2 – Chomsky and His Critics
BSSB.BE jacobinmag.com/ 27.11.2015
Noam Chomsky, to rehearse a cliché, is among the world’s greatest living radical intellectuals. It is no less trite or true to add that he is also a broadly controversial figure: accused from various corners of a variety of failings ranging from “genocide denial” to rigid, “amoral quietism” in the face of mass atrocities. Most recently, critics of dissimilar political hues claim to have identified a range of follies in his statements on Syria.
Do you think the struggle taking place over Greece’s future is representative of a lot of what is happening in the world at the moment — i.e., a struggle between the needs of society and the demands of capitalism? If so, do you see much hope for decent human outcomes when the trump cards all seem to be held by a small number of people linked to private power?
In Greece, and in Europe more generally in varying degrees, some of the most admirable achievements of the postwar years are being reversed under a destructive version of the neoliberal assault on the global population of the past generation.
But it can be reversed. Among the most obedient students of the neoliberal orthodoxy were the countries of Latin America, and not surprisingly, they were also among those who suffered the worst harm.
But in recent years they have led the way towards rejecting the orthodoxy, and more generally, for the first time in five hundred years are taking significant steps towards unification, freeing themselves from imperial (in the past century US) domination, and confronting the shocking internal problems of potentially rich societies that had been traditionally governed by wealthy foreign-oriented (mostly white) elites in a sea of misery.
Syriza in Greece might have signaled a similar development, which is why it had to be smashed so savagely. There are other reactions in Europe and elsewhere that could turn the tide and lead to a much better future.
The twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre passed this year. It has emerged that the US watched the killing take place in real time from satellites, and that many of the world’s great powers were negligent or worse when it came to making efforts to prevent predictable slaughter there. What do you think should have been done at the time? Do you think, for example, that the Bosnian Muslims should have been given a greater chance to defend themselves far earlier, for example?
Srebrenica was a barely protected safe area — and we should not forget that thanks to that status, it was as a base for Nasir Oric’s murderous Bosnian militias to attack surrounding Serb villages, taking a brutal toll and boasting of the achievement. That there would sooner or later be a Serb response was not too surprising, and measures should have been taken to “prevent predictable slaughter,” to borrow your words.
The best approach, which might have been feasible, would have been to reduce and maybe end the hostilities in the region rather than allowing them to escalate.
You’ve come in for a lot of criticism for your position on the Kosovo intervention. My (perhaps mistaken) understanding is that you believe there were alternatives to the bombing, and that the violence could have been stopped if there had been greater political will to find a diplomatic solution. Is that right? Can you outline what could have been done as an alternative?
I haven’t seen criticisms of my position on the intervention, and there are unlikely to be any, for the simple reason that I scarcely took a position. As I made explicit in what I wrote on the topic (The New Military Humanism), I hardly even discussed the propriety of the NATO intervention. That’s clearly stated in the early pages.
The topic is indeed brought up, three pages from the end, noting that what precedes — the entire book — leaves the question of what should have been done in Kosovo “unanswered,” though it seems a “reasonable judgment” that the US was selecting one of the more harmful of several options available.
As explained clearly and unambiguously from the outset, even from the title, the book is about a wholly different topic: the import of the Kosovo events for the “new era” of “principles and values” led by the “enlightened states” whose foreign policy has entered a “noble phase” with a “saintly glow” (to quote some of the celebratory rhetoric reviewed).
That very important topics must be sharply distinguished from the question of what should have been done, which I scarcely addressed. An important topic, and evidently an unpopular one, best avoided. I don’t recall even seeing a mention of the subject of the entire book in the critical commentary on it.
I did review the diplomatic options available, pointing out that the settlement after seventy-eight days of bombing was a compromise between the NATO and Serbian pre-bombing positions.
A year later, after the war ended, in my book A New Generation Draws the Line, I reviewed in extensive detail the rich Western documentary record on the immediate background to the bombing. It reveals that there was a steady level of violence divided between KLA guerrillas attacking from Albania and a brutal Serb response, and that the atrocities were very sharply escalated after the bombing, exactly as was predicted publicly, and to US authorities privately, by commanding Gen. Wesley Clark.
If there has been criticism of what I actually wrote, I haven’t seen it, though you’re right that there has been a great deal of furious condemnation — namely, of what I didn’t write.
As to a possible alternative, there were what seemed to be fairly promising diplomatic options. Whether they could have worked, we don’t know, since they were ignored in favor of bombing.
The usual interpretation, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere, is that the bombing was motivated by a sharp upsurge of atrocities. This reversal of the chronology is quite standard, and useful to establish the legitimacy of NATO violence. The upsurge of atrocities was the consequence of the bombing, not its cause — and as noted, was predicted quite publicly and authoritatively.
Author: Noam Chomsky is professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Haymarket Books recently released twelve of his classic books in new editions.
*This is the second part of the article about Noam Chomsky on ISIS, his foreign policy critics, and why socialist ideas are “never far below the surface.” More information You will find in the others parts of the article