In a League of Its Own

By Chomsky, Noam | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

In a League of Its Own


Chomsky, Noam, Harvard International Review


Assessing US Rogue Behavior

Like many other terms of political discourse, the term "rogue state" has two uses: a propagandistic use, applied to assorted enemies, and a literal use that applies to states that do not regard themselves bounded by international norms. Logic suggests that the most powerful states should fall into this category unless internally constrained, an expectation that history confirms. Though international norms are not rigid, there is a measure of agreement on general guidelines. In the post-World War II period, these norms are partially codified in the UN Charter, in International Court of Justice (ICJ) decisions, and in various conventions and treaties. The US regards itself as exempt from these conditions, increasingly so since the Cold War ended, leaving US dominance so overwhelming that pretence can be largely dropped.

This stance has not gone unnoticed. The newsletter of the American Society of International Law (ASIL) observed in March 1999 that "international law is today probably less highly regarded in our country than at any time" in the century; the editor of the professional journal has warned of the "alarming exacerbation" of Washington's dismissal of treaty obligations.

The operative principle of this disregard was articulated by Dean Acheson in 1963 when he informed the ASIL that the propriety of a response to a challenge to US "power, position, and prestige" is "not a legal issue." International law, he had observed earlier, is useful "to gild our positions with an ethos derived from very general moral principles that have affected legal doctrines." But the United States, he concluded, is not bound by these codes.

Acheson was referring specifically to the Cuba blockade. Cuba has been one of the main targets of US terror and economic warfare for 40 years, even before the secret March 1960 decision to overthrow the government. The Cuban threat was identified by Arthur Schlesinger, who described the "falling-dominoes or "virus" effect and noted that Castro's ideology might stimulate the "poor and underprivileged" elsewhere. There was a Cold War connection: "the Soviet Union hovers in the wings, flourishing large development loans and presenting itself as the model for achieving modernization in a single generation."

Unsurprisingly, the US assault on Latin America became considerably harsher after the USSR disappeared from the scene. Its behavior has been nearly universally condemned: by the UN, the EU, the Organization of American States (OAS), and its judicial body, the Inter-American Judicial Court (IAJC), which ruled unanimously that the measures violated international law, as did the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Few doubt that they would also be condemned by the WTO, but Washington has made it clear that it would disregard any WTO ruling, keeping to the rogue-state principle.

Protecting Our Friends

To mention another illustration of contemporary relevance, when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, it was ordered to withdraw at once by the UN Security Council, but to no avail. The reasons were explained in the 1978 memoirs of UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who recalled, "The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

He goes on to report that within two months some 60,000 people had been killed. The numbers reached about 200,000 within a few years thanks to increasing military support from the United States, which was joined by Britain as atrocities peaked in 1978. Their support continued through 1999, as Kopassus commandos, armed and trained by the United States, organized "Operation Clean Sweep" from January 1999, killing 3000-5000 people by August according to credible Church sources, later expelling 750,000 people, 85% of the population, and virtually destroying the country. …

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