Americans are rarely exposed to serious criticism, particularly from left-leaning thinkers like Mr. Chomsky, and I found this book to be strangely refreshing because it's different. It is a tough critique of American foreign policy from a thinker inside America. A giant bubble of non-thought seems to envelop the United States, a fog hindering serious debate. Serious critics like Mr. Chomsky are labeled as radical, stripped of credibility, outcast as cranks, and kicked out of the stadium of public opinion by an intolerant majority hell bent on enjoying a deluge of commercials with a constant theme of how great America is. And we all suffer as a result because we don't get to have our ideas challenged in the rigor of public debate. We don't get to think. We're dull knives, we Americans, and Mr. Chomsky is an underused wetstone.
Tocqueville wrote how in American democracy the majority is king. It controls the legislature, major offices, media, business. And if it doesn't want to hear something critical, it has the power to not listen. There is no regular forum where the majority can be exposed to serious criticism. And Noam Chomsky is trying to point out that "the majority has no clothes". So when he criticizes the media for excluding serious left-wing criticism of foreign policy, I can understand how his voice is drowned out in the dull roar of the stadium.
I don't agree with many of Mr. Chomsky's views. I'm non-partisan. But what I found striking was that there were points where Mr. Chomsky and I agree. He's a fervent advocate of democracy. So am I. I think American democracy is in a sad, sorry state of dysfunction. He does too. Mr. Chomsky writes "... our electoral system, our political system, has been driven to such a low level that issues are completely marginalized". And I agree that politics today rarely deals with issues, but focuses on style and packaging and sound-bite appeals. Mr. Chomsky sees President Barack Obama as a packaged commodity, avoiding issues, with no discernible position on issues, and this is consistent with my take on the campaign record as well, although I'm sincerely impressed with President Obama's excellent book "The Audacity of Hope". Mr. Chomsky notes that only 5% to 10% of congressional seats are contested each election which is a clear sign for me that the rules have been rigged in favor of incumbents. This is consistent with academics like Benjamin Ginsberg, author of "The American Lie". There is a growing chorus of sharp critics who have pointed out serious flaws with American politics, including Dana Nelson's powerful "Bad for Democracy" in which she argues that Americans have ceded their political influence to merely voting for president, and makes a powerful case that the presidency is, itself, an undemocratic institution.
Mr. Chomsky feels the US is an outlaw state; if Saddam Hussein was wrong to invade Kuwait, the US was even more wrong to invade Iraq in the second Gulf war. He sees the second US invasion of Iraq as violating international law. He sides with the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and criticizes the Bush II administration as hypocritical because it advocated democracy, then changed course when a radical Palestinian faction, Hamas, came to power through democratic means. He decries Israel's sneaky tactics such as assassinations and abductions while criticizing Palestinian responses, such as rocket attacks by Hamas militants; overall, he sides with the Palestinians in the dispute. He feels Israel is "cantonizing" Palestine.
Much of the book addresses US foreign policy towards Latin America. One chapter is titled provocatively "stirrings in the servants quarters". And I think the idea of Latin nations as America's "servants" is rather presumptious, although one could build a case that the interaction between the US and Latin America is somewhat asymetrical in favor of the US. He feels the US is genuinely bothered by the specter of democracy in Latin America since true democracy -- that is, a left-wing workers' rights variant of democracy in his view -- will hurt America's access to South American oil. And there may be some validity to this view. He writes "Democracy is fine as long as you do what we say, but not if you vote for someone we don't like." I think there's a deeper distinction underlying the term "democracy" which doesn't fully emerge in this book -- an ideological division into what I call HAVES and HAVE-NOTS (or what Thomas Sowell might call the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions) -- so that it's possible to have a capitalist-leaning democracy (what Bush might like) and a socialist-leaning democracy (what Chomsky might like). And Mr. Chomsky is a HAVE-NOT. No doubt about that.
In some respects, Chomsky is a pragmatist, a realist seeing two dominant principles as guiding most foreign policy: first, big countries push around smaller ones; second, merchants and manufacturers must be "attended to", meaning that capitalist considerations drive much of world politics. I think it's more complex than this, but these considerations are definitely factors. This is how a left-leaning partisan might see world politics. He sees American foreign policy as evil; I see it as incompetent, conflicted, confused. He gave credence to Hugo Chavez, the left-leaning Venezuelan president and critic of America, and feels the media didn't cover Chavez fairly in his speeches at the United Nations, and often tags Chavez for being a dictator when, in fact, he was elected peacefully. I think Chomsky doesn't build a solid case for his view that nations which observed the neo-liberal rules (and what are these rules exactly -- it's not clear) stagnated, while nations which broke the supposed rules, such as China and Taiwan, prospered; clearly, I think there's much more to their prosperity than this one dimension. He sees nothing wrong with Venezuela using its oil wealth to help out poor folks in America via the Citgo brand of gasoline -- it's just buying influence. And there's nothing wrong with Cuban doctors fixing the eyesight of blind Jamaicans. These are public relations tools which nations use. He wonders whether Bush's verbal mistakes were faked to endear him to ordinary folks like Texas voters.
Overall, an interesting critique of American foreign policy, particularly towards the Middle East and Latin America, during the Bush II years, from a left-leaning thinker. While I don't agree with many of his positions, I believe Mr. Chomsky deserves a wider audience and more serious attention.
Thomas W. Sulcer
Author of "The Second Constitution of the United States"
(free on web; google title + Sulcer)