Demystifying U.S. foreign policy

Print edition : December 11, 1999

The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo by Noam Chomsky; Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1999; $15.95.

IN 1959, Noam Chomsky made a landmark attack on B. F. Skinner's behaviourism. Skinner argued that human behaviour, like animal behaviour, was fairly predictable and that it could be controlled. Concerned with the absence of human creativity in this model , Chomsky denounced Skinner's science and also the political implications of his work. Finding behaviourism to be scientifically banal, Chomsky argued that it tells "any concentration camp guard that he can do what his instincts tell him to do, but prete nd to be a scientist at the same time. So that makes it good, because science is good, or neutral, and so on." Anti-social tendencies, Skinner believed, could be muted by state action, something abhorrent to the anarchist in Chomsky.

Chomsky's sustained critique of U.S. foreign policy for over three decades comes from his belief in human creativity and his suspicion of the behaviourist assumptions of U.S. imperial pronouncements. The U.S. never claims to attack an adversary in the in terest of economic gain, but it has, since its founding in the 18th century, justified its interventions in the name of some higher, frequently moral (and pedagogical), power. James Madison justified U.S. power over the Americas with the concept of Manif est Destiny, and now Bill Clinton adopts the posture of human rights as the design for his overseas adventures. To herald the U.S. bombardment of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), Clinton quoted President Theodore Roosevelt who said that "unless you're willing to fight for great ideals, those ideals will vanish" (page 91). Roosevelt referred to the fight that thwarted the legitimate ambitions of Filipinos, Cubans and Puerto Ricans - all in the name of justice (what Rudyard Kipling called, withou t irony, the "white man's burden"). If the precedent for the U.S. intervention in Yugoslavia was from the Spanish-American War (1898), then the dictionary may have to be re-written to define anew words such as 'justice,' 'ideals' and 'human rights'.

If one counters the bad faith of the U.S. trumpet of good intentions, one frequently meets a Skinnerist submission to malevolence. This is the way things are, one is told, for Evil is a tragic inheritance of human nature. "The obviousness of disaster," t he philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote in the late 1940s, "becomes an asset to its apologists - what everyone knows no-one need say - and under cover of silence is allowed to proceed unopposed."

Neo-Skinnerism in the guise of Charles Murray and some persons within the Human Genome Project puzzle over those parts of our chemistry and biology that produce evil actions. The idea of Hitler's evilness exculpates processes within Germany from interrog ation and de-Nazification. Much the same attitude is taken today with Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. These men are seen as the spawn of Evil, ruling autocratically over rogue states. If they are dislodged, through massive violence, then the natur al (and neoliberal) goodness of people will be allowed to flourish. The recent biography (Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant) by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson paints such a simple-minded portrait of the conflict in the Balkans. The processes that le d to the crisis in the Yugoslavia or else in West Asia become irrelevant to this sort of blase cynicism.

The leader is Evil. He is the cause of the problem. To remove him is to solve the problem. In broad strokes, this has been the U.S. position on 'rogue states'. Chomsky's new book, The New Military Humanism, savages this simplicity to reveal the ba d faith with which the machinery of U.S. domination operates. Like his earlier studies, it takes the U.S. statements at face value and then demolishes their truth claims by reference to a mass of data. U.S. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, for ins tance, argues that the bombardment of Yugoslavia offers an example of the "saintly glow" of U.S. policy, since the state acted without any special interest for itself beyond its humanitarianism (page 14). "We had to act in the face of Evil: how could we have sat by and watched genocide proceed?" Such sentiments did not emerge during the Rwanda emergency, nor do they come when the US-International Monetary Fund routinely render people economic refugees in far greater numbers than the Kosovo crisis did. I nternational amnesia allowed the Tony Blair-Clinton project to don robes of moral glory, despite the shabbiness of those very garments.

Within the U.S. and in most of western Europe, there is a tussle going on between state-sanctioned xenophobia (mainly through draconian immigration controls) and liberal multiculturalism. Some people want to see states constituted around ethnic purity, w hereas others want diversity to be the cultural logic of states. But when it comes to most of the world, the logic of ethnic purity rules the day. The tacit U.S. support for a 'Free Tibet' comes alongside Washington's support for the Croatian ethnocide i n Krajina, for the Serb assault on Srebrenica - what U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher called "simplifying matters" (page 32). The Dayton Accord and the Wye Rivers Agreement continue the logic of partition of states on monocultural lines, a sure way to perpetuate conflict. Ethnocide and partition produce refugees. Once chaos is produced, has North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the European Community or the U.S. come forward as the champion of the ejected people? The 1997 Italian military intervention in Albania was undertaken in order to prevent a flood of Albanian refugees into Italy. The European Union (E.U.) was worried about the exodus of Kosovars into the rest of Europe, but what it failed to see was that the bombardment will certa inly lead to intensified migration of Kosovars into Europe, in search of a region that has not been bombed out of modernity. The strong anti-immigration rules in western Europe suggest the lack of humanism in NATO policy.

As the population of refugees increases with each new conflict, one would expect the United Nations to spend more money on the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). However, owing to the budgetary crisis in the U.N. (generated, mainly, by the refusa l of the U.S. to pay its dues), the UNHCR eliminated a fifth of its staff in January 1999 (page 37). By the good graces of humankind, the refugees of so many conflicts find the means to survive.

One cannot even offer an approximate figure for the number of the refugees, since the UNHCR recognises the definitional problems involved and the institutional scale at which one would have to work (the UNHCR hired its first professional statistician in 1993 and began its numbers project only in 1994). The UNHCR counts about 11.5 million refugees, a number that cannot be taken seriously if one adds those economic refugees who produce the 'footloose labour' catalogued by Jan Breman and other scholars.

The U.S. slash-and-burn of the U.N. comes as the U.S. puts itself forward as the champion of human rights. If the Rambouillet negotiations are any indication, the U.S. failed grossly on the human rights front. Chomsky, with great pains, goes over the U.S . assassination of the negotiations. Appendix B of the Agreement said that NATO should enjoy "free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY including associated airspace and territorial waters" (page 107). No sovereign state can a llow that. The Serbian National Assembly resolution passed on March 23 (the day before the attack) spelt out the language for 'political autonomy' that could have been the basis of discussion, but this was summarily rejected by the U.S. (page 112). Inste ad, there came the bombardment, which did not so much as alleviate real problems in Yugoslavia, as it intensified the ejection of Kosovo Albanians (page 21, page 81) and destroyed much of the extant civil society (page 133). The Kosovo Liberation Army (K LA) is now the sole authority in Kosovo, along with NATO, and it has driven other forces into the ground. The Serbs, further, are "unified from heaven - but by the bombs, not by God" (noted Alexsa Djilas, page 133). Furthermore, Chomsky notes the wilful destruction of Yugoslavia's infrastructure, notably Vojvodina, a province far from the conflict that was, until its devastation, a centre of democratic dissent (page 34). The New Humanism of NATO can be explained with the following analogy: "Suppose you see a crime in the streets, and feel that you can't just stand by silently, so you pick up an assault rifle and kill everyone involved: criminal, victim, bystanders" (page 156). This is the Blair-Clinton logic for humanitarian intervention.

Chomsky is not averse to humanitarian intervention: indeed he mentions as two credible examples the Indian assistance in East Pakistan in 1971 and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to end the Pol Pot terror in 1978 (page 75). The NATO intervention, how ever, comes not for humanitarian reasons, he argues, but to sustain the credibility of NATO (page 134 and page 145). Arms producers and dealers, construction companies (who will now 'rebuild' Yugoslavia) and NATO itself gain from the conflict (pages 138- 139). Chomsky lays out the bad faith of NATO, but he does not offer political and economic explanations of why the U.S. is so eager to expand NATO at this time. There is no discussion, for instance, on U.S. anxiety over the creation of the euro (a challe nge to the dollar), or on the attempt by the European Community to manage its defence itself. Without NATO, the U.S. will lose its leverage over Europe, and it will be not be able to exert itself to the edges of the Russian Federation. Chomsky's overall argument is not affected by these omissions, since he offers a clear and reasoned analysis of the rhetoric and action of NATO, much of it along the grain of Skinnerite behaviourism. One hopes for an Indian edition, not just for this book but for most of Chomsky's political oeuvre, in order to understand better the architecture of the new imperium.

Vijay Prashad is Assistant Professor, International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.

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