On Chomsky

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

Back in the early 1990s, an editor at Harper’s asked me for suggestions of progressive foreign policy analysts who could participate in one of their roundtable discussions. I provided a short list, with Noam Chomsky on top. The editor thanked me politely but said that the Chomsky suggestion wouldn’t fly. In so many words he said that the great linguist and critic of U.S. foreign policy didn’t belong at the table with the sober, even-handed discussants. Chomsky was “too out there.”

Now in his fifth decade of foreign policy analysis—he spoke out against the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s and published American Power and the New Mandarins in 1969—Noam Chomsky has largely been kept at arm’s length by the mandarins of U.S. foreign policy. It is not just his specific dissections of U.S. power that have pushed him to the margins. It is also his Brechtian style.

In his plays, the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht used “alienation effects” to jolt audiences from their immersion in the story, to make them aware of the frame of the play, and to put them in a state of mind more conducive to assessing new ideas. Noam Chomsky does the same thing with foreign policy. He is not content to let his audience become immersed in the conventional narrative of U.S. foreign policy, with its bromides of “democracy promotion” and “enhancing security” and “defeating terrorism.” He constantly pulls back the camera so that you become aware of the overall structure of U.S. power projection.

This week, Foreign Policy In Focus features an interview with Noam Chomsky by Michael Shank. International relations, Chomsky argues, is akin to mafia politics: “The godfather does not accept disobedience, even from a small storekeeper who doesn’t pay his protection money.” Like Brecht, Chomsky jolts the audience with an unusual analogy that draws attention to the entire frame, so that we can understand the deeper reasons why Washington cannot abide the nose-thumbings of Tehran, Pyongyang, Hanoi, and all the others.

Foreign policy, like the theater, is a world of illusions. Chomsky pulls back the curtain to show you how the illusions work. No wonder he is so rarely invited to august chitchats with foreign policy mandarins but is so popular on campus and overseas. He impolitely gives away the secrets of the trade.

Torture, Iran, and Global Warming

On the other side of the political spectrum, Joel Surnow is busy peddling illusions so toxic that the Pentagon has tried to tone him down. Surnow is the co-creator and executive producer of 24, the TV show that has reconciled so many Americans to the necessity of using torture to extract confessions from terrorists. In a blistering profile in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer reports that the dean of the West Point military academy, along with three military and FBI interrogators, flew to the set of 24 to express their view that “the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers.” Students in the international law course at West Point, according to their professor, have embraced the show’s motto, “Whatever It Takes,” even though the torture on 24 is against U.S. and international law and—in real life—proves counterproductive.

There is always a ticking bomb in 24, and the main character Jack Bauer must apprehend those responsible. So, too, in the theatrical world of the Bush administration, do we have bombs and finger-pointing. The latest concocted drama involves Iran and its purported designs on Iraq. The administration wants to connect the bombs exploding throughout Iraq to bomb designers and sellers in Iran.

In his latest analysis, Iran in Iraq?, FPIF Middle East editor Stephen Zunes assesses the evidence and finds it wanting. Why the contortionist attempts to link the two neighboring “I” countries? “Most speculation has centered around the possibility that the Bush administration is trying to divert attention from the failures of its policies in Iraq by blaming a foreign government,” Zunes writes. “More disturbing still would be U.S. efforts to lay the groundwork for a U.S. attack on Iran. It may also be an attempt to provide cover for President Bush’s rejection of the growing bipartisan consensus—as exemplified by the Baker-Hamilton Commission Report—of the importance of engaging Iran on issues related to Iraq and regional security.”

FPIF columnist Michael Klare, meanwhile, argues that the environmental frame for understanding global warming is all wrong. Thinking of climate change environmentally “implies that it can be addressed through a concerted effort to ‘clean up’ our resource-utilization behavior, by substituting ‘green’ products for ordinary ones, by restricting the release of toxic substances, and so on.” On the contrary, global warming is an energy issue, he writes in his latest column. If we don’t wean ourselves of our dependency on fossil fuels, no amount of tinkering on the environmental side will help us.

Military Strategy

It’s called Complex 2030, but the idea is chillingly simple. The Bush administration wants to rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal at a cost of $150 billion.

As FPIF contributor Travis Sharp explains in The Audacity of Rearmament, the new nukes may push the United States to reinstate nuclear testing. The new complex will also do nothing to dissuade non-state actors from trying to acquire nukes of their own. But perhaps the most damaging effect will be on states that have nuclear ambitions.

“Both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il cite the overwhelming superiority of the American nuclear arsenal as a justification for their aggressive nuclear brinksmanship,” Sharp writes. “Upgrading and adding to our reserve stockpile—with a flimsy promise to reduce it later—will not convince the Iranian Scylla, North Korean Charybdis, or any other less attention-grabbing nascent nuclear state that the United States is serious about dampening the visibility of nuclear weapons in its security policy.”

Although the anti-nuclear movement has yet to transform U.S. nuclear doctrine, popular movements elsewhere in the world are having their effect on strategic planning. As I argue in an essay on people power in East Asia, military planners want “strategic flexibility” in order to deal with new threats. “The latest war-fighting gurus view fixed military bases with lumbering tanks and static defenses as comparatively low-tech and incapable of addressing rapidly emerging conflicts and threats,” I write. “But a case can be made that strategic flexibility is also a response to NIMBY (not in my back yard) and democratic movements. Fixed bases were an easy target, not only for the enemy but also for popular discontent.”

Valentine’s Day

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, North Korean and U.S. negotiators hammered out an agreement last week that froze Pyongyang’s plutonium program in exchange for some heavy fuel oil shipments. “The accord is not exactly a declaration of love,” I write in an annotation of the agreement. “It’s not even a bunch of roses and big box of chocolates. But it’s the friendliest the two countries have gotten in the last six years.” In an op-ed last week in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I urge potential critics of the agreement to resist the “told-you-so” temptation and back this fragile first step.

Finally, in How to Get 9,084 Valentines, Nathan Fishman and Saif Rahman talk about how a number of groups pooled their resources to send a message of love to Henry Paulson, the secretary of the U.S. treasury. The love in this case wasn’t directed at Paulson himself but rather at the country of Liberia. The valentines urged the treasury secretary to cancel the country’s debt. “Not only is this debt odious,” Fishman and Rahman write, “but it is also one of the major barriers to rebuilding and developing a country torn by war.”

FPIF, February 19, 2007

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