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Chomsky re Burma. Anyone there?

In view of Chomsky's support for Free Burma last weekend in Cambridge, I
pass this on. Was anyone there who can report what he said, press etc?

dawn star, euro-burmanet, paris

"Humanitarian Intervention" Noam Chomsky Boston Review 2/ 94

The first question that comes to mind about "humanitarian intervention"
whether the category exists. Are states moral agents? Or were
Adam Smith, and a host of others correct in concluding that they
act in the interests of domestic power - in Smith's day, the "merchants
manufacturers" who were "by far the principal architects" of policy and
whose interests were "most peculiarly attended to," whatever the effects
others; in ours, corporate and financial power centers, increasingly
transnational in scale? A second obvious question has to do with those
are to be in charge: what do their institutions and record lead us to

There is ample documentary material supporting the belief that states
moral agents, in fact uniformly so. 

Without having read the texts, I presume that when the invasion of
Afghanistan began to go sour,
pre-Gorbachev Pravda portrayed it as having begun with "blundering
to do good" though most people now recognize it to have been a
mistake" because Russia "could not impose a solution except at a price
costly to itself;" it was an "error" based on misunderstanding and
yet another example of "our excess of righteousness and disinterested

The quoted phrases are those used to describe Kennedy's
invasion of South Vietnam, later expanded to all of Indochina, at the
dissident extreme, well after the Tet offensive convinced US business
leaders that the enterprise should be liquidated (Anthony Lewis, John
Fairbank). There is no need to sample the harsher parts of the spectrum.

Furthermore, these examples generalize, though it is true that only in
cultures with a deeply totalitarian strain do we find such notions as
"anti-Soviet" or "anti-American," applied to the miscreants who see
something other than righteousness and benevolence in the actions of
noble leaders; imagine the reaction to a book on "anti-Italianism" in
or Rome, or any society with a functioning democratic culture.

The pattern is familiar since biblical days. But the conventional
pronouncements plainly do not suffice to refute skepticism about the
morality of states. It is necessary to review the record, which reveals,
unequivocally, that the category of "humanitarian intervention" is
vanishingly small.

One might take the heroic stand that in the special case of the United
States, facts are irrelevant. Thus the Eaton Professor of the Science of
Government at Harvard instructs us that the United States must maintain
"international primacy" for the benefit of the world, because its
identity is defined by a set of universal political and economic
namely "liberty, democracy, equality, private property, and markets"
(Samuel Huntington). Since this is a matter of definition, so the
of Government teaches, it would be an error of logic to bring up the
factual record. What may have happened in history is merely "the abuse
reality," an elder statesman of the "realist" school explained 30 years
ago; "reality itself" is the unachieved "national purpose" revealed by
evidence of history as our minds reflect it," and that shows that the
"transcendent purpose" of the United States is "the establishment of
equality in freedom in America," and indeed throughout the world, since
"the arena within which the United States must defend and promote its
purpose has become world-wide" (Hans Morgenthau).

Assuming these doctrines, it would be an elementary error, in evaluating
Washington's promotion of human rights, to consider the close
between US aid and torture, running right through the Carter years,
including military aid and independent of need, an inquiry that would be
pointless to undertake as Shultz, Abrams, et al. took the reins. And our
love of democracy is also immune to empirical evaluation. 

We may put aside the conclusions of years of scholarship, recently
updated for the 1980s by
Reagan State Department official Thomas Carothers: democratization in
America was uncorrelated (in fact, negatively correlated) with US
influence, and the United States continued "to adopt prodemocracy
as a means of relieving pressure for more radical change, but inevitably
sought only limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not
upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the United
has long been allied." We need not waste words on the nature of these
"traditional structures." In practice, "democracy" has been defined in
terms of outcome, not conditions and process. But that cannot affect
is true by definition of our "national identity."

Those who are still not satisfied can be offered the doctrine of "change
course," soberly invoked whenever the stance of noble intent becomes
impossible to sustain. True, bad things have been done in the past for
understandable reasons, but now all will be different. So our terrorist
wars against the church and other deviants in Central America in the
leaving the region littered with hundreds of thousands of tortured and
mutilated victims and ruining its countries perhaps beyond recovery, was
really a war with the Russians. 

Now we will "change course" and lead the way to a bright future. 
The same line of argument had been used to dismiss
as irrelevant the enthusiastic support for "that admirable Italian
gentleman" Mussolini (FDR, 1933) and for the moderate Hitler, both
the Bolshevik threat; the resurrection of fascist collaborators and
destruction of the anti-fascist resistance worldwide after the World
the overthrow of democracies and support for neo-Nazi monsters
the world in subsequent years; and on, and on. Similarly, the second
superpower invoked the threat of the Evil Empire as it carried out its
atrocities at home and in the region.

To evaluate these useful doctrines, we must again investigate cases,
impossible here. What such inquiry reveals is that for both superpowers,
the threat of the other served primarily as a device of population
providing pretexts for actions taken on quite different grounds.
Furthermore, we discover that policies were hardly different before and
after the Cold War. True, Woodrow Wilson needed different pretexts. He
protecting the country from the Huns, not the Russians, when he invaded
Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where his warriors - as viciously
as the Administration in Washington - murdered and destroyed,
virtual slavery, dismantled the constitutional system because the
Haitians could not see the merits of turning their country into a US
plantation, and established the National Guards that ran the countries
violence and terror after the Marines finally left.

The story has been the same since the origins of the Republic. The first
great massacre, of the Pequots, was imposed upon us by "base Canadian
fiends," the President of Yale University explained. Thomas Jefferson
attributed the failure of "the benevolent plan we were pursuing here for
the happiness of the aboriginal inhabitants of our vicinities" to the
English enemy, who forced upon us "the confirmed brutalization, if not
extermination of this race in our America. . . ." And on through the
conquest of the national territory, the Philippines, the marauding in
"backyard," and the rest of the disgraceful history, continuing through
Cold War without essential change - though as a global power, the United
States by then placed Third World intervention in a much broader context
domination and control.

As the Cold War ended, new pretexts had to be devised.

 George Bush celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall by invading Panama,
installing the
regime of a tiny minority of bankers and narco-traffickers who, as
predicted, have turned Panama into the second most active center for
cocaine money laundering in the Western Hemisphere, the State Department
concedes, the United States still holding first place. 

The Red Menace having disappeared, he was protecting us from Hispanic
 led by the arch-demon Noriega, transmuted from valued friend to
of Attila the Hun, in standard fashion, when he began to disobey orders.

And we were soon to learn that in the Middle East, long the major target
our intervention forces, the "threats to our interests . . . could not
laid at the Kremlin's door" (Bush National Security Strategy Report,
after decades of deception, the Soviet pretext can no longer be
dredged up to justify traditional Pentagon-based industrial policy and
intervention forces, so it is "the growing technological sophistication"
the Third World that requires us to strengthen the "defense industrial
base" (AKA high tech industry) and maintain the world's only massive
intervention forces - a shift of rhetoric that at least has the merit of
edging closer to the reality: that independent nationalism has been the
prime target throughout.

The end of the Cold War has broader effects on intervention policy than
change of pretext. As US forces bombarded slums in Panama, Elliott
noted that for the first time, the United States could intervene without
concern for a Soviet reaction anywhere. Many have observed that the
disappearance of the Soviet deterrent "makes military power more useful
a United States foreign policy instrument . . . against those who
contemplate challenging important American interests" (Dimitri Simes,
Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dec.
1988). Such considerations aside, a rational person will recognize that
policy flows from institutions, institutions remain stable, and thus
intervention is likely to be undertaken, when deemed necessary, for much
the same reasons as before.

It is in this light that a reasonable person will evaluate policy
pronouncements. Suppose that Brezhnev had announced that the USSR would
longer be content with containing the Evil Empire; rather, it would move
a policy of "enlargement" of the community of free and democratic
societies. If they did not merely collapse in ridicule, rational people
would ask just how the USSR had been defending freedom and democracy

And they would react exactly the same way when Clinton's National
Security Adviser explains that we can now go beyond containment to
"enlargement - enlargement of the world's free community of market
democracies," adding that we are "of course" unlike others in that "we
not seek to expand the reach of our institutions by force, subversion or

A reasonable person will ask just how we have been protecting
democracy and markets, and will quickly discover our antagonism to
democracy (unless "top-down" rule by the traditional gentle hands can be
assured) and to markets (for us, that is; they are fine, indeed
for the weak, who are not entitled to the massive state intervention and
protection that has always been a leading feature of policy, as in every
successful developed society). As for our distaste for "force,
or repression" - again, no words need be wasted.

It is a useful exercise to compare the actual reaction to Anthony Lake's
announcement of the new Clinton foreign policy with the reaction that
minimal rationality would dictate. We can learn a good deal about our
political and intellectual culture by carrying it out.

It is not that the reaction lacked honesty. 

Thus The New York Times chief diplomatic correspondent, Thomas Friedman,
 "the Administration's foreign policy vision" quite accurately: its
"essence" is "that in a world
in which the United States no longer has to worry daily about a Soviet
nuclear threat, where and how it intervenes abroad is increasingly a
of choice"; the insight of Simes and others, when we understand the
"nuclear threat" appropriately. 

The "essence" of policy was clarified further the following day in a 
on the conclusions of the White House  panel on intervention, 
announcing the end of the era of altruism. No more
"nice guy," as in the days when we turned much of the world into
and deserts. 

Henceforth intervention will be where and how US power
chooses, the guiding consideration being: "What is in it for us?" - the
words highlighted in the Times report. To be sure, the "vision" is
in appropriate rhetoric about "democracy" and all good things, the
accompaniment whatever is being implemented, and by whom, hence
- carrying no information, in the technical sense.

The declared intent, the record of planning, and the actual policies
implemented, with their persistent leading themes, will not be
by someone seriously considering "humanitarian intervention," which, in
this world, means intervention authorized or directed by the United

Consider, for example, the torture of Cubans, intensified with Cold War
pretexts removed. It has two major elements: first, to ensure that the
island is returned to its status as a US economic dependency and haven
rich tourists, drug traffickers, and the like, perhaps under a facade of
democracy (with outcome controlled). Second, to punish Cubans for the
of disobedience. Servants elsewhere must be taught the heavy cost of
standing up to the Enforcer.

Since these are natural policy imperatives, we find them quite
It was not enough to slaughter millions of people in Indochina and
three countries; two decades later, its people must still be ground to
by economic warfare to teach the proper lessons, while in our peculiarly
American way we whimper piteously about the tragic fate we have suffered
the hands of our Vietnamese tormentors, setting "guidelines" that they
follow for entry into our "civilized world" - and relaxing our grip only
when the business community comes to fear that substantial profits are
being sacrificed.

Or consider Nicaragua, now reduced by US violence and economic warfare
virtually the level of Haiti, with thousands of children starving to
on the streets of Managua and far worse conditions in the countryside.
people must suffer much more; the United States is nowhere near

In October 1993, the US-run international economic institutions (IMF,
World Bank) 
presented new demands to the government of Nicaragua. It must reduce
its debt to zero; eliminate credits from the national bank; privatize
everything to ensure that poor people really feel the pain - losing
for example, if they cannot pay. Nicaragua must cut public expenditures
$60 million, virtually eliminating much of what remains of health and
welfare services, while infant mortality rises along with disease,
malnutrition, and starvation, offering new opportunities to condemn the
"economic mismanagement" of the despised enemy.

The $60 million figure was perhaps selected for its symbolic value. Last
year the already privatized banks shipped $60 million abroad, following
sound economic principles: playing the New York stock market is a far
efficient use of resources than giving credits to poor bean farmers. The
bean harvest was lost, a catastrophe for the population, though the
sophisticated understand that such considerations are irrelevant to
economic rationality. Nicaragua has now been ordered to fully privatize
banks, to ensure that what capital there is will be efficiently used,
consequences that are evident.

On Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, 100,000 people are now starving to death,
with aid only from Europe and Canada. Most are Miskito Indians. Nothing
more inspiring than the laments about the Miskitos after a few dozen
killed and many forcibly moved by the sandinistas in the course of the
terrorist war, a "campaign of virtual genocide" (Reagan), the most
"massive" human rights violation in Central America (Jeane Kirkpatrick),
far outweighing the slaughter, torture, and mutilation of tens of
of people by the neo-Nazi gangsters they were directing and arming, and
lauding as stellar democrats, at the very same time. 

What has happened to the laments, now that 100,000 are starving to

The answer is simplicity itself. Human rights have purely instrumental
value in the
political culture; they provide a useful tool for propaganda, nothing

Ten years ago the Miskitos were "worthy victims," their suffering
attributable to official enemies; now they have joined the vast category
"unworthy victims" whose far worse suffering can be added to our
considerable account. The pattern is remarkably uniform in time and
along with the impressive inability to perceive it.

Not surprisingly, terrorism has the same status. 

When the State Department confirmed that its Honduran-based terrorist
forces were authorized to
attack agricultural cooperatives, Michael Kinsley, again at the liberal
dovish extreme, cautioned against thoughtless condemnation of this
policy. Such international terrorist operations cause "vast civilian
suffering," he agreed, but they may nevertheless be "sensible," even
"perfectly legitimate," if they "undermine morale and confidence in the
government" that Washington seeks to overthrow. Terror is to be
by "cost-benefit analysis," which we are authorized to conduct to
whether "the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in" yields
"democracy," in the special sense of US political culture. Our wholesale
terrorism need satisfy only the pragmatic criterion; retail terrorism by
others, who lack our innate perfection, is the "plague of the modern
to be punished with arbitrary harshness by the same judge and
amidst a chorus of praise for his unparalleled virtue.

As in the case of Vietnam and Cuba, so we now stand in judgment over
Nicaragua for its crimes against us. In September, the Senate voted
to ban any aid if Nicaragua fails to return or give adequate
(as determined by Washington) for properties of US citizens seized when
Somoza fell - assets of US participants in the crushing of the beasts of
burden by the tyrant who had long been a US favorite, and whose
National Guard was supported by the Carter Administration right through
massacre of tens of thousands of people in July 1979 - and beyond.
before, the Senate had cut off aid until Nicaragua proves that it is not
engaged in international terrorism, the stern judges being those who
condemned by the World Court for the "unlawful use of force" against
Nicaragua, and ordered to pay compensation, which would have amounted to
billions of dollars; naturally Washington, with the applause of
intellectual opinion, dismissed the Court with contempt as a "hostile
forum" (New York Times). US threats finally compelled Nicaragua to
the claims for reparations after a US-Nicaragua agreement "aimed at
enhancing economic, commercial and technical development to the maximum
extent possible," Nicaragua's agent informed the Court. The withdrawal
just claims having been achieved by force, Washington has now abrogated
agreement, suspending its trickle of aid with demands of increasing
depravity and gall. The press maintains its familiar deafening silence.

Torture of Vietnamese, Cubans, Nicaraguans, Iraqi children, and others,
a policy priority for the reasons already mentioned, which are
in the Third World, though excluded from our well-insulated political
culture. The prevailing mood was captured by a leading Brazilian
theologian, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns of São Paulo: throughout the
"there is hatred and fear: When will they decide to invade us," and on

The Nicaraguan case raises another issue that will not be overlooked by
serious people considering the prospects for "humanitarian
The leader of such intervention will be a state that is remarkable not
for its violence, impudence, and moral cowardice, but also for its
lawlessness, not only in recent years. Washington's dismissal of the
Court decision had its counterpart when Woodrow Wilson effectively
disbanded the Central American Court of Justice after it had the
to uphold Costa Rican and Salvadoran claims that the United States was
violating their sovereignty by imposing on Nicaragua, safely occupied by
Wilson's troops, a treaty granting the United States perpetual rights
over any canal. 

The United States has sought to undermine the UN ever since it
fell "out of control" in the 1960s. Washington is far in the lead in
vetoing Security Council resolutions in these years, followed by
with France a distant third and the USSR fourth. The record in the
Assembly is similar on a wide range of issues concerning human rights,
observance of international law, aggression, disarmament, and so on,
the facts are rarely reported, being useless for power interests. The
United States record at the 1989­p;90 Winter session of the UN, right
the Berlin Wall fell, is particularly informative in this respect; I
reviewed it elsewhere, and there is no space to do so here. Such facts,
available in abundance, have yet to disrupt the chorus of self-praise.

The standard rendition of the unreported facts is that "the Soviet veto
the hostility of many Third World nations made the United Nations an
of scorn to many American politicians and citizens," though with these
disruptive elements gone and the UN safely under US rule, "it has proved
be an effective instrument of world leadership, and, potentially, an
that can effect both peace and the rule of law in troubled regions"
Broder, Washington Post). The same message has resounded through the
doctrinal system with scarcely a discordant note - yet another
that any dictator would admire.

Nothing changes as we move to the new Administration. Clinton won great
praise for his courage in launching missiles at a defenseless enemy
loss of American lives (only expendable Iraqi civilians). In a typical
reaction, the Washington Post praised him for "confronting foreign
aggression," relieving the fear that he might not be willing to resort
violence as freely as his predecessors; the bombing refuted the
belief that "American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era was
to be forever hogtied by the constraints of multilateralism" - that is,
international law and the UN charter. 

At the Security Council, Clinton'sAmbassador defended the resort to
force with 
an appeal to Article 51 of theUN Charter, which authorizes the use of
force in self-defense 
against armed attack until the Security Council takes action, such
self-defense being
authorized when its necessity is "instant, overwhelming, and leaving no
choice of means and no moment for deliberation," according to standard
interpretations. To invoke Article 51 in bombing Baghdad two months
an alleged attempt to assassinate a former president scarcely rises to
level of absurdity, a matter of little concern to commentators.

The prospective leader of "humanitarian intervention" is also notorious
its ability to maintain a self-image of benevolence whatever it does, a
trait that impressed de Tocqueville 150 years ago. Observing one of the
great atrocities, he was struck that Americans could deprive Indians of
their rights and exterminate them "with singular felicity, tranquilly,
legally, philanthropically, without shedding blood, and without
violating a
single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world." It was
impossible to destroy people with "more respect for the laws of
he wrote. So it has always been, to this day.

Several qualifications must be added. The United States is not
significantly different from others in its history of violence and
lawlessness. Rather, it is more powerful, therefore more dangerous, a
danger magnified by the capacity of the elite culture to deny and evade

A second qualification is that intervention undertaken on the normal
grounds of power interests might, by accident, be helpful to the
population. Such examples exist. The most obvious recent one is
invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 after years of murderous Khmer
attacks on Vietnamese border areas; under comparable conditions, the
States would probably have nuked Phnom Penh. The Vietnamese invasion
removed Pol Pot, terminating major atrocities, though that was not the
motivating factor. And we recall the response in the West to the prime
example of "humanitarian intervention" in recent years. The United
and its allies at once reconstituted the defeated Khmer Rouge at the
border so that they could resume their depredations. There was furious
denunciation of the "Prussians of Asia" who had dared to remove Pol Pot
(New York Times). The doctrinal system shifted gears: instead of
the issue of MIAs, we would henceforth punish Vietnam for the crime of
ridding Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge. When it became impossible to deny
Vietnamese troops had withdrawn, the system shifted smoothly back to the
old pretext - which remains unsullied by any notice of the lack of
about MIAs from earlier wars, the atrocious US treatment of POWs in
Vietnam, Korea, and the Pacific War, or the obscenity of the entire
enterprise of holding Vietnamese to account for what they have done to

Furthermore, unlike states, people are moral agents. Occasionally, the
population has compelled the state to undertake humanitarian efforts. I
need not discuss the Somalian intervention, transparently cynical from
first days. But consider a real example: the protection zone that the
Administration reluctantly extended to the Kurds in northern Iraq, after
tacitly supporting Saddam Hussein as he crushed the Shiite and Kurdish
uprisings. Here public opinion played a decisive role, overcoming the
Administration's commitment to the rule of a unified Iraq by an "iron
fist," whether wielded by Saddam or some clone, as Washington explained
way of the Times chief diplomatic correspondent.

The sincerity of the concern for the Kurds is demonstrated by what
as public attention waned. They are subject to Iraqi embargo in addition
the sanctions against Iraq. The West refuses to provide the piddling
required to satisfy their basic needs and keep them from Saddam's
embrace. The UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs prepared a 1/2
dollar relief and rehabilitation program for Kurds, Shiites, and
poverty-stricken Sunnis in central Iraq. The Clinton Administration -
"haunted by the pictures of Kurdish women and children cut down by
gas," the President assured the UN - offered $15 million, "money left
from contributions to a previous UN program in northern Iraq," the
of Middle East Watch reports.

Finally, the conclusions that a rational observer will draw about US-led
"humanitarian intervention" do not answer the question whether such
intervention should nevertheless be undertaken. That is a separate
to be faced without illusions about our unique nobility. We can, in
ask whether the pursuit of self-interest might happen to benefit others
particular cases, or whether unremitting public pressure might overcome
demands of the "principal architects" of policy and the interests they

There is also a more fundamental question: Can our political and
intellectual culture, our society and institutions, undergo the radical
transformations that would be required for an American citizen to use
phrases as "American humanitarian intervention" or "enlargement of the
world's free community of market democracies" without shame? The fate of
much of the world depends on the answer we give to that question.

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