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Noam Chomsky: Why It's "Legal" When the U.S. Does It

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here

Credit the Arab Spring and what's followed in the Greater Middle East to many things, but don't overlook American "unilateralism." After all, if you want to see destabilization at work, there's nothing like having a heavily armed crew dreaming about eternal global empires stomp through your neighborhood, and it's clear enough now that whatever was let loose early in the twenty-first century won't end soon.

If, from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria and Libya, the Arab Spring was a series of popular uprisings, it was also a series of unravelings.  Two decades late, the Cold War system of great power control in the Middle East, in which the U.S. was the dominant partner and the Soviet Union the lesser one, is finally disintegrating. The abattoir that is now Syria could be considered the Russian contribution to the present chaos; Egypt, with its besieged fundamentalist president, its irate soccer fans in the streets of its Suez-Canal-bordering cities, and its army chief talking about a possible "collapse" of the state, should be considered part of the far greater and more devastating American contribution. (Along with Israel, Egypt was one of the three pillars of the American system in the region; the other, still standing in all its fundamentalist glory, its vast oil reserves pumping away, remains Saudi Arabia.)

In any case, when you see what's happening these days, first thank the American unilateralists of the 1990s, our own financial jihadis. They dreamed of organizing a planet subservient to American financial power and ended up, in 2008, blowing a hole in it instead. A decade later came George W. Bush and his neocon followers, dreaming of doing the same thing in military terms, with similarly disastrous results.  If the neoliberals helped create the 1% world of Middle Eastern oppression that a young Tunisian with a lighter set afire, Bush's visionary militarists, with their catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq, did even greater damage.  They punched a hole directly in the oil heartlands of the planet and set what they already liked to call "the arc of instability" -- little did they know -- aflame. Between them, they drove us through what, in 2004, Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League, called "the gates of hell," imagining they were the gates to an imperial paradise.

Now, from Pakistan and Yemen to Mali and Niger, Washington's drones, special ops, and cyber warriors are now blindly pushing that process of destabilization forward, even as they further undermine American power in the region. This post-Arab Spring world and the state of U.S. power are the subjects that TomDispatch regular Noam Chomsky takes up in the following excerpt adapted from his wide-ranging new interview book with David Barsamian, Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire. (It's another Chomsky must-read.) Tom

The Paranoia of the Superrich and Superpowerful
Washington's Dilemma on a "Lost" Planet
By Noam Chomsky

[This piece is adapted from "Uprisings," a chapter in Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire, Noam Chomsky's new interview book with David Barsamian (with thanks to the publisher, Metropolitan Books).  The questions are Barsamian's, the answers Chomsky's.]

Does the United States still have the same level of control over the energy resources of the Middle East as it once had?

The major energy-producing countries are still firmly under the control of the Western-backed dictatorships. So, actually, the progress made by the Arab Spring is limited, but it's not insignificant. The Western-controlled dictatorial system is eroding. In fact, it's been eroding for some time. So, for example, if you go back 50 years, the energy resources -- the main concern of U.S. planners -- have been mostly nationalized. There are constantly attempts to reverse that, but they have not succeeded.

Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example. To everyone except a dedicated ideologue, it was pretty obvious that we invaded Iraq not because of our love of democracy but because it's maybe the second- or third-largest source of oil in the world, and is right in the middle of the major energy-producing region. You're not supposed to say this. It's considered a conspiracy theory.

The United States was seriously defeated in Iraq by Iraqi nationalism -- mostly by nonviolent resistance. The United States could kill the insurgents, but they couldn't deal with half a million people demonstrating in the streets. Step by step, Iraq was able to dismantle the controls put in place by the occupying forces. By November 2007, it was becoming pretty clear that it was going to be very hard to reach U.S. goals. And at that point, interestingly, those goals were explicitly stated. So in November 2007 the Bush II administration came out with an official declaration about what any future arrangement with Iraq would have to be. It had two major requirements: one, that the United States must be free to carry out combat operations from its military bases, which it will retain; and two, "encouraging the flow of foreign investments to Iraq, especially American investments." In January 2008, Bush made this clear in one of his signing statements. A couple of months later, in the face of Iraqi resistance, the United States had to give that up. Control of Iraq is now disappearing before their eyes.

Iraq was an attempt to reinstitute by force something like the old system of control, but it was beaten back. In general, I think, U.S. policies remain constant, going back to the Second World War. But the capacity to implement them is declining.

Declining because of economic weakness?

Partly because the world is just becoming more diverse. It has more diverse power centers. At the end of the Second World War, the United States was absolutely at the peak of its power. It had half the world's wealth and every one of its competitors was seriously damaged or destroyed. It had a position of unimaginable security and developed plans to essentially run the world -- not unrealistically at the time.

This was called "Grand Area" planning?

Yes. Right after the Second World War, George Kennan, head of the U.S. State Department policy planning staff, and others sketched out the details, and then they were implemented. What's happening now in the Middle East and North Africa, to an extent, and in South America substantially goes all the way back to the late 1940s. The first major successful resistance to U.S. hegemony was in 1949. That's when an event took place, which, interestingly, is called "the loss of China." It's a very interesting phrase, never challenged. There was a lot of discussion about who is responsible for the loss of China. It became a huge domestic issue. But it's a very interesting phrase. You can only lose something if you own it. It was just taken for granted: we possess China -- and if they move toward independence, we've lost China. Later came concerns about "the loss of Latin America," "the loss of the Middle East," "the loss of" certain countries, all based on the premise that we own the world and anything that weakens our control is a loss to us and we wonder how to recover it.

Today, if you read, say, foreign policy journals or, in a farcical form, listen to the Republican debates, they're asking, "How do we prevent further losses?"

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of (more...)
 
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