21 March 2007

Dialogues on democracy and war

By Tapani Lausti

Noam Chomsky & Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East & U.S. Foreign Policy. Paradigm Publishers 2007.

There are influential commentators and politicians in Finland who sometimes describe themselves as "friends of the US". Currently they are going through difficult times as they have to admit that the US government has become a pariah in the eyes of the world. Nevertheless they labour on complaining that Finland has not been able to maintain warm enough relations with Washington. They see the US as the ultimate guarantor of European and thus Finnish security. They have now started to worry about new trends in Russian security policy. The Russians are again flexing their muscles, they say.

These "friends of the US" seem totally blind to the realities of the US role in the world. They are unable to see how the US is mainly trying to secure its hold on most of the world. Afghanistan and Iraq are located in a strategically important area, rich with natural resources. This is the reason for the US attacks. It has nothing to do with democracy or the safety of the world. The US government couldn't care less about people's lives in this area. "Stability" is a code for world dominance, as Noam Chomsky points out in this book in which he discusses US foreign policy with the Lebanese-born scholar Gilbert Achcar. (p. 87)

And why is Russia now flexing its military muscles? The history, according to Chomsky, goes like this: "Unlike the United States, Russia has real security concerns. Germany alone practically destroyed Russia twice in the first half of the twentieth century. For a united Germany to be incorporated into a Western military alliance was a tremendous threat. So Gorbachev agreed to German unification, but on one condition: that he get a firm pledge from Bush Sr. that NATO would not expand to the east. Within a couple of years, however, Clinton just reneged on the commitment, and expanded NATO to the east, right to the borders of Russia. Russia responded, as you'd expect, by beginning to increase its offensive military capacity." (p. 94)

Iraq is another example of an upside-down view of the world. The media even in Finland talks about US attempts to secure stability and safety for Iraqi people. However, as Chomsky points out, reliable polls show that "82 percent of the population want the withdrawal of 'coalition' troops. Fewer than 1 percent think the occupation brings security and 45 percent believe that attacks against the occupying forces are justified." (p. 103)

Achcar draws attention to Washington's incredible "chutzpah": "It condemns 'foreign interference' in countries that it itself occupies — Vietnam yesterday, Iraq today — or that its allies invade." Achcar also points out the dangers to the rest of the world. Unless Washington changes its policies in the Middle East it is not possible to stop "the descent into barbarism and the spiral of violence and death that affect the region and spill over into the rest of the world". (p. 229)

The Finnish "friends of the US" share the view of mainstream American academia and media that the US policies are ultimately benign. They are not based on rational interests, but moral instincts. Chomsky says that this view makes the whole debate about US foreign policies "almost surreal". (p. 59)

Chomsky gives an interesting example of the blindness to Washington's immoral reflexes. A law professor wrote in The New York Times about Osama bin Laden's descent into utter barbarism with "the perverse claim that since the United States is a democracy, all citizens bear responsibility for its government's actions, and civilians are therefore fair targets".

Utter depravity, Chomsky agrees. But he goes on to point out that the writer failed to see that the US governments share bin Laden's views in this respect. Two days later, the lead story in The New York Times reported that the US and Israel wanted to punish the Palestinians for voting for Hamas. The intention now was to make life hell for the Palestinians. The hope is that the Palestinians will be so unhappy under Hamas rule that they turn against the movement. Chomsky points out that the similarity of this attitude to bin Laden's views did not elicit any comment. When the US adopts the same attitude, it is not "utter depravity" but "democracy promotion". (p. 237)

And lest the "friends of the US" think this has to do only with George W. Bush's extremism, Chomsky gives a couple of historical examples to put the record straight. He thinks that the most venerable illustration is Washington's forty-seven-year campaign of terror and economic strangulation against Cuba. The internal record shows that the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations determined that "the Cuban people are responsible for the regime". The State Department wanted every possible mean to be undertaken to bring about hunger, desperation for the Cuban population. (p. 238)

Coming back to the Middle East, Chomsky says that the pretext for punishing Hamas is that it refuses to accept three demands: to recognise Israel, cease all acts of violence and accept earlier agreements. Chomsky wryly comments: "Unmentioned is that Israel and the United States flatly reject all of these conditions. They do not recognize Palestine; they refused to end their violence even when Hamas observed a unilateral truce for a year and a half and called for a long-term truce while negotiations proceed for a two-state settlement; and they dismissed with utter contempt the 2002 Arab League call for normalization of relations, along with all other proposals for a meaningful diplomatic settlement..." (p. 240)

Chomsky and Achcar talk about possibilities for a just resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The discussion also explores at length how the continued US occupation undermines democracy and fuels civil strife in Iraq. Achcar has interesting things to say about Islamophobia in Europe. Both Chomsky and Achcar emphasise the urgent necessity for the American public to come to grips with what their government is doing to the Middle East and the rest of the world.

The book is essential reading for journalists writing about world affairs.


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