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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

By Noam Chomsky
Metropolitan Books, 320 pages, $24
The seamy side of U.S. foreign policy


Perhaps any country’s self-image suffers from a kind of fun-house mirror effect -- it sees itself very differently from the way the rest of the world does. Certainly Noam Chomsky’s Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy demonstrates that the United States operates that way. Given that our government has taken on the management of so much of the world, it becomes crucially important for Americans to understand that distortion. So, if you can read only one book in that effort this year, this probably should be the one.

Mr. Chomsky’s analysis of American foreign policy differs so dramatically from the official version that some may find it disorientating, not because of any fast and loose rhetoric on Mr. Chomsky’s part but because of his deployment of a stunning array of sources in a relentless accounting of the hypocrisy with which Washington so often confronts the world.

Take the current hot-button issue of Iran’s nuclear power program, now seen as clear evidence of the oil-rich country’s plans for developing nuclear weapons. Iran’s developing nuclear weapons enjoyed U.S. support when the shah was in power, Mr. Chomsky points out, but as Henry Kissinger has explained, at that time, “they were an allied country,” presumably meaning, Chomsky notes, that “therefore they had a genuine need for nuclear energy.”

Writing that “every sane person hopes that ways will be found to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program,” Mr. Chomsky argues that in attacking Iraq on spurious grounds and providing Israel with jet bombers capable of bombing Iran, “Washington has gone out of its way to instruct Iran on the need for a powerful deterrent.” Or as Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld put it, “Had the Iranians not tried to build military weapons, they would be crazy.”

And then there is the matter of the nonproliferation treaty, under which nonnuclear countries like Iran agreed to renounce nuclear weapons in exchange for access to non-military nuclear energy and progress on nuclear disarmament by the five acknowledged nuclear powers. “None of the nuclear states has met its obligations,” Mr. Chomsky writes, but “the Bush administration has by far the worst record and stands alone in having renounced” good-faith efforts to reduce nuclear weapons.

This may be exotic stuff in the United States, but not so in the rest of the world. In Ireland, for instance, it was Page One news in Dublin last December when Mr. Chomsky referred to Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahearn as George Bush’s “shoeshine boy” for granting U.S. warplanes access to Shannon Airport, an assessment with which the principal parliamentary opposition Labour Party readily concurred.

Back home, while Mr. Chomsky has a tremendous grass-roots following, he’s virtually nonexistent so far as mainstream commentary goes. The major newspapers will toss him a kudo once a decade or so -- he’s been called “arguably the most important intellectual alive” in The New York Times and “America’s most useful citizen” in The Boston Globe -- but otherwise it’s news if they even decide to review one of his books. Of course, given that he criticizes America’s news media as thoroughly as the government for the poor job it does covering the latter, you can see how the situation developed this way.

So when The New York Times published a favorable review of Failed States, some saw this as evidence of the paper’s extreme level of pique with the Bush administration over its treatment of the press. There was some irony, though, in the fact that the nation’s foremost newspaper felt compelled to assign the review to a journalist from the United Kingdom, perhaps thinking it needed to turn to a country where Mr. Chomsky’s views are more widely reported.

Mr. Chomsky ranges from seldom reported and little remembered stories -- like the 1986 World Court judgment against U.S. aggression against Nicaragua -- to seldom raised considerations like the fact that any American presidential candidate financed by another country would understandably be denounced as a traitor, while it is routine American foreign policy to spend taxpayer dollars to install those Washington deems acceptable as heads of foreign states.

Part of the reason Mr. Chomsky is so studiously ignored by the mainstream is the bipartisan nature of his critique. In addition to shredding the justification for the Clinton administration’s bombing of Serbia, he reminds us of that administration’s “doctrine that the United States is entitled to resort to ‘unilateral use of military power’ to ensure ‘uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.’ ” Ultimately, Mr. Chomsky thinks the United States falls under its own definition of failed states: those unwilling or unable “to protect their citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction” and those that “regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law.”

The last person to scrutinize U.S. foreign policy so thoroughly was I.F. Stone, who famously tore apart the rationale for the Vietnam War. And if Mr. Chomsky’s critique often seems broader than that of Stone, who died in 1989, this is at least in part due to the further deterioration of American news media over the intervening years.

Tom Gallagher is a former Democratic state legislator from Massachusetts who now lives in San Francisco.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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