"Failed state" has become an insult very selectively used by US officials and pundits, hurled at backward nations whose out-of-touch rulers fail cynically to meet the needs of their own people, while operating as out-of-control states refusing to abide by international norms.
In his latest book, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, internationally renowned scholar Noam Chomsky suggests that US citizens take a good look in the mirror. "If we do allow ourselves to do so," he asserts, "we should have little difficulty in finding the characteristics of 'failed states' right at home." The pathetic governmental response to Hurricane Katrina provided the most haunting images of the Bush administration's disinterest in the plight of those who fall outside the circle of the truly wealthy.
A wide array of policies -- on taxes, health, Social Security and job-outsourcing agreements like NAFTA -- illustrate a "democracy deficit" resulting in government neglect of the vast majority of Americans. There is a growing yet little-noticed gulf between the policies favored by most Americans and those championed by both the Bush administration and leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton.
For example, "67% of all Americans think it's a good idea to guarantee health care for all US citizens, as Canada and Britain do, with just 27% dissenting," reports Chomsky. But the leadership of both parties (and their leading contributors) are simply unwilling to contemplate such an approach (despite the immense benefits it would confer to most US firms' economic competitiveness), and guaranteed health care is therefore disqualified as "lacking political support." As in other failed states, says Chomsky, "The will of the people is banned from the political arena."
But despite the corrosion of American democracy itself, many leading scholars and commentators have admired the "idealism" behind George W. Bush's efforts to export "democracy" overseas, beginning in Iraq. As Chomsky points out, the notion of "democracy promotion" was a late arrival among Bush's pretexts for US invasion and occupation of Iraq after weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's links to international terror proved nonexistent. Moreover, the US finally gave in to elections in Iraq only after turning aside Iraqis' demands for the vote three times and expelling the troublesome Al Jazeera TV network (whose facilities the US had bombed in Afghanistan and Baghdad).
Given the consistent history of US support for brutal tyrannies (Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, etc.) plus current alliances with dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, the notion of "democracy promotion" by the US thus has all the credibility of Enron's Kenneth Lay offering lessons in "business ethics."
In Chomsky's view, US foreign policy has been closely and consistently aligned with the interests of transnational corporations, especially the oil industry. Some 70 years ago, strategic planners called the Mideast's oil "a stupendous source of strategic power" and "one of the great material prizes in world history," and US policy has been based on that view. With those immense stakes in sight, George W. Bush and his team launched the invasion and occupation of Iraq using the doctrine of "anticipatory self-defense" in the guise of "fighting terrorism."
Shamelessly ignoring international law, US officials like Condoleezza Rice have put forth another doctrine to shore up the first: what Chomsky calls "the doctrine of self-exemption." In Rice's words, "each state is entitled to interpret [international law] itself."
This doctrine of "self-exemption" from universal standards has paved the way for the horrors of US crimes at Fallujah General Hospital, Abu Ghraib, "rendition" and the killing of some 100,000 Iraqi civilians (according to the British medical journal Lancet.) The notion of "self-exemption" has been further extended by the Bush administration to nuclear proliferation, global warming, and chemical and biological weapon controls.
Chomsky's Failed States illuminates the chilling implications of these policies, yet continually reminds the reader with a note of hope, "Not only does the US government stand apart from the rest of the world on many crucial issues, but even from its own population."
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and activist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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