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Chomsky: the ‘unipolar moment’ is working out fine for ‘the satisfied nations’

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Last night, Noam Chomsky delivered the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at Columbia on "The Unipolar Moment and the Culture of Imperialism." Some notes from David Bromwich who was there:

Chomsky took up a major theme of Said’s writings. In the big constellation, Enlightenment/Rationalism/Liberalism/Democratic Values, a missing word and concept that should be understood to accompany the others is Imperialism. He addressed "the unipolar moment," which started in 1989 with the end of Soviet Communism and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The self-congratulatory tone of recent commemorations of November 1989 tended to make people forget certain other stopping points on the way to unchallenged U.S. hegemony. A short survey followed of the destructiveness of the "settler colonialism" that cleared North America of its indigenous peoples. J.Q. Adams spoke out clearly of the policy as "perfidious" and regretted "the heinous sins of this nation" against "that hapless race." The equanimity, by contrast, of the mainstream wisdom now is epitomized by J.L. Gaddis: "expansion is the path to security."

On the moral fallacy of self-congratulation: "We focus laser-like on the crimes of enemies, but crucially we make sure never to look at ourselves." If now we chose to look at ourselves in the light of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, we might admit the imperative of dismantling a much larger wall "snaking its way through Palestinian territory." The right name for it is: the Annexation Wall. Its purpose is to take over valuable land and water resources; Israel’s leading authorities recognized this early on as a violation of international law. None of it would have been possible without the support of Israel by the United States as "its partner in crime."

On November 16, 1989, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, there occurred an event of great importance in Latin America: the killing of six prominent Jesuit priests in El Salvador. The U.S. denied any knowledge of the agents and any complicity in the crime; but documents, revealed in the mainstream Spanish press just two weeks ago and carried by the wire services, show that the order was given by authorities in El Salvador; and given the proximity of American advisers to that government at the time, it is hard to imagine the order being carried through without American knowledge and consent. This was part of a larger design–successfully pursued by the School of the Americas and other arms of U.S. policy–to suppress the Liberation Theology which had done much for the cause of social justice in that region, in the wake of Vatican II. All this was happening in 1989, while the West was celebrating the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. It is still happening and we are still celebrating. The U.S. ambassador in Honduras recently congratulated that country on having completed its own "great celebration of democracy," in an election where both candidates were selected by Honduran business interests. Chomsky said it was difficult fully to understand the Obama administration’s embrace of the de facto coup in Honduras. In this case the U.S. has separated itself from all of Latin America and from most of Europe as well, by our "brazen contempt" for real democracy.

Latin America was thus the proving ground for the first U.S. tests of what had become possible in the unipolar world. Another instance was the invasion of Panama in December 1989. Noriega, a dictator of no importance, and previously of no concern to the U.S., was punished for "dragging his feet in support of Reagan’s terrorist wars in Nicaragua."

Chomsky then turned to address the most recent Western attempt to create an international legal and moral institution for protection of human rights: the so-called Responsibility to Protect framework, developed in December 2001 (R2P for short). Such institutions can do much good but there is always a question how impartially the standards are applied. Here again, a glance at the details of execution is revealing. As soon as the norms were in place, a provision was voted to offer "subsequent authority," from the Security Council, for certain international missions already undertaken. This was meant to cover the NATO bombing of Serbia retroactively. Again, and strangely, no appeal to R2P can be made by "protected persons": this cuts out any apppeal by inhabitants of Gaza, who in the terms of this framework are "protected" by Israel. Similarly, no appeal was possible under the R2P norms to protest the deaths that followed Clinton’s sanctions against Iraq.

A distinct challenge of the transition of 1989: what to do with NATO? Here was an institution solely devised for the express purpose of protecting Europe and North America from the Soviet menace during the Cold War. The only logical response at the end of the Cold War was: to close down NATO. Instead, under Clinton the organization expanded eastward, and it has since expanded farther. Recall Gaddis: "expansion is the path to security." There has been in fact a continuous line from the expansionist U.S. policies under FDR, covering both Europe and the Pacific, to the policies pursued by Bill Clinton and codified in the Bush Doctrine. The use of violence goes hand in hand with the unilateral commitment to the opening of new and profitable markets.

The latest symptom of the deployment of a double standard to advance the interests of the U.S. and its allies can be seen in the response to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s  call for Israel to join the Nonproliferation Treaty. The U.S. voted against the demand, and, when the call on Israel nonetheless passed by a narrow majority of member states, the U.S. assured Israel that we rejected the IAEA vote. Winston Churchill once said the continuity of Western power existed to "protect the interests of the satisfied nations." This pattern has not changed.

***On another recent use of an international double standard when convenient for U.S. interests: Barack Obama was asked why he supported Mubarak who is an authoritarian leader. Obama replied, "I tend not to use labels for folks." Chomsky: "When a political leader uses the word ‘folks,’ you know you’re going to shudder at what comes next."

***Obama is almost too obvious a proof–a caricature almost–of the "investment theory of party competition," outlined by Thomas Ferguson. The heads of the important banks and the brokerage houses preferred Obama to McCain. He would accomplish what they wanted more smoothly. They got what they paid for.

For black Americans his election gave a lift. The feeling of the lift is still there; and there’s something good about it in itself. In the longer run, it is hard to see that Obama’s policies will improve the social conditions of black Americans; probably the reverse.

***John Kerry, one of the people running interference for the administration on Israel/Palestine, gave a recent speech which was mostly boilerplate: we are pursuing a two-state solution in earnest, looking for reasonable compromise from both sides, etc. etc. But sometimes, in such speeches, "something really new" comes out; and in Kerry’s speech there was something new. Kerry said: now for the first time, we have a partner we can negotiate with. And what was the proof of the adequacy of the partner? That during the Gaza assault, there had been no unruly protests on the West Bank. Dissent was successfully controlled. And the reason for this? Effective surveillance by Palestinian forces trained and advised by Keith Dayton, the general heading the American Task Force in Palestine. Dayton’s presence is an acknowledged fact, though the content of the training is unknown. Unacknowledged are CIA advisers in Palestine whose actions we know nothing about.

***"We heard the other night [from Obama at West Point] how the world supported us when we first attacked Afghanistan. It all depends on how you define the world. If it includes the people of the world…"– then the reverse of supportive unanimity was indicated by a world Gallup Poll at the end of 2001, which predictably got little play in the American press.

David Bromwich

David Bromwich's latest book is "American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us." He teaches literature at Yale and is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines. He is editor of Edmund Burke's selected writings On Empire, Liberty, and Reform and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty.

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