Monday, 3 October 2005

Imperial Ambitions - A Review

Imperial Ambitions by Noam Chomsky, Metropolitan Books, ISBN-10:0-8050-7976-X

Imagine looking through a window, through glass less than perfect. Through a very few parts, you will see clearly, even a marvellously magnified image that brings out detail you would have lost by merely using the naked eye. In large parts, the view will be completely occluded, leaving you to guess what may have been obscured. But for the most part, the view is distorted and bent beyond recognition, you know that what you see bears some resemblance to reality, but everything is bent out of shape, bearing little resemblance to its true appearance.

Reading "Imperial Ambitions" is like that.

This book is an editted collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky, and is relatively clear and easy to read. A good first approximation to the relentless theme of the piece is that the USA (under whatever Administration) has never done anything except out of purely ulterior motives, that while pretending to be a Democracy it is actually a debased and corrupt Empire, that nothing it has ever done has ever had a good outcome, and that it is bent on oppressing Mankind as a whole. A secondary theme is that a grassroots campaign of a mobilised and politically activated "silent majority" can tie the hands of the System, and render it impotent to work its evil. It harkens back to the good old days, when the US withdrew from SE Asia, and was unable to use its crushing military power, to, well, crush anything.

Chomsky's view is that the US has too much power: and such a thing is inherently dangerous. Not "Power tends to corrupt" but "Power Corrupts", and "Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely". The most jaundiced eye imaginable is cast on any and all US actions that have ever been performed, while only the most charitable view possible is taken of those of America's opponents.

Chomsky is at his best, and most accurate, the further back in time you go (though even there there are exceptions, which I'll note below). He's at his worst, and most inaccurate, the closer you get to the present. As for his predictions for the future, they have already revealed how completely off-beam he was when he made them.
Up until now, officially at least, the United States has been opposed to expansion of the illegal settlement programs that make a political solution impossible. But now Bush is saying the opposite : Go on and settle. We'll keep paying for it, until we decide that somehow the peace process has reached an adequate point. This represents a significant change towards more aggression, undermining of international law, and undermining of the possibilities of peace.
March 2003
It is at best difficult to reconcile this with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a withdrawal that was accompanied by extreme US pressure for Israel to go. But it would not surprise me if Noam Chomsky in a new speech blamed the US for encouraging Israel to engage in de-facto Apatheid and ethnic cleansing of their own citizens, and not continuing a constructive engagement with the peaceful Gaza Palestinians who relied on trade with Israel for a workable economy. Because the central thesis is that when the US acts, whatever it does, it cannot help but be wrong. And the wrong is viral, it infects anything or anyone the US supports. To see how viral, there's this:
This Morning's New York Times has an op-ed by Mohamed El-Baradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA), which begins by noting that weapons proliferation is increasing, which is an extrememly dangerous theat to the world. Yes, it's increasing. Why? There are many reasons, but one of them is that Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, as well as chemical and biological weapons, which is not only a threat in itself but encourages others to proliferate in response and in self-defence.
February 2004
Libya's weapons programme? Out of self-defence, as it is fearful that the Israelis will attack them. Iran's? Likewise. Pakistan? Well, Israel might invade them too. North Korea? Those pesky Zionists are everywhere, don't you know. I mean, there are maybe 4 million of them in Israel, vs only 0.6 billion muslims in the middle east, and another 0.6 elsewhere. Trying to find a state suspected or known to have a nuclear weapons program that could conceivably be threatened by an Israeli incursion - with the noted exception of the National Socialist (Ba'athist) Dictatorship of Syria - is basically impossible.

Of course, while anyone not supported by the US is assumed to have nothing but conventional arms, providing there is no absolute proof they don't, well, anyone supported by the US is assumed to have massive stockpiles of genocidal weaponry, providing only that there is a suspicion they might have some, and no denial.

Being fair, Chomsky does not that there are "many reasons" for proliferation. But Israel's alleged stockpile is the only one he adduces, and at some length - because it's the only one that doesn't directly contradict his thesis. There's a lot of that.

Getting back to the proposition that Chomsky is better and more accurate, the further back you go, his exposition of British Propaganda and the "Manufacturing of Consent" to America's involvement in WW I is illuminating and insightful. I own a volume containing selected facsimiles of the front pages of the New York Times for the period 1914-1918, and the shadowy hand of Anglo-American Consent Manufacturers, Inc is visible everywhere. But what Chomsky fails to mention is that the Prussian Military made such an easy target of themselves. Their arrogance, and complete lack of awareness of anything called "Public Opinion" must have had German diplomats in the US tearing their hair out. They didn't go so far as to publish videos of Americans having their heads slowly sawn off by their side (as the Islamofascists have), but they didn't exactly make friends and influence people.

The sequence of events re Nurse Cavell is a typical example of Prussian Military insensitivity at its worst.
  1. "Of course she won't we shot, who do you think we are, Barbarians?..."
  2. "Appeals for clemency from Neutrals must go through formal channels..."
  3. "The point is now moot, we shot her last week, let's move on..."
Finally, any discussion of British Propaganda and the US entry into WW I without mention of the Zimmerman Telegram is like a discussion of Moby Dick without mentioning Whales.

Moving on to WW II, Chomsky's remarks about the US Navy's Unrestricted Submarine Warfare against Japan, and the judicial murder of Japanese General Yamashita are spot on. Such things deserve far more publicity than they're given. But to equate the Rape of Nanking with Hiroshima... and to completely disregard the concept of "reprisal" for past perfidies, a concept actually written in to the Law of Armed Conflict ever since the Hague Protocols of 1899, that shows either woeful ignorance or deliberate obscuranticism. And then there's this:
The (Nuremberg) tribunal had to decide what would be considered a war crime, and they made the operational definition of a war crime anything the enemy did that the Allies didn't do.
February 2004
Yes, the Nuremberg tribunals were essentially making New Law, and in my opinion, had far too much of "the winner makes the laws" about them - and how could it be otherwise when Stalin's regime (you know, the Russian Front... 25 million dead... did over half of the fighting vs the Nazis...) was a major partner. Though from Chomsky you wouldn't know that. But the law was in the main firmly grounded on violations of the Geneva Protocols and Hague Conventions dating back to half a century earlier, even the St Petersburg declaration before that. And most importantly when it came to the crime of "Waging aggressive ear", a very iffy charge indeed, it was the Kellog-Briand pact that Germany was a signatory to that specifically outlawed this. For Chomsky not to be aware of this is, frankly, unbelievable.
In fact, real commitment to Ideology denies and tries to avoid evidence. But I wasn't trained in the hard sciences. I have some background in the hard sciences - I even worked in Mathematics for a while - but I don't want to exaggerate. As I said, I have almost no formal training in any field, including linguistics. I'm mostly self-educated. But I don't see any particular erason not to study history, society, and economics by essentially the same methods that one uses in the sciences. Empirical evidence is critically important. You're flooded with it. You have to try to select what's significant. You inevitably approach evidence with certain beliefs and principles, which you should keep open to question.
February 2005
From the evidence in this book, Chomsky is committed to an Ideology, that of America as a Giant that cannot help but be corrupted absolutely. Like myself, he is self-taught when it comes to history, society and economics. Unlike Chomsky, I do have some formal qualifications, in Computer Science, Ethics, Philosophy, Mathematics and some other disciplines, but that's neither here nor there. And unlike Chomsky, I know that the Scientific Method does not involve just "keeping an open mind" and discarding facts that seem irrelevant, it involves deliberately trying to find evidence that falsifies your hypothesis, not merely hunting for empirical evidence that confirms what you believe a priori. A positive act of disbelief that your own ideas are Gospel. To do otherwise is to fool yourself into believing you have an "open mind", while subconsciously discarding as irrelevant or unimportant anything that contradicts your own prejudices. Sometimes, when I was reading Chomsky about Yamashita, or Nuremburg, I thought "YES! He has grasped an unpleasant and ill-publicised truth!" But then he gilds the lilly so much that it becomes a gold brick, discarding any evidence not directly supportive of his own case. Even when I agree with him (not often, I am forced to admit), it's on the balance of probabilities, but to Chomsky there's never any contrary evidence to balance.

It is because I constantly try to falsify my own beliefs, to test them, that I read books like this one. I urge everyone to do the same, and not follow Chomsky's path.

Contrary to my own thesis about Chomsky never giving the US the benefit of the doubt, there is one glaring exception where he does - but where a careful researcher might come to a directly opposite conclusion:
Incidentally, one outcome of the 1953 coup (in Iran) was that the United States took over about 40 percent of Britain's share in Iranian oil. This wasn't the goal of the effort - it just happened in the normal course of events - but it was part of the general displacement of British power bu U.S. power in that region, and in fact throughout the world.
September 2003
"Just happened in the normal course of events". Sure it did. If you look at the Dramatis Personae involved, you'll see the same old Internationalist gang from the Donovan OSS days.The ones who believed that it was time for Good Old Yankee ingenuity to sweep away all the dusty old European empires, and make the world safe for Good old US Democracy. And what's good for General Motors Standard Oil is good for the USA. This mob of New Deal idealists had fought a 3-way contest in Thailand in the early and mid 40's (OSS vs Mi5 vs KempiTai), had lobbied to give Ho Chi Minh support against both Japanese and French imperialism, and generally behaved in a way Eleanor Roosevelt would have heartily approved of. (That, by the way, is a high compliment in my book). They were anti-Imperialist to a tee. And though I'm of British extraction, and had I been there at the time, I would have been on the opposing team... I have to admire them. Worthy opponents, who played as dirty as we did.

But the idea that starry-eyed anti-Imperialist idealists in the CIA could possibly exist would be so anathema to Chomsky's central thesis of an American Empire dating back to time immemorial that no wonder he takes a "charitable view" of US Realpolitik and underhanded dealing at the time.

There's so many gems of genuine insight in this book.... the Mexican War as a means of diminishing British power by gaining a cotton monopoly... the analysis of British Realpolitik in the early 20th century... the deterrant effect of massed North Korean artillery holding Seoul hostage... and some genuinely thought-provoking stuff that has sent me scurrying to do further research. Did the US harbour, not Anti-Castro "militants", or "dissidants", or even "insurgents" or "guerillas" but outright Terrorists back in the 60's? Chomsky seems to think so, and given some of the other shenannigans that happened at the time, I can't say that the thesis is unbelievable. I'll have to do research. That's the trouble, the whole work is so one-sided that I can't take anything whatsoever on trust.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. The flaw in any book of this type - an edited selection of brief, impromptu and unprepared answers to questions - is that the answers are neccessarily brief, impromptu and unprepared. There's no time to give all the facts, to state the evidence pro and con, just the "salient" details that won't confuse the issue. Maybe the one-sidedness of the book is inevitable. Maybe.
Glennon's position - which is shared by many other defenders of U.S. aggression - such as Yale University law professor Ruth Wedgwood - is that U.S. actions like the illegal bombing of Serbia have changed the nature of law, because law is a living doctrine, a living system of principles, which is continually modified by international practice. Was it modified by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait? No. was it modified by Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, one of the few actions that might properly be called a humanitarian intervention?...
February 2004
Leaving aside the equating of Saddam Husseins "Grand Theft Nation" with any action the US has ever performed... Leaving aside the description of a multinational NATO-led attempt to stop a Fascist Ultra-Nationalist genocidal regime from committing further atrocities as "illegal" and "U.S."... leaving aside Chomsky's entire accurate description of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia as something any traditional Liberal or NeoCon should have cheered (but the US stayed silent, mouthing Cold War pro-forma disapproval).... this last line from the most notorious apologist for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is the most arrant and breathtaking hypocracy.

Was I Too Harsh? I think not.

Anyway, there's enough gems in here to make worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the US's moral compass, and making sure that it doesn't stray too far from its lofty ideals, as it has all too many times in the past. For those who believe the US is the "Great Satan", it will no doubt re-affirm your belief, as it's pure anti-US propaganda, the best kind, that which contains the germ of truth.

But overall, to use the Australian vernacular, the gems are buried in a great fragrant pile of fresh steaming bullshit. Happy digging.

A recent comment from Noam Chomsky on Gaza
The “Gaza disengagement plan” is, in fact, a US-Israeli West Bank expansion plan, designed to incorporate valuable land and resources of the West Bank into Israel, and leave Palestinians in a few unviable Bantustans which the US and Israel can call a “state”—rather as South Africa called the Bantustans “independent states.”
vs my prediction (not having read the above when I wrote it) would not surprise me if Noam Chomsky in a new speech blamed the US for encouraging Israel to engage in de-facto Apatheid
Scientific analysis involves not just formulating hypotheses about past data, but also using them to make predictions, and testing those for correctness.
Can I call 'em or what?

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