Understanding The American Empire
by Noam Chomsky
September 11 shocked many Americans into an awareness that they had
better pay much closer attention to what the US government does in
the world and how it is perceived. Many issues have been opened for
discussion that were not on the agenda before. That's all to the good.
It is also the merest sanity, if we hope to reduce the likelihood
of future atrocities. It may be comforting to pretend that our
enemies "hate our freedoms," as President Bush stated, but it is
hardly wise to ignore the real world, which conveys different
The president is not the first to ask: "Why do they hate us?" In a
staff discussion 44 years ago, President Eisenhower described "the
campaign of hatred against us [in the Arab world], not by the
governments but by the people". His National Security Council
outlined the basic reasons: the US supports corrupt and oppressive
governments and is "opposing political or economic progress"
because of its interest in controlling the oil resources of the
Post-September 11 surveys in the Arab world reveal that the same
reasons hold today, compounded with resentment over specific
policies. Strikingly, that is even true of privileged, western-
oriented sectors in the region.
To cite just one recent example: in the August 1 issue of Far
Eastern Economic Review, the internationally recognized regional
specialist Ahmed Rashid writes that in Pakistan "there is growing
anger that US support is allowing [Musharraf's] military regime
to delay the promise of democracy".
Today we do ourselves few favors by choosing to believe that "they
hate us" and "hate our freedoms". On the contrary, these are
attitudes of people who like Americans and admire much about the
US, including its freedoms. What they hate is official policies
that deny them the freedoms to which they too aspire.
For such reasons, the post-September 11 rantings of Osama bin
Laden - for example, about US support for corrupt and brutal
regimes, or about the US "invasion" of Saudi Arabia - have a
certain resonance, even among those who despise and fear him. From
resentment, anger and frustration, terrorist bands hope to draw
support and recruits.
We should also be aware that much of the world regards Washington
as a terrorist regime. In recent years, the US has taken or backed
actions in Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama, Sudan and Turkey, to name
a few, that meet official US definitions of "terrorism" - that is,
when Americans apply the term to enemies.
In the most sober establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, Samuel
Huntington wrote in 1999: "While the US regularly denounces various
countries as 'rogue states,' in the eyes of many countries it is
becoming the rogue superpower ... the single greatest external
threat to their societies."
Such perceptions are not changed by the fact that, on September 11,
for the first time, a western country was subjected on home soil to
a horrendous terrorist attack of a kind all too familiar to victims
of western power. The attack goes far beyond what's sometimes called
the "retail terror" of the IRA, FLN or Red Brigades.
The September 11 terrorism elicited harsh condemnation throughout
the world and an outpouring of sympathy for the innocent victims.
But with qualifications.
An international Gallup poll in late September found little support
for "a military attack" by the US in Afghanistan. In Latin America,
the region with the most experience of US intervention, support
ranged from 2% in Mexico to 16% in Panama.
The current "campaign of hatred" in the Arab world is, of course,
also fuelled by US policies toward Israel-Palestine and Iraq. The
US has provided the crucial support for Israel's harsh military
occupation, now in its 35th year.
One way for the US to lessen Israeli-Palestinian tensions would be
to stop refusing to join the long-standing international consensus
that calls for recognition of the right of all states in the region
to live in peace and security, including a Palestinian state in the
currently occupied territories (perhaps with minor and mutual
In Iraq, a decade of harsh sanctions under US pressure has
strengthened Saddam Hussein while leading to the death of hundreds
of thousands of Iraqis - perhaps more people "than have been
slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout
history", military analysts John and Karl Mueller wrote in
Foreign Affairs in 1999.
Washington's present justifications to attack Iraq have far less
credibility than when President Bush Sr was welcoming Saddam as
an ally and a trading partner after he had committed his worst
brutalities - as in Halabja, where Iraq attacked Kurds with
poison gas in 1988. At the time, the murderer Saddam was more
dangerous than he is today.
As for a US attack against Iraq, no one, including Donald Rumsfeld,
can realistically guess the possible costs and consequences.
Radical Islamist extremists surely hope that an attack on Iraq will
kill many people and destroy much of the country, providing
recruits for terrorist actions.
They presumably also welcome the "Bush doctrine" that proclaims the
right of attack against potential threats, which are virtually
limitless. The president has announced: "There's no telling how
many wars it will take to secure freedom in the homeland." That's
Threats are everywhere, even at home. The prescription for endless
war poses a far greater danger to Americans than perceived enemies
do, for reasons the terrorist organizations understand very well.
Twenty years ago, the former head of Israeli military intelligence,
Yehoshaphat Harkabi, also a leading Arabist, made a point that still
holds true. "To offer an honorable solution to the Palestinians
respecting their right to self-determination: that is the solution
of the problem of terrorism," he said. "When the swamp disappears,
there will be no more mosquitoes."
At the time, Israel enjoyed the virtual immunity from retaliation
within the occupied territories that lasted until very recently. But
Harkabi's warning was apt, and the lesson applies more generally.
Well before September 11 it was understood that with modern tech-
nology, the rich and powerful will lose their near monopoly of the
means of violence and can expect to suffer atrocities on home soil.
If we insist on creating more swamps, there will be more mosquitoes,
with awesome capacity for destruction.
If we devote our resources to draining the swamps, addressing the
roots of the "campaigns of hatred", we can not only reduce the
threats we face but also live up to ideals that we profess and that
are not beyond reach if we choose to take them seriously.
Noam Chomsky is the son of a Rabbi who changed the face of
linguistics and is known for his social activism.
Internet received - 4/10/2003