No, Prof. Chomsky, This Will Not Do (Extended Book Review)

Richard Whelan sent the following communication to Strobe Talbott and John Norris on Wednesday 21 March 2007.

“In a private capacity I am currently reviewing Perilous Power The Middle East & U.S. Foreign Policy by Noam Chomsky & Gilbert Ashcar.

On page 131 they say “Strobe Talbott, who was high up in the Clinton Administration, agreed that the main reason for the Kosovo war and the bombing of Serbia was, of course, not humanitarian, but that Serbia was the last outpost in Europe not accepting intergration into the market system”. In the footnote they refer to John Norris’s book quoting him “it was Yugoslavia’s resistence to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of Kosovar Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war”. They go on to quote you writing in the Foreword that “thanks to John Norris” anyone interested in the war in Kosovo ” will know….. How events looked and felt at the time to those of us who are involved” in the war.

I would have my own clear views on this and would welcome your comments if possible. If so, may I quote you.

Sorry for troubling you but doing a review of this nature requires a lot of checking.”
Richard Whelan

The two responses were as follows:

“Dear Mr. Whelan: thank you for checking this with me. The view attributed to me is utter and total nonsense. There was no question in my mind, or that of anyone else involved in the policy, that the reason for using military force in Kosovo — after diplomacy had failed — was precisely because of the humanitarian catastrophe being inflicted on the Kosovars by Belgrade via repression and ethnic cleansing. I doubt I ever used the phrase “market system” in the context of Kosovo. What was at issue was that Serbia, along with Kosovo, was on the edge of — but not part of — the EU system, which is quite different (point being: the EU norms of democracy, respect for national minorities, etc., did not apply and therefore had to be defended by the int’l community). I might add that John Norris, who was a colleague of mine at the time and whose book I admire and wrote a foreword to (and whom I’m cc’ing on this exchange), would certainly endorse my categorical refutation of the Chomsky/Ashcar assertion. In my own book, The Russia Hand, I have a long chapter on the Kosovo conflict addressing all relevant questions here. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.”
Strobe Talbott

“Mr. Whelan,

Having seen the repeated use, and frankly misuse, of this particular passage from by book by Noam Chomsky, I am happy to weigh in to set the record straight. I agree with Strobe that your authors have it just plain wrong. If one reads the analysis I present in my book, including the longer passage from which the quote is directly pulled, it is clear that I am in no way arguing that “market forces” drove the war. In making the case that Serbia was at odds with the broader trends in Europe, I argued that the western powers had gotten fed up with Milosevic for reasons that stretched back to the war in Bosnia, Srebrenica, the brutal treatment of political opposition and numerous other outrages. The broader trends sweeping Europe were increasing respect for the rule of law, fullfilment of basic standards of human rights and yes, economic integration, but the economic imperatives for any conflict with Kosovo were never raised by any senior official anywhere in the book or any of my research.

For whatever reasons, Mr. Chomsky seems simply unwilling to accept that there were justifiable humanitarian reasons for the conflict in Kosovo. That is certainly his prerogative, but I would greatly appreciate it if he no longer quoted my book both selectively and out of context to advance his polemic.”
John Norris

Extended Review of:


This dialogue between Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Ashcar as of January 2006, moderated by Stephen Shalom, with a short epilogue of essays in July 2006, is dated in every sense, and offers no pretence of impartiality.

Chomsky and Ashcar are anti-war activists who consider the U.S., and Israel the main source of evil in the world. Ashcar, a Marxist author and academic, was born and lived in the Lebanon. Chomsky’s views include anarchism and collectivism (“wage slavery” – if you work in a business you should own it); this requires democratic control of all workplaces and communities. State power is illegitimate; democracy, parliaments and elections are a sham – real control is exercised by militarists and big business with the media acting as a filter to hide the truth. Governments should rule by opinion polls and if they don’t they are “anti-democratic”; all states including Ireland are illegitimate as is U.N. action via the Security Council.

These marxist/anarchist beliefs have been tried and tested and always found wanting. Only a tiny minority adhere to them now. Such “failed beliefs” are long on criticism and short on practical solutions to real world problems.

This book portrays the world views of the authors. U.S. foreign policy is equivalent to that of Al-Qaeda, the Nazis, and the Mafia. Therefore all living U.S. presidents (including Clinton) should be impeached. Humanitarian intervention is impossible, there must always be another, sinister or base motive. The terrorism of Al-Qaeda (leading to the death of approximately 200,000 Muslims and 5,000 Westerners) is morally comparable to the boycott of the Hamas administration. The actions of elected democrats are morally equivalent to the actions of Al-Qaeda. The U.N. is irrelevant, providing a “fig leaf” for U.S. actions. The key driving force in the world is the U.S. desire to dominate it. Oil is the key in this regard, not for the U.S. itself but for it to control the world. The U.S. took over the previous control mechanism of the British Empire in the Middle East/Gulf in this regard. All the countries in the area, and Turkey apparently, are just fronts for corporate chiefs (“the CEOs”) and U.S. militarists and have no real legitimacy. The U.S. is actively working to keep the E.U. weak using their puppet regimes in central and eastern Europe so that the EU cannot oppose this domination.

The solution? “[Chomsky] My own feeling, frankly, … is that the best solution would have been some of the elements of the old Ottoman empire”…. One of the good things about the Ottoman empire was that it was corrupt; it was too corrupt to figure out what was going on and do much about it. So yes, they were brutal, and occasionally they’d carry out some atrocity, but most of the time it worked; they just kind of left people alone. It’s the right kind of solution for a complex mosaic of populations. In fact, I think the same is true in Europe;… One good thing that is happening in Europe now is that, along with the centralising tendencies of the E.U., there’s a lot of devolution…. It’s even happening in Britain, where there’s a limited devolution to Wales and Scotland, which I think is a good thing. It’s probably much the same throughout most of Europe. So if you ask, what’s the best system for Kurdistan? I think it would be something like that: Erode the nation-state system altogether and allow more regional and local autonomy, even within the same city. It can work, and it can work in an amiable way, much more so than the nation-state system”.

In other words the nation-state system should be eroded or superceded.

This conflicts directly with their comments two pages earlier: “The Kurdish nation, like any other nation, should be allowed to exert its right to self-determination, including the right to secede and form its own state – secede from Iraq as well as from Turkey, Iran, and Syria, and create a unified Kurdish national state, which is the dearest aspiration of the Kurdish people”.

Just one of many such contradictions in this book.

On the war on terror, the U.S. was either responsible for 9/11 or wanted it, or did not try to stop it, and gained from it to help dominate the world. Al-Qaeda terrorism, inaccurately labelled fundamentalism is explained thus: “Islamic fundamentalism is mainly a reaction to forces of unrest in the world”. While acknowledging that this definition is not precise they use it. This enables them to equate it with Christian and Jewish fundamentalism as a major reactive/non-progressive force, while alienating the hundreds of millions of Muslims who are fundamentalist and who are not involved in terrorism. Terrorism itself is a reaction to the actions of the U.S., Israel and their local fronts. Reviewing Saudi Arabia, which all experts agree is a source of the beliefs that generate this problem, Chomsky shows an extraordinary level of naivety about that country; “There’s nothing like a labour movement?”.

Iraq was invaded for oil, Afghanistan for gas and power politics with China and Russia, and in both cases for bases. The invasion of Afghanistan which could have (but did not) lead to the starvation of 7.5 million people “was conceived as one of the most atrocious crimes in recent years”. The U.S. and Russia should pay massive reparations. This example of equivalence is typical of many inappropriate comparisons that are used through the book. The U.S.S.R. (not Russia) through it’s support for a communist coup d’état and its subsequent invasion and occupation of Afghanistan turned what was a moderate developing country of 15.5 million people into a charnel house with an estimated 2 million killed, 3 million wounded and 7 million refugees. These actions were condemned by the U.N., the non-aligned movement and the Muslim community worldwide. U.S. actions in Afghanistan have been supported by the U.N. and by most Islamic states and by the E.U. There is no comparison in terms of objectives, casualties or destruction.

Ignoring that to whom should these reparation be paid by the U.S. and Russia? “You try to find local organisations that are functioning, and there are some…. For example, there is a foreign clinic there run by Gino Strada, a fantastic Italian doctor who has run clinics and small hospitals all over the world, but the main ones are in Afghanistan…. It’s a small operation, but that’s a worthy recipient of aid. There are also domestic Afghan groups, including women’s groups and other local organisations. To the extent something can be done with the Karzai government, do that”.

Their solution is very simple: The U.S. and all other Great Powers should now withdraw from Afghanistan and the various factions in Afghanistan would then sort out their problems.

On Iraq, the U.S. is planning a coup d’état to put in place a puppet regime fronted by the Sunnis. The solution is for the U.S. and all Coalition forces to withdraw immediately and to be replaced by U.N. troops (source unstated) controlled by the U.N. General Assembly to avoid Great Power vetoes. Such probably guarantees a massive bloody civil war but to Chomsky, it is up to those who believe a civil war could occur to prove such (which is impossible) rather than to those like himself who believe such drastic potential consequences can be ignored without any tangible support for such a view.

Chomsky’s view of Israel is coloured by the fact that: “In the 1940s I was a Zionist Youth Leader but opposed to a Jewish state”. He explains the real reason for the problems in Palestine: “Some of the major conflicts in the world are in areas that the British Empire alone controlled – like India – Pakistan, or Palestine for that matter. These are largely residues of efforts to impose a crazed nation-state system on complex mosaics of societies, where it doesn’t fit”. This contradicts much subsequent commentary on Israeli misdeeds, much of their own commentary elsewhere and popular perceptions.

The Oslo Accords, a PLO “sell-out”, ignored both Israeli settlements and the plight of the Palestinian refugees. The solution should be based on the discussions at Taba and the informal Geneva Accords, confirmed by referenda in both states. This “two-state settlement should be a first step towards a federation of some kind, a single unity”, then “a “no state” solution of roughly Ottoman style” with some type of confederation with Jordan, and “a federal structure at the regional level”, with “some sort of democratic socialism”.

They note that the PLO agreement with Israel in Oslo was contrary to the wishes of the Palestinians from the Territories. This led to a split between the “Tunisian Palestinians” (the PLO) and those from the Territories which continues to this day, along with the split between both them and Hamas. Hamas itself was created by both U.S. and Israeli actions in building up “fundamentalism” as a bulkwark against communism and nationalism. Hamas was then further empowered by extensive PLO corruption which they say involves Dahlan and Abbas himself. They note that the Arabs in Israel are poorly treated and that what they term “Oriental Jews” (“Mizrahim” – Jews who originated in Arab states) who form a majority of the Jewish population in Israel, are even more oppressed than the Israeli Arabs.

To change such Israeli policies, their views are clear. The key is to ignore Israel and target the U.S. as it is the real centre of power. Boycotting Israel or boycotting Israeli academics or even disinvestment is the wrong approach. The key is to target the “CEO’s” of U.S. corporates and visit them and explain to them why their policy is incorrect. In the meantime ignore the Jewish lobby in the U.S; it is not that powerful – just as powerful as the Saudi Arabian lobby; real power is in the oil lobby.

It is of note to see what this book does not say. The actions of non-democratic leaders or non-democratic states get little attention or comment. Chomsky, in particular, has been a supporter of Vietnamese and Chinese communism while ignoring or downplaying Vietnamese invasions and atrocities in Cambodia and Laos (after the Vietnamese war), the nightmare that was Afghanistan during the communist era (with 75% of the population killed, wounded or displaced) and the atrocities committed in Serbia and ongoing currently in Darfur.

This book is the perfect definition of ethnocentrism. Chomsky and Ashcar are incapable of understanding the world other than from their own extreme perspective. They cannot comprehend religion and the increasingly important role it is playing, not only in the U.S., but also throughout the rest of the world, other than the E.U. At the beginning of the 20th century approximately 50% of the population of the world adhered to the four main religions. By the end of the 20th century this had increased to 64% and is expected to reach 70% by 2025. There is a significant continuing growth in religious observence in Central and South America, Africa, Asia (including in India and in China – the latter partly led by the communist government), and in Russia. From their secular perspective religion is a problem. To a significant majority of the population of the world now religion is a key feature of their lives and anything but a problem. It is not possible to comprehend the world we live in now if you cannot understand and analyse this development, particularly as it applies to Muslims.

For this reason they cannot begin to appreciate that there is an ideology underlining the actions of Al-Qaeda. Terrorism is a tactic. That tactic is generated by an underlying belief system. Seeing Al-Qaeda solely as a reaction to Western actions in general, and that of the U.S. and Israel in particular, makes the fatal error of ignoring what the Al-Qaedists are saying. The “Lenin” of Al-Qaeda, Sayyid Qutb, writing in what is the “communist manifesto” to Al-Qaedaists, Milestones, is clear: “The struggle between the Believers and their enemies is in essence a struggle of belief, and not in any way of anything else…. This was not a political or an economic or a racial struggle”. (Milestones, Sayyid Qutb, Dar al-Ilm, Damascas, Syria). The Vice President of Indonesia, the largest Muslim population country in the world, and a functioning democracy, emphasized this in November 2005, stressing the need to confront the “fringe ideological views” of Al-Qaeda.

It is interesting to note the similarities between the ideology of Al-Qaeda and of the two authors. Like the authors, Al-Qaeda believe that all states in the world today are illegitimate; the actions of the U.N. are also illegitimate as are the actions of most if not all international bodies; the U.S. and Israel are the font of evil in the world; democracy is a sham and parliaments an affront; possible humanitarian intervention in Darfur is imperialism and all Muslim governments (including the democracies in Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, Malaysia, etc) are all just Western puppets. This ideological equivalence is perhaps the reason why the rump of the Red Brigades in Italy have declared their support for the Al-Qaeda campaign, why the Socialist Workers Party in the U.K. has consistently allied itself with extreme Muslims, and why some on the left are incapable of condemning or even fully analysing what the Al-Qaeda campaign is really all about.

They are not entitled to misquote others to support their case. This one, set the alarm bells ringing: “Strobe Talbott, who was high up in the Clinton Administration, agreed that the main reason for the Kosovo war and the bombing of Serbia was, of course, not humanitarian, but that Serbia was the last outpost in Europe not accepting integration into the market system”. When I contacted Strobe Talbott at the Brookings Institution in Washington he told me “The view attributed to me is total and utter nonsense”. (There’s a fuller version of this correspondence on this website.) There are many other such factual errors and unsubstantiated allegations in this book.

Even the most committed anti-war activist is being short-changed in this poorly-argued, ethnocentric, simplistic polemic. If you want to understand international politics and the real world, this is not the book for you. Chomsky, is too naïve to mask his own ignorance of politics in this regard. Having explained how an Iraqi tortured by Saddam Hussein was rejected for asylum in the U.K. on the grounds that the Iraqi would get a fair trial in Iraq, he says “I happened to be in England when this story appeared, and I thought for sure the government was going to collapse the next day. But there was not a whisper of reaction”.


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