Blogs > HNN > Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Noam Chomsky's Failed States: The Abuse of Power and Assault on Democracy (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2006)

Jan 21, 2007 7:22 pm

Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Noam Chomsky's Failed States: The Abuse of Power and Assault on Democracy (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2006)

Jeremy Kuzmarov is Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Bucknell University.

Noam Chomsky has been among the most persistent and controversial critics of U.S. foreign policy since the publication of his now classic book, American Power and the New Mandarins in 1967. Most recently, he achieved public notoriety when Hugo Chavez held up a copy of his monograph Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance in a speech before the UN Security Council where he also referred to George W. Bush as the “devil.” Chavez urged his audience to read Chomsky’s book in order to better understand the devastating global consequences of America’s quest for global expansion and empire. Chavez might well have also recommended Chomsky’s latest book, Failed States, which warns that recent U.S. policy-actions have threatened the human species with extinction by exacerbating the threat of nuclear war, global terrorism and environmental degradation. The title of the book represents a jab at neo-imperialist analysts of the political right (like Max Boot, Niall Ferguson and Robert Kagan) and self-fashioned liberal humanitarians of the left (like Michael Ignatieff and Samantha Powers of the Harvard Kennedy School) who spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s promoting U.S. military intervention in “failed states,” like Bosnia, Rwanda and Haiti, to restore stability and order and end human rights abuses. Spinning this argument around, Chomsky argues that the United States itself bears many of the same features of “failed states,” including disregard for international law, an inability to protect its citizens from political violence and neglect for the poor that makes it ill-equipped to carry out this task. The U.S. furthermore behaves as a conventional imperial power with little pretension for humanitarianism. It has a long history of supporting some of the worst human rights offenders on the planet, including at present, Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, Nusultan Nazarbayev in Khazakstan and Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guineau, who should be the proper focus of politically oriented activism.

While caustic and filled with his usual sarcasm, Chomsky’s analysis is not without substance. His chapter on “Democracy Promotion” is particularly strong in demonstrating a long-standing link between Washington and human rights abuses in the developing world. Based on an earlier book with Edward H. Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (1979), Chomsky chronicles the now-familiar story of the United States lining up behind every tin-horn dictator who called themselves anti-Communists during the Cold War era and providing crucial military aid and police training to solidify their repressive tendencies. Besides the Diem government in South Vietnam, the most notorious case that he cites is Indonesia under General Suharto, where the CIA and State Department were complicit in the 1965 liquidation of the Communist Party (PKI) and subsequent genocide (which US intelligence reports characterized as among the “worst mass murders of the 20th century”). The New York Times subsequently heaped praise on Suharto’s government in a disgraceful manner, calling it a “gleaming light in Asia.”

According to Chomsky, American foreign policy in Iraq fits into a larger historical pattern going back to the Kennedy administration’s support for the 1963 Baathist coup and brutal purge of regime oppositionists that followed. Chomsky emphasizes America’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s as a counterweight to the Iranian revolution and complicity in his major human rights violations, including the gassing of the Kurds. According to Chomsky, it was only when Saddam defied the international community by invading oil-rich Kuwait in 1991 that the United States started to protest the abuses of his regime for political reasons. American leaders followed suit with a devastating aerial attack on the nation’s infrastructure in the first Gulf War and sponsored a program of economic sanctions through the U.N., which claimed the lives of an estimated 500,000 children. These past actions for Chomsky highlight the imperialist motives of the United States and a lack of compassion for the plight of ordinary Iraqis, which has continued through the current military onslaught where major crimes against humanity by the U.S. military have been reported (sometimes with approval in the mainstream press, as he bitterly notes), including the assault on Fallujah. At the same time, the U.S. has helped to foster a violent backlash to its policies in the Middle East, causing a rise in international terrorism and support for extremist groups like Al-Qaeda who represent a threat to global security.

Chomsky’s critics have long argued that he presents an over-simplified view of the world and underplays the sometimes real dangers that the United States has faced, or malevolent character of its political rivals. This critique does have some resonance. Chomsky describes Pan-Arabism, for example, as a movement and ideology to “use Saudi petro-dollars to aid the plight of the Arab poor.” While this is true, there was also a strong authoritarian strand to Pan-Arabism, as epitomized by the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, which Chomsky minimizes in his bid to unequivocally blame U.S. policy for the spread of injustice and political repression in the Middle East. While over-stretching at times in his analysis, Chomsky’s biting criticism is nevertheless valid on the whole in pointing to the hypocrisy of American policy-action and its link to the spread of political reaction and crimes against humanity. Chomsky provides a great deal of factual evidence to back up his assertion that the United States has been a key sponsor of dictatorship and tyranny in the world, motivated in part by material self-interest and an ideological commitment to a free-market ideology. Chomsky’s analysis of the abuses of the Bush administration also fit into a growing literature on this topic. He has a particularly poignant section on the Orwellian use of the term “War on Terror” by Bush administration officials, many of whom played important roles in orchestrating Reagan’s Central American wars in the 1980s, where U.S. proxies like the Nicaraguan Contras openly used terrorist tactics such as the razing of villages and deliberate murder of civilians. For this, they were condemned by the U.N. World Court.

As in past works, including his Manufacturing of Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (with Edward S. Herman, 1989), Chomsky provides important commentary on the mass media, including its lack of critical faculties and historical perspective on current events and its over-reliance on government sources. He makes a strong case that the media, in the buildup to the Iraq War, helped to silence meaningful political debate and has long helped sanitize the violence and brutality meted out by U.S. forces and their proxies. The last section of Chomsky’s book documents the domestic consequences of what he sees as American imperial over-reach and the rise of neo-liberalism, or unfettered free-market Capitalism. He argues, quite convincingly, that the United States is fast becoming a mirror image of a global economic order marred by increasing social polarization and inequality. According to him, recent cutbacks in vital social services and medical care have had a particularly devastating effect on the most vulnerable of people in the country, including immigrants. The drug war and the rising prison-industrial complex – the focus of much recent sociological work -- is, in Chomsky’s view, a desperate attempt by government elites at social control and promotes virtual slave labor among the poor and other disposable peoples who would otherwise be of little use to society. The extravagant use of taxpayer dollars on social policing programs, advanced weaponry technologies and military adventurism, meanwhile, points to the hypocrisy of modern conservative ideology, which preaches against government interference, yet uses the tremendous resources at its disposal for repressive purposes, to control unrest from below and extend American hegemony and corporate access to free-markets globally.

Whether one agrees or not with all of these arguments, Chomsky has written a profound political jeremiad that raises important and timely criticism of American society and governance. Chomsky himself has long been a tireless champion of the poor and dispossessed and offers important insight not only into the way in which the United States has been the source of tremendous historical injustice, but also into a practical way of harnessing the nation’s resources, ingenuity and power for positive social gain. We ignore him only at our peril.

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James Spence - 1/28/2007

Chomsky divides opinion like no other intellectual out there. Those who hate him would prefer to have only one argument going in the world, and that would have only their point of view in it. I tend to see him as a truth teller and only have some minor disagreements with him. But in this book , which I’ve read, he is as brilliant as ever because he steps outside the line and exposes the high crimes and misdemeanors of the US and their complicity with brutal dictators all over the world. If critics expect anyone who ever writes a book to be perfect than they better take a good look at themselves first. The less hypocrisy the better.

Jason Blake Keuter - 1/24/2007

Chomsky has not written a profound book at all. He can be ignored. He's a crank. His acolytes scream bloody murder and marginialization at the accusation, but his views lack credibility and legitimacy. He protests that he is anti-communist, but his analysis smacks of simplistically orthodox Marxism. In fact, everything Chomsky writes is simplistic and overtly biased and fundamentally dishonest and skewed and distorted. This book is brilliant only for inarticulate true believers looking for someone who can translate their elemental loathing into something seemingly rational. It's thunderously absolute concclusions are based on a willfull ignorance of the most elemental history - which Chomsky conveniently labels calls bourgeois lies in every sense but name only. - a Marxist canard that says "traditional" histories are fashioned to serve "capitalist" (chomsky's vague term that really means He doesn't use such terms because he actively represses his communist ideology in a pathetic attempt to fashion himself as some kind of quasi-anarchist who merely wants to free people from their chains so they can pursue some kind of nebulous course of "genuine" self-development. Regardless, having denounced any history as ideological support for the evil status quo, Chomsky can then go on to fashion his own "bs-tory" safe from inconvenient facts and truth. The more obvious the truth, the more known the truth, the more easily Chomsky can identify it as mainstream.

Eventually, debates with Chomsky degenerate into pathetic spats over the most minute details. Arguing with him is like arguing with an alcoholic over exact moments of drunkeness. It is a colossal waste of time. To call his views "vital" is to invite discussion with someone pathologically determined to prop up a lie.

His recent accolades for Hezbollah have not deterred the author of this review from praise for Chomsky as a vital force in the movement for democracy. Chomsky isobviously and self-evidently a vital force in the movement AGAINST democracy.