Noam Chomsky: Why it’s over for America


Richard Moore

    As in the past, rights are not likely to be granted by
    benevolent authorities, or won by intermittent actions -
    attending a few demonstrations or pushing a lever in the
    personalised quadrennial extravaganzas that are depicted as
    "democratic politics". As always in the past, the tasks
    require dedicated day-by-day engagement to create - in part
    recreate - 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. 

Original source URL:

Noam Chomsky: Why it's over for America

    An inability to protect its citizens. The belief that it is
    above the law. A lack of democracy. Three defining
    characteristics of the 'failed state'. And that, says Noam
    Chomsky, is exactly what the US is becoming. In an exclusive
    extract from his devastating new book, America's leading
    thinker explains how his country lost its way
    Published: 30 May 2006

The selection of issues that should rank high on the agenda of concern for human
welfare and rights is, naturally, a subjective matter. But there are a few 
choices that seem unavoidable, because they bear so directly on the prospects 
for decent survival. Among them are at least these three: nuclear war, 
environmental disaster, and the fact that the government of the world's leading 
power is acting in ways that increase the likelihood of these catastrophes. It 
is important to stress the government, because the population, not surprisingly,
does not agree.

That brings up a fourth issue that should deeply concern Americans, and the 
world: the sharp divide between public opinion and public policy, one of the 
reasons for the fear, which cannot casually be put aside, that, as Gar 
Alperowitz puts it in America Beyond Capitalism, "the American 'system' as a 
whole is in real trouble - that it is heading in a direction that spells the end
of its historic values [of] equality, liberty, and meaningful democracy".

The "system" is coming to have some of the features of failed states, to adopt a
currently fashionable notion that is conventionally applied to states regarded 
as potential threats to our security (like Iraq) or as needing our intervention 
to rescue the population from severe internal threats (like Haiti). Though the 
concept is recognised to be, according to the journal Foreign Affairs, 
"frustratingly imprecise", some of the primary characteristics of failed states 
can be identified. One is their inability or unwillingness to protect their 
citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction. Another is their tendency 
to regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law, and 
hence free to carry out aggression and violence. And if they have democratic 
forms, they suffer from a serious "democratic deficit" that deprives their 
formal democratic institutions of real substance.

Among the hardest tasks that anyone can undertake, and one of the most 
important, is to look honestly in the mirror. If we allow ourselves to do so, we
should have little difficulty in finding the characteristics of "failed states" 
right at home.

No one familiar with history should be surprised that the growing democratic 
deficit in the United States is accompanied by declaration of messianic missions
to bring democracy to a suffering world. Declarations of noble intent by systems
of power are rarely complete fabrication, and the same is true in this case. 
Under some conditions, forms of democracy are indeed acceptable. Abroad, as the 
leading scholar-advocate of "democracy promotion" concludes, we find a "strong 
line of continuity": democracy is acceptable if and only if it is consistent 
with strategic and economic interests (Thomas Carothers). In modified form, the 
doctrine holds at home as well.

The basic dilemma facing policymakers is sometimes candidly recognised at the 
dovish liberal extreme of the spectrum, for example, by Robert Pastor, President
Carter's national security adviser for Latin America. He explained why the 
administration had to support the murderous and corrupt Somoza regime in 
Nicaragua, and, when that proved impossible, to try at least to maintain the 
US-trained National Guard even as it was massacring the population "with a 
brutality a nation usually reserves for its enemy", killing some 40,000 people. 
The reason was the familiar one: "The United States did not want to control 
Nicaragua or the other nations of the region, but it also did not want 
developments to get out of control. It wanted Nicaraguans to act independently, 
except when doing so would affect US interests adversely."

Similar dilemmas faced Bush administration planners after their invasion of 
Iraq. They want Iraqis "to act independently, except when doing so would affect 
US interests adversely". Iraq must therefore be sovereign and democratic, but 
within limits. It must somehow be constructed as an obedient client state, much 
in the manner of the traditional order in Central America. At a general level, 
the pattern is familiar, reaching to the opposite extreme of institutional 
structures. The Kremlin was able to maintain satellites that were run by 
domestic political and military forces, with the iron fist poised. Germany was 
able to do much the same in occupied Europe even while it was at war, as did 
fascist Japan in Man-churia (its Manchukuo). Fascist Italy achieved similar 
results in North Africa while carrying out virtual genocide that in no way 
harmed its favourable image in the West and possibly inspired Hitler. 
Traditional imperial and neocolonial systems illustrate many variations on 
similar themes.

To achieve the traditional goals in Iraq has proven to be surprisingly 
difficult, despite unusually favourable circumstances. The dilemma of combining 
a measure of independence with firm control arose in a stark form not long after
the invasion, as mass non-violent resistance compelled the invaders to accept 
far more Iraqi initiative than they had anticipated. The outcome even evoked the
nightmarish prospect of a more or less democratic and sovereign Iraq taking its 
place in a loose Shiite alliance comprising Iran, Shiite Iraq, and possibly the 
nearby Shiite-dominated regions of Saudi Arabia, controlling most of the world's
oil and independent of Washington.

The situation could get worse. Iran might give up on hopes that Europe could 
become independent of the United States, and turn eastward. Highly relevant 
background is discussed by Selig Harrison, a leading specialist on these topics.
"The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the European Union were based on a 
bargain that the EU, held back by the US, has failed to honour," Harrison 

"The bargain was that Iran would suspend uranium enrichment, and the EU would 
undertake security guarantees. The language of the joint declaration was 
"unambiguous. 'A mutually acceptable agreement,' it said, would not only provide
'objective guarantees' that Iran's nuclear programme is 'exclusively for 
peaceful purposes' but would 'equally provide firm commitments on security 

The phrase "security issues" is a thinly veiled reference to the threats by the 
United States and Israel to bomb Iran, and preparations to do so. The model 
regularly adduced is Israel's bombing of Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981, which 
appears to have initiated Saddam's nuclear weapons programs, another 
demonstration that violence tends to elicit violence. Any attempt to execute 
similar plans against Iran could lead to immediate violence, as is surely 
understood in Washington. During a visit to Tehran, the influential Shiite 
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr warned that his militia would defend Iran in the case of 
any attack, "one of the strongest signs yet", the Washington Post reported, 
"that Iraq could become a battleground in any Western conflict with Iran, 
raising the spectre of Iraqi Shiite militias - or perhaps even the US-trained 
Shiite-dominated military - taking on American troops here in sympathy with 
Iran." The Sadrist bloc, which registered substantial gains in the December 2005
elections, may soon become the most powerful single political force in Iraq. It 
is consciously pursuing the model of other successful Islamist groups, such as 
Hamas in Palestine, combining strong resistance to military occupation with 
grassroots social organising and service to the poor.

Washington's unwillingness to allow regional security issues to be considered is
nothing new. It has also arisen repeatedly in the confrontation with Iraq. In 
the background is the matter of Israeli nuclear weapons, a topic that Washington
bars from international consideration. Beyond that lurks what Harrison rightly 
describes as "the central problem facing the global non-proliferation regime": 
the failure of the nuclear states to live up to their nuclear Non Proliferation 
Treaty (NPT) obligation "to phase out their own nuclear weapons" - and, in 
Washington's case, formal rejection of the obligation.

Unlike Europe, China refuses to be intimidated by Washington, a primary reason 
for the growing fear of China on the part of US planners. Much of Iran's oil 
already goes to China, and China is providing Iran with weapons, presumably 
considered a deterrent to US threats. Still more uncomfortable for Washington is
the fact that, according to the Financial Times, "the Sino-Saudi relationship 
has developed dramatically", including Chinese military aid to Saudi Arabia and 
gas exploration rights for China. By 2005, Saudi Arabia provided about 17 per 
cent of China's oil imports. Chinese and Saudi oil companies have signed deals 
for drilling and construction of a huge refinery (with Exxon Mobil as a 
partner). A January 2006 visit by Saudi king Abdullah to Beijing was expected to
lead to a Sino-Saudi memorandum of understanding calling for "increased 
cooperation and investment between the two countries in oil, natural gas, and 

Indian analyst Aijaz Ahmad observes that Iran could "emerge as the virtual 
linchpin in the making, over the next decade or so, of what China and Russia 
have come to regard as an absolutely indispensable Asian Energy Security Grid, 
for breaking Western control of the world's energy supplies and securing the 
great industrial revolution of Asia". South Korea and southeast Asian countries 
are likely to join, possibly Japan as well. A crucial question is how India will
react. It rejected US pressures to withdraw from an oil pipeline deal with Iran.
On the other hand, India joined the United States and the EU in voting for an 
anti-Iranian resolution at the IAEA, joining also in their hypocrisy, since 
India rejects the NPT regime to which Iran, so far, appears to be largely 
conforming. Ahmad reports that India may have secretly reversed its stand under 
Iranian threats to terminate a $20bn gas deal. Washington later warned India 
that its "nuclear deal with the US could be ditched" if India did not go along 
with US demands, eliciting a sharp rejoinder from the Indian foreign ministry 
and an evasive tempering of the warning by the US embassy.

The prospect that Europe and Asia might move toward greater independence has 
seriously troubled US planners since World War II, and concerns have 
significantly increased as the tripolar order has continued to evolve, along 
with new south-south interactions and rapidly growing EU engagement with China.

US intelligence has projected that the United States, while controlling Middle 
East oil for the traditional reasons, will itself rely mainly on more stable 
Atlantic Basin resources (West Africa, western hemisphere). Control of Middle 
East oil is now far from a sure thing, and these expectations are also 
threatened by developments in the western hemisphere, accelerated by Bush 
administration policies that have left the United States remarkably isolated in 
the global arena. The Bush administration has even succeeded in alienating 
Canada, an impressive feat.

Canada's minister of natural resources said that within a few years one quarter 
of the oil that Canada now sends to the United States may go to China instead. 
In a further blow to Washington's energy policies, the leading oil exporter in 
the hemisphere, Venezuela, has forged probably the closest relations with China 
of any Latin American country, and is planning to sell increasing amounts of oil
to China as part of its effort to reduce dependence on the openly hostile US 
government. Latin America as a whole is increasing trade and other relations 
with China, with some setbacks, but likely expansion, in particular for raw 
materials exporters like Brazil and Chile.

Meanwhile, Cuba-Venezuela relations are becoming very close, each relying on its
comparative advantage. Venezuela is providing low-cost oil while in return Cuba 
organises literacy and health programs, sending thousands of highly skilled 
professionals, teachers, and doctors, who work in the poorest and most neglected
areas, as they do elsewhere in the Third World. Cuba-Venezuela projects are 
extending to the Caribbean countries, where Cuban doctors are providing 
healthcare to thousands of people with Venezuelan funding. Operation Miracle, as
it is called, is described by Jamaica's ambassador to Cuba as "an example of 
integration and south-south cooperation", and is generating great enthusiasm 
among the poor majority. Cuban medical assistance is also being welcomed 
elsewhere. One of the most horrendous tragedies of recent years was the October 
2005 earthquake in Pakistan. In addition to the huge toll, unknown numbers of 
survivors have to face brutal winter weather with little shelter, food, or 
medical assistance. One has to turn to the South Asian press to read that "Cuba 
has provided the largest contingent of doctors and paramedics to Pakistan", 
paying all the costs (perhaps with Venezuelan funding), and that President 
Musharraf expressed his "deep gratitude" for the "spirit and compassion" of the 
Cuban medical teams.

Some analysts have suggested that Cuba and Venezuela might even unite, a step 
towards further integration of Latin America in a bloc that is more independent 
from the United States. Venezuela has joined Mercosur, the South American 
customs union, a move described by Argentine president Nestor Kirchner as "a 
milestone" in the development of this trading bloc, and welcomed as opening "a 
new chapter in our integration" by Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da 
Silva. Independent experts say that "adding Venezuela to the bloc furthers its 
geopolitical vision of eventually spreading Mercosur to the rest of the region".

At a meeting to mark Venezuela's entry into Mercosur, Venezuelan president Hugo 
Chavez said, "We cannot allow this to be purely an economic project, one for the
elites and for the transnational companies," a not very oblique reference to the
US-sponsored "Free Trade Agreement for the Americas", which has aroused strong 
public opposition. Venezuela also supplied Argentina with fuel oil to help stave
off an energy crisis, and bought almost a third of Argentine debt issued in 
2005, one element of a region-wide effort to free the countries from the control
of the US-dominated IMF after two decades of disastrous effects of conformity to
its rules. The IMF has "acted towards our country as a promoter and a vehicle of
policies that caused poverty and pain among the Argentine people", President 
Kirchner said in announcing his decision to pay almost $1 trillion to rid itself
of the IMF forever. Radically violating IMF rules, Argentina enjoyed a 
substantial recovery from the disaster left by IMF policies.

Steps toward independent regional integration advanced further with the election
of Evo Morales in Bolivia in December 2005, the first president from the 
indigenous majority. Morales moved quickly to reach energy accords with 

Though Central America was largely disciplined by Reaganite violence and terror,
the rest of the hemisphere is falling out of control, particularly from 
Venezuela to Argentina, which was the poster child of the IMF and the Treasury 
Department until its economy collapsed under the policies they imposed. Much of 
the region has left-centre governments. The indigenous populations have become 
much more active and influential, particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador, both 
major energy producers, where they either want oil and gas to be domestically 
controlled or, in some cases, oppose production altogether. Many indigenous 
people apparently do not see any reason why their lives, societies, and cultures
should be disrupted or destroyed so that New Yorkers can sit in SUVs in traffic 
gridlock. Some are even calling for an "Indian nation" in South America. 
Meanwhile the economic integration that is under way is reversing patterns that 
trace back to the Spanish conquests, with Latin American elites and economies 
linked to the imperial powers but not to one another. Along with growing 
south-south interaction on a broader scale, these developments are strongly 
influenced by popular organisations that are coming together in the 
unprecedented international global justice movements, ludicrously called 
"anti-globalisation" because they favour globalisation that privileges the 
interests of people, not investors and financial institutions. For many reasons,
the system of US global dominance is fragile, even apart from the damage 
inflicted by Bush planners.

One consequence is that the Bush administration's pursuit of the traditional 
policies of deterring democracy faces new obstacles. It is no longer as easy as 
before to resort to military coups and international terrorism to overthrow 
democratically elected governments, as Bush planners learnt ruefully in 2002 in 
Venezuela. The "strong line of continuity" must be pursued in other ways, for 
the most part. In Iraq, as we have seen, mass nonviolent resistance compelled 
Washington and London to permit the elections they had sought to evade. The 
subsequent effort to subvert the elections by providing substantial advantages 
to the administration's favourite candidate, and expelling the independent 
media, also failed. Washington faces further problems. The Iraqi labor movement 
is making considerable progress despite the opposition of the occupation 
authorities. The situation is rather like Europe and Japan after World War II, 
when a primary goal of the United States and United Kingdom was to undermine 
independent labour movements - as at home, for similar reasons: organised labour
contributes in essential ways to functioning democracy with popular engagement. 
Many of the measures adopted at that time - withholding food, supporting fascist
police - are no longer available. Nor is it possible today to rely on the labour
bureaucracy of the American Institute for Free Labor Development to help 
undermine unions. Today, some American unions are supporting Iraqi workers, just
as they do in Colombia, where more union activists are murdered than anywhere in
the world. At least the unions now receive support from the United Steelworkers 
of America and others, while Washington continues to provide enormous funding 
for the government, which bears a large part of the responsibility.

The problem of elections arose in Palestine much in the way it did in Iraq. As 
already discussed, the Bush administration refused to permit elections until the
death of Yasser Arafat, aware that the wrong man would win. After his death, the
administration agreed to permit elections, expecting the victory of its favoured
Palestinian Authority candidates. To promote this outcome, Washington resorted 
to much the same modes of subversion as in Iraq, and often before. Washington 
used the US Agency for International Development as an "invisible conduit" in an
effort to "increase the popularity of the Palestinian Authority on the eve of 
crucial elections in which the governing party faces a serious challenge from 
the radical Islamic group Hamas" (Washington Post), spending almost $2m "on 
dozens of quick projects before elections this week to bolster the governing 
Fatah faction's image with voters" (New York Times). In the United States, or 
any Western country, even a hint of such foreign interference would destroy a 
candidate, but deeply rooted imperial mentality legitimates such routine 
measures elsewhere. However, the attempt to subvert the elections again 
resoundingly failed.

The US and Israeli governments now have to adjust to dealing somehow with a 
radical Islamic party that approaches their traditional rejectionist stance, 
though not entirely, at least if Hamas really does mean to agree to an 
indefinite truce on the international border as its leaders state. The US and 
Israel, in contrast, insist that Israel must take over substantial parts of the 
West Bank (and the forgotten Golan Heights). Hamas's refusal to accept Israel's 
"right to exist" mirrors the refusal of Washington and Jerusalem to accept 
Palestine's "right to exist" - a concept unknown in international affairs; 
Mexico accepts the existence of the United States but not its abstract "right to
exist" on almost half of Mexico, acquired by conquest. Hamas's formal commitment
to "destroy Israel" places it on a par with the United States and Israel, which 
vowed formally that there could be no "additional Palestinian state" (in 
addition to Jordan) until they relaxed their extreme rejectionist stand 
partially in the past few years, in the manner already reviewed. Although Hamas 
has not said so, it would come as no great surprise if Hamas were to agree that 
Jews may remain in scattered areas in the present Israel, while Palestine 
constructs huge settlement and infrastructure projects to take over the valuable
land and resources, effectively breaking Israel up into unviable cantons, 
virtually separated from one another and from some small part of Jerusalem where
Jews would also be allowed to remain. And they might agree to call the fragments
"a state". If such proposals were made, we would - rightly - regard them as 
virtually a reversion to Nazism, a fact that might elicit some thoughts. If such
proposals were made, Hamas's position would be essentially like that of the 
United States and Israel for the past five years, after they came to tolerate 
some impoverished form of "statehood". It is fair to describe Hamas as radical, 
extremist, and violent, and as a serious threat to peace and a just political 
settlement. But the organisation is hardly alone in this stance.

Elsewhere traditional means of undermining democracy have succeeded. In Haiti, 
the Bush administration's favourite "democracy-building group, the International
Republican Institute", worked assiduously to promote the opposition to President
Aristide, helped by the withholding of desperately needed aid on grounds that 
were dubious at best. When it seemed that Aristide would probably win any 
genuine election, Washington and the opposition chose to withdraw, a standard 
device to discredit elections that are going to come out the wrong way: 
Nicaragua in 1984 and Venezuela in December 2005 are examples that should be 
familiar. Then followed a military coup, expulsion of the president, and a reign
of terror and violence vastly exceeding anything under the elected government.

The persistence of the strong line of continuity to the present again reveals 
that the United States is very much like other powerful states. It pursues the 
strategic and economic interests of dominant sectors of the domestic population,
to the accompaniment of rhetorical flourishes about its dedication to the 
highest values. That is practically a historical universal, and the reason why 
sensible people pay scant attention to declarations of noble intent by leaders, 
or accolades by their followers.

One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not
present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: "They 
present solutions, but I don't like them." In addition to the proposals that 
should be familiar about dealing with the crises that reach to the level of 
survival, a few simple suggestions for the United States have already been 
mentioned: 1) accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and 
the World Court; 2) sign and carry forward the Kyoto protocols; 3) let the UN 
take the lead in international crises; 4) rely on diplomatic and economic 
measures rather than military ones in confronting terror; 5) keep to the 
traditional interpretation of the UN Charter; 6) give up the Security Council 
veto and have "a decent respect for the opinion of mankind," as the Declaration 
of Independence advises, even if power centres disagree; 7) cut back sharply on 
military spending and sharply increase social spending. For people who believe 
in democracy, these are very conservative suggestions: they appear to be the 
opinions of the majority of the US population, in most cases the overwhelming 
majority. They are in radical opposition to public policy. To be sure, we cannot
be very confident about the state of public opinion on such matters because of 
another feature of the democratic deficit: the topics scarcely enter into public
discussion and the basic facts are little known. In a highly atomised society, 
the public is therefore largely deprived of the opportunity to form considered 

Another conservative suggestion is that facts, logic, and elementary moral 
principles should matter. Those who take the trouble to adhere to that 
suggestion will soon be led to abandon a good part of familiar doctrine, though 
it is surely much easier to repeat self-serving mantras. Such simple truths 
carry us some distance toward developing more specific and detailed answers. 
More important, they open the way to implement them, opportun- ities that are 
readily within our grasp if we can free ourselves from the shackles of doctrine 
and imposed illusion.

Though it is natural for doctrinal systems to seek to induce pessimism, 
hopelessness, and despair, reality is different. There has been substantial 
progress in the unending quest for justice and freedom in recent years, leaving 
a legacy that can be carried forward from a higher plane than before. 
Opportunities for education and organising abound. As in the past, rights are 
not likely to be granted by benevolent authorities, or won by intermittent 
actions - attending a few demonstrations or pushing a lever in the personalised 
quadrennial extravaganzas that are depicted as "democratic politics". As always 
in the past, the tasks require dedicated day-by-day engagement to create - in 
part recreate - 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. There are many ways to promote democracy at 
home, carrying it to new dimensions. Opportunities are ample, and failure to 
grasp them is likely to have ominous repercussions: for the country, for the 
world, and for future generations.

This is an edited extract from Failed States by Noam Chomsky (Hamish Hamilton), 
£16.99. To buy it for £15.50 (inc p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 0870 
079 8897.

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