After Imperial Ambitions, this is the second work of Chomsky I’ve read. It paints a very dark picture of both the state of the world and specifically US and Israeli foreign policy throughout the 20th century and well over into the 21st, founding its analysis in facts accompanied by hundreds of citations. Chomsky aims to completely dismantle the idea of the United States as a well-intentioned giant, succeeding to a devastating extent. To replace such an interpretation, he offers an idea of the US government as a dynamic, Machiavellian group of economic and political elites who aim to upkeep a global military and economic US hegemony for as long as possible – using any means deemed necessary.
Noam Chomsky is perhaps the most prominent critic of United States of America’s imperialism and its politics in general. As a linguist, I’ve understood, time has much driven by his findings and theories, but his contributions to contemporary and historical political analysis and discussion are highly valued – depending on whether you agree with him about politics. People in general have this tendency – if someone agrees with them, it doesn’t matter much if they spout incorrect nonsense, and if they don’t, every single bit a person says comes under strict scrutiny (also known as motivated skepticism).
The thing about Chomsky is that it is very, very hard to simply disagree with his writing. You may disagree with his proposed solutions for issues, with which facts count as meaningful, or with the way he interprets many events, but you cannot simply disagree with everything Chomsky says. That is just because Chomsky talks mostly about facts. Unlike many others, who present a single fact and then extrapolate from that to lengthy, interpretative storytelling, Chomsky typically presents maybe a dozen or so facts, discusses them to a varying degree of detail, and perhaps finishes with a couple of sour comments and carries on to the next subject.
Chomsky’s attention to facts is astounding. The number of citations in this book alone counts over five hundred, with few references to a single work. He cites books, journals, declassified CIA reports, public official statements and many, many other sources to provide flesh to his claims which might otherwise appear egregious. He has been accused of cherry-picking facts, most notably in Anti-Chomsky reader. I cannot comment on that book, because I haven’t read it. I most likely will, seeing as I’ll eventually read most if not all of Chomsky’s books, too. For those interested in what actual historians have to say about Chomsky, I recommend the Askhistorians subreddit FAQ section devoted to him. Long story short, Reddit historians disagree on the extent to which Chomsky lets his biases affect his analyses, most of them think he does not exercise the same kind of intellectual rigor on leftist failures and crimes as he does on the failures and crimes of USA, and no examples are given of him being completely wrong about the US or Israel. I did find a single example, but it is mostly a question of wording, where Chomsky could have chosen his words better, but where he isn’t wrong, either. I won’t delve further into that here, but I’m willing to discuss it in comments.
That is, most if not all criticism of Chomsky seems to revolve around his leftist ideas and claims of him whitewashing leftist dictators, him overstating the indifferent or downright malicious attitudes of US leaders towards the victims of US imperialism, and around his interpretations of the US government’s attitudes towards their actions (for instance, see the short Harris & Chomsky email correspondence). From such a superficial glance it seems that few are able or willing to dispute the accuracy of his sources or the events he claims have happened, instead directing their criticism towards Chomsky’s interpretations on what counts as meaningful in the context of global politics. The fact remains that Chomsky supports his claims by offering a fact after another, and in many cases, they are devastating facts. His rhetoric is captivating and persuasive, and the main reason for that is in his use of facts. No wonder the contemporary Right hates his guts.
He begins the book by exploring the role of an intellectual in the modern world, continuing to list actions of US special forces, intelligence agencies and US-funded military and paramilitary groups around the globe, especially in Southern and Latin America (Haiti, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil are all mentioned). The actions presented are not flattering; assassinations, coups, attacks or threats to sovereign states and international terror form the bulk of Chomsky’s presentation. During this part he dismantles a modern conspiracy theorist image of JFK as a sincere man of peace who was against a US military hegemony, while in fact Kennedy during the 60s set in motion plans and patterns of foreign policy resulting in significant violence and oppression in several Latin and South American countries. One example is Kennedy’s 1962 decision to send special forces to Colombia to begin “paramilitary, sabotage and terror operations against known proponents of Communism” (my translation).
On a side note, I can remember even seeing a conspiracy theory (as a teenage kid), which stated that JFK was against the Vietnam war, which led to his assassination – whereas Kennedy in fact acted a key role in escalating the Vietnam war.
As the book consists of small essays instead of a coherent, logical story told from beginning to end, he relies heavily on repetition of certain key elements, including the ghastly difference between a nation’s professed intentions and their actual behavior. In this sense he takes on a kind of a realist outlook on international relations, although his realism differs much from that of Henry Kissinger’s World Order. Chomsky discusses several matters simultaneously, resulting in discussions of certain phenomena or characters – say, the future of US imperialism, Obama as a president, Israel’s foreign policy, the future of Palestinians, nuclear weapons, and so on – being resolved only little by little, layer by layer. This makes for a very dense book, but also rewards the reader by a more thorough understanding of Chomskys point of view towards the end.
During the first chapter Chomsky also lists domestic and foreign comments on such events to explore the government’s and the public attitude towards them, comparing them with imaginary examples of similar crimes done by USA:s enemies or rivals, or crimes done to US citizens, concluding that the US pretty much reserves the right to violence and breaking the international law, whereas laws are for non-US countries. Specifically in this context he mentions the 2011 assassination of Obama bin Laden without trial or autopsy, whereas even Nazi criminals were given the right to trial. He concludes by referring to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863, condemning assassinations. This reflects well upon the recent 2020 assassination of Iranian general Soleimani. This example also begins the task, carried out throughout the book, of dismantling the image of Obama as a peaceful (or as those on the Right might say, weak) leader aiming to redeem America’s crimes and rebuild it towards a less hostile and frightening direction – using one example after the other.
The examples mentioned above are not exhaustive, but they give an idea of the matters discussed in the first chapter of the book. As there are 23 chapters in the book, I will settle at saying that Chomsky offers a devastating critique of many modern myths of international politics and especially those concerning actions of USA. Among the most interesting to me were the seemingly neverending examples of Israeli violence and terror against the Palestinians and the much repeated fact that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory are illegal and almost universally condemned globally – with the exception of USA. Also Chomsky’s discussions of nuclear weapons and particularly the US nuclear strategy (to paraphrase: “We need to seem needlessly vengeful and unpredictable in order for the threat of nuclear attack to loom over each and every conflict”) deserves a tip of hat. Besides those his discussion of USA:s internal politics and the war its elites have waged against the working classes were an eye-opening read.
Chomsky’s writing is very dense with references to global and loval events and themes occurring several times a page. However, he also rewards the reader with one kind of a storyline of how the world has come to look the way it did in 2016. Every story has its flaws and every storyteller has their biases, but it suffices to say that Chomsky absolutely does not fail to take reality into account when writing out his interpretations. Highly recommended for the layperson – perhaps even for the historian.
The next book I’ll review is Christopher Norris’ Epistemology, followed by Why the West Rules (for now).