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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Chomsky on US anti-Iran policy

Options on the table
BY NOAM CHOMSKY 23 August 2007

IN WASHINGTON a remarkable and ominous campaign is under way to "contain Iran," which turns out to mean "containing Iranian influence," in a confrontation that Washington Post correspondent Robin Wright calls "Cold War II."

The sequel bears close scrutiny as it unfolds under the direction of former Kremlinologists Condoleezza Rice and Robert M Gates, according to Wright. Stalin had imposed an Iron Curtain to bar Western influence; Bush-Rice-Gates are imposing a Green Curtain to bar Iranian influence.

Washington's concerns are understandable. In Iraq, Iranian support is welcomed by much of the majority Shia population. In Afghanistan, President Karzai describes Iran as "a helper and a solution." In Palestine, Iranian-backed Hamas won a free election, eliciting savage punishment of the Palestinian population by the United States and Israel for voting "the wrong way." In Lebanon, most Lebanese see Iranian-backed Hezbollah "as a legitimate force defending their country from Israel," Wright reports. And the Bush administration, without irony, charges that Iran is "meddling" in Iraq, otherwise presumably free from foreign interference.

The ensuing debate is partly technical. Do the serial numbers on the Improvised Explosive Devices really trace back to Iran? If so, does the leadership of Iran know about the IEDs, or only the Iranian Revolutionary Guards? Settling the debate, the White House plans to brand the Revolutionary Guards as a "specially designated global terrorist" force, an unprecedented action against a national military branch, authorising Washington to undertake a wide range of punitive actions.

The sabre-rattling rhetoric about "containing Iran" has escalated to the point where both political parties and practically the whole US Press corps accept it as legitimate and, in fact, honourable, that "all options are on the table," to quote the leading presidential candidates — possibly even nuclear weapons. "All options on the table" means that Washington is threatening war. The UN Charter outlaws "the threat or use of force." The United States, which has chosen to become an outlaw state, disregards international laws and norms. We're allowed to threaten anybody we want — and to attack anybody we want.

Cold War II also entails an arms race. The United States is proposing a $20 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, while increasing annual military aid to Israel by 30 per cent, to $30 billion over 10 years. Egypt is down for a $14 billion, 10-year deal. The aim is to counter "what everyone in the region believes is a flexing of muscles by a more aggressive Iran," says an unnamed senior US government official. Iran's "aggression" consists in its being welcomed within the region, and allegedly supporting resistance to US forces in neighbouring Iraq. Unquestionably, Iran's government is reprehensible. The prospect that Iran might develop nuclear weapons is deeply troubling. Though Iran has every right to develop nuclear energy, no one — including the majority of Iranians — wants it to have nuclear weapons. That would add to the much more serious dangers presented by its near neighbours Pakistan, India and Israel, all nuclear-armed with the blessing of the United States.

Iran resists US or Israeli domination of the Middle East but scarcely poses a military threat. Any potential threat to Israel might be overcome if the United States would accept the view of the great majority of its own citizens and of Iranians and permit the Middle East to become a nuclear-weapons free zone, including Iran and Israel, and US forces deployed there. One may also remember that UN Security Council Resolution 687, of 1991, to which Washington appeals when convenient, calls for "establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery."

Washington's feverish new Cold War "containment" policy has spread even to Europe. The United States wants to install a "missile defence system" in the Czech Republic and Poland that is being marketed to Europe as a shield against Iranian missiles. Even if Iran had nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, the chances of its using them to attack Europe are perhaps on a par with the chances of Europe's being hit by an asteroid. In any case, if Iran were to indicate the slightest intention of aiming a missile at Europe or Israel, the country would be vaporised.

Of course Vladimir Putin is deeply upset by the shield proposal. We can imagine how the United States would respond if a Russian anti-missile system were erected in Canada. The Russians have every reason to regard an anti-missile system as part of a first-strike weapon against them. As is well known, such a system could never impede a first strike, but it could conceivably impede a retaliatory strike. On all sides, "missile defense" is therefore understood to be a first-strike weapon, eliminating a deterrent to attack.

Even more obviously, the only military function of such a system with regard to Iran, the declared aim, would be to bar an Iranian deterrent to US or Israel aggression. The shield, then, ratchets the threat of war a few notches higher, in the Middle East and elsewhere, with incalculable consequences, and the potential for a terminal nuclear war. The immediate fear is that by accident or design, Washington's war planners or their Israeli surrogate might decide to escalate their Cold War II into a hot one.

There are many nonmilitary measures to "contain" Iran, including a de-escalation of rhetoric and hysteria all around, and agreeing to negotiations in earnest for the first time — if indeed all options are on the table.

Noam Chomsky's most recent book is "Interventions," a collection of his commentary pieces distributed by The New York Times Syndicate. Chomsky is emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.


Channel Crossings: Fading to Grey: Noam Chomsky

[24 August 2007]

by Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

You have to feel sorry for Midge ‘Ultravox’ Ure. In 1984 he co-wrote and produced the charity song “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, one of the fastest and biggest selling singles of all-time. There was, however, a problem: Ure had New Romantic leanings and had been known to sport a pencil moustache. Pop stardom can come in a fop shirt but rock canonisation cannot be bestowed upon someone who has embraced flamboyant period clothing.

This is where Bob Geldof, Ure’s other half, steps in. Knighted for his efforts with Band Aid and then Live Aid, Sir Bob’s image fitted well with that of the anti-establishment rock ‘n’ roll rebel with a message. Bedraggled, declamatory, and unafraid to financially bankrupt himself to better the plight of others, it was inevitable that the media would elevate Geldof to sainthood, just in time for the second coming of Bono. To this day Ure has been left to feel the eternal squire, only able to dream of shining armour.

Although Geldof’s band, The Boomtown Rats, had New Wave tendencies, these were balanced out by a DIY punk ethos perhaps brought about by Geldof’s melodic frailties. Coupled with the occasional socially conscious lyric, this gave the group a sense of credibility. As Geldof was singing about the tragedy of bored youths turning to violence, Ultravox were philosophising about “freezing breath on a window pane.” Oh Vienna, what does it all mean? Compared to Sir Bob’s pragmatic “Give us the f***ing money” verbal mugging, perhaps Ure’s problem is that he will always carry the load of plaintive wispiness that was the want of New Romantic manifestations. Or so I thought.

Recently I watched John Junkerman’s documentary Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in our Times. The film is a series of extracts from interviews and lectures given by the veteran intellectual, which surprisingly left me with the song “Fade to Grey” running through my head:

One man on a lonely platform
One case sitting by his side
Two eyes staring cold and silent
Show fear as he turns to hide
Feel the rain like an English summer
Hear the notes from a distant song
Stepping out from a backdrop poster
Wishing life wouldn’t be so long

Devenir gris

Aaah, we fade to grey (fade to grey)

Needless to say, after an hour and 20 minutes worth of social and political analysis, I did not expect to end up thinking about Ure’s 1980 Anglo-French outing with the group Visage. With the fan-base that he has, Chomsky could not be described as a man on a lonely platform, his eyes are mischievous and do not stare cold and silent, and he is not known for hiding from fear. Perhaps he does try to teach us to step out from the backdrop poster of our world put up by the ruling classes, the “investors” as Chomsky likes to call them. But then I remembered a couple of quotes that appear during the film’s opening sequence. The first was from The Japan Times: “No place for gray in Noam Chomsky’s black and white world.” As this particular quote echoed back to me after the film it left me wondering whether it was an accusation or a compliment.

Although the second quote I remembered could be construed as sarcastic, I believe that The San Francisco Examiner meant to be flattering: “Not about to fade away at the age of 73.” There are other title cards that are clearly laudatory, but one from the New Statesman is quite damning: “Chomsky’s anti-Americanism is just plain wrong.” These mix and match citations may simply be a documentary maker’s attempt at impartiality. There is this odd moment, though, when the final title card segues into the opening shot of a big sign at the door of an auditorium declaring: “Chomsky: Sold Out.” This is an academic that can pull in the crowds and apart from such names as Jacques Derrida and Terry Eagleton, celebrity academics with serious intellectual baggage are far and few between.

Subsequently we are treated to images of lecture-goers buying Chomsky merchandising. Whether or not Junkerman intended the irony here is unclear and it didn’t help me make up my mind about the quote from The Japan Times. Initially it sounds like an accusation, even an insult if you consider George W. Bush’s ‘you’re either with us or against us’ approach to global politics and Chomsky’s left-wing stance. It makes Chomsky sound uncompromising. This, however, is where things become fuzzy. Surely what you want from a social commentator is strong opinion. Being uncompromising in the face of bigotry, for instance, can only be a good thing.

If I allow the song to soundtrack my analysis – I do this as an academic and therefore at my own peril – I would be left feeling that grey is the hue of the void and that the passive action of fading implies that resistance is futile. This, as I’m sure you realise, is not positive. Ure, however, had his English lyrics translated into French to give more body to the track. Devenir gris is a translation that does what translations should not do because, to my mind, it betters the original. The verb devenir, in its more neutral manifestation simply means ‘to become’, reflecting to some extent the idea of fading. But it also has philosophical implications that denote the transformation of things through time, or if you prefer, the different stages beings go through to become what they will become in the future. This then bolsters the notion of fading, implying forward movement, progression, even evolution. Pessimism, here, becomes tempered by optimism.

At this juncture you may accuse me of being somewhat trite with regards to the intellectual might that is Noam Chomsky. This is not my intention. Bono may have called Chomsky “the Elvis of Academia” and the beginning to Junkerman’s film may parallel the stadium rocker’s commercial significance, but I suffered through too many lectures on generative grammar to take the man lightly.

Power and Terror left me understanding that Chomsky’s analyses of world events are built upon the elementary notion of precise redefinition of signifying codes, of received ideas, of media conceits. The New York Times said that his “political writings are maddeningly simple-minded”, I would argue that they are merely straightforward. When you have such an effortless encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary politics it makes it easier to uncomplicate things. This is a scientist who likes to strip things down to the bare nuts and bolts. It is this systematic application of lab technician method, this unrelenting appliance of logic to obtain the basic building blocks for definition that may, indeed, give Chomsky a black and white appearance. Chomsky responds to the lump accusation of oversimplification and America-bashing by pointing out that the US is acting like every other imperial power. But because it is the biggest, it is the most violent. This doesn’t seem to be anti-Americanism but anti-hegemony.

Chomsky’s ultimate aim, however, is to put things back together again, to return us to a grey environment but now thickened by his ‘maddeningly simple-mindedness’. In my limited way, this is what I attempted to do earlier on with the notion of ‘fading’. Through this kind of fundamental semantic manipulation, things invariably appear slightly different, our shade of grey has been altered, our devenir has changed.

What Power and Terror focuses on is our devenir immediately in the wake of 9-11. The film begins with Chomsky telling us that following the atrocities repressive governments all over the world – including those old heavy-weight sluggers the US and Russia – used this moment of fear to pursue their own agendas. Chomsky argues that although these aggressive programmes went against public opinion, a sense of false patriotism was translated into notions of loyalty and subordination.

This may recall Jurgen Habermas and his ideas on the legitimisation of crises. Habermas suggests that successive governments focus on dealing with crises rather than fundamental issues. Moreover, the solutions put forward contain within themselves the propensity for further crises enabling the powers that be to carry on governing in allopathic fashion, declaring that they have cured the malaise when they have only dealt with the symptoms. For Chomsky it would appear that bombing the Middle East or Chechnya do not address the fundamental issues that lie at the root of the original terrorist atrocities, they are not “efforts to understand the grievances that lie behind such crimes and to address the problems” (I’m quoting here from Chomsky’s 9-11). They do, however, answer a ‘patriotic’ call for revenge. But the cure contains the possibility of more crises, violence begets violence, we enter a phase of escalation (such as Bush’s surge strategy earlier this year), and so the cycle continues. But as both Chomsky and Habermas remind us: this is nothing new.

Sitting in his office at MIT, Chomsky tries to place the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in an historical perspective and picks up on themes expressed in the interview he gave to the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto and that forms the first chapter of 9-11. In typical Chomskian fashion, he begins by deconstructing the atrocities to see if there is anything fundamentally new here. This leads him to conclude that this is exactly the way imperial powers have been behaving for many centuries. Therefore, what makes this an historic event is not the shock value of the scale but the fact that the victim was an imperial power. An atrocity only happens to us, it cannot be perpetrated by us.

At the height of their empire, imperial powers often feel immune to such threats because they perceive themselves as benevolent parents, fatherlands and motherlands. “There’s good reason why we should be in favour of American hegemony,” Chomsky ironises, “the reason is that history has a natural course and the United States represents the realisation of history’s purpose.” He goes on to remind us that intellectuals that believe in this type of idea are simply repeating what such luminaries as John Stuart Mills declared at the height of the British Empire. In front of an audience at University College Berkeley, Chomsky recalls The Wall Street Journal “trying to find out the answer to George Bush’s plaintive question ‘Why do they hate us when we are so good?’.”

Chomsky is humorous. His humour is dry and forms an integral part of his greying process. We laugh as we might when feeling intellectually superior to something nakedly obvious. We find ourselves smirking along with the Berkeley crowd again when Chomsky, in his laconic style, recounts 1958 records concerning President Eisenhower and his observation that there was a campaign of hatred against the United States in the Middle East. This was because the US was perceived as supporting brutal regimes and stopping democratisation in order to protect its oil interests in the region. The report concludes that it was difficult to counter this perception because it was accurate.

Through use of extensive archival data, Chomsky reconstructs the past and attempts to alter our perspective on current events. His humour appears to help reinforce his apparent bias. But before we get carried away with our comfortable education and join a ‘Chomsky changed my life’ seminar, Chomsky offers a damning observation: the fact that Western intellectuals do not comment on such things as the US participation in the repression of Kurds by Turkey in the ‘90s is “a really impressive testimonial to the discipline of educated people.” Perhaps this ties in with another conclusion that the job of public intellectuals is to “keep the population from knowing things that they shouldn’t know.” In other words, their role is to protect the government against its own people.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. The humour is a window into Chomsky’s optimism. According to Chomsky, there is progress because as governments and investors act in their own interests, the people proact in the name of a civil society. From the Civil Rights movement to the very idea of Noam Chomsky, America is continually becoming more civilised. Freedom of speech coupled with the Freedom of Information Act compare well with other countries and, as Chomsky points out, there are “tendencies in high places that try to eliminate the freedoms that exist but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that they exist.”

For Chomsky it would appear then that the 9-11 atrocities have also had a civilising effect. The US population has for a long time been introverted, uncaring of the outside world. But the attacks were a wake up call which has led to more openness, sometimes even dissidence and activism, what Chomsky calls healthy phenomena.

What I found most interesting about this film were the instances when Chomsky would answer audience members that came up to him after his lectures. Adopting more of a teacher’s demeanour, he can be quite short to questions he himself finds to be simplistic. Someone asks him if he is concerned by CNN and MSNBC becoming mouthpieces for the US military and Chomsky responds by interrupting and stating that they are much less so than before. He repeats himself: “it’s not that they’re becoming, they always were and it’s less so than it used to be.”

I find myself agreeing with him here. Accusing CNN of being an agent for the US government would simply pander to cliché and a misconception of how news agencies function. People often believe that the deontological drive of the media should be objectivity, and yet we tend to buy our newspapers according to the opinions they express. The increasingly blank nature of CNN reporting is due, of all things, to a desire to appear balanced.

Chomsky goes on to remind his questioner that he was invited onto MSNBC for a discussion programme in November 2001 for the first time. The media is in a phase of opening up. Someone else asks him to explain the mechanism by which the government influences the media to control public opinion. This is met with a furrowed brow and the answer “It doesn’t.” Chomsky makes an analogy:

Suppose somebody asked ‘How does the government convince General Motors to try to increase profit?’ It doesn’t make any sense. The media are huge corporations which share the interests of the corporate sector that dominates the government.

When questioned about capitalism, Chomsky borrows from Ghandi and suggests that it might be a good idea. But the state intervenes to stop capitalist institutions from being created so as to protect themselves from the ravages of the market. If I understand Chomsky correctly from the DVD’s bonuses, if there was capitalism as Adam Smith might have intended it, then free trade would be defined by free movement of labour. This, according to Chomsky, has regressed and, therefore, globalisation has declined. This may seem paradoxical if we consider the development of such associations as the European Union, but if we look closely at migration from Eastern Europe it is perhaps not ‘free’ as Smith would have understood it. Chomsky concludes that there is nothing special about state capitalism: “it does what it does.” There’s optimism for all the anti-consumerists out there.

Watching Power and Terror and seeing how much of Chomsky’s analytical method seemed concerned with the precise classification of terms, I felt sure this was a linguist’s interest in semantics. From his comments on such expressions as ‘the war on terror’ to the notion of the hypocrite to the Quaker slogan ‘speaking truth to power’, Chomsky takes pleasure in the act of perpetual definition.

He unravels the phrase ‘axis of evil’ by first suggesting that the term ‘evil’ refers to the monsters that inhabit the world of children’s literature. He wonders if in fact Bush’s speech writers didn’t plagiarise Indian epics perhaps in the hope of portraying Bush as Vishnu the perfect man who will drive evil from the world.

Chomsky goes on to remind us that the idea of an ‘axis’ refers back to the Nazis, Italy and Japan. This repositions the term, establishing its inappropriateness: Iraq and Iran were at war for 20 years, and North Korea is an isolated and easy target chosen, Chomsky hypothesises, to deflect the idea that US policy is targeting the Muslim world.

Unfortunately for me, feeling sure around Chomsky is a risky position to be in. Though language is one of the few areas where one can explore central human capacities, Chomsky states that his study in linguistics has had zero effect on his analyses of world events. This is probably the answer of a man tired after a long day of lectures. In the more relaxed setting of his office he is more expansive and suggests “David Hume two hundred and fifty years ago pointed out that the foundation of morals must be what we nowadays call generative grammar.” For Hume our actions are free but they are linked to a cause or motive, hence the implication of morality. Our actions are not, however, constrained and this allows us to be imaginative, spontaneous, creative, etc.

Whether it be Hume’s principles of morals or generative grammar there is, as Chomsky succinctly puts it “a set of principles we are capable of applying in novel situations.” But he is left to conclude that the link between his work in linguistics and his social commentary is spiritual rather than deductive. Interestingly, however, Chomsky’s reference to Hume indicates something that is blindingly obvious but that took me a while to realise: it aligns Chomsky with the school of neo-skepticism.

Chomsky lists a number of endangered species: democracy, human rights, socio-economic development. The prime endangered species he stresses are human beings themselves. The curve of destruction and that of civilisation seem locked in an unending race. Whichever one rises the fastest is what will determine the survival of the species and Chomsky concludes “that question is pretty much in the hands of people like you.” Chomsky passing on to a new generation or passing the buck? A bit of both, perhaps.

No matter what you think of Chomsky, you cannot doubt his commitment. By his own admission his activism has been all-consuming. But Power and Terror led me to ask why we should trust Chomsky’s understanding of things more than anyone else’s. Ultimately a collage of extended soundbites, it would be difficult to come up with an answer after watching Junkerman’s film.

The cut and paste effect of the film sometimes leaves us with the impression that Chomsky lists off atrocities perpetrated by imperial powers which, interesting as they may be, don’t necessarily move the argument forward. One such case is Chomsky’s reference to the Nuremburg trials. Chomsky tells us that during the trials a crime was defined as a war crime if it was perpetrated by the Germans and not by the Allied Forces. Therefore, the bombing of the dykes in Holland by the Germans is a war crime because at the time we didn’t do anything similar.

But, Chomsky continues, the bombing of the dams in North Korea by the United States a few years later was described with pride. Of course, I immediately recognise the hypocrisy that Chomsky is pointing to. But I am also left wondering if things aren’t more complicated than Chomsky makes them out to be. Is he, indeed, maddeningly simple-minded or can things be so limpid?

It would also be difficult to come up with an answer after reading 9-11, again because it is made up of edited interviews with frustratingly short answers. Ultimately what Chomsky is, or perhaps what he has become, is not a pessimist or an optimist, but a cynic. And I mean this in a positive way. Borrowing from Chomsky borrowing from The New York Times borrowing undoubtedly from Nietzsche (on more than one occasion during the film Chomsky refers to plagiarism, another notion the linguist appears to enjoy toying with), Chomsky has peered into the abyss of the future with the eye of a true skeptic. And being the intellectual he is I am sure that he has revelled in the abyss staring back at him in an equally skeptical manner.

Perhaps it is jealousy, perhaps it is because some of his followers appear like born again Christians drunk on the easy enlightenment of evangelical rants, I am at times untrustworthy of Chomsky’s effortlessness. Although I don’t always agree with the ideas of Chomsky, I agree with the idea of Chomsky. If you will allow me to fade to grey in this manner.

Raphael is maitre de conferences at the Sorbonne, Paris, where he lectures in English literature, Cultural Studies, Media Studies and Radio Journalism. Though born and bred in England, Raphael has spent much of his adult life travelling between London, Edinburgh, Dublin and the Continent. After a short career as a rock band front man and music critic, he worked for several years as a radio presenter/producer and is currently piloting the Radio Sorbonne project. His radio work mainly focuses on the analysis of British current affairs with a cultural angle as well as issues dealing with the reception of popular music. He is known in radio circles as the “Dr of Pop”. He completed his PhD in 2001 on the performances of postmodernity in contemporary British poetry and subsequently left his home in Britain to take up his post in Paris.

Pol Pot And Kissinger

Edward S. Herman


The hunt is on once again for war criminals, with ongoing trials of accused Serbs in The Hague, NATO raids seizing and killing other accused Serbs, and much discussion and enthusiasm in the media for bringing Pol Pot to trial, which the editors of the New York Times assure us would be "an extraordinary triumph for law and civilization" (June 24).

The Politics of War Criminality

There are, however, large numbers of mass murderers floating around the world. How are the choices made on who will be pursued and who will be granted impunity? The answer can be found by following the lines of dominant interest and power and watching how the mainstream politicians, media, and intellectuals reflect these demands. Media attention and indignation "follows the flag," and the flag follows the money (i.e., the demands of the corporate community), with some eccentricity based on domestic political calculations. This sometimes yields droll twists and turns, as in the case of Saddam Hussein, consistently supported through the 1980s in his war with Iran and chemical warfare attacks on Iraqi Kurds, until his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, transformed him overnight into "another Hitler." Similarly, Pol Pot, "worse than Hitler" until his ouster by Vietnam in 1979, then quietly supported for over a decade by the United States and its western allies (along with China) as an aid in "bleeding Vietnam," but now no longer serviceable to western policy and once again a suitable target for a war crimes trial.

Another way of looking at our targeting of war criminals is by analogy to domestic policy choices on budget cuts and incarceration, where the pattern is to attack the relatively weak and ignore and protect those with political and economic muscle. Pol Pot is now isolated and politically expendable, so an obvious choice for villainization. By contrast, Indonesian leader Suharto, the butcher of perhaps a million people (mainly landless peasants) in 1965-66, and the invader, occupier, and mass murderer of East Timor from 1975 to today, is courted and protected by the Great Powers, and was referred to by an official of the Clinton administration in 1996 as "our kind of guy." Pinochet, the torturer and killer of many thousands, is treated kindly in the United States as the Godfather of the wonderful new neoliberal Chile. President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger, who gave the go ahead to Suharto’s invasion of East Timor and subsequent massive war crimes there, and the same Kissinger, who helped President Nixon engineer and then protect the Pinochet coup and regime of torture and murder and directed the first phase of the holocaust in Cambodia (1969-75), remain honored citizens. The media have never suggested that these men should be brought to trial in the interest of justice, law, and "civilization."

U.S./Western Embrace of Pol Pot

The Times editorial of June 24 recognizes a small problem in pursuing Pol Pot, arising from the fact that after he was forced out of Cambodia by Vietnam, "From 1979 to 1991, Washington indirectly backed the Khmer Rouge, then a component of the guerrilla coalition fighting the Vietnamese installed Government [in Phnom Penh]." This does seem awkward: the United States and its allies giving economic, military, and political support to Pol Pot, and voting for over a decade to have his government retain Cambodia’s UN seat, but now urging his trial for war crimes. The Times misstates and understates the case: the United States gave direct as well as indirect aid to Pol Pot—in one estimate, $85 million in direct support—and it "pressured UN agencies to supply the Khmer Rouge," which "rapidly improved" the health and capability of Pol Pot’s forces after 1979 (Ben Kiernan, "Cambodia’s Missed Chance," Indochina Newsletter, Nov.-Dec. 1991). U.S. ally China was a very large arms supplier to Pol Pot, with no penalty from the U.S. and in fact U.S. connivance—Carter’s National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that in 1979 "I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot...Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him but China could."

In 1988-89 Vietnam withdrew its army from Cambodia, hoping that this would produce a normalization of relationships. Thailand and other nations in the region were interested in a settlement, but none took place for several more years "because of Chinese and U.S. rejection of any...move to exclude the Khmer Rouge. The great powers...continued to offer the Khmer Rouge a veto," which the Khmer Rouge used, with Chinese aid, "to paralyze the peace process and...advance their war aims." The Bush administration threatened to punish Thailand for "its defection from the aggressive U.S.-Chinese position," and George Shultz and then James Baker fought strenously to sabotage any concessions to Vietnam, the most important of which was exclusion of Pol Pot from political negotiations and a place in any interim government of Cambodia. The persistent work of the Reagan-Bush team on behalf of Pol Pot has been very much downplayed, if not entirely suppressed, in the mainstream media.

The Times has a solution to the awkwardness of the post-1978 Western support of Pol Pot: "All Security Council members...might spare themselves embarrassment by restricting the scope of prosecution to those crimes committed inside Cambodia during the four horrific years of Khmer Rouge rule." We must give the Times credit for semi-honesty in admitting that this is to avoid embarrassing the Great Powers. It is interesting, though, that the Times finds no real problem in the "dirty hands," and hypocrisy, so apparent in the lengthy support of war criminals, and that it offers no reflections on how "law and civilization" are served if the criminals were protected and supported for more than a decade by the forces of law and order.

Two Phases of Cambodian "Genocide"

The Times, along with everybody else in the mainstream media, also fails to mention that before Pol Pot came to power in 1975, the United States had devastated Cambodia for the first half of what a Finnish government’s study referred to as a "decade" of genocide (not just the four years of Pol Pot’s rule, 1975-78). The "secret bombing" of Cambodia by the Nixon-Kissinger gang may have killed as many Cambodians as were executed by the Khmer Rouge and surely contributed to the ferocity of Khmer Rouge behavior toward the urban elite and citizenry whose leaders had allied themselves with the foreign terrorists.

The U.S.-imposed holocaust was a "sideshow" to the Vietnam War, the United States bombing Cambodia heavily by 1969, helping organize the overthrow of Sihanouk in 1970, and in collaboration with its puppet Saigon government making period incursions into Cambodia in the 1960s and later. "U.S. B-52s pounded Cambodia for 160 consecutive days [in 1973], dropping more than 240,000 short tons of bombs on rice fields, water buffalo, villages (particularly along the Mekong River) and on such troop positions as the guerrillas might maintain," a tonnage that "represents 50 percent more than the conventional explosives dropped on Japan during World War II". This "constant indiscriminate bombing" was of course carried out against a peasant society with no airforce or ground defenses. The Finnish government study estimates that 600,000 people died in this first phase, with 2 million refugees produced. Michael Vickerey estimated 500,000 killed in phase one.

At the end of the first half of the decade of genocide, with the Khmer Rouge victorious and occupying Phnom Penh in April 1975, Cambodia was a shattered, embittered society, on the verge of mass starvation with crops unsowed and vast numbers of refugees in and around Phnom Penh suddenly cut off from the U.S. aid that had kept them alive. High U.S. officials were estimating a million deaths from starvation before the Khmer Rouge takeover. The Khmer Rouge forced a mass exodus from Phnom Penh, whose population they were in no position to feed, an action interpreted in the West as simply a completely unjustified exercise in vengeance.

There is no question but that the Khmer Rouge were brutal and killed large numbers. Michael Vickerey estimated 150-300,000 executed and an excess of deaths in the four years of Pol Pot rule of 750,000. David Chandler estimates up to 100,000 executions (Newsweek, June 30, 1997). The Finnish study estimated the total deaths in the Pol Pot years at a million, encompassing both executions and deaths from disease, starvation and overwork. Other serious studies of Cambodia yield comparable numbers.

Genocide in the Propaganda System

Throughout the "decade of genocide" the media’s performance fitted perfectly the propaganda model Noam Chomsky and I advanced in Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon, 1988). As the first phase was U.S.-sponsored, the Cambodian victims were "unworthy," and the hundreds of thousands killed and several million refugees were almost entirely ignored—the existence of "killing fields" was only discovered in phase two. Of 45 columns by Sydney Schanberg, who reported for the New York Times from Phnom Penh at the peak of the 1973 bombing, only three granted first phase refugee victims a few phrases to describe what was happening, and in not a single article did he interview at length one of their vast numbers in the nearby refugee camps.

Scholars uniformly pointed to the important contribution the first phase made to Khmer Rouge behavior in phase two: by destroying the fabric of society and providing the victors "with the psychological ingredients of a violent, vengeful, and unrelenting social revolution" (David Chandler). But for the mainstream media, phase one did not exist; Cambodian history began with Khmer Rouge genocide starting in April 1975. Now we had "worthy" victims in a "gentle land" undergoing terror based on Parisian intellectual/maoist theory, and reporters rushed to interview refugees in Thailand. Jean Lacouture, in a well-publicized book review in the New York Review of Books, claimed that the book, Cambodia: Year Zero, cited Pol Pot officials "boasting" that they had "eliminated" two million people. This claim was withdrawn by Lacouture after it was shown to be a fabrication (one of a number he advanced), but the two million figure remained authoritative, and it and other forgeries and fabrications have proved impossible to dislodge.

These convenient views prevail today: there is no phase one, although it is sometimes admitted in passing that the United States dropped some bombs on Cambodia before 1975 and aligned itself with the "resistance" (including Pol Pot) after 1978. All deaths in phase two are attributed to Pol Pot and his fanatical beliefs, so that it is reasonable to identify him as the unique villain deserving a war crimes trial. It can be suggested in the Canadian media that maybe Nixon and Kissinger are war criminals also (Thomas Walkum, "Let’s try Kissinger along with Pol Pot," Toronto Star, June 30, 1997), but not in the mainstream U.S. press. Even a scholar like Ben Kiernan, who wrote eloquently about the U.S. support of Pol Pot in the Reagan-Bush years, now places an op ed column in the New York Times (June 20, 1997) denouncing Pol Pot and calling for his trial, without even mentioning phase one or suggesting any compromising of the case by the aggressive post-1978 U.S. and Western support of the war criminal. Kiernan had been subjected to a furious red-baiting campaign by the right-wing fanatic Stephen Morris and Wall Street Journal editors, and in an excellent illustration of the working of "flak" is now busily proving his anti-Pol Pot credentials.

Anthony Lewis: Lying With Impunity

Another feature of the U.S. propaganda system is that contesting propaganda campaigns is not permissible, and results in a blackout and/or gross misrepresentation and vilification. As soon as Chomsky and I criticized media coverage of Cambodia, in 1977, we, and especially Chomsky, were accused of being apologists for Pol Pot. William Shawcross eventually (and ludicrously) blamed Chomsky for having paralyzed Western policy responses to genocide by his (and my) single review article in the Nation.

Those who attack alleged "defenders of Pol Pot" can lie with impunity. On June 23, Anthony Lewis jumped into the fray, boldly denouncing Pol Pot and urging his prosecution for war crimes. Lewis did mention the "bombing inflicted on the peasant society by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger," but only as an introduction to the fact that Pol Pot outdid our leaders. No suggestion of any causal relation between the bombing (etc.) and the "one million Cambodians [who] lost their lives" in phase two. Lewis also does not discuss whether, even if Pol Pot was worse, the toll under Nixon and Kissinger wasn’t high enough to be worthy of a war crimes trial.

Lewis then goes on: "A few Western intellectuals, notably Prof. Noam Chomsky, refused to believe what was going on in Cambodia. At first, at least, they put the reports of killing down to a conspiratorial effort by American politicians and press to destroy the Cambodian revolution." This is a multiple lie: First, we did not disbelieve the reports in general and were very clear that "gruesome" atrocities were being carried out. We did contest some blatant lies, like those of Lacouture, and media gullibility, which in this case, where points were being scored against an enemy. reached remarkable levels. Second, we never believed or said that there was any conspiracy going on, and regularly cited State Department experts as sources of plausible information. Third, we weren’t defending the "Cambodian revolution," and never believed that the propaganda campaign was designed to destroy it; in fact, we stressed that its spokespersons didn’t do, or even propose doing, anything to help Cambodians. We saw the propaganda campaign as aimed at Americans, to help reconstruct an imperial ideology that had been badly damaged by the Vietnam War.

Lewis goes on to speak of "explaining away reports of rights violations as a Western way of interfering in other countries," ignoring the fact that a vast stream of human rights reports on El Salvador, Guatemala, Turkey, Colombia, Peru, etc., have involved human rights violators funded and protected by the United States. In our writings on Cambodia, Chomsky and I often point out that the Indonesian invasion and genocidal actions in East Timor began in the same year that Pol Pot took power in Cambodia; and we stressed that in the case of East Timor, in contrast to Cambodia, the United States as the primary weapons supplier and with extensive economic relationships to Indonesia could have effectively protected human rights. But that genocide was carried out by an ally, was approved by U.S. officials, and silence prevailed in the U.S. media. The sanctimonious Anthony Lewis does not address this anomaly.

Lewis can lie and mouth his cliches about the need to bring his country’s preferred war criminals to trial without fear of reply because his newspaper gives him impunity from criticism. A letter from Chomsky answering Lewis’s lies, and several other letters doing the same, were refused publication in the New York Times.

The Collapsing Left

The left is so weak in the United States that establishment propaganda themes and untruths often become part of the left’s own intellectual apparatus. One critic of Manufacturing Consent, noting that even the antiwar leaders didn’t refer to U.S. policy in Vietnam as "aggression" or an "invasion," asked why we should expect more from the mainstream media? It didn’t occur to him that if the establishment view is so powerful as to define the discourse boundaries even for dissidents, that this shows an overwhelmingly potent propaganda system.

With the U.S. left today, the conventional wisdom on Cambodia, as on many other issues, frequently predominates. In an article in In These Times for July 29, Adam Fifield finds only Pol Pot guilty of genocide, plays down the U.S. role, and gives the conventional lie about Chomsky, who allegedly "disparaged the [news] accounts as fabrications aimed at demonizing Pol Pot’s noble revolution." As in the case of Anthony Lewis it is unlikely that the author ever bothered to look at any of Chomsky’s writings on Cambodia. The mainstream lie about Chomsky is reported without question in this left journal, just as in the New York Times, although in this case there is a right of reply.

A July 1997 piece on Cambodia by Philip S. Robertson Jr., in the Foreign Policy in Focus series issued by the supposedly left Institute for Policy Studies and Interhemispheric Resource Center, literally starts Cambodian history in 1975, gives a death toll of the Khmer Rouge period as 1.5-2 million, without mentioning any earlier events that might have contributed to the toll, expresses regret at the "impunity" of Cambodian civil servants, but nobody else, and urges that the United States "must continue the vital work of bringing Pol Pot and the remaining KR leaders to trial for genocide..."

With a left like this who needs a right?

Power as Justice

In one famous formulation, "the bigger the crime the smaller the penalty" (Friedrich Schiller). This is not unreasonable for single countries, but in international affairs we need a refinement: the bigger the crime the smaller the penalty only if you are the dominant power, servant of that power, or military victor. Though Germany was powerful, some Nazi leaders were executed for war crimes after the German defeat; Pol Pot may be tried because he is weak, a loser, and no longer useful to the Great Powers as he was from 1979 to the mid 1990s.

On the other hand, Suharto services U.S., Japanese, and other global interests, is protected by the hegemonic power, and is therefore a "moderate" rather than war criminal for Western elites and mainstream media. Henry Kissinger’s role in the Cambodian genocide, Chile, and East Timor, makes him a first class war criminal, arguably at least in the class of Hitler’s Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop, hanged in 1946. But Kissinger has the impunity flowing naturally to the leaders and agents of the victorious and dominant power. He gets a Nobel Peace prize, is an honored member of national commissions, and is a favored media guru and guest at public gatherings.



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