New Internationalist

New book by Noam Chomsky

Issue 441

The Arab world is in revolutionary turmoil. How will America react and adapt? To understand the role of the US in the Middle East we need to understand some simple – but concealed – truths. In a new book published this month Noam Chomsky does just that.

Mohammed Ameen/Reuters
When the US is involved in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, that's called ‘stabilization’. If Iran tries to increase its influence, that's destabilization. Mohammed Ameen/Reuters

Actually, there are many problems in the world where it’s difficult even to imagine a solution, but this one happens to be particularly easy. There is almost universal agreement on what the solution should be – backed by the Arab League; by the Organization of Islamic States, including Iran; by Europe; by the United Nations; by international law; in fact, essentially by everyone. So how come it isn’t solved? That’s the second question.

Well, there are some straightforward answers to these questions, but they do not enter discussion within Western ideology and doctrine, and the answers that are so simple are quite remote from general conventions. So let me say a few words about them.

With regard to the threat of Iran, there is a very authoritative answer, provided by military and intelligence reports to Congress in April 2010.

They say that the threat of Iran is not a military threat. Iran has virtually no offensive military capacity. Its military spending is quite low, of course a minuscule fraction of US military spending, but also pretty low by regional standards. They point out that the goal of Iranian military strategy is to try to defend the borders of the country and, in case they’re attacked, to try to delay invading forces sufficiently so as to permit a negotiated settlement.

‘The US doesn’t care one way or the other what the government is like. It wants it to follow orders to improve stability.’

They discuss the question of whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons and say that if they are – which they don’t know – the goal would be deterrence to prevent an attack on Iran. That’s basically the story.

What then is the threat? Well, the threat is also explained. The primary threat is that Iran is engaged in destabilizing its neighbours. It’s trying to increase its influence in surrounding countries, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US is, of course, involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that is not destabilizing. That’s stabilizing.

The US is there to improve stability and, if Iran tries to have influence in its neighbouring countries, that’s destabilizing.

Now that’s very standard terminology in foreign policy literature and discussion. I mean, it reaches to the point that the former editor of Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal, was able to say with a straight face and with no reaction from anyone that the United States had to destabilize Chile under Allende; had to destabilize the government of Chile, and overthrow it, and establish a dictatorship in order to bring about stability. It sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t when you understand that ‘stability’ has a meaning. It means US control. So we had to destabilize the country that was out of US control in order to bring about stability, and it’s the same problem with regard to Iran. It doesn’t follow orders and, therefore, it is destabilizing the regional situation.

There is another problem with Iran: namely, it supports terrorism. So, for example, you may believe today that you’re celebrating National Liberation Day but in terms of Western doctrine what you’re celebrating is the success of terrorism and, in fact, the success of aggression against Israel in southern Lebanon… Iranian aggression… So you’re celebrating Iranian aggression against Israel in southern Lebanon and its success, and celebrating terrorists and terrorism (quoting Israeli Labor Party high official Ephraim Sneh). It’s not Liberation Day.

You have to understand how to interpret these matters properly if you want to enter into the framework of imperial discourse. This is not just the US and Israel. It’s Western Europe as well. There are a few exceptions.

So that’s the threat of Iran.

The description is not incorrect. Iran does not follow orders. It’s trying to maintain its sovereignty. This is all quite independent of what anyone thinks about its government. You may have the worst government in the world, but that’s not the issue here. The US doesn’t care one way or the other what the government is like. It wants it to follow orders to improve stability. That’s the Iranian threat.

Honest broker?

What about Israel and Palestine? Well, there is an official version of that conflict, too. You see it every day in the newspapers. The United States is an honest broker and neutral arbiter trying to bring together two sides which are irrational and violent. They won’t agree, and the United States is trying to settle the conflict between them.

That’s why there are proximity talks where the US mediates between the two irrational opponents: the Palestinians and the Israelis. That’s the official version. You can read it every day. There’s also a reality. I won’t run through the whole story, but the basic facts are clear.

In 1967, Israel conquered the Occupied Territories and there was a Security Council resolution calling for settlement of the conflict: UN 242. It called for Israel to withdraw to its borders and, in return, there should be guarantees for the security of every state in the region and recognition of every state in the region within recognized borders. There’s nothing in it for the Palestinians. They are mentioned only as refugees. So that’s in essence UN 242, which everyone agrees is the general framework for political settlement.

Well, in 1971, four years later, President Sadat of Egypt offered Israel a full peace treaty, with nothing for the Palestinians. In return, total withdrawal from the Occupied Territories – and he really only cared about the Sinai. Jordan made a similar offer a year later. Israel had to make a decision. Are they going to choose security or expansion?

A peace treaty with Egypt means security. Egypt was, of course, the major Arab military force. But they were, at that time, working hard to expand into Egyptian territory – into the Sinai, northeast Sinai – in order to establish a city and settlements and so on. They made what I think was the most fateful decision in the history of the country. They decided to prefer expansion to security, so they rejected the peace offer. Now the crucial question always is: ‘What is the Master going to do?’ So, ‘What will Washington decide?’

And there was a bureaucratic battle in Washington about this. Henry Kissinger won the internal battle and he was opposed to negotiations. He was in favour of what he called ‘stalemate’ – no negotiations. So he backed Israel’s decision to choose expansion over security and that led very quickly to the 1973 war, the October War. It was a very close thing for Israel, and Israel and the United States recognized that they could not simply disregard Egypt.

Then began a long period of diplomatic interaction, ending up at Camp David a couple of years later, when the United States and Israel essentially accepted Sadat’s 1971 proposal. This is called, in Western doctrine, a great diplomatic victory for President Carter and Henry Kissinger. In fact, it was a diplomatic catastrophe. They could have accepted it in 1971 and the cost of refusal was a very dangerous war and close to nuclear war; a lot of suffering and misery.

Actually, what the United States and Israel had to accept at Camp David was partially, from their point of view, harsher than Sadat’s 1971 offer because by this time the issue of Palestinian national rights had entered the international agenda. So they had to accept, at least in words, some form of Palestinian national rights in the territories from which Israel was supposed to withdraw.

Meanwhile, in the intervening period, in 1976 there was another crucial event. In 1976, the major Arab states – Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and others – brought to the Security Council a resolution calling for a settlement of the conflict in terms of UN 242. It had all the relevant wording of 242 with its guarantees for rights and so on, but with an addition – a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories.

‘You can control history as long as you have a submissive intellectual class, which the West does have.’

Israel refused to attend the session. The United States vetoed the resolution. It vetoed a similar one in 1980. Now when the United States vetoes a resolution, it’s a double veto. First of all, it doesn’t happen; and secondly, it’s vetoed from history. So if you look at even the scholarly record it’s rarely mentioned, and there certainly isn’t anything in the media or general discussion.

The events that I’ve just described didn’t happen. They’re not there. You have to search very hard to find a reference to them. That’s one of the prerogatives of an imperial power. You can control history as long as you have a submissive intellectual class, which the West does have. I won’t go through the rest of the history, but it continues pretty much like that.

Up to the present, the United States and Israel are out of the world. With rare and temporary exceptions, they have continued to block the political settlement that has almost universal agreement, which means that, if there were serious proximity talks today, conducted maybe from Mars, then the two antagonists that would be brought together would be the United States and the world. You could have proximity talks between them and, if they could reach an agreement, there would be a settlement of this problem. Well, that’s the factual record.

Making crucial facts invisible

Of course, historical events are always more complex than a simple description, but these are the basic facts. They’re not controversial. There’s no serious question about them, but they aren’t part of general discourse about these topics because they lead to the wrong conclusions and, therefore, they’re excluded. If I talk about this in the West in most places, the words are almost unintelligible. It’s not unique to this case. It reveals the extraordinary power of imperial ideology.

Even the simplest, the most obvious, the most crucial facts are invisible if they do not accord with the needs of power.

I’m by no means the first person to talk about this. George Orwell wrote about it, for example. He was discussing how in England, a free society, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force, just voluntarily, and he gave a few reasons. The most important one was a good education. He said, if you have a good education, you have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say – or even to think, for that matter. This essay of his is not very well known because it wasn’t published, maybe proving his thesis. This was to be the introduction to his book Animal Farm.

Everyone has read Animal Farm. It’s about the totalitarian state, the totalitarian enemy and its evil ways. But, just to prevent too much self-satisfaction, Orwell wrote an introduction commenting on free England. It was not published. It was found many years later in his unpublished papers. It is not his greatest essay, but his point is basically correct. Unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force, and a good education is an effective means to reach this result. Well, unless we can become capable of thinking the thoughts that are banned by imperial ideology, understanding of what’s happening in the world is going to be very difficult to attain.

Extracted with permission from Noam Chomsky’s latest book, Power and Terror: Conflict, Hegemony, and the Rule of Force published worldwide by Pluto Press and in North America by Paradigm Publishers on 20 April.

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