Notes From a Gadfly

Reviewed by Jonathan Rauch
Sunday, September 2, 2007


By Noam Chomsky

City Lights. 232 pp. Paperback, $15.95

For all his celebrity on the academic and activist left, Noam Chomsky, the linguist turned gadfly, goes all but unnoticed inside the Capital Beltway. And this neglect, according to Chomsky's new collection of op-ed articles, Interventions, is not benign. "Chomsky's op-eds have been picked up widely by the international press," according to an editor's note, but American " 'newspapers of record' have declined to publish them."

When I picked up the new Chomsky collection, my first reaction was to be glad that City Lights Books -- "published at the City Lights Bookstore," in San Francisco -- had brought out what promised to be a refreshing, if sometimes infuriating, challenge to conventional smugness. No such luck. Chomsky's 44 brief essays, along with some supplementary notes added for republication, come to just over 200 loosely set pages. Yet this short book proves a chore to get through.

To be sure, Chomsky's trademark barbs and provocations are here, but so are his flights to a separate reality. In Chomsky's universe, the 2001 U.S. attack on Afghanistan's Taliban "was undertaken with the expectation that it might drive several million people over the edge of starvation." And North Korea's counterfeiting racket may actually be a CIA operation. And the Clinton administration intervened militarily in Kosovo not in order to prevent ethnic cleansing but to impose Washington's neoliberal economic agenda. And President Bush -- the first and only U.S. president to declare formal American support for a Palestinian state -- is the obstacle to a two-state solution that Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran are all prepared to accept. (I am not making that up.)

This kind of tendentious whimsy is more peculiar than interesting; as the pages turn, one becomes inured to it and begins to yawn. Also working against readability is that some columns ramble, some repeat, and some are compilations of news clippings. None of those flaws, however, would condemn Chomsky's collection to instant forgettability if it offered fresh analysis or supple argument. Instead the reader gets the sneaking suspicion that the author has not felt the need to adjust an opinion in 30 or so years.

As all who have read Chomsky know, he believes that "every form of authority and domination bears a severe burden of proof." The United States is the world's mightiest power, and its survival instinct, like that of all great powers, is the "imperial mentality" of domination and control. America, for Chomsky, has long been a major perpetrator of state terror; but now, with the advent of the Bush administration, "The most powerful state in history has proclaimed that it intends to control the world by force."

Because Interventions spans September 2002 to March 2007, the Iraq War naturally preoccupies it. That war, however, does not fit well into Chomsky's template. "The United States cannot tolerate a sovereign, more or less democratic Iraq," Chomsky claims. Just imagine, he says, the policies that such an Iraq would be likely to pursue: "The Shiite population in the south, where most of Iraq's oil is, would have a predominant influence. They would prefer friendly relations with Shiite Iran." He wrote those words in January 2006. A year and a half later, the United States tolerates a sovereign, more or less democratic Iraq whose Shiite government is friendly toward Iran. If Bush is pursuing imperialism in Baghdad, it is of a very curious sort.

In truth, foreign policy in the Bush years has blended aggression, humanitarianism, idealism and realism into a strange new brew. Pouring this new wine into old anti-imperialist bottles hardly does it justice. Heaven knows, the world needs a pointed, perceptive leftist critique of Bush's foreign policy and America's blind spots, but Chomsky, on the evidence of this tired book, is not the thinker to provide it. *

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer with National Journal and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

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