January 18, 2002

Noam Chomsky: He's really an interventionist – and also completely clueless.

Noam Chomsky – the mere mention of his name drives the War Party wild. The voluble rightist David Horowitz has written himself into a frothy-mouthed frenzy denouncing "Mullah" Chomsky, and the web-artists over at Frontpagemag.com have had a field day fitting poor Noam with turbans and running screaming headlines about the "Ayatollah of the Left." When my buddies the warbloggers want to really insult somebody – say, Ted Rall – they just call him a "Chomskyite," which is the equivalent of being called a Trotskyite at the height of the Moscow Purge Trials. To hear the right-wing pundits and their amen corner tell it, Chomsky is a "traitor," a "fifth columnist," a "blame-America firster" whose pernicious teachings make him the academic equivalent of Johnny Walker, the Tali-boy.  We are supposed to believe the man is a dangerous subversive, and that his cult status is somehow a threat to the war effort, a potential fifth column on campus. Well, you can relax, because, as it turns out, the guy is a fake, a fraud – yes, that's right, he's just another interventionist, albeit one dressed up in peacenik drag.


Since I've been called exactly the same names – not, I hasten to add, with any justification – when I saw the Chomsky interview with Salon.com, I anticipated a ringing denunciation of US interventionism, delivered in no uncertain terms. Instead, as I read through interviewer Suzy Hansen's attempts to get a straight answer out of her subject, the truth slowly dawned on me: the Emperor has no clothes! This guy's a weasel, I thought, as he dodged and weaved his way through Ms. Hansen's minefield of questions, and by the end of it the truth about the controversial professor fairly leaped out at me: Noam Chomsky is a paper tiger!

Chomsky loses it right from the start, when Hansen asks: "In your public comments after Sept. 11, you drew comparisons to our bombing of the Sudan following bin Laden's attacks on overseas American targets. Were you implying that we brought this on ourselves?"

"Of course not. That's idiotic."

Hansen: That wasn't your intention?

Chomsky: "Nobody could possibly interpret it that way. [I said] look, this is a horrendous atrocity but unfortunately the toll is not unusual. And that's just a plain fact. I mentioned the toll from one bombing, a minor footnote to U.S. actions – what was known to be a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, providing half the supplies of the country. That one bombing, according to the estimates made by the German Embassy in Sudan and Human Rights Watch, probably led to tens of thousands of deaths. I said, look, this is a horrible atrocity but outside of Europe and North America, people understand very well that it's just like a lot of history."

Later on in the interview Chomsky describes the US as the world's biggest and most powerful "terrorist state," a bit of hyperbole that even I would hesitate to indulge in. So why is it "idiotic" to infer, from this, that he believes the actions of the US government brought on 9/11?


Chomsky then launches into a vivid description of the arbitrary cruelty of Bill Clinton's attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory (without mentioning that Clinton did it to get Monica off the front pages for a few crucial days). Chomsky's point, though, is strangely anti-climactic. He wants us to know that, as in the Sudan bombing, what happened on 9/11 is "just like a lot of history," i.e., it's not really that big a deal, compared to what they have to endure in the Third World. One can only wonder whom Chomsky is addressing. Is this argument really supposed to convince Americans that they don't deserve a fate any better than the population of, say, Bangladesh? If this is the view of the antiwar movement, then no wonder they're meeting in phone booths.


Chomsky sounds just like my mother lecturing me on the subject of why it would be immoral not to eat every single thing on my plate: "You know, the people in China don't have roast beef, mashed potatoes and peas for dinner: why, they're lucky if they get a bowl of rice." Although I had never seen a single Chinese person, except on television, we heard a lot about them at our house when I was growing up. Whenever we didn't eat our peas and carrots, or if we should fail to appreciate the long cotton underwear with dancing harlequins that Aunt Clara had gotten us for Christmas, "the people in China" would rear their heads and clamor for our attention. Listening to Chomsky trying to guilt-trip me into cleaning my plate, I can only wonder: So this is what Salon bills as "the nation's most implacable critic of U.S. foreign policy"?


What Chomsky fails to say is that the attack cannot be understood except as a direct response to the ongoing US military occupation of Saudi Arabia, the sacred land of Mecca and Medina, which the feet of "infidels" may not touch. This is Bin Laden's big beef with the US, the whole meaning and purpose of Al Qaeda's anti-American jihad, or holy war: the presence of US troops on Saudi soil is seen as sacrilege by Muslim fundamentalists. 9/11 was blowback, as the anti-interventionist scholar Chalmers Johnson would put it: his book of the same title illustrates the same principle in operation since the beginning of the cold war. "Blowback," as Johnson means it, is not just terrorist attacks, but also the more long-range economic, political, and military consequences of imperial over-stretch, and 9/11 is a classic case that combines all these into a single catalytic event.


For wasn't it the US, in alliance with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, that created and sustained the Afghan anti-Communist rebellion of the 1980s – or else why is Zbigniev Brzezinski boasting that he and his "mujahideen"  brought down the Kremlin? By personally participating in the first great jihad of modern times, funded and fully supported by Washington, Bin Laden achieved legendary prominence, and forged the core cadre of Al Qaeda in that milieu. Yesterday's "freedom fighter" is today's terrorist – how much more explicit can the concept of blowback get? Yet Chomsky doesn't get into any of that, and instead relies on his own narrow definition of "international law" – a strange position indeed for an avowed "anarchist" to take.


Chomsky's position is that, in response to 9/11, we should have followed the path trailblazed by Nicaragua under the Sandinistas:

"It followed international law and treaty obligations. It collected evidence, brought the evidence to the highest existing tribunal, the International Court of Justice, and received a verdict – which of course the U.S. dismissed with contempt. The court called upon the United States to terminate the crime and pay substantial reparations."

 Yes, but the Nicaraguan commies lost to their terrorists: their regime was weakened and then kicked out of office. Chomsky admits this when he says that "the U.S. responded by immediately escalating the war; new funding was provided" and "the U.S. official orders shifted to more extreme terrorism." In short, going the Nicaraguan route wouldn't solve the problem, since Al Qaeda is about as likely to abide by the edicts of the International Court as the US government was in Central America. In spite of  poor little Nicaragua "following all the right procedures," moans Chomsky, "the US simply would not adhere to it." So what makes Chomsky think Al Qaeda would adhere to the decisions of a UN tribunal?


This is a very weak argument, and, once again, one can only ask: Is this the fearsome lion of the Left, the wild-eyed "radical" reviled by the Right and shunned by respectable liberals? Sheesh! No wonder the War Party likes to bandy his name about as a synonym for "radical" opposition to the war: instead of building their own straw man, Chomsky has done them the favor of providing one ready-made.

Chomsky's solution to the problem of what to do about terrorism is for the United States to cede its sovereignty, at least in this matter, to "international authorities," who will then conduct a criminal investigation of 9/11. This nameless authority – he must mean the UN – would then have the use of "internationally sanctioned means, which could include force, to apprehend the criminals." This same international authority would "bring the criminals to justice" and  "ensure that they have fair trials and international tribunals." In short, we have to first establish the outlines of a world government, and give it total power to intervene anywhere.

While Chomsky rails elsewhere against the US bombing, which has killed plenty of civilians, and which still goes on in spite of our alleged "victory," would the "use of force" by "international authorities" necessarily be any less brutual even if Commander Chomsky was personally in charge of it? There is no reason to believe the Taliban would have turned Bin Laden & Co. over to the United Nations, since they failed to accede to a similar demand by the US. And so the war would have commenced, just the same, with one difference: Chomsky would now be hailing it as a great "humanitarian" intervention, along the lines of the one he recommended in East Timor.


Chomsky, the Implacable, is no consistent advocate of non-intervention. In the case of East Timor, he tried to put pressure on the US government to intervene in favor of a secessionist movement that just happened to have taken the place of the Sandinistas in the Far Left's affections. The East Timorese secessionist rebels, although outgunned and outmanned by the Indonesian central government, rose up in rebellion, crushed all internal opposition, and tried to establish socialism on half an island, as the American Left cheered. The Jakarta government naturally took umbrage at this, and sent in the army to put down the rebellion. A noninterventionist would say: we don't have a dog in that fight. Chomsky, however, does:

Hansen: "What role is the world's superpower supposed to play?"

Chomsky: "The first, simplest role it should play is to stop participating in atrocities. In 1999, for example, one role the U.S. could have played is to stop participating in the atrocities in East Timor. Britain could have played the same role. That would have made a big difference. In fact, when the U.S. finally did inform Indonesia that the game was over on Sept. 11, after the worst had happened, they instantly withdrew. The power was always there."

The power was always there – and the US should use it. No one is fooled by the way Chomsky frames his answer: clearly he was asking for the US to intercede on behalf of the rebels, and threaten Jakarta with the possibility of sanctions. Certainly Australian leftists weren't fooled: the "Green Left" and socialist groups mounted demonstrations calling for the Australian army to "save" East Timor. By doing nothing, in Chomsky's view, we were "participating in atrocities."

What this principle, consistently applied, would have to mean is that every time some "oppressed minority" rises up and challenges the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a "repressive" government, the US should exert pressure – including, presumably, the threat of military intervention – until the bad guys submit to the dismantling of their country. But that is precisely what happened to Yugoslavia, and the pattern is being repeated in Macedonia, while real noninterventionists want to know: by what right?


The most bizarre aspect of this interview, however, comes when Chomsky insists – well, let him speak for himself:

Hansen: "So you don't think our war in Afghanistan is an example of self-defense?"

Chomsky: "Is the United States under an armed attack?"

Hansen: "I would think so."


Here is where the utter cluelessness of Noam Chomsky – and his fellow Chomskyites – comes through loud and clear. To say that he's in denial is putting it mildly. This guy, it's fair to say, is in a coma. If the territory of the US is not under attack, then what was it that caused the collapse of the World Trade Center and the decimation of the Pentagon – was it an act of God? A natural disaster? A bolt of lightning from the blue, perhaps from heaven itself?

Yet Chomsky drones on, exactly like someone in a trance, or a waking dream. Once again we are subjected to the lawyerly conceits of an avowed anarchist, who solemnly informs us that:

"Article 51 [of the U.N. charter] is very explicit and I believe it's correct. It says force can be used in self-defense against armed attack. Armed attack has a definition in international law. It means sudden, overwhelming, instantaneous ongoing attack. Nobody believes the U.S. is under armed attack."


The US, he laboriously explains to the baffled Ms. Hansen, must be continuously under attack: it must endure a veritable barrage of terrorist attacks, all carried out in quick succession, before an authentic state of war exists. So, no, it isn't a question of self-defense. In spite of this, however, everything would've been just peachy if the US had only appealed to the vaunted Article 51, and acted under UN auspices: but, alas, it "purposely chose not to."


Awestruck by the wisdom of this oracle – or, perhaps, having decided, at this point, to humor him – Ms. Hansen meekly asked: "And what would motivate the US to do this?" Chomsky's answer:

"My speculation is that the U.S. does not want to establish the principle that it has to defer to some higher authority before carrying out the use of violence."


You got that right, brother! Why oh why should the US surrender its sovereignty and its very identity to a cabal of other states, none of them half as free as the US? And what's up with this "higher authority"? Higher than what – the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? This supra-national authority has all the makings of a tyranny far more aggressive – and potentially far more deadly – than the US. What Chomsky is arguing for is the creation of a World State, which could intervene in Afghanistan, East Timor – and the American Southwest, for that matter – in the name of justice and "humanitarianism." It's sad, but they don't make "anarchists" the way they used to: instead of smashing the State, Chomsky wants to globalize it.


How would this Super-State deal with, say, Saddam Hussein? According to Chomsky, the Iraqi dictator is entirely the creation of the US, since we supported him when he committed his worst atrocities. Oh, but does that mean we shouldn't go after him now? After hemming and hawing and insisting "that's not a small point," Chomsky's answer is, basically, that we should've done it when we had the chance:

"My own feeling, to tell you the truth, is that there was a great opportunity to get rid of Saddam Hussein in March 1991. There was a massive Shiite uprising in the south led by rebelling Iraqi generals. The U.S. had total command of the region at the time. [The Iraqi generals] didn't ask for U.S. support but they asked for access to captured Iraqi equipment and they asked the United States to prevent Saddam from using his air force to attack the rebels. The U.S. refused. It allowed Saddam Hussein to use military helicopters and other forces to crush the rebellion."


And then what? Should the US have marched to Baghdad, propped up this rebel regime, and occupied Iraq? Here Chomsky echoes the complaints of the right-wing neoconservatives, like Bill Kristol, who have the same regrets about the Gulf War. Like them, Chomsky believes we should've "finished the job" – as Kristol recently put it in a CSPAN interview – but Chomsky wants to do it his way. According to him, we should say to our allies and others in the region:

"'Yeah, we supported [Saddam Hussein] in his worst atrocities; now we don't like him anymore and what should we do about him?' And, yeah, that's a problem."

It's a problem, alright – for anyone who wants to take seriously the idea that Chomsky is an opponent of US military intervention abroad. His feel-good leftism, which fetishizes the UN, is just as messianic as the neoconservative ideology that sees the US role as spreading "democracy" and "modernity" to the four corners of the earth.


As if to confirm his utterly conventional views, Chomsky has nothing but praise for the decisions that got us into the Good War:

"The Second World War brought peace. I was a child, but I did support the war at the time, and in retrospect, still do."

One can easily see how, after Pearl Harbor, even the most intransigent opponent of US intervention overseas might have responded, at the time, with complete support of the war effort. But for this supposedly "implacable" critic and gadfly to support that war in retrospect, given the proven complicity of the White House in the death and destruction visited on Americans at Pearl Harbor, is outrageous. However, it's hardly surprising: the pro-Soviet Left saw World War II as a crusade to save the "worker's fatherland," and in that the crusaders certainly succeeded. Instead of allowing Stalin and Hitler to destroy each other, powerful interests in the US coalesced to drag us, kicking and screaming, into the conflict. The Left, the Anglophiles, and the East Coast-based financial sector, with vital links to Europe, denounced "isolationism" and attacked their enemies as a traitorous "fifth column" – operating much as the War Party does today.


Anyone who bemoans our superpower status, as Chomsky seems to, can't help but recognize World War II as our debut on the world stage in this role. America, the sleeping giant, had been awakened: by war's end, our troops occupied half of Europe and what had been the Empire of Japan. Half a century later, those centurions are still at their posts, and the Empire is expanding, extending its rule into the heartland of Asia. For Chomsky to say that he supports the first few phases of a natural progression, but not its inevitable denouement, is disingenuous in the extreme. The two world wars forged the American national security state, and transformed "isolationist" Americans into international busy-bodies, earnest little empire-builders who cannot rest until the last Hutu is rescued from the last Tutsi and a "new world order" reigns supreme.


Far from being an outsider, Chomsky is part of that internationalist consensus, albeit on its left fringe. His new world order would be enforced, not by the US but by the United States of Earth, although the American taxpayer, you can be sure, would still be footing the bill. In principle, this is no different than the "benevolent global hegemony" school of foreign policy founded by the neoconservatives: it's just a question of who gets to be the hegemon. In Chomsky's world, it's the UN; in Kristol's, the US. In both cases, the result would be perpetual war for perpetual "peace," and a growing global tyranny. In both cases, the power of government is internationalized and infinitely increased until the Constitution is a dead letter, and the Founders – not only of our nation, but of every nation – are but a dim memory.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.


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