Friday, January 23, 2009

'Approximately the Bush Position'

In an interview with Democracy Now! today, Noam Chomsky characterized Obama's first substantive statements yesterday on the crisis in Gaza and Israeli-Palestinian relations more broadly as representing 'approximately the Bush position.' Likewise, he criticized the first statements by Obama's new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, as basically continuing US policies that have been failing for decades to resolve the conflict.

Chomsky criticized them in particular for carefully omitting any serious criticism of Israel concerning its violation of international law, expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the fragmentation of Palestinians into what Ariel Sharon called 'bantustans,' and the brutal oppression of Palestinians. Until the US stops supporting Israel's policy and starts pressuring it to significantly change, Israel will continue doing what has been its official policy for decades:
JUAN GONZALEZ: Noam Chomsky, I’d like to ask you about the enormous civilian casualties that have shocked the entire world in this last Israeli offensive. The Israelis claim, on the one hand, that it’s the unfortunate result of Hamas hiding among the civilian population, but you’ve said in a recent analysis that this has been Israeli policy almost from the founding of the state, the attack on civilian populations. Could you explain?

NOAM CHOMSKY: They say so. I was just quoting the chief of staff—this is thirty years ago, virtually no Palestinian terrorism in Israel, virtually. He said, “Our policy has been to attack civilians.” And the reason was explained—you know, villages, towns, so on. And it was explained by Abba Eban, the distinguished statesman, who said, “Yes, that’s what we’ve done, and we did it for a good reason. There was a rational prospect that if we attack the civilian population and cause it enough pain, they will press for a,” what he called, “a cessation of hostilities.” That’s a euphemism meaning cessation of resistance against Israel’s takeover of the—moves which were going on at the time to take over the Occupied Territories. So, sure, if they—“We’ll kill enough of them, so that they’ll press for quiet to permit us to continue what we’re doing.”

Actually, you know, Obama today didn’t put it in those words, but the meaning is approximately the same. That’s the meaning of his silence over the core issue of settling and takeover of the Occupied Territories and eliminating the possibility for any Palestinian meaningful independence, omission of this. But Eban [inaudible], who I was quoting, chief of staff, would have also said, you know, “And my heart bleeds for the civilians who are suffering. But what can we do? We have to pursue the rational prospect that if we cause them enough pain, they’ll call off any opposition to our takeover of their lands and resources.” But it was—I mean, I was just quoting it. They said it very frankly. That was thirty years ago, and there’s plenty more beside that.


So, OK, we can have—in fact, you know, the first Israeli government to talk about a Palestinian state, to even mention the words, was the ultra right-wing Netanyahu government that came in 1996. They were asked, “Could Palestinians have a state?” Peres, who had preceded them, said, “No, never.” And Netanyahu’s spokesman said, “Yeah, the fragments of territory that we leave to them, they can call it a state if they want. Or they can call it fried chicken.” Well, that’s basically the attitude.

And Mitchell had nothing to say about it. He carefully avoided what he knows for certain is the core problem: the illegal, totally illegal, the criminal US-backed actions, which are systematically taking over the West Bank, just as they did under Clinton, and are undermining the possibility for a viable state.
At least so far, there is hardly any indication that any major change will occur in US policy concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Like any communication, political communication is highly selective. Its selectivity is largely determined by the structure of the system in which it takes place. The structures of social systems are cognitive, normative, and reflexive expectations. Cognitive expectations are anticipations of what is likely to happen and how things are likely to work. Normative expectations express what should happen. If we understand, with Harold Lasswell, values as desired goals, we can understand both values and norms, and interests as normative expectations. Finally, reflexive expectations are expectations of expectations. Once you understand how systems are structured, patterns of communication and behaviour become pretty predictable.

If we apply this to Obama's and Mitchell's most recent positioning on the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we get something like this: Given the structure of US foreign policy, and the fact that the basic understanding of what constitutes 'US interests' in the Middle East has not changed, the result is the continuation of the traditional policy: Form follows function. To change the form (structure) of US policy, one needs to change its function. Yet this is very difficult to achieve, since structures have grown and solidified for many decades, and are full of vested interests and deeply entrenched positions.

It is this structure that determines the selectivity of communication and action. This explains how systems reproduce themselves over time, how they not only get from one moment to the next, but more importantly how they get from this position to that position. This is why Obama sounds very similar to Bush on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Mitchell sounds basically like Dennis Ross, Director of Policy Planning in the State Department under Bush 41 and Middle East envoy Clinton, who was rumored to also take up that position under Obama as well, and now is one of his top advisers on Middle East policy.

Here is what Chomsky has to say about Ross:
And you can understand it [the continuity from Bush to Obama] when you look at his advisers. So, say, Dennis Ross wrote an 800-page book about—in which he blamed Arafat for everything that’s happening—barely mentions the word “settlement” over—which was increasing steadily during the period when he was Clinton’s adviser, in fact peaked, a sharp increase in Clinton’s last year, not a word about it.
What is important to understand is that US policy has continued not because of the continued presence of people like Ross (that would be getting cause and effect reversed), but because the overall structure of US policy has not changed. 'Ross' and 'Mitchell,' just like 'Bush' and 'Obama' are just names, and what, after all, is in a name? What matters are not so much individuals and their differences (which can be considerable, of course), but structures and their continuity. This raises the fundamental question to what extent individuals can change social structures such as function systems, organizations, and networks.

The implication of all this for progressive strategy is that it should concentrate its efforts on changing those organizations in which resources and decision-making power is concentrated, i.e. governments and corporations. Organizations are by far the most powerful social actors because they can mobilize and bundle resources in collective action. This requires progressives in turn to strengthen their own organizations and networks and better coordinate their activities.

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