Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 4: Adjuncts of Government Segment 6/10
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In a last-ditch effort to undermine the peace agreement, Washington put forth the Reagan-Wright plan on August 5, calling for dismantling the political system in Nicaragua, an end to arms aid to Nicaragua, and demobilization of Sandinista forces. In return the United States would pledge to halt shipments of arms to the contras. This proposal received wide media acclaim as fair and just; the Iran-contra hearings that had concluded two days earlier had passed into ancient history, along with their suggestion that a U.S. pledge might be worth less than gold. Nevertheless, to the surprise and annoyance of the administration, the Central American presidents reached an agreement on August 7.
Government propaganda then shifted, predictably, to the demolition of the unacceptable accords. The media followed faithfully along. I have reviewed the details elsewhere, so I will only summarize this most remarkable campaign.39
The problem to be addressed was a familiar one: a great power has been unable to impose its will and finds itself confronted with conditions and circumstances that it refuses to accept. A state that commands unusual power, such as the United States, has a variety of ways to deal with the problem. One is to pretend that the adversary has capitulated, accepting the U.S. stand. This option can be pursued only if the information system can be trusted to fall into line, presenting the U.S. government version as if it were true, however outlandish the pretense. If the media meet their responsibilities in this way, then the adversary must indeed accept U.S. terms, or else suffer retribution for violating the alleged solemn commitment to adhere to them.
One striking example of this technique was the treatment of the Paris peace treaty of January 1973, which the United States was compelled to sign after the failure of its attempt to bludgeon North Vietnam into submission by the Christmas B-52 bombings of populated areas. The U.S. government at once offered a version of the treaty that was diametrically opposed to its terms on every crucial point. This version was uniformly accepted and promulgated by the media, so that the actual terms of the peace treaty had been dismissed to the memory hole literally within a few days. The United States and its South Vietnamese client then proceeded with massive violations of the actual treaty in an effort to attain their long-sought goals by violence, and when the Vietnamese adversaries finally responded in kind, they were universally denounced for the breakdown of the agreements and compelled to suffer for their crime.40 The case of the Central America peace accords was similar. It was necessary to refashion them to conform to U.S. dictates, a task that was accomplished with the anticipated cooperation of the media, though it took a little longer than the overnight victory at the time of the Paris peace accords -- perhaps an indication that the media really have become more "adversarial" than in the past.
The first requirement of the demolition campaign was to establish that it was U.S. support for the contras that had forced the Sandinistas to negotiate. This is always an important doctrine, since it can be exploited to justify subsequent resort to armed force and terror. The thesis hardly withstands the evidence of history: Nicaragua's effort to pursue the peaceful means required by international law through the World Court, the United Nations, and the Contadora process, and Washington's success in "trumping" these initiatives.41 Such problems were readily overcome by dismissal of the facts to the memory hole. The required doctrinal truth then became the merest cliché. The New York Times editors could therefore criticize Michael Dukakis during the 1988 election campaign because he "undervalues the role of force in bringing the Sandinistas to the bargaining table."42 It would be unreasonable to expect troublesome facts to stand in the way of a principle that authorizes continued reliance on violence as the necessary means for bringing peace. More generally, what is useful is True. Period.
The first task was accomplished with dispatch. The next problem was to dismantle the accords themselves. Their first phase ran from the signing in August 1987 to January 1988, when the Central American presidents were to receive the report of the International Verification Commission (CIVS), which was charged with monitoring the accords. The goal of the Reagan administration was to focus all attention on the Sandinistas, thus ensuring that the United States could maintain the attack by its proxy forces and exclude the U.S. client states from the provisions of the accords. The media at once dedicated themselves to these further tasks, and by January the last shreds of the original accords disappeared, replaced by the initial U.S. terms. Henceforth, the irrelevant facts become of interest only to archivists. It is the necessary illusions that prevail.
The peace plan specified one "indispensable element" for peace, namely, a termination of open or covert aid of any form ("military, logistical, financial, propagandistic") to "irregular forces" (the contras) or "insurrectionist movements" (indigenous guerrillas). In response, the United States at once stepped up its illegal CIA supply flights, which had already reached the phenomenal level of one a day in an effort to keep the proxy forces in the field. These doubled in September and virtually tripled in the months that followed. Surveillance flights also increased. Successes were immediately evident as contra attacks on civilians doubled in intensity, including ambushes, murders, attacks on farm cooperatives, and kidnappings.43 The CIA also offered bribes to Miskito leaders to prevent them from joining the peace process.
The peace agreements were thus effectively dead from the first moment. These were, by far, the most significant developments during the August-January phase of the accords.
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39 Cf. appendix IV, section 5, for further documentation and references. For reasons of space, I will largely keep to the Newspaper of Record. For further details, see the references of note 36, including some exceptions to the general pattern, primarily in the Christian Science Monitor and Los Angeles Times, and editorials in the Boston Globe.
40 See Manufacturing Consent, chapter 5, and sources cited. A variant of this diplomatic strategy was called "the Trollope ploy" by the Kennedy intellectuals during the Cuban missile crisis, when they sought to evade a proposal by Khrushchev that they recognized would be regarded generally as a reasonable way to terminate the crisis; the "ploy" was to attribute to Khrushchev a different and more acceptable stand, just as the heroine of a Trollope novel interprets a meaningless gesture as an offer of marriage. The December 1988 reversal on speaking to the PLO is another example; see appendix V, section 4.
41 A classified background paper for the National Security Council after the U.S. had scuttled the 1984 opportunities exulted that "we have trumped the latest Nicaraguan/Mexican effort to rush signature of an unsatisfactory Contadora agreement," namely the one that the U.S. had been vigorously advocating until Nicaragua announced its support for it. See Kornbluh, Nicaragua, 181f.
42 A further Dukakis flaw is that he "would now deny the Nicaraguan rebels even economic aid" (as required by the 1987 peace accords, the editors neglect to add; these accords they constantly applaud -- when they can be employed as an anti-Sandinista weapon). Editorial, NYT, Aug. 28, 1988.
43 AP, Jan. 29, 1988, reporting a Witness for Peace study. There is a mention by Julia Preston, WP, Feb. 4.