The United States has been taking its share of hits lately as the Iraq war has stimulated the literary appetite of American critics and given birth to a slew of books sharply critical of the world's lone superpower.
That the most recent books have been aimed at the Bush administration is no surprise, but there is nevertheless nothing particularly new in such works as Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky, Rogue Nation by Clyde Prestowitz, or Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson. There are many others, too many to list, but a few making a major impact currently are Imperial Hubris (Anonymous) and soon Pat Buchanan's latest broadside against the neoconservatives. Buchanan's thoughts on America and its imperial interests are well known and are ably summed up in his book, A Republic Not an Empire.
Chomsky, Johnson and Buchanan have been decrying American empire for some years, while Prestowitz is a relative newcomer to the blame America crowd, a Republican/conservative who has embraced Buchanan's conclusions while rolling out many of the left's favorite causes in making his case.
The bulk of this essay, however, will focus on Chomsky, who became an intellectual force during the Vietnam War and who remains a darling of leftists on college campuses where students are easily seduced by his fashionable anti-Americanism. Chomsky has been enjoying a revival recently compliments of the anti-Bush crowd and his own book, 9-11, which made the bestseller lists. The respected Foreign Affairs magazine has acknowledged that Chomsky, while not taken seriously in the United States, has credibility in Europe and in other parts of the world where American power is resented. (FA, Sept./Oct. 2002) Only a few months ago Samantha Power in the New York Times reviewed Hegemony or Survival and suggested that Chomsky "may be the most widely read American voice on foreign policy on the planet today."
This is a frightening bit of news if true.
Chomsky's extremism has not gone unnoticed over the years. There have been noteworthy efforts by critics to deconstruct his arguments and his methodology. William F. Buckley Jr., Lionel Abel, Stephen Morris, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and David Horowitz come to mind. Peter Collier and Horowitz recently published a timely book, The Anti-Chomsky Reader, which dispels some of the Chomsky mystique. But Chomsky continues to find an audience and that makes him more than a mere left-wing curiosity. Take this fawning comment by Tim Adams in the Guardian Unlimited.
His writings, in linguistics (a discipline which he effectively invented) and on the hypocrisy and warmongering of America (and its principal ally) are among the few essential documents of our times. They are also not designed for the intellectually faint-hearted. As the most unforgiving critic of the Washington-run world order, Chomsky is often caricatured as supplying more reality, and more guilt, than many of us care to handle. His books have the manner and certainty of gospels, and they work by accretion, stockpiling the remorseless fact of distant atrocity done in each of our names.
-- November 30, 2003
Powerful testimony, if only it were true. Taking on Chomsky is no easy undertaking, however. Whatever else you might say about him, the man is industrious. As a tenured professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has enjoyed a privileged position from which to launch his anti-American polemics. His career underscores John Diggins' observation on the academic left: "Having lost the confrontation on the streets in the sixties, they could later, as English professors in the eighties, continue it in the classroom." (The Rise and Fall of the American Left, p. 356.)
Chomsky did most of his major work on linguistics years ago. Tenured and comfortably ensconced at MIT, he has been free to crank out dozens of books and pamphlets all aimed at denouncing his country, the United States. He does this with great conviction, but he has little historical training or knowledge, which might explain some of the indefensible claims made in so many of his books. He is, in short, a crank who would not be taken seriously but for his position at MIT and the credibility he gained more than 40 years ago as a professor of linguistics.
Meanwhile, the stream of books and pamphlets keep coming, sometimes at a rate of two or three a year. Some are extended argument, but most are collections of interviews, talks or essays that rehash familiar themes. His basic message has not changed over the years: America is a force for evil in the world. You will find this mantra repeated in Hegemony or Survival, and in other recent books such as Power and Terror and 9/11.
Chomsky purports to be a serious thinker and we aim to take seriously the views he has propounded for almost four decades. This is important not only because of the seriousness of the charges he raises, but because truth requires it. It is not my intention to be an apologist for American foreign policy mistakes, but it is my intent to analyze such policies fairly. This requires a bit of foundation-building, for while Chomsky is not nearly as witty or as entertaining as Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer, he is more difficult to get a handle on, not only because he publishes so much, but because he presents as fact so many out-of-context charges. His style is turgid, a nasty blend of fact, fiction and fantasy that can easily confuse and mislead. He is also hopelessly one-sided. To quote his New York Times reviewer:
For Chomsky, the world is divided into oppressor and oppressed. America, the prime oppressor, can do no right, while the sins of those categorized as oppressed receive scant mention. Because he deems American foreign policy inherently violent and expansionist, he is unconcerned with the motives behind particular policies, or the ethics of particular individuals in government. And since he considers the United States the leading terrorist state, little distinguishes American air strikes in Serbia undertaken at night with high-precision weaponry from World Trade Center attacks timed to maximize the number of office workers who have just sat down with their morning coffee...It is inconceivable, in Chomsky's view, that American power could be harnessed for good.
The Chomsky Paradigm
To understand Chomsky's critique, you must begin with his methodology and the assumptions interlaced with his volatile claims. Here is an attempt to mention a few of those assumptions, though this is hardly an exhaustive list:
· Our policies are anti-democratic and anti-freedom. The military industrial complex is a tool of political and business elites who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. To ensure the status quo is maintained, these elites and the military have projected American power abroad in highly destructive ways, including against the working class and peasants in other countries.
· Censorship is common. Opposition to such policies within the United States is stifled because corporate elites control the information that is disseminated to the broader public. We are all victims of mass manipulation, apparently. Chomsky calls this process "manufacturing consent."
· Our enemies are always illusory. Communism posed no real threat to human rights or freedom. Chomsky maintains this position throughout his work, though on occasion he will concede that the Soviet Union was an imperial power. The massive human rights violations perpetrated by the Soviet regime, Communist China, North Korea's communist regime, the Cambodian communists or the Ethiopian communist regime, just to mention a few, are at best afterthoughts and irrelevant in the Chomsky paradigm. In many instances, he refuses to even identify communist guerillas and insurgents as such, but would have readers believe that the victims of American power have all been innocent peasants minding their own business tilling their fields. In some instances this might be true, in others not, but an historian who would claim to be reputable has a responsibility to differentiate, which Chomsky almost never does.
· We are guilty by association. Any American relationship with a dictator, regime or government = U.S. control. Thus, Chomsky implicates the United States in acts of state violence in which we are not the primary mover or shaper of said policy or in which we have no involvement at all. "U.S. supported" is the operative phrase. So, if we sell weapons to the Turkish government this means, according to Chomsky, that we support the oppression of Turkish Kurds. If we brought Suharto into power in Indonesia, we also are responsible for every action that his government later perpetrates. Because the United States, naturally, has relations with virtually every nation in the world at some level, there is no end to the crimes with which Chomsky can accuse us.
· Even when we are right, we are wrong. That we liberated Germany and Japan, after a great war we did not start, and set those nations on a path toward freedom and democracy does not impress Chomsky, who presents our actions in both instances as an attempt to keep those nations within the "American system." This is the "Open Door" school's influence. Spearheaded by William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber, these historians argue that economics is the primary moving force in American foreign policy. But even though Williams and LaFeber can be tough American critics, they are fairer and less crude in their formulations than Chomsky. (Schlesinger argues against their paradigm in "America and Empire," included in his collection of essays, The Cycles of American History.)
· Chomsky never provides context. He gives a long list of violent actions by "U.S. supported" governments or regimes, but he never documents the violence that was ongoing before American intervention. In Central America, for example, where it must be conceded our policies have been in some instances questionable, it is nevertheless true that the region was in a state of turmoil long before the United States was a determining force. The ruling classes, mostly of Spanish origin, were at war routinely with peasants, revolutionaries and native populations, many of whom themselves were prepared to do great violence in an effort to expand power and control. Moreover, to ignore the great violence done by Communists and to portray only the violence perpetrated by the United States or its allies in opposition is to misrepresent history so maliciously as to destroy credibility.
In reading a dozen of his books I have yet to stumble across an instance in which Chomsky gives the United States the benefit of the doubt. Not only do we deserve no credit for rebuilding Europe or Japan, we were likewise wrong in Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, and now in Iraq. We were wrong when we supported Saddam (albeit tepidly), and just as wrong when we toppled his regime. All the pain and suffering inflicted on millions of people around the world by the enemies of the United States is ultimately the fault of the United States, according to Chomsky, as our enemies react in fear or uncertainty because of America's imperialist designs. The Soviet Union's decades of terror, Gulags, forced starvation and international aggression can all be traced back to a minor American intervention in Russia during the 1st World War. The communist regime in Cambodia came to power and ruled with violence and terror because the United States destabilized the country during the Vietnam War. Saddam was a murderer who had U.S. support, so argues the dean of the left, and yet it is Chomsky who steadfastly argued against any meaningful attempt to curtail that violence. He opposed the first Gulf War and the liberation of Kuwait, just as he later opposed sanctions and, of course, the decision finally to bring the criminal regime to an end.
Much of this is ably documented in the recently published book, The Anti-Chomsky Reader. The book, again, is the handiwork of Peter Collier and David Horowitz, best-selling authors and reformed leftists turned rightward. Since 1988, Horowitz has served as president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and as editor of FrontPageMag.com. As a former leftist himself, Horowitz knows all too well the motivations of the hate-America crowd. His own break with the left began when a close friend was murdered by members of the Black Panther party. Horowitz was dismayed by the cover up that followed and later by the inability of many on the left to acknowledge their own misjudgments with respect to the communist regime in Hanoi.
The essays collected in The Anti-Chomsky Reader are useful palliatives to the non-stop anti-American venom spewed by Chomsky, all of it presented in the guise of scholarship. Several of the authors, for example, deconstruct Chomsky's slick use of footnotes in order to appear a rigorous researcher. In many instances, his footnotes lead you back to his own writings. As you dig into his notes, you find that the sources for much of the volatile information Chomsky purports to document are highly suspect and even invisible.
Stephen Morris takes on Vietnam and Cambodia, arguing that Chomsky's inability to admit the failings of both communist regimes -- in the face of overwhelming evidence -- is itself an appalling act of non-scholarship.
The weight of the scholarly evidence makes clear, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the Khmer Rouge leaders carried out a radical communist revolution that led to the death of over one million, perhaps as many as two million. This dreadful situation was not a product of the world isolating Cambodia. It was the result of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship isolating Cambodia from the world while it pursued irrational economic policies, including collectivist agriculture, depopulating the cities, forcibly overworking the population, stopping private commerce, abolishing money, exterminating most of the nation's educated people, exporting to foreign countries the rice needed by the starving populace, closing down all hospitals, and refusing foreign offers of medical assistance. These facts were known at the time the Khmer Rouge were in power, as was their explanatory relevance. But Chomsky refused to believe them, and attacked the integrity of those who tried to tell the world the truth. (ACR, p. 28)
(Readers looking for a detailed account of the Cambodian tragedy might consider Elizabeth Becker's tough but fair book, When the War Was Over.) Morris' indictment continues: "Why would Chomsky write essays and books that attempt to whitewash the repressive policies of dictatorships, using methods that are such a travesty of academic standards? The answer is unfortunately a simple one. As a radical political ideologue, he is crippled by an intense emotional commitment to the cause of anti-Americanism." (ACR, p. 29)
Vietnam: A Case Study
Chomsky established his reputation as major intellectual player during the Vietnam era. He joined a host of intellectuals and writers who opposed US involvement, which he himself has called criminal. He wrote several books and a number of essays on the war, most notably American Power and the New Mandarins, At War with Asia and For Reasons of State.
The most influential was of these works was the first, American Power and the New Mandarins. The book is a prototype for much of his later work, for it melds his invective style with his pretense of academic and theoretical rigor. He displays early on the kinds of distortions that are typical in his work. Take this comment, noted by other reviewers when the book first appeared: "Three times in a generation American technology has laid waste a helpless Asian country." (NM, p. 4) How could any writer of history who would claim to have credibility call imperial Japan "helpless?" In fact, Japan "laid waste" Pearl Harbor and much of mainland China and Southeast Asia.
Did we "lay waste" Korea? Chomsky fails to mention the offensive launched by the North Korean communists, which triggered the Korean War. Not even Chalmers Johnson, a harsh critic of American policy in Asia, denies this basic historical fact. And if North Vietnam was helpless, how did it manage to defeat the all powerful hegemonic United States (and without any significant support from the Soviets or China, if you want to believe Chomsky)? The government we opposed in North Vietnam is still a dictatorship. South Korea, meanwhile, is proudly democratic and at times defiantly anti-American, despite the decades-long presence of American troops. There is a message there for anti-American critics, though they are averse to getting it.
Americans, Chomsky observed in NM, are gullible where the mythologies of U.S. power are concerned. Nevertheless, he argues, "There is hope that the struggle against racism and exploitation at home can be linked with the struggle to remove the heavy Yankee boot from the necks of the oppressed people throughout the world." (NM, p. 4) Chomsky cautions those who would embrace his perspective that they might be:
...cut off by domestic repression or its `functional equivalent,' to use a favorite term of the present administration: the dominance of a liberal technocracy who will serve the existing social order in the belief that they represent justice and humanity, fighting limited wars at home and overseas to preserve stability, promising that the future will be better if only the dispossessed will wait patiently, and supported by an apathetic, obedient majority, its mind and conscience dulled by a surfeit of commodities and by some new version of the old system of beliefs and ideas.
-- NM, p. 5
This is the Chomsky paradigm in a nutshell. What are the assumptions implicit in this litany of claims? First, the public is easily manipulated or duped; second, our foreign policy is driven by a need to repress rather than liberate; third, there is a concerted effort, in which most major media participate, to perpetuate myths about the benevolence of American power.
That the Vietnam War remains one of the most controversial chapters in U.S. foreign policy history is unarguable. Our nation was deeply divided. Diggins, a respected historian, suggests that two-thirds of the country came to oppose a war that wrought great destruction without any clear path toward victory or resolution. Three schools of thought dominated the debate. There were those who felt we were right to be in Vietnam. They argued that North Vietnam, with the help of the Soviet Union and China, both communist nations, was determined to subjugate the people in the south. The result would be a repressive regime that would further destabilize Asia and encourage communist forces around the globe who were enemies not only of the United States but of freedom.
Chomsky does not allow for this possibility, however, and in some instances goes so far as to suggest that even debating the issue does a disservice to morality. He claims the United States "invaded" South Vietnam, that there was no significant support for our presence, nor was there a government in place that could have legitimately invited the United States to act on its behalf. In short, we intervened not only without the consent of the South Vietnamese, but against the wishes of the Vietnamese people.
Alas, Chomsky runs up against reality and does not fare that well. As Morris explains, Chomsky, once confronted by the boat people fleeing North Vietnamese rule, first denies and then seeks to discredit or ignore the witnesses of North Vietnamese tyranny and repression. In the end, he retreats to his usual position and blames the usual scapegoat -- the United States. If only we had not intervened and radicalized the communist north, things would have gone better in Southeast Asia. Not even former Viet Cong and North Vietnamese operatives buy this reasoning, but Chomsky and his cadre of academic leftists embrace it.
During a Firing Line interview with William F. Buckley Jr. in 1969 Chomsky acknowledged that he had purposely focused only on the behavior of the United States, not the actions of the communists, nor the Vietnamese against whom we were fighting, or, for that matter, the South Vietnamese for whom we fought. This is a startling admission. It reveals a conscious desire to judge the United States by standards never applied to other nations or actors on the geopolitical stage. If we ignore relevant information, such as the fact that the other side had guns and was killing tens of thousands of people who opposed their rule, it becomes easy to portray even acts of legitimate self defense as brutal. Chomsky routinely does this. During the Firing Line interview, he denies that purges in China killed a million people. He should take the matter up with his comrade in anti-American scholarship, Chalmers Johnson, an Asia expert who has documented the toll of Chinese terror and policies. (This is noted even in his book, Blowback, which is harshly critical of the United States.)
Buckley, of course, tried to make the case for those who believed (and still do) that our efforts in Vietnam were noble, that, in fact, the communist regime in North Vietnam sought to subjugate the people of South Vietnam and impose on it a totalitarian system known to have brought about the deaths of millions of people around the globe. This leads to an interesting exchange in which Chomsky agrees that a moral calculation is, at times, necessary. That is to say, if the sum of human suffering is reduced by an exercise in military action, can a case not be made for intervention, even if there is a human cost associated with it?
This brings us to the second group, who opposed the war, but not because it was wrong as a matter of principle, but because the costs of liberating the Vietnamese from communist rule was simply too high to justify our intervention. Chomsky finds this a distasteful discussion because it takes his moral high ground and reduces it to practical calculation. He refuses to even entertain the idea that North Vietnamese rule of the south might turn out to be repressive, violent or a threat to freedom, which in fact it was. He goes even further, arguing "the health of our system would have been demonstrated by a change of policy caused by a recognition that what we have done in Vietnam is wrong, is a criminal act, that an 'American' victory would have been a tragedy." (NM, p. 11).
This reasoning leaves only one acceptable conclusion -- that American intervention by definition was a criminal act. Chomsky reveals in his reasoning that he is an extreme proponent of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which enshrined the notion of national sovereignty. Apparently, no crimes or potential crimes can justify the intrusion of outside forces into the internal affairs of another country. By this reasoning, of course, Hitler could have killed all the Jews he wanted without recourse to international response provided he did it within German borders. This is, in principle, the position Chomsky takes in his essay "The Logic of Withdrawal."
Let me quote him directly: "The simple fact is that there is no legitimate interest or principle to justify the use of American military force in Vietnam." (NM, p. 221). But his prohibition against intervention is not situational, as he reveals when he discusses Neal Sheehan's writings on the war: "He (Sheehan) is disillusioned only because of the devastating consequences, for Vietnam and its people, to which this attempt led. But he still does not question that we had a perfect right to use military force to determine the structure of South Vietnamese society and to defeat and insurgent movement which we had decided `would subject them to a dour tyranny.'" (NM, p. 245.)
Some supporters of the war have had second thoughts. My own reading of the war's history suggests that by around 1966 or so, when the South could not piece together a respectable ruling government, the cause was lost. Perhaps a phased withdrawal was the only reasonable path. But there is no doubt what the looming consequences of defeat were. The human rights record of Soviet and Chinese-inspired communism had by the mid-1960s brought about the deaths of tens of millions of people and the annihilation of human and political rights for tens of millions more. Chalmers Johnson, again, one of the toughest critics of American foreign policy in Asia, documents that Mao brought on the starvation of some 30 million peasants because of his extreme collectivist agrarian policies (The Great Leap Forward). Millions more died in the purges inspired by the Cultural Revolution. If none of this could warrant intervention as a matter of principle (as opposed to practical calculation), one can certainly appreciate why Chomsky fails to see the logic of our intervention in North Vietnam. But intervention, right or wrong, was an attempt to save Vietnam from the horrors of communist rule and to discourage such rule in other parts of the world.
Chomsky is not content to argue that the principle of non-intervention is the only way to ensure a reasonably stable world-system of nations. He goes further, touting the heroic resistance of the North Vietnamese against American intervention, as if the crimes and oppression committed by communists were all a fantasy of American cold warriors. In short, his sovereignty sensitivity is triggered mainly with respect to those who oppose the United States. Chomsky did not rush to the defense of Kuwait, for example, a sovereign nation whose rights Chomsky effectively dismisses as soon as the United States sought to defend them.
Chomsky never hesitates to document, in gory detail, every crime committed by anti-communists, from the right-wing death squads in El Salvador to those committed by American troops in Vietnam. But you get barely a passing reference about the crimes against humanity committed by communist or communist-inspired troops. In Chomsky nomenclature they are "peasants" and democrats simply going about the business of trying to restructure their own societies. Nor can he bring himself to admit what has been well documented by many historians -- that both China and the Soviet Union, despite their own differences, provided North Vietnam with financial and military support. This is hardly an oversight, but a systematic effort to indict one side and exonerate by silence the other.
The rest of this "brilliant" book is more vintage Chomsky, who even goes so far as to suggest that de-Nazification of the United States is in order because some Americans enjoyed playing an insensitive video game. He argues that American indifference to the oppression experienced by minorities is the equivalent of our indifference to the suffering of the unfortunate in other parts of the world. And here Chomsky begins to show his true colors, for what we really fear, he implies, is not that the North Vietnamese will fail, but rather that the socialist model might succeed in the way, as one writer he quotes puts it, China and the Soviet Union succeeded. (Emphasis added.)
That the United States has committed crimes and made mistakes is no doubt true, but that we have helped liberate much of the world is also true. But Chomsky cannot concede even this, and so consequently he attacks any American supporter, including the Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel, who appeared before the United States Congress and praised the United States for its commitment to freedom. In a vicious letter to Alexander Cockburn, Chomsky brings Vietnam and Eastern Europe together: "I don't mean to equate a Vietnamese villager to Vaclav Havel. For one thing, I doubt the former would have had the supreme hypocrisy and audacity to clothe his praise for the defenders of freedom with gushing about responsibility for the human race. It's also unnecessary to point out to the half dozen or so sane people who remain that in comparison to the conditions imposed by US tyranny and violence, East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise…." (As quoted in ACR, p. 61. Emphasis added.)
If you think Chomsky was having an exceptionally bad day when he wrote the above, consider these comments made in his book, Deterring Democracy:
…a different conception was needed as a rationale for the policies then being implemented to maintain US global domination and to provide a needed shot in the arm to high technology industry: the picture of a fearsome Soviet Union marching from strength to strength and posing an awesome challenge to Western Civilization. These illusions lacked credibility at the time, and became completely unsustainable through the next decade. (p. 2)
It is worth recalling what was transpiring in the 1970s, the decade to which Chomsky alludes in these sentences. The Soviet Union had supported a victorious communist government in Hanoi, which soon imposed tyranny on the south and invaded Cambodia. The communists in Cambodia had unleashed genocide. Soviet troops were discovered in Cuba and the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. In fact, the "hegemonic power," to use Chomsky's characterization of the United States, had watched, incapacitated, as communism stretched its muscles in Ethiopia, Angola, Nicaragua, Chile and El Salvador. A workers movement in Poland was starting to emerge, but was being repressed by the communist government there. There was little sign, in the 1970s, that the Soviet Union's appetite for meddling and outright repression had been satiated. Only a few years before, Soviet tanks had rolled into Prague.
Even on those rare occasions when Chomsky criticizes the Soviet Union, he argues for Soviet exceptionalism -- that is, what they did was distort the socialist/communist agenda, not carry it out. Thomas Nichols, in The Anti-Chomsky Reader, sheds light on Chomsky's inability to grasp basic geopolitical realities.
…Chomsky also has a pressing tactical reason for avoiding the thickets of ideology. Specifically, if he were to grant that the Soviet leadership ever acted out of a real commitment to a Communist ideal, it would then force him to accept that it logically follows that the USSR was more of a danger than he has depicted -- and perhaps more intimately related to his own putatively progressive agenda than he would like to admit. More damaging, it would also open the possibility that American policy might therefore have been grounded in the actions of men and women who were likewise motivated by their own set of ideals, an explanation that Chomsky, as a matter of first principles, has already excluded from consideration. (p. 40)
Central America is arguably the place where American foreign policy has been most self-serving and destructive. If there is a place where the Chomsky paradigm has some validity, it is probably here and particularly in the period prior to World War II. Various studies, including the much acclaimed book by Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, suggest that our military and our foreign policy were grossly manipulated by special interests and big business at the expense of our nation's reputation and its long-term strategic interests.
But even here, the truth is far more complex than Chomsky concedes, so let us take a few moments to review the history of that troubled region. For starters, as LaFeber makes clear, the region was in constant turmoil long before the United States was playing a particularly important military or strategic role. Power struggles between strongmen in Guatemala and Nicaragua were ongoing. Peasant and native Indian rebellions were common. The first and most devastating colonization of the region was an exercise in Spanish power. The economic and political systems evolved over centuries, during which time disproportionate wealth accumulated to the few at the expense of the many. Those of Spanish ancestry were favored. (This was true not only in Central America, but also in the Philippines.)
Early American intervention was aimed less at subduing the region for economic or political purposes than it was to minimize the encroachment of the European powers into the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. It was not until the end of the 19th century that big business interests saw an opportunity to exploit the instability of the region. These business interventions involved a variety of players: the United Fruit Company, Major Keith, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Lee Christmas, and others who conspired with local elites to control valuable land for the production of cash crops. Peasants who had once subsisted off the land were often reduced to homeless migrant workers. Tobacco, bananas, coco and coffee generated great wealth for the region, but also consolidated the control of the economy in the hands of local elites and some American business interests.
A turning point came when the Nicaraguan rebel leader, Augusto Cesar Sandino, revolted in the 1920s against the American occupation of his country. After successfully bringing about the withdrawal of American troops, he was murdered by Anastasio Somoza, who eventually imposed his family's dictatorship on the country. This may well have been a missed opportunity for American foreign policy. Had the United States condemned the murder and insisted that the negotiations then underway continue, the situation might have been stabilized and improved. That is at best speculation, however, for the region -- with the exception of Costa Rica -- had little tradition of stable governance. In any case, short-term business and political interests prevailed and the Somoza regime survived for almost half a century.
Likewise, our interference in Guatemala in 1954 was questionable. Worried that the reform-minded Jacobo Arbenz government was weakly subservient to Soviet interests, the United States toppled a democratically elected government and helped destabilize an already shaky nation. On the other hand, Arbenz did not spend his exile years in Paris, but rather in the Soviet Union and in Cuba, a nation that less than a decade later would allow 40,000 Soviet troops on its soil and would begin positioning nuclear missiles aimed at the United States. That was precisely the kind of scenario that worried the Dulles brothers and Eisenhower when they chose to overthrow Arbenz. One can argue that it was the wrong thing to do, just as they could argue that Allende posed no real threat to democracy or freedom in Chile. But it is intellectually dishonest to pretend that the United States had no reason to be concerned about communist rule in such countries. Chomsky refuses to grant that such concerns were rooted in real-world events and a documented history of oppression. Nor will he point out that Chile evolved into a democracy under the hated Pinochet and that once Arbenz was removed from power, the United States withdrew its support of the United Fruit Company. Chomsky can't concede this because it would require admitting that perhaps US actions in the region have not been driven solely by the narrow business or power interests he cites as our motivation.
By the 1970s and 1980s, things began to come to a head. In Nicaragua, the Ortega brothers began to consolidate power, pushing aside democrats who had supported the toppling of the brutal Somoza regime. Even so, the Carter administration offered aid to Nicaragua, which the Sandinistas rejected as they secured their power and turned to a Soviet model. This was a standard and well-documented practice on the part of communists around the world.
The Sandanista regime did not -- or was not allowed to -- compile the kind of dismal human rights record of many other leftist governments, or some right-wing forces in Central America. Constant pressure put on the government by the United States and opposition forces, some of them democratic and others holdovers from the Somoza days, kept the regime on the defensive. Even so, the Sandanistas had made overtures to the Soviet Union for arms, had imprisoned opponents and abolished a variety of basic freedoms, including freedom of the press. The regime lost power in a free election in 1990. Since then, several elections have been held and Daniel Ortega has continued to participate freely in the political affairs of the country as a candidate and leader. He has been allowed to run openly on a progressive/reformist agenda, though he is still openly hostile to the United States. Nicaragua is not a perfect place, but it remains a relatively free and stable country. Chomsky, as Horowitz observes in his article, "Noam Chomsky's Anti-American Obsession," also misrepresents the American intervention in Grenada, which was welcomed by most of the governments in the region and which liberated that nation from a radical-left Marxist government hell-bent on welcoming Soviet influence in the region.
El Salvador also has had a tumultuous history and Chomsky always lists this country when he compiles his list of American crimes. The United States, he would have readers believe, was the major reason for the violence in that impoverished, war-torn nation. But even a left-minded historian like LaFeber rejects this notion. LeFaber's observes that U.S. interest in El Salvador was not very significant prior to the 1960s when "North American investment and aid poured in. U.S. military aid more than doubled during the Alliance decade. But the North Americans arrived at a bad time. Already enduring one of the world's widest gaps between rich and poor, El Salvador was about to explode in bloodshed. Washington officials were caught in the middle of that explosion." (IR, p. 243).
In short, the United States did not seed the conflict that would embroil El Salvador for twelve years and lead to horrific violence. And for all the attempts by some on the left to lay this tragedy at the feet of the United States, the truth is that the Reagan administration brokered a compromise that helped save El Salvador. Chomsky and many on the left dismiss those efforts, calling the candidate supported by the United States, Jose Napoleon Duarte, a figurehead who acted as a U.S. proxy. But Duarte's victory over Roberto D'Aubuisson, a right-wing killer, helped stabilize the situation in El Salvador. The United Nations then had the opportunity to step in and negotiate an agreement that ushered in elections, dismantled death squads, and allowed the FMLA, leftist armed revolutionaries, to participate openly and freely in the electoral process, which it had previously refused to do. Today, the two major parties -- Arena and the FMLA -- are in close competition to rule the nation. Problems persist, but neither a right-wing repressive dictatorship nor a totalitarian left-wing government of the sort in Cuba came to power. Only through the distorted lens of Chomsky would such an outcome be unwelcome.
Chomsky always calls those who are supported by the United States terrorists (including those who opposed Castro), but the communists who overthrew Batista he calls guerillas, armed revolutionaries, liberators, democrats and even peasants. He deserves credit for consistency, if not accuracy. Why does Chomsky call Cubans trying to liberate their country from communist rule "terrorists" but refuse to use that term to describe those who would impose communist rule? Horowitz sums up the mindset of Chomsky and those who are his disciples. In their view, "Those who oppose socialism, Marxism, Communism, Chomskyism embody evil; they are the Great Satan himself. Chomskyism is, like its models, a religion of social hatred." (ACR, p. 197).
Chomsky published a bestseller, 9/11, in which he set forth his views that this unprovoked attack on the United States was unique only because the victims were Americans. After all, America, as he has argued for four decades, has been waging war against the oppressed people of the world since Europeans first stepped on the continent.
As we have shown, even acts that most of the world community considered legal and proper, such as the liberation of Kuwait and the toppling of the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, Chomsky considers criminal. That is because Chomsky considers America a criminal government. To offer one recent and timely example, Chomsky (and many on the left) tries to implicate the United States in the behavior of Saddam Hussein because we gave him minimal support during the 1980s and the Iraq/Iran war. To read Chomsky, you would think the United States brought Saddam into power and kept him there, which is itself a falsehood. Nor does he inform readers that France, Russia and Germany were much more entangled with the regime than the United States. We are, by association, guilty of the crimes Saddam committed during that period. No allowance is made for efforts to soften regime behavior, to offset greater evils (the Iranian fundamentalist revolution threatened the region) or to pursue legitimate national interests. If you carry his logic to its natural end, the United States would be forced to disassociate from virtually every government on the planet in order to avoid being blamed for their policies or crimes.
But as Horowitz and Ronald Radosh show, Chomsky's hatred of the United States is so severe that he presents even our liberation of Afghanistan, which virtually the entire world community supported, as an attempted genocide. That it prevented mass starvation, rid the country of a despotic regime, and put on the defensive one of the most notorious terrorist networks in history is all incidental to Chomsky. Chomsky endorses sovereignty for repressive regimes in Cuba, North Vietnam, Kosovo and Nicaragua under the Ortega brothers, but not for Suharto or the Saudis, or for Marcos, or for any other U.S. ally who has been a less than perfect democratic regime. Those who side with the United States are, by definition, anti-democratic and anti-human rights, a crude formulation that turns the truth upside down.
Incidentals at Home and Abroad
In a collection of interviews called the Chronicles of Discontent, we get a good glimpse of typical Chomsky logic. He calls Columbus one of the great genocidal monsters in history, even worse than Hitler, and makes no distinction between intentional acts and unintentional consequences. While it is true that some of the early explorers were brutal in their treatment of the native populations in America, it is also true that most of the deaths that occurred over the centuries were the result of European diseases that killed indiscriminately, including tens of thousands of Europeans. It is certainly true that the Aztecs and the Incas were subjected to brutal treatment from the Spaniards. It is also true that virtually no one in this country endorses those policies or actions, but Chomsky intends to draw a far-fetched but direct correlation between long ago history and current policies of the United States government.
Chomsky's views of the media also are dissected in The Anti-Chomsky Reader. This is important. After all, if the United States government does all these things, it must do so with the consent of its people, right? Several of his books and pamphlets claim that our government and its power elites "manufacture consent" through the use of public relations, message control and the subtle but nevertheless determined quashing of radical and dissenting views. Two of his works in particular are worth exploring briefly in this regard. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, and Manufacturing Consent.
Chomsky would have us believe there is a cadre of top power brokers trying to control what is said and read in American society, or at least limiting access to dissenting views. While we are a consumer society a little too prone to be manipulated by sophisticated marketing, it is also the case that Chomsky's books are for sale in every major bookstore in the country, not to mention huge corporately-run online bookstores. His books have been and continue to be reviewed, though surely not with the regularity he would like. Of course, he gets reviewed a great deal more than most conservatives authors who might seek notice in the New York Times. Chomsky is, as one writer claims, arguably the most quoted intellectual in the world.
Now all of this begs a simple question. If big capitalist elites in the United States are so effective at manufacturing thought in this country, how is it that Chomsky has been so successful? The answer cuts to the core of Chomsky nonsense: there is no conspiracy to control thought in the United States and even if there were, it would never succeed because of the open nature of our society. The market, not a centralized power structure driven by ideology, controls this issue. And the market is not an ideologically monolithic creature, but a mass of opinion, ideas and products competing for market share. How else can Chomsky explain the dozens and dozens of books slamming Bush and the United States now in every bookstore in the country? If this be a conspiracy to quiet the anti-American crowd, it is about as effective as America's anti-terrorism policy prior to 9/11. To recap: Chomsky's own success is an argument against his position. Even so, let us quote him on the kind of information culture he claims those in power seek.
It ought to be a system in which the specialized class is trained to work in the service of the masters, the people who own the society. The rest of the population ought to be deprived of any form of organization, because organizations just cause trouble.
-- Media Control, p. 21
Who is the specialized class? How does it deprive the rest of the population of its capacity to organize? How does Chomsky explain the widely disparate views of America's role in the world found among both media elites and major corporate leaders? None of this is explored because this would require Chomsky to question some of his own assumptions. To quote Eli Leher, writing in the Anti-Chomsky Reader: "Nearly all of Chomsky's work on the media begins with a restatement of his propaganda model. There is never an attempt to investigate the subject or in the spirit of inquiry to see if the facts fit the model. It's always the other way around: the facts are shoehorned into the theory." (p. 79).
America: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
So is there a tough, reasonable critique of American power? Of course there is, but you don't get it from Chomsky. Those who believe the United States is intent on global dominance are often confusing ends with intention. America is a dominant power, but that is not the same as conceding that America has imperial designs. Our economy, our military might and our obligations as a free nation ensure that our impact will be felt, but this is a far-cry from the arguments put forward by critics, left and right, that a small cadre of "imperialists" are plotting to rule the world for their own nefarious or self-interested reasons.
In fact, our "empire" has to some extent been accidental, to quote the phrase often applied to Britain. Our system is dynamic and free and has unleashed forces -- both good and not -- that defy control. How can one explain an Egyptian medical student listening to Elvis Presley while driving through the City of the Dead or the desire of people to drink Coca Cola rather than their own, healthier, local drinks? If people don't want American culture, than don't buy it. It is not that complicated. I can say for certain that Paul Wolfowitz did not reach into Cairo or China and force individuals to enjoy these distinctly American brands.
On the other hand, listening to Roger Hedgecock filling in for Rush Limbaugh, I had to wonder if our critics -- such as Buchanan -- don't raise a valid point. Has a Wilsonian pipe dream high-jacked the realistic conservatism we expected from Bush and his policy team? Hedgecock was lamenting the genocide in the Sudan and argued that the inability of the United Nations to stop it is evidence that coalition efforts are bound to fail. He was making a point in defense of Bush's unilateral decision-making, but interestingly his example runs precisely counter to the hard-nosed neoconservative position espoused by Charles Krauthammer years ago. Krauthammer argued that the United States should project its power around the world only when specific national interests are at stake, but Hedgecock, who might consider himself a disciple of Krauthammer, would have America intervene to stop human tragedies that are occurring around the globe. There is in this reasoning no calculation of the limits of American power, the complexity and costs of such operations, and the unintended consequences sure to arise. Does the United States have the means or the stomach for embroiling itself endlessly in such campaigns, however well intended? And who could argue for such a policy without grasping the implications for our military and our children?
Buchanan believes the United States is a nation that has done much good, but makes its most regrettable mistakes when it bites off more than it can chew. He supported the Cold War and our intervention in Vietnam, not because he wanted us to rule the world, as Chomsky would argue, but because he believed a world that increasingly embraced communism posed a real threat to the freedoms and liberties of the American people. Buchanan goes overboard on some issues -- including immigration and Israel, which undercuts some of his more reasonable "Republic" arguments.
In calling the United States a "rogue" nation, Prestowitz lends credibility to harsh, one-sided critics like Chomsky and Johnson. And his own reasoning betrays biases that suggest that he has imbibed knee-jerk anti-Americanism. For example, he takes Bush to task for supporting Taiwan. In recounting the history of that island, he takes the trouble to describe its flaws and human rights abuses. Yet, he has nothing to say about the much worse human rights abuses that have characterized the mainland Chinese government under communist rule. One has to question whose influence Prestowitz, who calls himself a conservative, has come under. He makes a huge issue of our withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty because of concerns about crippling the American economy. But as Prestowitz himself acknowledges, we have made more progress reducing the Carbon Dioxide emissions in question than any other government in the world.
While I happen to share his concerns about U.S. arms trafficking, which needs to be curbed, it might not hurt for Prestowitz to spend a little time noting that many other countries produce and sell weapons, including European states most critical of our policies. Should the United States work to stop the proliferation of conventional weapons? Yes. Should we support measures to eliminate weapons that cause long-term suffering to civilians -- land mines, cluster bombs and the like? I would support measures to move in that direction sooner rather than later.
But the United States has burdens that no other nation in the world has to shoulder. Agree or disagree with a given policy, the fact remains that the only real hope victims facing catastrophic repression or genocide have is the United States. It is troubling that so much of the world leaps to criticize our nation for exercising its military muscle, irrespective of whether it be for a good cause or for our national interests. And in either case, we are not performing geopolitical calculations outside what is normal in the world community.
The United States has made mistakes, but those who would judge our behavior and our record should look to real historians and real historical contexts, not the fabricated conspiracies of Noam Chomsky and his ilk. Richard Hofstadter, hardly an uncritical historian where the United States is concerned, wrote an essay on the Philippines and Cuba that leftists might revisit. He does not exonerate the United States but he does observe that America's embarkation into the world at large as an "imperial" power began with the best of intentions -- to liberate the Cuban people from despotic Spanish rule. Moreover, for all our tragic fumbling in the Philippines, that country was granted its independence by the 1930s. Indeed, the list of countries that have gained their independence while under the umbrella of American protection and support is long. Any reasonable historian seeking to weigh the pluses and minuses of America's record would take this into account. Chomsky, unfortunately, is not such an historian or commentator. That is what Horowitz and his authors are arguing, and that is what most Chomsky critics, even those on the left (e.g. Christopher Hitchens) are starting to appreciate and conclude.
Bush's stated aim in 2000 of a humble foreign policy was on the mark and reassuring. It should be revisited, but then how many of us had anticipated 9/11? And I would add this addendum: how ironic that just as Buchanan, Anonymous and dozens of others critics have published their books about our imperial ambitions, President Bush announced his long-term goal of withdrawing tens of thousands of troops from Europe and Asia. The empire ends -- yet again -- almost as soon as it begins.
George Shadroui has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com