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Millennial Visions and Selective Vision

 By Noam Chomsky

( more about Chomsky )

Part I

The new year opened with familiar refrains, amplified by the numerology: a chorus of self-adulation, somber ruminations about the incomprehensible evil of our enemies, and the usual recourse to selective amnesia to smooth the way. A few illustrations follow, which may suggest the kind of evaluation that would have appeared, were different values to prevail in the intellectual culture.

Let's begin with the familiar litany about the monsters we have confronted through the century and finally slain, a ritual that at least has the merit of roots in reality. Their awesome crimes are recorded in the newly-translated "Black Book of Communism" by French scholar Stephane Courtois and others, the subject of shocked reviews at the transition to the new millennium. The most serious, at least of those I have seen, is by political philosopher Alan Ryan, a distinguished academic scholar and social democratic commentator, in the year's first issue of the New York Times Book Review (Jan 2).

The "Black Book" at last breaks "the silence over the horrors of Communism," Ryan writes, "the silence of people who are simply baffled by the spectacle of so much absolutely futile, pointless and inexplicable suffering." The revelations of the book will doubtless come as a surprise to those who have somehow managed to remain unaware of the stream of bitter denunciations and detailed revelations of the "horrors of Communism" that I have been reading since childhood, notably in the literature of the left for the past 80 years, not to speak of the steady flow in media and journals, film, libraries overflowing with books that range from fiction to scholarship... -- all unable to lift the veil of silence. But put that aside.

The "Black Book", Ryan writes, is in the style of a "recording angel." It is a relentless "criminal indictment" for the murder of 100 million people, "the body count of a colossal, wholly failed social, economic, political and psychological experiment." The total evil, unredeemed by even a hint of achievement anywhere, makes a mockery of "the observation that you can't make an omelet without broken eggs."

The vision of our own magnificence alongside the incomprehensible monstrosity of the enemy -- the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy" (John F. Kennedy) dedicated to "total obliteration" of any shred of decency in the world (Robert McNamara) -- recapitulates in close detail the imagery of the past half century (actually, well beyond, though friends and enemies rapidly shift, to the present). Apart from a huge published literature and the commercial media, it is captured vividly in the internal document NSC 68 of 1950, widely recognized as the founding document of the Cold War but rarely quoted, perhaps out of embarrassment at the frenzied and hysterical rhetoric of the respected statesmen Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze; for a sample, see my "Deterring Democracy", chap.1.

The picture has always been an extremely useful one. Renewed once again today, it allows us to erase completely the entire record of hideous atrocities compiled by "our side" in past years. After all, they count as nothing when compared with the ultimate evil of the enemy. However grand the crime, it was "necessary" to confront the forces of darkness, now finally recognized for what they were. With only the faintest of regrets, we can therefore turn to the fulfillment of our noble mission, though as New York Times correspondent Michael Wines reminded us in the afterglow of the humanitarian triumph in Kosovo, we must not overlook some "deeply sobering lessons": "the deep ideological divide between an idealistic New World bent on ending inhumanity and an Old World equally fatalistic about unending conflict." The enemy was the incarnation of total evil, but even our friends have a long way to go before they ascend to our dizzying heights. Nonetheless, we can march forward, "clean of hands and pure of heart," as befits a Nation under God. And crucially, we can dismiss with ridicule any foolish inquiry into the institutional roots of the crimes of the state-corporate system, mere trivia that in no way tarnish the image of Good versus Evil, and teach no lessons, "deeply sobering" or not, about what lies ahead -- a very convenient posture, for reasons to obvious to elaborate.

Like others, Ryan reasonably selects as Exhibit A of the criminal indictment the Chinese famines of 1958-61, with a death toll of 25-40 million, he reports, a sizeable chunk of the 100 million corpses the "recording angels" attribute to "Communism" (whatever that is, but let us use the conventional term). The terrible atrocity fully merits the harsh condemnation it has received for many years, renewed here. It is, furthermore, proper to attribute the famine to Communism. That conclusion was established most authoritatively in the work of economist Amartya Sen, whose comparison of the Chinese famine to the record of democratic India received particular attention when he won the Nobel Prize a few years ago.

Writing in the early 1980s, Sen observed that India had suffered no such famine. He attributed the India-China difference to India's "political system of adversarial journalism and opposition," while in contrast, China's totalitarian regime suffered from "misinformation" that undercut a serious response, and there was "little political pressure" from opposition groups and an informed public (Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, "Hunger and Public Action", 1989; they estimate deaths at 16.5 to 29.5 million). The example stands as a dramatic "criminal indictment" of totalitarian Communism, exactly as Ryan writes. But before closing the book on the indictment we might want to turn to the other half of Sen's India-China comparison, which somehow never seems to surface despite the emphasis Sen placed on it. He observes that India and China had "similarities that were quite striking" when development planning began 50 years ago, including death rates. "But there is little doubt that as far as morbidity, mortality and longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over India" (in education and other social indicators as well). He estimates the excess of mortality in India over China to be close to 4 million a year: "India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame," 1958-1961 (Dreze and Sen). In both cases, the outcomes have to do with the "ideological predispositions" of the political systems: for China, relatively equitable distribution of medical resources, including rural health services, and public distribution of food, all lacking in India. This was before 1979, when "the downward trend in mortality [in China] has been at least halted, and possibly reversed," thanks to the market reforms instituted that year.

Overcoming amnesia, suppose we now apply the methodology of the "Black Book" and its reviewers to the full story, not just the doctrinally acceptable half. We therefore conclude that in India the democratic capitalist "experiment" since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire history of the "colossal, wholly failed...experiment" of Communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more since, in India alone.

The "criminal indictment" of the "democratic capitalist experiment" becomes harsher still if we turn to its effects after the fall of Communism: millions of corpses in Russia, to take one case, as Russia followed the confident prescription of the World Bank that "Countries that liberalize rapidly and extensively turn around more quickly [than those that do not]," returning to something like what it had been before World War I, a picture familiar throughout the "third world." But "you can't make an omelet without broken eggs," as Stalin would have said. The indictment becomes far harsher if we consider these vast areas that remained under Western tutelage, yielding a truly "colossal" record of skeletons and "absolutely futile, pointless and inexplicable suffering" (Ryan). The indictment takes on further force when we add to the account the countries devastated by the direct assaults of Western power, and its clients, during the same years. The record need not be reviewed here, though it seems to be as unknown to respectable opinion as were the crimes of Communism before the appearance of the "Black Book".

The authors of the "Black Book", Ryan observes, did not shrink from confronting the "great question": "the relative immorality of Communism and Nazism." Although "the body count tips the scales against Communism," Ryan concludes that Nazism nevertheless sinks to the lower depths of immorality. Unasked is another "great question" posed by "the body count," when ideologically serviceable amnesia is overcome. To make myself clear, I am not expressing my judgments; rather those that follow from the principles that are employed to establish preferred truths -- or that would follow, if doctrinal filters could be removed.

On the self-adulation, a virtual tidal wave this year -- perhaps it is enough to recall Mark Twain's remark about one of the great military heroes of the mass slaughter campaign in the Philippines that opened the glorious century behind us: he is "satire incarnated"; no satirical rendition can "reach perfection" because he "occupies that summit himself." The reference reminds us of another aspect of our magnificence, apart from efficiency in massacre and destruction and a capacity for self-glorification that would drive any satirist to despair: our willingness to face up honestly to our crimes, a tribute to the flourishing free market of ideas. The bitter anti-imperialist essays of one of America's leading writers were not suppressed, as in totalitarian states; they are freely available to the general public, with a delay of only some 90 years.


Part II

In fairness, it should be mentioned that the chorus of self-adulation that closed the millennium was disrupted by some discordant notes. Questions were raised about the consistency of our adherence to the guiding principles: the "new doctrine" that "universal standards of human rights were putting at least some limits on sovereignty," as illustrated by Kosovo and East Timor -- the latter an interesting example, since there was no issue of sovereignty except for those who accord Indonesia the right of conquest authorized by the guardian of international morality.

These topics were brought forth in the major think piece in the New York Times Week in Review, a front-page article by Craig Whitney (Dec. 12). He concluded that the "new doctrine" may be failing its "harshest test": the Russian assault on Grozny. Apparently Whitney is not convinced by the explanation offered by President Clinton four days earlier: our hands are tied because "a sanctions regime has to be imposed by the United Nations," where it would be blocked by the Russian veto. Clinton's dilemma was illustrated shortly before, when, by a vote of 155-2 (US, Israel), the UN once again called for an end to Washington's sanctions against Cuba: the harshest in the world, in force since 1962, but becoming much more severe, with a brutal human toll, when the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy" finally faded away. These are not a "sanctions regime," however. They are "strictly a matter of bilateral trade policy and not a matter appropriate for consideration by the UN General Assembly," the State Department responded. So there is no contradiction. And furthermore, the UN vote was yet another non-event, at least for those who receive their information from the national press, which did not report it.

Let's defer the two convincing illustrations of the "new doctrine" and turn to other tests of our dedication to the high ideals proclaimed, more instructive ones than the Russian assault in Chechnya, which does not pose "the harshest test" for the "new doctrine" or in fact any test at all -- perhaps the reason why it is constantly adduced, in preference to serious tests. However outrageous the Russian crimes, it is understood that very little can be done about them, just as little could be done to deter the US terrorist wars in Central America in the 1980s or its destruction of South Vietnam, then all Indochina, in earlier years. When a military superpower goes on the rampage, the costs of interference are too high to contemplate: deterrence must largely come from within. Such efforts had some success in the case of Indochina and Central America, though only very limited success as the fate of the victims clearly reveals -- or would, if it were conceivable to look at the consequences honestly and draw the appropriate conclusions.

Let's turn, then, to more serious tests of the "new doctrine": the reaction to atrocities that are easily ended, not by intervention but simply by withdrawing participation, surely the clearest and most informative case. The end of the year provided several such tests of the noble ideals. One, which requires separate treatment, is the move to escalate US-backed terror in Colombia, with ominous prospects. Several others illustrate with much clarity the content of the "new doctrine," as interpreted in practice. In December, there were many articles on the death of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, a Milosevic clone who enjoyed generally warm relations with the West, though his authoritarian style and corruption "drew scathing criticism from American and Western European officials." Nevertheless, he will be remembered as "the father of independent Croatia," whose "crowning achievement came in military operations in May and August 1995" when his armies succeeded in recapturing Croatian territory held by Serbs, "sparking a mass exodus of Croatian Serbs to Serbia" (Michael Jordan, Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 13, fairly typical). The "crowning achievement" also received a few words in a lengthy NY Times story (Dec. 11) by David Binder, who has reported on the region with much distinction for many years: Tudjman reluctantly agreed to take part in the US-run Dayton negotiations in late 1995, after "he had all but accomplished his goal of driving ethnic Serbs from what he viewed as purely Croatian land" (Krajina).

The August phase of the military campaign, Operation Storm, was the largest single ethnic cleansing operation of those years. The UN reports that "approximately 200,000 Serbs fled their homes in Croatia during and immediately after the fighting," while "the few that remained were subjected to violent abuse." A few weeks afterwards, Richard Holbrooke, who directed Clinton's diplomacy, "told Tudjman that the [Croatian] offensive had great value to the negotiations" and "urged Tudjman" to extend it, he writes in his memoir "To End a War", driving out another 90,000 Serbs. Secretary of State Warren Christopher explained that "We did not think that kind of attack could do anything other than create a lot of refugees and cause a humanitarian problem. On the other hand, it always had the prospect of simplifying matters," in preparation for Dayton. Clinton commented that the Croatia's ethnic cleansing operation could prove helpful in resolving the Balkan conflict, though it was problematic because of the risk of Serbian retaliation. As reported at the time, Clinton approved a "yellow-light approach" or "an amber light tinted green," which Tudjman took to be tacit encouragement for the "crowning achievement." The massive ethnic cleansing was unproblematic, merely a "humanitarian problem," apart from the risk of reaction.

Reviewing the Croatian operations in a scholarly journal, Binder observes that "what struck me again and again...was the almost total lack of interest in the U.S. press and in the U.S. Congress" about the U.S. involvement: "Nobody, it appears, wanted even a partial accounting" of the role of "MPRI mercenaries" (retired U.S. generals sent to train and advise the Croatian army under State Department contract) or "the participation of U.S. military and intelligence components" ("The Role of the United States in the Krajina Issue," Mediterranean Quarterly, 1997). Direct participation included bombardment of Krajina Serbian surface-to-air missile sites by U.S. naval aircraft to eliminate any threat to Croatian attack planes and helicopters, supply of sophisticated U.S. technology and intelligence, a "key role" in arranging transfer to Croatia of 30% of the Iranian weapons secretly sent to Bosnia, and apparently the planning of the entire operation. The International War Crimes Panel did investigate the much-admired offensive, producing a 150-page report with a section headed: "The Indictment. Operation Storm, A Prima Facie Case" (Ray Bonner, NY Times, March 21, 1999). The tribunal concluded that the "Croatian Army carried out summary executions, indiscriminate shelling of civilian populations and `ethnic cleansing'," but the inquiry was hampered by Washington's "refusal to provide critical evidence requested by the tribunal," and appears to have languished. The "almost total lack of interest" in ethnic cleansing and other atrocities committed by the right hands persists, illustrated once again at Tudjman's death as the Times Week in Review pondered the problem of our consistency in upholding the "new doctrine," revealed by the Chechnya quandary.

A still "harsher test" of the doctrine was the reaction to the acceptance of Turkey as a candidate for membership in the European Union in December. The ample coverage succeeded in overlooking the obvious issue: the huge terror operations, including massive ethnic cleansing, conducted with decisive U.S. aid and training, increasing under Clinton as atrocities peaked to a level far beyond the crimes that allegedly provoked the NATO bombing of Serbia. True, some questions were raised: a New York Times headline read: "First Question for Europe: Is Turkey Really European?" (Stephen Kinzer, Dec. 9). The U.S.-backed atrocities merit a phrase: Turkey's "war against Kurdish rebels has subsided," just as Serbia's far lesser "war against Albanian rebels" would have "subsided" had the U.S. provided Belgrade with a flood of high-tech weapons and diplomatic support while the press looked the other way. Shortly before, Kinzer had described how "Clinton Charm Was on Display in Turkey" (headline) as he visited earthquake victims, staring soulfully into the eyes of an infant he held tenderly, and demonstrating in other ways too his "legendary ability to connect with people" -- revealed so graphically in the huge terror operations that continue to elicit "almost total lack of interest" while we admire ourselves for dedication to human rights that is unique in history.

An explanatory footnote was added quietly in mid-December, as Turkish and Israeli naval forces, accompanied by a U.S. warship, undertook maneuvers in the Eastern Mediterranean, a none-too-subtle warning to "prod Syria to negotiate with Israel" under U.S. auspices, AP reported; or else. Another test of the doctrine was offered in mid-November, the tenth anniversary of the murder of 6 leading Latin American intellectuals among many others, including the rector of the country's leading university, in the course of yet another rampage by an elite battalion of the U.S.-run terrorist forces (called "the Salvadoran army"), fresh from another training session by Green Berets, capping a decade of horrendous atrocities. The names of the murdered Jesuit intellectuals did not appear in the U.S. press. Few would even recall their names, or would have read a word they had written, in sharp contrast to dissidents in the domains of the monstrous enemy, who suffered severe repression, but in the post-Stalin era, nothing remotely like that meted out regularly under U.S. control. Like the events themselves, the contrast raises questions of no slight import, but off the agenda.

Little need be said about the two examples offered as the conclusive demonstration of our commitment to high principles: East Timor and Kosovo. As for the Portuguese-administered territory of East Timor, there was no "intervention"; rather, dispatch of an Australian-led UN force after Washington at last agreed to signal to the Indonesian generals that the game was over, having supported them through 24 years of slaughter and repression, continuing even after major massacres in early 1999 and reports from credible Church sources that the death toll of a few months had reached 3-5000, about twice the level of Kosovo before the NATO bombing. After finally withdrawing his support for Indonesian atrocities, under mounting domestic and international (mainly Australian) pressure, Clinton continued to stand aside. There were no air-drops of food to hundreds of thousands of refugees starving in the mountains, nor anything more than occasional rebukes to the Indonesian military who continued to hold hundreds of thousands more in captivity in Indonesian territory, where many still remain. Clinton also refuses to provide meaningful aid, let alone the huge reparations that would be called for if the fine principles were meant at all seriously.

The performance is now presented as one of Clinton's great moments and a prime example of the stirring "new doctrine" of intervention in defense of human rights, ignoring sovereignty (which did not exist). Here amnesia is not really selective: "total" would be closer to accurate.

On Kosovo, the current version is that "Serbia assaulted Kosovo to squash a separatist Albanian guerrilla movement, but killed 10,000 civilians and drove 700,000 people into refuge in Macedonia and Albania. NATO attacked Serbia from the air in the name of protecting the Albanians from ethnic cleansing [but] killed hundreds of Serb civilians and provoked an exodus of tens of thousands from cities into the countryside" (Daniel Williams, Washington Post). Well, not quite: the timing has been crucially reversed in a manner that has by now become routine. In a detailed year-end review, the lead story of the Wall St. Journal (Dec. 31) dismisses the stories of "killing fields" that were crafted to prevent "a fatigued press corps [from] drifting toward the contrarian story [of] civilians killed by NATO's bombs," for example by NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, who provided atrocity stories based on KLA radio broadcasts, the Journal reports. But the report concludes nonetheless that the expulsions and other atrocities that did take place "may well be enough to justify the [NATO] bombing campaign" that precipitated them, as anticipated.

The reasoning is by now standard: the U.S. and its allies had to abandon the diplomatic options that remained available (and were later pursued) and bomb, with the expectation, quickly fulfilled, that the result would be a major humanitarian catastrophe, which retrospectively justifies the bombing. A further justification is that if NATO hadn't bombed maybe something similar would have happened anyway. That is the "new doctrine" in its purest form, perhaps the most exotic justification for state violence on record -- even putting aside other consequences, including the effects of the bombardment of civilian targets in Serbia and the "cleansing" of Kosovo under the eyes of the NATO occupying forces, with worse to come, very possibly.

The record does seem to reveal remarkable consistency, as one might expect. Why should we expect inconsistency when the institutional factors that undergird policy remain intact and unchanged, to bring up the forbidden question? Talk of a "double standard" is simply evasion, in fact cowardly evasion when we consider what is omitted under the principle of selective amnesia, and what is offered as evidence that the high standards proclaimed are at least sometimes operative.

Emanzipation Humanum, version Jan. 00, criticism, suggestions as to form and content, dialogue, translation into other languages are all desired

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