Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 4: Adjuncts of Government Segment 3/10
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This combination of convenient historical ignorance and praise for the benevolence of our intentions is typical of media and other commentary. To cite only one more example, in an earlier Times Magazine cover story, Tad Szulc discussed the "radical winds of the Caribbean," noting that "the roots of the Caribbean problems are not entirely Cuban"; the "Soviet offensive" is also to blame along with the consequences of "colonial greed and mismanagement" by European powers. The United States is blamed only for "indifference" to the brewing problems. Few seem willing to comprehend the observation by former Costa Rican president Daniel Oduber that the "thugs" who threaten "the lives of Central Americans and their families...are not the Leninist commissars but the armed sergeants trained in the United States."18

Spence observes that "the obviously relevant pending World Court decision was not mentioned in the 171 [news] stories that preceded the World Court decision itself" on June 27, 1986. In this decision, the court condemned the United States for its support for the contras and illegal economic warfare and ordered it to desist from its violations of international law and valid treaties and to pay reparations. The decision was reported, but dismissed as a minor annoyance. Its contents were suppressed or falsified, the World Court -- not the United States -- was portrayed as the criminal, and the rule of law was held inapplicable to the United States.

In its editorial response on July 1, the Times dismissed the court as a "hostile forum"; the editors had voiced no criticism when this same "hostile forum" ruled in favor of the United States in the matter of the Iran hostage crisis. They stated that "even the majority [of the court] acknowledged that prior attacks against El Salvador from Nicaragua made `collective defense' a possible justification for America's retaliation." The editors assumed without comment that the United States was "retaliating" against Nicaraguan aggression and failed to mention that the court had explicitly rejected the claim of "collective self-defense" as a justification, even if the United States could establish the charges against Nicaragua that the court rejected as groundless after examining the evidence in official U.S. government documents; the court also noted, rather sardonically, that El Salvador had not even charged "armed attack" until August 1984, four months after Nicaragua had brought its claim to the court. In a July 17 op-ed, Thomas Franck of New York University Law School, a noted advocate of world order, argued that the United States should dismiss the World Court ruling because "America -- acting alone or with its allies -- still needs the freedom to protect freedom"; as in Nicaragua, for example.19

The U.S. government and the media are surpassed by none in their appeals to the august rule of law and the call for diplomacy rather than violence -- when the derelictions of official enemies are at issue. Hence the events of summer 1986 called for some careful "perception management." Until June, Nicaragua's failure to accept the Contadora treaty draft was a major story. In May, the New York Times published a lengthy report by Stephen Kinzer headlined "Nica¨ragua Balks at Latin Peace Accord," criticizing Ortega for his unwillingness to sign the agreement without some commitment from the United States. "Nicaragua appears to be the only Central American nation reluctant to sign the draft agreement," Kinzer wrote.20 A few weeks later, Contadora was off the agenda. In mid-June the U.S. client states rejected the treaty draft under U.S. pressure. This fact was excluded from the national press, though reported abroad. Nicaragua declared its readiness to sign the treaty on June 21. The Washington Post ignored the unwelcome fact, but it received oblique mention in two tiny items in the New York Times under the headings "Nicaragua Makes Offer to Limit Some Weapons" and "U.S. Condemns Offer by Nicaragua on Treaty" (June 22, 23), focusing on the Reagan administration rejection of the move as "propagandistic." Both items appeared in the "Around the World" roundup of marginal news.

For adjuncts of government, news value is determined by utility for ideological warfare.

A few days after Nicaragua's acceptance of the treaty draft blocked by the United States and its clients, the World Court condemned the United States for its "unlawful use of force" and called for termination of U.S. aid to the contras. Congress responded by voting $100 million of military aid to implement the unlawful use of force, while government officials commented happily, "This is for real. This is a real war."21

Still pursuing the peaceful means that all states are obliged to follow under international (and U.S.) law, Nicaragua brought the matter to the U.N. Security Council, where the United States vetoed a resolution (11 to 1, 3 abstentions) calling on all states to observe international law. Nicaragua then turned to the General Assembly, which passed a resolution 94 to 3 calling for compliance with the World Court ruling. Two client states, Israel and El Salvador, joined the United States in opposition. The Security Council vote merited a brief note in the Newspaper of Record, but the General Assembly endorsement passed unmentioned; the Times U.N. correspondent preferred a story that day on overly high U.N. salaries. At the same session, Nicaragua called upon the U.N. to send an independent fact-finding mission to the border after a conflict there; the proposal was rejected by Honduras with U.S. backing, and was unreported, the general fate of Nicaraguan efforts to secure international monitoring of the borders -- which would, of course, curb the Sandinista aggression that so terrifies U.S. leaders and ideological managers. A year later, on November 12, 1987, the General Assembly again called for "full and immediate compliance" with the World Court decision. This time only Israel joined the United States in opposing adherence to international law, another blow to the Central American accords, which had been signed in August much to the discomfiture of Washington. The vote was not reported by the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the three TV networks. Subsequent World Court proceedings on the matter of reparations to Nicaragua for U.S. crimes have also rarely reached the threshold; thus the August 1988 World Court announcement that the United States had failed to meet the court's deadline on determining war reparations passed virtually without notice.22

Not all U.N. resolutions are ignored. The day before the unreported 1987 General Assembly resolution again calling on the United States to comply with international law, the Times ran a substantial story headlined "U.N. Urges Soviet to Pull Forces from Afghanistan," reporting that the General Assembly voted "overwhelmingly today for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, brushing aside Moscow's first concerted attempt to deflect such criticism from the United Nations" in this "annual resolution." A Times review of the General Assembly session on December 26 is headlined "General Assembly delivers setbacks to U.S. and Soviet," subheaded "Washington Loses on Budget, Moscow on Afghanistan and Cambodia issues." The report mentioned nothing about the 94-to-2 vote on the World Court decision, in which the majority included U.S. allies Australia, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Spain, as well as major Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela), along with Sweden, Finland, and others.23


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18 NYT Magazine, May 25, 1980. Oduber, in Kenneth M. Coleman and George C. Herring, eds., The Central American Crisis (Scholarly Resources Inc., 1985, 196).

19 There were exceptions, but the media reaction was generally similar, sometimes reaching surprising extremes. Thus the Washington Post turned for comment to contra lobbyist Robert Leiken, who "blamed the court, which he said suffers from the `increasing perception' of having close ties to the Soviet Union"; the Soviet judge had withdrawn from the case, but evidently his subjects performed their assigned tasks (Jonathan Karp, WP, June 28, 1986). For more on the appeal of Leiken's Maoist line and his interesting media role as the Latin American specialists largely refused to join the cause, see Culture of Terrorism, 205f.

20 NYT, May 12, 1986.

21 NYT, June 29, 1986.

22 Extra!, journal of the press monitoring organization FAIR, Dec. 1987. World Court announcement, AP, WP, Aug. 4, 1988, a brief item; Boston Globe, 29 words.

23 U.N. Press Release GA/7572, Nov. 12; AP, Nov. 12; Paul Lewis, NYT, Nov. 11, 13, Dec. 26, 1987.