Review: Chomsky “What Uncle Sam Really Wants”

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Why I started my Chomsky indulgence with Understanding Power and not this digestible gem I’ll never know.

Uncle Sam is a brilliant pocket reference of Noam Chomsky’s world view, specifically his unflinching criticism of US foreign policy. His genius with linguistics provides him the means to absolutely tear apart the propaganda surrounding isms, bringing the conversation and arguments back to the table of reality. By comparing declassified government files, public policy and geopolitical events occurring between the early 1940’s to 1992, Chomsky cuts directly through the posturing of the US to frame cause and effect in the struggle for global power.

The man is fearless. He critically deconstructs policy from within the sovereign US to expose the post-WWII new world order policies of US planners—clearly describing how the Third World has been shaped to remain the peasant working class via neo-Nazi techniques of torture and intimidation, satisfying the needs of the US investor class.

His arguments are completely lucid and relevant in today’s world, even though it was published in the early nineties. Want an example? Keep an eye on the US propaganda regarding the “left-wing rhetoric” of Hugo Chavez. The BBC is already picking up the US talking points of Venezuela elections being rigged. Chomsky describes these US tactics in detail.

Chomsky’s take on US indoctrination of its citizens to contributing productively to pure capitalism is classic, as he tackles complicit participants from the mainstream media to academia. Just as stinging is his perspective on the marginalization of 80% of our population, which reminded me a bit of the 5% Nation, but without the optimism.

Here’s a section about the US in a Rent-A-Thug role (remember, this was written during the original Gulf War conflict with George H.W. Bush in charge):

[…] In any confrontation, each participant tries to shift the battle to a domain in which it’s most likely to succeed. You want to lead with your strength, play your strong card. The strong card of the United States is force, so if we can establish the principle that force rules the world, that’s a victory for us. If, on the other hand, a conflict is settled through peaceful means, that benefits us less, because our rivals are just as good or better in that domain.

Diplomacy is a particularly unwelcome option, unless it’s pursued under the gun. The US has very little popular support for its goals in the Third World. This isn’t surprising, since it’s trying to impose structures of domination and exploitation. A diplomatic settlement is bound to respond, at least to some degree, to the interests of the other participants in the negotiation, and that’s a problem when your positions aren’t very popular.

As a result, negotiations are something the US commonly tries to avoid. Contrary to much propaganda, that has been true in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central America for many years.

Against this background, it’s natural that the Bush administration should regard military force as a major policy instrument, preferring it to sanctions and diplomacy (as in the Gulf crisis). But since the US now lacks the economic base to impose “order and stability” in the Third World, it must rely on others to pay for the exercise—a necessary one, it’s widely assumed, since someone must ensure a proper respect for the masters. The flow of profits from Gulf oil production helps, but Japan and German-led continental Europe must also pay their share as the US adopts the “mercenary role,” following the advice of the international business press.

The financial editor of the conservative Chicago Tribune has been stressing these themes with particular clarity (William Neikirk, “We are the World’s Guardian Angels” 9/9/90) We must be “willing mercenaries,” paid for our ample services by our rivals, using our “monopoly power” in the “security market” to maintain “our control over the world economic system.” We should run a global protection racket, he advises, selling “protection” to other wealthy powers who will pay us a “war premium.”

This is Chicago, where the words are understood: if someone bothers you, you call on the Mafia to break their bones. And if you fall behind in your premium, your health may suffer too.

To be sure, the use of force to control the Third World is only a last resort. The IMF is a more cost-effective instrument than the Marines and the CIA if it can do the job. But the “iron fist” must be poised in the background, available when needed.

Our rent-a-thug role also causes suffering at home. All of the successful industrial powers have relied on the state to protect and enhance powerful domestic economic interests, to direct public resources to the needs of investors, and so on—one reason why they are successful. Since 1950, the US has pursued these ends largely through the Pentagon System (including NASA and the Department of Energy, which produces nuclear weapons). By now we are locked into these devices for maintaining electronics, computers and high-tech industry generally.

Reaganite military Keynesian excesses added further problems. The transfer of resources to wealthy minorities and other government policies led to a vast wave of financial manipulations and a consumption binge. But there was little in the way of productive investment, and the country was saddled with huge debts: government, corporate, household and the calculable debt of unmet social needs as the society drifts towards a Third World pattern, with islands of great wealth and privilege in a sea of misery and suffering.

When a state is committed to such policies, it must somehow find a way to divert the population, to keep them from seeing what’s happening around them. There are not many ways to do this. The standard ones are to inspire fear of terrible enemies about to overwhelm us, and awe for our grand leaders who rescue us from disaster in the nick of time.

That has been the pattern right through the 1980’s, requiring no little ingenuity as the standard device, the Soviet threat, became harder to take seriously. So the threat to our existence has been Qaddafi and his hordes of international terrorists, Grenada and its ominous air base, Sandinistas marching on Texas, Hispanic narcotraffickers led by the arch-maniac Noriega, and crazed Arabs generally. Most recently it’s Saddam Hussein, after he committed his sole crime; the crime of disobedience in August 1990. It has become more necessary to recognize what has always been true: that the prime enemy is the Third World, which threatens to get “out of control.”

These are not laws of nature. The processes, and the institutions that engender them, could be changed. But that will require cultural, social and institutional changes of no little movement, including democratic structures that go far beyond periodic selection of representatives of the business world to manage domestic and international affairs.” […]

Exactly.