Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 5: The Utility of Interpretations Segment 6/11
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With appropriate interpretations, then, we can rest content that the United States and its clients defend democracy, social reform, and self-determination against Communists, terrorists, and violent elements of all kinds. It is the responsibility of the media to laud the "democrats" and demonize the official enemy: the Sandinistas, the PLO, or whoever gets in the way. On occasion this requires some fancy footwork, but the challenge has generally been successfully met.36

Our "yearning for democracy" is accompanied by a no less profound yearning for peace, and the media also face the task of "historical engineering" to establish this required truth. We therefore have phenomena called "peace missions" and "the peace process," terms that apply to whatever the United States happens to be doing or advocating at some moment. In the media or responsible scholarship, one will therefore find no such statement as "the United States opposes the peace process" or "Washington has to be induced to join the peace process." The reason is that such statements would be logical contradictions. Through the years, when the United States was "trumping" the Contadora process, undermining the Central America peace accords, and deflecting the threat of peace in the Middle East, it never opposed the peace process in acceptable commentary, but always supported the peace process and tried to advance it. One might imagine that even a great power that is sublime beyond imagination might sometimes be standing in the way of some peace process, perhaps because of misunderstanding or faulty judgment. Not so the United States, however -- by definition.

A headline in the Los Angeles Times in late January 1988 reads: "Latin Peace Trip by Shultz Planned." The subheading describes the contents of the "peace trip": "Mission Would Be Last-Ditch Effort to Defuse Opposition on Contra Aid."37 The article quotes administration officials who describe the "peace mission" as "the only way to save" contra aid in the face of "growing congressional opposition." In plain English, the "peace mission" was a last-ditch effort to block peace and mobilize Congress for the "unlawful use of force" now that Washington and its loyal media had succeeded in completely dismantling the unwanted Central American peace plan and Ortega had agreed that its provisions should apply to Nicaragua alone, foiling the hope that Nicaragua would reject these U.S. conditions so that they could be depicted as the spoilers.

A further goal of the "peace mission," the article continues, was to "relegate Nicaragua's four democratic neighbors to the sidelines in peace talks," with the United States taking command; the "democracies," though pliable, still show an annoying streak of independence. A few months later, the New York Times reported further efforts by the administration "to `keep pressure' on the Sandinistas by continuing to provide support for the contras," including "more military aid," while urging U.S. allies to "join the United States in efforts to isolate Nicaragua diplomatically and revive the peace process..."; George Shultz is quoted as reflecting that perhaps he might have become "involved in the peace process" still earlier. The Los Angeles Times described these renewed administration efforts "to build support for the resumption of U.S. military aid to Nicaragua's Contras" under the headline: "Shultz Will Try to Revive Latin Peace Process."38

In short, War is Peace.

The task of "historical engineering" has been accomplished with no less efficiency in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The problem has been to present the United States and Israel as yearning for peace and pursuing the peace process while in fact, since the early 1970s, they have led the rejectionist camp and have been blocking peace initiatives that have had broad international and regional support. The technique has been the usual one: the "peace process" is, by definition, whatever the United States proposes. The desired conclusion now follows, whatever the facts. U.S. policy is also by definition "moderate," so that those who oppose it are "extremist" and "uncompromising." History has been stood on its head in a most intriguing manner, as I have documented elsewhere.39

There are actually two factors that operate to yield the remarkable distortion of the record concerning "peace," "terrorism," and related matters in the Middle East. One is the societal function of the media in serving U.S. elite interests; the other, the special protection afforded Israel since it became "the symbol of human decency" by virtue of the smashing military victory in 1967 that established it as a worthy strategic asset.

The interplay of these factors has led to some departure from the usual media pattern. Typically, as discussed throughout, the media encourage debate over tactical issues within the general framework of the elite consensus concerning goals and strategy. In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, the spectrum has been even narrower. Substantial segments of elite opinion, including major corporations with Middle East interests, have joined most of the world in favor of the political settlement that the United States and Israel have been able to block for many years. But their position has largely been excluded from the media, which have adhered to the consensus of Israel's two major political groupings, generally taking Labor Party rejectionism to represent the "peace option."

A problem develops when U.S. and Israeli positions diverge. One such case arose in October 1977, when a Soviet-American statement was issued calling for "termination of the state of war and establishment of normal peaceful relations" between Israel and its neighbors, as well as for internationally guaranteed borders and demilitarized zones. The statement was endorsed by the PLO but bitterly denounced by Israel and its domestic U.S. lobby. The media reaction was instructive. The media normally adopt the stand of their leader in the White House in the event of conflict with some foreign state. The administration is allowed to frame the issues and is given the most prominent coverage, with its adversaries sometimes permitted a line here and there in rebuttal, in the interest of objectivity and fairness. In this case, however, the pattern was reversed. As described in Montague Kern's detailed analysis of TV coverage, the media highlighted the Israeli position, treating the Carter administration in the manner of some official enemy. Israeli premises framed the issues, and Israeli sources generally dominated coverage and interpretation. Arab sources, in particular the PLO, were largely dismissed or treated with contempt. "Israel was able to make its case on television," Kern concludes, while "this was not so for the [U.S.] administration, which trailed the Israelis in terms of all the indicators" of media access and influence.40 Carter soon backed down. With the threat of a peaceful settlement deflected, the "peace process" could resume on its rejectionist course.

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36 For one informative case, see appendix V, section 3.

37 Michael Wines and James Gerstenzang, LAT, Jan. 26, 1988.

38 Robert Pear, NYT, July 3, 1988; LAT, July 17, 1988.

39 See appendix V, section 4, for further comment.

40 Montague Kern, Television and Middle East Diplomacy: President Carter's Fall 1977 Peace Initiative (Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown, Occasional Papers Series, 1983).