Iraqi Democracy and Anti-Chomsky Tantrums:
Some Reflections on Power and Dissent
- By Derek Seidman
The great historian E.H. Carr once advised to "Study the historian before you begin to study the facts… By and large, the historian will get the type of facts he wants." 1 The principle behind this advice is pretty obvious, and it need not be confined to the practice of history: reality will be framed in a way as to support the legitimacy and interests of those doing the framing. If the latter happen to possess real power-especially control of the mass media, educational institutions, and so forth- their version of history and reality will be all the more dominant.
The Iraqi people are being taught a blunt lesson in what does and does not constitute legitimate history. A January 20 article from Reuters is quite revealing, if one was lucky enough to catch it before it quickly left the headlines. Titled "Iraqis want to see Saddam's American allies on Trial", the report began:
"If Iraqis ever see Saddam Hussein on trial, they want his former American allies shackled beside him."
Some Iraqi citizens then chimed in on the subject:
"Saddam should not be the only one who is put on trial. The Americans backed him when he was killing Iraqis so they should be prosecuted," said Ali Mahdi, a builder.
"If the Americans escape justice they will face God's justice. They must be stoned in hell."
"Saddam was a top graduate of the American school of politics," said Assad al-Saadi, standing with friends in the slum of Sadr city, formerly called Saddam City, a Shi'ite Muslim area oppressed by Saddam's security agents.
"My brother was an army officer who was executed. Saddam is a criminal and the Americans were his friends. We need justice so that we can forget the past."
One US-trained Iraqi police officer, who shares the sentiment above, was clear that he nevertheless had a proper understanding of what constitutes legitimate history and what does not:
"The Americans and Saddam should face justice. Do you really think the Americans are going to put themselves on trial?" said Ali, a U.S.-trained policeman. "Of course we hope the Americans and Saddam will face trial. But will it ever happen? I doubt it." 2
The fact that Iraqis want to see justice done to the American accomplices of Saddam's brutality, which was so tearfully invoked to justify the war and occupation, is about as relevant as the recent two-day mass demonstrations demanding early elections. Responsibility for the atrocities committed under the Hussein regime will be as narrowly defined as the extent of Iraqi democracy, and not by the Iraqi people.
The extent of Iraqi democracy becomes clearer in light of the results from a recent Gallup poll. The number one reason Iraqis believe the US invaded Iraq was to "rob Iraq's oil." Only five percent believed that purpose of the war was "to assist Iraqi people", and only four percent believed it was "to destroy weapons of mass destruction." On the crucial question of democracy, an impressive one percent thought the war was fought with a "desire to establish democracy." 3
For anyone keeping a critical eye on the occupation, the information above is hardly surprising. The logic behind the occupation continually manifests itself in new but predictable ways. It is, however, a logic that isn't confined to Iraq, and the constructers of reality don't fain to use it when confronted with other challenges. The resulting historical cover-up and misrepresentation can be mind-boggling.
Take, for example, the recent review by Samantha Power of Noam Chomsky's 'Hegemony or Survival', which appeared in the January 4 issue of the New York Times Book Review. Power won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for her book 'A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide'. The review is a textbook example of the historical amnesia (and outright slander) that defenders of US imperial power must use when justifying their cause, and reveals what happens when they are confronted with accusations they can't honestly refute.
Virtually the entire review is a hit piece that simplifies, distorts, and evades Chomsky's argument, taking little heed of the underlying principles he puts forth. Concerning two recent paradigms of 'humanitarian intervention', Power writes:
"It is inconceivable, in Chomsky's view, that American power could be harnessed for good… The Kosovo and Timorese operations' primes achievements, he writes, was to establish the norm of resort to force without Security Council authorization. On this both the Kosovars and the Timorese, whose welfare Chomsky has heroically championed over the years, would strongly disagree."
Power adds nothing more to this, but it is a declaration well worth taking a closer look at. Would the Kosovars and Timorese disagree with Chomsky? Power provides no evidence that they would, though this only matters to us insofar as it's an illustration of the dismal level of scholarship she accuses Chomsky of employing. It doesn't matter beyond that because the answer to the question has no bearing on Chomsky's argument. Whether or not the Timorese or Kosovars believe the United States intervened out of good humanitarian will has no effect on the actual motives behind the intervention.
It is understandable that Power constructs this straw man-the reality of the situation is quite a dagger in the heart of her humanitarian narrative. Just as the shapers of history get the types of facts they want, so do they ignore the more embarrassing ones. Thus, concerning the Indonesian military's intensified campaign of ethnic cleansing of East Timorese in1999, Chomsky writes:
"On September 8, the Clinton administration reacted by reiterating its position that East Timor is "the responsibility of the Government of Indonesia, and we don't want to take that responsibility away from them." A few days later, under strong international and domestic pressure, Clinton reversed the 25-year old policy of support for Indonesia's crimes in East Timor, and informed the Indonesian military that Washington would no longer directly support their crimes. They immediately withdrew from the territory, allowing an Australian-led UN peacekeeping force to enter unopposed.
"The lesson was crystal clear: as a handful of activists and critics had been saying for almost twenty-five years, there had never been any need for threats or forceful measures. It would have sufficed to withdraw from participation for some of the worst crimes of the late twentieth century to have come to a halt. But that was not the lesson that was drawn. Instead, the doctrinal system, rising to the challenge, drew the required conclusion: the events in East Timor demonstrate that foreign policy had entered into a "noble phase," as the leaders of the civilized West pursued their dedication to "principles and values.""
It is understandable that an avid supporter of this "noble phase" would feel a little uneasy when presented with this version of reality. A good remedy for the anxiety is simply to ignore its cause. Chomsky continues:
"East Timor was offered as a crucial example of the era of enlightenment with its new "norms of humanitarian intervention." There was no intervention, let alone humanitarian intervention. Those who were at the height of their glory were still persisting in their decades-old participation in Indonesia's crimes just at the moment when these accolades appeared." 4
Powers chooses not to address the argument behind Chomsky's assertions and instead resorts to non-arguments full of straw men and emotional appeals. We could conclude that this is so because she has no answer, but that doesn't really matter: she doesn't need answers. It suffices to go along with the agenda of the ruling elite, selecting some facts while discarding others, ignoring negations. The fact that large-scale atrocities against the Kosovars began, as Chomsky argues and as was predicted, after the NATO bombing began, is equally irrelevant.
As for Chomsky "heroically championing" the struggle of the Kosovars and the Timorese over the years, it is indeed true. We might also add that he, along with much of the Left, was condemning Saddam Hussein while the United States was supplying him with weapons of mass destruction that he used to slaughter innocent civilians.
When all else fails and the defenders of the status quo desperately reach for something to grab onto, often the only thing available is blatant slander. Thus, Power writes:
"'Survival or Hegemony' is not easy to read. Chomsky's glib and caustic tone is distracting. He relies heavily upon quotations, but rarely identifies the speaker or writer. The endnotes supply more frustration. Bill Clinton's humanitarian rationale for the Kosovo war was ridiculed by "leading military and political analysts" in Israel, we are told, but the citation leads only to an earlier citation by Chomsky himself."
Chomsky is notorious for his obsessive endnotes, so I decided to check on this one myself. Out of 456 endnotes, 15 were referrals to Chomsky's other work-roughly three percent of the endnotes. Not only is this an acceptable practice that is extremely common among authors, but it is very understandable with regards to Chomsky, who is arguably the most cited author alive with over a hundred books to his name.
Ironically enough, Power's dishonest attempt to discredit Chomsky only confirms what he has long said about intellectual subservience versus dissent: those who support the status quo can get away with scholarship that would be scrutinized to death if written by a dissident, and the arguments made by dissenters will be subjected to the most petty and mendacious scrutiny. With the standards that Power is allowed to get away with, I can at least be grateful that she saves many young writers like myself from the glorious pursuit of a Pulitzer. I'll settle for Chomsky's integrity and quality of work.
Returning to the situation in Iraq: the other night I heard a speaker who had just returned from a trip there, Michelle Naar-Obed. She is a dedicated activist in the tradition of the Catholic Worker movement, committed to non-violence, simplicity, and human compassion. She had some interesting things to say about what's going on in Occupied Iraq.
She described the "collective punishment" that the Occupation forces are implementing in and around Baghdad, including the mass razing of citrus trees, having tanks roll through the crowded streets at virtually every hour with fully clad soldiers aiming their weapons at Iraqis, and making residents show ID cards when they wish to enter and exit their neighborhoods-and they must have ID for their livestock as well. She showed us a neighborhood that US forces took over, kicking all the residents out. Middle-of-the-night raids on peoples' homes are frequent-the wife and son of one man in a village the speaker visited were killed in one of these raids.
There are snipers stationed at the entry points of many neighborhoods, and checkpoint shootings are not uncommon. She told us of one man who, unable to understand English and react quickly enough to checkpoint demands, was shot, dragged out of his car, and left for forty-five minutes to bleed to death. The US troops involved eventually left him in his car after taking his ID. It took the family nearly three months to track down their lost one, who was a father of five.
The narrative the US presents on Iraq is in stark contrast to the other picture that has emerged: the brutal and humiliating occupation of a people that see right through the high-sounding rhetoric of the occupiers; the stifling of demands for more democracy by those posturing as its defender; a version being presented of Saddam's atrocities that exempts the crucial role of the US and fits their imperial aims. While some may be fooled here at home, all evidence is showing that the Iraqis are not under any illusions. As long as this is the case, the question of who gets to make the final verdict upon history is up for grabs.
Derek Seidman, 23, is co-editor of the radical youth journal, Left Hook (www.lefthook.org). He looks forward to your feedback at email@example.com.
1. E.H. Carr, "What is History?"
2."Iraqis' want to see Saddam's American Allies on Trial", Reuters, Jan. 20
3.War Times, issue #14, quoting the 2003 Gallup Poll of Baghdad, Oct. 28, 2003
4.Noam Chomksy, "Hegemony or Survival", pg. 54