervention.
The elimination of economic nationalism for others stood in sharp conflict with the Latin American stand of that moment, which State Department officials described as "the philosophy of the New Nationalism [that] embraces policies designed to bring about a broader distribution of wealth and to raise the standard of living of the masses". As US policy analysts added, "Latin Americans are convinced that the first beneficiaries of the development of a country's resources should be the people of that country".
That, of course, will not do. Washington understands that the "first beneficiaries" should be US investors, while Latin America fulfills its service function. It should not, as both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations would make clear, undergo "excessive industrial development" that might infringe on US interests. Thus Brazil could produce low-quality steel that US corporations did not want to bother with, but it would be "excessive", were it to compete with US firms.
Similar concerns resonate throughout the post-World War II period. The global system that was to be dominated by the US was threatened by what internal documents call "radical and nationalistic regimes" that respond to popular pressures for independent development. That was the concern that motivated the overthrow of the parliamentary governments of Iran and Guatemala in 1953 and 1954, as well as numerous others. In the case of Iran, a major concern was the potential impact of Iranian independence on Egypt, then in turmoil over British colonial practice. In Guatemala, apart from the crime of the new democracy in empowering the peasant majority and infringing on possessions of the United Fruit Company - already offensive enough - Washington's concern was labor unrest and popular mobilization in neighboring US-backed dictatorships.
In both cases the consequences reach to the present. Literally not a day has passed since 1953 when the US has not been torturing the people of Iran. Guatemala remains one of the world's worst horror chambers. To this day, Mayans are fleeing from the effects of near-genocidal government military campaigns in the highlands backed by President Ronald Reagan and his top officials. As the country director of Oxfam, a Guatemalan doctor, reported recently,
"There is a dramatic deterioration of the political, social, and economic context. Attacks against Human Rights defenders have increased 300% during the last year. There is a clear evidence of a very well organized strategy by the private sector and Army. Both have captured the government in order to keep the status quo and to impose the extraction economic model, pushing away dramatically indigenous peoples from their own land, due to the mining industry, African Palm and sugar cane plantations. In addition the social movement defending their land and rights has been criminalized, many leaders are in jail, and many others have been killed".
Nothing is known about this in the United States and the very obvious cause of it remains suppressed.
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explained quite clearly the dilemma that the US faced. They complained that the Communists had an unfair advantage. They were able to "appeal directly to the masses" and "get control of mass movements, something we have no capacity to duplicate. The poor people are the ones they appeal to and they have always wanted to plunder the rich".
That causes problems. The US somehow finds it difficult to appeal to the poor with its doctrine that the rich should plunder the poor.
The Cuban example
A clear illustration of the general pattern was Cuba, when it finally gained independence in 1959. Within months, military attacks on the island began. Shortly after, the Eisenhower administration made a secret decision to overthrow the government. John F Kennedy then became president. He intended to devote more attention to Latin America and so, on taking office, he created a study group to develop policies headed by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, who summarized its conclusions for the incoming president.
As Schlesinger explained, threatening in an independent Cuba was "the Castro idea of taking matters into one's own hands". It was an idea that unfortunately appealed to the mass of the population in Latin America where "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". Again, Washington's usual dilemma.
As the CIA explained, "The extensive influence of 'Castroism' is not a function of Cuban power... Castro's shadow looms large because social and economic conditions throughout Latin America invite opposition to ruling authority and encourage agitation for radical change", for which his Cuba provides a model. Kennedy feared that Russian aid might make Cuba a "showcase" for development, giving the Soviets the upper hand throughout Latin America.
The State Department Policy Planning Council warned that "the primary danger we face in Castro is... in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon the leftist movement in many Latin American countries… The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the US, a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half" - that is, since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, when the US declared its intention of dominating the hemisphere.
The immediate goal at the time was to conquer Cuba, but that could not be achieved because of the power of the British enemy. Still, that grand strategist John Quincy Adams, the intellectual father of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny, informed his colleagues that over time Cuba would fall into our hands by "the laws of political gravitation", as an apple falls from the tree. In brief, US power would increase and Britain's would decline.
In 1898, Adams's prognosis was realized. The US invaded Cuba in the guise of liberating it. In fact, it prevented the island's liberation from Spain and turned it into a "virtual colony" to quote historians Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. Cuba remained so until January 1959, when it gained independence. Since that time it has been subjected to major US terrorist wars, primarily during the Kennedy years, and economic strangulation. Not because of the Russians.
The pretense all along was that we were defending ourselves from the Russian threat - an absurd explanation that generally went unchallenged. A simple test of the thesis is what happened when any conceivable Russian threat disappeared. US policy toward Cuba became even harsher, spearheaded by liberal Democrats, including Bill Clinton, who outflanked Bush from the right in the 1992 election. On the face of it, these events should have considerable bearing on the validity of the doctrinal framework for discussion of foreign policy and the factors that drive it. Once again, however, the impact was slight.
The virus of nationalism
To borrow Henry Kissinger's terminology, independent nationalism is a "virus" that might "spread contagion". Kissinger was referring to Salvador Allende's Chile. The virus was the idea that there might be a parliamentary path towards some kind of socialist democracy. The way to deal with such a threat is to destroy the virus and to inoculate those who might be infected, typically by imposing murderous national security states. That was achieved in the case of Chile, but it is important to recognize that the thinking holds worldwide.