Noam Chomsky’s latest book puts Bush’s neo-con policies in historical context

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Laila Juma

Muharram 10, 1425 2004-03-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 1, Muharram, 1425)

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky. Pub: Metropolitan Books, New York, 2003. Pp: 278. Hbk: $22.00

Noam Chomsky has long been established as the West’s leading dissident intellectual, but until the publication of 9-11, his small book on the context of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, his work was known to only a small minority of people in the West. 9-11 became a best-seller in America, as many Americans wanted alternative understandings to the comic-book versions of world politics promoted by George Bush and his neo-con regime. Ironic though it may seem, one effect of the patriotic fervour deliberately generated by the neo-cons since 9-11 may prove to be an increased awareness of dissidents such as Chomsky.

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance is Chomsky’s most substantial book for many years; many of his recent publications have been compilations of previous writings or transcriptions of lectures and interviews. It is also likely to find a wider audience, on the basis of the success of 9-11. Chomsky has already received more television and other coverage since its publication that he normally gets. This reflects the emergence of a growing and fairly mainstream opposition movement to the current US regime’s neo-conservative policies.

Even within this trend, however, Chomsky is likely to remain relatively marginal, although some of his works may be opportunistically adopted. This is because his criticism of the US in this book, in line with his previous works, goes far further than most of Bush’s opponents. Although many in America’s relatively informed and reflective minority realise that Bush has gone too far in his unilateralist, militaristic expansionism, and are mobilising on those grounds to try to defeat Bush in the presidential elections later this year, the general tendency is to portray this as an unfortunate phase in American history brought about Bush’s fraudulent victory in the presidential election of 2000. Chomsky’s object in this book is to prove precisely the opposite: that the Bush regime’s policies are in fact precisely in line with the pattern of US foreign policy over the last 50 years, regardless of whether the Republicans or Democratic administrations have been in office.

To this end Chomsky documents over 50 years of US support for military coups and dictatorships, illegal invasion of other countries, compliant dictatorships being installed in the name of regime change, sponsorship of terrorist opposition movements to popular and democratic government who refuse to toe the US line, economic warfare against opponents to US overlordship. Applying the crucial ethical test of universality – the necessity of applying to ourselves the same ethical standards we apply to others – he shows how the same basic policies have operated under all US presidents since John F. Kennedy, including Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton. In the process he provides concise and damning analyses of numerous little-remembered episodes from US foreign policy, from Latin America to Africa and Indonesia.

He also highlights elements of US methodology, such as the support and legitimacy offered to regimes who do as they are told, such as Suharto in Indonesia, the Marcos’s in the Philippines and Ceaucescu in Rumania, and how quickly and easily the administration’s record of support can be re-written as self-righteous condemnation when the dictators are overthrown. The recent example of Saddam Hussein is by no means unprecedented. Nor are the notions of ‘pre-emptive war’ and ‘preventive war’ used to justify the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; Chomsky points out that the US has a long record of redefining Article 51 of the UN Charter – the right to self-defence – to justify aggression around the world. As usual, his selection and presentation of facts is exemplary, and his analysis is backed up by impressively voluminous references.

Addressing the question of how this pattern of behaviour can be explained, Chomsky reaches a conclusion that few of Bush’s domestic political opponents will want to hear: that US foreign policy is guided by imperial global expansionism and military dominance. All countries accept US hegemony to ensure capital penetration and corporate and military hegemony. The alternative is to be targeted by US-backed aggression, or branded a terrorist state and subjected to economic and political warfare, often deliberately designed to cause as much suffering to as many people as possible. Lest anyone think that such conclusions cannot be supported by evidence, Chomsky quotes numerous documents, such a National Intelligence Estimate in September 1965 that warned that the popular PKI in Indonesia had the potential to "energise and unite the Indonesian nation" and that if it succeeded, "Indonesia would provide a powerful example for a underdeveloped world... and a setback for Western prestige." The result: US support for Suharto’s coup, which killed an estimated 1 million people. Recently publicised neo-con documents showing the imperialistic basis of US policy, such as the Project for an American Century, the Nuclear Posture Review and National Security Strategy, are hardly unprecedented.

Readers are also likely to be interested in Chomsky’s discussions of Bush’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Among other things, he points out how successfully the US directs discussion of its policies. Such has been the focus of weapons on mass destruction that the US’s decade of genocidal economic sanctions, and the blatant falsehoods it propagated to justify the policy, have simply disappeared from public debate. So, too, have many realities of the Afghan war, such as the immense suffering caused to ordinary Afghan people, despite the many warnings given by the Red Cross and other aid agencies of the potentially catastrophic consequences of the US’s actions. This presents a totally different view from the US’s claims to act altruistically for the sake of ordinary people all over the world.

Some reviewers have previously criticised Chomsky for critiquing the established Western systems of government as nothing more than instruments of elite power without offering substantial alternatives. In this book he offers a sort of alternative, pointing to the emergence of global bonds of sympathy and solidarity between ordinary people around the world, concluding that "It is fair to say, I think, that the future of our endangered species may be determined in no small measure by how these popular forces evolve". This is vague and idealistic at best, but perhaps we should not expect too much. Nonetheless, for readers wanting to understand the nature of US power, and to explain it to others who have difficulty in understanding it, Chomsky has certainly produced a timely and invaluable book.

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