Telling the Truth about Imperialism / Archives
International Socialist Review, November-December, 2003
NOAM CHOMSKY, internationally renowned MIT professor, has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for more than four decades. He is in such demand as a public speaker that he is often booked years in advance. And wherever he appears, he draws huge audiences. The Guardian calls him, “One of the radical heroes of our age.” He is the author of Power and Terror and Middle East Illusions. His latest book is Hegemony or Survival. He’s done a series of interview books with David Barsamian, including most recently The Common Good and Propaganda and the Public Mind.David Barsamian is the director and producer of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He recently published Culture and Resistance, a book of interviews with Edward Said.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: REGIME CHANGE is a new term in the lexicon. Kind of like change of address. It sounds somewhat innocuous. It certainly sounds a lot better than invasion, overthrow and occupation. The U.S. is an old hand at regime change. We’re in a year that marks a couple of anniversaries. Today is the 30th anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup in Chile. October 25 marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Grenada. But I’m particularly thinking of regime change in Iran. 50 years ago, in August 1953, Operation Ajax, carried out by a CIA agent who was incidentally Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, overthrew the conservative parliamentary democracy led by Mohammed Mossadeq and restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne, where he ruled for the next 25 years.
NOAM CHOMSKY: THE ISSUE was that the conservative nationalist parliamentary government was attempting to take over its own oil resources. These had been under the control of a British company originally called Anglo-Persian, later called Anglo-Iranian, which had entered into contracts with the rulers of Iran that were just pure extortion and robbery. The Iranians got nothing and the British were laughing all the way to the bank. Mossadeq had a long history as a critic of this subordination of imperial policy. Popular outbursts compelled the Shah to appoint him as prime minister, and he moved to nationalize the industry, which makes perfect sense.
The British went completely berserk. They refused to make any compromises. They wouldn’t even come near what the American oil companies had just agreed to in Saudi Arabia. They wanted to continue just robbing the Iranians blind. And that led to a tremendous popular uprising. Iran has a democratic tradition. It had a majlis, parliament, which had always been suppressed. But the Shah couldn’t suppress it; the army tried and couldn’t. Finally a joint British-American coup did succeed in organizing an overthrow of the regime, and restored the Shah to power. Then comes 25 years of terror, atrocities, violence, finally leading to the revolution in 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah.
Incidentally, one outcome of the coup was that the United States took over from Britain about 40 percent of the share in Iranian oil. It had been 100 percent British. That wasn’t actually the goal of the effort, it’s just in the normal course of events. But it was part of the general displacement of British power by U.S. power in that region, and in fact, throughout the world. Just sort of a normal reflection of the distribution of power elsewhere. The New York Times had a nice editorial about it, in which they praised the coup, and said, “Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism.” And it should teach other Mossadeqs elsewhere in the world that they should be careful before trying to do something like going “berserk” and gaining control of their own resources, which of course are ours, not theirs.
But your point is quite correct. Regime change is normal policy–in fact, it’s even perfectly conceded. So, for example, maybe five years ago during the Clinton administration, the European Union (EU) brought to the World Trade Organization (WTO) a complaint against the United States, for the extended economic warfare against Cuba, which extended to secondary boycotts that are illegal under every possible interpretation of international law and have been condemned by every relevant institution. The EU brought it to the WTO as a restraint of trade and the Clinton administration simply told them, Europe is challenging policies of ours that go back to 1959 and which are aimed at overthrowing the government of Cuba (regime change) and Europe has no business interfering in the internal affairs of the United States like this. Actually, the State Department or whoever wrote that didn’t know their own history very well. If you go back to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, there was a period of real frenzy about regime change, which almost led to nuclear war. Internally, the reason given by U.S. intelligence for regime change, overthrowing the Castro regime, was that the very existence of the Castro regime was successful defiance of a policy of the United States of 150 years, back to the Monroe Doctrine. The policy of the United States is that we are the masters of the hemisphere and the very existence of the Castro regime is successful defiance of this, so of course we have to overthrow it by a campaign of large-scale terror and economic warfare. What’s interesting about this particular remark is that it’s shortly after that terrorist campaign, which was quite serious, aimed at regime change, and almost led the world to a terminal nuclear war. It was a very close thing.
RIGHT AFTER the First World War, the British replaced the Turks as the rulers of Iraq. They occupied the country, and faced, as one report says, “anti-imperialist agitation…from the start.” A revolt “became widespread.” The British felt it wise to put up a façade. Lord Curzon, the foreign secretary, said Britain wanted an “Arab façade ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, by an Arab staff.” Just fast-forward today to Iraq, with a 25-person ruling council appointed by the American viceroy, Paul Bremer.
ACTUALLY, LORD Curzon was very honest in those days. It was an Arab façade, and then they went on, Britain would rule behind a veil of “constitutional fictions” like “buffer state” and various other terms, but it would basically be an Arab façade. And that’s the way Britain ran the whole region, in fact, the whole empire. The idea is to have independent states, but always weak governments that rely on the imperial power for their survival. And they can rip off the population if they like, that’s fine. But they have to be a façade, behind which the real power rules. That’s standard imperialism. Lord Curzon was simply being a little more honest than most.
You can find plenty of examples. Paul Bremer is one. There was a wonderful organization chart, published in the New York Times. It might have been around May 7th, just after Bremer was appointed. Unfortunately it’s not in the archived edition so you have to look back at the hard copy, but it had a chart with something like 16 or 17 boxes. It’s a standard organization chart, somebody at the top and lines going down. At the top is Paul Bremer, answering to the Pentagon, and then you go down various lines and you get to various generals and diplomats, all either U.S. or British. And each one of them has the name, the responsibility of the office in boldface in a big box, and then you get down to the bottom and there’s a 17th box at the bottom, half the size of the others, no boldface, no indication of responsibility. And this says, “Iraqi Advisors.” That’s the façade. It was a mistake to publish it–I suppose that’s why they didn’t archive it, but that expresses the thinking, and Lord Curzon would have felt it quite normal.
It’s not clear that they can handle it because, I should say, to my amazement, the occupation is not succeeding. It takes real talent to fail in this. For one thing, military occupations almost always work. The Nazis in occupied Europe had very little trouble running the countries with collaborators. Every country had plenty of collaborators who ran the place as a façade and kept order and kept the population down. That’s at the extreme level of brutality in history. Furthermore, they were under attack from the outside and the resistance was being directed and supported from abroad, rather like the Nazis claimed: “terrorists supported from abroad, directed from London.” Even the most grotesque propaganda usually has some element of truth.
Nevertheless, if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were crushed by overwhelming outside force, they wouldn’t have had any trouble running occupied Europe. The Russians had very little problem running Eastern Europe through façades, and again, that’s another very brutal regime. In fact, if you look through history, it usually works. The cases where there are uprisings against imperial rule are pretty rare. It happens, but it’s not the norm.
Furthermore, this is an unusually easy case. Here’s a country that has been devastated by a decade of murderous sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left the whole place in tatters and held together by Scotch tape. Devastated by wars. Run by a brutal tyrant. It’s hard not to do better than that. The idea that you can’t get a military occupation to run under these circumstances, and of course, with no support from outside for the resistance. None. I think it’s almost unimaginable. I imagine if we got a couple of people on this floor together here at MIT they could probably figure out how to get the electricity running. So it is an astonishing failure, and it certainly surprises me. So their original planning, as illustrated in that organization chart, amazingly doesn’t look like it’s going to work. Which is why you get all this backtracking about trying to get the UN to come in and pick up some of the costs, and the domestic opposition. It’s a big surprise to me. I thought this would be a walkover.
TALK ABOUT another aspect of British imperialism. In the title essay of Towards a New Cold War, which has just been reissued by the New Press, you wrote about Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the leaders of the opposition to British rule in India. He observed that the ideology of British rule in India, “‘was that of the herrenvolk and the Master Race,’ an idea that is ‘inherent in imperialism’ and ‘was proclaimed in unambiguous language by those in authority’ and put into practice as ‘Indians as individuals were subjected to insult, humiliation and contemptuous treatment.’” Could you talk about that racism as being “inherent” in imperialism?
IT’S WORTH remembering that Nehru was pretty much an Anglophile and, I believe, if I remember, that he was writing that from a British jail during the Second World War. But yes, even for the elite–he was from the elite Indian upper classes and quite British in manner and style–the humiliation and degradation is one of the hardest things to bear. And it’s almost invariable. It’s hard to think of cases where you don’t find it. He’s right, it’s “inherent” in imperial rule, and I think you can understand the psychology. When you’ve got your boot on somebody’s neck, you can’t just say, “I’m doing this because I’m a brute.” You have to say, “I’m doing it because they deserve it. It’s for their good. That’s why I’ve got to do it.” They’re “naughty children,” as U.S. leaders described Latin Americans. They’re “naughty children” who have to be disciplined. Filipinos were described in the same way. Therefore, you don’t feel that you’re humiliating a child if you don’t let it eat poison or something. But that’s inherent in the relation of domination, unless you have unusual sensitivity among the ruling powers. You don’t have that. They’re run by people like Donald Rumsfeld, not by people like your friendly aunt. So his comment is quite accurate, and it’s quite consistent. It’s hard to think of an exception to that. It’s exactly what’s been going on in the Occupied Territories. For years. I mean, one of the worst parts of the Israeli occupation has been the constant humiliation and degradation at every moment. Same in India.
THAT’S VERY consistently a factor in domination. It’s not always the only factor. For example, the British desire to control Palestine wasn’t because of Palestine’s resources. It was because of its geostrategic position. So there are lots of factors that enter into seeking domination and control, but resources are very commonly a factor. Take, say, the U.S. takeover of Texas and around half of Mexico about 150 years ago. That’s usually not called a resource war, but if you think about it, it was. Take a look back at the Jacksonian Democrats, Polk and presidents of that time and other people. What they were trying to do was exactly what Saddam Hussein was accused of trying to do in 1990, except they were openly trying to do it. They were trying to get a monopoly over the world’s major resource, which in those days was cotton. Cotton is what fueled the Industrial Revolution just the way oil fuels the contemporary industrial world. And the U.S. had a lot of cotton. One of the goals in taking over particularly Texas, but also the rest, was to ensure that the U.S. could gain a monopoly of cotton and bring the British to their knees, because we would control the resource on which they depended. They were the leading industrial power and the United States was then a minor industrial power. But it had this enormous resource that the British needed, so if we could control it we’d bring them to their knees. And remember, Britain was the great enemy at the time. It was the powerful force that was preventing the United States from expanding north to Canada and south to Cuba. So, yes, it was a resource war, in a deep sense, though there were other factors too. And it’s not unusual to find that. There are other motives, of say, the Israeli takeover of the West Bank. It’s partially for the water resources that are needed, but it goes way beyond that.
DEPUTY DEFENSE Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has been described as one of the main architects of the attack on Iraq. He was in Singapore last May and early June. In response to an audience question asking why the United States went after Iraq instead of the truly dangerous North Korea, Wolfowitz said that the most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no “options” in Iraq. “The country floats on a sea of oil.”
THAT’S PART of it. The other part, which he knows very well, is that Iraq was completely defenseless, whereas North Korea had a deterrent. The deterrent is not nuclear weapons. The deterrent is massed artillery at the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, aimed at Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and at maybe tens of thousands of American troops right south of the border. And unless the Pentagon can figure out some way of taking out that artillery with precision-guided weapons or something, North Korea has a deterrent. And Iraq had nothing. They knew perfectly well that Iraq was defenseless. They probably knew where every pocketknife was in every square inch of Iraq by that time. So that’s a second factor, but yes, the first factor’s right. On the other hand, North Korea also has geostrategic significance, which is not unimportant the way the world’s shaping up now. It’s not so much North Korea itself as its position within Northeast Asia. The Northeast Asian region is the most dynamic economic region in the world. It includes two major industrial societies, Japan and South Korea, and China is increasingly becoming an industrial society. It has enormous resources. Siberia has all kinds of resources including oil. Northeas Asia’s got, I think, close to a third of world gross domestic product, way more than the United States. It has half the foreign exchange of the world. It has enormous financial resources. And it’s growing very fast, much faster than any other region including the United States. Its trade is increasing internally and it’s connecting to the Southeast Asian countries, sometimes called ASEAN plus three: Southeast Asian countries plus China, Japan and South Korea. And then, with the resource areas of Siberia, well, you know, if you take a look at the geography, pipelines are being built from the resource centers to the industrial centers. Some of them would go, naturally, right to South Korea, but that means right through North Korea. So pipelines through North Korea, if this Trans-Siberian railway is extended, as is surely planned, it would go probably the same route through North Korea to South Korea. So North Korea happens to be in a fairly strategic position with regard to this integrated area.
The U.S. is not particularly happy about Northeast Asian economic integration, just as it’s always been very ambivalent about Europe. It has always been a concern that Europe might go off on an independent course–it might be what used to be called a “third force.” And quite a lot of policy planning, from the Second World War until the present, reflects that concern. Actually, it was expressed, with his usual crudity by Henry Kissinger, very well 30 years ago, in 1973. It was called the “Year of Europe.” Europe was finally reconstituting and Kissinger gave an important address that is called the “Year of Europe” address in which the main theme was that European unification was wonderful but that Europe shouldn’t get too big for its britches. It should recognize that it has only regional responsibilities within the overall framework of order managed by the United States. And a lot of policy has been designed to prevent Europe from moving off on its own. That’s a lot of the purpose of NATO, in fact. The same issues are arising for Northeast Asia. So the world really has three major economic centers: North America, Northeast Asia and Europe. In one dimension, the military dimension, the United States is in a class by itself, but not in the others.
YOU MENTIONED one national security adviser. Another was Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, and today a frequent talk show pundit. He contends that the main task facing the managers of American Empire is “to prevent collusion and maintain dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.”
THAT’S PRETTY frank. Lord Curzon would have been pleased. That’s basically correct. That’s a cruder version of what Kissinger said. I take back my insult. In international relations theory, that’s called “realism.” You prevent groupings of powers from getting together to oppose hegemonic power. That’s part of the reason why conservative international relations specialists were deeply concerned and highly critical of U.S. policy even during the Clinton years. People like Samuel Huntington, and Robert Jervis–who was then-president of the American Political Science Association–and other well-known realist scholars were warning that U.S. policies are creating a situation in which much of the world would regard the U.S. as what they called a “rogue state” and a threat to their existence and would form coalitions against it. This is in the Clinton years, this is not Bush. It’s before the September 2002 Bush administration’s National Security Strategy.
JOSEPH SCHUMPETER, who was an Austrian economist, in a 1919 essay called “The Sociology of Imperialisms,” wrote: “There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest–why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing-space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome’s duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs.” So if one were to land like your fictive journalist from Mars and view the United States today, and insert “the U.S.” in this Schumpeter essay every time he says “Rome,” might you be coming close to some understanding of what’s going on?
THAT’S ONE reason why that quote’s been reprinted–actually I’ve just reprinted it too. Monthly Review used that quote in a fairly recent issue in an editorial referring to Bush’s National Security Strategy, precisely because it is so apposite. You just change the words. One of the standard arguments for going to war these days is to maintain credibility. So there are cases where resources aren’t at stake. It’s credibility that’s at stake. Take, say, the bombing of Serbia in 1999, this is Clinton again. What was the point of that? The standard line is it was to prevent ethnic cleansing, but to hold that, you just have to invert the chronology. Uncontroversially, the ethnic cleansing followed the bombing and furthermore, it was the anticipated consequence of it. So that can’t have been the reason.
What was the reason? If you look carefully, Clinton and Blair said at the time, and it’s now conceded by many in retrospect, that it was to maintain credibility. To make it clear who’s the boss. Serbia was defying the orders of the boss, and you don’t do that. And it was, again, defenseless, so you don’t lose anything, and you can make up a humanitarian case if you like. You always can. So, that’s the reason, to maintain credibility, and there are plenty of other cases like this, in fact, it’s very common. It should be familiar to anyone who watches television programs about the Mafia. A very large element of the structure of the Mafia is that the Don has to make sure that people understand that he’s the boss. You don’t cross him. You may send out your goons to beat somebody to a pulp, not because you want his resources but because he’s standing up to you. That’s back to Cuba again. It was Castro’s successful defiance of the United States that made it necessary to carry out terrorist actions aimed at regime change. You don’t defy the master, and everyone else has to understand that. If the rumor is spread around that you can get away with defying the master, you’re in trouble.
YOU HAVE carefully examined declassified State Department documents over the years, and I was wondering if you could talk about whether you see any persistent themes and patterns. Let me just refer to one that you’ve cited on a number of occasions, State Department Policy Study 23, issued in 1948, which was apparently written by George Kennan: “The U.S. has about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.”
THAT’S A rather frank statement. It’s an interesting document, because that whole document, if you look at it, was from the State Department planning staff, which Kennan headed. And it kind of laid out plans, ideas, about how various parts of the world should fit into this general strategy. This particular comment happened to be specifically about Asia, but it’s general and it’s not unlike Schumpeter or British imperialism or anything else. That’s almost, well, to quote Nehru again, it’s just inherent in domination. Kennan was to be respected for having said it but it’s too bad that he kept it secret instead of telling people. Remember that he was at the soft humanist end of the planning sector. In fact, he was thrown out a couple of years later because he was considered not harsh enough, and replaced by Paul Nitze, who was much tougher.
THIS IS quite interesting. There’s only one good book about this, by Laurence Shoup and William Minter, called Imperial Brain Trust. It’s not an official government policy. These were programs run by the Council on Foreign Relations with the participation of the State Department, from 1939 to 1945, planning the postwar world. It began when the Second World War began and went on. They’re quite interesting. One reason they’re interesting is because the policies that were actually carried out are very similar to those they discussed. Not surprisingly, it was many of the same people in charge and the same interests represented. It’s a book well worth reading. It’s been bitterly attacked, naturally, which is a pretty good sign that it’s worth reading. And no reviews and that sort of thing…it’s kept secret. There’s very little scholarship on this, but it’s really important material. It’s obvious from just taking a look at who was doing it. It actually reads rather like the National Security Strategy.
In some recent publications I’ve compared the statements, and this is kind of Roosevelt-style liberals, remember, at the opposite end of the planning spectrum. It says the United States will have to emerge from the war as the world dominant power, and will have to make sure there is no challenge to its dominance anywhere, ever. And it will have to do this by a program of complete rearmament, which will leave the United States in a position of overwhelming strength in the world. It goes on like that. In the early stages of the war the “Grand Area” was supposed to be the non-German world. They assumed in the early stages that Nazi Germany would partially win the war, at least it would control most of Europe. So there would be a German world, and then the question was, What about the non-German world? And they said: That has to be turned into what they called a “Grand Area” run by the United States. Then they went through a geopolitical and geostrategic analysis of whatever resources we’d need, and so on and so forth.
The Grand Area would include, at a minimum, the entire Western Hemisphere, the Far East and the former British Empire. That’s the early stage of the war. As it became clear by 1943 roughly, that Germany was going to be defeated, mainly by the Russians, they began extending the policies beyond, to try to hold on to as much of Eurasia as possible, assuming there wouldn’t be a German world. And those policies later extend into the policy planning carried out in the early postwar period, and in many respects right until today. These are pretty natural and sensible plans of analysts who are thinking in terms of world domination for the interests that they represent. Of course, they will say, and probably believe, that they’re just laboring for the benefit of the ordinary person, but the Romans that Schumpeter was talking about would have said the same thing and also believed it.
TALK ABOUT America and how we benefit from empire, if I can use the collective pronoun. William Appleman Williams was an historian who wrote a book called Empire as a Way of Life. In it he writes, “Very simply, Americans of the 20th century liked empire for the very same reasons their ancestors had favored it in the 18th and 19th century. It provided them with renewable opportunities, wealth and other benefits and satisfactions, including a psychological sense of well-being and power.” What do you think of Williams’ analysis?
I THINK he’s correct about the United States, but remember that the United States was not a normal empire in the European style, so it wasn’t like the British Empire. The English colonists who came to the United States didn’t do what they did in India. They didn’t create a façade of the native population behind which they would rule. They largely wiped out the native population. That’s rather different. So the indigenous population of what’s now the United States was “exterminated,” to use the word that the founding fathers used. Not totally, but that was what was considered the right thing to do. They replaced them and it became a kind of settler state, not an imperial state. And the expansion over the national territory was that way all along, including the taking over of large parts of Mexico.
Back in the 1820s, one of the earliest issues in U.S. foreign policy was the desire to take Cuba. It was assumed in the 1820s by Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams and others that Cuba was the next step in expansion. But the British were in the way. The British fleet was much too powerful, and they couldn’t take Cuba at the time. John Quincy Adams made a famous statement, he was secretary of state at the time, in which he said: We should back off and Cuba will fall into our hands like a “ripe fruit” by the “laws of political gravitation.” Meaning that sooner or later, we’ll become more powerful, the British will become weaker, the deterrent will be gone and we’ll be able to pluck the ripe fruit. Which happened in 1898 under the guise of liberation.
But every expansion up until the Second World War was not establishing traditional colonies. Hawaii was taken over from its own population at the same time, 1898, stolen by force and guile. But then the native population was pretty much replaced, they weren’t colonized. Again, not totally. They’re still there, but it became essentially taken over rather than colonized. The Philippines was different. The Philippines was more like a colony. So Williams’ comments are correct but I think they refer to a different sort of imperial system. If you look at the traditional empires, say, the British Empire, it’s not so clear that the population of Britain gained from it. It’s really a very difficult topic to study, a kind of cost-benefit analysis of empire. But there have been a couple of attempts to study it. And for what they’re worth, the general range of conclusions is that the costs and the benefits probably pretty much balanced out.
Empires are costly. Running Iraq is not cheap. Somebody’s paying. Somebody’s paying the corporations that destroyed Iraq and the corporations that are rebuilding it. They’re getting paid by the American taxpayer in both cases. So we pay them to destroy the country, and then we pay them to rebuild it. Those are gifts from U.S. taxpayer to U.S. corporations, indirectly, and happen to affect Iraq.
WHO PAYS Halliburton and Bechtel? The U.S. taxpayer. The military system that bombed Iraq destroyed it. Who paid for that? The same taxpayers. So first you destroy Iraq, then you rebuild it. It’s a transfer of wealth from the general population to narrow sectors of the population. Even if you look at the famous Marshall Plan, that’s pretty much what it was. It’s talked about as an act of “unimaginable benevolence.” But whose benevolence? It’s the benevolence of the American taxpayer. Of the $13 billion of Marshall Plan aid, about $2 billion went right to the U.S. oil companies. That was part of the effort to shift Europe from a coal-based to an oil-based economy, and parts of it would be more dependent on the United States. It had plenty of coal. It didn’t have oil. So there’s two billion of the 13.
You look at the rest of it, very little of that money left the United States. It goes from one pocket to another. If you look more closely, the Marshall Plan aid to France just about covered the costs of the French effort to reconquer Indochina. So the U.S. taxpayer wasn’t rebuilding France. They were paying the French to buy American weapons to crush the Indochinese. Partially the same was true about the Marshall Plan aid to Holland, in the early stage, and what it was doing in Indonesia. It’s a complex flow of aid and benefits.
But, going back to the British Empire, the studies of it have suggested that the costs to the British people may have been about on a par with the benefits that the British people got from it. However, it’s a transfer internally. To the guys who were running the East India Company: fantastic wealth. To the British troops who were dying out in the wilderness somewhere: a serious cost. So it’s a part of class war internally. And to a large extent that’s the way empires work. A big element of it is internal class war.
YOU CAN’T give measures to that, but it’s very real and very significant. That’s part of the reason why imperial systems or any system of domination, even a patriarchal family, always has a cover of benevolence. We’re back to the racism again. Why do you have to present yourself as somehow doing it for the benefit of the people you’re crushing? Well, otherwise you have to face the moral degradation. And one of the ways of covering for it is to say, “Well, I’m really an altruist working for the benefit of all.” A typical Hollywood joke was about the corporate executive who was laboring day and night for the benefit of the ordinary person. If we’re honest about it, human relations are often like that. And in imperial systems, almost always.
It’s hard to find an imperial system where the intellectual class didn’t laud its benevolence. That’s normal. Even the worst monsters. When Hitler was dismembering Czechoslovakia it was done with wonderful rhetoric about bringing peace to the ethnic groups who were in conflict, making sure they could all live happily together under German supervision, which was benign. You really have to labor to find an exception to that. And of course it’s true in the United States.
MARK TWAIN is known for writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he was a staunch opponent of U.S. wars of aggression. A century ago, he was involved in something called the Anti-Imperialist League. He wrote in The Mysterious Stranger: “Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.” Why is that aspect of Mark Twain almost totally occluded?
THAT’S AN interesting story. For the last years of his life, one of his main activities was vigorous involvement in opposition to the Philippine War. Twain has wonderful anti-imperialist essays. But you don’t find reference to them. I think the first general publication of them was in a book, Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire, edited by Jim Zwick about 10 years ago. Syracuse University Press published a collection of his anti-imperialist essays. If my memory is correct, the introduction by Zwick says that the standard biographies don’t include this material, although it wasn’t secret. Why? The question answers itself. You don’t want people to explode the aura of benevolence in which we clothe ourselves.
YOU MENTIONED the Mafia Don earlier. Major General Smedley Butler of the U.S. Marine Corps was a highly-decorated officer, he won the Congressional Medal of Honor not once but twice. He said, “I’ve spent 33 years…being a high class muscleman for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism…. I helped purify Nicaragua, I helped make Mexico…safe for American oil interests, I helped in the rape of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street…. I was rewarded with honors, medals, promotions…I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was operate a racket in three city districts. The Marines operated on three continents.”
SMEDLEY BUTLER in his later years came out with some very honest and cutting comments. The honors stopped. He was also either threatened with being kicked out of the Marine Corps, or may have actually been expelled, for opposing U.S. support for Mussolini. I think Henry Stimson may have been responsible for that, because at the time, the U.S. loved Mussolini, thought he was great, but apparently Butler was opposed.
TRADITIONALLY IF you used the word “imperialism” and attached the word “American” in front of it, you were immediately dismissed as a member of some far left fringe. That has undergone a bit of a transformation in the last few years. Let’s just take Michael Ignatieff, for one. Son of a Canadian diplomat, he’s at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where he is Carr Professor of Human Rights Policy. He writes in a New York Times Magazine cover story on July 28, 2002, “America’s entire war on terrorism is an exercise in imperialism.” Then he adds, “Imperialism used to be the white man’s burden,” echoing Kipling. “This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect.” On January 5, 2003, in yet another cover story in the New York Times Magazine, he writes, “America’s empire is not like the empires of times past, built on colonies, conquests and the white man’s burden…. The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights, and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.” And he has a new book out, called Empire Lite.
OF COURSE, the apologists for every other imperial power have said the same thing. So you can go back to John Stuart Mill, one of the most outstanding Western intellectuals, now we’re talking about the real peak of moral integrity and intelligence. He defended the British Empire in very much those words. John Stuart Mill wrote the classic essay on humanitarian intervention. Everyone studies it in law schools. What he says is, Britain is unique in the world. It’s unlike any country before it. Other countries have crass motives and seek gain and so on, but the British act only for the benefit of others. In fact, he said, Our motives are so pure that Europeans can’t understand us. They heap “obloquy” upon us and they seek to discover crass motives behind our benevolent actions. But everything we do is for the benefit of the natives, the barbarians. We want to bring them free markets and honest rule and freedom and all kinds of wonderful things. Today’s version is just illustrating Marx’s comment about tragedy being repeated as farce.
The timing of Mill’s comments is interesting. This was around 1859, and it was right after an event that in British terminology is called the “Indian Mutiny,” meaning those barbarians raised their heads. It was a rebellion against British rule, and the British put it down with extreme violence and brutality. Mill certainly knew about this. It was all over England, it was all over the press. The old-fashioned conservatives like Richard Cobden condemned it harshly, just like Senator Robert Byrd condemns what’s going on today. The real conservatives are different from the ones that call themselves that. But Mill, right in the midst of that, wrote about this picture of Britain as an angelic power, and I think you’d find it hard to find an exception to that.
I’m surprised that Ignatieff is not aware that he’s just repeating a very familiar rhetoric. And it’s true, even in internal records, when people are talking to themselves. A lot of Soviet archives are coming out, basically being sold to the highest bidder like everything else in Russia. It’s kind of interesting to see that they talk to each other the same way they talk in public. So, for example, you go back to 1947 or so, and Gromyko and those guys are talking to each other and saying things like, We have to protect democracy. We have to intervene to protect democracy from the forces of fascism, which are everywhere, and democracy is surely the highest value, so we’ve got to intervene to protect it. And he’s talking about the “people’s democracies.” Well, he believed it probably as much as Ignatieff believes what he is saying.
IGNATIEFF SEEMS to be a particular favorite of the New York Times. In the New York Times Magazine of September 7, 2003, “Why Are We In Iraq?” is the title of his article. He writes, “New rules of intervention, proposed by the U.S. and abided by it, would end the canard that the U.S., not its enemy, is the rogue state.” You have a book called Rogue States. What is Ignatieff getting at here, that this is a canard that the U.S. is a rogue state?
ACTUALLY, I borrowed the phrase from Samuel Huntington. In Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal, he described how, in the eyes of much of the world, the United States is regarded as “the rogue superpower” and the “greatest external threat” to their existence. That’s in the context of criticizing Clinton’s policies leading to the building up of coalitions against the U.S.
If we define “rogue state” in terms of any kind of principles, like violation of international law, or aggression, or atrocities, or human rights violations, and so on, the U.S. qualifies rather well, as you would expect of the most powerful state in the world. Just as Britain did. Just as France did. And every one of them wrote the same kind of garbage that you’re quoting from Ignatieff. So, France was carrying out a “civilizing mission” when the minister of war was saying they were going to have to exterminate the natives in Algeria, which they proceeded to try to do. Even the Nazis. You go to the absolute depths and you’ll find the same sentiments expressed.
When the Japanese fascists were conquering China and carrying out huge atrocities like the Nanking Massacre, the rhetoric behind it brings tears to your eyes. They were creating an “earthly paradise” in which the peoples of Asia would work together, and Japan would sacrifice itself for their benefit so they would all have peace and prosperity, and Japan would protect them from the Communist bandits while they move on to the earthly paradise, and so on. Again, I’m a little surprised that some editor at the New York Times, or a dean at Harvard doesn’t see that it is just a little odd to be repeating what’s been said over and over again by the worst monsters. Why is it different now?
Notice, by the way, that one of the great benefits of being a respectable intellectual, is you never need any evidence for anything you say. So you go through those articles and try to find some evidence to support the conclusions. It’s not that it’s not there, it’s just that it would be ridiculous to put it in. It’s as if you wrote that two and two is four, and then somebody said, “Where’s your evidence?” In order to make it to the peak of respectability, you have to understand that it’s faintly absurd even to ask for evidence for the praise of those with power. It’s just automatic. Of course they’re magnificent. Maybe they made some mistakes in the past, but now they’re magnificent. And to look for evidence of that is like looking for evidence for the truths of arithmetic. So there never is any.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN, in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree writes: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglass…. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” Now that’s a pretty candid statement from the three-time Pulitzer Prize—winning New York Times columnist.
THOUGH I suspect if you quizzed him on it, tried to get him on your program, he would say, “Well, but that’s for the good.” Because Silicon Valley and the trade, it’s just helping people, and unfortunately you’ve got to keep the barbarians under control, we’re back to the Brzezinski quote you mentioned before. In fact, Mill and everyone else says the same thing. We’ve got to keep the barbarians away so everybody can benefit from these wonders that we’re bringing to them, like Silicon Valley, which of course, we’re developing for their benefit, or maybe by some invisible hand or something like that. So therefore it’s all, again, just pure benevolence.
DO YOU see some echoes of the 1960s and the so-called discussions and debate about U.S. intervention in Indochina and what’s going on today? Senator Joseph Biden and other Democrats, as well as articles in Foreign Affairs, which is published by the Council on Foreign Relations, the New York—based establishment think tank, are now talking about how they botched it. There was poor planning. They should have seen what would be needed, and they didn’t have enough translators in place.
IT’S, AS you say, in part a replica of the 1960s. It’s worth remembering that among educated elites, among intellectuals and planners, there was almost never any criticism of the Vietnam War. Even at the peak of popular protest, 1969, maybe 70 percent of the population described the war as fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake. But among educated sectors you almost never heard that. The most that could be said is “it’s a mistake, bad planning, should have had more translators, we didn’t understand anything about the Vietnamese, hubris and so on and so forth.” And so, “Do it right next time,” in other words, but not that there was anything wrong with doing it. Which is why, as the Vietnam War has been reconstructed, in American intellectual culture, the U.S. turns out to be the victim. The U.S. is the victim of the Vietnamese. Literally.
JIMMY CARTER, for whom the “soul of our foreign policy” was human rights, piety and so on, was asked in a news conference whether the U.S. owes anything to Vietnam after what happened, and he said that we owe them no debt because “the destruction was mutual.” Do a database search and see if anybody commented on that.
When George Bush Number One–who was kind of an old-fashioned conservative, not a hawk and not a dove, just kind of a mainstream moderate–was in office, he told the Vietnamese, Of course we can never forget what you did to us, but we’re willing to let bygones be bygones. We don’t insist on retribution, if you will pay proper attention to the only moral issue that’s left after the war, namely the remains of Americans missing in action. That was a particularly interesting comment because of its placement. It happened to appear on the front page of the New York Times just next to another column that was on Japan’s strange unwillingness to face up to what it had done in Asia. The article offered an elaborate etymological study of some of the words that the Japanese use when they refer to their crimes in Asia, and how they don’t have quite the right connotations, and so on and so forth. Right next to it is George Bush saying, The only moral issue after the war in which a couple of million of people were killed and the country was devastated and they’re still dying from chemical warfare, is: What about the bones of our pilots?
GEORGE BUSH the First, when he was running for president in 1988, was asked to comment on the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner over international airspace killing all 290 passengers. He said, “I will never apologize for the United States, I don’t care what the facts are.”
THE INTENTIONS are noble. In fact, what happened after the shooting down of the airliner? The captain of the ship got an award, some high medal, the ship when it came back, the USS Vincennes, was greeted in the port with great applause and so on. Actually, the U.S. Naval Institute Journal published an interesting article by another commander, David Carlson, who was commander of a nearby vessel, and he said he couldn’t understand it. He said that they saw this Iranian commercial airliner coming up right in international airspace, and the USS Vincennes focused its high tech radar system on it and was moving forward to shoot it down, and they couldn’t understand what these guys were doing. He said they called the Vincennes the “Robo Cruiser,” or some such term. That’s in the U.S. Naval Institute proceedings.
IN THE discussions about the attack of Iraq and the occupation, it seems that if these weapons of mass destruction are ever found, then that would eliminate all the criticism. There’s no principled dissent in terms of international law, the Nuremberg Tribunal principles or the UN Charter. Are you surprised that none of the allegations that were made, from drones of death to mobile chemical labs have been verified?
VERY SURPRISED. I have a feeling if you looked at Boulder High School, if somebody started digging out in the back fields, you’d probably find stuff from some chemistry or biology lab that could in theory be used to make chemical and biological weapons. The fact that they haven’t found anything is mind-boggling. I took for granted they must have the facilities. But there are plenty of things that aren’t discussed, like for example, why didn’t the Iraqis overthrow Saddam Hussein? Well, if you destroy a society and you force the population to become dependent on a tyrant, they don’t have any basis for overthrowing him.
If you look at other cases, there’s very good reason to agree with the Westerners who know Iraq best, and are cut out of the American press for that reason: Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, the two UN administrators. They had hundreds of people going around Iraq, they were getting information from all over the place. They are very knowledgeable. I think they probably know Iraq better than any Westerners. They both resigned in protest over the sanctions, which Halliday called “genocidal.” They’re very respected European UN diplomats with lots of experience. They said the sanctions are destroying the society. They’re strengthening the tyrant. They’re compelling people to rely on him. He was a brutal tyrant, but he ran a very efficient food distribution system and people just relied on him for survival. So you didn’t get what you got in other places.
Actually, if you look at the record of the guys who are in Washington right now, at least some people know that they supported Saddam Hussein through his worst atrocities. But he wasn’t the only one. There’s quite a rogues gallery that they supported. Like take Ceausescu in Romania, he was comparable to Saddam Hussein. He was a monstrous tyrant. The Reagan and Bush I administrations supported him to the last minute, when he was overthrown from within by Romanians. Now they take credit for having overthrown him. Mobutu was another. Mobutu, another killer, was the first person invited to the Bush I White House. They supported Suharto, Marcos and Duvalier to the very end. All these guys were overthrown from within, despite enormous U.S. support. There’s no reason to think that that might not have happened with Saddam Hussein.
So that’s a question that’s overlooked. Why were we supporting Saddam Hussein right up until the invasion of Kuwait? Why wouldn’t we let the Iraqis overthrow him? There’s another simple question, too. You don’t know, when you invade a country, what’s going to happen. There could have been a humanitarian catastrophe. The fact that you’re willing to invade a country and risk that puts you on the same level as say, Khrushchev, when he put nuclear missiles in Cuba. It’s criminal lunacy. The fact that the worst didn’t happen doesn’t make it less criminal lunacy. It’s still a criminal lunacy. It holds in this case, too.
RAHUL MAHAJAN, in his new book Full Spectrum Dominance poses the question: If Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and he faced annihilation, and he didn’t use these weapons that he was alleged to have, then under what circumstances would he use them?
U.S. ANALYSIS, including the CIA and intelligence agencies, who all assumed that he must have some weapons of mass destruction capacity, as I did and everyone did, they all predicted that he’s not going to use them, but if he’s driven to desperation, then he will use them. That’s another risk that Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld and the rest were willing to take. They were willing to drive Saddam Hussein to the point where he might use weapons of mass destruction. Just as they were willing to take the risk that there could be a huge humanitarian catastrophe. All of these are criminal lunacy.
ANTONIO GRAMSCI, who helped popularize the term “hegemony,” wrote in 1925, “A main obstacle to change is the reproduction by the dominating forces of elements of the hegemonic ideology. It’s an important and urgent task to develop alternative interpretations of reality.” How does someone develop “alternative interpretations of reality,” as Gramsci suggests?
I RESPECT Gramsci a lot, but I think it’s possible to paraphrase that comment, namely, just tell the truth. Instead of repeating ideological fanaticism, dismantle it, try to find out the truth, and tell the truth. Does that say anything different? It’s something any one of us can do. Remember, intellectuals internalize the conception that they have to make things look complicated, otherwise what are they around for? But it’s worth asking yourself how much of it really is complicated. Gramsci is a very admirable person, but take that statement and try to translate it into simple English. Is it complicated to understand, or to know how to act?
Editor’s Note: We have our own exceptions to the Great Chomsky. Formidable as he is, Chomsky in our view leans too far to the center in his liberaloid equation of Nazism with Communism, or more precisely, Sovietism. The old “curse on both your houses” sort of thing which is a trademark of the antic-communist left. We regard that as historically erroneous and essentially wrongheaded politically, as it defeats the whole idea of offering socialism as an alternative to capitalism. Consider this para:
“Nevertheless, if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were crushed by overwhelming outside force, they wouldn’t have had any trouble running occupied Europe. The Russians had very little problem running Eastern Europe through façades, and again, that’s another very brutal regime. In fact, if you look through history, it usually works. The cases where there are uprisings against imperial rule are pretty rare. It happens, but it’s not the norm.
Very brutal by what standard? More honest and precise would be to say that the Soviet period has its share of issues and flaws, the Stalinist period being the most controversial for Communists and anti-communists, but that as a rule there was no comparison—especially during the postwar epoch— between the degrees of terror and brutalization conducted by the Nazis and fascists worldwide and the communist governments, and that is even without weighing the political purpose of these antipodal systems. For more on this topic see Michael Parenti’s REFLECTIONS ON THE OVERTHROW OF COMMUNISM and other materials of similar interest in our audio section.