by Edward S. Herman
December, 2003

It is very interesting watching the liberals seek out a foreign policy position that will differentiate them from the conservatives. After all, they can’t just go along with Bush, who, as Michael Tomasky acknowledges in his chapter “Between Cheney and Chomsky” in George Packer’s edited volume The Fight Is for Democracy, is throwing aside all international agreements and restraint and has announced “a prescription for empire.” Of course most of the liberals did go along with Bush on the Afghanistan attack, but they began to splinter in the months leading up to the Iraq invasion: some like Paul Berman favored it, others liked the idea but only with UN sanction and collective action, and some didn’t approve it on any basis.

Tomasky has the solution: liberals can fight for “democracy” abroad as the basis of U.S. foreign policy (43-48); and this is the theme of the Packer volume, as suggested by its title, with Tomasky’s lengthy chapter immediately following the Introduction by Packer, and with Berman providing the concluding chapter, which features his Bush-compatible vision of the struggle between Islamic totalitarianism and democracy (see my review of Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, Z Magazine, July/August 2003).

Tomasky never explains why we should take on the project of fighting for democracy abroad, as opposed to leaving foreigners to work out their own destinies, concentrating on building democracy at home, and diverting resources from the military-industrial complex to pressing needs here. Tomasky advances the project as a political strategy for the Democrats, who need a foreign policy that will prevent the conservatives from effectively tagging liberals and Democrats (and Tomasky merges the two) as wimps and incapable of defending our “national security.” So the power structure dictates an interventionary foreign policy and the problem for the liberals is to construct their own distinctive rationale for interventionism that is presumably compatible with liberal values and will not be “a prescription for empire”!

This kind of idiocy arises from the inability of liberals to question the basic structures of power. They can’t challenge the immense military establishment and a forward foreign policy because these are built-in to a political-economic order that they take for granted. This power structure has tightened its control over the society and badly weakened democracy at home. In his Introduction George Packer acknowledges that growing corporate power and inequality has caused “money and its influence [to] claim a greater and greater share of political power,” so that “for thirty years or more the musculature of democracy has atrophied, culminating in 2000 with a stolen presidential election” (10-11). This suggests that the big challenge for U.S. liberals should be establishing a real democracy at home, rather than looking for places abroad where their own atrophied democracy can bring a supposedly good one to somebody else by military intervention.

The other absurdity here is the pretense that the Democrats are potential vehicles for this policy of intervention-for-democracy. Common sense and history tell us that the huge U.S. military apparatus was not put in place for do-gooder purposes, but rather to serve those same business and financial interests that Packer concedes have obtained “a greater and greater share of political power.” The Democrats draw their campaign funding from those same interests and have become more conservative as their dependency on these funders has increased and as the corporate media has pressed them away from “populism.” Can anyone but a fool or self-deceiver believe that these admittedly strengthening power interests are going to accept a policy of spending large resources to bring democracy to the benighted, as it shrivels at home and contrary to systematic historical practice up to the present?

However, we must recognize that it is always possible to rationalize attacking some target on the ground of dedication to enhancing democracy. Most if not all countries have very imperfect democracies, quite a few don’t even have a nominal democracy, and many countries have dissident ethnic or other sub-national groups who feel put upon whose cause can be taken up in the alleged interest of democracy or human rights; and the dissident group can be funded and encouraged to rebel more forcibly to justify external intervention in an alleged good cause. So the “democracy” objective can easily be fitted to serve the same ends as a strictly geopolitical or economic objective, or even to play a “wag the dog” political function. Thus a “liberal” like Clinton can attack Yugoslavia on the alleged grounds of principle while simultaneously actually servicing Turkish ethnic cleansing of the Kurds and appeasing our good friends in Indonesia as they upset the UN-sponsored referendum in East Timor—and the liberals at home are pleased. They argue that it is better to have selective humanitarian intervention than none at all. They easily swallow claims of humanitarian purpose and effects that are fraudulent (as in the Balkans wars: see Johnstone’s Fools’ Crusade.). And they fail to see that the claims of humanitarian purpose in case A provide a cover for supporting inhumanitarianism in cases B, C and D--after all, they say, we can’t do everything, while they ignore the technical ease of simply terminating support for our goons of convenience.

So the democracy project will be able to serve as a cover for an imperialist projection of power in the same way as stopping communism did for the Cold War era, for Democratic and Republican leaders alike. Both have regularly engaged in foreign policy actions that served corporate and geopolitical interests, very often at the expense of democracy. In their weakened, more corporate-dependent position today, there is a snowball-in-hell’s chance that the Democrats will alter their traditional pattern.

Tomasky devotes much space in his chapter to an attempted showing that liberal leaders (Democrats) have been better in the foreign policy arena than the conservatives (Republicans), so that presumably getting them into power would make the democracy project feasible. He argues at length that Lyndon Johnson didn’t want to fight the Vietnam War but was driven to it by the belief that if he withdrew he would be vilified and suffer electoral defeat. So it was really a conservatives war: they pushed him into escalating and invading Vietnam. Tomasky supports this by a few quotations of Johnson speaking with friends in private saying the war was a losing proposition and that political considerations forced his hand.

This proof is worse than puny. Johnson made hundreds of statements that fluctuated with his mood, and the crucial fact about Johnson is that he did escalate the war—it was his war, and whether he was doing it because he believed in it or for political reasons is besides the point. Tomasky fails to recognize that if a liberal Democrat will go to war contrary to his true beliefs for political reasons, this condemns him even more than if he did it based on true belief. And if fear of conservative backlash dominates his policy decisions, why should we want a liberal Democrat in office? But Tomasky also misses the fact that Johnson was surrounded by liberal advisers who urged him on—Joseph Califano claims that “all Kennedy’s top advisers save one pressed him [Johnson] to escalate more” (The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, 10). This was liberals in power making these decisions. We may note also that it was Nixon who eventually withdrew from Vietnam, not Kennedy or Johnson (and that it was Eisenhower, not Truman, who ended the Korean war).

Tomasky also ignores the fact that Lyndon Johnson invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 to prevent the return of the democratically-elected Juan Bosch; that his administration supported the Colonels’ takeover of Greece in 1967, displacing a democratic government there with a regime of torture; and that he helped Suharto impose a military dictatorship on Indonesia in 1965, the liberals in power celebrating this takeover and massacre of perhaps a million civilians, an event described by James Reston as “A gleam of light in Asia” and by Robert McNamara as “a dividend” from our investment in military aid to Indonesia.

Johnson also supported the military overthrow of the elected government of Brazil in 1964, quickly expressing his “warmest good wishes” to the coup leaders and congratulating them that the matter had been settled “within the framework of constitutional democracy” (mendacity or self-deception that George Bush would be hard-pressed to surpass). U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, and later, president of Johns Hopkins University, Lincoln Gordon, described the new regime as “totally democratic” and the imposition of the military dictatorship as “the single most decisive victory for freedom in the mid-twentieth century.” During the liberal Kennedy and Johnson administrations there were 18 turnovers of government in Latin America, 11 of them displacing elected governments with dictatorships.

Tomasky puts a similar positive gloss on other Democrats from Truman onward, with comparable selectivity and bias. On Truman’s murderous counterinsurgency war in Greece that killed several hundred thousand people and established a rightwing dictatorship manned by important remnants of the World War II Nazi collaboration, Tomasky says “it probably did save Greece from becoming a Communist state, which was handy for Americans and rather more than that for the Greeks” (46). It doesn’t bother Tomasky that we didn’t allow the Greeks to decide this for themselves (and Stalin was honoring Yalta and not intervening in Greece at all), and as noted earlier, after the Greeks finally succeeded in ousting the U.S.-sponsored collaborationist regime, in 1967 another liberal Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, supported another rightwing military coup, again on the spurious claim of saving Greece from becoming a Communist state. Tomasky of course does not mention that it was under Truman in 1947 that the United States began to organize and subvert the new democratic regime in Guatemala, timed, as Blanche Wiesen Cook has shown, with the regime’s recognition of the rights of workers to form unions.

Tomasky argues that the Cold War was righteous, although it did have bad features and its rhetoric led us into the Vietnam War. But it “contained an idea about liberal democracy that was grounded in Enlightenment principles and tried to bring those principles to life in the institutions it built.” So liberals can view the late forties as the beginning “of a struggle on behalf of defending and spreading the values of democracy.” As in Greece and Guatemala? As in Thailand, where the Truman administration in 1947 supported “the first pro-Axis dictator to regain power after the war”? In the Kennedy-Johnson era support and underwriting of the rise of the National Security State in Latin America?

This brings me to Tomasky’s juxtaposition of the two extremists, with Tomasky and his allies situated “Between Cheney and Chomsky.” Tomasky says that “liberals must make a clear break with Chomskyism,” which represents a world view that suggests “equivocation about America’s capacity as a moral force,” but also involves “a matter of adapting to the world as it now is” (44). On these points Tomasky is clearly much closer to Cheney than to Chomsky. Cheney doesn’t equivocate on America’s capacity as a moral force; he would certainly agree with Tomasky that bringing democracy everywhere is at least one of our objectives in force projection, and the Bush government has moved further on that point, making liberation our alleged chief objective in Iraq. Tomasky is explicit that the aim of spreading democracy would have been a reasonable basis for attacking Iraq (45). Cheney and his associates have in the past acknowledged geopolitical and economic grounds for the attack, and of course in the runup to the war constructed a series of lies in their effort to gain public and UN support. Tomasky liberals in power would have been less open and crass: while gaining support and doing what the power structure and main lobbies wanted done for their own reasons, the liberals would have focused more intently on democracy and human rights!

Chomsky is hated by Tomasky, Packer, Berman, Gitlin and company for many reasons. One is that he so effectively undercuts their claims with facts and coherent analyses, which is why they always mention him only in hit-and-run attacks, never confronting his arguments. And they often lie in these attacks. Thus in his only other mention of Chomsky, Tomasky says that “The first reaction to September 11 was easy, at least for everyone this side of Noam Chomsky. A country is not only justified in answering such an attack but has a moral obligation to do so” (32) The implicit lie is the claim that Chomsky didn’t think the attack had to be answered: he did, but against the attackers and their direct supporters and within the framework of international law. Tomasky slithers over such matters, and like many liberals he follows the Bush party line according to which international law is for somebody else.

Chomsky has unearthed and used in his writings internal U.S. planning documents that have shown a U.S. intention to control and dominate in pursuit of U.S. economic interests that fly in face of any notion of democracy (see his On Power and Ideology, Lecture One). The Grand Area concept developed during World War II spoke explicitly about the need to arrange things via the use of power to serve the needs of the U.S. economy, with Latin American countries (among others) to be kept in a dependent and raw materials supplier mode. Later National Security Council documents were quite clear on the threat of “nationalistic regimes… [seeking] immediate improvement in the low living standards of the masses, with the result that most Latin American governments are under intense domestic political pressures to increase production and to diversify their economies.” These internal documents make clear that such concern for the masses and pressures from those masses are a threat, and they also make clear that the vast military aid and training programs developed for Latin America, that produced such a great “dividend” in Indonesia, were designed as a political counterweight to these democratic threats. They were deeply antidemocratic.

These documents and Chomsky’s analysis make Tomasky’s conventional clichés about the noble ends of the Cold War liberals look like the ideological baloney that they really are. His documentation on the rise of the National Security State in Latin America and its regimes of torture, regularly supported by Democratic as well as Republican leaders, is also hard to swallow and impossible to confute, so Tomasky and company simply ignore these and rely on strands of compatible evidence, frequently misrepresented as well as decontextualized (as in the Truman-Greece case). But one conclusion is possible: Chomsky refuses to ignore or apologize for U.S. sponsorship of violently undemocratic states—Tomasky and his colleagues in “The Fight for Democracy” do offer de facto apologetics for this sponsorship that departs a bit from the pursuit of Enlightenment values.

Chomsky is also hated by Tomasky et al. because he is a critic of Israel and U.S. support for Israeli policy. Tomasky says that one of the great accomplishments of U.S. Cold War policy was that “it created a democratic Jewish state.” This exhausts his discussion of the issue. But that Jewish state was created in a massive process of ethnic cleansing, and that ethnic cleansing continues with U.S. support (and opposed by virtually all the rest of the world) up to today. But this is approved ethnic cleansing, supported by both major political parties in the United States, and the ongoing violations of international law and elemental morality do not bother Tomasky, Berman and company. Furthermore, Israel’s democracy is very constrained within Israel, and the notion of a “Jewish state” rather than a state of all its citizens should bother believers in democracy, but Berman and company are greatly bothered only by the notion of an “Islamic state.”. The occupation is also not only illegal and ruthlessly racist, it obviously violates all democratic standards. So here again, the liberal “Fight for Democracy” turns out to be limited and politicized in accord with seriously non-Enlightenment principles.

Even on the domestic scene, whereas Chomsky has stood steadfastly for a democratization of the increasingly concentrated corporate structures and media, and has called for grass roots organization and a revitalized labor movement to move the country toward a real democracy, Tomasky and his associates are more complacent. As noted, Packer mentions the increasingly plutocratic character of the political system and its atrophy, but neither he nor his fellow liberals seem very urgent about structural repair. They have spent far more time and energy in attacking Chomsky, Nader, the left, and the protest movements than in writing about and organizing for ways to move from plutocracy to democracy. They are preoccupied with getting Democrats in office and give the impression that that will suffice, despite the constraints now placed on who can run and what the victor can do. Tomasky does not equivocate on the “moral force” that a Democrat would bring to his democracy-enhancing project even under present plutocratic conditions. In fact, he seems to believe, like Berman, that the Bush administration, despite its imperial project, is also exercising a moral influence abroad. But we need liberal Democrats in office to carry out the democracy project really effectively. In short, the “Fight for Democracy” is not here at home, despite the atrophy—here it is only a fight to get Democrats in office and fend off the left critiques that may impede our pursuit of democracy elsewhere (an aim that neither Democratic or Republican leaders have ever pursued in the past).

First published in Z Magazine

Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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