Failed States: The Abuse of Power & the Assault on Democracy

failed_states_coverNBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman visited North Korea a couple of weeks ago. Upon his return to the US he was subjected to the harshest of criticisms from the corporate press. His crime was that he called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “friend for life”. Host of ABC’s This Week George Stephanapolous was particularly irritated by Rodman’s heresy, asking him if he enjoyed “being friends with a mass murderer”. This treatment is quite standard when dealing with the crimes of official enemies but rare, if not non-existent, when looking at ourselves. Fortunately, there are exceptions to this practice. Noam Chomsky’s Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy is such an exception. Rigorously researched and cogently argued, Failed States reveals, in stark terms, how the US is a country that “regards [itself] as beyond the reach of domestic or international law, and hence free to carry out aggression and violence”. Covering a broad range of topics from the illegal invasion of Iraq to the undermining of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the policies outlined in this book carry grim implications for the future of the US and the world at large. Among the many examples that Chomsky cites is the fact that the Bush administration voted against a fissile materials ban (FISSBAN) in 2005. The UN ruling was 147 to 1. In addition to this, the administration exempted itself from Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Richard Grenell, the US spokesperson at the UN, defended this stance by saying “the treaty requires reductions . . . but not the elimination of weapons.” These facts are of special importance given the current hysteria surrounding Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, which to this day has not been empirically verified.

A great deal of historical precedent is reviewed as well. In a section titled “the Democratization Bandwagon” Chomsky details the 1958 revolution in Iraq. In this year Abdul Karim Qasim rose to power and extricated Iraq from the “Anglo-American condominium over the world’s major energy resources.” Five years later the CIA, then under the Kennedy administration, overthrew the Qassim government. Internal records reveal that the main fear of US planners was that Qassim might “use Saudi petrodollars to improve the living standards of poor Arabs everywhere.” Interestingly, this anti-democratic spirit persists in similar forms today. Take for example a recent Associated Press article by Pamela Sampson which derided the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez for spending his country’s oil wealth on “social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs”. Samspon went on to note that the gains from these social programs were “meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi.” The absurdity of Sampson’s statement was explained by Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting who observed that Chavez’s policies helped to create a society where “the proportion of Venezuelans living on less than $2 a day [fell] from 35 percent to 13 percent over three years”, “meager” facts to the properly educated.

Militant opposition to democracy took on several ideological forms in Failed States. One of the more prominent versions was that of Reagan devotee Thomas Carothers who maintained “where democracy appears to fit well with US security and economic interests, the United States promotes democracy. Where democracy clashes with other significant interests, it is downplayed or even ignored.” The Carothers doctrine is applied perhaps most vigorously in the Gulf petromonarchies where the US remained ominously silent as Prince Khalifa, with the crucial assistance of a US-backed Saudi invasion, crushed a democratic uprising in Bahrain. It’s useful to contemplate why no one has asked, or cares to ask, president Obama if he enjoys “being friends” with this “mass murderer”? Likewise, no one asked George Bush Sr. if he enjoyed “being friends with a mass murderer” when he “pardoned Orlando Bosch, a notorious international terrorist and associate of [Luis] Posada, despite objections by the Justice Department, which urged that he be deported as a threat to national security.” This decision and other examples are cited in the text which meet the second criteria of a “failed state”, namely the “inability or unwillingness [of a state] to protect . . . citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction”.

The threat of “destruction”, regrettably, is not hyperbolic. Next to the grave threat of nuclear war is the threat of environmental disasters. In the summer of 2005 the Bush administration defied the international community by sabotaging the G8 Climate Summit held in Gleneagles Scotland. Departing from the firmly entrenched scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, the Bush government claimed “global warming is too uncertain a matter to justify anything more than voluntary measures”. Proclamations of this kind were made despite the unanimous agreement among the G8 nations and the US National Academy of Sciences that “the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify prompt action.” Predictably, the Obama administration has not broken this perilous course, as evidenced in the State Department’s decision to release a “environmental impact statement” on the environmentally destructive Keystone XL pipeline. Concealed from the public was the fact that this “statement” was authored by a contractor for the Canadian oil company TransCanada. Expectedly, the report “makes no recommendation about whether the project should be built but presents no conclusive environmental reason it should not be,” to borrow the antiseptic language of the New York Times. It’s worth asking how the press would respond if a scientific study was released by the National Institutes of Health on the biological effects of chain-smoking only to discover the study was authored by corporate representatives from Lucky Strike. At the very least the NIH would be recognized as corrupt.

In the concluding chapters Chomsky shifts his focus to domestic policies, noting the severe “democratic deficit” that has swept over the US. This deficit was highlighted in several contexts: environmental policy, military spending, funding of education, expenditures on social security, and transformation of healthcare. Most insightful was the comparison between the healthcare system in Australia and that in the US. Australia, unlike the US, has strict guidelines which forbids deceptive advertising in the drug industry. US policymakers sought to circumvent these regulations but were unsuccessful. The obstinate stance of the US was attributed to the fact that “the right to deceit must be guaranteed to the immensely powerful and pathological ‘persons’ that have been created by radical judicial activism.”

These exercises in imperial savagery merit reflection as today marks the ten year anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, a war crime that “repudiated a century of slow, intermittent and often painful progress towards an international system based on cooperative security, multilateral decision-making, collective action, agreed norms of behavior and a steadily growing fabric of law.” These are the words of former NATO planner Michael MccGuire, words that surely will be omitted from the ringing tributes to the “heroism” and “bravery” of the invasion soon to saturate corporate airwaves, another sign of the growing “democratic deficit”. Also today Noam Chomsky will be in London to give a talk at the annual Edward Said Memorial Lecture. The decades of physical and intellectual energy Chomsky has expended in the service of the oppressed is much too deep to capture in the pages of a single book. Failed States , nonetheless, is an essential read for those of us who take seriously the possibilities of real peace and democracy even when it offends the more enlightened “mass murderers”.


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