Just how significant was the end of the Cold War? Could we have seen its rapid replacement with the “War on Terror”? In “Deterring Democracy” by Noam Chomsky (ISBN 9780099135012 first published by Verso in 1991, review edition by Vintage in 2006) we learn that, maybe, it was a bit of an inconvenience for all concerned. But business-as-usual prevailed. It remains disturbing to learn how little we know about how the world works. Chomsky’s lengthy 440+ page study was compiled during the time of the Gorbachev reforms of 1989/1990 with an afterword added here from 1991. This is a work of its time: this isn’t hindsight, yet to read it through it is refreshing to see all that followed was comfortably predicted by “the most important intellectual alive” as those historic events were underway. How did he know? Well by simply looking at what Washington and the West were doing in their domains: in Nicaragua, in Kuwait, in Grenada, in the Dominican Republic and all those other places that the USA considers to be its “backyard”.
If you need to cut to the quick of all this then we can recommend the film by Jon Pilger “The War on Democracy” (Youngheart Entertainment 2007) as this largely captures what Chomsky is writing about on the situation in South and Central America. Being a collection of works the topics covered here do sprawl somewhat. They loosely line up like so: the real history of the Cold War, propaganda in the USA, the end of the cold War, Cold War replacements: the war on drugs, the US invasion of Panama, the use of aggression in global affairs, the US’s role in deterring democracy in South & Central America, the case of Nicaragua, post-war Europe & Japan, and (finally) Israel.
So let’s kick-off with the history of US aggression in the Cold War. It is logical that the USA would not shrink back from its self-imposed role as the World’s policeman as the USSR started to shrink. The Soviets had provided a successful deterrent for all those years but now there was nothing to stop the new order of things. There was even talk about US forces becoming guns for hire in this new wild west. But to understand the origins of the Cold War we have to go back right to the Russian Revolution. Policy documents at the time showed that the end of capitalism in Russia was treated as an act of aggression by the USA. Hence everything that followed was “defensive” in nature. Capitalism would not be able to withstand such an onslaught! It was a world revolution and Bolshevism had to be rolled back on all fronts and even internally within the nation that spawned it.
“The underlying assumption is that the US system of social organisation and power, and the ideology that accompanies it, must be universal. Anything short of that is unacceptable.”
That was the basic operating system in place for seventy years. It became what Chomsky describes as a “crude fanaticism” that infected all parts of life including the output of the popular media. The US defined itself within the endless war against the beast. It was an extremism that described ALL alternatives as “Communism”. All had to be aligned with Western thinking or be cursed by “neutralism” or, heaven forbid, nationalism. Such an extreme view powered domestic policy to justify policies that were really required by the needs of power for entirely different reasons. National Security became an objective in its own right to be invoked when needed for whatever purpose necessary. All narratives to the contrary were struck from history. Hence the numerous post war attempts by the Soviets to re-unify Germany as a neutral buffer zone were ignored by the western powers. Hence the world remained a very dangerous place for several generations. And it is our fault.
The true history of those times show the USSR to be surprisingly cooperative – at times bending over backwards to accommodate the West in the interests of peaceful coexistence – to no avail. The Soviets had a track record of wishing to be secure and accepted within the global community. But acceptance was something the USA could never allow. Hence massive reductions in Soviet military manpower was never reciprocated in the West. Indeed the propaganda system endlessly conjured up the bogeyman in the shape of a “missile gap” or some other fiction to justify endless military expansionism. Time and again the Soviets moved to reduce confrontation and tension with the West. All efforts came to nothing – viewed, at best, as an embarrassment by the West. It was all as if those pesky Russians didn’t want a Cold War at all! But now, one side has called off the game.
Thankfully the war never turned hot but was fought out in an endless procession of third world proxies. However the Cold War continues because it has function. There must always be a war as any student of Orwell will know. It matters not who that war is against; the bad guys and good guys can swap over and the war just keeps on going. So the Pentagon talked up the existence of “new threats” which, in reality, were the same threats as before: namely indigenous nationalism in parts of the world where people have a strong desire for self government and democracy. Which basically means everywhere. So new enemies were required…
…invoking Arab terrorists or Hispanic narcotraffickers..”
..should do the trick. But the real enemy has always been the Third World. The World’s poorest and most disadvantaged. Hence the US support for anything that was Fascism on the basis that it was not the other guy. The other guy in this case always being “communists, socialists and anarchists” as was stated by the US in its long forgotten pre-war love affair with Mussolini. The second World War proved to be a temporary respite in the love affair as the US moved to bring former Fascists back into power in Japan, Germany and Italy at war’s end. The objective was to destroy the successful anti-fascist resistance and undermine popular forces. The traditional conservative order was to be restored under US dominion. Such objectives were easy to achieve in a policy-making environment driven by stark racism. Hence the dark-skinned men of the world were not to be trusted with democracy. They couldn’t handle it.
“Impressed by the successful fascist model, the United States turned to dictators and tyrants to fend off the threat of social change and economic nationalism…”
Thus it came to be that..
“The frightening “Soviet intervention” in the Third World has commonly, consisted of moves by the Kremlin to protect and sustain targets of US attack.”
Without such protection the Third World was now vulnerable.
Moving on to the ‘home front’ Chomsky stops briefly to study the deification of Ronald Reagan. Nothing that was believed of the man matched the record but, no matter. Chomsky is at his most dismissive:
“That exaltation of greed to the highest human value is not the answer is quite obvious. Tales about private vices yielding public benefits could be tolerated in a world living less close to the margin, but surely can no longer. By celebrating the ugliest elements of human nature and social life, the Reaganites have set back, by some uncertain measure, the prospects for coming to terms with grave dilemmas and possible catastrophes.”
Hence our world is less resilient for the outrages of the neo-liberals. Yet we knew this back in 1990. Here were are in 2016 some 26 years later with the same nonsense eroding our culture, our values and our communities.
Before long Chomsky is back in the international domain pointing out just how hard it is to take seriously any threat to the United States from such countries as Greece, Guatemala, Laos, Nicaragua & Grenada. Only by invoking the spectre of the Soviet Union could our attacks on such defenceless sovereign nations every be justified. Now, suddenly, the endless hobgoblin of the Soviet threat was about to vanish. What to do? Peace is a threat to our way of doing business. Think otherwise? Then study the actual UN voting patterns of the USA versus the Soviet Union. In vote after vote against weapons of mass destruction, weapons in space, nuclear test bans, etc., it was the USA who was isolated from the whole world in its rejectionism. An unenviable track record somehow missing from the officially allowed history of the Cold War available in the West. Hence followed absurd US demands upon Gorbachev. All utterly failing to recognise Western complicity in numerous crimes against democracy in the Third World.
At this point Chomsky enters into the sorry history of Nicaragua which he proceeds to dip into and out of for the rest of the book. 1990 was an excellent time to study the depths of Western hypocrisy on such matters as it demanded that the Soviets stop funding fighters in South America and make commitments towards democracy when the USA felt that its own right to fund terrorists to deter democracy should go unquestioned.
Returning to domestic issues again (briefly) Chomsky is again dismissive of free market rhetoric in the political economy:
“Business circles have long taken for granted that the state must play a major role in maintaining the system of private profit. They may welcome talk about free enterprise and laissez-faire, but only as a weapon to prevent the diversion of public resources to the population at large…”
…”the rich and powerful at home have long appreciated the need to protect themselves from the destructive forces of free-market capitalism, which may provide suitable themes for rousing oratory, but only so long as the public handout and the regulatory and protectionist apparatus are secure, and state power is on call when needed.”
Hence the Cold War was an opportunity for the USA to commit to its own very special definition of “democracy”:
…”unchallenged rule by elite elements (business, oligarchy, military) that generally respect the interests of US investors, with appropriate forms for occasional ratification by segments of the public.”
How quickly all nations are settling into this definition. Of course in our “backyard” and other Third World countries we can openly pursue somewhat more explicitly aggressive tactics. Again Chomsky cites Nicaragua as at least one nation where the USA has demanded that the public vote for their candidate with the threat of continued violence if there was a failure to comply. It is “democracy” in that you get to vote. But you don’t get a choice. That is something else. Sure; you can have multiple candidates… but they will be indistinguishable from each other such that the election turns into a form of reality TV show where contestants get to insult each other in lieu of actually discussing policy.
In the interests of maintaining control under this old order new enemies must be conjured. One such was the War on Drugs which Chomsky simply annihilates. In a very effective section (under “Population Control”) he shows that US intelligence services are more often than not controlling the flow of drugs from a region as a means of control and to derive revenue for illegal operations. Secondly it is much more effective to clamp down on the money laundering operations amongst the financial elites that continue to underwrite drug runners. Yet both such measures would be unacceptable so, instead, a war is needed. The war will be completely ineffective but will serve its purpose in the usual Orwellian sense.
Such hypocrisy has a long history as the Opium War 175 years ago goes to illustrate. Likewise the way the USA has used free trade policy to over-ride national health concerns when peddling cigarettes to poor countries is riddled with the same contradictions.
Next we move onto the nearly insurmountable hypocrisy that was the US invasion of Panama. The US media proved extremely compliant in never asking any awkward questions about the purpose of this. Chomsky used the phrase “the media rallied around the flag with due piety and enthusiasm” which we must remind ourselves is NOT THEIR JOB. But they do it just the same. Of course by 1990 the US public had been inoculated against they “childish obsession with the rule of law and human rights” that prevailed post-Vietnam. How quickly (even today) the political Right seem so obsessed with eradicating such childish obsessions.
So the US troops entered Panama, killed lots of people and then ransacked the offices of any newspaper that reported on the fact. Liberation indeed. Empires are all the same – no matter which Century they are in. We have such a track record as Chomsky reminds us with the incident in 1919 when one Winston Churchill (then Secretary of State for War) decided it was high time to treat the Kurds a lesson by attacking them with chemical weapons. He wrote that “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas…” He thought it perfectly reasonable against “uncivilised tribes” as he called them. He hoped for a “lively terror“. In his defence we can say he was talking about non-lethal gassing but let’s remember that Churchill remains a national hero. Some hero. Chemical weapons had also been used by the British air force in Russia against the Bolsheviks. The taboo from World War One apparently had lost its much of its force.
So it was we entered the modern oil age with much chest thumping concerning our kindness & generosity to the ignorant foreigner. In 1973 at the very point that US oil production went into permanent decline policymakers in the Whitehouse talked up the prospect of “internationalising” the oil reserves of the middle East for the benefit of mankind. Those who already owned those oil fields were believed to be underserving of such wealth. Such philosophy normally only applies to men of colour. Not the Europeans or Americans. Such it was that the economic problems of Africa were all the fault of “socialism” a word Chomsky reminds us “used freely to apply to anything we don’t like“. Chomsky goes onto remind us of the embarrassing track record of US foreign policy in the area. Their one client state – Liberia – proved to be basket-case and still is.
So we turn to the inevitable comparison between the Soviet toe-hold in Eastern Europe and the American dominance of South/Central America. Here again hypocrisy by the West has been the dominant theme. Western leaders cared so much for the people under the yoke of the official enemy but so little for those being slaughtered by our allies. Thus it was “that it was far better and safer to be a peasant in communist Poland than it is to be a peasant in capitalist El Salvador“. The Czechoslovak Army wouldn’t shoot protesting students in Prague, however there are no such qualms in El Salvador or Guatemala. if Lech Walesa had hailed from El Salvador he would have been dynamited. All the famed East European dissidents would have been among the ranks of the Guatemalan “disappeared” if they had tried their dissent under a US-based dictatorship. What do these facts tell us about the inhumanity of the US system versus that of the Soviet system? One final example: debt reparation to the financial elites in the West sucked the South American economy dry whilst in Eastern Europe the situation was reversed – the centralised Soviet system was run dry to support the satellite states.
“The guiding principle is clear and straightforward: their terror is terror, and the flimsiest evidence suffices to denounce it and to exact retribution upon civilian bystanders who happen to be in our way; our terror, even if far more extreme, is merely statecraft, and therefore does not entire into discussion…”
The main crime Nicaragua seemed guilty of was that of wishing to defend itself from our attack. Something the US would condemn as an “aggressive counterinsurgency effort” – an unspeakable scandal. The US has preserved the use of force to itself and some of its more compliant allies and client states. There are no exceptions. Defending your population is attacking our right to kill you. Outrage. The US would forbid anyone from supporting their official enemies in the region so they all did what North Vietnam did when spurned by the West – they went to the Soviets who were happy to help. Thus we engineered the situation whereby we could attack them. American priorities are always higher than indigenous human rights. Always. Our hands always wash so clean, we owe our victims nothing. Indeed, out victims always seem to owe us for their destruction. The US sees itself as some kind of beneficial cleansing movement that can result in only good things. Things so good that it matters not how many are left dead. The ends always justified the means in the eyes of the US elites.
In all this Chomsky condemns the free media for its complicity in whitewashing elite Western crimes against the poor. Revealing any obvious truth to the American public would result in immediate condemnation and abuse. The very idea that the USA was conducting crimes against humanity would simply be “unintelligible” to the Western public. All our crimes are wrapped up away from sight by our comfortable propaganda system. Any attempt to reveal the truth could yield not rational response. There is none. We have no language to describe our own crimes – no matter how evil we have become.
“We see here the ultimate achievement of thought control, well beyond what Orwell imagined. Large parts of the language are simply determined to be devoid of meaning. It all makes good sense: in a free society, all must goose-step on command, or keep silent. Anything else is too dangerous.”
Towards the end quarter of the book Chomsky returns to the history lesson to review how the US influenced the post-war development of Greece, Italy, Germany and Japan. It makes surprisingly chilling reading although all that is here has been in the dissident literature for years. It somehow seems normal to hear about how we have ground to dust the societies of the brown skinned man but unbelievable that similar tactics have been reserved closer to home. In Japan post-war industry, no doubt repelled by its authoritarian past, tended towards a more inclusive cooperative approach. The Americans put a stop to this. Worker-controlled companies were eliminated. Labour was suppressed and the Fascists put back in charge.
“Once again, the US found itself in a familiar stance: politically weak, but militarily and economically strong. Policy choices follow naturally.”
Germany suffered a very similar fate where workplace democracy was squashed for fear that it would be a foot-in-the-door for the Communists. Never did those in power stop to ask themselves if this was right or wrong. Ethics never came in to it. The US State Department was appalled at moves in Germany to form Trade Unions and implement a far-reaching program of social change. Too much democracy was an invite to communist tendencies. So paranoid were they about the Soviets that any crime was deemed necessary to defeat them – even if any objective assessment of our evils showed them to be far worse than the one we professed to be trying to defeat. A history littered with pyrrhic victories. There was no way the traditional elites would allow democracy lose amongst the people. The last thing we need is participation. When people participate in politics they want change.
That will never do.
In Italy the Communists participated in the post-war democracy and would have been clear winners in any vote. Various means of US-inspired coercion effectively excluded the Communists from the Italian Government. The record shows that if coercion had failed then force would have been used. In Europe some twenty years before Vietnam. Italian democracy was being subverted up until the 1970s. Why is the EU not at war with the USA over this?
“The democratic ideal, at home and abroad, is simple and straightforward: you are free to do what you want, as long as it is what we want you to do.”
“European elites have a stake in the preservation of this system, and fear their domestic populations no less than the US authorities did. Hence their commitment to Cold War confrontation, which came to serve as an effective technique of domestic social management, and their willingness, with occasional mutterings of discontent, to line up with US global crusades. The system is oppressive, and often brutal, but that is no problem as long as others are the victims. It also raises constant threats of large scale catastrophe, but these do not enter into planning decisions shaped by the goal of maximising short-term advantage, which remains the operative principle.”
The book rounds out with a curious final essay about Israel no doubt thrown in for good measure. Yet it adds little to the main thrust of Chomsky’s narrative in this case. It is left to the Afterword for Chomsky to observe how Israel’s nuclear weapons threaten the whole world:
“a warning to the West of Israel’s capacity to cause immense destruction to the world’s major energy reserves if pressed towards an unwanted peace…”
What are we to make of this warning from recent history? Just 25 years or more separate us from today’s dystopia and these warnings of Noam Chomsky. What will we be making of his writings from today long after the great man (and his wisdom) have passed to the grave? There is such clarity in his vision – like a spring breeze lifting a long winter fog. We need to constantly re-evaluate all that we are told by the media and well as questioning the basis of the popular media itself. We remain in a world fabricated to keep us down a narrow road of business as usual. A moment’s truth could dangerously lift the blinkers for the moment and tell us a great truth about ourselves. The question is this: are we brave enough to see what is going down in a world where the competing untruth is so much more attractive? Few have this willingness today but as long as the willing remain amongst us the long cold war against illusion will continue. These are not necessary illusions for the 99%. They remain only to serve the 1%. A revolution in thinking is long overdue. Who has the courage to spark it?