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International Socialist Review Issue 33, January–February 2004


The drive for global dominance


Hegemony or Survival
America’s Quest for Global Dominance

by Noam Chomsky
Metropolitan Books, 2003
278 pages $22

Full Spectrum Dominance
U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond

Rahul Mahajan
Seven Stories Press, 2003
207 pages $10

SINCE GEORGE W. Bush started his wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been a flood of new books that try to assess the aims and prospects of American imperialism. Some of these books are openly pro-imperialist–their authors apparently emboldened by the political license granted by the September 11 attacks.

On the Left, there is a range of conflicting positions. Some argue that the U.S. is practically all-powerful, while others claim that U.S. power is actually in crisis. Some see the Bush Doctrine as an epochal break with the past, and others stress the continuity of U.S. imperial policy. This review and the next three concern books that all try, in different ways, to come to grips with what’s really new in the post—September 11 world.

Noam Chomsky and Rahul Mahajan have created useful, compact books that situate recent events in the background of ongoing U.S. imperial doctrine and past military intervention. They both make important contributions to the debates on the Left, and Mahajan displays some flair for polemic. But where these books excel is in the investigative spadework that exposes the administration’s lies–and points toward the real motives of the "war on terror."

This kind of spadework is crucial to building the Left in the first place, since, as both authors show, the corporate media have generally framed the news in the way that Bush and Co. would like to see it. In Hegemony or Survival, Chomsky uses a "Socratic" method to great effect–taking administration statements at face value and seeing what the world would be like if the statements were really true.

He begins with Bush’s professed love of democracy, a seemingly impromptu justification for the war on Iraq after UN weapons inspectors came up empty. If Bush loved democracy, Chomsky asks, wouldn’t he respect the antiwar stance of France and Germany, whose rulers aligned their policies with the clear wishes of their populations? Likewise, wouldn’t a democracy-lover offer praise rather than threats to Turkey’s rulers when they caved in to popular opposition to hosting a U.S. attack force aimed at Iraq?

And how would it look, Chomsky asks, if we applied Bush’s anti-terror doctrine to past cases? What about John Kennedy’s campaign of sabotage and terror in Cuba? Or Reagan’s sponsorship of the Nicaraguan contra force? Wouldn’t the Bush Doctrine justify these countries if they had responded by, say, bombing Washington?

Or, to take a case closer to current events, how about the doctrine of "preemptive self-defense"? What if country "A" inflicted a decade-long starvation blockade on a weaker country, call it "B," and then threatened B with invasion? Wouldn’t country B–that is, Iraq–have the right to make a preemptive attack on A?

In Full-Spectrum Domininance, Rahul Mahajan gets into the act by asking: If the war on terror began with a quest to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, wouldn’t the administration be interested in getting his host country to turn him over? But, as Mahajan writes:

The standard line, and the common assumption, is that Taliban intransigence made extradition impossible. That’s hardly the case. Shortly before the Afghanistan bombing started, the Taliban offered to turn bin Laden over to a neutral third party, even without hearing the evidence–even to allow him to be tried under Islamic law in the United States.

Further, if U.S. officials really aimed at removing Saddam Hussein from power and disarming the country, why would they issue a last-minute ultimatum that Hussein and his sons leave the country–and then insist that the invasion would take place whatever Hussein did?

The point of these examples goes beyond exposing the hypocrisy of the warlords in Washington. As with Socrates’ questions, they aim, first, to shake people’s confidence in the ideas we inevitably absorb passively, and second, to point toward a positive account of the truth.

In the case of the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, the truth is that the very objective of the attacks was to provide openings for the subsequent U.S. military occupations. Mahajan notes an underpublicized September 2002 revelation by CBS News:

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had within hours of the attacks [of September 11, 2001] sent a memo to aides directing them to find some way to pin the attack on Iraq–"best info fast. Judge whether good enough to hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL [Usama bin Laden].… Rumsfeld was not overly concerned with whether Iraq was actually involved–"Go massive"…sweep it all up.… Things related and not."

So why did the Bush administration want these occupations? As usual, behind the double standards of hypocrites, there lies a hidden standard of self-interest. Chomsky and Mahajan are fairly clear about who these "selves" are. The authors variously speak of a "power elite," a "corporate elite" or a "corporate class" that politicians try to serve in crafting foreign and domestic policy. These rough-and-ready characterizations square with the Marxist view that the country’s real rulers belong to a class whose power is rooted in the profits of big business.

Unlike some on the Left, Chomsky and Mahajan do not succumb to a narrow reductionism about policies necessarily corresponding to specific short-term profit interests. Throughout his career as an analyst of imperialism, Chomsky in particular has elaborated a number of strategic goals that politicians pursue on behalf of the whole ruling class–including the sabotage of successful examples of independence from U.S. corporate and political influence, whether by small countries in national liberation movements or by stronger powers that aim to pose as rivals to the U.S.

Thus, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–and the "war on terror" more generally–has been about oil profits, but also about the control of oil as a strategic resource, about the spread of U.S. bases from Iraq through Central Asia to the Far East, about the assertion of U.S. corporate interests against major European allies, about the containment of China as a rising commercial rival, etc.

In order to make the case about the real motives of U.S. foreign policy, we need to reveal the substantial threads of continuity in the 20th century. Chomsky, whose book is longer than Mahajan’s, provides more of this kind of historical depth. For example, Chomsky compares Bush’s hype about democracy and self-determination to Woodrow Wilson’s, who had the task of expanding U.S. corporate influence when it was still growing and not yet dominant. For some unexplained reason, Chomsky feels compelled at this point to include Lenin and Trotsky among history’s opponents of democracy.

Although Mahajan opens his book with a statement that the war on terror marks a new era, he also shows that the only way to understand the Bush Doctrine is to trace its continuity with past policy–especially with policies of Bill Clinton, including the strangulation of Iraq and Clinton’s declared aim of "regime change."

Despite the continuity, some things really are new. The U.S. had far-flung military bases during the Cold War, but deployments in the Bush era have exploded in an attempt to fill the imperial power vacuum left behind by the collapse of the USSR.

And the doctrines of preventive, preemptive and unilateral aggression against foreign governments have actually been pursued in the past, from the 1953 coup against Iran’s Mossadeq to the war in Vietnam and beyond. Chomsky and Mahajan document these points, but rightly insist that the open declaration of these doctrines dramatically increases the chance of armed conflict and stokes a renewed global arms race.

Chomsky concludes his book with a valuable and chilling account of the bipartisan pursuit of space-based "defense," which is calculated to free U.S. hands for new wars of aggression by undermining other countries’ ability to deter U.S. attacks. These guys–both Democrats and Republicans–really intend to do this stuff, from creating satellite-killing weapons to using the vantage of space to make attacks at will on any point of the globe.

These short books are designed to account for current events, so they necessarily focus on the military aspects of imperialism while merely touching on their connections to the international economic agenda of the U.S. And although both authors take note of the worldwide resistance to imperialism–both in the millions-strong global antiwar demonstrations of February 15, 2003, and in ongoing events such as the World Social Forum movement–their main focus is on understanding our imperial opponents.

These points highlight the major hazard in writing this type of book. In the rush to publish current material–an urgent necessity in recent years–the lapse of just a few months can make the pieces dated. Appearing just after the U.S. established its occupation of Iraq, neither book could foresee the various forms of Iraqi resistance that have developed since. That’s the big news now–resistance from people at the receiving end of U.S. firepower.

What’s more, the Iraqi resistance is the force that has stopped Bush from immediately moving on to his next wars. It’s not the Democrats who have stopped him, and it’s not his imperial rivals in Europe. We’re living through a renewed demonstration of how resistance from below can stay the hand of even the mightiest empire.

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