COMMENTS ON NOAM CHOMSKY’S NEW BOOK – FAILED STATES – by Stephen Lendman
Noam Chomsky hardly needs an introduction. Throughout his lifetime as an internationally esteemed academic, scholar and activist he’s the rarest of individuals I know. He’s world renown twice over – in his chosen field of linguistics where he’s considered the father of modern linguistics and as a leading voice for equity, justice and peace for over four decades. Although the dominant US corporate media religiously ignore him (especially on air), the New York Times Review of Books said of him a generation ago that “judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today.” He still is, and someone should inform the Times he’s also still alive, but you’d never know it from the silence today from “the newspaper of record” and the rest of the corporate media as well.
Noam, as his friends call him, is the Institute Professor Emeritus of linguistics at MIT where he taught in his chosen field beginning in 1955. He’s written many dozens of books, and despite a nonstop schedule that would challenge most anyone half his age, he still travels the world to speak to large enthusiastic audiences where he’s in great demand. He also gives many interviews that appear in print and on air and continues his prolific writing producing many articles and a new book about every year or two. I don’t know how he does it, and I lost count of the number of books he’s written. But I’m proud to say I’ve read and have on my shelves at home about 45 of them (the political ones) and always look forward to his newest when it’s available.
For those who feel as I do and admire him greatly, it’s always with anticipation and great expectation of more vintage Chomsky when his latest book arrives. One just did, called Failed States, and I couldn’t wait to read it and again immerse myself in the thinking and discourse of this great man. It’s a privilege and honor to write about it as I’m about to do while taking a little editorial license to add a few of my own comments.
Noam Chomsky may dislike labels as much as I do. But if forced to choose he’s likely to call himself a libertarian socialist or anarcho-syndicalist (a fancy word meaning a political and economic system where workers are in charge). He’s engaged in political acitivism all his adult life and was one of the earliest critics of US policies in Southeast Asia in the 60s. He’s also probably done more than anyone else to document and expose US imperial crimes abroad as well as be a leading critic of our policies at home in support of corporate and elitist interests at the expense of the great majority – a democracy for the privileged few alone.
The Theme and Issues Covered in the Book
In his latest book, Failed States, Chomsky addresses three issues he says everyone should rank among their highest ones: “the threat of nuclear war, environmental disaster, and the fact that the government of the world’s only superpower is acting in ways that increase the likelihood of (causing) these catastrophes.” He also raises a fourth issue: “the sharp divide between public opinion and public policy, one of the reasons for fear….that the ‘American system’….is in real trouble….(and) heading in a direction that spells the end of its historic values (of) equality, liberty and meaningful democracy.”
In Failed States, Chomsky continues the theme he developed in his previous book, Hegemony or Survival. He began that book by citing the work of “one of the great figures of contemporary biology,” Ernst Mayr, who speculated that the higher intelligence of the human species was no guarantee of its survival. He noted that beetles and bacteria have been far more successful surviving than we’re likely to be. Mayr also ominously observed that “the average life expectancy of a species is about 100,000 years” which is about how long ours has been around. He went on to wonder if we might use our “alloted time” to destroy ourselves and lots more with us. Chomsky then noted we certainly have the means to do it, and should it happen which is quite possible, we likely will become the only species ever to deliberately or otherwise make ourselves extinct. The way we treat ourselves and the planet, that might come as considerable relief to whatever other species remain should we self-destruct.
The US Has the Characteristics of A “Failed State”
Having laid out his premises, Chomsky believes the US today exhibits the very features we cite as characteristics of “failed states” – a term we use for nations seen as potential threats to our security which may require our intervention against in self-defense. But the very notion of what a failed state may be is imprecise at best, he states. It may be their inability to protect their citizens from violence or destruction. It may also be they believe they’re beyond the reach of international law and thus free to act as aggressors. Even democracies aren’t immune to this problem because they may suffer from a “democratic deficit” that makes their system unable to function properly enough.
Chomsky goes much further saying if we evaluate our own state policies honestly and accurately “we should have little difficulty in finding the characteristics of ‘failed states’ right at home.” He stresses that should disturb us all, and I would add, as a citizen of this country and now in my eighth decade, it obsesses me. Chomsky then spends the first half of his book documenting how the US crafts its policies and uses its enormous power to threaten other states with isolation or destruction unless they’re subservient to our will. He also explains how we react when they go their own way and how routinely and arrogantly we ignore and violate sacred international law and norms in the process.
Chomsky sees the US as an out of control predatory hegemon reserving for itself alone the right to wage permanent war on the world and justify it under a doctrine of “anticipatory self-defense” or preventive war. The Bush administration claims justified in doing so against any nation it sees as a threat to our national security. It doesn’t matter if it is, just that we say it is. Sacred international law, treaties and other standard and accepted norms observed by most other nations are just seen as “quaint (and) out of date” and can be ignored. It hardly matters to those in Washington that in the wake of WW II, the most destructive war ever, the UN was established primarily “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and possibility of “ultimate doom.” Although it was left unstated at the time, it was clear that language meant the devastation that would result from a nuclear holocaust.
The UN Charter became international law binding on all states that are signatories to it as members including the US, of course. Under the Charter, force can only be used under two conditions: when authorized by the Security Council or under Article 51 which allows the “right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member…..until the Security Council has taken measures to maintain international peace and security.” In other words, necessary self-defense is permissible. The Nuremburg Tribunal that tried the Nazis after WW II also set an inviolable standard for the crime of illegal aggression which it called “the supreme international crime.” The Nazis found guilty of it were hanged. Chomsky has said at other times that “If the Nuremburg laws were applied today, then every Post War (WW II) American president would have to be hanged.” In my judgment, a lot of the pre-WW II ones would as well including some of the ones we most revere.
Chomsky rightly explains the US today operates under the doctrine of a “single standard” so it needn’t bother with the laws it chooses to ignore. It’s the standard he’s noted often in other books that Adam Smith called the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind:….All for ourselves and nothing for other people.” It was true in Smith’s day and as much so now except for much bigger stakes. Chomsky then gives examples like on the major issue of the day – terror. By it we mean theirs against us, not ours against them which, of course, is far greater and more destructive, but that’s never mentioned.
The same standard holds in what weapons are allowed. However one may define WMD (in fact, only nuclear ones qualify), it’s unacceptable for anyone to use them against us but quite acceptable for us to use any weapon we have or may develop against any designated enemy. Again, it doesn’t matter and is never mentioned that using these weapons may risk “ultimate doom.” The standard also holds in the use of torture which is outlawed under the Geneva Conventions and UN Convention against Torture. Although we’re signatories to these binding international laws, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales dismissed them as “quaint” and “obsolete” in a memo he wrote the president when he was White House counsel in 2002. He further advised George Bush to rescind the conventions even though they are “the supreme law of the land.”
US History and Current Behavior Offer Proof that This Country Is A “Failed State”
Chomsky devotes much of the book reviewing events, past and more recent, showing how through our actions this country demonstrates the attributes of a failed state. It all began even before the country entered WW II when our high level planners wanted us “to hold unquestioned power” in the post-war global system. They developed “an integrated policy to achieve military and economic supremacy (in the) Grand Area” which was to be the Western Hemisphere and Far East. Before the war ended that was expanded to include as much of Eurasia as possible as well. It seems quite accurate to state today we see our “Grand Area” as the whole planet including our closest allies, at least to the degree we can control and dominate them. This reasoning explains the way we act. The only rules of law we respect are the ones we choose or make up as we go along. So because we flaunt international law and obligations, Chomsky claims rightly we’re also an “outlaw (or rogue) state.” Only we alone claim the right to decide what’s acceptable or not even on matters as serious as life and death or war and peace as well as most everything else. So we’ve used an ill-defined “war on terror” as a casus belli to select target countries we choose to fight and then declare war on them after properly scaring the public enough to get them to go along with it.
Iraq, of course, is the main example, and Chomsky documents the initial crime of aggression we committed plus all the others since March, 2003 as well as those before that date from the brutal economic sanctions throughout the 1990s. And to satisfy our insatiable appetite for war and conquest, Chomsky reviews our past actions in Southeast Asia, Central America, Serbia/Kosovo and elsewhere and what we may have in mind ahead against Iran, Venezuela or others. The rhetoric has especially intensified against these two countries, and hostilities against one or both could erupt at any time, by any means and using any weapons we choose. Chomsky doubts it will and feels Washington’s saber rattling against Iran is intended to try to provoke their leadership to adopt more repressive policies which could foment internal disorder enough to give us more justifiable cause for war at a later time.
An April 29 Update from Noam Chomsky on Prospects for New US Hostile Actions against Iran and Venezuela
I hope Chomsky’s assessment in the book is right that a second Middle East war is not imminent. However, I read the signs less optimistically, and from an April 29 email I received from him responding to this review which I sent him he’s now more inclined to believe the US plans hostile actions against Iran and Venezuela. He added he “wouldn’t be surprised to see (US inspired)secessionist movements in the oil producing areas in Iran, Venezuela and Bolivia, all in areas that are accessible to US military force and alienated from the governments, with the US then moving in to ‘defend’ them and blasting the rest of the country if necessary.”
On April 28, IAEA Director General and Nobel peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei showed where his true loyalties lie (to the empire where else) by doing little to defuse the US led inflammatory rhetoric against Iran in his report to the UN Security Council. In it he said Iran is conducting a uranium enrichment program in defiance of the UN Security Council demands to halt it. The report also claimed IAEA inspectors found evidence that Iran may expand its operations and that because there are information gaps, “including the role of the military in Iran’s nuclear program, the Agency is unable to make progress in its efforts to provide assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”
What the report apparently left out is far more important than what it said: namely that there’s no evidence whatever that Iran is not in full compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and thus has every legal right to enrich uranium for its commercial nuclear operations, US and Western hostile rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. As a man honored by the Nobel award he received and now anointed to be an emissary for peace, it must give one pause to wonder how this report on April 28 serves that end.
The US led heated rhetoric and growing pressure against Iran as well as similar tactics being used against Hugo Chavez only adds to my knowledge and information that the US now has plans for the fourth time to oust the Venezuelan president by what means won’t be apparent until the fireworks begin. Those plans may even be stepped up in light of the major article published in the Wall Street Journal on April 24 about “Chavez Plans to Take More Control of Oil Away from Foreign Firms.” The article claims Chavez is “planning a new assault on Big Oil” that may lead to nationalization of the oil industry and hurt oil company profits. The article had a very hostile tone making inflammatory and unjustifiable claims with no recognition that Venezuela and all other nations have every right to majority ownership of and most of the benefits from their own natural resources. They also have the right to be able to collect a fair and equitable amount of tax revenue from their foreign investors.
In my judgment, the Bush administration clearly is on course toward hostile action of some kind against Iran and Venezuela, but also, by its own admission, has a long list of other potential “rogue countries” on its target list with no plans to run out of them. It’s a kind of perverted Pax Americana under the Bush doctrine of “anticipatory self defense” or preventive war making it easy, if they can continue to sell this notion, to get the public to accept the idea of a “permanent” state of war.
The US Has Corrupted the Meaning of Democracy – First How It’s Done It Abroad
Chomsky discusses how we try selling the notion of “anticipatory self-defense” to the public and the world by claiming it’s part of a democracy project – to bring our democratic system to those who don’t have it, or don’t have enough of it, as part of Bush’s “messianic mission” and “grand strategy.” As an old marketing MBA and now retired marketer I can appreciate the techniques they use to sell it. They are indeed clever and slick, but they should be as they’re designed by advertising and PR experts who know their craft well and execute with precision – even if it is all baloney or worse. Despite our pious rhetoric, the one thing we most don’t want and won’t tolerate in the states we target is real democracy – meaning, of course, freely elected governments and leaders who then run them to serve the needs and interests of their own people instead of ours. The reason we choose a target country is because they refuse to become a subservient client state. That’s intolerable to us so regime change becomes the chosen method to fix the problem including by war if other less extreme methods fail. That’s what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. It had nothing to do with leaders in either country who oppressed their people or threatened to attack anyone.
Using Iraq as an example, Chomsky shows how allowing real democracy there would undermine every goal the US set out to achieve by invading in the first place. He explains that although Iraqis have no love for Iran, they’d prefer friendly relations to conflict with their neighbor and would cooperate with efforts to integrate Iran into the region. Moreover, the Iraqi Shiite religious and political leadership have close links with Iran, and their success in Iraq is encouraging the Shiite population in Saudi Arabia to want the same freedoms and democracy. The Saudi Shiites just happen to be the majority in the eastern part of the country where most of the Saudi oil is. Should all this happen in a democratic process it would be Washington’s worst nightmare – a loose Shiite dominated alliance including Iraq, Iran and the oil rich part of Saudi Arabia.
And if that isn’t bad enough, Chomsky then explains it could be still worse. This independent bloc might join with Iran in establishing major energy projects jointly with China and India and do it using a basket of currencies to denominate oil instead of only the dollar as most countries now do. Iran is already beginning to do it, so others doing the same would seem quite sensible and likely. Should all that happen, it would be a potential earthquake to the US economy which then would have major consequences for the global economy. It’s fair to assume the US would do everything possible to prevent this scenario from ever happening.
The same Bush commitment to “democracy promotion” has played out in our one-sided relations with Israel which have so adversely affected the Palestinians for nearly 40 years and especially so post 9/11 and now after the election of Hamas as the Palestinians’ democratically chosen government. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, there never was a peace process as the US continues to support an illegal Israeli occupation, liberally fund it, and turn a blind eye to the worst abuses committed under it. Those abuses, or more accurately daily war crimes and crimes against humanity, have created the most extreme hardships for a beleaguered people who’ve been unable to receive any meaningful redress in the UN or world community. They’re forced to endure an endless array of daily assaults including targeted and random assassinations, the denial of their most basic rights, and now closed borders and a cutoff of desperately needed funding from the West. Those funds include the tax revenues they pay the Israelis from which they’re entitled to receive payments back to provide the means to run their government and provide the essentials of life including food to eat.
If it wished to, the US could easily broker a diplomatic solution guaranteeing Israel the security its people want (but the Israeli government doesn’t) and the Palestinians a viable state of its own with fixed borders and other major grievances ameliorated and most basic demands satisfied. It would solve the longest running Middle East conflict and make it much easier for both Israel and the US to have a more normal state-to-state relationship with other countries in the region instead of the strained ones both countries now have. It would also go a long way to ending open conflict in the region. It won’t happen because neither the US nor Israel want it to, and they both continue to block every effort toward that end despite their pious rhetoric to the contrary. The result is the most basic Palestinian rights are denied and the notion of a democratic Israel is a myth. So much for “democracy promotion” and conflict resolution in the region.
How the US Has Corrupted the Notion of Democracy at Home
Chomsky devotes the latter part of his book showing how undemocratic, in fact, the US political system really is. He characterizes it as a “corporatized state capitalist democracy” which is little more than a system of legalized private tyrannies. He begins by quoting Robert Dahl whom he calls the most prominent scholar on democratic theory and practice and notes that Dahl’s writings explain the “serious undemocratic features of the US political system.” He also quotes Robert McChesney (one of my favorite media critics and scholars along with Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky), founder of the Free Press of which I’m a member and supporter. In his important writings, McChesney has done so much to document and explain how the dominant US corporate media controls and corrupts the information we get and does it so effectively. Chomsky notes that McChesney cited the abysmal coverage of the 2000 presidential election calling it a “travesty” which then caused further deterioration of media quality and more disservice to the public interest. This, Chomsky explains, is how concentrated private power corrupts democracy, and even mainstream commentators publicly admit that “business is in complete control of the machinery of government.” The public is also aware enough of this to have become apathetic about the political process and not much care which party gains power because neither one will serve its interests. Sadly, that’s the case.
Chomsky also quotes “America’s leading twentieth-century social philosopher,” John Dewey, who believed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business,” and that won’t change as long as power is in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.” Chomsky concludes reform alone won’t correct this abusive imbalance. Real, meaningful democracy is only possible through “fundamental social change.”
Chomsky goes on to explain that our present political system had its roots with the initial design crafted by our Founding Fathers even though the way things are today would have appalled them. He quotes James Madison who believed power should be in the hands of “the wealth of the nation….of more capable set of men.” He might have also quoted John Jay who was even clearer and more brazen (he’s done it in his other writings) when he said “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” Jay was a Founding Father and our first Supreme Court chief justice. His tradition is well represented on today’s High Court. Adam Smith, the ideological godfather of free market capitalism, had a different view that was certainly well known to our framers. Smith, whose teachings have been distorted and corrupted by our modern “free market uber alles” apostles, wrote that “civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor.” Smith had a lot more to say in defense of small and local business and his opposition to the transnational variant so dominant today.
Chomsky explains further that our state capitalist system is oppressive enough even in its “stable form,” but under the Bush administration it’s become so extreme some critics have begun to question its very viability. One such critic compared the disturbing similarities today to Nazi Germany and Hitler’s demonic appeal to his “divine mission (as) Germany’s savior” and sold his message to the public in (Christian) religious terms. Chomsky makes a dramatic point explaining this descent to barbarism happened rapidly in a country that was “the pride of Western civilization in the sciences (Einstein and others), philosophy (Marx, Freud), and the arts (Goethe, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart and Haydn as well if Austria is included).” It was the very “model of democracy.” That history should be a stark message and reminder now of how fragile our sacred civil liberties are and how easily they may be lost when the public slumbers and lets tyrants in sheep’s clothing run amuck unchecked and unchallenged.
Chomsky then goes on at length to explain and document how since the 1970s Trilateralists (representatives of the wealth and power structure of North America, Europe and Japan) saw a “crisis of democracy” that led to “an excess of democracy” endangering their privileged status. What followed was over three decades up to the present crafting ways for them to reverse this imbalance in their eyes. Ronald Reagan put their ideas and policies on a fast track, and the first Bush administration maintained a somewhat restrained version of them. Bill Clinton picked up the pace considerably and certainly made the rich and powerful gleeful from all he gave them once he settled into office. But neoliberal nirvana was reached under the current administration with one of their own in power. They now had a man in the White House who never met a corporate tax cut he didn’t love or any way he could find to transfer wealth from the poor and diminishing middle class to the rich.
The result, as they say, is history. The rich and powerful have never had it better and the poor and deprived have suffered greatly as has the so-called middle class that keeps shrinking as wages stagnate below the level of inflation and more good, high-paying jobs get exported to developing countries where the same tasks can be done at a far lower labor cost. The widening gap between rich and poor keeps expanding and essential social benefits like health care and education keep eroding in an unending downward cycle that characterizes a society hostile to its people and also one that may be headed for decline. That decline has only intensified under the Bush policy of endless war requiring unsustainable levels of spending and rising debt that one day must be paid for.
Chomsky gives many more examples of how the US has become a nation totally beholden to power and privilege, especially to those who sit in corporate boardrooms and have the ultimate say in how things are run. The result is a serious and growing “democratic deficit” with those holding elitist and extremist views now in charge. The rest of the world has taken notice, and one day an effective majority of our public may as well and decide enough is enough. What’s ahead may be growing outrage and real resistance at home and an unraveling of our global dominance abroad. An example of the former may be the mass and continuing historic protests all over the country demanding equity and justice for immigrants that may be a forerunner of other protests to come. And key nations forming alliances outside the US orbit for their mutual benefit and protection is an important example of the latter. It’s likely others may decide to do the same.
Solutions Chomsky Proposes
Chomsky ends his book by suggesting some possible solutions to the dismal and dangerous state of our nation, but I doubt he sees any of them being adopted. He lists: (1) accepting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and World Court; (2) signing and adopting the Kyoto protocols; (3) allowing the UN to lead in international crises; (4) confronting terror by diplomacy and economic measures, not military ones; (5) adhering to the UN Charter; (6) ending the Security Council veto power and practicing real democracy; and (7) cutting military spending sharply and using it for greater social spending. He calls these very conservative suggestions and what the majority of the public wants. Up to now, that majority has been ignored, denied and deprived in a society that only serves the privileged.
Will any of these changes happen? Not likely unless enough people act strongly enough to demand them. Chomsky ends by noting past social gains were never willingly given. They were only gotten by “dedicated day-by-day engagement” to win them. But he believes we have many ways to do so and, in the process, promote the democratic process. His final thought is a call to us to do it collectively. If we don’t, it “is likely to have ominous repercussions: for the country, for the world, and for future generations.”