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Forum Post: why we do not want to be called liberals

Posted 6 years ago on Dec. 1, 2014, 2:08 p.m. EST by flip (7101)
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from a piece by chomsky - "Take the Clinton doctrine. The Clinton doctrine was that the United States was entitled to resort to unilateral force to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources”. That goes beyond anything that George W Bush said. But it was quiet and it wasn’t arrogant and abrasive, so it didn’t cause much of an uproar. The belief in that entitlement continues right to the present. It’s also part of the intellectual culture.

Right after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, amid all the cheers and applause, there were a few critical comments questioning the legality of the act. Centuries ago, there used to be something called presumption of innocence. If you apprehend a suspect, he’s a suspect until proven guilty. He should be brought to trial. It’s a core part of American law. You can trace it back to Magna Carta. So there were a couple of voices saying maybe we shouldn’t throw out the whole basis of Anglo-American law. That led to a lot of very angry and infuriated reactions, but the most interesting ones were, as usual, on the left-liberal end of the spectrum. Matthew Yglesias, a well-known and highly respected left-liberal commentator, wrote an article in which he ridiculed these views. He said they were “amazingly naive” and silly. Then he explained the reason. He said: “One of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers.” Of course, he didn’t mean Norway. He meant the United States. So the principle on which the international system is based is that the US is entitled to use force at will. To talk about the US violating international law or something like that is amazingly naive, completely silly. Incidentally, I was the target of those remarks, and I’m happy to confess my guilt. I do think that Magna Carta and international law are worth paying some attention to.

I merely mention that to illustrate that, in the intellectual culture, even at what’s called the left-liberal end of the political spectrum, the core principles haven’t changed very much. But the capacity to implement them has been sharply reduced. That’s why you get all this talk about American decline. Take a look at the year-end issue of Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal. Its big front-page cover asks, in bold face, “Is America Over?” It’s a standard complaint of those who believe they should have everything. If you believe you should have everything and anything gets away from you, it’s a tragedy, and the world is collapsing. So is America over? A long time ago we “lost” China, we’ve lost southeast Asia, we’ve lost South America. Maybe we’ll lose the Middle East and north African countries. Is America over? It’s a kind of paranoia, but it’s the paranoia of the super-rich and the super-powerful. If you don’t have everything, it’s a disaster.

The New York Times describes the “defining policy quandary of the Arab spring as how to square contradictory US impulses, including support for democratic change, a desire for stability, and wariness of Islamists who have become a potent political force”. The Times identifies three US goals. What do you make of them?

Two of them are accurate. The United States is in favour of stability. But you have to remember what stability means. Stability means conformity to US orders. So, for example, one of the charges against Iran, the big foreign policy threat, is that it is destabilising Iraq and Afghanistan. How? By trying to expand its influence into neighbouring countries. On the other hand, we “stabilise” countries when we invade them and destroy them.

I’ve occasionally quoted one of my favourite illustrations of this, which is from a well-known, very good liberal foreign policy analyst, James Chace, a former editor of Foreign Affairs. Writing about the overthrow of the Salvador Allende regime and the imposition of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1973, he said that we had to “destabilise” Chile in the interests of “stability”. That’s not perceived to be a contradiction – and it isn’t. We had to destroy the parliamentary system in order to gain stability, meaning that they do what we say. So yes, we are in favour of stability in this technical sense.

Concern about political Islam is just like concern about any independent development. Anything that’s independent you have to have concern about, because it may undermine you. In fact, it’s a little paradoxical, because traditionally the United States and Britain have by and large strongly supported radical Islamic fundamentalism, not political Islam, as a force to block secular nationalism, the real concern. So, for example, Saudi Arabia is the most extreme fundamentalist state in the world, a radical Islamic state. It has missionary zeal, is spreading radical Islam to Pakistan and funding terror. But it’s the bastion of US and British policy. They’ve consistently supported it against the threat of secular nationalism from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Abd al-Karim Qasim‘s Iraq, among many others. But they don’t like political Islam because it may become independent.

The first of the three points, our yearning for democracy, that’s about on the level of Joseph Stalin talking about the Russian commitment to freedom, democracy and liberty for the world. It’s the kind of statement you laugh about when you hear it from commissars or Iranian clerics, but you nod politely, and maybe even with awe, when you hear it from their western counterparts.

If you look at the record, the yearning for democracy is a bad joke. That’s even recognised by leading scholars, though they don’t put it this way. One of the major scholars on so-called democracy promotion is Thomas Carothers, who is pretty conservative and highly regarded – a neo-Reaganite, not a flaming liberal. He worked in Reagan’s state department and has several books reviewing the course of democracy promotion, which he takes very seriously. He says, yes, this is a deep-seated American ideal, but it has a funny history. The history is that every US administration is “schizophrenic”. They support democracy only if it conforms to certain strategic and economic interests. He describes this as a strange pathology, as if the United States needed psychiatric treatment or something. Of course, there’s another interpretation, but one that can’t come to mind if you’re a well-educated, properly behaved intellectual.

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