Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 3: The Bounds of the Expressible Segment 4/8
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It is interesting that, in the midst of the furor over the Sandinista plans to obtain means to defend themselves, the United States began shipping advanced F-5 jet planes to Honduras on December 15, 1987, unreported by the New York Times.26 Since only the United States and its allies have security concerns, obviously Nicaragua could have no legitimate objection to this development, and it would be superfluous, surely, to report the protests in the Honduran press over the "debts unfairly imposed upon us by pressure from the United States" that force us to "pay the bill for the F-5 fighters that do nothing to feed our hungry people," though they please the military rulers.27

One might ask why Nicaragua was so intent on obtaining Soviet planes. Why not French Mirage jets instead? In fact, the Sandinistas would have been quite happy to obtain jet interceptors from France, and openly say so. They could not, because U.S. pressure had blocked supply from any non-Communist source. All of this is unreportable, because it would give the game away. Thus Stephen Kinzer and James LeMoyne of the New York Times would never disturb their efforts to fan hysteria over the Sandinista threat by reporting such facts, nor would they dwell on the reasons why the Sandinistas might be attempting to obtain jet interceptors.28 Such inquiry escapes the bounds of propriety, for it would undermine the campaign to portray U.S. aggression and terror as legitimate defense.

The point is more general. Attack against those designated "Communists" will normally compel them to rely on the Soviet Union for defense, particularly when the United States pressures its allies and international lending institutions to refrain from offering assistance, as in the case of contemporary Nicaragua, where it was clear enough in early 1981 that "Nicaragua will sooner or later become another Soviet client, as the U.S. imposes a stranglehold on its reconstruction and development, rebuffs efforts to maintain decent relations, and supports harassment and intervention -- the pattern of China, Cuba, Guatemala's Arbenz, Allende's Chile, Vietnam in the 1940s and the post-1975 period, etc."29 This predictable consequence of policy can then be taken as retrospective proof that we are, indeed, simply engaged in defense against the Kremlin design for world conquest, and well-behaved journalists may refer to the "Soviet-supplied Sandinistas" in properly ominous tones, as they regularly do, carefully avoiding the reasons. An additional benefit is that we now test the sincerity of the Soviet Union in their professions about détente, asking whether they will withhold aid from Nicaragua if we reduce aid to the contras. The idea that U.S. sincerity could be tested by withholding aid from Turkey or El Salvador is too outlandish to merit discussion.

A corollary to the principle that official enemies do not have the right of self-defense is that if Nicaragua attacks contra forces within its territory after they break off negotiations, the United States plainly has the right to provide further military aid to its proxies. The Byrd Amendment on "Assistance for the Nicaraguan Resistance," passed in August 1988 with the effusive support of leading senatorial doves, permitted military aid to the proxy forces within Nicaragua upon "Sandinista initiation of an unprovoked military attack and any other hostile action directed against the forces of the Nicaraguan Resistance" or "a continued unacceptable level of military assistance by Soviet-bloc countries, including Cuba" (all other sources having been barred, and U.S. authorities being accorded the right to determine what is "acceptable").30 The media had taken for granted throughout that it would be outrageous, another display of Communist intransigence, if the army of Nicaragua were to attack terrorist forces within their own country. Months earlier, the press had reported a letter by House Democrats to President Ortega expressing their "grave concern" over the possibility of a military offensive against the contras, which would lead to consideration of "a renewal of military aid to the resistance forces."31 The prohibition against self-defense remained in force after the U.S. clients had undermined negotiations with last-minute demands contrived to this end, to which we return.

The media reaction is understandable, on the conventional assumption that the "resistance" and the political opposition that supports it within Nicaragua are the more legitimate of the "two Nicaraguan factions," as the Times described the contras and the government.32 The bipartisan consensus on these matters, including outspoken congressional doves, reflects the understanding that Nicaragua has no right to resist U.S. terrorist forces implanted in its territory or attacking it from abroad; U.S. clients are immune from such constraints, and may even hijack ships, bomb civilian targets in other countries, and so on, in "legitimate self-defense."

The August 5 Senate debate on the Byrd amendment gains heightened significance from its timing. Three days earlier, the "resistance," after allowing an army patrol boat to pass by, had attacked the crowded passenger vessel Mission of Peace, killing two people and wounding twenty-seven, including a Baptist minister from New Jersey, Rev. Lucius Walker, who headed a U.S. religious delegation. All the victims were civilians. Senators Byrd and Dodd, and other doves, who bitterly condemned the Sandinistas while praising the "courageous leadership" of the "Democratic Presidents" of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, made no mention of this event; perhaps they had missed the tiny notice it received the day before in the New York Times, tacked on to a column reporting their deliberations.33 There was no subsequent commentary. The logic is again clear. If the Sandinistas seek to root out the U.S.-run terrorists who carried out the attack, that proves they are Communist totalitarians, and the United States is entitled to send military as well as "humanitarian" aid to the "resistance" so that it can pursue such tasks more effectively. Given the enthusiastic support for the Senate proceedings by the Senate's leading liberal voices -- Harkin, Kennedy, Kerry, Mitchell, Pell, and others -- we may assume that they accept these principles.

It is frankly recognized that the principal argument for U.S. violence is that "a longer war of attrition will so weaken the regime, provoke such a radical hardening of repression, and win sufficient support from Nicaragua's discontented population that sooner or later the regime will be overthrown by popular revolt, self-destruct by means of internal coups or leadership splits, or simply capitulate to salvage what it can." This formulation by Viron Vaky, Assistant Secretary of State for Interamerican Affairs under the Carter administration, merely reiterates the thrust of the 1981 CIA program outlined by CIA analyst David MacMichael in World Court testimony. As a dove, Vaky regards the scenario as "flawed" and the strategy unworkable, the contras having been unable to gain military successes despite the extraordinary advantages conferred upon them by their sponsor, or "to elicit significant political support within Nicaragua." "However reasonable or idealistic" the U.S. demand that the Sandinistas "turn over power" to U.S. favorites lacking political support, he continues, the goal is beyond our reach. He therefore urges "positive containment" instead of "rollback" to prevent "Nicaragua from posing a military threat to the United States" and to induce it to observe human rights and move towards a "less virulent...internal system." Since force is not feasible, the United States should seek "other strategies" to pursue "the objective of promoting Nicaraguan self-determination" that it has so idealistically pursued. It should seek a diplomatic settlement with "border inspections, neutral observers," and other devices that Nicaragua had been requesting for seven years (a fact unmentioned), though "the United States frankly will have to bear the major share of enforcement." The United States must be prepared to use force if it detects a violation, while assisting "the Central American democracies" that are threatened by Nicaraguan subversion and aggression.34

Recall that these are the thoughts of a leading dove, and that they seem unremarkable to liberal American opinion, important facts about the political culture. These thoughts fall squarely within the conception of U.S. policy outlined by another Carter administration Latin American specialist, Robert Pastor, at the dovish extreme of the political and ideological spectrum -- by now, perhaps well beyond it. Defending U.S. policy over many years, Pastor writes that "the United States did not want to control Nicaragua or other nations in the region, but it also did not want to allow developments to get out of control. It wanted Nicaraguans to act independently, except when doing so would affect U.S. interests adversely."35 In short, Nicaragua and other countries should be free -- to do what we want them to do -- and should choose their course independently, as long as their choice conforms to our interests. If they use the freedom we accord them unwisely, then naturally we are entitled to respond in self-defense. Note that these ideas are a close counterpart to the domestic conception of democracy as a form of population control.

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26 Ibid., for details, including subsequent reference in quotes from Ortega and Arias buried in articles on other matters.

27 Editorial, El Tiempo, May 5, 1988; reprinted in Hondupress, May 18, 1988.

28 They know, of course, as an occasional throw-away line indicates.

29 Towards a New Cold War, 51.

30 Congressional Record, Senate, Aug. 5, 1988, S 11002; Susan Rasky, NYT, Aug. 11, 1988.

31 Robert Pear, NYT, May 25, 1988.

32 See appendix IV, section 4; and section 5, on public support for the political opposition. On opposition backing for the contras, see appendix V, section 6.

33 Congressional Record, Aug. 5, 1988, S 10969f.; AP, NYT, Aug. 4; Bryna Brennan, AP, WP, Aug. 4, a much fuller account; Barricada (Managua), Aug. 3; Julie Light, Guardian (New York), Aug. 17, 1988. The Boston Globe ran a tiny item featuring a contra denial, Aug. 4.

34 Vaky, Foreign Policy, Fall 1987. On support for the political opposition within Nicaragua, see appendix IV, section 5.

35 Pastor, Condemned to Repetition (Princeton, 1987, 32), his emphasis.