This book review first appeared in the The Sunday Business Post in April 2007 and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
PERILOUS POWER: THE MIDDLE EAST AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY
DIALOGUES ON TERROR, DEMOCRACY, WAR, AND JUSTICE
BY NOAM CHOMSKY AND GILBERT ASHCAR
HAMISH HAMILTON £16.99
This dialogue between Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Ashcar, moderated by Stephen Shalom, with a short epilogue of essays, 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; all states including Ireland are illegitimate as is U.N. action via the Security Council.
This book portrays their world view. U.S. foreign policy is equivalent to that of Al-Qaeda, the Nazis, and the Mafia. 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, not for the U.S. itself but to control the world. All the countries in the Middle East are just fronts for corporate chiefs (“the CEOs”) and U.S. militarists. The U.S. is actively working to keep the E.U. weak so that it 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”.
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, 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.
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) led 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. To whom? “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”.
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. The Oslo Accords, a PLO “sell-out”, sidelined Palestinians from the Territories and left Israeli settlements uncontrolled while ignoring the plight of the refugees. So the solution should be based on the discussions at Taba and the Geneva Accords, confirmed by referenda. 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”, and “a federal structure at the regional level”, with “some sort of democratic socialism”.
This book defines ethnocentrism. Chomsky and Ashcar are incapable of understanding the world other than from their extreme perspective. They cannot comprehend religion, cannot comprehend that the ideology underlying Al-Qaeda, although close to their own in many respects, is more than a reaction to Western actions.
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 www. richardwhelan.com.)
Even the most committed anti-war activist is being short-changed in this poorly-argued polemic. No Professor Chomsky, this simply will not do.