Failed states (Noam Chomsky) [2006]


For natural reasons, it is impossible to summarize the contents of a book written by the great Noam Chomsky. His span is other-worldly, his piercing gaze is fearsome. Even though he touches upon nearly all of his favorite subjects, this collection of texts do follow a certain theme: they show the readers how the ”paradoxical”, ”unfortunate” results of well-intentioned deeds (such as ‘The War on Terror’) are no paradoxes at all, but rather follow a very stringent continuity:

In brief, the ”quintessential article of faith” is that elections are fine, as long as they come out the right way. A year after the formal announcement of the messianic mission that set off the rush to the ”democratization bandwagon,” the strong line of continuity is revealed once again, along with its paradoxical quality: inexplicably. deeds consistently accord with interests, and conflict with words— discoveries that must not, however, weaken our faith in the sincerity of the declarations of our leaders.

More than anything, his writing and activism is a grim mirror put in the face of oftentimes misinformed and ignorant general public. He shows the lies that surround all major historical events, even the big lie, perhaps the biggest one, that lies at the foundation of ”The West’s” benevolence and democratic ideals. The sense for details is minute and sometimes overwhelming, the historical parallels give depth and cogency to his arguments and the moral indignation I find unique for an intellectual of his caliber.

Overall, I enjoyed this read, and although the issues were rarely new to me, there are always new insights and new connections to be made. At times the fluency of the text is poor and the red lines is lost every once in a while; reinforcing the impression of a collection of texts rather than a strong, unitary book.


Random quotes:

In 2004, the United States accounted for 95 percent of total global military space expenditures… space weapons are seen as ‘first-strike’ weapons rather than defensive arms, because they are vulnerable to countermeasures.

The invasion of Iraq created strong support for the fatwa issued by Al-Azhar in Cairo, ”the oldest institution of religious higher learning in the world of Islam.” The fatwa advised ”all Muslims in the world to make jihad against invading American forces.” Sheikh Tantawi of Al-Azhar, ”one of the first Muslim scholars to condemn Al Qaeda [and] often criticized by ultraconservative clerics as a pro-Western reformer . . . ruled that efforts to stop the American invasion are a ‘binding Islamic duty.’

In the nine months leading up to the official start of the war in March 2003, US and UK planes flew almost 22,000 sorties…

…years of sanctions that had already led to ”the destruction of the Iraqi middle class, the collapse of the secular educational system, and the growth of illiteracy, despair, and anomie [that] promoted an Iraqi religious revival [among] large numbers of Iraqis seeking succor in religion.”

Silence is apparently regarded as insufficient to ensure that the effects of the sanctions will be hidden from view. The government media complex has therefore resorted to the familiar ”Thief, thief!” technique: when you are caught with your hands in someone’s pocket, shout ”Thief, thief!” and point vigorously somewhere else, in the hope that attention will be shifted while you flee. In this case, the device was to initiate intensive inquiry into alleged UN corruption in administering the oil-for-food program, with much bombast about a missing $20 billion that may have been pocketed by the Iraqis.

Also irrelevant are Justice Jackson’s eloquent words at Nuremberg on the principle of universality: ”If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” And elsewhere: ”We must never forge that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

When the shah was in charge, Kissinger, as secretary of state, held that ”introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran’s economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.”

”Nevertheless, in November, the UN Committee on Disarmament voted in favor of a verifiable FISSBAN. The vote was 147 to 1, with two abstentions: Israel, which reflexively sides with the US position, and Britain, which explained its abstention on the grounds that the resolution” had divided the international community at a time when progress should be a prime objective”—divided it 147 to 1. [FISSBAN = international ban on fissile materials, my note.]

”There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world—that’s the United States—when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along.” [UN Ambassador John Bolton

A further problem is that the most detailed inquiry into the Srebrenica massacre, by the Dutch government, concluded that Milosevic had no connection to it, and that he ”was very upset when he learnt about the massacres,”…

[Judge Richard] Goldstone suggested that the UN Charter might need revision in the light of the report of the commission (the conclusion that was explicitly rejected by the High-level Panel in December 2004). The NATO intervention, he explained, ”is too important a precedent” for it to be regarded as ”an aberration.” Rather, ”state sovereignty is being redefined in the face of globalization and the resolve by the majority of the peoples of the world that human rights have become the business of the international community.”

[Regarding how all empires deceive, even themselves:] Japanese emperor Hirohito was merely repeating a broken record when he said in his surrender speech of August 1945, ”We declared war on America and Britain out of Our our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from Our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.”

In 1994, Clinton expanded the category of ”terrorist states” to include ”rogue states.” A few years later another concept was added to the repertoire: ”failed states,” from which we must protect ourselves, and which we must help, sometimes by devastating them.

Suharto… having amassed a family fortune ”estimated at anything between fifteen billion and thirty-five billion US dollars,” far outstripping second-place Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and third-place Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo…

[Regarding Baathist takeover in Iraq in 1963:] ”The Central Intelligence Agency, under President John F. Kennedy, conducted its own regime change in Baghdad, carried out in collaboration with Saddam Hussein” and the Baath Party. It was ”almost certainly a gain for our side”… The usual hideous atrocities followed, including a slaughter of ”suspected Communists and other leftists”… ”The Baathists systematically murdered untold numbers of Iraq’s educated elite”…

Few competent observers would disagree with the editors of the Financial Times that ”the reason [the elections of January 2005] took place was the insistence of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who vetoed three schemes by the US-led occupation authorities to shelve or dilute them.” …Once it became clear that US and UK efforts to bar elections co not be sustained, the invaders of course took credit for them.

[After the 1973 war,] Kissinger realized that Egypt could not simply be dismissed and agreed to pursue a diplomatic path, which led finally to the Camp David accords of 1979, in which the United States and Israel accepted the offer that Sadat had made in 1971. The accords appear in history as a US diplomatic triumph. In reality, Washington’s performance was a diplomatic disaster, causing immense suffering and even danger of global war.

The ”media blitz” on disengagement was quite impressive, manufacturing one of the lead stories of the year. There were pages and pages of photos and reports of the pathos of the families forced to leave their homes and greenhouses, the weeping children trying vainly to hold back the soldiers… ”For the sake of about half a percent of the population of the Gaza Strip, a Jewish half-percent, the lives of the remaining 99.5 percent were totally disrupted and destroyed.” [Amira Hass] … ‘Who can now conceive of an evacuation of the West Bank settler outposts, or the evacuation of more settlements, when we are in the stage of ”healing” and ”reconnecting”? Only the totally wicked.’

The annexation is offficially recognized almost nowhere outside of Israel, where state law stipulates that ”Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, East Jerusalem is Israel’s territory and Israel is sovereign to act there regardless of international law” (Aharon Barak, the chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court). [My emphasis.]

In the first nine months of 2005, an estimated 14,000 settlers moved to the West Bank while 8,500 left Gaza, and more land was taken in the West Bank than was abandoned in the entire Gaza prison left behind.

…Adam Smith’s observation that ”civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” Warning his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention of the perils of democracy, Madison asked them to consider what would happen in England ”if elections were open to all classes of people.” The population would then use its voting rights to distribute land more equitably. To ward off such in justice, he recommended arrangements ”to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” subsequently implemented.

The poor ”covet their neighbours’ goods,” Aristotle observed, and if wealth is narrowly concentrated, they will use their majority power to redistribute it more equitably, which would be unfair: ”In democracies the rich should be spared;not only should their property not be divided, but their incomes too . . . should be protected…”

”Goebbels conscripted most of the leading commercial advertising men in Germany for his propaganda ministry,” and boasted that ”he would use American advertising methods” to ”sell National Socialism” much as business seeks to sell ”chocolate, toothpaste, and patent medicines.”

[On the low voter turn-up rates, Chomsky makes an interesting point, he talks about ”class-skewed abstention”; meaning that a large portion of the non-voters, for natural reasons, belong to the lower (unrepresented) classes.]

[On the democratic deficit:] In brief, the public called for the deepest cuts in the programs that are most rapidly increasing, and for substantial spending increases in areas that are shortchanged. [For instance, military versus social services respecively.]

They must be ”better disciplined” Hobbes continued: ”I despair of any lasting peace among ourselves, till the Universities Here shall bend and direct their studies to the . . . teaching of absolute obedience to the laws of the King.”

If American society was able to take care of the boomers from ages zero to twenty, there can be no fundamental reason why a much richer society, with far higher output per worker, cannot take care of them from ages sixty-five to ninety.

…One has to turn to the South Asian press to read that ”Cuba has provided the largest contingent of doctors and paramedics to Pakistan,” …more than one thousand trained personnel, 44 percent of them women, who remained to work in remote mountain villages, ”living in tents in freezing weather and in an alien culture” after the Western aid teams had been withdrawn, setting up nineteen field hospitals and working twelve-hour shifts.

A general estimate is that the Red Army killed fifteen to twenty times as many German soldiers as the British and Americans did. At the D-day landings the Allied forces faced fifty-eight German divisions; Soviet forces continued to face four times that many.

One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: ”They present solutions, but I don’t like them.” In addition to the proposals that should be familiar about dealing with the crises that reach to the level of survival, a few simple suggestions for the United States have already been mentioned: (1) accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court; (2) sign and carry forward the Kyoto protocols; (3) let the UN take the lead in international crises; (4) rely on diplomatic and economic measures rather than military ones in confronting terror; (5) keep to the additional interpretation of the UN Charter; (6) give up the Security Council veto and have ”a decent respect for the opinion of mankind,” as the Declaration of Independence advises, even if power centers disagree; (7) cut back sharply on military spending and sharply increase social spending… Another conservative suggestion is that facts, logic, and elementary moral principles should matter.

  • apace = rapidly
  • succor= support, relief
  • anomie = isolation


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